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Should you use critical fail tables in combat?

So, a few days ago I posted a rollable table of critical fails in combat. If I'm honest, it was a little bit rushed, and not my best work - but I was pretty unprepared for the largely negative feedback it received when I posted it on reddit.

The consensus seemed to be that using critical fail tables was a way of punishing players, of making play too goofy, and undermining the gravitas of the session. Being the type to catastrophise somewhat, this immediately got me questioning whether in fact I was a terrible DM, that I had been repeatedly punishing my players, all of whom undoubtedly hated my sessions. Then I thought a little harder.

What's the problem?

The criticism basically fell into two categories. The first was obvious and fairly easy to fix. Some of the items in the rollable table just don't work in every combat scenario. An outcome such as 'your opponent grabs your weapon as you try to strike and you have to make a contested strength check against them to see who gains control of it' might work fine if you're swinging a sword or an axe at someone right next to you, but what about for someone attacking from distance with a bow, or casting a spell? Not so much.

Clearly then, a one-size fits all rollable table for Nat 1s in combat is almost impossible to make, as combat actions and surroundings are just too varied and unpredictable. No matter - I've decided instead to double down and create 3 tables - one for melee weapons, one for ranged weapons, and one for spell attacks. Sure, this won't cover every combat eventuality, but it's a much better starting point.

The bigger issue though is, should you use critical fail tables at all? Now, I'm going to disagree with reddit here slightly and say that yes, there is a place for critical fails in combat, and that they absolutely can be used to enhance your D&D sessions. That said, they need to be used with care.

The benefits of failurE

I like unpredictability in my D&D sessions - I think that makes them more fun for both player and DM alike. I think this is particularly true of combat heavy sessions, which, if you're not careful, can become really stagnant - with just a party of 5 wailing on one character who just stands there and takes it. Critical fails then are one way to make your fight more dynamic, and therefore more interesting (other ways to improve combat can be found here).

I also feel that critical fails can provide some light relief and a comic counterpoint to just three hours of 'I hit the orc in the nuts with my Warhammer'. It's also good to have actual consequences to a Nat 1, rather than it being essentially the same as any other miss.

I had a session a few weeks back where a player of mine had a critical fail on a dexterity saving throw and accidentally dashed into a dimension door which was created in front of him, which then opened in the sky 100ft above where he'd been attacking. This was a fun moment: it drastically changed the dynamic of the combat encounter (with other party members having to figure out ways to arrest his fall), and gave good opportunities for future roleplay or character development - as other characters could tease him about his misfortune. Here though is where these ideas should be used with care.

Know your party

That particular session was with a party of close friends, most of whom have known each other for about 20 years. We all care about and trust each other in and out of game - so teasing is a completely normal element of the friendship dynamic, and is not in any way close to mocking or bullying.

Likewise, the campaign I run is a combination of serious dilemmas and good opportunities for roleplay, mixed with stupid hijinks and ridiculous plans. Again, a bit of light relief and slapstick is not uncommon in the campaign, so I see no reason why that shouldn't extend to critical fails in combat. Many groups though, are not like this. If you're playing a campaign that is aiming for high realism and completely serious all the time, then critical fails will probably undermine that.

Likewise, if you're playing with people you don't know so well, or who you suspect may react badly if anything bad befalls their character - then maybe critical fails aren't the way to go. You should also try to read the group dynamic - if any of your group are picking on a particular player, critical fails could absolutely exacerbate this problem (though you as DM should be putting a stop to any bullying going on at your table, regardless of whether it's exacerbated by a particular rule or not...)

It's your call

In short, figuring all this out can be a tricky judgement call - so if you're in any doubt, maybe give critical fails a miss. It's also worth asking yourself why you're including them - is it to make the game fun for everybody, or just because you enjoy punishing your players? If the latter, then you probably have more to worry about and work on than just your D&D prep, to be honest. You can also just ask your players for feedback. Do they like Critical Fails? Are they happy for you to include them or would they rather you didn't? As with so many things, a little communication goes a long way.

If after reading this though you do want to use them, I've now re-written my original list to create separate ones for different combat scenarios - you can find critical fails for ranged attacks here, critical fails for melee attacks here, and critical fails for spell attacks here. I hope you have a lot of fun using them in your sessions!

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