As you may or may not have noticed, I've been out of the blogging loop for a few weeks. As is its frustrating tendency, real life intrudes, and I've barely had even a stray thought about gaming during that time. (In case you're curious, the real life intrusion was the sort of anxiety breakdown that might afflict a Charisma 7 social phobic introvert with ADD tendencies who works a customer service-intensive retail job.) But I'm better now, mostly, I think. At least, I'm having ideas about D&D again, and the focus to write about them. Without further ado, here's one of them...
Everybody's familiar with the idea of critical hits and misses - the notion that rolling a natural 20 or a natural 1 produces some special result beyond just a garden-variety hit or miss. The usual method of handling critical hits is to allow for extra damage. Sometimes (probably most commonly) it's as simple as doubling the normal damage roll, or it can kick things over to an extra roll on a table of gruesome results which can be as complicated as players and GM are willing to endure for the sake of some vividly descriptive splatter effects.
But I'm not here to talk about the awesome effects of critical hits. I want to talk about the fumbles, the bumbles, the airballs of RPG combat. Doing some extra damage is just fine for a well-placed hit, but what do you do for a critical miss? There's the dropped weapon, the broken bowstring, some unspecified mishap that causes the character to forfeit his next round of actions, but those get old fast, even if they do only happen once in 20 attacks. I'm pretty sure I've seen critical miss tables out there too, but I really don't like rolling on extra tables.
The last couple game sessions, I had been using a rule that when an attacker misses with a natural 1, it must save vs. paralysis or drop its weapon. My new idea, inspired by the Simple Combat Maneuvers rule from Telecanter's most excellent document, is this: Let the player decide what happens when an opponent attacks the PC and fumbles.
Melee combat is all about trying to outmaneuver your opponent. Sure, a natural 1 could just be bad luck or clumsiness solely on the part of the attacker, but it's even more likely to be a blunder made under pressure from the opponent. How often do you think a skilled basketball player dribbles the ball off his foot when he's not under pressure from a defensive player? How often does a quarterback miss his receiver by a country mile when he's playing a leisurely game of catch, without a 300-pound dude bearing down on him like a freight train?
So, why not give the player some say-so as to what sort of blunder he's maneuvered his opponent into making?
How severe the effect of a critical miss might be depends on the lethality of your game, but in general, minor but colorful is probably a good default assumption. The opponent might lose a round of actions, or be forced into a less advantageous position, or just humiliated or embarrassed. Remember that the player doesn't get to decide the ultimate effects, only the immediate effect of the fumble, so you're well within your rights to set the game mechanical effects at whatever level is comfortable. It doesn't hurt to remind the players that you'll be using similar tricks against them when their d20s come up 1s too.
Some examples of possible player suggestions, and how I'd handle them:
"I duck just in time, and he sticks his sword in the tree behind me." I'd require a Strength check to wrench the weapon free again, taking one or more rounds. Or the attacker can draw another weapon and just lose initiative next round while leaving his blade quivering in the bark.
"I lurch aside, and she lunges too hard, resulting in a Wardrobe Malfunction of her chainmail bikini top." Well, that's just good comedy. Depending on the personality of the unfortunate warrior maiden, she might just keep fighting and no further special effect occurs, she might withdraw to cover herself, or she might explode in rage at the PC.
"He misses me and hits the rope that holds up the chandelier." If it's an edged weapon, I can't think of any good reason for that rope not to be cut, and that chandelier to come crashing down in epic fashion.
"He swings wide, and I take the opportunity to pull his visor over his eyes with my off hand." The opponent spends a round blinded while he fixes his visor.
"As the gelatinous cube comes at me, I dodge, and it suctions itself to the wall." The cube can't move for a round, until it pulls itself free, but it could still attack anyone already in melee range.
"The golem punches the shelf full of alchemy jars." Holy hell, is this ever going to be fun, and I will love this player forever!
"The ogre swings and I duck under and past him, so now he's the one next to the edge of the cliff." That certainly puts the ogre in a compromising position, should the PCs find a way to exploit it next round.
"The goblin whacks himself in the knee with his mace and hops around in pain." The goblin loses a round. I'd allow this to succeed automatically, because the consequences are both amusing and limited in scope. Compare to...
"The goblin hits himself (or an ally) with his mace!" I wouldn't make this automatically successful. Instead, the goblin makes a second attack roll against himself or the ally, and if it misses, no further effect occurs...unless I decide that the ally in question reacts very badly to being an inadvertent target of friendly fire, even if it doesn't hit.
"The orc king misses me and bashes his sword into the stone wall!" I'd have the orc roll damage, and if he rolls high (meaning he hit the wrong thing and hit it HARD) his sword breaks.
"He trips on that ridiculous beard and falls on his face." The opponent falls prone, and spends a round getting up.
My rules of thumb:
The proposed result must at least have an air of plausibility. (No cutting ropes with a club, no elaborate Rube Goldberg effects, etc.) This condition must be met before any further consideration.
If the effect is colorful or amusing, but has no game mechanical effects, allow it!
If it causes a loss of one round of actions or similar inconvenience, allow it.
If it chews up the scenery in some way that is entertaining and/or injects some chaos into the battle, allow it.
If it results in a shift in positions of relative advantage and disadvantage, allow it.
If it would cause damage roughly the equivalent of a normal attack or less, allow a possibility. That could mean an attack roll, saving throw, or some other check; if this goes in the victim's favor, no effects are suffered.
The more aggressive and daring the attack that fumbles, the more consequential the results can be without requiring a check. If a fighter rushes an opponent standing in front of a window with intent to push him out, and rolls a 1, I'd have no problem allowing the opponent to say, "I duck and he rolls off my back and out the window himself." If two combatants are fighting on a narrow ledge over a chasm, and one of them fumbles, the other could perfectly reasonably say that the attacker dropped his sword and I'd allow a pretty good chance that it falls into the abyss.
Allow a reasonable amount of time for the player to think of something, but no more. If no suggestion is forthcoming in five or ten seconds, the attack just whiffed.
That's pretty much it. You allow the players to exercise their imaginations and exert a little creative control over the dramatic flourishes of the battle, while avoiding falling back on a small set of bland results or referring to tables, and tailoring the results to the unique scene and situation far better and more interestingly than any pregenerated list ever could.