Critical Hits: a history of a the battle between gamers and game-designers for nuance in combat systems


1 Like

I always thought that Critical Hits were a really fun role-playing tool.

Instead of having battles go mechanically, something really interesting could happen that would surprise everyone.

Those moments where a hero accidentally knocks himself unconscious with their own flail or a ranger unexpectedly shoots a nasty monster in the eye can derail things a bit, but they often become stories unto themselves.

And that’s kind of part of the fun of gaming with other people, right?


IIRC, the Vorpal Sword lopped off a limb on a natural 20 as far back as AD&D official rules.


It’s not really a battle between designers and players, not even between D&D designers and players. If it were, the players win every time. Every group has house rules, and if the players like hit locations and critical hits (which can be two separate things) they’ll add them when they read about them in the zines, or online, or in another game, or they come up with them independently.

I don’t think anyone plays the rules-as-written for any RPG for very long; possibly — between learning the game and deciding to house-rule missing, incoherent, inelegant, or misprinted rules — not at all.


The Runequest system was informed by knowledge of mock medieval combat from the SCA. A minimally realistic critical/fumble system can’t fit on a D20, and barely fits in a percentile system. D & D is pretty much pure fantasy, unsullied by actual fighting experience, though - in D & D, if you wear more armor, you’re actually harder to hit, which is the opposite of reality.


Head. The Sword of Slicing lopped off limbs.

1 Like

The latest revision I saw included critical hits as an “optional” rule, with the careful explanation that increased randomness benefits the weaker party in any engagement, that the weaker party is bound to be the PCs opponents. I’ve seen a number of rules to skew critical hits in the favor of more skilled characters (i.e. you have to hit “again” for the critical damage). There’s something to be said, though, for slowing down the game with additional dice roll after dice roll.

In Vampire, however, where the PCs were essentially immortal, critical hits and botches were great fun.


See, I never saw those as terribly fun.

The fun of critical hits was the SURPRISE!

I remember in a palladium game I played some player who was pretty much playing a peasant manged to stab a powerful NPC in the throat. Totally changed the game, got them a heroic nickname and everything. Our GM just rolled with it, despite expecting us to all be peacefully captured there.

I think that’s the magic of critical hits. Sure, it’s cool when the dual-wielding ranger manages to lop off a limb, but it’s far, far cooler when the blindly flailing wizard one-shots a hobgoblin with a quarterstaff.

1 Like

Touch attacks fit the flavor of armor well, to hit someone takes a relatively low roll but to actually hurt someone behind plate armor is difficult. Still not realistic, but certainly cinematic - which is the real point of the system anyways.

The two stared at each other, then struck simultaneously. Jack's sword cleaved through the cultist's chest, cleaving through the nipple, the xiphoid process - the lowest part of the sternum - and the shoulder blade. The cultist's blade only caused damage to Jack's appendix and his adrenal gland, somehow missing everything else in front of and in back of Jack's adrenal gland and appendix.

— from the infamous F.A.T.A.L. review (google at your own risk).

1 Like

In d20 you are harder to harm, not harder to hit. If the objective of the attack is to touch the target you are much easier to hit if you’re wearing heavy armor.

I’m not sure hit points are very realistic either. Sure, more injuries can make the next injury worst, but the first injury can be fatal. Using hit points and rejecting critical hits would reduce the risk of losing a player-character to a bad roll.

Runequest is much more realistic than Dungeons & Dragons, but the dodge and/or parry rolls take time, and the hit locations and armor still don’t work right.

This is why I always said I played D&D – not AD&D ™, not even D&D ™. The published rules were a starting point, to be modified – and more importantly, to be ignored – at the gamemaster’s whim in the interests of making the joint storytelling exercise as creative and entertaining as possible. Players need to know enough to operate within the world intutively, and that includes having at least some sense of “oh, THAT was a good one” or “flubbed it completely” – which is really what critical hit and fumble map to.

Given that this is heroic storytelling, it’s not unreasonable to recognize those exceptional events by giving them dramatic descriptions/effects. Sometimes you fall on your face and the opponent gets to beat on you while you recover, sometimes Golfimbul’s head goes flying across the battlefield and down a rabbit hole.

However, there is one specific situation in which the rules have to be more than a suggestion: Tournament play. When there are multiple groups of players who will simultaneously encounter the same challenges under the control of different gamemasters – and will be judged on how they responded to those challenges – it’s important that the challenges, and their capabilities, be calibrated so each group has roughly equivalent experience modulo their own skills. That requires that the gamemasters agree on exactly how the world behaves, and that the players be able to predict the world’s behavior even if they’ve never played with that gamemaster – or each other – before. In that one very specific case, sticking to the published rules makes sense.

(In fact, tournament module design is rather different from normal module design for that reason – the players need to feel that they’re in control while actually facing calibrated problems that give everyone in the party a chance to shine. Ideally, that should be true even if they compare notes later; real choices may be offered, with enough difference to say “oh, I wish we had/hadn’t gone that way”, but those choices need to not interfere with judging. Not easy to do well.)

I think you’re being overly literal about the word “hit”. In D&D, that’s taken to mean “injure”. Armor certainly makes you less able to dodge, but also makes you harder to injure; something that clongs off the armor with (at most) mild bruising isn’t considered a hit for game purposes.

But, yes, D&D is biased toward the sword-and-sorcery genre, which generally is idealized/simplified. And that’s fine, as long as everyone agrees on the expectations.

You CAN – and some have – work out a pencil-and-dice system which fully captures all the feints and parries and shifting of position and stance and ground conditions and visibility limitations and fatigue and sweat getting in one’s eyes and that damned leather strap under the left armpit coming loose again. But realistically, most D&D players neither need nor want that kind of accuracy. They want the engagement to play out in a reasonable amount of time, with both their decisions and their dice rolls having reasonable influence, to achieve reasonable results… where “reasonable” generally means “what we’d expect in a book”, not “what we’d expect on a 15th-century battlefield”.

There are folks who want more realism, and that’s fine too. But every roleplaying system has its strengths and its weaknesses, and needs to be judged by what the players of that system want it to be. D&D isn’t inferior to Runequest, or superior, just different.

Which gets back to my statement about not playing exactly the published version; most gamemasters I’ve known liberally borrowed from every system they’d been exposed to, and then promptly ignored it all when it got in the way of telling a good story.


Wasn’t it the Sword of Sharpness?

Nicely put!

Also, you started (and later finished) explaining why I have no interest in role-playing tournaments :smile:

You know, I wonder if you kind of went and nailed the whole point behind critical hits there.

Normal ‘attack rolls’ are just for your day-to-day thwacks. Perhaps criticals (especially location-based ones) are for those points during an otherwise routine combat where something particularly interesting happens?

Makes me wonder if there’s a ‘something interesting happens’ system that covers more bases!

1 Like

Sword of Sharpness, yes. On a 19 or 20, it may sever a limb or a neck. Interestingly, per original Greyhawk (1975) rules, the Sword of Sharpness only performs this function in the hands of a Paladin. Who would have thought Paladins were all about maiming and decapitation.

Also, look Mom, I’m on TV.

there’s a theme of Paladins getting cooler toys then everyone else, it’s their gift for being lamer then clerics and annoying other players by being a lawful good ass hole.


That’s what touch hit systems are for; some magic weapons have effects on the target even if they only glance off the armor. A heavily armored fighter is much more vulnerable to them than an unarmored monk, even though the monk is more likely to take damage from any successful contact with a conventional weapon.

1 Like

Hey, Paladins can be total dicks as long as it’s for a cause. There was one in Forgotten Realms, I forget his name, who was basically a medieval Judge Dredd with a custom longsword +6 vs. peasants, for killing miscreants and quelling uprisings.

Right you are. What was “Slicing”? Was that a magical weapon property in 3rd Edition?