A Critical Fail – Fumbles in 5E

Houserules are a cherished aspect of tabletop gaming that can allow groups to tailor the experience to their liking. But sometimes even minor modifications can end up causing unexpected problems, and nowhere is this more apparent that in the confusion over critical misses in D&D 5E.

For a start, if the regularity of questions on this topic posed on the Dungeons and Dragons subreddit is anything to go by, there are plenty of DMs out there that don’t even realise that critical misses are a houserule in the first place.

By the official rules, a natural one on an attack roll is an automatic miss. But that’s all it is. No dropped weapons, no friendly fire, no falling prone in the mud, no nothing.

Nevertheless, while many groups are well aware that they’re houseruling, plenty apply critical misses and fumbles under the apparent belief they’re still running things by the book, with consequences ranging all the way from silly slapstick to deadly serious. It’s become part of gaming jargon and culture, to the extent that many people just accept it without any question.

It’s hard to tell where this came from as it isn’t a situation where the rules have shifted over time, such as Paladins losing their powers the moment they have an impure thought or Druids being unable to handle metal.

As far as I can tell critical failures have never been a part of the core rules of any D&D system. Quite a few of them – including 5E – have listed them as an optional rule, but most have done so with the caveat that while some groups may find it fun, it’s not actually too hot of an idea.

But before we get to why this is, we need to talk about Monopoly.

Fumbles and Free Parking

We probably all have friends who shrink back at the idea of tabletop gaming, and for many of them this aversion will be linked to early memories of endless, frustrating games of Monopoly on wet weekends. It’s not a wildly enthralling game to begin with, but many families accidently draw out the pain even further with the aid of a couple of houserules.

The most obvious of these is the ‘Free Parking’ rule followed by so many families. Considering that it’s unofficial there are naturally a few variations, but in most of them all the money collected by taxes and fines doesn’t go straight to the bank. Instead, it is stacked up in the centre of the board, and if someone lands on the Free Parking square they get it all.

It’s easy to see why this houserule has spread so widely. Winning a nice stack of money is fun and it adds in a way for struggling players to suddenly happen on a windfall that can keep them in the game.

However, this last point is where the problem comes in. The amount of cash a player wins through Free Parking is rarely enough for them to actually stage a comeback. Instead they just limp on for a few more rounds and drag the game out to the point where it gets boring.

While many people like the rule on its own, when you consider it in the wider frame of the game it definitely becomes a negative.

The Level-20 Klutz

In many ways, this is the same issue that arises with critical failures and fumbles. While in theory the idea of injecting spice into combat is fun, in practice it can become unbalancing and rather grating.

The most obvious problem is that it hurts some classes much more than others. A high-level Wizard, for example, is unlikely to be making any attack rolls whatsoever, while a Fighter or a Monk could easily be making three or more per turn and as such are much more likely to find themselves disarmed or lying on the floor.

Builds that rely on stringing together multiple attacks, such as Open Fist Monks or Hunter Rangers, suddenly stop being viable unless you play as a Halfling with the ‘Lucky’ trait, which becomes incredibly powerful.

As well as messing with the rules, it also creates some truly bizarre scenarios where supposedly expert combatants act as though they are either cursed, implausibly unlucky or outright incompetent.

Every time you roll a d20 there’s a 5% chance of it coming up with a natural one. If you’re making two attacks per turn there’s an almost 10% chance of fumbling (see Chrys Alice’s comment below for why this is an ‘almost’), rising up to roughly 20% when you reach four attacks per turn – something that isn’t too hard to achieve for many builds.

If we work on the standard six-second combat rounds, these characters will be fumbling an average of once every 30 seconds or so. While some may find this funny, it does become a little difficult to roleplay a legendary swordsman who repeatedly stabs himself every time he gets into a fight. It gets even weirder when you consider that for most classes this problem will in fact get worse as they level up.

An analogy that I’ve used before is that even a professional baseball player will occasionally miss a routine fly ball – which translates into the auto-miss mechanic – but they aren’t going to break a finger or slam head-first into the stands every other game. And if they did, you certainly wouldn’t hold them up as a hero.

Pick Your Punishment

While I’m clearly not a big fan of fumbles, I can see why other people are.

It adds an element of chaos and madcap fun to combat that can organically create the great stories and wacky situations that many groups thrive on. Indeed, I know plenty of people who love rolling on elaborate tables or drawing special cards to see just how bad things go.

Of course, I think they’re crazy, but one of the core tenets of D&D is that you can play it your way – if people want to introduce them then that’s obviously very much their choice.

However, I do think it’s vital that if a DM wants to play with critical failures or fumbles they need to flag up that they are indeed introducing a house rule, rather than treating it as something to be expected and accepted.

And like any other house rule this should be open to discussion from the players. While the DM can always overrule any worries at their table at least it’s then clear that it’s a decision they have made rather than one they’ve stumbled into accidentally.

This is especially true when you’re playing with people who are relatively new to the hobby. Not only does this propagate the confusion over the official status of critical misses, but while  Veterans happily treat characters as more-or-less expendable and can laugh at comic failures it’s rare for newbies to feel that detached.

Image Credit: Critical Miss! by Scott Ogle used under CC BY 2.0

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Chrys Alice says:

    “Every time you roll a d20 there’s a 5% chance of it coming up with a natural one. If you’re making two attacks per turn there’s a 10% chance of fumbling, rising up to 20% when you reach four attacks per turn”

    That is not how probability works. By that logic rolling 20 d20s would GUARANTEE a 1, and that’s demonstrably untrue. Just roll all 10s.

    The real way to do this math is to calculate how likely it is to roll X dice and NOT roll a 1, then invert. For four dice, the odds are (0.95)^4 ~= 81.45%. This means the odds of a 1 with four dice is ~18.55%. High, yes. But not 20%. 20 d20s would give slightly less than 2/3 chance of at least one 1.

    Your point is still valid, but please correct your math.

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    1. You are, of course, correct. I was working on back-of-the-envelope maths and was approximating the answer, but I’ll clarify the point.

      Thanks!

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  2. TypicalGM says:

    It’s important to remember that a critical failure doesn’t mean a catastrophic failure. When a player rolls a critical failure I take the full situation into account when describing the outcome of that roll.

    In combat a split second of indecision, hesitation, or lapse in focus can result in an entirely different outcome. A critical failure for a swordsman could be as simple as a minor mistake in his footwork. For a wizard, emphasizing the wrong syllable or dodging away from the swing of an ogre’s club. The failure could be environmental; a crumbling mountain ledge giving way, a gale force blast of wind buffeting the character, sweat or blood running into their eyes or slicking the grip of their weapon.

    To me, one of the most important aspects of narrating or describing failures is making them integral to the story and using them to heighten the tension of the scene. We all fail from time to time, even the best of us. The outcome shouldn’t feel punitive, but it should capture and highlight the gravity of the event.

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  3. The Vulture GM says:

    How often would a higher level character make huge mistakes (1 in 20 seems kind of high)? I like to think that some fumbles are in fact the enemy taking advantage of a hole in the attackers defense as opposed to a huge screw up by the PC.

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  4. Legion says:

    I can see your points about melee fighters being more open to rolling 1’s, but it works both ways they’re also open to rolling multiple 20’s, as well as doing bonus attacks for more damage. It’s really a risk vs reward scenario.

    Using the analogy of a baseball player is like comparing apples and oranges. a baseball player has time to compose himself and prepare that catch. But you can’t compare that to someone in the face of battle where decisions need to be made in split seconds, combine that with the fact weapons are heavy, if you’ve ever held a genuine sword axe etc. you swing that a few time even as a heroic character you’d get slower and weaker the more attacks you try string together.

    You definitely raise some good points for conversation, and ideas that some DM’s may want to consider. As another has commented on this, a 1 is a critical failure, but not a catastrophic failure. So so long as the DM keeps that in mind they can deal out an appropriate penalty. They don’t need to miss and be hurt in someway. they could just have their footing slip and have their weapon parried from their hand.

    If anything I would consider more of a penalty for someone that pushes their luck too far. i.e. the more attacks they do in one turn if the previous attacks had been successful and then they rolled a 1 then i would consider a bigger penalty as the character is more open to exhaustion so if they were doing a third attack and failed i’d knock them prone or perhaps have their shield knocked from them. they should have movement to get either. but if they’d already used their movement to get there then again more reason they would be more exhausted and open to bigger failure as they pressed in on the enemy then tried to attack too many times.

    It’s all about using your best judgement. You don’t need to be the heavy handed judge. Just be fair and considerate.

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