Following a recent theme, and after reading some of Lord Kilgore's musings on the critical hit, I myself have some follow ups to my notion of "trust" being one of the more important DM/PC factors in a successful game.
In regards to criticals, I don't use them, but we did dabble in the past (leading to one of the most amusing tales in my D&D career when my father tried to sit down and play with us long ago, a story for another time). Criticals are fun (when they happen to the other guy, natch), giving an unexpected bonus to that 5% chance of rolling a natural 20 when attacking in D&D. Likewise when you roll a "1" and the other guy's sword breaks or he hits the guy next to him (again, not as much fun when it happens to you). Who knows where the idea of criticals first originated...people that weren't satisfied by getting a sure thing hit wanted more? Sure sounds like a generation of entitled gamers to me! But I kid, I kid...
Sidestepping entirely the idea of criticals (which is a long bit of potential subject matter in itself), is the way I approach the die rolls of "20" and "1" in my own campaigns. I tend to wait for particularly dramatic moments, and if either is rolled, it will affect game play in a way that I come with completely off the fly, apropos to the dramatic potential. While not absolutely consistent, I feel like it flows with the style of old school gaming I enjoy, and I've rarely had complaints from my players because (as in most cases) the results usually even out over the course of a campaign.
There are only two absolutes: First, if battling an opponent with only a handful of hit points left (say, 2-3), and a 20 is rolled, I don't even require a roll for damage....whatever rolled, the bad guy is brought down in a particularly explosive way (decapitation, sword through the body, arm whacked off, etc)....basically a nat 20 against someone on the ropes is an instant kill. Likewise, if firing into melee, a roll of "1" guarantees you will strike one of your buddies in the back of the head (ouch). Those are probably the only two guaranteed good/bad results of rolling a "20" or a "1" in my campaigns.
That rule in and of itself isn't particularly noteworthy or controversial. However, in particularly dramatic situations, a nat 20 can lead to interesting results. In a recent battle, a low level party was battling a foe far above their experience level (a fire lizard) who had just torched (literally) half the party and was chasing fleeing characters all over it's cavern lair. The party was making missile attacks work well against the menace, as in a stand up fight any of them would die easily under the lizard's claws, bite or breath weapon. Truthfully the party was inches away from a TPK, and when one character attempted a hit and run attack against the lizard and then turned to run for the safety of a nearby rock formation, the lizard scurried after him. Another character stated he was firing his bow at the giant lizard, trying to distract it. He rolled a natural 20, and so adding to the drama of the situation, I had the arrow miraculously strike the fire lizard in the eye! The now half-blinded, pain maddened lizard forgot about the retreating character, and was eventually brought down by the party's fired arrows (now emboldened by the fighter's lucky arrow hit, they rallyed for the win). It added to the touch and go aspect of the situation, by giving excitement and an entirely unexpected result, and the players were talking about the lucky arrow strike for hours afterwards.
That's what a crit should do, give players a bonus in a dicey situation, but even more, that's what trust can do in a game situation....there is no "rolled missile chart for crits" in my game....I made up the result on the fly to conform to the game situation, and it worked well. Now, for the opposite side, you ask what would happen if the fighter had rolled a "1" instead of a "20" in that tense situation. Well, I don't rightly know, being separated by the event by several weeks, but any number of dramatic situations....perhaps his bow would break, or the arrow would strike his fleeing friend in the back, or maybe even nothing except for a particularly bad miss....I would have decided on the spur of the moment based on what I thought was the best and most dramatic application of the bad roll.
Can every group have this dynamic? Of course not. Rules lawyers and BTB nuts would scream and howl bloody murder at such seat of the pants decision making. Where is the chart? The mechanic? The exploding dice? The rules, dammit! Such a method requires trust between a DM and his players....a willingness for players to accept the results such as this as it was...a lucky break, and likewise, a bad result as just one of those days when nothing goes right.
Now, this same character later on was battling a foe in a slippery, dark and muddy area, got to experience the other side of the coin. In battle against a minotaur (another tough foe for a low level party), they rolled a "1", which led to my ruling the character had done a total pratfall and landed on his butt. They had to spend a round gathering themselves and their weapon, but luckily nothing worse happened (the opponent randomly elected to attack a different party member that round). The player accepted it without asking to consult the rulebook to see if he really should have fallen in that situation...they had rolled a "1", the conditions were rough, and they fully expected in another dramatic situation that "something" was going to happen. I could have had the sword fly out of their hands, had it break, had them hit a nearby friend, or just make it a particularly bad swing. Once again, the decision was all with me.
There must be a level of trust between DM and player to have this happen, and it seems to be a particularly old school sensibility in that regard. I've noticed "newer" players (aka post-2000) tend to not enjoy my spur of the moment statements as to the result of a "20" or "1" in critical situations. Often they will ask for a saving throw, or a roll against their ability (DEX seems to be the most stated ability, aka "My DEX is 18, how did I fall down on the ice when my DEX is that high?"), or just grumble under their breath. Interestingly, this happens EVEN IF they have benefited in the past from a rolled crit, or the bad guy rolling an unexpected "1" and having their asses handed to them as a result. It's not about "fairness" or "balance" as much as it is about "What do the rules say?". Now I must say I rarely play with newer gamers so my experience in this regard is limited. One hard core 3E player I had for awhile hated my application of crits and misses; she kept bugging me to create a "chart" so that "some players" (aka herself) wouldn't think I was just picking on them. I told her the entire point of my method was that it was unpredictable and based on dramatic potential in the situation, something a chart or list could never quantify. I (and my regulars) explained I was very fair and would never DIRECTLY kill a character because of a bad roll (although the result could make their life difficult). She was still unconvinced and I think the idea there wasn't a official system in place made her nervous.
I do know that this method would not work with most groups, including a lot of old school players. Even back in the "good old days" a huge segment of RPG gaming was "Us vs Them", or "DM vs Player", I know because I experienced some of these games (and hated them). A competitive DM would look to the dice to screw you six ways to Sunday, and a savvy player would NEVER surrender such a spot decision to DM whim (based on the fact that this sort of DM would use a bad dice roll to nail you to the floor while conveniently "forgetting" to reward you for a crit). So perhaps this isn't necessary a old school or new school attitude; instead it seems to be situational based on the maturity of players and DM, experience, and how comfortable a group is with everyone else in the group. I've been very lucky the last few decades or so to play with mostly old schoolers, and except for my brother (who deep in his heart STILL feels after 30 years of gaming with me I'm out to get him!) they accept my decisions with a shrug of the shoulders and "hand me the dice, let's roll again" attitude. I wonder how many DMs out there are at this sort of comfort level with players, and if it's more palatable to old schoolers than the post-2000 crowd?
However lucky I am now I've had two groups the last two decades that I had to drop the practice with; one was a large group consisting of a LOT of schemers and a few players did not trust the other characters enough to wonder if I was somehow unconsciously influencing the application of crits and misses (one guy was so paranoid he was actually keeping his own scratch sheet detailing how often a rolled crit or "1" went for or against him or his rival in the party); another was the aforementioned 3E player who was so rattled by the entire thing we dropped it rather than completely freak her out (she ended up leaving after a few months anyway).
Next I'll talk about the most gigantic application of DM/Player trust I ever had to administer in game and the result...
NEW MONSTER: FLAMINGO, GIANT - *FLAMINGO, GIANT* FREQUENCY: Rare NO. APPEARING: 2-20 ARMOR CLASS: 7 MOVE: 6”/18” MANOUVERABILITY CLASS: C HIT DICE: 2 % IN LAIR: Nil TREASURE TYPE: Nil NO....
4 minutes ago