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Criticals and Fumbles for Old School Essentials

Apr 02, 2021 · 4 mins read
Criticals and Fumbles for Old School Essentials

I’ve always felt that Critical Hits (upon a natural 20) and Fumbles (upon a natural 1) are essential to pumping up the intensity of any combat when operating under B/X or AD&D 1st and 2nd edition or their clones.   The problem is that with the standard rolls and modifiers, combat can devolve into a bland set of exchanges much like a war game or board game.  The odds of winning are somewhat easy to calculate given the dynamics of small engagements.  Even factoring in morale, the odds are knowable and, after a couple hundred combats, they’re feel-able by experienced players.  The excitement is gone and the slog takes its place.  

Nobody wants to grind.  This is antithetical to what Tom Moldvay wrote in the forward to “his” Basic edition: “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions.  No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.  The important thing is to enjoy the adventure.”  A slog or a grind does not make for an enjoyable adventure.  It is in that spirit that I’ve put together this set of critical and fumbles.

Prior to creating these tables, I looked at the Dragon Magazine article “Good Hits and Bad Misses”; the Hackmaster 4th ed. tables (there’s a LOT there), Middle Earth Role Playing’s (MERP) tables; and Advanced Fighting Fantasy (AFF).  Of all of these, AFF seemed to have the simplest mechanics and thus, I felt, the best chance of playing out well at the table.

I have, however, altered this basic list from AFF and turned it into something of a set of narrative choices.  When a player scores a critical hit (20) or a fumble (1) they also roll a d8.  Given the situation, the GM consults the table and hopefully finds some inspiration to tell a narrative about what happened and alter the results of the combat either to the favor of the PC dealing the critical, or to the detriment of the PC rolling a fumble.  

It is possible that some of these selections could shift the dynamic of the entire combat instead of just affecting the attacker and/or defender.  For example, by reshuffling an initiative ordering, or extinguishing a light source, the “wrong” side could be hampered.  No table is perfect.  Enjoy!  

FUMBLE TABLE [adapted from AFF pg. A-58]
  1. Hit nearest ally (or self if no allies nearby) still need to roll THAC0 to determine if damage will be done.
  2. Something altering the combat happens (torch goes out, lantern knocked over, door kicked open/closed, dust kicked up, poor tactical decision for the PC/NPC to fall back, dodging another character's wild swing, change initiative ordering of 1:1 participants) to detriment of fumbler’s side
  3. Combatant leaves himself open due to exhaustion or clumsiness or happenstance (backpack strap, scabbard, shield dropped).  Melee opponents get +2 to attack against him until combatant’s next attack in the next round. 
  4. Combatant trips.  Go to bottom of initiative order, no attack this round.
  5. Combatant drops weapon, drops bolt/arrow, quiver shifts, etc. Will take 1d2 rounds to recover [blind roll]
  6. Combatant is off balance/Charlie horse/pulled muscle/tweaks back/hyperextends joint. -2 to hit next round.
  7. Combatant’s weapon is lost/thrown behind enemy line.
  8. Combatant hits the wall/ceiling or something hard/splinters bow/breaks bowstring or trigger (temporarily unusable weapon or -1 penalty to hit or damage (cumulative) until weapon repaired/tended to)

  1. Double Damage—>Dismemberment or cleaving or crushing or arterial spout
  2. Additional Die of damage (no +bonus from strength) —> vital spot pierced/slashed/crushed
  3. Exploding die (if max damage die then roll another damage die and keep doing same) OR if enemy was killed/defeated then additional exploding (magic bullet) attack w/d20 against additional enemies.
  4. Additional attack of opportunity this round on same enemy b/c foe blatantly opened himself to attack due to exhaustion, clumsiness, etc.
  5. Disarm opponent/wrest weapon from grasp/cut bowstring.  If opponent has natural weapons only, move PC up 1 spot in the initiative order.
  6. Shatter shield (if applicable) ELSE Push back opponent 5’
  7. Opponent stunned (goes to bottom of the initiative order and loses attack this round) OR writhing in pain (threshold of pain exceeded - doubled over/on knees/on ground).
  8. Trip opponent/tangle up his weapon arm(s)/off balance so he is -2 to hit next attack.

  1. Head
  2. Neck
  3. Chest
  4. Arm/Appendage
  5. Leg
  6. Extremity or 3+ digits (d4)