#RPGaDAY 2019 - DAY 9: "CRITICAL"

Back in 2016, Monte Cook wrote an essay called Monte Says: A 1 is not a Fumble, in which he says that he doesn't believe in players being punished for rolling a "1."

The article was both obvious and controversial. Obvious, because it makes total sense that players' enjoyment of a game should never be penalized because a random number generated occasionally came up with a low value.

But it was also controversial because it had been drilled into people that rolling badly had negative effects for the story. Yes, sometimes, a 1 is just a number, but sometimes it's the catalyst for some truly horrible events that follow.

I'm going to share some of the greatest (and worst) results that I've seen over the years.

The Sure Thing
The one that immediately leaps to mind is a failure I had during the D&D Open, at GenCon one year. We had advanced to the third round of three and had made it to the big bad with great efficiency and no fatalities. We knew what to do, and sequenced our attacks so that we'd have the best possible chance of taking down the bad guy--and probably winning the event. Buff the already immune paladin (me) so he'd be extra secure, haste the caster so he could use the magic wand twice to cast resurrection on the undead boss and kill him.

The round starts, and everything goes to plan...I'm buffed, the caster is going to go twice. The boss attacks and I leap in front of the attack. With my buffs, I only had to roll a 4 or better on one of two d20 rolls in order to survive...then our mage will get to do his thing. Two agonizing rolls later, and I'm a pile of dust, while the mage still does his thing on the second try. I get resurrected by the wand but now we've had a character death, used an extra charge from the wand...and are out of the running to win...because I choked on a 96% likelihood to succeed. Maybe players shouldn't suffer..but I suffered.

Getting Mad at a Wolf
In a White Wolf game, we were playing buffed humans who were friends with werewolves. We got to the final boss, an evil werewolf, and I unleashed my attack, with 10 10-sided dice, where a success was anything 8 or above. I ended up getting 13 successes on those 10 dice. I rolled 8 successes on those 10 dice, and several of those rolls were 10's, which "explode" meaning you roll them again. I re-rolled those and got 3 more successes, and some more 10's. On my third roll, I tallied up two more successes for a total of 13 successes on 10 dice. The boss went boom, and I had a story to share for years.

You Haven't Seen...
In my first Guardians game, the players were fighting a roper (which is a tall blob with long damaging tentacles.) One of the characters, a psionic warrior decided to grapple (grab) the tentacles, so they couldn't attack the other party members. One of the players said "You know those are poisonous, right?" to which the psi warrior's player responds "You haven't seen MY Fort save...." before rolling a 1. Not only did he get a "humility point" for the event, but the expression "You haven't seen MY fort save" has been burned into our game group's vocabulary.

The similar story was when the rogue decides to seduce the senator's daughter. He was high charisma, so she just went with him. Only "after" did he pull out his d20 and say "Let's see how I did." He asked for it, so nobody felt even a little sorry for him.

J'Accuse!
This year, at GenCon we were playing Clockwork Dominion, which is a creepy steampunk game, where the world is based on a clockwork that is breaking down, letting the bad things in. During a social encounter, one of the players rolled terribly on a perception check and decided to realize that the portrait of the first lord of the manor and the young lord in front of us were the same person. Hilarity ensued as he asked pointed questions that made no sense to any character but his.

Then we got serious, and did the adventure, going to alternate realms, defeating the big bad, and um...successfully freeing the bound soul of a cursed person, who was only kept from being a demon by the fact that his soul was trapped. Oops.

We got back to the real world, and Inquisitors are there, demanding to know what happened. Our efforts to tell the truth and convict ourselves were thwarted by the player with the critical failure, above, boldly announcing that the Lord of the Manor was secretly an immortal being. When a truth spell was cast, it was obvious that he was telling the truth. Our minor sins were forgotten as the lord of the manor was taken off to be executed.


In decades of gaming, the dice have been with or against me or others at my table so many times. Rolling a 17 on damage to take out a dragon, not hitting above a 4 for the whole session, rolling three consecutive 20's on a mutant healing check to survive a nuclear blast. And in that time, I've come to my own opinion.

Players should never have less enjoyment for rolling badly, as Monte suggests, but I think they should celebrate their magical rolls when they happen, and just as gleefully, celebrate those fumbles because they are the stuff of legend.

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