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The Lore bard's Cutting Words feature says (PHB, p. 54; emphasis mine):

When a creature that you can see within 60 feet of you makes an attack roll, [...] you can use your reaction to expend one of your uses of Bardic Inspiration, rolling a Bardic Inspiration die and subtracting the number rolled from the creature's roll. You can choose to use this feature after the creature makes its roll [...]

If a creature hits with a natural 20, can a Lore bard use his Cutting Words ability to subtract an inspiration die from the result, thus preventing a critical hit?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Though, @DaFluid brings an interesting question in the comment below about the corollary of that logic: can Bardic Inspiration turn a regular roll into a critical hit? As you can see in his (clever) post (rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/72065/…), answers based on Jeremy Crawford’s interpretation open the door to unforeseen implications (not to say shenanigans). That’s why I’m now wondering if Mr. Crawford really thought his answer through in his tweet… \$\endgroup\$ – Meta4ic Dec 11 '15 at 14:42
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Apparently, you cannot. At least not any more.

Jeremy Crawford, the official rules sage of Wizards of the Coast, was asked in December 2015:

@JeremyECrawford Can I cancel a "Natural 20 Critical Hit" using Cutting Words? 9:26 PM - 2 Dec 2015

He responded at that time:

@LeonardoNocchi Yes, you can. 6:48 PM - 3 Dec 2015

My reasoning at that time for his response: The actual mechanic of cutting words must be to actually reduce the die roll, before modifiers are applied, which is consistent with the wording.

However, on February 3, Jeremy Crawford reversed his previous ruling.

Cutting Words can't nullify a critical hit—no bonus or penalty can (PH, 194). [Overrides a deleted 12/3 tweet]

If you want to play by the rules as strictly as possible, canceling a crit should never be possible. If you do want to implement crit canceling in your game as a house rule, Crawford's initial, overridden ruling shows that it's not crazy to do so. As with most rulings, consistency is usually preferable to conformity.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Did Crawford cite any rules or experience supporting either of his opinions? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Aug 4 at 22:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Since Crawford's tweets are no longer considered official rulings, you may want to note that these tweets are unofficial guidance. You should also support your answer by pointing out what the rules say (e.g. whether Crawford's ruling is supported by the rules, or if it's left ambiguous there). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 4 at 23:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Re: "canceling a crit should never be possible". You may now wish to address the Grave Domain Clerics from Xanathar's which can cancel critical hits. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Aug 5 at 0:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil: The same goes for adamantine armor, but I assume Derek means you can never cancel a crit simply by adding a modifier (positive or negative) to the die roll. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 5 at 1:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ But by RAW, it is possible since (as stated in the text of the rules cited in the question) - the die roll itself is modified (just as Lucky feat and Divination wizards modify die rolls). That RAW is reflected in the original tweet, and oddly changed in the later tweet. (Can you source the "never" as being from an errata issued to the books that makes that clearly supported?) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 5 at 18:27
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No

PHB pg. 194 states, under "Rolling 1 or 20":

If the d20 roll for an attack is a 20, the attack hits regardless of any modifiers or the target's AC.

There is some confusion to whether "Cutting Words" is a modifier. Even though the wording is slightly different from other modifying features like "Bardic Inspiration", you are still clearly modifying the creature's attack roll by "subtracting" the number. That makes it a modifier... end of story.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I decided to add this answer as the previous answers do not clearly answer the question. PHB pg. 194 Combat Rules on "Rolling a 1 or 20" clearly answers this question without having to wonder what Jeremy Crawford or anyone else says or debates the question. \$\endgroup\$ – user33129 Jan 3 '17 at 17:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ The roll is modified, not the target's AC. This answer doesn't not go into sufficient detail to support its conclusion (see the effort @DerekStucki put into his answer) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 5 at 18:28
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When a creature that you can see within 60 feet of you makes an attack roll [...] you can use your reaction to expend one of your uses of Bardic Inspiration, rolling a Bardic Inspiration and subtracting the number rolled from the creature's roll. You can choose to use this feature after the creature makes its roll [...] (PHB, p. 54)

This is an example of specific beats general. The general rule is on p. 7:

The d20

  1. Roll the die and add a modifier.

  2. Apply circumstantial bonuses and penalties.

  3. Compare the total to a target number.

Bardic inspiration specifically refers to this as changing the creature's roll; not as a modifier or circumstantial penalty.

The creature's roll is therefore not a 20 and all things that would follow from it being a 20 (automatic hit, critical etc.) don't.

If it helps, for both Cutting Words and Bardic Inspiration, think of the roll as the two dice together. Just like rolling 2d8 or 3d6 is a single roll.

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Yes you can, just not those attached to an Automatic hit

You can cancel a critical hit with Cutting Words (response to the title), just not a critical hit from a Natural 20 (response to the body).

A Natural 20 is an Automatic hit PHB 194, making it impossible to stop by just changing the resulting value.

There are features/abilities that increase the critical hit range. Specifically the in PHB pg 72, a fighter of the champion archtype gains the Improved Critical feature, which allows a character to critically hit on a Natural 19 as long as the attack roll actually hits. This allows Cutting Words to be able to cancel a critical hit by canceling the hit entirely.

Though it is important to mention that D&D 5e has few ways to actually increase the critical range of an attack roll.


Note: Added I think this is an interesting distinction, even though this situation wouldn't happen at most, if any tables. Wanted to include that Critical hit does not equal Automatic hit, even if they are often paired.

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