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I've been doing a bit of theorycrafting about 3.5 and pathfinder lately, and a thought struck me about critical hits that got me thinking more about their use in play. Critical hits are clearly a good thing to have in the game; they add moments of excitement and can swing a fight unpredictably, which can be a fun experience. My problem is with the critical confirmation roll.

I've noticed a pattern of behavior among the people who I've played with whenever someone rolls a natural 20 (or other potential critical hit) in combat. The group gets excited, and then noticeably tempers their enthusiasm when they remember that the roll must still be confirmed. If the confirmation roll is a failure, then the group is noticeably disappointed.

I think that it would be a benefit to play to allow a critical threat to instead be a critical hit, and forgo the extra roll and reduction in enthusiasm that this causes. It feels like it's almost a pacing problem. Where I would want the enthusiasm to rise to a crescendo, instead enthusiasm rises, falls quickly, then either rises quickly again or falls further. I feel that this isn't great from an emotional pacing point of view.

My question is this: What would the removal of critical confirmation rules do to the game? How would it affect characters and players? Are there reasons to keep the confirmation rules that I'm not thinking of?

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Compared to how the game was presumably intended to be played (and we all know how often that works out in practice), it sounds like your players are celebrating prematurely. I'd assume the intended reaction on rolling a nat 20 would be more like "Ooh, cool, I get to try for a crit!" than "Ooh, a crit! ...wait, no, I still need to confirm it." What your players are doing is a bit like celebrating a goal in soccer when you've just been awarded a penalty kick -- it turns the anticipation of a potential success into the dread of a potential letdown. Such habits can be hard to unlearn, though. –  Ilmari Karonen May 26 at 20:26
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@IlmariKaronen: they probably think of it as celebrating a goal before glancing toward the linesman for offside. Psychologically you're taking something away from them when the confirmation roll fails. Literally what you're taking away is a chance of a crit. The way they're playing it feels like you're taking away the crit. So by changing their brains they could mitigate but not entirely remove the issue, I think. Analogously: missing a penalty is a disappointment and does affect pacing no matter how good your mental habits! –  Steve Jessop May 27 at 10:31
    
Not enough for an answer, but in my game you still have to roll to confirm. However if you fail the confirm roll, you do max (regular) damage for the hit. Players are still happy at getting something, but not as happy as a X2 crit. –  Pulsehead May 27 at 13:09
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And how do they feel when an npc or monster rolls a natural 20 against one of them, ... And then fails the confirmation? If you are not sharing this with them, you should. Try it and see how it changes the tension and dynamic of the play experience. –  RBarryYoung May 28 at 1:29
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9 Answers 9

up vote 23 down vote accepted

It Makes Critical Hits More Likely

That's it, really. The confirmation roll makes a critical hit less likely, because you have another chance to fail. How much less likely depends on the difficulty of the roll to hit the target (as to confirm you just need to hit).

If you need an 11 on your d20 confirmation roll to hit, then you're going to not get a critical hit around half of the time you threaten a critical hit. Removing that roll also removes the failure chance.

How Significant Is It?

It depends. If you need a natural 20 to critical hit, you've already only got a 5% chance to get that, and if you need an 11 to hit, you've only got a 50% chance even if that 5% chance happens. Removing the confirmation roll doubles your effective crit chance, back to 5%. That's honestly not a huge deal, although it does mean your PC characters will get hit by crits more often as well.

But if someone is using a Rapier (18-20/2 in 3.5) and puts Keen on it (15-20/2), they have a really wide threatened zone on the dice. That's a 30% chance to threaten a critical hit, assuming a 15 on the dice can hit. Removing the confirmation roll from that person will make an equal impact in terms of the percentage boost, but a 30% crit chance is a lot higher than 5% crit chance in practice.

An NPC with multiple attacks and a high crit chance like that that doesn't have to confirm his critical hits is more likely to be able to kill a PC in a single turn with a full attack, because he will crit multiple times more often.

Game Implications

What does more critical hits actually do to the game? The short answer is, it depends.

At very low levels when HP is scarce, a critical hit from a monster stands a decent chance of outright killing a PC. You will make that more likely. The impact as you gain levels is going to be more subdued, both because a single critical hit won't kill a PC and because monster attack rolls can get so high (while threat ranges tend to only be 20, particularly for natural attacks) that monsters who roll a threat rarely fail to confirm anyway.

The change benefits some people more than others. If you have a very high attack modifier and can hit on a 2, you will almost always confirm a crit roll anyway. If you need a 19 to hit, you very rarely will. Under this rule, one of those people is being helped significantly more than the other.

Another area of concern is touch attacks that can crit, including spells. A critical hit on a drain attack can be devastating. Shadows (a monster with a stat drain attack) have a fairly low to hit (+3), so even though they're attacking touch AC their confirmation odds are not that great. Given how much harder it is to raise touch AC in most cases, anything with a very low attack (like the Shadow) will benefit more from the change than something with a high attack. Things with a high touch attack roll are going to confirm most of the time anyway.

On the PC side of things, the impact depends on what your players are doing. A Rogue stacking sneak attack probably won't notice a lot of impact, as that damage isn't multiplied on a crit anyway (and their base damage is often unspectacular). Someone using a weapon like a Rapier will get a lot of crits, but once again may not have strong damage so it's not a big deal.

OTOH, I had a 30 strength, large size, greatsword wielding Cleric in my game recently. He did 3d6+17 damage before power attack. If he power attacks significantly and gets a crit, whatever he's hitting is having a bad day. That weapon has a threat range of 19-20, so it will come into play around 10% of the time. Making his crits easier to confirm is going to let him bring some pain.

Consider a case where he power attacks for his maximum. He was level 12, and with Divine Power has Fighter BAB of +12. He Power Attacks for 12 and is now doing 3d6+41. He then purges Surge of Fortune, which makes his next attack roll an automatic natural 20. He just hit something for pushing 100 damage with one attack, and there is no chance of failure because he doesn't have to confirm. He probably feels pretty awesome when he does that. You may find it less ideal.

There's also the case of someone who has a very low chance of hitting with an attack at all (say they need a 20 on the dice to hit). Normally, they can score a hit with a 20, but only have a 5% chance of confirming a critical. Under the modified rule, every single attack that actually lands will be a critical. That is a pretty weird outcome, but it may not come up very often in your game.

In general, monsters in particular the overwhelming majority of the time only threaten a critical on a 20. Assuming they need to roll an 11 to confirm (which depending on the monster can be a bad assumption), your rule change will only alter the outcome on half of their natural 20 rolls. That means approximately 2.5% of the time, they'd get a crit when they otherwise would have only gotten a hit.

While that's not nothing in terms of boosting the lethality of the game, it's also far from catastrophic.

All of that assumes your players don't take steps to get defense or immunity against critical hits. If they do that, then they don't have to worry about the change at all and it only helps them.

The Fun Factor

I think you have a pretty good point in what you noticed: rolling a natural 20 and then not critting is anti-climatic. That big roll at a key situation is great fun, until you roll a 2 on the confirmation. Then it feels like a lost opportunity.

Slightly Tweaked Idea - No Confirm on Natural 20 Only

What you may want to consider is making it so that a natural 20 is an automatic critical, no confirmation. Any other threatened critical has to be confirmed as usual. That will boost the special feeling and excitement of a natural 20 (no letdown!), but won't alter the balance of weapons with very large crit ranges (they'll have to confirm as usual and keep the same extra chance they're getting currently, as a result).

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Playing at 1st level becomes roulette

A critical hit kills just about anyone at level 1, and there is no protection available at that level now that AC (vs. the confirmation roll) is off the table.

Then again, this isn’t that different from how level 1 usually plays. I recommend against playing at level 1 in general; that just goes double here.

Building for crit-fishing is, in most cases, a mathematically poor choice even so

Outside of stacking crit-threat enhancers gained by abusing 3.0 material, the odds of a critical hit, even with a rapier and a scabbard of keen edges or what have you, are too low to justify most of the options available for building off of critical hits. Feats are too expensive to be something that only works on 30% of attacks, and for the most part, so are +1-equivalent weapon properties. So you do not really open up new options, you just make an existing trap seem a little more appealing.

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I am not clear how this answers the question posed - do you mean the only game effects at all are at level 1 or if you're charopping your butt off on a crit build? –  mxyzplk May 27 at 14:47
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@mxyzplk No, just that these are the most significant concerns. And whether or not you are "charopping your butt off" has little to do with the second point: if you are, crit-fishing is a broken-good technique with or without this houserule, and if you are not, crit-fishing is a poor technique with or without this houserule. That section is literally there only to say "this houserule isn't going to make crit-fishing an optimal idea unless you were already abusing it enough to be broken." There's sadly not a lot of middle ground there. –  KRyan May 27 at 14:50
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Bad fighters will get more crits.

Of course, everybody will get more crits, but characters who have trouble confirming their crits benefit a lot more from this change than characters who will easily confirm most of their crits.

Imagine two characters, one totally optimized on to-hit bonuses. He will usually hit his opponent on a 6+, so if he rolls a 20, he'll usually confirm his crit anyway. He won't benefit much from this rule change. The other is focused on lots of other things and isn't nearly as good at hitting stuff. Maybe he needs a 16+ to hit, so he'll usually miss. But when he hits, it's likely to be a crit, which he doesn't have to confirm. With Improved Critical and the right weapon, he may even score a critical on every hit. If he had to confirm his crits, Improved Critical would be a complete waste of a feat for him.

So essentially, you're enabling crit-based builds with fairly low to-hit.

Of course the high to-hit fighter will still hit more, but the low to-hit fighter with Improved Critical will probably score more criticals.

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While this is true, the high to-hit fighter will still be a lot more powerful in general. If he hits on a 6, his average damage per round will be doing .79 times his damage roll each round without this change, and .8 with it. The guy who needs a 16 will be doing .3 times his damage roll (assuming a greatsword with improved crit) without this change and .45 with it. The 'bad fighter' is still way less effective than the good one, which is what I would expect. –  DuckTapeAl May 27 at 20:41
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Keep in mind that the low to-hit fighter invested resources in something else. Maybe he does more damage or is harder to hit, or maybe he's a rogue, cleric or bard with lower BAB but other useful abilities. But in melee, of course a high to-hit matters a lot. –  mcv May 28 at 6:05
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I seem to recall reading something from Gygax (can't seem to find it now), in which he explains his dislike for any form of (houserule at that time) critical hit rules. One of his points doesn't apply to the modern system, but does apply to this variation:

It is possible under this system that an attack could only hit on a critical hit (if a natural 20 was needed to hit). This also means that as hits become less likely, a larger percent of them are crits, e.g. if you need a 19 or 20 to hit with just 20 as threat range, half of hits will be crits, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

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I've done this. There was no appreciable effect on the game. 'Crit fishing' never really was viable in 3.5e - this doesn't really change that. The only real effect is increased lethality at low levels. I don't run games at levels 1-3 without planning around the lethality, so this didn't really effect me whatsoever.

Even 'speeds up combat by no rolling to see if crits confirm' wasn't a true effect as people enjoy doing that to about the same extent as they enjoy faster combat rounds so it was a wash.

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If you don't think Crit Fishing is viable in 3.5, you aren't doing it right. Building a character who, by mid levels, can average better than 1 crit landed per round, and drop a bunch of nasty debuffs each time they do, isn't that hard if you use classes that are actually capable of functioning in melee (hint: Above about level 4 or 6, Fighter isn't one of these; below that level, specialization like this usually hasn't taken effect yet anyway). –  Matthew Najmon May 29 at 16:40
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You could always roll multiple dice to eliminate the possibility of 'letdown' without changing the probabilities involved. In other words, roll your confirmation at the same time.

For example, if you need an 11 to confirm your natural 20 then just roll 2d20 and ignore the confirmation if it's not relevant.

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This should usually be done, anyway, as it tends to dramatically improve pacing. Just make sure the d20s you use are easy to differentiate at a glance, or identifying the right die to use will cost you all the pacing benefits. –  Matthew Najmon May 29 at 16:42
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As DM, who played AD&D for about 15 years I feel I can share my thoughts on this.

For one, it adds a higher element of chance. Generally speaking, more chance make the game more dangerous for the players. Why? If your crit an emeny/monster at a bad time for it, its dead, as is the assumed outcome of most fights anyways, so no big deal. If the same happens to a PC, it wipes out a character, unexpectedly, which is a far heavier event. Expect that to happen to the group, it DID happen to us over the years, more than once. If they are ok to take that risk, by all means play as the players like it.

(On a side note, we did experiment with critical "hits" on saving throws, too, allowing the creature to evade any effect of the spell, regardless of what the spell says. That was also a fun thing to have. Even more excitement for rolling a 20!)

Finally, DO be wary to apply this auto-crit only to natural 20s! The current rules provide many ways to expand the crit range on weapons way below 20 and you definetly don't want a PC that auto-crits from 14-20!

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14-20 would be pretty hard to get; 15-20 is typically the largest threat range you can get using 3.5 material (though abusing unupdated 3.0 material can get much larger ranges). Anyway, this is a good answer and I've already upvoted, but I think it would be worth expanding on why you think it would be bad for a PC to auto-crit on 14-20 or 15-20 or whatever. In my experience, even with those sorts of threat ranges and auto-confirm, crit-based builds still spend too much for too little effect. –  KRyan Jun 3 at 17:06
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My question is this: What would the removal of critical confirmation rules do to the game?

The critical confirmation was put into the game to ensure that critical hits were respecting the opponents armor class. A character that could not normally hit an opponent was not getting hits off left and right due to an increased critical threat range.

How would it affect characters and players?

As a player, you can simply dual weild scimitars with the improved critical feat. Statistically 30% of the time you will crit on your opponent, despite your characters bonus to hit. From there you magically enchant your weapons with Bursts so that they do more damage on critical hits and utilize power attacks, taking severe penalties to hit for increased damage without really taking the penalties. The critical hits will secure you the hit anyway.

Are there reasons to keep the confirmation rules that I'm not thinking of?

No, you can bypass Crit Fishing by making the confirmation roll and the initial roll the same result. If the initial roll would bypass the NPC's AC then allow them a crit, else allow them a normal attack.

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My proposed change wouldn't let you get crits when you wouldn't normally get hits. If your crit range is 15-20, and you need an 18 to hit, you still wouldn't hit on a 16. That's part of the normal critical hit rules, and has nothing to do with confirmation. Normally, you only make a confirmation roll if your attack hits normally and your roll is within your crit range. –  DuckTapeAl May 30 at 6:40
    
"Where I would want the enthusiasm to rise to a crescendo, instead enthusiasm rises, falls quickly, then either rises quickly again or falls further. I feel that this isn't great from an emotional pacing point of view." Have you ever considered maybe you could be dming differently / better? Unless you feel certain your critical confirmation rolls are taking away from the excitement that a critical hit has to offer. –  DanceSC May 30 at 6:50
    
That sentence is only referencing the moments immediately surrounding when someone rolls a 20. I've watched that kind of thing happen with several GMs. It has nothing to do with GMing, it only has to do with the excitement of getting a crit and the disappointment of failing a confirmation roll. –  DuckTapeAl May 30 at 7:13
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I've always done this in my home games, for the reasons you give, and also to speed up combat in general. It's never seemed problematic, but I've never had a player really try to crit stack. I would feel free to fudge the rule if someone were in a 17+ crit situation where they would not otherwise be able hit their target. In that case, opponents might find themselves with access to magical protection... because DM.

This might look like, "Oh crit! Cool! But the creature has just started phasing incorporeal, so role again to confirm" or "Your critical hit causes your 17+ sword to get stuck in the creature's hide. As he staggers back, he pulls it out and tosses it into the lava. Do you want to try to retrieve it, or use your other weapon?"

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Please don't argue in comments. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 30 at 7:53
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