Monday, April 22, 2019

OD&D Critical Hits

I'm recovering from "convention season", and running a week or two behind on blogging and responses to emails. Still need to write a short recap of this year's HelgaCon games. I just got to our school's spring break week, so hopefully I can catch up soon.

In the meantime, here's a little historical note that came up on yesterday's Wandering DMs livecast on critical hits, death, and reincarnation: Does OD&D have critical hits? The obvious answer is "no", but the semi-snarky answer is "yes". In the original LBBs (little brown books), within the Vol-3 Aerial Combat section (p. 27), you do have a specific Critical Hit Table just for flyers. Here you get the following tables and no other text explanations (apparently checked with the 2 or 3 extra rolls on every single hit):

I've done some playtesting with streamlining those rules (actually: that fed into my friend B.J.'s game at HelgaCon two weekends ago), and therefore played a number of games with my partner Isabelle. I kind of like the extra spice from those tables, but Isabelle rather hates the whole concept as an unwanted surprise/complication. Obviously she's not the only person to ever feel that way.

The other thing that exists in OD&D with critical-hit-like capabilities is the "Hit Location System" in Supplement II, Blackmoor, by Dave Arneson. This runs about 7 pages and dictates apportioning creature hit points into separate limbs and body parts, and rolling on tables for each hit to determine which part takes the damage. For example: once the fraction of "head" or "body" hit points are depleted, then the creature is immediately dead. There are separate charts and specification for different types of creatures (humanoid, flyer, reptile, insectoid, fish, snake), and also a 20 × 20 matrix of attacker-versus-defender height comparisons (in one foot increments) with various adjustments or restrictions to what body parts can be hit. Here's an excerpt just for humanoids:

Nowadays there's an opinion in some quarters that Dave Arneson represented the "radical freedom" side of D&D, and that he ran his games in the spirit of total improvisation, without regards to any systematized rules whatsoever. I find this pretty hard to digest when it seems like he has his name on the most complicated and baroque parts of the OD&D game system: the aerial combat, the naval combat, the hit location tables, etc. Some might defend this as "he wrote them but didn't play them", but to my ear that comes across as "fraud" or something very close to it.

On the other hand, I now read many of the Gygaxian comments in AD&D as mostly responding and rejecting to these complicated ideas by Arneson in Sup-II. E.g.: "[D&D] does little to attempt to simulate anything either" (in the "The Game", p. 9), and "... the location of hits and the type of damage caused are not germane to them... Lest some purist immediately object, consider the many charts and tables necessary to handle this sort of detail..." (opening to "Combat", p. 61). Any argument that D&D has "fully abstracted combat" or whatever definitely has to play monkey-covers-its-eyes in regard to these kind of rules from OD&D; and indeed they've mostly been successfully shoved down the memory hole at this point.


  1. I don't know if I would go so far as "fraud". Gygax wrote plenty of rules he never used either. I agree with you that in the case of aerial combat that those tables add spice. I think they further the feeling of aerial combat being a "minigame" within the rules, which I find cool.

    1. Fair point, and it does also seem like fraud to me when Gygax does it, too.

  2. I would love to see something like this adapted to gigantic creatures. Never been to keen on the Stab a Giant in the Shins til He Dies setup implied by HP loss.
    I wonder if those complicated tables weren't an attempt on Arneson's part to codify an approach that ultimately boiled down to "I rule what feels right"

  3. There was a game of Arneson's full set of Aerial Combat rules run at Gary Con this year: Battle in the Skies

  4. There's one other example of critical hit rules, at least for one creature, but the rule is possibly of greater historical interest:

    "Any hit which scores over 20% of the minimum total required to hit, or 100% in any case, indicates the Purple Worm has swallowed its victim."

    Other sources have clarified that this means +4 or more over the roll needed to hit, or a perfect 20 no matter what. So, this is the origin of the more familiar critical hit rule that most people use.

    I prefer that critical hits act like purple worm critical hits: the result triggers an unusual event, rather than just being something like "max damage" or "double damage".