Critical fumbles are a much maligned beast. They seem to have been introduced into the Role-playing world officially through Chaosiums Runequest although they may have colloquially appeared earlier in house rule documents for D&D.
They can feel a little absurd and unfair, a well trained warrior arbitrarily gutting themselves from a bad dice roll just adds salt to the wound and isn’t really what happens in combat that often. Missing sucks and having that miss mean an even worse effect occurs sucks even more for a player. So why bother with fumbles?
The point of a fumble isn’t to simulate actual combat, nor is it intended to make a player feel heroic. It’s a game mechanic that is intended to add an element of randomised chaos to a combat system that simulates the chaotic nature of combat. A fumble means that nobody is ever truly ‘safe’ within a fight which means players really do have to weigh up if a fight is worth engaging in, even one that seems like it could be quite trivial, as there’s always a small chance it could go really badly. This is in the classic spirit of OSR D&D where combats are a last resort and rightly so as they’re a dangerous thing.
Conversely this means a small chance exists that players can take on threats far above their own power level as the monsters can fumble too. Combined with a good critical hit table that can result in instant death this means that nothing is ever set in stone certain an engagement happens. This is a good thing and can result in interesting emergent and wonderful David and Goliath moments which can’t occur when you don’t make use of fumble and crit tables.
Such situations force players to adapt and learn to cope with adverse situations which is rewarding and creates some genuinely tense and exciting situations. Your weapon has just been flung across the room so how will you deal with that Hobgoblin now? You’ve just struck your ally in the head, they’re bleeding out and the Ogre has locked eyes on you.
There’s a further schadenfreude like pleasure for everyone at the table when an attack goes catastrophically bad and fumbles , they add to the spectacle and memorable nature of combat. When the bards spell fumbles and a shower of fireworks begins to play from her lute are the players not entertained?
They serve as an anti-thesis to the power gamer too. A player who is relying on a powerful character builds created within the safe confines of the character optimisation forums can’t be entirely certain that build will work when the chaos of combat begins to happen as they can’t factor in the fumble.
I’m a huge fan of fumbles as both a player and a GM as a result. They do need to be run fairly, they should affect everything in the fight and I like to roll all dice in the open to make a point of this.
When you do run them the chaos is beautiful. When I run a game I want to be surprised as much as the players and fumbles are a great method to create that sort of surprise.
An Orc accidentally swinging and decapitating herself, a mage stunning himself with his own spell, an ice arrow meant for that dragon hitting an ally instead. A fumble means shit just got real. Tactics must change, players must react, adapt, things aren’t playing out in the expected certainty. Any combat could turn sour and kill the players but victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat as well.
So why not give fumbles a go in your next game and see what chaos can ensue?
Some common objections answered
Fumbles can punish characters who make multiple attacks in a round. I tend to only resolve the fumble for the players first attack in a round but not any subsequent multi-attacks. This means a player isn’t punished unduly for being able to attack multiple times.
Fumbles can also punish martials over casters. I run fumbles for casters who make spell attacks, which just leaves spells with save effects. Generally most spells that use save effects are one shot effects which don’t come up too often and are meant to be powerful so I feel fumbles not being included in their spectrum seems fine.
It wouldn’t be a fumble article without a chart so here’sa some fumble charts to use at your peril. Why does it only have 12 options? Because rolling a D12 is cool and we should get do it more often than rolling a barbarians hit die.
|1||Well that’s not so bad||No effect.|
|2||Woops||You fall prone.|
|3||Woops, ouch||You fall prone and take d4 damage.|
|4||Catch!||Your held weapon flies 10 feet in a random direction.|
|5||Not the bees||The terror of battle suddenly fills you , you are unable to act for one round.|
|6||Oh balls||Your weapon is lodged into the ground. It will take a round to pry free.|
|7||You what mate?||One enemy in melee range of you can make a free attack against you.|
|8||Come at me bro||You leave yourself open, the next attack that targets you has +2 to hit.|
|9||This doesn’t normally happen||Your weapon shatters and is broken. If your weapon is magical it loses its magic for 10 minutes.|
|10||Poor taste in friends||Your attack is sloppy and strikes your closest ally, make a second attack roll against them if it hits deal damage as normal. If no ally is in range this has no effect.|
|11||Reversal of fortune||Your attack ricochets back and you hit yourself for normal damage.|
|12||Disastrous reversal of fortune||Your attack ricochets back and you hit yourself for critical damage.|
Critical Spell table
|2||So pretty||The spell turns into a harmless but incredibly loud and bright series of fireworks.|
|3||Blue Da ba dee da ba daa||Your skin turns blue. You can only breath in water. This effect lasts until dispel magic or greater restoration is cast upon you.|
|4||What’s your name?||Your spell manifests into a sentient simulacrum. It’s HD and attack bonus, is equal to its spell level, it can cast the spell it is at will. . It is violently hostile to its former master.|
|5||I didn’t sign up for this.||The spell enters into your body and your body begins to inflate like a balloon. You increase by one factor of size, are slowed and attacks have advantage against you. This effect wears off in 10 minutes.|
|6||Boom||Your spell focus explodes in your hand, its broken and you take d6 fire damage.|
|7||Fizzle||You lose one random spell slot for the day.|
|8||Oh god my eyes||Magic sears your vision. Take D6 damage and suffer from blindness for the next 10 minutes.|
|9||Rainbows are magic||You begin to vomit rainbow coloured sick, you are stunned for one round. The rainbow acts as a 1 HD ooze that can cast Dazzle and Summon Monster(Pony), It will attack the closest target and stun on a successful hit.|
|10||Why did we bring a wizard?||Your spell hits your closest ally, roll an attack against them.|
|11||Roh – Roh||Randomly determine one of your prepared spells for the day, you cast it with yourself as the target or point.|
|12||THE WARP IT BURNS||Your spell strikes you for critical damage.|
Weird Fumbles – Not to be used lightly. Extreme caution. Attain consent before using this table.
|1.||Everythings going to be okay.||No effect but the character feels a sick sense of anxiety like something bad is going to happen in D4 rounds.|
|2.||Everythings not okay.||Something bad does happen in 1d4 rounds. All bad things last 10 minutes of real time and instantly reverse afterwards as though nothing had happened
What’s the bad thing?
1 – The character is infact a zombie and falls down dead only to rise again and attack.
2 – The characters head falls off
3 – The character explodes in a shower of gore
4 – The characters arms fall off
5 – The character shrinks to the size of a fly
6 – When attempting to reload any ranged weapon the character fatally shoots themselves with the shot.
|3.||Nope, nope, nope||Spiders begin to crawl out of your mouth,your eyes, your nostrils. They manifest as a number of hostile swarms equal to d4 + the number of orifices on your characters body. Open wounds count as an orifice.. Any player who applies insect repellant to themselves will not be attacked.|
|4.||The GM is a filthy fudger||Irrespective of what the character rolls for the rest of the game the result is always a 1 for game purposes. Do not tell them this. This effect stops only when the player directly calls the GM out.|
|5.||Why is it always tentacles?||All the players limbs are replaced with grasping tentacles. Their eyeballs also sprout tiny little furry tentacles. This blinds them but gives them 20 feet of truesight vision. This effect ends only when the player eats calamari.|
|6.||You will roleplay damnit.||The player must narrate all of their actions in the first person as their character. Every time they do not or speak OOC they take d4 damage. This effect ends when the player takes 1 improv lesson.|
|7.||Is man a Walrus at heart?||The player must wear a walrus mask, two chopstick held in the mouth can suffice, and they can only communicate as a walrus would. This effect ends when the player eats sushi.|
|8.||Its the future||The rest of the session must be live streamed. If it is not the mob is displeased and will require a sacrifice. One player is chosen at random and their character dies. This includes the DM who loses a character in another game or if they are a forever DM must have another player run the rest of the session.|
|9.||SHNACKS||The player has a sudden craving for processed carbs and unhealthy treats. They must buy at least 1 snack food item and then return. Until they return their character is stunned.|
|10.||Can’t we just play regular D&D?||The party are teleported to any randomly determined TSR module up until 1985, and must play it to completion before they can return .|
|11.||God is dead||All player clerics, paladins and other holy casters in the game lose all ability to cast spells. Any character with any motivation based on religion loses this motivation and must abandon whatever they are doing to carouse. This effect lasts until the player attends any religious service.|
|12.||Thoughts of a dying atheist||The sudden awareness of the futility and fragile nature of life fills you with dread. You realise you’re wasting your short thread of time on earth pretending to be a wizard in someone’s basement. You must leave the game and complete one meaningful goal in your life before you can return.|
|13.||This GM sucks.||The player is now able to target the GM with spells and attacks. The GM has HD equal to their age divided by 5 and is armoured and armed with whatever they are wearing and carrying at the table. The GM’s stats are as close as possible to their real world equivalents. The GM can still use anything within the game and their abilities to defend themselves but must be true to the fiction and rules and cannot fudge dice. If the GM dies the universe collapses in on itself and the game ends forever.|