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In my last session, my group had in a single encounter over 8 botches, I lost count in fact!

At first, I was statistically amazed at how our ranger botched 4 rounds in a row (in-game interpretation would equal to a birth-deficient kobold with cataracts trying to throw a rock point-blank at a boulder and missing), but then it became agitating coming up with ideas on how to "punish" a botch.

Normally our DM says: "On 1 your bow string snaps, on 2 your arrow hits the fighter adjacent to the enemy, on 3... blah blah blah" and rolls 1d4 to determine the outcome, which in my opinion slows down the fight and does not add to the role-playing experience at all, not to mention each class requires different actions, while AoE attacks can critical hit one target but botch on another... However, I feel critical failure should exist as a means of balancing natural 20 and making multiple attacks during a turn more risky. Being under constant life-threatening stress, even a master would make a mistake, or grow reluctant not knowing his enemies' traits.

All of the above led to one rational question: how can I introduce critical failure in a way that doesn't slow down the action?

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Natural 20s are balanced out within the game’s math and expectations internally; it does not need an extra “balance” and adding one is overcompensating. Moreover, while even a master can mess up, a natural 1 is 5% of the time; masters don’t mess up that often. Finally, critical failure rules are really bad for the game, and ultimately awful for the PCs. –  KRyan Feb 20 '14 at 12:48
Possibly related. –  Hey I Can Chan Dec 14 '14 at 12:23

7 Answers 7

Honestly, I don't think that Critical Failures really have a place in the game. Sure, miss on a 1. That means that everyone, no matter how skilled, has a chance of missing. But it's kind of silly to suggest that every person, no matter what their level of skill, has exactly a 5% chance of muffing things catastrophically.

One option you might look at, especially for cases where a 1 is rolled, but it's still successful, is to consider situations where your attempt worked too well. You attempt to tackle the fleeing noble and accidentally break his jaw, making it that much more difficult to question him. You shoot the marauder with your bow and the arrow over-penetrates to hit the cowering barmaid behind him. You attempt a Ritual to summon a minor imp and instead wind up with a more major demon. It's still random chance, but it suggests that luck goes all sorts of different ways and someone skilled is more likely to overdo it than to mess up entirely.

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This doesn't really answer the question though does it... –  Phil Feb 20 '14 at 12:28
Eyeh, depends upon your point of view. To me, this is my explanation of how they don't really make sense from a creative point of view. –  Sean Duggan Feb 20 '14 at 12:31
@Phil It does answer the question, as "missing such an easy thing so many times is punishment enough" is a legitimate response. –  Tridus Feb 20 '14 at 12:46
But you are right that I really didn't address creativity awfully much. So I will add a bit of an affendum. –  Sean Duggan Feb 20 '14 at 12:50
@Tridus fair enough :) –  Phil Feb 20 '14 at 13:25

First, a story:

One evening, I rolled eleven ones. Yes, eleven. I had more ones than every other number combined. I was poisoned, charmed, paralyzed, knocked prone, and blew a spell all in one fight. In short, I was the bumbling oaf character that couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from two feet away.

How do you think I felt during that session? The only reason I survived it is that the DM took pity on me and had the enemies decide I was so low risk as to be not worth worrying about, and they ignored me. We laugh about it now because that kind of luck is so rare it's kind of comical, but at the time it sucked.

Do you believe that I needed extra punishment on top of failing at absolutely everything I tried to do?

Do Absolutely Nothing

Ones on 1d20 happen 5% of the time. That's not rare. When they happen, they're already bad. They make you fail things. When they happen several times, they severely limit how effective you are. They can frustrate a player who is having bad luck pretty quickly.

Do not pile yet more on top of that. It doesn't add anything to the game, and your goal as a DM is not to punish players for bad luck. The bad luck is already punishment enough.

Describe Something Funny

If you really want to mark the occasion with something, make up a description of something funny happening. Like you roll a 1 attacking with your bow, so you stumble on a rock while shooting, your arrow whizzes by its intended target and files two inches past the face of a party member. Everyone has a chuckle at the close call, the game moves on without more rolling, and you haven't inflicted additional punishment on your PCs just for having bad luck.

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I don't believe in bad luck, just in plain numbers. Rolling 4 1's in a row happens in about 166k encounters, which means most probably it will not happen again in my entire life. Also, see the fighter that took the arrow? That was me :) –  Necrofear04 Feb 20 '14 at 14:51
@Necrofear04 Well, I can relate. :) I've just found that players having a bad night don't need extra piled on them other than what's already happening. This isn't a case where the game has to be balanced in terms of "fair", but does have to be in terms of "fun". Critical successes are fun, critical failures are extra on top of already failing important things. When they stack up, they become not fun really fast. IMO. You and your other players may want a different feel in your game, and that's perfectly alright. :) –  Tridus Feb 20 '14 at 15:34
+1 for "Describe Something Funny". It even answers the OP, as there is punishment of sorts (social/RP rather than mechanical), but it can be made fun and keeps the game moving. –  Neil Slater Feb 21 '14 at 7:26

As others have said, 4e balances fine without critical failures, so the best advice we can give you on botches is to ignore them. It's bad enough when an attack misses. However:

If you must have botches in your game, consider lowering the odds that it happens and adding an attempt to resurrect the action (introducing a bit of extra balance as the botch throws it off).

This makes botch punishment more meaningful, and gives you a chance to resurrect a failed attack beyond the normal power structure.

In our game here is how we do it:

  • If a natural 1 is rolled (any time), d% are rolled (this goes for PCs and Monsters).
  • On a roll of 15 or lower, something bad happens
  • On a roll of 85 or higher, you get a reroll.

This would have resulted in (on average), only 1 or 2 of your natural 1s being a botch, and 1 or 2 of them being rerolled.

This lowers the probability of something bad happening to 3/400, and improves critical hits very slightly (1/20 + 1/20*15/100*1/20 = 43/800). These are silly odds, but at the same time they are just silly enough to make it fun if these rules must be used. Doing something bad to a PC (or even a monster) 5% of the time really isn't fun.

This can also speed up your game as it's a quick die roll where something happens rarely, on the good, it's a quick reroll of the attack, on the bad, that takes longer, but it's relatively rare.

As far as botch punishments? If it's an attack, generally have the attack hit an ally, destroy something mildly important (do not harm the plot please), or marginally lower effectiveness of the attacker for a round or so (don't do too much harm, as that's not really in the spirit of 4e). For skill checks, a simple penalty until the next short rest will do. Keep it simple, consistent, and when there is question discuss with the players what might happen.

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A nat 1 on a d20 is 5% of the time, not 20%. –  Matthew Najmon Dec 14 '14 at 1:52

First, I would skip the 1d4 roll entirely and just give them a quick statement of what happens to them on a critical miss. That should quicken the pace. Also, in reference to your comment about running out of botch punishments, reuse some of the same previous punishments. Your GM could make a quip about the character having a rough night's sleep and it a bit off his game, explaining why he continuously sticks his sword in the ground instead of connecting with the enemy. I personally have that list of four or five ideas that your GM seems to roll randomly from, except I just choose one and say that's what happens.

Here's what the DMG says about crit misses, albeit the only mention of them (I can find) is under examples of house rules so they arent "real" rules, but none the less here's what is in the book:

  • In reference to attacks:

FUMBLE: Whenever you make an attack roll of natural 1, your turn immediately ends, and you grant combat advantage to all attackers until the start of your next turn. If the roll is part of a close or area attack, resolve all the other attack rolls before ending your turn.

  • In reference to skill checks:

CRITICAL SUCCESS AND FAILURE: On a skill or ability check, a roll of natural 20 is a critical success and a roll of natural 1 is a critical failure. On a critical success, the check automatically succeeds, and you gain a +5 bonus to checks with that skill until the end of your next turn. In a skill challenge, add one extra victory to the tally. On a critical failure, the check automatically fails, and you take a –5 penalty to checks with that skill until the end of your next turn. In a skill challenge, add one extra defeat to the tally.

Again, those examples were from the House Rules section on page 189 of the DMG. While they aren't technically rules, they are all I could find other than "A roll of 1 on the die is an automatic miss and your turn ends." So, even though critical miss punishments are fun they aren't necessary as far as I can see.

To quickly discuss the AoE crit. misses, I chalk them up to the monster either absorbing the damage (high AC/FORT) shakes it off like nothing happened (high WILL) or being nimble enough to get out of the way(high REF). Dodging is a great excuse for misses with things like fireballs. An example: Once in my game our rogue and fighter set off a magical trap on a door that engulfed the hall in fire, I rolled to hit them, hit the fighter, missed the rogue and said "The rogue was nimble enough to hide behind the hulking body of his dragonborn ally".


  • Don't roll random punishments, just choose one
  • Reuse botch examples
  • Don't be afraid to treat 1's as regular misses
  • Remember the reasons for missing vary greatly, it might not always be the players bad luck, but an enemy's good luck.

Hopefully these few tips should expedite some of the game play allowing turns to move more quickly in the future. Good luck talking it over with your GM!

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If you are looking to punish multiple attacks, without slowing combat too much, I can think of a pretty easy 'natural 1' fumble result:

If you roll a natural 1, you botch up and lose the rest of your actions for that round.

Perhaps the fighter's sword gets caught in the ground, perhaps a bolt in the crossbow got jammed somehow, perhaps the archer hit his hand with the bowstring and needs some time to get ready again to bite through the pain.

There are plenty of descriptions one could come up with why you would lose the rest of your actions that round and it won't slow down the action at all, in fact, it'll make the current round go by faster.

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Not exactly what I had in mind. It would just be weird if the fighter cleaves, the first hit is natural 20, the second is natural 1, that's what I tried to convey. Nonetheless, I find your suggestion quite interesting, but the players could abuse it by consuming all available actions and attacking last, same as Charge on 4e, since it's a standard action. –  Necrofear04 Feb 20 '14 at 8:53
If a cleave hits a natural 20 first and then a natural 1, you could pass it off as dealing a critical hit, only to be parried and losing one's balance as they go for the second target. I see what you mean about playings abusing the system by simply attacking last however. You could change it for 'after a natural 1, you need to perform a standard action to ready yourself again', which means they would suffer the consequence in the next turn if they decide to attack last. –  Theik Feb 20 '14 at 9:08
But attacking is pretty much a standard action, unless stated as a minor, which means players lose next round's standard anyways. I could use the minor or move as a balancing action, but for some reason it does strike odd. I 'll ask my group's opinion though. –  Necrofear04 Feb 20 '14 at 9:26
@Necrofear04 Cleave's second hit is auto damage (unless you're using Deft Hurler)..but...that's not the point, twin strike works just as well as an example. –  wax eagle Feb 20 '14 at 14:01

Back in the times we played 2e, we found a dice in our roleplaying store that had six sides and instead of dots, it had actual printed text. It read:

  • Drop Weapon
  • Break Weapon
  • Hit self
  • Hit ally
  • Knocked out
  • Fall

This was not an official D&D supplement, but it worked really well. On a natural 1 you rolled the dice and what came up happened. The dice was self-explanatory and quick to handle. No discussions, no lookups, just rolling the dice and continuing with the encounter.

I don't know if the 6 sides work for you. Mechanically, they should work for 4e as well. But whatever your events on a natural 1 should be, print them on a dice and you will have an instant botch resolution that lets you continue with the encounter as fast as possible.

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Can anybody please let me know what's wrong now? This is something I did, it worked, it's exactly nailing the question without changing the frame... what is it? –  nvoigt Dec 14 '14 at 18:15
Probably someone just doesn't like the idea. It's just one vote. Far as I can see it meets the question's need for speed really well, and is backed by experience, so +1. Selling its usefulness for different classes (the question mentions that some things aren't relevant to every character) might improve the answer? Since you've done this, your experience of how that isn't really necessary in practice (I imagine you'd have mentioned it if it was actually a big problem) is another way to go. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 14 '14 at 18:43

Yes most people say its unfair, but you have just as much chance for a Critical hit. In the end it all depends on who is DM. Usually if you have a jerk, they will make failures into opportunity attacks for enemies or Make you hit your own allies. And its not really fun to abide by the instant miss rule or the roll the D4 for the result. Mistakes are made in real situations and this is a game where some players enjoy the realism. Critical failures is just a moment to flex your imagination

  • PC Summons a Monster, Rolls 1= Summoned creature turns against PC
  • PC Uses Hypnotize, Rolls 1= Blinds themself with save ends.
  • PC throws fireball, Rolls 1= Burns something valuable in the background or sets the environment ablaze.
  • PC makes close basic melee, Rolls 1= PC puts too much into swing throwing their back out causing their Reflex to weaken.
  • Simply Create a Status effect or make them fall prone so they have to waste an action to get up.
  • Maybe give them a reason so that in their next turn they can only perform minors or one standard.
  • And if you have a string of badluck then follow up the past failures like the guy who threw his back out is now going to take D4 damage because of his backache.
  • Or Take something from the player, scar them like take an arm or a leg. It would make for much more drama when your allies have to carry you out of a dungeon and create a prosthetic limb with dungeoneering or arcana.

Playing critical failures creatively also makes all the PCs start a commotion of anticipation for Whats to come when a 1 suddenly rolls out from the D20. Which is good, its one of the many ways you can captivate the players. And of course you can always just dismiss some as a miss and then on to the next turn. But Failures is a thing that can keep this game interesting and it doesn't need to hinder the game, its more like the player have to adapt to a change of circumstances. Star NFL players who train almost everyday still make fumbles and throw interceptions. The same should be applied to the game.

It varies on what can be made out of a failure, just keep it interesting and realistic It all should depend on the move that failed and the encounter. And my advice this is not a game to play too heavily by the book or you'll find yourself trying to solve math Equations and having to make pity farts since players are dying from the books overpowered enemies. People in the past played this game more with their imagination.

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