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Should you use critical fails/successes?

Posted by Karl SPARHAM on

A contentious issue that can divide DMs all across the board is how critical successes and failures are handled.

In this opinion blog I’ll be explaining what critical rolls are and how they’re typically used, as well as some of the pros and cons of including them in your game.


What is a critical failure / critical success?

For those who are new to Dungeons & Dragons, a critical failure is when you roll a 1 on a D20 dice and a critical success is when you roll a 20.

Without taking modifiers into account, these are often referred to as a natural (nat) roll - a critical failure and critical success being a nat 1 and nat 20 respectively.

When these rolls occur, some DM’s will consider them to be an automatic success for a nat 20 and a disastrous failure for a nat 1, sometimes narrating them in an over-the-top or absurdist manner with failures resulting in embarrassment, injury or other disadvantages. 

Critical Failures / Successes are not officially part of the rules, however they are widely used by many parties. 

An Example

A situation may unfold as follows: 

DM: As you near the end of the corridor, you come face to face with a large metal door. Its clean exterior is completely alien in contrast to the aged stone that surrounds it. 

Barbarian: Can I try to kick it down?

DM: You can certainly give it a shot. Roll me a strength check?

 

Natural 1, DM: With all your strength you charge straight toward the door shoulder first. On your approach your foot slips on the mossy concrete beneath causing you to lose focus and hit the door head first. You take 1d4 bludgeoning damage.

Natural 20, DM: You take a few steps back before barreling toward the door with the intent to kick it where it should be weakest – the hinge. Thunk! The door resists the impact but the stonework around it does not as it shatters into pieces, causing the door to simply fall. You’re in.

The Pros

One of the prime benefits of using critical success and critical failures is that it allows an injection of levity into your campaign. More often than not, it is these moments that will be a highlight in your players’ memories. 

It can also allow for great moments of character interaction. In the above example, how do the other characters react to the result? Does it alter their perception of the barbarian? Or his perception of himself?

It provides obvious opportunities for character development to the players; now the barbarian may be viewed as extra clumsy, or more formidable depending on the outcome.

Lastly, having these chances adds an additional layers of tension and risk to your campaign. You want your players to have an investment in their characters, and knowing that their actions can have drastically negative consequences can lead to them being more thoughtful and creative with their choices.

The Cons

A potential drawback to critical rolls can be the sometimes severe impacts to the perceptions of a player's character:

The previously stoic barbarian known for being unstoppable on the battlefield, having them fail a simple door-opening task in a ridiculous manner could ruin the investment a player has in their character.

A critical failure can certainly add humour and development, but it should never be at the expense of a character's integrity. 

For the Dungeon Master, an unexpected critical success can completely derail your plans and direction of a story:

The door the barbarian just demolished may have been intended to be opened by a lovingly crafted puzzle in the other room... Perhaps it was just set-dressing to add mystery and now you have to come up with something to be on the other side.

As dungeon masters it is our responsibility to pick and choose wisely how we dish out our powers of fate and fortune, and to be aware of how their potential consequences may affect things down the line.

If you’ve designed something to be impossible, it shouldn’t suddenly be considered possible by virtue of a dice roll. 


Should you use critical failures / successes?

This will always come down to a personal preference and should ideally be decided beforehand together by the DM and players.

The beauty of Dungeons & Dragons is that the rules are flexible and can be tweaked to benefit the party's experience.

It is perfectly acceptable to incorporate the elements that work with your campaign, whilst leaving out those that don't:

You might decide to completely disregard critical failures, but keep the successes... You could even tweak the limits of what a nat 20 can do depending on the situation!

It is important to ensure that your players are aware of what to expect before they make their decisions, and that those expectations remain fairly consistent throughout the campaign.


How I manage critical failures & successes

These are not official rules, but simply how I manage them in my own games. You are more than welcome to use them or tweak them to work for you.

Critical Success: I approach critical successes with the idea that the action can net the party an additional benefit, even if they failed in what they set out to do. This can be through information, a hint, an advantage, or sometimes just a bit of additional ‘cool’ flair to their action.

In the example where I’ve deemed the door impossible to break, rather than a nat 20 breaking the door, it would dislodge a panel or stone to reveal some of the locking mechanism, giving the party an idea of how to open it should it be successfully investigated. 

If it were something more simple such as climbing a wall, I could describe with additional flair how their character effortlessly scaled the wall, or how they established a path for the others to follow which would grant them advantage on their attempts.

The goal is to give a natural 20 a sense of clear benefit, even if it ends up lower than the DC you have for the action. 


Critical Failure: I approach critical failures in a very similar way as to how I approach successes, just instead of a benefit, it creates a disadvantage or dangerous situation for the party. 

For the door example, the hilt of the barbarians sword hits the door before his shoulder, causing a deafening bang and most likely alerting everything in the ruins.

A critical failure for climbing a wall could have the character breaking the rocks they were using for grip, leaving the party unable to scale the wall and having to think of an alternate plan.

The most important part of narrating these outcomes is to respect the characters. Try to think of realistic and respectable causes for their failures. Are they tired? Are they carrying a lot? Are they just too strong or too nimble? There are many reasons a character can fail without them turning into a clown. That said, if a player is making up fun situations for their character, don’t hesitate to join in and have fun with failures!


In conclusion

Critical failures and successes are a great way to enhance your campaign, but it is important to be aware of how they'll potentially affect your campaign.

How you decide to implement them is something you should discuss with your party beforehand. 

Do you use critical successes or failures? Let us know below!


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