14 August 2009

Critical Hits Idea

I've been thinking about my Swords & Wizardry (OD&D) house rules for damage and critical hits.

Very roughly, for player characters and important non-player characters, hit points represent only 'superficial damage.' Characters (and important NPCs) take 'real damage' -- loss of points of Constitution -- once they run out of hit points (moreover, once a character takes damage to his/her constitution, he/she is at -2 to all actions, and must make a saving throw in order to avoid falling unconscious). 'Critical hits,' on the other hand, do maximum damage plus an additional damage roll. So a character can take a 'critical hit' that is only 'superficial damage' (if he/she has enough hit points).

I've been thinking about this system some more, after some additional play testing. Now I am contemplating having 'critical hits' simply do Constitution damage directly (including the -2 penalty, possible unconsciousness, etc.). So critical hits would 'bypass' a character's hit points, so to speak, and score 'real damage.' (Critical hits would be unchanged for minor NPCs and most monsters, who use only hit points.)

My main concern with such a change is that it would require players to keep track of both hit points and constitution points at the same time (and Game Masters would have to do the same with respect to important NPCs). The current system, in contrast, has the virtue of (relative) simplicity, since constitution is lost only when all hit points have been depleted. Perhaps this is not a significant concern, but I like to keep things as simple as possible.



  1. I prefer this rule to the 'max damage + additional die roll'. The slight-extra book-keeping is outweighed by the fact that the critical hit is much more serious and has greater ramifications in terms of the penalty and possible unconsciousness. It means players can't feel secure just because their characters are wading into battle with full hit points left against 'minor' opposition.

  2. I like the superficial/real damage mechanic and am considering using it, but would dump the critical hits (which my group currently uses and I don't like, so when I DM next it's out). I agree, using these two systems together could end up being a bookkeeping nightmare.

  3. I use the same sort of split of real damage vs. superficial damage (hits/stamina) with Criticals bypassing superficial damage to directly reduce your real, and it works quite well. It is, of course, more lethal, but that's part of the point; players can no longer be sure that they have enough superficial damage left to absorb even a crit without being wounded. The slight extra book-keeping doesn't seem to be an issue, and really distinguishes the real hits from the superficial ones.

    A couple things I do that make it a little less lethal than it would otherwise be are: armor subtracts damage instead of making it harder to hit, and still applies to criticals; shields turn criticals back into normal hits, but have a chance of sundering when they do. But I can say that since many of the characters wear little to no armor and don't carry shields, even without these tweaks it's perfectly playable.

  4. What's the point of critical hits? Make combat more dangerous for all? Make it a lot more dangerous to high-level characters since their Constitution doesn't go up? Get people to cheer when they roll a natural 20? Also consider that making things more random will generally make combat more difficult for players, skewing the general balance of fights. You will have to take this into account if you're using Challenge Ratings or Hit Dice to eyeball encounters. If you've been eyeballing them before (or if your players are eyeballing it for you via picking their fights in a sandbox), no problem.

    For me personally, I just want to encourage that happy cheering at the table and don't want to make combat more dangerous. Thus, "always hit" and trivial mishaps for opponents would work well in a rules-light system. In D&D 3.5 I appreciate critical hits as a tool to differentiate weapons (crit range, crit multiplier).

  5. "What's the point of critical hits? Make combat more dangerous for all? Make it a lot more dangerous to high-level characters since their Constitution doesn't go up? Get people to cheer when they roll a natural 20?"

    All of these things contribute to my fondness for critical hits.

    However, I'm still undecided about this version.

  6. I think this suggestion makes good sense. I'd rather track HP's and CON than have to make extra rolls. Maybe more importantly, it's a logical result of the system.

  7. I've been playing 4.0 for a few months now, and compared to a system where every player character can mark one or more monsters, and where many monsters can mark one or more characters (which of course both the DM and the PCs must keep track of), to say nothing of having to distinguishing between temporary and permanent hit points, as well as remembering who is dazed, stunned, immobilized, etc., who is taking ongoing damage, and from how many sources, etc.--well, compared to 4.0, worrying about your constitution score vs. your hit point score is an incredibly minor worry, and no bookkeeping nightmare. Maybe this just speaks ill of 4.0, though.

    That said, one thing I'd worry about with this system is that it makes powerful monsters more powerful relative to powerful PCs. After all, the monster can score a crit and kill the PC in one hit, even if the PC has 100 HP, but if the monster has 100 HP and the PC scores a crit, then the monster just takes two damage rolls. (Of course, if powerful monsters, and not just major NPCs, are susceptible to this, then never mind.)

    On the other hand, one of the virtues of the system, if you consider it a virtue, is that it makes fighting more realistic. While watching boxing, I've seen guys take punches in bunches over the course of twelve rounds in one fight, only to get knocked out in the first twenty seconds by a single punch in another.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Bobcat, which clearly identifies a potential problem with the system under consideration.

    I think that I would address the issue by ruling that all 'humanoid' creatures or NPCs with 3+ 'hit dice' or 'levels' would use the 'constitution = real damage' system, and thus suffer critical hits in the same way as PCs. As for non-humanoid or 'giant' monsters, like dragons, I don't mind that they cannot be killed with a single blow.

  9. I'm literally devouring this blog since I discovered it 3 hours ago! Addressing what Akrasia said, I think that in fact this rule should be used for all NPC's that are important/powerful story wise. If the PC's have a nemesis arch villain, that pops up from time to time, he should be entitled to this rule, but if so, than a powerful mythical creature (which I think should be placed in campaigns as a major story influencing element and never by accident), should also be entitled to the Con critical treatment. This would in fact make the "final" or story arch closing fights more dramatic. After all, being killed by an eons old dragon is no dishonor!


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).