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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 Can Bardic Inspiration make a roll a Critical Hit?, 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
  • \$\begingroup\$ Incredibly related: "Does the Temple of the Gods spell nullify critical hits?" \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Nov 22 '19 at 2:41
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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, 2016, 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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 at 1:13
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    \$\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 '19 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 '19 at 18:28
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No

The rules use a certain pattern when referring to modifiers and Cutting Words adheres to that pattern. It is therefore a modifier to a roll result and does not replace the result.

Almost without fail:

If a modifier is a fixed value, the rules use the words "modifier" and "penalty."

See Raise Dead, Resurrection, Slow, Alter Self, Haste, Magic Weapon, Pass Without Trace, Shield, Shield of Faith, Slow, Warding Bond, many Clerics' Channel Divinity abilities, among others.

If the modifier is a variable value resulting from a die roll, the rules use the wording "roll a [die] and [add/subtract] the result" from the d20 roll.

See Bane, Wild magic results 11-12 and 35-36, several Battlemaster Fighter's maneuvers, and others.

I didn't do an exhaustive search through the rules text but I was only able to come up with one instance where the rules break this pattern: Wild Magic Sorcerer's Bend Luck:

roll 1d4 and apply the number rolled as a bonus or penalty (your choice) to the creature's roll.

User Medix also located the Unearthed Arcana Brute Fighter's Brutish Durability:

Whenever you make a saving throw, roll 1d6 and add the die to your saving throw total. If applying this bonus to a death saving throw increases the total to 20 or higher, you gain the benefits of rolling a 20 on the d20.

This ability is worded very similarly to Cutting Words (roll ... add to roll/throw) except that it explicitly addresses the interaction with rolling an adjusted 20 or higher. Keeping in mind the general adage that "Spells (and abilities) do only what they say they do," this suggests that Cutting Words' lack of a similar addendum further supports the interpretation that it may not cancel a critical roll.

So with the one exception of the Wild Magic Sorcerer, the book seems to refer to modifiers in a consistent pattern. This combines with the general rules for making an attack or check which states that, when determining modifiers, the following are considered:

In addition, spells, special abilities, and other effects can apply penalties or bonuses to your attack roll.

If we subscribe to the interpretation that the word "modifier" must appear in the rules text in order for a change to a d20 roll to qualify as a modifier and that otherwise it counts as the natural roll result itself, then we must extend this logic to a number of other abilities/spells that use the same wording for variable affects to a die roll.

I do not believe that is the correct interpretation. Instead, things that change (ie modify) the roll result are modifiers unless the rule explicitly says they function in some other way. Examples of this include dis/advantage, the Lucky feat (or Halfling racial), Wizard's Portent, all of which state that the player chooses which roll result to use and/or replaces (keyword) another result.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't award the bounty to you, bu it was super close! Really great job putting together a good logical argument! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 26 '19 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Brute Fighter has the following ability: "Whenever you make a saving throw, roll 1d6 and add the die to your saving throw total. If applying this bonus to a death saving throw increases the total to 20 or higher, you gain the benefits of rolling a 20 on the d20" this seems to point towards Cutting Words not having any sort of critical hit effect, as this feature explicitly calls out such a thing. This may improve your answer \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Dec 13 '19 at 21:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @naut I still got almost the bounty value in natural upvotes and I learned a little about the consistency of the wording in the rules into the margin. Always a plus! \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Dec 13 '19 at 23:28
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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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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems like a meaningful distinction, though it isn't entirely appropriate to the question which specifically is asking about a natural 20. Regardless, I don't think this answer deserves down votes. \$\endgroup\$ – zeel Oct 23 '19 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel you should support that Improved Critical does not automatically hit which is the claim in the current answer here: "Does a critical hit from an expanded crit range always hit regardless of AC?" \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Nov 25 '19 at 23:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Wanted to include that Critical hit does not equal Automatic hit, even if they are often paired." Except that is literally how "critical hit" is defined in the PHB. This answer is incorrect. \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Jun 2 at 16:48
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Cutting Words modifies the d20 roll, and modifiers don't cancel critical hits

The steps for making an attack are described as follows (emphasis added):

Whether you're striking with a melee weapon, firing a weapon at range, or making an attack roll as part of a spell, an attack has a simple structure.

  1. Choose a target. Pick a target within your attack's range: a creature, an object, or a location.

  2. Determine modifiers. The DM determines whether the target has cover and whether you have advantage or disadvantage against the target. In addition, spells, special abilities, and other effects can apply penalties or bonuses to your attack roll.

  3. Resolve the attack. You make the attack roll. On a hit, you roll damage, unless the particular attack has rules that specify otherwise. Some attacks cause special effects in addition to or instead of damage.

As quoted in the question, the relevant phrase from Cutting Words says "subtracting the number rolled from the creature's roll". This describes a special ability that applies a penalty to the attack roll, which is covered above in the bold-face text in step 2. Notably, this is a separate step from the actual d20 roll, which happens in step 3.*

You might argue that Cutting Words isn't covered in step 2 because it doesn't use the specific words "penalty" or "modifier". However, as far as I know, the rules never explicitly define these as game terms. A modifier is only ever described as a (possibly negative) number that is added to another number (which is usually, but not always a die roll), for example in the section of the introduction of the Basic Rules that describes how d20 rolls generally work (only the relevant excerpt is quoted):

1. Roll the die and add a modifier.

Roll a d20 and add the relevant modifier. This is typically the modifier derived from one of the six ability scores, and it sometimes includes a proficiency bonus to reflect a character’s particular skill. [...]

2. Apply circumstantial bonuses and penalties.

A class feature, a spell, a particular circumstance, or some other effect might give a bonus or penalty to the check.

Hence, I don't believe the rules make any meaningful distinction between something that is specifically described as a penalty and a number that is merely described as being subtracted from something without actually using the word "penalty" (likewise for a bonus vs. a number you add, and for a modifier vs. a possibly zero or negative number that you add).

(Side note: you might even argue that the rules should be more clear about what it actually means to "apply" a bonus or penalty, which is the wording used in many cases with no further clarification.)

In any case, if we accept that the subtraction from a d20 roll described in Cutting Words is indeed a modifier, then the rules are clear: a modifier cannot prevent a critical hit from a natural 20 (shown in bold):

If the d20 roll for an attack is a 20, the attack hits regardless of any modifiers or the target's AC. This is called a critical hit, which is explained later in this section.

(Note: This answer is adapted from my answer to a similar question here.)


* Even though Cutting Words is typically used after the attack roll in step 3, it is still logically part of step 2.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Obviously, if anyone can find somewhere in the rules where any of the words bonus, penalty, or modifier are precisely defined, I will edit my answer accordingly. I haven't been able to find any such text. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Nov 23 '19 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've awarded the bounty to your answer as it links the entire process from making an attack through 'modifiers' and covers the language used/not used to close the loop. Well done! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 26 '19 at 15:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ The Brute Fighter has the following ability: "Whenever you make a saving throw, roll 1d6 and add the die to your saving throw total. If applying this bonus to a death saving throw increases the total to 20 or higher, you gain the benefits of rolling a 20 on the d20" this seems to point towards Cutting Words not having any sort of critical hit effect, as this feature explicitly calls out such a thing. This may improve your answer \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Dec 13 '19 at 21:08
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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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Cutting Words is not a bonus or modifier, it is subtraction from a roll

This is unique language. In 5e subtract is only ever used in the normal English sense, it is never used to refer to the game terms "bonus" or "modifier".

For example, when explaining passive disadvantage:

For disadvantage, subtract 5

When explaining ability modifiers:

To determine an ability modifier without consulting the table, subtract 10 from the ability score and then divide the result by 2 (round down).

When explaining movement with different speeds:

Whenever you switch, subtract the distance you've already moved from the new speed.

And the other notable example of "subtract" being used in a spell, Bane:

Whenever a target that fails this saving throw makes an attack roll or a saving throw before the spell ends, the target must roll a d4 and subtract the number rolled from the attack roll or saving throw.

Cutting Word's unusual mechanics can lead to some confusion, but yes it can subtract from critical rolls (making them no longer a critical) and cause situations that are abnormal.

If you start arguing that the designers are just sloppy or mistaken, then you are going to go down a deep rabbit hole of doubt.

However, at your table your DM is the final arbiter. If you want to tweak the rules to your liking, then you are free to do so. Just be sure to be open about the changes with your players so they can hold expectations about how the game works.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why do you think that a number you subtract is different from a penalty? As far as I know, bonus, penalty, and modifier are not specifically defined game terms in 5e. Bonus and penalty are used, respectively, for modifiers that are strictly positive or negative, and modifier is only ever used to mean a number that is added or subtracted from another number (usually but not always a die roll). \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Nov 23 '19 at 16:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson I'm not sure if my answer was deleted or if I missed your comment, but in short, as I said in the answer, subtraction is never used to refer to penalties and modifiers, it is only used in the normal English sense. For example when talking about passive perception it says you "subtract 5 for disadvantage", now I think it would be crazy to say that this -5 is a "penalty", don't you? \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Nov 24 '19 at 1:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Nov 24 '19 at 12:45

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