Criticals of Majesty

Here’s a small idea that jumped into my head as I listened to the second episode of The Adventure Zone podcast—a D&D actual play podcast by the folks behind My Brother, My Brother and Me. One of the players rolled a natural 20 on a check to climb up a wall, and the GM threw in a little hyperbole into describing the result: “You hover. You were at the bottom of the [cave], and then you were at the top. Everyone got super-scared, because that shouldn’t happen like that.”

It made me think of critical successes in fantasy games as being moments of minor magic, not unlike how the d666 system worked in In Nomine. Critically hit with your mace? Along with the extra damage, holy sparks fly off. Critically succeed at stealthing? You literally blend into the shadows for a moment. Critically succeed at perception? Your third eye opens briefly.

So if take a conceit of a low- or medium-magic fantasy world where the PCs are themselves imbued with some slight magical nature, you could say that critical successes include that magical nature sparking for a moment. It doesn’t change the mechanics of the game otherwise, just adds some flair.

This is a simple idea of color that we could build on in a couple different ways. One is to take the Dungeon Crawl Classics approach to magic[1]. When you cast a spell, you roll to see what the magic looks like in that moment separately from rolling for the actual effect. You could do something similar with critical effects, though you’d probably have to do up different tables for each sort of skill or action, and the decide if there’s one general table or if there are different sources of magic that a player can choose from—such as me choosing the Elemental source and Rob choosing the Holy source.

I’ll write that off as being too much work for little gain in general, but might be something neat in specific circumstances, like magic weapons, locations of power, or auspicious days.

The other thing we could ponder is if critical failures are the same thing. I’m not especially fond of a ‘1’ meaning “you dropped your sword.” But some people like to balance critical success mechanics with critical failures, so we can use this game’s concept of PCs imbued with magical nature to say that there’s a counter-nature that wants them to fail. Thus, a critical failure is that other nature somehow striking at the PC—being blinded by a moment with horrifying visions, blinking out of existence, your voice becoming nothing but the screech of dying hawks, blasphemous tattoos crawling all over your skin, etc.

If you do this with a d20 system, suddenly 10% of your results require more creative overhead, and that’s where random tables do help us out. Random tables provide focus and create decisions that we can run with or reject. But instead of specifics, here’s something we can use a table to just put a little focus and lessen the creative burden:

d6 Critical Success Critical Failure
1–3 Mortal extraordinary success Normal failure
4–5 Minor magical impact
6–7 Moderate magical impact
8+ Significant magical impact

This chart goes high than 6 on a d6 to support moments like “add 1 or 2 to magic checks in this room” or “subtract 1 to magic checks on the Black Day.”

– Ryan

Image: if you have to ask…

[1] After playing a wizard in DDC, I went out and bought the book. That’s how much I dig its magic flavor.