20 and 1 are Magic

March 8th, 2011 by paul

Rolling a 20

We've been conditioned to salivate when we roll a natural 20. It's very satisfying to crit on an attack roll, but on many other rolls, all we end up with is a regular success and a mouth full of saliva.

Whenever a natural 20 is just another success, I feel like it's a failure of the game system. Example: initiative rolls. I've frequently heard PCs complain when they crit on an initiative roll: "Why couldn't I save that 20 for when it mattered?"

I was once DMing for three players who each rolled a natural 20 on the same initiative roll. It was an astonishing one-in-8000 occurrence that, sadly, has no by-the-book game effects at all. I ruled that the players were so well-prepared for the combat that their opponents immediately surrendered. The PCs got full XP for the win. We still reminisce about that encounter.

D&D design principle: Natural 20 is magic. Every d20 roll - skills and initiative rolls as well as attack rolls - should have a benefit for rolling a natural 20: something more than just a success.

Rolling a 1

Rolling a 1 is the second most exciting roll in D&D. I don't know why it is, but it always gets groans and laughs. In every group I've ever played with, players narrate how badly they failed. "My axe gets caught in the floor!" "My Dungeoneering check was so bad, I don't even know I'm in a dungeon!"

Players are hungry for fumble mechanics!

Fumble rules are hard to write, though: there are a lot of pitfalls.

  • Fumbles should introduce complications, not punishments: no permanently-broken weapons or missing the next turn. Fumbles should add player energy, not suck it out.
  • Fumbles should not render all characters incompetent boobs. One of Rory's 3e DMs ruled that on every natural 1 on an attack roll, the character made an attack on an ally. Rory was playing a high-level ranger with many attacks per round. That meant that once every few rounds - several times a minute - Rory accidentally shot an ally. Not very Aragorn.
  • Fumbles should be player-directed. Right now, players tend to exercise a little narrative creativity when they roll a 1. This is nice.

The natural-1 rules from the 4e Darksun books are pretty good fumble rules. They actually give characters a mechanical benefit - rerolling an attack - in exchange for a cinematic failure - breaking a weapon.

D&D design principle: Natural 1 is magic. Every d20 roll should have consequences for rolling a natural 1: consequences in addition to normal failure.

Do you guys use any cool fumble or crit effects for initiative rolls and skill checks? (Attack rolls and death saves already have special effects on a natural 20.)

7 Responses to “20 and 1 are Magic”

  1. Rian Q. says:

    My players do the exact same narration thing. Including some off the wall things like their ears falling off or the visor on the helmet falling down when they nat1 a spot check. I sometimes give nice bonuses for natural 20s since I feel an auto-success doesn’t really cut a 5% chance’s benefits.

  2. Mike K says:

    I GM a d100 game, so on a roll of 100 on skill checks, say, lore or search tests, it usually makes the character believe something untrue related to their search or find a random object and believe it’s important. On the other hand, a 1 on these would cause the person to have a flash of inspiration and get what amounts to an OOC tip from the GM, or find a useful object along with what they were looking for.

    Such a search test gave two of my players the gear to macguyver something to swing from one floor in a burning building to another (rope tied to a curtain rod), and shot a demon in the back of the head in that turn. It was beautiful.

  3. [...] The principles behind this chart are a) that the 4e saving throw (essentially a coin flip that slightly favors the player) is a good generic mechanic, and b) that "20 and 1 are Magic". [...]

  4. mbeacom says:

    I always try to pump up the situation when a 1 or a 20 shows its face. SOMETHING happened when those numbers come but, but its generally situational. I’ve tried to get cohesive mechanics but decided it ultimately bled the “magic” of the roll when you know the meaning as soon as the die is rolled. Because every 1 and 20 are magic, I like every one to be at least a little unique.

    Something as simple as a high level thief rolling a 1 on a stealth check, perhaps he sneezes uncontrollably. I would then off-the-cuff all a saving throw to see if he was able to stifle the sound at all, perhaps an attack vs. reflex on the thief at the level of whoever he is trying to bypass. If he misses the save, the enemy is alerted and sounds the alarm/attacks. If he MAKES the save, the enemy STILL hears something (crit failed stealth roll after all) but he is not sure what it is and he decides to investigate.

    I make stuff up on the fly like that all the time. Thats one the best parts of 4E. The rules are so simple and generally consistant that you can do these things one the fly and they feel pretty legit. My players love it and it keeps them rolling dice, which then ultimately gives them more opportunities for those magical 20s and 1s.

  5. Groumy says:

    Here are my house rules about Critical and fumbles for Skills check and Initiative.

    Critical Initiative
    The character is so aware of his surrounding that he can at as fast as lightning.
    When a player roll a natural 20 on his initiative check, he is granted a bonus Action Point to use in this combat.

    Fumble Initiative
    The character is not ready to fight, an he is catch flabbergasted by the upcoming combat.
    When a player roll a natural 1 on his initiative check, he is dazed for the first round of combat.

    Critical Skill check
    Sometimes novice’s luck can beat the master’s training.

    When a player roll a natural 20 on a skill check, he is granted a circumstantial bonus of +10 to his skill result. This won’t be an automatic success, but give a nice edge.

    Fumble Skill check
    Event the greatest artisan can ruin his work if he don’t apply himself.

    When a player roll a natural 1 on a skill check, he is afflicted by a circumstantial modifier of -10 to his skill result. This won’t be an automatic fail, but near it.

  6. paul paul says:

    I like the idea of a natural 20 on initiative granting an action point. I think I’ll use this idea.

  7. [...] figured out how knowledge checks fit into the 20 and 1 are magic [...]

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