Critical Fumble Fix

We talked about critical fumbles last week while covering the Gunslinger’s Misfire mechanic. While I stand by the conclusion that you shouldn’t build a (sub)class around a critical fumble mechanic, there may be a solution to the problem fumbles experience interacting with extra attacks.

The Problem

Critical fumbles impose an additional penalty on players who roll a 1 on a d20.

For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume you’ve already set your heart on running critical fumbles, notwithstanding the narrative perils.

The mechanical problem you still need to resolve is that extra attacks make more proficient martial characters more likely to fail. This is not an impediment that “linear” fighters need to experience against “quadratic” wizards. Especially considering the spellcaster’s reliance on fumble-immune saving throw spells at higher levels.

The Solution

For tables that insist on using critical fumbles, a tidy solution comes courtesy of reader Alexander Davis:

The solution is that you only “fumble” if ALL of your attacks are a critical fail (rolling a 1 on the d20).

This is a great solution, for a couple reasons!

Reversing the Odds

This rule inverts the effect of adding extra attacks to critical fumbles. When all of your attacks need to critical fail to fumble, the odds of fumbling DECREASE when you get more attacks.

This directly solves the biggest problem with this interaction. Compare the odds of a critical fumble when rolling a 1 vs. the “Davis Rule”:

With this fix, the fighter who levels up indeed becomes more competent as they become a better fighter, instead of turning into a bumbling klutz.

No Confirmation Roll

The mechanic is baked right in to the attack rolls. Unlike other common solutions that attempt to temper the odds of critical fumbles with a “confirmation” roll, this solution doesn’t require an extra roll to “confirm” the fumble. A critical fumble “confirmation” roll doesn’t add value to the playing experience because the only possible result is downside.

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12 thoughts on “Critical Fumble Fix

  1. Wow, that’s a simple and effective solution. Elegant, easy to remember. Ideal for a new home rule!

    In our campaigns, we repurposed the Inspiration mechanic. A Nat 20 gives you “Inspiration” (Luck) for one round: you can reroll any one die, after seeing the results of the die, and pick the one you want (basically, “Advantage +”). Conversely, a Nat 1 gives you Unluck; your *next* d20 roll, for any purpose, has Disadvantage. Both situations last at most for 1 round, although we get a little loosey-goosey with out-of-combat Skill Checks… then the Luck/Unluck tends to last “next roll or until 5 minutes pass”.

    You can “game” this situation a little, like the fighter recognizing he is off-balance from that lat swing, and choosing his next Action to be “Help / Aid Another” — no roll required, unluck passes, ta da! But if he has to make a save on his turn, uh oh…

    Of course, in combat, Nat 20 is a Critical Hit as normal. Unless a 20 would still miss, then it is a Hit. A Nat 1 is a miss in combat. In skill checks, a NAt 20 is… just a 20, do the math; likewise a Nat 1 is just a 1 — sufficient skill and an easy task and you might succeed anyway! But Luck or Unluck will color your next roll…

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  2. Unfortunately, it adds to the lethality of fumbles at low levels, when people are too likely to be one-shotted already.

    I do like, if you want to incorporate the mechanic, Frederick’s idea of a Nat 20/1 giving, effectively, Advantage/Disadvantage for the next roll in a round. That gives that on/off-balance (for either side) feeling without being automatically game-changing.

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      1. Perfectly fair question. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t now remember precisely what my line of reasoning was.

        It may just have been that the idea of 5% of invoking, not just a miss, but an Unfortunate Result, is too substantial a burden on low level characters, who are already dealing with the one-shottable HP levels and other handicaps. Also, maybe, that the proposed mechanism really ends up meaning that only those one-attack characters are liable to be impacted by a further roll on the fumble table (the drop from 5% to 0.25% is massive).

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  3. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this blog sooner… it’s really well written, interesting, and helpful! My two cents: the Pathfinder solution to this issue is that you have to confirm the fumble, in other words you roll a d20 again and if that roll is a miss, you fumble; if the roll would be a hit then it’s not a fumble. (The part where this isn’t so fun is that critical hits also have to be confirmed in the same way.)

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    1. Only issue with that approach is the additional roll. Otherwise its simple and effective – a skilled fighter will more frequently avoid the fumble. However… it doesn’t stop the skilled fighter from the weight of statistics… 4 times as many attacks will still result in some fumbles, even if he avoids 3 of the 4 due to the confirmation.

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  4. Great ideas here! The critical fumble mechanic has always felt wrong to me. Most groups that I play with describe the fumble as falling prone, which sets up bizarre scenarios with high level fighters frequently tripping, and (if they have already used their move) not being able to get back up.

    One concern: wouldn’t the solution posed by Alexander Davis only help fighters and blasters? A high level caster using a single-target attack spell would still be facing 5% odds of a fumble.

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