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I've been playing in a new D&D 3.5 game for a few weeks, and it's going pretty well, with one major exception. The DM is a huge fan of critical hits and critical fumbles, and he has found the fumble table from hell. Whenever someone rolls a natural 1 on their attack roll, they fumble. Fumble results have included the following:

  • The character trips and is also flat-footed.
  • The character's weapon cannot deal lethal damage for 1d6 rounds.
  • The character is dazed for 1d6 rounds. (I asked, it's not supposed to be dazzled.)
  • The character hits themself, and it is an automatic critical threat.
  • The character hits an adjacent ally, and it is an automatic critical threat.

This culminated in an encounter against a handful of weak undead resulting in a near-party wipe. At any given time, one of our two tanks was dazed. The rogue knocked herself unconscious with her sling, which used up our daily healing. I spent the next combat fighting with a dagger because my greatsword dealt only nonlethal damage (fighting exclusively undead and constructs) and at some point, one of my fumbles flat-out killed the rogue.

The DM claims that the critical hit table is awesome enough to balance it out, but this hasn't come up because a crit against low-level enemies generally kills them. I was told that one result on my greatsword's crit table would be severing the opponent's hand and dealing d3 Str and Con damage. This was supposed to get me excited about the crit table, but all I can think of is how much it's going to suck finding a 13th-level cleric to regrow my sword hand when an enemy finally confirms a crit.

The rest of the party seems equally frustrated, but the DM really, really, really seems to like his crits and fumbles. I don't want this to ruin the campaign for any of us, so the best alternative would be finding him a less crazy set of crit and fumble tables. I wouldn't be too upset if a random crit or fumble gave me a small bonus or penalty, I just don't want to have a 5% chance of killing a random party member every time I use Power Attack. Any suggestions on where to find/how to create a better fumble table?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please do not have extended discussion nor answer in comments, take that to Role-playing Games Chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 29 '15 at 23:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ OK. Answerers, please answer the question posed - "Any suggestions on where to find/how to create a better fumble table?" - instead of generically raging against fumbles then please. If you want to challenge the frame of the question go read meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3318/… first. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 30 '15 at 4:49
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My group uses the GameMastery Critical Fumble deck. We don't use it on every natural 1, but we use it on 1's when there's something else going on (in an area that's Unhallowed, for example, or in a cursed place or wild magic place or plane of the Abyss) to add to the atmosphere of threat besides a random roll penalty. It is also available as iFumble as an iPhone app. There are Melee, Ranged, Natural, and Magic options (so 1's on spellcasting rolls can have magical side effects as well).

Randomly drawn examples:

  • Melee: "I Told You It Was Sharp" - You take 1d6 points of bleed
  • Ranged: "Klutz" - You drop your weapon
  • Natural: "Got Too Close" - Your attack hit the target, but the target may start a grapple against you for free
  • Magic: "Mind Drain" - You take 1d4 points of ability damage to Int, Wis, or Cha (rolled randomly).

There's 52 cards with all 4 types on each so it doesn't repeat too often. The conditions are unfortunate but not instant death or decapitation type stuff, usually inflicting short term conditions (flat-footed, confused, dazed, etc.). Usually for 1 or a small die of rounds. Pulling some cards... -2 to AC for 1d4 rounds, sickened for 1d6 rounds, confused for 1 round... So this might be a better fumble-selection method than the current table. I do recommend trying to get him to lighten up on fumbles all the time, try to sell him on the idea of "it should happen when, you know, we're in an evil shrine or plane or someone's put a curse on the group or something, that would make it cooler."

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Honestly the best option here is to talk to your DM. Since it sounds like the rest of your party agrees with you on the matter of the fumble tables, it might help if you had at least one other player to back you up, although probably no more than that to avoid making the DM feel overwhelmed and defensive. Explain that you as players don't find the fumble table fun. (1) Explain that the game is supposed to be fun for everyone, not just the DM, and that while you understand that he loves his fumble table, it's making the game unpleasant for you to play. Then ask what he would like to do to help the group to solve the problem.

That last bit is important: you don't want to sound like you the players are declaring he's not allowed to use his beloved table at all period, but you also don't want to leave room for him to continue as things are. You can suggest using alternate fumble tables (such as this, which while written for 4e can easily be adapted to 3.5; or one you and the other players come up with), or rules meant to mitigate the effects of a bad fumble on the existing table (such as a nat 1 is only a fumble threat, and you have to roll a second nat 1 before it's confirmed and the table is invoked; or changing the fumble ranges so that you only have a 1/100 chance of attacking an ally or killing yourself). Listen to what he suggests, as well, and be willing to try it if it sounds workable.

Note that if he does just say "I'm going to use this table whether you like it or not," then it's probably time to find a new DM, unfortunately. You won't enjoy playing in that game, and there's no point in playing a game you don't enjoy.

If you really only want to replace his fumble table and he's willing to agree to that, then I'd strongly recommend that your entire group work together to create a fumble table that's fun for all of you. There's plenty of premade fumble tables available with a quick Google search that you can use for inspiration, though many of them seem in the vein of your DM's existing table. However, it sounds like the problem you're experiencing is less due to the specific table you're using than the difference in expectations between the DM and the players. Creating your own fumble table as a group will help clarify these expectations and let you either create a table that your entire group finds fun, or determine that you and your DM have fundamentally incompatible playstyles.

(1) If you want help verbalizing why this is frustrating, take a look at this Giant in the Playgrounds forum thread which discusses the issue. In particular, post #7 by Gavinfoxx really sums up the reasons why fumble tables disproportionately hurt PCs and encourage boring, mediocre characters.

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I strongly recommend that you urge your DM to ditch fumble and critical tables altogether. It sounds like this will be difficult to do, but you’ll find the game much improved – and, I think, so will he. This is because...

Critical and fumble tables have myriad problems

The Dungeon Master’s Guide even strongly recommends against them, for good reasons – and there are yet more reasons to be found beyond what the DMG offers. In many ways, they are similar to the deck of many things spread out over a longer period of time. They destabilize the game and, sooner or later, are likely to contribute significantly to its end – and rarely in a positive way.

Some of the problems:

  • Increased swinginess – because the average PC sees far more rolls than the average NPC, they are far more likely to suffer disaster from a critical (against them) or fumble (of their own) than the average NPC. This despite the fact that the average PC is far more important to the story and game than the average NPC.

  • Individual rolls are more important – because warriors in 3.5 roll more dice (iterative attacks, rather than a single saving throw), they are far more likely to fumble than spellcasters, even though spellcasters were already much more powerful. Worse, being a high-level warrior makes you more likely to fumble, not less.

  • Context ignorant – criticals and fumbles are, obviously, random. That means they increase the chance of random death – a disappointing, anticlimactic situation that disrupts the flow of the game. This is what’s known as “boring failure.” Even when people don’t die, a fumble just stops them from doing what they were doing – still boring failure, though less dire.

  • Limited benefit – the results of a critical or fumble rarely add much to the game, because they don’t tie in to the plot, the characters, or the tactics that are in play. They just randomly happen. As such, they are extremely limited in their ability to produce truly interesting results.

All of these things yield a rather uninteresting and problematic situation. The default critical and fumble rules are not exactly fascinating, but they at least are fairly limited in how much “space” they take – they’re kind of boring, but they’re quick and easy boring. The small interest they provide is equitable with the small cost they require, in terms of risks, time, and effort. Critical and fumble tables are not.

Don’t believe me? I’ve written a huge amount on why these things are problematic; that material may be useful in convincing others.

A solution – disregard tables, acquire Fate Points

The solution to these problems is to eliminate critical and fumble tables altogether. They don’t accomplish their supposed goal – inject a little more opportunity for interesting things to happen – and in fact reduce opportunities for interesting things to happen. The auto-miss/auto-success rules are fairly important for mathematical reasons – they put diminishing returns on attack bonuses and AC, saving throws and DCs. That’s good enough for random roll-effects.

That doesn’t mean that the thing people usually want critical and fumble tables for is bad; it’s not. It’s just that critical and fumble tables are a bad way to accomplish it. Here’s a thought on a replacement: shamelessly steal from Fate, which is all about allowing “interesting failure.” Fate has a system that revolves around aspects that are invoked or compelled – it can be integrated into 3.5 (I’ve played such a mish-mash; weird, but it was fun), but I’m aiming for something simpler and more tied into the notion of criticals and fumbles.

Imagine if, when you roll a nat-1, the DM could offer you something in return for a fumble. Specifically, “roll on the fumble table, and I’ll give you a Fate Point,” (hey, if we’re shamelessly stealing, might as well be honest about it). Or, when someone rolls a nat-20 against you, “you can get a Fate Point if you let him roll on the critical table.” Now when you roll a nat-20, or someone rolls a nat-1 against you, you can spend a Fate Point to roll on the critical table yourself, or have them roll on the fumble table. This allows you a modicum of control over where the criticals and fumbles happen – and gives the DM reason to avoid having you critical or fumble too often, since sitting on a pile of Fate Points potentially makes you rather dangerous.

That eliminates a lot of the mathematical problems with criticals and fumbles. But, they’re still kind of boring; they’re still some random thing off a table. To improve on this, again, the solution is to ditch the tables. Instead of “roll on the table,” your DM can just suggest a fumble or critical that’s thematically appropriate. He could pick it from the table if he needs ideas, but even better if he comes up with something himself. And then you can suggest a critical or a fumble when you spend your own Fate Point. For this version, I recommend that your DM can choose to give you another Fate Point instead of accepting your Fate Point; that way you cannot suggest some ridiculous critical or fumble (or he’ll just hand you a Fate Point and tell you to just roll normally), forcing you to find a reasonable critical or fumble.

Because you are choosing these fumbles or criticals at the time they happen, you are freed to make truly interesting suggestions, that take into account the current situation, the characters involved, the plot, and so on. This eliminates the arbitrary nature of criticals and fumbles, and allows you to potentially tie these things tightly into the story itself.

To really make it like Fate, you could add one more layer: Refresh. Basically, you start every play session with some minimum number of Fate Points (or however many you had last time, if you had more). Then, in order to not fumble or be crit, you have to pay a Fate Point. So sooner or later, you have to let those happen – but then you get a Fate Point to avoid the next one. By the same token, the DM can choose not to have NPCs fumble or take a special crit, but he has to use Fate Points from a shared pool for NPCs to do it, and you get that Fate Point. At this point, this is pretty similar to how we played our 3.5+Fate mash-up game (we also used Fate for skills), and... it worked pretty well.

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If your DM is allowing you to fumble on a natural roll of 1 but still forcing you to confirm critical threats, then he is doing it wrong. Typically, if critical hits require two rolls (one to threaten, and another to confirm) then so do critical misses or fumbles. In fact, the 3.5 DMG itself suggests a DC10 Dexterity check to confirm a fumble triggered by a natural 1. For the specific excerpt from the book, see this answer to a different but somewhat related question.

This will allow your DM to use his coveted fumble table, and hopefully prevent the group from burning him at the stake out of frustration.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That would be an improvement, but it would only decrease the frequency of fumbles by half or two-thirds for most characters. The problem is the severity of the fumbles, which can easily result in a character dying or missing the rest of the encounter. One-third as many random crits on your own teammates is still too many. \$\endgroup\$ – Thom Smith Jan 29 '15 at 21:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomSmith Considering you already only have a 5% chance to roll a natural 1, cutting that further in half should be sufficient to make a big difference. \$\endgroup\$ – Dyndrilliac Jan 30 '15 at 3:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomSmith Don't forget that players have bonuses to their dexterity while NPCs are usually less able. That should help balance the fumbles in favor of the players. \$\endgroup\$ – Chase Sandmann Jan 30 '15 at 21:20
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While intended for Pathfinder, the Laying Waste critical generator and the (non-free) app version are fully d20 OGL compatible, meaning they work perfectly in 3.5. The point of Laying Waste is to make skill matter and prevent completely randomness from being the sole deciding factor in a character's fate. All the base rules changes are available on the Help link on the above page, but I'll reproduce the very basics here:

  • Instead of confirmation rolls, critical threats are automatically confirmed for maximum base damage, and a new severity check is introduced to determine if there are more effects on a critical.
  • The DC of a severity check is determined mostly by the accuracy of the attacker, making skill matter more than ever before for critical hits. Other determining factors include feats (bonuses to confirm add to severity, AC bonuses vs. confirmation subtract from severity) and the weapon's critical multiplier.
  • No severe effect can ever happen without a failed save. However, saving against effects always causes bonus damage, based on the weapon's multiplier, which might cause someone to choose to fail the save rather than attempt to avoid the effect, depending on what it is.
  • Critical fumbles can also be avoided by saves, meaning more experienced and powerful characters fumble less often. Fumbles are designed to pose a challenge, not change the entire course of a combat.

Taken together, the Laying Waste system causes only critical hits from the most skilled and deadly opponents to be utterly devastating (instead of any random farmer with a scythe and a nat 20!), while allowing for critical-focused builds to remain viable and interesting and preventing a few unlucky rolls from crippling a party.

Note that the Laying Waste is also available in a PDF+Softcover bundle from Paizo. Having purchased the PDF, I can assure your DM that if he really wants to roll on the table rather than using the generator, it's in there. The generator and app just abstract the dice rolls, but the tables are all there in the book - twelve different tables - three each of varying severity for the three weapon damage types, and three different kinds of fumble - melee, ranged, and natural.

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Unfortunately -- 3.5e's multiple-hit system interacts quite negatively with the notion of critical fumbles, creating a paradox where higher level characters have a higher P(fumble) than lower level characters due to the increased number of opportunities for a fumble.

There are three ways out of this situation I see.

The Gamist approach -- ditching fumbles, or at least reducing their probability

Critical fumbles (and to a much lesser extent, critical hits) don't fit well with the game design of 3.5e's combat system -- as already explained, they make the game more swingy, and introduce a form of the goblin dice problem into a place where it otherwise isn't present. This would be a persuasive argument to me as a DM to simply ditch the notion of 'critical fumble' altogether; I'm not sure how your fellow players feel, though.

At the very least, 1 in 20 is at the upper limit of human failure probabilities for skill-driven tasks as-is (there's some interesting NRC research on this topic if you wish to look into it more), so cutting that probability down to a 1 in 50 or so by confirming crit fumbles with a Dex check would be wise, as well as limiting critical fumbles to once per turn (instead of being able to critical fumble multiple to-hit dice in the same turn).

The Narrativist approach -- fail in interesting ways

This plays into KRyan's suggestion of using a FATE-point inspired scheme to allow critical fumbles to be turned into a sort of RP currency (in 5e, you could do this by mildly abusing Inspiration, even). So, the next time you roll a crit failure, come up with some way to fail that is interesting/challenging, but not necessarily lethal, and see if you can get the GM to buy into that in exchange for being able to come up with a cool critical hit of your own later on.

The Simulationist approach -- constrain critical fumbling

Critical fumbles (especially random critical fumbles) are in some ways a Simulationist element of D&D -- guns jam or misfire, bowstrings break, weapon swings bounce off rocks and ding the edge. However, many of the penalties you have mentioned are quite harsh, even from the Simulationist viewpoint -- a jammed gun or a broken bowstring is a time cost (say 1 round of downtime to fix it), while melee or natural weapon damage can be modeled as a -1 penalty per N critical fumbles. I have worked with this house rule for quite a while in 0e/OD&D, and it is a reasonable balance in my eyes between harshness, practicality, and RP opportunity -- you'll want to limit fumble opportunities to once-per-turn though if you use this. Status effects should also be limited to 1 round for balance purposes -- the idea of a 13th level character having a likely fatal or mortal failure (such as being combat-weakened severely for six turns) every 120 attacks makes no sense.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for recognizing different types of game interact with fumbles differently instead of labeling them as "objectively bad because of math." \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 1 '15 at 1:25
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We solved this problem by ditching the critical fumble table entirely. And the critical hit table too. The reason is that these don't add to the game. They seem to, but they really don't. If, because of the Critical Hit table, you chop through encounters 10% faster, then the GM will add 10% more monsters to regain the tension. Similarly, if the Critical Fumble table means players are 10% less effective, then the encounters will necessary be 10% less challenging to make up for it. In short, it's a wash! The encounters have to be tuned to match the party's strength regardless of the critical hit/fumble tables.

So, if it's a wash, why not use the tables? This is all well and good until the players (or monsters) get a string of (un)lucky rolls. Now your main encounter was a cakewalk, or some yard trash kills your cleric. Your game is spoiled. Of course, the GM can "do stuff" to mitigate, but if the players KNOW they have a critical hit and it is discounted, then the GM has broken "the 4th wall" and the players know their actions are actually unimportant.

In our games, losing a PC was dreadful because it stopped the game. Do not encourage mechanics that stop the game unless they really add something. A lot of these decisions are dependent on whether you're telling a story or playing a combat simulator style of game.

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The two fumble tables suggested by the answers are certainly better than my DM's table, but they were still a bit more severe than I had envisioned. I searched for a while and found a lot of fumble tables on the internet, but they all seemed to be rather punitive. in the end, I came up with my own.

When you roll a natural 1 on your attack roll, you may fumble. Roll 2d6 and find the appropriate effect on the following table:

2   Overwhelmed   -- You are dazed for one round.   
3   Weapon Caught -- Choose: drop your weapon or provoke an attack of opportunity.
4   Wrong End     -- You hit yourself for 1d4 nonlethal damage.
5   Loose Grip    -- One opponent may attempt to disarm you as an attack of opportunity. That opponent does not provoke.
6   Lost Momentum -- You suffer a -2 penalty to attack rolls for 1 round.
7   (free space)
8   Reckless      -- You suffer a -2 penalty to AC for 1 round.
9   Overcommitted -- One opponent may attempt to trip you as an attack of opportunity. That opponent does not provoke.
10  Off-Balance   -- You are flat-footed until the start of your next turn.
11  Stumble       -- Choose: fall prone or move 5 feet in a random direction without provoking an attack of opportunity.
12  Fool's Luck   -- You hit a random enemy other than the one you targeted.

I tried to keep the results from overwhelming combat — truly severe fumbles are rare. There are no effects that will take a character out of combat except for the rare Overwhelmed, and other lose-an-action effects such as tripping or dropping your weapon either require an enemy to beat you in a roll or can be avoided altogether. In short, no one should win or lose an encounter because of this table.

I still wouldn't use a fumble table in a game that I ran, but I think that this one would reduce the severity of fumbles to "one of my less-favorite house rules" from "oh god this is ruining combat".

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