At my table there is the house rule that skills can crit on a natural 1 and 20.

At least I think a natural 20 would be treated special over a 19. But I do know that 1's give harsh consequences.

In my last session I rolled natural ones on 2 separate skill checks.

One was a Perception check to listen to the mutters of nearby NPCs, I rolled a natural 1(I had a +6 to it) and the DM said I was talking so loud that all the other PCs had to do their checks at disadvantage.

The second time I rolled insight to see if i could figure out about how badly our setting the dock ablaze affected an invading orc army, whose ship was also set on fire. I rolled a natural 1(+6) and the DM said I did not think it had any effect at all and was going to be frightened for the 1st 3 rounds of the next encounter.

I'm all for having fun and silly things with low skill rolls. And am ok with these harsh consequences if everyone at the table are for the most part. But I feel this kinda screws over bards and rogue who get expertise.

Continuation of another question.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I am uncertain of the question here. The DM has applied an optional rule from the DMG. Are you the only player not pleased about it, or are the others also unhappy? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 14:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ What optional rule is in the DMG? I couldn't find anything about 1s and 20s for skill checks under Master of Rules. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nick Brown
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 20:52

3 Answers 3


It makes your characters erratically be heroically skillful and tragically incompetent. 5% of the time you can manage almost anything, regardless of your ability. 5% of the time you horribly screw up almost anything, regardless of your ability.

It would take a pretty big idiot to be talking loudly while trying to listen carefully. Your DM is letting these 1s take away your player agency while also allowing for 20s to let you do things or have extra effects that you probably shouldn't be capable of.

I'm not a fan of 1s and 20s being automatic for skill checks. I like the Degree of Success idea (which I have seen used in some 5e adventures) that certain skill checks can have multiple DCs, and depending on where your modified check falls you can do badly, simply fail, succeed, succeed better, along the lines of: DC 15 to climb the wall. Fail by 5 or more and you fall down.

This is especially unfair for characters with Reliable Talent. The idea is that they are so good at their skills, they always do at least average.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ It may be worth noting that this silliness gets more egregious at high levels. A rogue with expertise in stealth has something close a a +17. They should always be able to sneak past the hill giant (or whatever). \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 14:50
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @goodguy5 Indeed, as well as the Fighter in plate rolling two 20s (end result 21) even though he has disadvantage in that plate shouldn't be more stealthy than said Rogue rolling a 15 with a result of 32). \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 14:55
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ My DM uses automatic failures and successes on skill checks, but, unlike what the question DM seems to be doing, the benefits/consequences are mostly flavor, and rarely transform into detriments or bonuses. For example, rolling to listen to another conversation wouldn't be "talking loudly" and hurting everyone else, it would be something like, "You try to listen-in, but a strangely-beautiful piece of artwork on the wall catches your attention and you forget what they are saying," while a Natural 20 on an Intimidation Check would mean that your opponent pales and backs into a corner, trembling. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 16:03
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @SeraphsWrath I use the same kind of "flavor crits" and let the players pick them: our Dragonborn bard Nat 1'd an insight check to determine the meaning of a "dry-cleaning package" as a code for another service and began removing the clothes he was wearing to hand over for dry-cleaning. Needless to say the undercover intelligence agent was... Anti-impressed? But with no effect on the outcome of the encounter otherwise. \$\endgroup\$
    – Asher
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 16:48
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I changed a word in your first sentence because I think it more clearly conveys what I think is your intent, and doesn't rely on using a mental illness outside its context. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 13:09

Critical Skill Checks are balanced by the whims of the DM

But, so are skill checks where the DC isn't clearly laid out in the source books. A key difference when playing with this rule is to not roll for the impossible. With standard rules you can roll for an impossible task (for the character currently attempting at least) and set the DC to 30 at level 2, effectively making it impossible. If you are allowing crit successes and the character wants to try something that would be DC30 that they simply cannot do, rolling for it should be forbidden.

For critical skill checks to be fair, the failures (and successes!) must be realistic and roughly equal. A nat 20 persuasion check won't talk a merchant into giving you his whole stock for free. A nat 1 athletics wont cause you to snap your arm trying to move a heavy boulder.

But, a nat 1 acrobatics might cause you to fall prone in an awkward place, while a nat 20 intimidate just might make an enemy retreat for a moment.

Critical skill checks can make the game exciting for some, while to others can make the game seem farcical. Not everyone enjoys all the same things.

As a personal opinion, being afraid for 3 rounds starting when the next combat comes is a ludicrously strong punishment for a failed insight check, with very little grounding in reality. Even being feared for 3 rounds immediately would be strong and somewhat nonsensical but having your character somehow cursed to be afraid the next time he fights because he saw something badly is excessive.

  • \$\begingroup\$ No we had escapes with a number of civilians we saved from the attack with a NPC captain and 2 guards. DM told us we needed to decide if we were going to fend them off or cut off another group of invaders. We knew out of character exactly how many died in the fire with the experience from the previous session. (60 of the 80) The NPC predicted the force coming from the port was to split and join two different forces. I asked to roll insight to basically apply my out of character knowledge of how badly we hurt their force. The others rolled well enough to do so, but I was convinced otherwise. \$\endgroup\$
    – Clarus_Nox
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 15:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Clarus_Nox I would probably have used a history check if the dock burning wasn't witnessed since that's the best knowledge check for battle tactics (or just a generic intelligence check) if the blaze was witnesses I'd go with perception. If you could go back to the dock I'd go with investigation. Insight us more to interpret individual motivations \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 15:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ we saw it go up in flames as we retreated, combination of one character's spiderweb item and another's scorching ray. their entire ship was caught int he web. \$\endgroup\$
    – Clarus_Nox
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 15:51
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The "don't roll for the impossible" guideline can also apply to some situations where it's impossible to fail something simple. \$\endgroup\$
    – aschepler
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 22:22

Impact of 'skill criticals' to balance in general is impossible to assess, as the effects of criticals are situational. Significance of skill crits also heavily depends on how much skill rolling is done on the table in general, in what types of situations and using which type of skills..

One effect is that your characters – and enemies, NPCs – can always try impossible tasks, and fail at mundane tasks. This has the downside that if the DM gets nasty or, heavens forbid, bored, then skill crits can be used to force simple task rolls that will eventually fail. They can also be used by PCs to their advantage, but forcing rolls on enemies while making none yourself is definitely trickier.

Overall, I feel that if there's a general rule that all skill rolls can have criticals, then it's bound to lead to bias (or even abuse!) of some kind sooner or later. You might start avoiding rolls or asking for them, depending on the situation – Essentially you begin to game the system.

Which leads to how we handle skill crits on our table (3.5, mind you). We have some special rules related to skill rolls. Most rulings try to follow the "rule of cool" and strive for good taste. We also like bit of chaos, so applying skill criticals when suitable is definitely used.

One "rule" we use is the catastrophic failure while trying something relatively simple, e.g. rolling 1 while climbing a ladder or balancing on ice. Characters can seriously injure themselves in the process...if the place and timing is right. The effect is heavily moderated by the overall situation. Dealing 1d6 fall damage to a 1st level rogue while in middle of combat due to a critical failure is different from dishing the same damage to a 3rd level rogue trying to climb a ladder to meet their love interest...while simultaneously creating enough noise to alert the spouse and the guard dogs. Failure in this way is not used as a tool of annoyance by the DM but as a tool for entertainment. Characters usually end up with few points of damage and exit the situation with a spectacular failure.

One other general skill rule we tend to use involves rolling 1s again with -20 penalty and 20s with +20 bonus (e.g. base skill +6, roll 20, roll next with +26, roll of 1 = 27, roll of 20 = 46). This way disasters and heroic efforts are possible but unlikely. It can also lead to hilarity, when the unexpected success leads to e.g. too long or too high jump or when your dwarf sinks in water faster than the anchor.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .