I’ve been doing a lot of research for the upcoming Dungeon Mastering 101 class lately. There’s an incredible amount of information out there for new Dungeon Masters right now and I think more than any other time in the history of D&D we need it. The hobby is growing by leaps & bounds and that includes new Dungeon Masters being brought aboard.
There’s been gems, flawed gems and ugly rocks in the pile of material I’ve found. The gems are where I focus most of my energy and this article at Geek & Sundry (by the talented Terry Litorco was definitely one of the best gems of the bunch. She covers 3 great tips that all DMs, both new and old, will find useful. In this post, I’m going to focus on the first one. First, let’s have a short history lesson.
Critical hits are one pop culture’s favorite tabletop RPG terms to pirate and use often. Its fun to hit things for damage in games. It awakens a primal urge we have to see things be overpowered by our efforts. Surprisingly, D&D isn’t the father of this baby. Rather, Empire of the Petal Throne, a lesser known tabletop RPG published by TSR in 1975 by M.A.R. Barker, introduced critical hits. The rules said that they represented a “lucky hit on a vital organ”.
But what about when you miss? I don’t mean just any miss. I mean you miss so badly that bards compose songs of your epic failures. Kingdoms fall and rise thanks to how badly you handled your bastard sword on that dark day. You were forever banished from the cool kids’ table at school just because you missed that crucial swing in last night’s game. What is a player to do to overcome such ridicule?
That’s where the Dungeon Master comes in. One of the Dungeon Master’s core jobs is to make sure the game is fun for everyone. That includes Eric the Cavalier who finally picked up a sword and rolled a critical miss on his first attack. Critical Hits are almost guaranteed fun for everyone but does that mean a critical miss should provide the opposite and make sure everyone has a bad day? No way!
Just as Ms. Litorco says, Dungeon Masters have the golden opportunity to turn critical misses in interesting narratives. A missed attack deals no damage but just as hit points are more of an abstract than a true measure of health let that missed attack be more representative of the player character not damaging as they intended but the attack still happens regardless. Examples can include letting the missed sword swing still cause the enemy to dodge out of the way, avoiding damage but having to readjust their footing. Deflecting an attack means that the enemy had to focus on that attack so what else are they missing out on because of that? An intelligent monster might revel in its ability to avoid damage, shouting in triumph after it deflects an attack. Could the rest of the player characters then use that chance to sneak out of line of sight of the monster to escape? To sneak attack? To steal a treasured artifact? As Dungeon Master, these are questions you can decide because at the moment of critical failure the player is going to be focused on that dice turning up a “1”. They’re not going to see this as a winning situation but instead will most likely feel some measure of defeat. It is your job to give them the chance to refocus that and turn it into a heroic moment that might still have an impact on the game.