Critical Hits Postmortem

Two weeks back on the Wandering DMs talk show, we had a lively conversation about all the different experiments that have been made over the years around critical hits. Or as Paul sagely observed: the possibly different strains of hit-location and extra-damage additions to the core D&D system. One of the things I loved the most about this dive is how diametrically opposite the two designers' attitudes were: Arneson loved complicated wargame-style systems, and Gygax seemed to absolutely loathe them.

The texts we were looking at in that show were pretty verbose (really, from Gygax and Arneson?) we didn't have time to look at all the details while chatting, so for those without access to the original materials, here's what we were looking at.

Mike Carr's Dawn Patrol (a.k.a Fight in the Skies)

This is just one summary page from the optional critical-hits rules in Carr's WWI fighter game. Note that hit-locations are part of the core rules for combat (separate hit-point tracks for wings, engine, etc.); the advanced add-on here is to possibly have extra damaging effects on a particular hit. These critical tables go one for several more pages. 

Dwan Patrol Critical Hits Tables

Arneson/Gygax OD&D Aerial Combat

Dave Arneson wrote a set of rules called Battle in the Skies (BITS). Griff from Secrets of Blackmoor has the whole manuscript, displayed at the last in-person GaryCon, and playtested in the game room. I'm told it's basically an add-on to Carr's FITS and requires that game to play (hey: shades of Outdoor Survival). Gygax took that manuscript and hacked it down to an extent that it could fit in as one section to OD&D Vol-3. Following Carr's precedent, this therefore represents the only place in OD&D that has a notion of hit locations and "critical hits":

OD&D Aerial Combat Tables

Arneson's OD&D Blackmoor

In Arneson's Blackmoor (OD&D Supplement II), he goes whole-hog with an extensive system of hit locations for every different kind of creature, and hit points divvied up between each body part (just like the planes in FITS; such that a hit to the head could much more easily incapacitate a foe, given a small number of hit points there). The tables for the system go on for many pages. He also has a system for per-segment movement of all creatures in a combat, which he also has in his full BITS game (see here); that's a novel development compared to Carr's FITS. Oh, and also a matrix on comparative height differentiation between different combatants.

It bears noting that in the Introduction to Arneson's later First Fantasy Campaign (FFC, p. 3), he asserts, "Combat was quite simple at first and then got progressively complicated with the addition of Hit Location, etc... Hit Location was generally used only for the bigger critters, and only on a man to man level were all the options thrown in. This allowed play to progress quickly even if the poor monsters suffered more from it."

OD&D Blackmoor: Hit Locations

Gygax in Dragon #16

In Dragon Magazine #16, Gygax has an extensive essay on the basic principles of the D&D game, and his attitude towards attempts at editing or expanding on them. In particular he truly hates the "offensive", "perverted" idea of double damage on a Natural 20. See below:

Gygax: The Dragon, July 1978

Gygax in the 1E AD&D DMG

Gygax doubles down on this position, inserting the same thesis to the very beginning on the Combat section of the 1E AD&D DMG. He also hammers more heavily on the offense of having lots of complications for "hit locations, special damage, and so on". Obviously this is a direct criticism of Arneson's approach in Blackmoor. This is from DMG p. 61, and you might go back and read that page if you get a chance, because he carries on in the same vein for fully 3 paragraphs. Following paragraphs defend the highly abstract one-minute round approach (possibly a response to Arneson's segment-based movement idea), and then a more full-throated complaint about "endless resort to charts, tables, procedure clarifications, and over-lengthy time requirements". Furthermore, I tend to interpret the line in the introductory The Game section (p. 9), "AD&D... does not stress any realism... It does little to attempt to simulate anything either", as quite likely having been written while looking at Arneson's pages and pages of extra combat systems from Blackmoor. Dave's work was assuredly directly in the crosshairs of all this series of grievances.

1E AD&D DMG: Combat (p. 61)

So that's sort of the historical springboard we used on Wandering DMs to frame our discussion of systems we've later tried (and we've tried a bunch of things). Between the two of us, we kicked around some new ideas live, and our viewers also shared some things that seemed novel and solid to us. 

For a number of years I used the critical-hits tables by Carl Parlagreco, "Good Hits & Bad Misses", from Dragon Magazine #39. But I found that I was making more and more edits and changes around the edges; the radical results were okay for one-off tournaments, but not great in extended campaign play. As you can see in last week's update to the OED house rules: within the last year I jettisoned that system and reverted to simply double damage on a Natural 20 (Gygax forgive me). Meanwhile, you can see Paul's system for critical hits here, which instead of increasing deadliness which was my motivation, rather serves as the safety bumper when a PC hits 0 hit points (whereas I now give a single Save vs. Death at that point).

Anything in there that's surprising to you? How many times have you evolved the critical hits in your games from experience?

Critical Hits at Wandering DMs


  1. How many time? All the times!

    I've deliberately designed systems that (like Gygax's) had no critical hits or special rolls at all...and the players just couldn't shake the habit of getting excited over "unusual" rolls. Even after several years of play I had to remind them that no, box-cars and snake-eyes didn't mean anything special in this roll 2d6 mechanic. It always deflated the table a little, so in keeping with my design philosophy of "Rules that the players can't remember should be dropped; rules that they always misremember should be changed to match" I ended up adding them back in.

    Early on I fell in love with the wacky and extreme results in the Arduin Grimoire's crit and fumble tables; imagine my surprise when I learned quite recently (and I forget the source) that Hargrave used them, but only when a natural 20 was followed by a "confirm" roll of another nat 20! So many characters lost or permanently maimed who need not have been... otoh something that happens one in 400 times is barely worth noting, certainly not worth the real-estate on the GM screen.

    The past few sessions I've been trying out a variant we discussed in the aftershow: 20 is max damage *plus* an additional damage roll that "explodes" if you roll max again. So far the player's reaction is favorable; they find it a lot smoother than the charts, they appreciate there's no YAY Crit! Boo I rolled lousy on the crit damage! They understood it's going to be more perilous for them, but they're on board with it so far.

    1. Super cool to al that. Also, what a smashing Rule 1: "Rules that the players can't remember should be dropped; rules that they always misremember should be changed to match". I'm probably going to re-broadcast that, hope you don't mind.

      Also agreed that being sensitive to screen real estate is smart. About a year ago I dismantled using the Tillery weather rules on the same basis.

      Glad to hear that max + more rule is working well. I was worried there would *still* be some deflation if a max + 1 got rolled.

  2. Just a little surprised you didn't look at Empire of the Petal Throne, which had its own critical hit system. (If you had earlier, I missed it. Sorry!)

    1. Mea culpa, EPT is actually not a work I've dug into thoroughly (I guess I have a single book here from that line). May need to get James Maliszewski back to fill us in. :-)

    2. James M. is back. He's been posting on Grognardia again for the past couple months.

    3. Indeed, and we're so happy he's back. We snagged the first interview with him after he returned last fall!

      James Maliszewski | Grognardia Returns! | Wandering DMs S02 E38

  3. In my opinion, every time someone rolls maximum damage on a hit, that is a de facto critical hit. That's all there is to it.

    1. Pretty strong argument to that, honestly.

      Then the follow-up of getting an extra damage roll in exactly that case is hitting me warmly these days.

  4. FWIW in the games I played in with Gary Gygax in 1988 he allowed an attack roll of nat20 to do maximum damage. This article is a nice counter to the conventional wisdom depiction of Gygax and Arneson with the latter as loosey-goosey and freeform and the former as the doctrinaire rulee-obsessive. Gygax ended up kind of forced into that role once the rules were published (because people kept demanding clarifications and definitive rulings on ambiguities) but he never seemed to like it, and wasn't that way in his own games. Whereas Arneson seems to have become more freeform-oriented in later years, but at least early on as these examples show it was he rather than Gygax who went deep into the weeds of complexity and tables while Gary was more in the mode of "just roll a die and we'll decide what happens."

    1. I'm *really* glad that theme managed to come through. The more I've learned about what's Arneson's writing and what isn't, the more I'm floored at how complicated his written systems were. Then you have his players claiming "what he wrote isn't how he played", so who frickin' knows.

      Super great observation about Gygax giving max damage on a 20, thanks for sharing that!

  5. At the risk of going completely off topic I'd like to add that Runequest had a smaller number of hit points (like 10-12 for avg. human), they were distributed proportionally in hit location, so that 4 dmg to the left arm would disable it completely (armor was allocated on different parts of the body, too), and on top of that you could roll specials and criticals getting more damage.

    This was in 2nd Edition (1980) not sure if everything I mentioned was already in 1st Ed. (1978).

    I would also like to add that if memory serves Vorpal Blade in the 1E AD&D DMG was supposed to cut off an appendage or even behead the opponent if you rolled a 20. Can someone confirm this?

    1. Yes, on a roll of 17 or higher a Vorpal Blade decapitated a normal sized opponent. A Sword of Sharpness cut off an appendage on an 18 or higher.

    2. Interesting about Runequest. I wonder if that was directly rooted in Arneson's Blackmoor ideas (which got savagely jettisoned by Gygax), or a parallel evolution?

  6. I've run the gambit from custom tables to double damage to the system I have now - a nat20 hits no matter unless (unless magical armor/effects are involved) and a nat1 always misses. The players have adjusted and nobody has really complained about how it works.

    Why did I go away from critical hits and charts? To simplify, to speed up, and to reflect my disbelief that somehow a melee would result in outlier behaviour 10% of the time. Just didn't add to me.

    If a person has some sort of magical effect, or item, then I would adjust. And I have used the "Escape from Dungeon" fates to have strange endings... and in cases where some sort of effect after combat makes sense - I use saving throws and narrative.

    Nice topic!

    1. That's solid! And actually, that's another point in favor of the escape-from-dungeon rule, which I haven't used to date. I seem to be getting closer!