Response to “Some Thoughts On Criticals – Curving the Scores”

Erik at Tenkar’s Tavern has Some Thoughts On Criticals – Curving the Scores.

In short, he isn’t so keen on the common approaches (maximum/double damage on a natural 20, or natural 20 plus confirmation roll).  He suggests an alternative rule where if you roll five or more above the number you needed (in D&D 3.x, hit an Armor Class five points higher than the target’s) you can roll a d10 to determine the critical effect.  Critical effects can include a bonus to your next attack on the target, a bonus to Armor Class against the target, or a free attack against the target.

[Or for the truly masochistic, I suppose you could break out the Rolemaster tables…]

Lately I’ve had a huge interest in ‘qualitative, not quantitative’ effects.  I can get behind the idea of replacing ‘bonus damage’ on a critical hit with ‘special effect’ on a critical hit.

I’m not entirely happy with the implementation, though.  Potentially three rolls for each attack seems a little much, and I’d like to have the option of ‘better qualitative effects’ for more-skilled fighters.  This could be done with three rolls by having a modifier on the critical die (the d10), but… that’s getting even more complicated.

Long ago, in the before times (mid-90s, in other words) I considered a critical system where the bonus damage was based on the number rolled… but counting down.  The lower the number on the die on a successful hit, the more damage you could expect to do.  This also took some of the sting out of the natural 20 rule (automatic hit) rule commonly used because I ruled that if you needed that rule to hit the target, you did only half damage.

Using Erik’s qualitative effects (slightly modified) in place of bonus damage, this leads to the following table:

d20 Hit Effect
20 Automatic hit for normal damage.  If you would not have hit without this rule, damaged is halved.
16-19 Hit for normal damage.
12-15 +2 attack bonus on your next attack.
8-11 +2 Armor Class until the start of your next turn.
4-7 +2 attack bonus on your next attack and +2 Armor Class until the start of your next turn.
1-3 Free Attack at full attack bonus.

Under this model, a ‘critical hit’ doesn’t necessarily mean you did more damage to the target. It’s easy to see where the benefits of the critical work against the target (you hit him well enough that when you next attack him you get a bonus, or you limit his ability to attack you, and so on), but the bonuses could apply to you even against other opponents:

  • You hit the orc well enough (or trickily enough) that the one next to him flinched and you get an attack bonus when you hit him with your next attack [quantum ogre territory?  It applies to whatever target you next pick].
  • You manage to position yourself and your opponent in a way that he provides cover for you against his allies (or if you killed him you either use him as a body shield briefly, before he gets too heavy and you drop him, or you knock him back into the allies coming for you).
  • Your attack caused him to force his buddy to move wrong enough (or your tricky move let you shift enough) that you’re suddenly in his buddy’s face, so STAB IT!

It’s an excuse for awesome, so take the effect and play it up.

I kept the table simple here, but you could easily expand it.  You could have different effects possible with different weapons (critical with a main-gauche gives you the opportunity to bind a weapon, critical with an axe gives you a free sunder attack, and so on), or just expand the options above.  I can easily imagine adding five more effects, making most of them 2-point ranges — instead of only having a free attack if you hit on a natural 1-3, have every other one be a free attack of a particular sort (trip, sunder, even grapple).  There are many options here.  I favor keeping it simple, but at this point we’re looking at a tool rather than a solution, so experiment a bit.

I really like that this model takes into account the attacker’s skill.  The better you are, the better the critical effects you can get.  I kept the automatic hits (anyone can get lucky) but if you needed that luck you do only half damage.  This takes a bit of the sting out of being swarmed by things you outclass.  I did get rid of the ‘automatic miss on a 1’ rule, though.  I figured if you could hit on a natural 1 you so utterly outclass your opponent you deserve to always hit.

One thing I realized about Erik’s approach that his one doesn’t cover, though, is the idea of ‘critical resistance’.  Here, it’s all on the attacker’s attack bonus versus the defender’s Armor Class.  Using a lookup table like this is simple (and trivially memorized, which is good!) but not very flexible.  If ‘difference between attack roll and Armor Class’ is used (subtraction bad! for many people) you have the option of modifying the range needed to achieve critical effect.   Attacking an undead creature with ‘Crit Resistance 4’ and Armor Class 12 means you would need to hit Armor Class 21 (12 + 5 crit threshold + 4 crit resistance) to get a critical.  It might be easier to get criticals with a rapier, so they give you a +2 ‘crit bonus’ (attacking the same undead would need you to hit Armor Class 19 instead of 21).

There are other ways these ideas could be used.  Here are a couple:

  • Subtract Armor Class of target from Armor Class hit, then look up the difference on a table similar to the one above where the bigger the difference the better the qualitative effect;
  • Grant the ‘critical effect’ regardless of whether or not the attack actually damaged the target — you didn’t get him this time (didn’t hit AC 18) but you are better set up for your next attack (rolled a natural 12 and had +3 attack bonus).  I kind of like this.  It makes missing still slightly interesting and not a complete waste.  On the other hand it reduces high attack bonus (i.e. ‘good at fighting’) back to ‘helps you hit’.  But maybe that’s a good thing.

Anyway, lunch break is over, back to work.  Let me know what you think, and feel free to suggest other qualitative critical effects.

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