Q: Opinions aside, I've only been playing for a few years and I want to know: have roleplaying games always been like this?
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(19771) 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 option2, 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 1977/78, 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 In TFT for example, there are effects for high and low rolls, but they are just degrees of success with the attempt and don't cause events. An attack can do double or triple damage, or the attacker can drop or break their weapon. (@Dronz)
2 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.