Wednesday, January 27, 2016

When Dice Attack part 2: Return of the Killer Dice!

I hate critical hits in gaming.
I know, I know, it's all, "Damn, Rook, why you hating so much?  You are just an old grognard.  Lighten up, son."
Which may or may not be true, but I have my reasons.
Mostly those reasons have to do with how I see gaming in general.  The idea of a critical hit is, by its name, a hit that lands in some vital spot, thus producing much harm.  However this is gaming, not a hospital, so we are not strictly speaking critical.  Well, usually not, some games are that detailed, but I am speaking in generalities.  A game with exploding dice, as I mentioned previously that I hate, has a natural critical hit built into the exploding dice mechanism.  When the dice explode and you just keep rolling, that's a critical hit.  Rather, that is a lucky hit.

Let me clear up something for everyone, gamers and non-gamers, alike: your dice rolls are no reflection of your skill or creativity as a player.  Dice rolls are what we call "luck".  I don't mean to suggest that someone is particularly favored by the cosmos or not.  I mean that dice rolls are measurements of probability.  If the probability is low that an event will occur, and it does, we call that luck.  If a probability is high that an event will occur and it does not, we call that unlucky.  However we are human beings, so even if a probability is low that an event will occur and it is an event we do not wish to happen, because the outcome is not favorable, we call that unlucky as well.  It's a relative thing measured by human perception.  If your dice have been just one point off all night, regardless of the actual probability of any given roll, you feel unlucky (actually you feel shit upon).  If your tablemate has been getting all his rolls, again regardless of the actual probability, you feel that he is lucky.  And you hate him.
As such, it is an unhealthy human trait, found in many gamers, to see your dice rolls as some reflection of your quality as a human being.  That's unhealthy.  Stop that.  Got it?

So back to critical hits and why I hate them.
I started with AD&D, which is an old school game.  The combat was abstract.  That is, it did not involve a blow-by-blow description of events where every single action was charted in a second-by-second fashion.  Oh no.  For that, you played GURPS.  Rather in the combat round you were assumed to be doing any number of things like parrying, feinting, making blows, and fancy footwork.   You rolled a d20 and that result told you how successful all this nonsense had been.  Of course we called it a to hit roll, so we can be forgiven for forgetting the abstract part in the heat of the moment.

Originally there was no critical hit rule in D&D.   Various house rules, magazine articles, and optional rules published officially and unofficially provided the critical hit rules for us.  The concept was usually something like "if you roll a natural 20 on the 1d20 you have achieved a critical hit".  That's a flat 5% chance and it is pure luck.  It is not a reward for skill.  Indeed it defies skill.
My first problem with critical hits comes from the above.  It rewards luck, not skill.  A highly trained and skilled warrior has no more chance of landing that devastating lucky blow than does a farmer with a pitchfork.  This is very disheartening if you are trying to play with a bit of intelligence in your choices.  Yes, I know that people die by seemingly random things all the time, but this is a game, not reality.

My second problem with critical hits has to do with the 1 and 20 rule of AD&D (or D20 as it is now known).
As a quick reminder, the 1 and 20 rule is the rule that states that any roll of a 1 in combat is automatically a miss, regardless of any bonuses that would make it a hit while a roll of 20 is automatically a hit, regardless of any penalties that would otherwise make it a miss.
As we've discussed before, this means that mathematically no matter how "good" your character is the best chance of success is 95%.  Conversely no matter how poor your chances look, you will always have a minimum 5% chance of success.  If we did a historical review of the D&D systems to determine when this started we can see that the 1977 Holmes rules say that in order to hit you need to roll the number on the attack matrix or better, but that number tops out at 20, so you can always hit with a 20 regardless of armor class (penalties might reduce this, however).  The Basic rules in 1981, the rules Cyclopedia in 1991 and the AD&D 2nd edition in 1989 all declare the 1 and 20 rule as a standard rule for combat.
With the 1 and 20 rule in mind we can see that no matter how overwhelming the foe is, whether it be in terms of skill (levels), sheer size and power (hit dice) or penalties heaped upon the player, there is always a 5% chance of success.  Thus we can say that luck is already rewarded by the game's dice mechanics.  A 20 on the attack roll is a lucky blow, and that is what a critical hit really is, just a lucky blow.  If it was a well-placed blow, then skill itself would be rewarded, but it is not.
We know that skill is not rewarded, at least not above and beyond frequency of successful attacks, because there is no bonus to damage for landing a skillful blow.  If a player need roll only an 11 on 1d20 to hit, then 11 through 20 all score successful hits.  Your unmodified chance of success would be 50%.  If your opponent needs to roll a 17 to successfully hit you, then he has only a 20% chance of success (unmodified).  You will score hits more often and that's a reward for skill, but there is no reward for rolling a 19 above and beyond a successful hit.  Your opponent is just as successful on a 19 as you are.
It should follow then that a 19 when you need an 11 is no more skillful an attack than would be the 11.  So why should 20 be some mystical super hit?
Probably because it is the highest value on the die and thus people might forget that it has just as much of a chance of coming up as any other single number, that being 5%.  In the case of your attack roll, your probability of success is based upon the range of numbers that meet the stated criterion, being the minimum value you must have to succeed.  Everything above that value is simply achieving the success, not improving upon it.
Taking all of this into account, my second issue with critical hits is that a 20 already carries a significant bonus.  It is an automatic success regardless of all other factors.  It should not also carry a reward of extra damage, especially not when it is the only way to successfully hit something that is, by design, unable to be hit by any other means.  If your THAC0 score is 20 and you are facing a foe with an armor class of -3 then you need to roll 23 on 1d20 to hit him.  This is an example of facing something out of your league in skill, power, size or armament.  Certainly a combination of bonuses could make this achievable, say a high strength score, a magical weapon, a weapon specialization bonus, or some combination of those things.  Or you could just roll a 20 and hit anyway.  You do not deserve bonus damage simply because you achieved the absolute minimum required to succeed.  From this critical hits are not made.
This especially smarts when it happens to your character because your DM rolled really well behind that screen he keeps up to hide his nefarious activities.

The third and final reason that I hate critical hits is related strongly to what I said above about human perception of probability outcomes, or luck, if you like.  Once, while playing in the second game of a new campaign my cavalier was killed by a goblin in a single blow.  Being level 4 and having a decent amount of hit points, and being in a non-wounded state, this should never have happened, but the nasty little goblin and his nasty little club rolled a triple critical hit on my cavalier, killing him outright.  My DM was rolling hot that night, which is bad for the players.  It was annoying in the extreme.  I got better.  It's a game, after all.
What the players get, so too does the DM.  If you insist on critical hits, or even worse, critical hit charts, then expect that the monsters will get them as well.  As illogical as it seems, I've had a history of "unlucky rolling".  See, I quoted that because it's only unlucky from my point of view.  It becomes a problem when I would role play out some solution, think up a gonzo but brilliant plan, or just spend time and mental effort to do the smartest tactical thing, all to have it go up in smoke and disillusionment when the DM, lacking the creativity or even-handedness to adjudicate the scenario just calls for a dice roll.  Then do we see my dice betray me, the bastards.  This is not always a deal breaker, of course.  From adversity comes adventure, but it can really piss you off when you are the mighty warrior with the strength bonuses, the good weapons, and specializations and you keep missing by 1 or 2 points on the roll, but some asshat thief is just rolling hot getting 20 after 20 and killing a dragon outright while you are desperately trying to guard that last hit point and the stupid DM won't just have the dragon decide to kill the thing that is killing it steadily every round.

Or to put it more succinctly, it ruins the game flow.  It takes away the abstract adventure of the game and replaces it with simple math.  What you are left with are boring war stories of the type where some guy says, "Remember when I rolled that double crit and killed the lich by myself?" rather than somewhat less boring war stories where some guy says, "Remember that time when we spread oil on the floor and then Zandros got the mummy to chase him and you guys set the floor on fire when the mummy came into the room?"

It's marginally better the second way, I promise.
Besides, there is nothing heroic about rolling a 20, then rolling another 20, then rolling a bunch of dice and watching something die.  The life and death struggle, where you have only a few hit points left and asspull some brilliant tactic and the DM says he'll let you try it but the final assessment, after penalties, means that you have to roll 20 or die, and you do is much more dramatic, exciting and heroic than just getting double or triple damage and ending a fight before it even began.

So, yeah, I hate critical hits.  I hate fumbles too, but that's probably a topic for another time.


  1. I wish we'd recorded some of the crazy, yet often successful, plans we came up with to get our asses out of the shit back in the day. If you recall, my dice rolls suck just as much ass. One that comes to mind is when our Psionicists used a piece of string to get over a pit that turned out later to be an illusion. That was a larf. "I 'ave a cunning plan, m'lord."

    1. Do you recall my psionicist, the first of us to play one, that had the bare minimums and couldn't pass a power check for anything, but ended up with giant strength and just solved all problems with brute force? So sad.