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Gnomish Workshop: How Do You Crit?

This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Two on 15th May 2019.

ROSTRO: Your information on critical hits is alarmingly deficient. Please consult the output crystals and confer with my colleague.
Lennon: I think I’d rather go meet with HR.
KDM: Lennon, don’t make me use hold person.
m

Critical hits are a primary goal of many players in combat, with good reason; the ability to roll twice as many dice when doing damage usually means the character’s hitting harder than usual. If you have a character such as a rogue making a sneak attack or a paladin using smite, the number of extra dice rolled can cause scrambling even among those with extensive polyhedral collections.

The impact of critical hits is such that the basic ruleset provides few methods to improve chances of one occurring. The Fighter’s Champion path is the only overt, class-based ability that modifies the likelihood of a critical hit being scored universally. The Warlock’s Hexblade path allows a critical hit to score on a roll of 19 or 20, but only if the target is under the persistent effect of the hexblade curse, which itself is limited in utility.

However, as the christmas tree wannabe over here can tell you, scoring a critical hit isn’t guaranteed to be impressive. Dice don’t care if you want to look cool, and every one of them has a “1” on it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a player score a critical hit, roll their damage, and then realize they didn’t do any more damage than they could have if they hit normally.

Officially there isn’t much you can do with critical hits but if you examine ways it used to be done and some of the more popular optional rules, the feel of critical hits can change a lot, both in how often they happen and how devastating they are.

Unfortunately for players, there aren’t a lot of ways to make scoring a critical hit easier without wildly upsetting the balance of combat. As mentioned, only two classes, and very specific builds of those classes, make scoring a critical hit easier, and it isn’t even a power that’s granted through most magical items.

The probable reason lies in the realities of the underlying math. A 5% chance may seem small, but when the frequency of die rolling is taken into account, chances of a critical result approach 100%. If data were to be collected from average play sessions that included at least one combat, it is likely that one roll of 20, and more likely multiple rolls of 20, would result from each session.

Now remember, that’s taking everyone’s die rolls into account. You might go fifteen sessions without rolling a critical but rest assured someone else at the table is enjoying the 20s. And I’m not at all sorry to say that given the number of dice I have to roll, it’s usually me. If any sort of blanket rule were put into place to make critical hits easier, you don’t want to know how easy it would be to make you all cry.

Another possible problem with the criticals is what the Killer DM already mentioned; it is very possible to roll a critical hit and then end up doing less or the same damage as you’d manage from a regular hit. ROSTRO has apparently cross-checked multiple sources for how critical damage works and determined that the way 5e does it actually results in the lowest average damage per critical across previous editions of D&D and most other systems. However, its research also found some ways to eliminate that problem.

The first one is looking back at older editions of D&D. In 4th edition, if a character scored a critical hit, they automatically did maximum damage. So if they had a weapon that did 1d8 + 4 damage and scored a critical, they did 12 damage. Another variant that ROSTRO located was to roll normal damage and then multiply the result by two, something some people do in 5e if they misinterpret the rules.

The net effect of these solutions differs and only partially solves the problem as stated. The “maximum damage” solution eliminates the case where rolled damage is lower than possible with a standard hit but obviates the possibility of exceeding that damage. Anecdotally a psychological drawback to that solution has been reported as it eliminates tactile interaction with the polyhedral randomizers. Determining damage and then applying a doubling modifier mathematically results in slightly higher average damage results than simply rolling twice the total dice, however it does not fully address the case of sub-average damage totals despite prevention of absolute floor values.

True solutions require innovative implementations, combining systems from previous D&D editions and alternative sources. Examining standard procedure from edition 3.5 shows that any damage modifier was doubled along with the results obtained from rolling. Applying that policy to 5th edition critical damage garners mixed results as not all attacks are guaranteed to have a static modifier and multiple damage sources have none, either due to a low modifier appended to the damage or said damage being sourced from a spell.  

As much as I enjoy torturing things until they do what I want, I really prefer when problems are solved quickly so let’s cut to the chase. One of the most common homebrew solutions that actually solves most problems is to combine the 5th edition and 4th edition approaches to criticals. The players get full damage from a regular attack, then they get to roll the second set of dice. So that 1d8 + 4 weapon does 1d8 + 12 damage because the first d8 is automatically maxed. You can’t do less damage than a regular attack, and you still get to roll all those dice you wasted money on.

But this is all way too helpful. When characters are rolling critical hits, they’re happy, and that usually annoys me. So now we’re going to cover how to make critical hits *less* common.

Believe it or not, getting a critical hit in 5th edition is actually easier than most previous versions. When critical hits actually became standard, there was usually some sort of secondary event required to gain the benefits of the critical hit, or “confirming the crit”. Now as we already discussed, the standard critical results in 5e are less damaging than any previous editions, so having them show up more often doesn’t have a skewed effect on gameplay. But if you want them to show up less, take a look at the previous editions.

In 4th edition, the qualifier on critical hits required that the computed result of the attack still overcame the armor class of the target creature. This standard was more significant in that edition as modifiers to attack and armor class increased steadily through levels. With the imposition of bounded accuracy in 5th edition, it is mathematically unlikely that a roll of a 20 when added to any non-negative modifier would result in a missed attack on the majority of creatures.

Significantly hampering the likelihood of a critical hit is more within the purview of the standard from edition 3.5.

This lovely little monkey wrench makes it so that the first roll of 20 guarantees a hit, but it only becomes a critical hit after the attacker makes another attack roll, which also has to hit. The requirement of a second die roll means criticals are harder to make by default, and the higher the target’s AC, the harder it is to guarantee the critical. If the players are obsessed with being combat gods they’re going to make the second attack most of the time, but there’s always a chance. What I like about this one is that I don’t have to worry about critical hits as much as long as my creature has a high AC.

m
Lennon: Okay, wait, what is the rest of this?
ROSTRO: Analyses of follow on and non-standard modifiers to critical hits.
Lennon: Yeah, this is going to have to wait. The clock is ticking, and we need to get over to the Scrying Pool
KDM: Oh really? I can go respond to listeners?
ROSTRO: My chassis is currently incapable of locomotion.
Lennon: Okay, sorry, no; Ostron and Ryu need to meet me at the scrying pool. As for you two…
KDM: Oh don’t worry Lennon; we’re not done talking about this yet. Just you wait until next week.

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