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

If that’s true they rethought it later: I remember Vorpal weapons being (at least briefly) Lawful and Sharpness Chaotic.

Alignment “role-playing” was always poorly done in D&D and certainly poorly explained and presented. It’s certainly an interesting phenomena, though: D&D looks to medieval (and largely faux-medieval chivalraic) literature for its inspiration, but heroicism and mores from that literature a fundamentally assholish to modern sensibilities. And all of that confusion comes to a head in the character of the Paladin, which players only ever take in order to “troll-play”.

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As a pre-teen, I was awed by the magisterial authority of the published AD&D manuals. In retrospect, I’m amused by how arbitrary and inconsistent the materials were, how they strove to be some sort of encyclopedic description of every aspect of an imagined reality, and how the authorial voice insisted that it was a unified and coherent system, despite the internal evidence.

One of my favorite bits of absurdity was the list of weapons in the AD&D Players Handbook, with an absurdly long list of different sorts of polearms, most of which had names I couldn’t find defined anywhere until years later, when I found out that almost all of them were very subtle regional variations on the same idea: a long pole, with a head consisting of a slashing edge on one side and a spike or hook on the other.

Where it really got absurd was that there was a full-page chart, giving modifiers to the chance to hit for each weapon, against each armor class (a number, which in this case seemed to be an alias for a named type of armor, rather than a scale of armor’s defensive quality). As a pre-teen, I assumed that this was the result of extensive, careful research. Now, I have to assume that someone found a list of medieval polearms, pulled some numbers out of thin air to distinguish them, and mailed it off to a gaming magazine, and from there it went into AD&D, without anyone ever playtesting them.

I have to wonder, though, if all this arbitrary authority was somehow necessary to enable the outpouring of creativity that made early role-playing games; those of us who struggled to figure out how to play them learned how to rationalize the system and elaborate some details, enabling the creation of more games.

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Well, if your god has the best heaven, then it kind of makes sense to kill all the good kids before they have a chance to become evil adults, right?

Yeah, alignment was the first rule to get thrown out whenever I GMed.

One of my favorite bits of absurdity was the list of weapons in the
AD&D Players Handbook, with an absurdly long list of different sorts
of polearms, most of which had names I couldn’t find defined anywhere
until years later, when I found out that almost all of them were very
subtle regional variations on the same idea: a long pole, with a head
consisting of a slashing edge on one side and a spike or hook on the

Heh. One of the more obscure ones turned out to be a family heirloom of mine. I still need to get that from my mother: needs some cleaning and a new shaft.

Oh man, look up the Palladium Compendium of Weapons, Armor, and Castles.

That was way back in the early D&D era too, I’m starting to wonder if perhaps it was the origin of a lot of those?

One of the rulebooks explains how a Lawful good paladin of one culture (e.g. a Paladin of Charlemagne) might wind up in battle with a Lawful good paladin of another culture (e.g. a Saracen). But that fundamentally requires that you live in a world without an actual god, like our world. If you have an actual god, one that you talk to (if nothing else, via explicitly defined spells), then either you will be on the same side, or your god is not any meaningful definition of good.


Rolemaster had the BEST crit tables. Period. That game blew ADD out of the water, but large groups needed two DMs to keep it flowing.

And VHS defeated Betamax.

Yeah, especially in the 2nd ed. Forgotten Realms where Gods had power proportional to the extent of their worship (making religion an exercise in representative democracy), but Paladins could still maintain their ability through, apparently, pure egomania (until the DM decides otherwise and forces you into a redemption quest).

Alignment had its purposes; the trope of sensing evil is a powerful one, and very useful and diverse in a storytelling sense. The trick is to make it interesting rather than dogmatic, which is difficult-or-impossible when you’re 16 and don’t know a damned thing about either reality or morality.

One of my favorite games was when, playing a NE magic-user, I summoned a demon and pledged to it the soul of the party’s paladin (who was being played intentionally as a teutonic jackass, even to the point of being named `Hans Franz Fritz’) in return for the demon running intel on our target. The paladin’s player knew this, but Hans had no real evidence that I was actually evil, since my “hide alignment” spell cancelled out his detection. So, even though we were, as far as games mechanics were concerned, extremely good and extremely evil, neither of us overtly appeared evil or good to the rest of the party. We were just a pair of extremist freaks vying for the party’s trust while trying desperately to find an excuse to obliterate the other. It made the game much more interesting for everyone.

I just turned it into ‘sense malice’. Worked great.

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Yeah, it makes some things simpler but, at the end of the day, malice is just as vague as evil is.

That’s why we always hired an Ettin to DM.

The funny thing is that almost everyone agrees that the alignment system is absurd, unworkable, and actually undermines role-playing – I’ve seen writers of D&D rule books and settings say this, for instance – but somehow they can never get rid of it.

And yes, paladins are the worst. It’s pretty rare to see anyone role-play a paladin well. The general idea is clear enough: they’re supposed to be modeled on idealized concepts of monastic orders of knights, so they make extraordinary personal sacrifices and adhere to a strict code of conduct, but get special benefits in exchange. The first problem is that what would be major personal sacrifices from the point of view of the character are usually not sacrifices at all from the point of view of the player. That the characters perpetually risk their lives by confronting danger and horror is, after all, the fundamental premise of the game.

But that’s a general roleplaying problem in D&D. What’s worse, with most players of paladins, is that they assume:

  1. Paladins are, by definition, the most “good” it’s possible to be;
  2. Good always wins;
  3. Winning is defined as getting what the character wants;
  4. Any time a paladin is confronted with a difficult choice, it
    contradicts the preceding points, and is therefore an intolerable

The unsettling thing was, there were certain sorts of personalities that were attracted to playing paladins: people who couldn’t bear the idea that moral decisions might be complicated, or that there could be any distinction between conventional authority and justice. They were usually no fun to play with, or to associate with at all, for that matter.

Oh no! It worked GREAT! It wasn’t nearly as vague, just different.

It didn’t always apply to the same things at the same times . baby kobolds wouldn’t show up but that chaotic neutral bruiser might . . but it was only vague when it was usefully so.

We read the books, we trotted out the dice. We chose alignments, and promptly forgot about them, more or less. Nobody was ever encumbered, no matter how much they carried. Fun was the order of the day, and when monsters gained the upper hand a bit much, the DM adjusted his rolls accordingly. If we foolishly took on way more than was possible to beat, something weird would happen, and the balance would tip just enough. If an encounter was somehow just too easy, the enemy would have a cleric in the back, helping keep the fighters fighting, but only just enough to make it thrilling. The story flowed, and role-play was always more important than roll-play. Pizza, root beer, chips and late nights, overly-complicated rules could go to hell and stay there. Our tools were simple, pencils, paper and dice, DM screens and handbooks, preprinted modules and hand-drawn maps. We had fun! From First to Second and even into Third edition. Then we grew up and moved apart and never forgot the fun we had. The Game lives on in our language, and on our t-shirts. Not a one of us lacks a miniature in his office, on the dash of the minivan or over the fireplace - some token of our shared youth, to remind us of those times. Damn!


Yes, as I said… :smile:

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You speak the truth.

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Oh man - some of the most fun I’ve had roleplaying was with a Paladin in a Palladium campaign. I was a complete, speciesist delusional zealot. If I thought you were evil, I’d kill you. If you weren’t human, elf, or dwarf, I’d kill you. I thought I was the shining example of righteousness.

The rest of the party would hold me back, or do things behind my back if it required interacting with say a half orc, or a wizard that might have evil ties.

The GM was one of those who could not deal with non-typical archetypes, He tried to have my deity come to me in a dream and told me to knock it off. But I was certain it was an god of evil impersonating my god. Eventually I got stripped of all of my paladin powers, which simply meant the forces of evil were upon me, blocking me from communication with my god.

And to make things just a little extra sort of crazy, he had bloodlust in battle. Afterwards he would desecrate the corpse and drink their blood.

I almost lived through that campaign.


I think everyone that GMs for a while has better or different ideas on how to make the combat system work for them. I had a really nice system worked up on the Star Wars D6 based game by West End. I made aimed shots easier to do, and shot placement specific. This made going through a squad of Stormtroopers much easier. I had it rigged where you could hit where you were aiming, hit where you weren’t aiming, and missing. It also allowed the players to wound or disarm instead of kill. It saved lives too. If you got a really bad damage roll in the base game, you were dead. In mine you could roll and if it was in an arm or a leg, it got destroyed but you potentially could live through it.

Like others said, crits and fumbles really add an element of fun. It allows for that lucky hit, or miss. It can really effect the game in unplanned ways.

I remember in the Star Wars campaign we had one guy whose character was just worthless. But as time went on he kept getting hurt and was now more or less a cyborg and actually became useful. He botched an attack roll and I rolled to see how bad. It was bad. I said, “Your arm mounted grenade launcher just jammed. You have 4 seconds before it explodes.” It was a robotic arm, so he just grabbed it with his other robotic arm, ripped it off, and threw it at the enemy.

Another time I was in a Shadowrun campaign and played a Troll Rigger/guy with a lot of guns. I was on a roof of hotel with an NPC when a helicopter gun ship appear over head. The NPC did some magic thing that damaged the rotor, forcing it down, with the ship half on and half off the building. I decide to shoot the pilot, but I took time to aim. That was a mistake because they had enough time to shoot their gun at me. Lucky for me they botched. The gun exploded, and it was enough to send it over the edge of the building.

The GM looks up and ask, “Hey where is your van?” “Uh - I guess on the street by the hotel.” He does a roll and says the helicopter landed on my van. At that point my friend leaned over and said, “Uh - you realize what all he has in there, right?” I passed over my sheet which detailed the massive amount of weapons and high grade explosives. “Well, it looks like there will be some secondary explosions.” We make it out of there but the hotel was destroyed. From what I understand the story got out on an early local BBS and there were a couple other Shadowrun groups who no longer had the hotel standing in their games because of me.