This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Three on 22nd May 2019.
Lennon: Right, so I thought we covered critical hits?
ROSTRO: I would classify the information previously discussed as a primer on the general category. If you direct your attention to the display crystals, we can proceed.
Lennon: What if I close my eyes and start running?
KDM: Then you’ll hit the door, dear, I’ve just locked it. Now come along…
As we’ve discussed previously, if they aren’t modified it is easier to score a critical hit in 5e than in any of the previous editions of the game. However, the average damage from the critical hits is also at its lowest point in history.
We suggested a few ways that the damage output could be modified, but there are other things that can be done with critical hits to enhance them further.
Cautionary notation: reviewing discussed information shows the highest statistical occurrence of critical hits lies with the Dungeon Master. Regardless of ancillary modifiers or character abilities, the quantity of rolls required by the Dungeon Master position in combat determines that individual will most frequently enjoy whatever benefits derive from critical hits.
And I’m just fine with that, so let’s start exploring. To start, I want to pull up one of my old favorites, the Lingering Injuries table. Those of you who were paying attention last Christmas know this table is on Page 272 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and it includes a variety of long term to permanent issues that could crop up and make life as a player that much harder. The rules in the DMG say that apart from inflicting them when a character drops to 0 hit points, they can also be inflicted on a critical hit.
The reason the Killer DM likes this one so much is probably that it’s far worse for the players than the creatures they’d be fighting. While some of the effects will have an immediate effect during combat, some only matter if the character is going to continue adventuring long-term, which isn’t the fate of 99% of creatures the characters end up in combat with.
Another improvement to critical hit results can be derived from reexamining fourth edition rules. Most if not all magic weapons from that edition, as well as several class abilities, imparted bonus damage dice in the event of a critical hit.
In fifth edition, that mechanic only regularly presents itself in the “brutal critical” ability of the barbarian class. The fourth edition paradigm has carried over to 5th edition in a few examples. The Dungeon Masters’ Guide magic items Mace of Smiting, Nine Lives Stealer, and the infamous Vorpal Sword all have abilities or effects which trigger in the event of a critical hit. However, those items additionally impart static bonuses or additional enhancements resulting in prohibitively powerful items.
Where my flashy friend is going with this is if you make up a magic item that has a special effect that only triggers on a critical hit and it’s not something silly and over the top like instant decapitation, it solves a lot of problems for you.
You get to give out a magic item, no doubt eliciting tears of joy and relief from those players who expect an entire arsenal of enchanted gear to fall on them just because they unlocked a door, but a minor effect like an extra die or two of damage on a critical hit is not going cause you headaches when you’re balancing encounters or picking out baddies to use.
If you modify said magic items so the only time it does anything is on a critical hit and it’s not giving out extra bonuses beyond that, you can get away with giving it out at lower levels. That’s particularly helpful because there are very few magic items that fit the bill of being obviously beneficial but not giving a character a worrisome power boost early in the campaign.
Moving on, this option was actually brought up by Mike Shea, aka Sly Flourish on Twitter. In the event a character has advantage on an attack and their roll results in two twenties, they instantly kill whatever creature they were attacking.
Instantly eliminating a creature without requiring or permitting any subsequent roll would seem concerningly potent as a blanket policy. Apropos, probability calculations serve to allay most concerns. The statistical likelihood of two icosahedral randomizers or equivalent electronic facsimiles producing simultaneous values of 20 is 0.25%, or 1 in 400.
Considered with the limited opportunities for player characters to attack with advantage, the likelihood of this event is vanishingly small.
You’d think I would hate this one but it’s pretty easy to control how often players get advantage if you put your mind to it. The main annoyance is just that I have to put in extra work with my big bad characters to make sure advantage is harder to come by than usual. The evil overlord getting vertically bisected in the middle of his monologue is never a good look.
Finally, there’s taking criticals out of combat. Back in earlier editions of the game, critical successes and critical failures also applied to skill checks. Re-introducing this is tricky because it can very quickly cause “game” to overtake “roleplaying.” The concept of a skill check at DC 30 is that whoever is attempting the task has to be very accomplished at the task to even have a chance of success, and even then they need to be on top of their game. Guaranteeing success regardless of modifiers simply by rolling a 20 may raise eyebrows, particularly if you have a scenario where a character with, for example, a -1 strength modifier is trying to brute force a reinforced stone door.
Again, the statistical likelihood of a roll of 20 means the scenario will occur. Numbers have no agency or consideration for story or credulity. Were they in possession of such, it is probable sabotage of overall storylines would continue unabated anyway.
I don’t advise using this rule; it means your massively intelligent demigod of discourse is a 5% chance away from being outwitted by the party Barbarian, and it will upset the roleplay focused players if it happens a lot.