I didn’t introduce the concept of a “critical hit” into my game until 1987 or so when I decided that I would allow another attack roll to be made after a to-hit roll of “natural” 20. If the follow-up roll was also a 20, another extra roll would be granted, and so on, until an extra roll resulted in either a hit other than 20 or a miss. I believe we once had three 20s and a fourth hit. Each hit resulted in a damage roll, though I ruled that all the “hits” were actually one successful attack that dealt terrific damage, not multiple hits.

I got this idea from DC Heroes, and I liked it for quite a while. I carried it over to 2nd Edition and continued to use it when I re-started my gaming with my kids a few years back (with 2nd Edition). It served well and certainly made for some excitement, particularly when a second roll resulted in another 20. I thought I had finally figured out how Bard slew Smaug with only one arrow. (I had never really liked the “it must have been an arrow of dragon slaying” theory as Bard claims to have used the arrow previously, which would have expended the enchantment under D&D rules.)

Since joining the retro-clone revolution, however, I’ve decided that I don’t necessarily care for the rule so much. What seemed perfectly fine under the inflated hit point systems of AD&D didn’t look to play so well under the more-restrained Labyrinth Lord, so I simply went with “roll two damage dice” route, meaning a natural 20 on a to-hit roll with a hand axe results in a damage roll of 2d6 plus bonuses. Alas, Bard can no longer slay Smaug in my game, but I think we’ll manage okay anyway.

Under the even-more-restrained system of Swords & Wizardry White Box, I fear that even this system will be a little over-powered and have decided that, inspired by Philotomy’s solution (since aborted), critical hits will deal automatic maximum damage only. This seems more in line with a system where all hit dice are six-sided and the simplicity is great.

Of course, this all applies to both sides of the battle. I’ve given some thought to completely abandoning critical hits, but my son really likes them so I’m hanging with them for now.

Advanced Gaming Theory wrote about Alternatives to Critical Hits Rules and also covered fumbles (which we usually called “critical miss” though that doesn’t really seem to make sense) and I’ll write about my long and winding road with natural 1s real soon.

(Image from Mathisfun)

UPDATE: My son, who I earlier mentioned really likes critical hits, read part of this post and said that he missed the old “if you roll a 20 roll another attack” method. Philotomy wrote about the issue of extra dice rolling slowing things down, and I would generally agree that anything adding complexity to combat needs to be carefully considered lest it bog things down. However, in my experience there is a great deal of excitement surrounding an extra to-hit roll, either anticipation if it a PC scoring the crit or dread if it’s the enemy. This excitement offsets any bogging in my book, so the extra rolling isn’t really an issue in this case.

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3 Comments to “Critical Hits”

  1. Ripper X says:

    A ton of work went into the slaying of Smog! It required a grand adventure which required much danger and luck just to get the Hobbit inside of Smog’s lair so that he could examine him, study him and look for some kind of weakness. Smog appeared to be invulnerable, only through the hobbit did they learn that he was missing one scale, and its exact location. The warrior who shot that arrow was aiming at at least an AC -10. Very difficult shot to make.

    On my own blog (which you mentioned; Thank you), I have got an article in the works which is about researching weaknesses. It is a fascinating hook, and very involving. I’m not sure that I’d go for the instant kill, my style would probably have the dragon grounded for the rest of the combat, but whose to say that it wasn’t the fall that killed the great Smog?

    • Kilgore says:

      Absolutely, but I’d probably rule the tip from the old thrush to allow an attack against a lower AC, not deal a killing blow.

  2. bulette says:

    I’ve always played where a natural “20” was automatic maximum damage. I really don’t even know where or how I started out with those rules, whether it was a red box thing or 1E, or just made up, but it’s seemed natural and not overly strong up until now. I’ve also played with a critical miss rule : natural “1”‘s, where a chance roll of weapon breakage or accidentally hitting your own party because of a glancing blow/armor deflection occurs, if you are in a very close quarters melee. For weapon breakage, with a critical miss I use d100 with a DM roll under of 10% or less a break and miss and with no damage of course. If I did the math right, which I probably didn’t, that’s a 1 in 200 chance of breakage. Is that high? I don’t think so, if it’s medieval forged weaponry vs. the ages’ armor, assuming someone’s hitting as hard as they can and less than otherwise ideal environmental circumstances (ie. high moisture, lack of weapon maintenance). If the breakage does not occur on a critical miss, a 1 in d6 chance (if in tight quarters) that your miss still inflicts half rolled damage rounded up on an ally.