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In all the games I remember playing, critical failures have always, in every case triggered an event. This critical failure is due to exceptionally bad rolls on dice, either a 'natural one' in DnD or a 'tI'd Failure' in nWoD. This is committing a failure so catastrophic it makes something bad happen (some special enemy appearing, or some item breaking), sometimes so bad it's borderline nonsensical.

Does this necessarily have to be like this in every system or game? When we are playing, everyone assumes something is going to happen if they roll a 1 (or the equivalent in other systems), but I have been thinking about it and it doesn't make much sense. While I agree it's the worst possible roll and therefore it indicates the least successful or desirable outcome, I've never agreed on critical failures necessarily having to generate a special event.

Opinions aside, I've only been playing for a few years and I want to know: have roleplaying games always been like this? When did this critical failure trend start? I have casually asked some of the people I play with but no one has given it any thought and I'm really curious about it.

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fumbles on a 1 is not system-agnostic. I don't even know of a system where that is the case. – Mooing Duck Apr 9 '14 at 23:12
@MooingDuck I think the intent is to ask in a system-agnostic way (see: "like this in every system or game?"), but used the number for "fumble" in the specific system they're playing now as a shorthand. I'll take a stab at editing it to make that stand out less as an oddity. – SevenSidedDie Apr 10 '14 at 5:36
Oh I'm sorry about that, we ended calling 'fumble' simply to the act of rolling 1 and now I think about it it may sound confusing. Thanks for editing. – Achifaifa Apr 10 '14 at 8:12

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Possibly the Original Fumble Mechanics

While I'm no role-playing game scholar, Chaosium's Runequest (1978) apparently included fumbles, at least as early as 1980 (which is the Runequest version I just extracted from my shelf and dusted off and whose binding cracked when I flipped through it). It reads

An Adventurer using a weapon for which he has only a 5-20% chance of success has a 5% (a roll of 96-00 on D100) of fumbling. For every additional 20% capability an Adventurer has with a weapon, his chance of fumbling with it is reduced by 1%. However, an attack roll of 00 is always a fumble. Even an Adventurer with a 100% of hitting (actually 95% for dice rolls of 96-00 are always a miss) will fumble if a 00 is rolled. (20)

(It took a moment to find the page number because they're in the outside upper corner of each page.)

A chart on which one is to roll if a fumble occurs appears soon after.

Jon Rees apparently ran these numbers, both for skill use and the chart. I'm looking at Steve Jackson Games' Murphy's Rules (1988), a collection of comic strips detailing amusing and incongruous game rules from the magazines Fantasy Gamer and Space Gamer (yes, there used to be several gaming magazines!), and John Rees submitted an oddity in 1984 that reads

In a 30-minute Runequest battle involving 6,000 armored, experienced warriors using Great Axes, more than 150 men will decapitate themselves and another 600 will chop off their own arms or legs.

So, even then, while the sheer frequency of fumbles wasn't considered necessarily bad design, it was, at least, considered funny.

Speculation: A Possible Reason for Fumbles

Many role-playing gamers view the reality of the role-playing game as a heightened reality, reality-plus, let's call it. In actual reality, very little that happens matters. In reality-plus, everything that happens at the table matters and spectacle is expected, for good or ill. And spectacle during even everyday tasks can lead to comedy or tragedy that is a hallmark of reality-plus.

If, while training with his Great Axe [sic], Argath of Sartar chops off his own head, that's a thing that wouldn't happen in reality, but that spectacle is expected in reality-plus because things happen.

A game with fumbles doesn't mirror reality because the random number generator that's used has so little granularity. A highly trained archer might shoot himself in the head with an arrow or some other absurdity, but that's not gonna happen once per every 100 arrows he fires in actual reality. Were it, archery ranges would be sad, sad places, littered with the dead, naked, and injured.

But in reality-plus if those 100 arrows are fired while they matter launching one of those hundred arrows is likely to cause the archer's armor strap to break or make him fall and twist his ankle (those are average results on the Runequest (1980) Fumble Table). That happens because that's spectacular.

That possibility of spectacle makes the game, for some, more interesting rather than more ridiculous. It turns the game from what some consider a mere boring simulation into a drama, albeit in a really forced way.

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To expand, "fumbles" of call kinds do happen in real life and freakish accidents happen, especially in battle. One the more minor end, which I've had GMs impose in shadowrun, a gun can jam and cost you a turn and those things certainly happen in real life. Bug in "reality-plus" they can happen more often and more spectacularly and IMHO that is a good thing. Also, I love the line about archery ranges being sad places. – TimothyAWiseman Apr 10 '14 at 16:47


There exist systems in which there is no “event” on a natural-1. It’s by no means a necessary component of an RPG.

And this is ignoring the existence of trivial answers like RPGs that don’t use dice, or don’t use any kind of randomization at all. Those may not even have a meaningful definition of “fumble.”

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 doesn’t have a fumble result in an event

A natural-1, which is called a fumble, results in an automatic miss but nothing further. Houserules to make fumbles more significant exist, but the Dungeon Master’s Guide rejects this variant as problematic.

Legend doesn’t even have an automatic miss

In Rule of Cool’s Legend, rolling a natural-1 simply means you only get to add 1 to your bonus, and the result from that is whatever it is.

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Rolemaster has fumble tables. The book "Arms Law" contains both critical hit and fumble tables (BTW, some of these are absolutely hilarious), and there are instructions on how to convert for D&D and other D20 systems. So while that is system specific, to blanketly state "d20 System doesn't have fumble" is not quite correct. – JohnP Apr 9 '14 at 22:09
@JohnP OK, then I think that becomes a bit of a question of semantics. I'm not honestly sure if the d20 System banner includes any default implementation of the rules; I had assumed that the default implementation was 3.5 and thus the d20 System itself didn't have them (and d20 System games that had them were specifically changing the default). But now that you bring it up, I don't know if that's actually true. Will edit. – KRyan Apr 9 '14 at 22:12
@JohnP: The d20 system is a specific system that does not, itself, have events on a fumble. The fact that some people extend the system does not change the fact that the d20 system doesn't have events on a fumble. – Mooing Duck Apr 9 '14 at 23:14
And since we're talking about 3.5 edge cases, nat-1's on saving throws do cause magic items the possibility of taking damage:… ... But I've never heard of that rule being used. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 10 '14 at 4:44
@JohnP AFAIK, the d20 System didn't even exist when the latest edition of Arms Law was published. – SevenSidedDie Apr 10 '14 at 5:31

In addition to Hey I Can Chan's good explanation about reality plus, I wanted to add point of view from the reality side.

Personally, I like to think how roleplaying mechanics mirror our reality, how they would map there. And in this case, from reality's point of view, the question is upside down. While we are throwing dice, it is reasonable to think that throwing a 1 (or whatever it might be) is the reason for the triggered event. But that is not how it maps to reality.

In reality the reason why it is a "critical failure" is because something eventful, something bad actually happened. Example action: Taking glass from the cupboard. You can successfully do it, and get your glass. If you are show bartender, you can probably juggle with it. You can also fail at it, maybe it slips from your hand and drops on the floor. But, there was soft rug and it does not brake. This is not critical failure. It's annoying, and you failed your cupboard activity, but it's not bad, it's not critical. And you don't remember it after two days.

And, then in real life, there are the critical failures. You drop the glass, it shatters into a million pieces, you get shards of glass all over yourself. The cat runs to see what's going on and gets some glass in it's paws. You spend next hour trying to catch the cat and remove the shards and cleaning the floor. These things happen, and this is a story you tell everybody for the next month. Critical failure as dice mechanic is just way to represent these freak accidents. Sure, the probability is bit off if we are talking about 10% or 1%. But, this is where we meet the reality plus. We skip the boring parts and are interested in more eventful things, so that's okay.

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A statement along the lines of "X is always true" is easily proven false, but nearly impossible to prove true. Proving such a statement false merely requires a single counterexample, while proving it true requires examining every single element in the set that the statement covers.

In this case, it is false that a "critical" failure always produces a catastrophic result. Others have provided some counterexamples; here's another: D&D 4e.

A natural-1 on an attack in 4e simply means you're guaranteed to miss with the attack, nothing else. No catastrophic event, barring house rules. The skills system moves even further away: a natural-1 on a skill check isn't even necessarily a guaranteed failure, if your modifier is high enough!

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No, it's not universal for games to have some sort of fumble triggering an event. In some games, it's a good thing that idea has been removed, in some other games the fumble mechanic is what moves the game forward.

I'm going to show you why it's bad or good depending on the situation with examples of both.

I've been playing D&D 3.0 with an old critical fumbles table which I always thought came from some second edition game, where every 1 on the d20 risked triggering a self inflicted death, lasting injuries or hitting a nearby ally instead.

To us, fumble events were a way to introduce some effects that could happen, but never had a real trigger. You know, even the most expert warrior can slip on the ground (I later learned that is modelable with special terrain features) or break his arm with a bad swing. We wanted that sort of "realism" to be in our games - and we liked the tension that came from the "oh let's hope I roll under 85" - and we accepted it even if it happened way too frequently (1 in 20 chance).

Now I know better. Not hitting is a bad enough punishment for the crime of being simply unlucky.

Dungeon World (and more generally any Powered by the Apocalypse game) has no turns as we know them from d20 games. Everyone acts when it makes more sense in the fiction, bar the GM. He is allowed to make very bad things happen when the players fail a roll, which means rolling 6 or less on 2d6+mod.
When you botch, you opened up your defenses and the enemies can act. Or a new enemy makes it to the place the party is at.

The game system is built around this idea and instead of feeling like some extra negative (in D&D-with-fumbles, for comparison, you hurt yourself with the fumble and the monsters still get their turn to act) you get the idea that the GM can only hurt you so much, when you let him. This makes it easy for him to do very bad things, and not pull his punches, without players feeling cheated.

There are of course lots of other games which you haven't played where fumbles do not provoke events, or where they provoke positive events. In the aforementioned Dungeon World you get experience points for failing rolls. So, you either learn from your errors (and improve) or you get what you wanted - or you get a partial success and something happens, but that's a completely different story.

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Q: Opinions aside, I've only been playing for a few years and I want to know: have roleplaying games always been like this?

A: No.

When the "grandfather of RPG's" came out, (Dungeons and Dragons, 1974), the roll of a 1 on a d20 had no added feature to it, and likewise a roll of 20 did not signify a critical hit. They were both simple measures of success or failure.

In the late 1970's, Games like Runequest and Chivalry and Sorcery went into more granular levels of detail, as did the Arduin Campaign rules that were a port from D&D. The Fantasy Trip: Melee(1977) included critical hits and fumbles, as did Iron Crown Enterprise's Arms Law (1980). (Thanks LAK). I don't recall a critical/fumble in Traveller(1977), but that may be age fogging my memory.

Reasons to Include the Fumble: Humor and Excitement

The critical hit / critical fumble convention didn't fit with all game systems. Even though other game systems had used it for over a decade, as late as the 1989 AD&D 2d edition had Critical Hits as an optional rule, and Critical Fumbles as well, but neither was a standard feature. By that time, most tables that I was familiar with had some system for critical or otherwise special hits, and a few applied the fumble, either as a pure home brew or imported as a neat feature from another game. Mixing and matching was very common.

The 2d Edition AD&D DMG edition entry on the Fumble (an optional rule).

Critical fumbles are less easily defined than critical hits. One system that works rules that a die roll of 1 results in some unfortunate event happening to the character who rolled it. -- snip-- A character could trip and sprawl to the floor, break his sword hitting a stone pillar, get his axe wedged in a wooden beam, or have one of his backpack straps slip off his shoulder, getting in the way. The normal result of a critical fumble is the loss of the next round's attack as the character gets up off the floor, digs out a new weapon, pulls his axe out of the beam, or struggles to get his pack where it belongs. Critical failures add a dose of excitement and humor to combat.

Some Early Experience

Having the die roll indicate something other than simple success or failure, in my first recollection, was critical hits yielding extra damage and more. (This feature went beyond the Blackmoor Hit Location option1, the first example of a "critical" blow that could kill you when you still had most of, or all of, your hit points).

At the game I played most in 1977/778, our DM required a check for a critical if you (or a monster) rolled a 20. If the next (special) roll was a high enough score, he consulted a table and you either applied extra damage, or something happened like losing a limb, bleeding for x rounds at y damage per round, or some worse calamity. No fumble at that point. My Druid lost an arm to a critical hit and bled to death two rounds later during one particularly gory fight scene. :(

I didn't have a DM in AD&D use fumble rules until the early 1980's.

Where did the Fumble/Critical Fumble (and its predecessor the critical hit) come from?

The enhanced results came from a desire to add detail and granularity to combat, using dice that were already being used to resolve combat.

The crit / fumble was already in other game systems when Karl Horak wrote an article for Dragon Magazine (#39, July 1980), called Good Hits and Bad Misses that included tables for critical hits and critical damage and fumbles (using percentile dice to determine the out of ordinary event) as an option for AD&D.
Examples for Good Hits included:

01-31 double damage
32-62 triple damage
76 fingers removed; dexterity reduced 1-5 pts.
97 throat cut; immediate death (no effect if helmed)

Examples of Bad Misses (Fumbles) included:

40-44 off balance; roll dexterity or less on d20 or no action next round
50-54 lose grip; roll dexterity or less on d20 or drop weapon
83-84 hit friend; normal damage

Horak noted that such systems were controversial. In the 1e AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, Combat section, critical hits are explicitly argued against and the reasons why they were not included. (Gary Gygax, 1e AD&D DMG, TSR, 1979, p.61, excerpted) ...

Combat is a common pursuit in the vast majority of adventures, and the participants in the campaign deserve a chance to exercise intelligent choice during such confrontations. As hit points dwindle they can opt to break off the encounter and attempt to flee. With complex combat systems which stress so-called realism and feature hit location, special damage, and so on, either this option is severely limited or the rules are highly slanted towards favoring the player characters at the expense of their opponents. Such rules as double damage and critical hits must cut both ways - in which case the life expectancy of player characters will be shortened considerably - or the monsters are being grossly misrepresented and unfairly treated by the system.

1 The in-game predecessor to critical hits and critical damage (Blackmoor, 1975, OD&D supplement 2) was the optional rules to address (pages 7-12) Hit Location to reflect damage details on a creature. For example, once enough hit points were done to your head, the creature died. A humanoid's head was rated at 15% your hit point total, the chest 80%, the abdomen 60%, etc. Unless you were a very high level creature, a blow to the head was likely fatal in one strike -- very much a "critical" hit. This system added extra rolls, tended to slow down combat, and was a pain to implement. Similar systems of Hit Location were more refined in Runequest and Chivalry and Sorcery, but were also time consuming.

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Dragon #39 (July, 1980) had the article "Good Hits and Bad Misses". It was the first issue I ever bought. It also contains an ad for I.C.E's Arms Law system, in which criticals and fumbles were a big part of the game. I recall reading an article by Gygax in (I believe) an earlier issue arguing against critical hits/fumbles, but I don't recall which issue. I'll check tonight. – LAK Sep 24 at 14:20
@LAK GG's case against criticals carried into the section on Combat in the 1e DMG for 1e, pg 61. I folded in the ICE and dragon 39 article points into the answer. Thanks!!!! – KorvinStarmast Sep 24 at 15:43
You're welcome. I also don't recall first edition Traveler having any concept of criticals. The Fantasy Trip had criticals/fumbles in the Melee MicroGame that came out in 1977. – LAK Sep 24 at 20:27
I couldn't find the Gygax article I was thinking of in my Dragon collection, but I'm pretty sure that he either used the same text in the DMG, or I'm actually remembering it from the DMG. – LAK Oct 1 at 13:34

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