Monte Cook On Fumble Mechanics
  • Monte Cook On Fumble Mechanics


    Fumble mechanics have been part of the tabletop RPG experience for decades. Even where games don't have a fumble mechanic, many players house rule them in. A fumble is the opposite of a critical hit (or critical success) - its most common manifestation is a roll of 1 in a d20-based game (with a roll of 20 being the critical). Veteran game designer Monte Cook has some thoughts on fumble mechanics, and talks about them and how his Numenera RPG (and all of the Cypher System line) use an "intrusion" instead.




    It can be a divisive issue. If you're like me, you've experimented with fumble mechanics of various kinds over the years. When I was 12, I remember one character accidentally shooting a fellow character in the back of the head and killing him. Monte Cook's thoughts on the matter are that "we don’t want to run games that “punish” players for rolling bad. A GM intrusion isn’t meant to be “punishment”—it’s meant to make things more interesting. But a fumble, for many people, just seems like a moment for everyone to laugh at them, and that’s not always fun."

    If you look around, you'll find dozens of fumble house rules for most games. They clearly provide a draw to those who like to tinker with their games. But many games deliberately do not include any such rule.

    You can read the rest of Monte's article here. What are your thoughts on fumble mechanics?
    Comments 393 Comments
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      The mechanic he describes is interesting.

      But the rational: oh, poor baby roll a 1...I mean why roll dice at all, just win everything always, that would be a good game.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      In d20 games our house rule is if you roll a 1, you re-roll the die and something interesting happens if you roll a 1-5 on that second roll. I think this is where it's obvious that a good GM will seek to make things interesting and challenging for player through this, rather than just creating problems for them. As for frequency, think of this: if you have a decent firearm and use you at least decent ammunition, you will not get but a few jams, bad loads, or other issues in thousands of rounds fired. Always having fumble on a 1 is accepting that 5% of the time you are going to screw up royally. If I had a weapon that jammed on 1 of 20 rounds, I've got a piece of crap weapon and need a new one. This is why I ask for the second roll to confirm the fumble.

      And no, I don't know what the probability is, overall, for fumbles through my house rule - that's not my gaming style. It feels okay; my players are cool with it; and it doesn't slow the game down.
    1. JudgeMonroe's Avatar
      JudgeMonroe -
      Quote Originally Posted by TerraDave View Post
      The mechanic he describes is interesting.

      But the rational: oh, poor baby roll a 1...I mean why roll dice at all, just win everything always, that would be a good game.
      That's not a very good characterization of the rationale at all. A roll of 1 on a d20 happens 5% of the time. In almost any RPG, the player characters are by definition exceptional people -- are they going to *fumble*, *screw the pooch*, *bollocks up the whole thing* 5% of the time? Probably not. They'll fail, and *sometimes* they will fail spectacularly, but if we're going to treat 1 in d20 as something special, better to make that something an interesting opportunity instead of some slapstick reversal, right?
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Fumble mechanics are ridiculous in a d20 system. If there was a 5% chance of a catastrophe whenever you used a skill, then most people would be dead by the end of the month.

      Failure is its own punishment, just as success is its own reward. There's no need to shoe-horn extra special success/failure into a binary pass/fail system.
    1. Mortellan's Avatar
      Mortellan -
      I agree Dave,
      If you allow crits, especially in a system with possible improved crit chances like D&D, I gotta have a counter balance. 3.5/Pathfinder is especially ridiculous. Criticalling on 1/4 of your attacks is easy to accomplish, but a measly 5% chance to goof up? Boo!

      No fumbles, then no crits.
    1. Mortellan's Avatar
      Mortellan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      Fumble mechanics are ridiculous in a d20 system. If there was a 5% chance of a catastrophe whenever you used a skill, then most people would be dead by the end of the month.

      Failure is its own punishment, just as success is its own reward. There's no need to shoe-horn extra special success/failure into a binary pass/fail system.
      Somewhat agree. The difference is skill checks in encounters are under duress so yes there should be screw ups. Skill checks in every day life are always going to be successful at least since 3e skill rules have been around.
    1. aka_pg's Avatar
      aka_pg -
      Reminds me of "6x - One Page RPG." For each roll of the die, the positive result is described by the player and a proportionate negative result is decided on by the GM. 4 levels of varying success/failure are agreed upon and the die is rolled. The example given:

      Zuabi the thief wants to steal the purse of a particularly ostentatious gentleman in the crowd.
      1. Success! Zuabi gets away clean with money for a year.
      2. Success, but the purse is lighter than expected.
      3. Success, but there’s a hole in the bag and a trail of gold leading to Zuabi, could be trouble later.
      4. Slippery hands mean no gold, but at least he’s safe.
      5. Failure and the constable has taken notice.
      6. Failure! The man’s bodyguards seize the boy and drag him into an alley for his due punishment.

      Might get tedious, but it really incorporates cooperative story telling. Perhaps for key plot points, a GM and players might use a similar approach.
    1. JudgeMonroe's Avatar
      JudgeMonroe -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mortellan View Post
      Somewhat agree. The difference is skill checks in encounters are under duress so yes there should be screw ups. Skill checks in every day life are always going to be successful at least since 3e skill rules have been around.
      In *skill checks* a natural 20 has no particular significance. All that matter is whether you hit the DC, regardless of how the die rolls. I don't know why you'd introduce a fumble mechanic into that rule.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      Quote Originally Posted by JudgeMonroe View Post
      That's not a very good characterization of the rationale at all. ...
      No, it is. He is talking about "Bruce's" feelings here.

      Yes, the % is high, though as noted in the thread, it is symmetric with critical hits. And its not a simulation, but a game where you want interesting stuff to happen pretty often.

      But it was really more the tone. As I said, the actual mechanic is interesting.
    1. Mortellan's Avatar
      Mortellan -
      Quote Originally Posted by JudgeMonroe View Post
      In *skill checks* a natural 20 has no particular significance. All that matter is whether you hit the DC, regardless of how the die rolls. I don't know why you'd introduce a fumble mechanic into that rule.
      That's true! Monte doesn't make the distinction either though so I rolled with it.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by JudgeMonroe View Post
      In *skill checks* a natural 20 has no particular significance. All that matter is whether you hit the DC, regardless of how the die rolls. I don't know why you'd introduce a fumble mechanic into that rule.
      Because some DMs enjoy describing the PCs as bumbling idiots, and they think that occasionally describing some super cool thing that doesn't matter (on a roll of 20) balances it out.

      These DMs have either never read the rules, or think that they can do better. (And if they implement this sort of thing, then they are clearly wrong on the second part.)
    1. Bedrockgames's Avatar
      Bedrockgames -
      I love a lot of what Monte Cook is doing and think the mechanic they have here is a fine one, but I kind of disagree with an underlying point in the article: that laughing at a PC when the player fails the roll will make the player feel bad. For some this may be true. People can have all kinds of reactions to things that go on in the game. But at a table of mature players who understand that 1 in 20 comes up 5% of the time and who don't take what occurs in the game personally, having Bruce's character do something laugh-worthy for the 1 result can be great fun (including for Bruce). Personally, as a player, when I get a very bad result and it leads to hilarity involving my character, I love it.

      Now I will agree with Cook that if you have a particularly sensitive player or the group just takes those kinds of moments too far (perhaps ribbing Bruce through the evening and actually making him feel bad) then by all means, working around it by having something else arise from the fumble would be a smart way to go.
    1. Nytmare's Avatar
      Nytmare -
      I've had an on again off again relationship with fumbles since I started playing D&D. For the most part, when we used them, we preferred systems that weren't just friendly fire crit tables. I think my favorite to run with was akin to what Monte was describing, when a character fumbled, I'd flip and invert the top card of the Everway fortune/tarot deck and use that as a jumping point to describe the new problem they had to deal with.

      Quote Originally Posted by TerraDave View Post
      But the rational: oh, poor baby roll a 1...I mean why roll dice at all, just win everything always, that would be a good game.
      I think that's an oversimplification and exaggeration of what he was trying to say. He's not cautioning against letting players fail, he's cautioning against treating that 1 in 20 chance as an invitation to ridicule someone.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      The way I see it, if you want the joy of a natural 20 in combat, you have to take the disappointment of a natural 1.

      The dice give and the dice take. As much as we love it when the dice love us, a game where someone succeeded at everything takes away from the spectacular, against the odds successes (also, that person would probably be cheating). Having those lows makes the highs that much more exciting.

      One way to get around the "we're all laughing at you" perspective is to let the PC decide what happens to them when they roll a 1, so that they still have some control their narrative. But that's not perfect, either, with some people really getting into it and others just playing lip service.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      The way I see it, if you want the joy of a natural 20 in combat, you have to take the disappointment of a natural 1.
      A natural 1 is a failure, and that's bad enough already. If you want to get rid of critical hits, though, then that's no real loss.

      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      One way to get around the "we're all laughing at you" perspective is to let the PC decide what happens to them when they roll a 1, so that they still have some control their narrative. But that's not perfect, either, with some people really getting into it and others just playing lip service.
      This is a violation of the player's role as the character, and entirely inappropriate for any sort of serious Role-Playing Game. It would make more sense in one of those hippy story-telling games, like FATE.
    1. Oofta's Avatar
      Oofta -
      I've always hated the automatic fumble on a 1. Depending on the game and the build if your character has multiple attacks the odds are that a high level character will roll a 1 every 3-4 rounds (or more often depending on the system/type of attack). A warrior at the pinnacle of skill should not be dropping his sword or be accidentally stabbing his buddy several times per minute.
      I like 5E's take on it. A 1 is a miss and a 20 is a good hit, but not a fantastic one.
    1. Pauper's Avatar
      Pauper -
      The big problem I have with this approach is that a 'complication' that only appears on a '1' and not on any other failure result still feels like bonus failure, rather than garden-variety failure. The mechanic relies on the DM being able to provide an interesting complication that doesn't feel like a tacked-on extra hurdle, and let's face it, if you were the sort of DM that could make up interesting yet non-burdening complications at a moment's notice, you wouldn't be running a Monte Cook game whose mechanics are all about making the players feel awesome without you having to do much other than set up the monsters and let the PCs knock them down. You'd be running one of those "hippy story-telling games" Saelorn is talking about.

      In games like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, where an enterprising player can get his character's attack roll high enough so that a '1' might still hit, using the '1 is an auto-miss' rule seems appropriate and punishing enough. In D&D 4, I've come up with hazardous terrain that gets an extra 'oomph' in its ability to frustrate a PC if the player is unfortunate enough to roll a '1' on a skill check -- goblin alchemy labs and fungus-slicked tidal pools can be great vectors of unintentional comedy. In D&D 5, where bounded accuracy is largely going to enforce the '1' being a miss anyway and where skills and saves don't auto-fail on a '1', I'm OK just letting it be another number on the die.

      --
      Pauper
    1. JudgeMonroe's Avatar
      JudgeMonroe -
      Quote Originally Posted by Oofta View Post
      I like 5E's take on it. A 1 is a miss and a 20 is a good hit, but not a fantastic one.
      5E simplified the critical hit rules, but no version of D&D has had a fumble mechanic on a natural 1 in the core rules.
    1. Banesfinger -
      All arguments about how often (%) a fumble comes up are somewhat moot if the DM makes the monsters suffer the same consequences of rolling a fumble. Tactically, both sides of the combat should suffer the same amount of "1's".
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Giving my players more engagement and narrative co-op with the game has only increased the fun they're having. I can old-school with the best of them, but there's always room for experimentation and improvement.

      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      This is a violation of the player's role as the character, and entirely inappropriate for any sort of serious Role-Playing Game. It would make more sense in one of those hippy story-telling games, like FATE.
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