Wandering around the internet today, I ran across a number of discussions regarding critical hits. I have no idea what prompted various people to all bring up the same subject today, but what the heck, I’ll add my two cents.

I’ve always felt that rolling a natural 20 should have some significance. But how much impact should it have?

Automatic Hit

At the very least, a natural 20 should always be a hit (and a natural 1 should always be a miss). Otherwise, certain encounters would be so one-sided as to be meaningless.

Critical Hits

If a natural 20 automatically caused a critical hit every time, I’d say that was too much. A natural 20 being a potential critical (requiring confirmation) seems much more in line. For confirmation we have the attacker reroll the attack and if that roll “hits”, then the potential crit is confirmed. This is a pretty standard application.

What is a Critical Hit?

This is where there seems to be a great deal of deviation. What exactly happens when the attacker confirms a crit? Here are a number of effects that some groups apply to a critical hit:

Double Damage – This is more or less the standard. Roll weapon damage, double it, then add modifiers. Others add the modifiers first and then double the result. Some use maximum weapon damage plus modifiers, possibly doubling damage as well.

Cascading Damage – This works like any of the applications of doubling damage, but if the confirmation roll is a natural 20 you triple damage instead and roll again. If that is also a natural 20 you quadruple damage and roll again, with no hard upper limit.

Knock Down – The opponent is knocked prone. Some groups allow a save, with bonuses for more than two legs.

Stunned – The opponent is stunned for one round. Again, some groups allow a save.

Bleed Damage – The opponent takes normal damage from the attack (or alternately double damage as above) plus an additional 1d6 bleed damage every round for 1d4 rounds (or every round until a successful save is made). Amount of damage per round and duration can vary.

Critical Hit Table – Instead of a set result, a random table is consulted that can inflict any of a number of results. These range from any of the above to instant death, and often include all sorts of permanent injuries (broken bones, severed limbs, etc). Generally, groups that employ critical hit tables also use critical fumble tables. A natural 1, if confirmed, leads to the fumble table.

Frequency

Before you decide what a critical hit will actually do, it’s important to have some idea how often they will come up. If you run a game where each character gets one attack per turn, then each character will have a potential critical hit every 20 rounds (on the average). With five players, that means that every four rounds, one of them will roll a natural 20. How often they confirm the potential crit depends on the characters and what they are fighting.

Newer editions grant multiple attacks per round. At higher levels this could easily result in multiple natural 20s every round. Simply confirming those rolls will take some extra time. But applying critical hit results and keeping track of the effects can bog down a game if they become too involved.

Do Crits Go Both Ways?

Some groups only allow characters to make critical hits. How unfair is that? But beyond being unfair, it doesn’t make any sense. Forget monsters for a minute. What about NPCs? If the party is fighting a group of NPCs (who may essentially be mirror images of themselves), how can anyone rationalize that one group gets critical hits and the other doesn’t? Or take it further. What happens when one party member fights another? Does only one of them get critical hits? Both? Neither?

Imo, if critical hits (or fumbles) are used they have to apply to everyone.

That said, characters get attacked far more often than any individual monster. Therefore, characters receive the effects of critical hits far more often than their opponents. That means that whatever critical hit system you use (if it effects characters as well as monsters) is more of a hindrance than a benefit to characters. Keep that in mind when you decide what a critical hit will do.

My Opinions

In my game, a natural 20 is an automatic hit and a potential critical hit (a natural 1 is an automatic miss but nothing more). A second roll is made to confirm the crit. If successful, damage is rolled and modifiers are added. The result is then doubled. In addition, the target receives 1d6 bleed damage every round thereafter until a successful fortitude save is made.