Sunday, September 15, 2013

The First Critical Hits


Nothing is more satisfying than rolling the dice and seeing not only that you hit, but that you hit exceptionally well. The adrenaline rush of critical hits proved so compelling that there is scarcely a game today, be it on a tabletop or a computer, where hits can be scored in which they don't have a chance to be critical hits, dealing additional damage. But the time-honored tradition of getting double damage on a natural 20 did not ship with the earliest version of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, D&D spent decades resisting this idea of critical hits. Even without TSR's endorsement, critical hits still became a part of gaming everywhere, largely due to the impetus of fans like Gary Switzer, who sent the critical hit rules above to APA-L in May 1975.



Now, the term "critical hit" does turn up in the first printing of D&D, but only as language grandfathered in for a very specialized form of combat. Mike Carr's First World War aerial combat wargame Fight in the Skies (1968) had long relied on critical hit tables, and the "Battle in the Skies" aerial combat rules in the Underworld & Wilderness Adventures pamphlet (where you fight on dragons or griffins, rather than biplanes) openly appropriate from Carr, down to borrowing his critical hits.


In both cases, a critical hit is always scored on a particular location on the target, and the chances of scoring a critical hit vary by location. The results of a critical hit in Fight in the Skies are much more varied than the four outcomes we see in this simple table in U&WA: they might cause drastic changes in elevation, inability to turn, or even smoke trails. But clearly the U&WA critical hit system, like its predecessor, does allow for combat to conclude from a single fortunate shot. These rules had no applicability to earthbound combat in Dungeons & Dragons, however.

As exemplified above in Switzer's rules from APA-L #522, the earliest fan-designed critical hit systems tried to adapt this hit location concept to ordinary fighting. They also often incorporated an idea of critical "trips" or "fumbles" for exceptionally poor performance in combat (in Switzer, a trip might result in a dropped weapon, giving an enemy a free strike). Similarly, the "Warlock" system derived from the Cal Tech D&D variant, as published in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 in August 1975, has separate tables for 2-12 critical "hit" and "fumble" outcomes, with a critical hit on the spine having a 20% chance of an instant fatality. And while Switzer has us roll a separate die to determine whether or not a critical hit or fumble occurred, "Warlock" builds the chance of a critical into the "to hit" roll itself: "Warlock" rolls percentile dice to hit rather than a d20, and one aims to roll below a target percentile, so in this chart we see the chances of a hit (CH) or fumble are scaled against the target percentage number (#) such that, if you must roll a 59 or below to hit, you will score a critical on a 3 or lower, but fumble if you roll 98 or above.


Growing enthusiasm for critical hit and hit location systems in 1975 required some response from TSR. They surely did nothing to discourage these when they provided a hit location system for gunshots in Boot Hill that included a "mortal wounds" category, but the first application to the D&D system came at the end of the year in Blackmoor. Although it shied away from the term "critical hit," Blackmoor nonetheless provides a detailed hit location system, effectively dividing a target's hit point pool into various parts of the body, based on the body type: a humanoid has 15% of their hit points in their head, say. Sufficient hit points of damage to any single part will incapacitate it, which in the case of the head, naturally results in death, even if the rest of the body is undamaged. However, the part of the body hit by a given blow is decided through an additional percentile roll (dependent on the size and orientation of combatants), so the chances of triumphing through bashing in the skull are remote. The hit location system in Blackmoor saw little uptake in the fan community.

The burdensome complexity of these hit location systems must have been a barrier to adoption. None of these systems involve rolling high on a d20 roll or any of the simple damage multipliers that we associate with later critical hit systems. Indeed, nothing in the original D&D rules awarded any special privilege to rolling a natural 20: on the early attack matrices, no roll higher than 17 is ever required to hit any foe. The idea of specially privileging a roll of 20 appeared very soon after D&D, however. It can be found in the summer of 1974, in the pre-publication draft of M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne, as an elegant and succinct statement that an attacker scores double damage when a twenty is rolled:


This mechanism is repeated in the fall 1975 TSR edition of Empire of the Petal Throne (pg.32), though it further clarifies, "This must be a 'natural 20': i.e. not including any hit bonuses." This is surely the earliest use of the term "natural 20." The TSR edition also adds an "instant death" provision that, on a further d20 roll, either a 19 or 20 will always instantly slay the target. While nowhere does the passage use the term "critical hit" or hit location, it does stipulate that this mechanism "simulates the 'lucky hit' on a vital organ."

A few months prior to the TSR release of Empire of the Petal Throne, the Greyhawk pamphlet applied this same idea to the system of certain magic swords. Most famously, the original "Vorpal Blade" specified in Greyhawk "will always sever the neck" on a roll of 18 through 20. Many of the other swords specified have similar mechanics: the "Sword of Cold" for one "scores triple damage when a 20 is rolled." Nowhere does Greyhawk link this to the concept of critical hits, but that didn't stop the rest of the world from making the connection. In the Samurai character class rules proposed in the Dragon #3 (1976), for example, Mike Childers gives a system for katanas complete with a "chance of critical hit" table that provides for "automatic" criticals on a "to hit" roll of 20, or in some cases lower. But this sword-based usage of "critical hits" did not become canon for D&D.

As competing game systems emerged, they almost unanimously included critical hits inspired by fan efforts to specify hit location. Bunnies & Burrows (1976) lets your rabbit score a critical on a "to hit" roll of a natural 0 on a d10, and then roll again to determine where the critical landed. The Arduin Grimoire (1977) has percentile-based tables for the results of critical hits and fumbles, though it only obliquely hints at when they should be invoked. Direct competitors like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) and Runequest (1978) featured critical hits prominently. By this point, D&D did not merely ignore critical hit variants: it explicitly rejected them. Gygax wrote in Dragon #16 (July 1978) that "the 'critical hit' or 'double damage' on a 'to hit' die roll of 20 is particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D." When critical hits (or fumbles) are played, as he puts it, "the whole game system is perverted, and the game possibly ruined" by the precipitous deaths of powerful monsters or player characters. This text anticipates the blanket dismissal that would show up in the Dungeon Masters Guide the following year of "such rules as double damage and critical hits" (pg.61).

Nonetheless, the term "natural 20" did creep into the vocabulary of the Dungeon Masters Guide, and while many magic sword rules from Greyhawk had been modified, we still see that a weapon like the "Sword +2, Nine Lives Stealer" will draw life force from an opponent on "a natural 20." The mythical resonance of the natural 20 is too compelling to resist. Despite decades of continuing prohibition of critical hits, they were almost ubiquitously incorporated into house rules and thus the everyday play of D&D. Controlling the rulebooks does not enable you to stop a popular idea. At some point, the rulebooks have to change to meet the demands of players, and, decades too late, they did for critical hits.


11 comments:

  1. Fascinating, as ever. Timely, too: the longest-surviving player in my current campaign died in last night's session due to a critical hit from a giant black widow spider. (We play maximum damage rather than double.) To an extent I can understand Gygax's reservations.

    Aside: Runequest (1978), not (1988).

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    2. Right, I meant Runequest circa 1978, thankee.

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    3. Could we not use racist vocabulary here, please? "Thankee" is pidgin English used by whites who did not allow their Chinese servants to speak their language.

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  2. Great article. I use a critical hits table from Dragon #39 by Carl Parlagreco (July, 1980, link), shortly after Gygax's dismissal. I think that's the only one in a TSR D&D publication from the era?

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    1. Indeed, and in Dragon #41, Gygax rebutted it with a letter saying, "Here we go again... more of the critical hits business." He goes on to provide a parody hit location table, in which every outcome utterly destroys the target.

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  3. I would argue that Runequest has the same hit location system as the one described in Blackmoor only using d20 rolls rather than percentages. Locations are rolled and each location has a portion of the characters total hit points. Even the case where tall creatures attack short ones (and vice versa) are included, although Runequest modifies the die roll rather than use a separate chart.

    Blackmoor lingers on though not in D&D.

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    1. The hit location system (on pg.21 of 1st printing Runequest) divides hit points across the body like Blackmoor, but then there's the critical hits system (on pg.24 of 1st Runequest) that contains a percentile "fumbles" table that would be familiar to any fan of the era. In Runequest, you roll percentile to hit, and in that system: "a strike resulting in a roll of 01 on d100 is a critical hit." However, as with "Warlock," the odds of scoring a critical hit increase with the competence of the attacker.

      So probably we should say that Runequest handled critical hits and hit location separately.

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  4. Will the book be available as an ePub for use on Nook? That is my Reader of choice and I'd love to get this book!

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    1. It is indeed available in ePub already at rpgnow:

      http://www.rpgnow.com/product/106492/Playing-at-the-World

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