Monday, July 30, 2012

Critical Hits Tables

In my OED house rules, I note that I use a set of detailed tables for critical hits or fumbles on a natural roll of 20 or 1. This is something that's been enormously satisfying in play since I started doing it a few years ago; it's actually the only complicated "tablature" that I regularly use in play, out of all the official D&D rulebooks, articles, or supplements that I've ever seen. (My DM screen interior normally showing (1) adventure location map, (2) standard monster stats, and (3) critical hits tables.)

Part of the satisfying nature of it is exactly in how rarely it gets invoked, like, two or three times per gaming session at most. It definitely throws in just the right amount of unexpected "spice" detail that makes combat exciting, unpredictable, and truly dangerous (without generally encumbering the process or the pacing). It throws a very nice curve ball into the standard d20-and-damage combat sequence, yet it's still an objective mechanic (not just DM fiat). And we have yet to see the exact same "special" result twice in the time that I've been using these tables. One of the things I do is, even after a 1 or 20 are indicated, grant the victim a saving throw to avoid going to the tables -- this nicely avoids oddities like high-level fighters constantly fumbling their sword, makes powerful monsters or established PCs difficult to take down by this technique, etc.

I haven't presented the tables here in the past because they're simply straight out of an old Dragon Magazine article -- a submission by the otherwise unfamiliar name of Carl Parlagreco, "Good Hits & Bad Misses", in Dragon #39 (July, 1980). To my knowledge, this is the only classic Dragon article dealing with the issue of critical hits; I think it was a short time after this was published that Gygax wrote one of his screeds, especially pointing out critical hits as a corruption of core D&D play. But I've found them to be extremely satisfying in my OD&D games. (Note that I almost totally ignore the text rules, but use the tables as written.)

Note how nicely this is laid out, from the era when meaty Dragon articles might only take up 2 pages as shown here (I print this out on one sheet of paper for my DM screen). It even has a thoughtful space left for "Notes" for your own refinements to the system. Here's what I have written in mine:

  • On natural "1" or "20", target saves vs. paralysis (level+3) or consult appropriate table.
  • Fumbles: ignore indicated Dex checks.
  • Liberal interpretations necessary: negate/change unreasonable results.
  • Delayed death results negated by magical healing.
  • Undead immune to effects except head crushing/decapitation.

Edit: Also, consider making the victim roll the d% dice to determine the final critical-hit effect. Holy god, the look of horror on the player's face when they have to do that is unparalleled.


  1. The saving throw here is brilliant. I much prefer it to the 3E solution of a confirmation roll.

  2. Thanks for this post Daniel, I've been meaning to take a closer look at that article for years. I agree with Brendan, the saving throw is a nice touch. I can see now that these tables are much more suited to my game than others I have seen.

  3. Thanks for the compliments -- I was very pleased with the effect of the saving throw myself, taking confirmation away from the attacker, and making it a function of the proficiency of the defender has worked out very well for me.

  4. This is our DM's favorite critical hit system, although the chances of a critical hit/bad miss have been tweaked up/down based on PC level. tacojohn has brought low many a mighty PC using these charts ;)


  5. Perhaps I'm mis-remembering, but I thought you used a save vs. death, not paralysis.

  6. I'll have to look mine up, but I have that article in a Dragon Mag or maybe annual that was 3 pages long & much more detailed.

    Now I'll spend the better part of the next hour digging through magazine, lmao

    thanks for this post!

  7. Paul -- I bet you're thinking of my zero-hit-point rule, where you do save vs. death or expire.

    Dra8er -- I'd be very interested to see a revised version of that article!

  8. Sweet, thanks for posting. Definitely horking this for my own campaigns.

  9. ^ Thank you for suggesting it, actually!