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.

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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?

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Monte's rational is totally ridiculous. Honestly, it's embarrassing reading this kind of stuff coming from a designer of his stature. It's like he's writing unintentional parody. Consider my intentional parody instead:

"Everyone’s sitting around the table, immersed in the Ninth World. The whole party is in desperate trouble and likely to die in the following round, and unable to think of any other possible solution Bruce’s character is trying to get a strange numenera device with a legendary reputation to work. The DM asks Bruce to roll versus his character's Insight skill.

Bruce rolls a 20. Everyone at the table woots! The DM says, “The device suddenly begins to hum and the runes incised deep in its surface begin to glow. A nimbus of azure light surrounds the whole party!"

It's an exciting moment and we've all been there, but it also has some negative connotations. Bruce - the player, not the character remember - didn't actually do anything right. Rolling a 20 isn't actually his fault, per se. And if GM incorporates some sort of success into the narrative - that Bruce's character did something incredibly lucky or revelatory, Bruce feels a hollow sense of success that isn't really associated with anything he did.

Which wouldn't be the end of the world if it only happened once..."

Seriously? Why are we relying on random fortune to determine the outcome of actions in a story it all if we are really worried about whether Bruce's feelings might be hurt when he fails a dice roll, or that Bruce might feel a thrill of vicarious exhilaration when a mere dice roll determines he succeeds.

And how are the two really any different? Aren't they figuratively and perhaps even literally depending on our fortune mechanic, two sides of the same coin? You lost the coin toss. You won the coin toss. If it is irrational to feel bad when you lose to random chance, surely it's equally irrational to feel good when you succeed. And surely you cannot expect to have one without the other?

Monte declares:

"This is important because we don’t want to run games that “punish” players for rolling bad."

Wait... what? Do we also not want to run games that reward players for rolling well? How is that supposed to work anyway? Why bother rolling the dice if we don't want to generate a spectrum that ranges from success to failure? Surely sometimes if it is appropriate to determine whether someone succeeded or failed, it is also appropriate to determine whether someone dismally failed or spectacularly succeeded? I mean if we are not stuck on a D20 mechanic and we've actually had vast experience with different sorts of game systems, then we have to know that many games aren't geared to creating binary pass/fail results, but rather do the idea of a degree of success as a matter of course.

I kind of understand where Monte thinks he's going with this because its really not discussing fumbles at all but his specific system and he's encouraging GMs to be more creative in determining what abject failure looks like in a way that is maybe less consistently denigrating toward the character/player, but I think fundamentally you can't avoid the idea of failure by calling it a 'complication'. It's merely renaming something to make it sound less harsh without actually making any real difference in what it is. Words like moron and imbecile were invented to be technical medical terms for stupidity in the hopes making them less stigmatizing, but then of course those words themselves became insults of great efficiency. And likewise, mentally retarded was intended to replace those older clinical terms with a newer more clinical term, but now if someone wants to be insulting they are more likely to get verbal punch from their insults by naming someone mentally retarded than simply stupid.

Calling it a 'complication' rather than a fumble doesn't make GM insertion into the scene to create a special class of extreme failure anything other than what it actually is, nor is it any less ridiculous to think that it will be received as anything other than an especially dismal failure that makes everything worse. Nor indeed is it any less ridiculous to think that we need to protect player's feelings from the dice delivering undesired failures to them, whether we call these failures fumbles or not. Of course failure stings. And of course, since it comes from a die roll, it's often not your fault and you can't do anything about it.

But are we a bunch of babies that can't deal with that fact? I mean seriously, don't we all about age 5 outgrow the feeling that a game is unfair when it deals to us setbacks? How do you manage to play Monopoly or Settlers of Cataan, much less an RPG if you aren't capable of dealing with the inherent unfairness of a random dice roll?

"So in our interaction between Bruce’s character and the NPC, the 1 might indicate that some other NPC has suddenly shown up and called away the fellow with the device Bruce wanted to take a look at. Or maybe the NPC just wants Bruce to do a favor before he gives him what he wants. Or maybe the NPC shows Bruce’s character the device, but it’s not at all what Bruce was expecting. These aren’t fumbles, they’re complications, and they can open the door to even more interesting situations in the game."

No whatever spin you want to put on it, these are fumbles and they can open the door to even more interesting situations in the game.

Now, I grant that sometimes in gaming history there have been fumble tables or rules which are more ridiculous than helpful, and individual GMs that without guidelines still insert ridiculous complications on every fumble or failure even when they aren't running a game of Paranoia. But that doesn't abuse the general concept, only specific applications thereof.

And as for protecting a players feelings, in my experience players get themselves into ridiculous escapades and do things that make everyone else at the table laugh at their expense quite without the help of the dice. If you haven't been that player that narrates a set of actions that ultimately result in more farce than the desired heroic moment of awesomeness yet, just give it a while - your turn will come. Be the guy that laughs about it afterwards secure in at least you were entertaining and knowing you won't be the only one.
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No, because the consequences of a fumble can extend between encounters, and few monsters ever survive their first encounter with the PCs.

This is true but I think few people seem to talk about how its fundamentally true of critical hits as well. For NPCs largely foreordained to be defeated anyway, whether the PC's do it in 2 rounds or 3 is hardly a matter of great consequence. But for the PC's who most survive battle after battle, being subject to random critical hits can be hugely swingy and is generally equivalent to having a mechanic that introduces random deaths in to your game. That the frost giant gets ganked by a PC is of no particular consequence. When the frost giant turns a PC rather suddenly into jelly, then that's no less a "fumble" than if your game has a fumble mechanic that results in auto-decapitation.

Yet people oddly tolerate one and not the other. Indeed, players oddly advocate for one and not the other. At this point, I can't even remove critical hits from a system because players enjoy them so much - quite against their own interests in my opinion. Instead I have to introduce mechanics that unequally allow players to mitigate critical hits (and fumbles) more than the NPCs.

None of this is meant to justify actual results on a table that indicate self-decapitation at high enough odds we can calculate the chance, since this results in a silly game (unless of course a silly comedy game is exactly the intent).
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We had a random happenings table , houserule of course, that contained a lot of minor things but the highest chance was for a 1 damage success with consequences. I love the You Succeed, But.. concept.


High fantasy heroes who save the world, rescue the sexy prince, and conquer the world do not fumble. Nuff said.

Hon Solo begs to differ.

Also, when it comes to gamifying the epic fantasy quest, if those high fantasy heroes can't fumble, they players also can't meaningfully succeed.


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.

I like D&D and I like FATE.

I was born in the 60s, and hippy is not a derogatory term.


Victoria Rules
We have fumbles...have had since day 1*. Crits too. And you can fumble with anything requiring aim or co-ordination enough to force a d20 roll, which includes many spells.

But crits and fumbles each happen considerably less than 5% of the time, because each has a confirm roll attached.

For fumbles it's '1' on d20 (or higher if negative modifiers would bring it down to '1' or less) then '1' on d6 to fumble.

Then it's d% on a table with effects ranging from common and trivial (e.g. d4 damage to self) to less common but annoying (e.g. drop or throw weapon) to rare and bloody dangerous (e.g. full crit to self or friend)

* - though the effects table has been tweaked now and then, the base 1/d20 then 1/d6 fumble mechanic was one of the very first house rules our crew put into 1e - and it hasn't changed since.

Lan-"if people aren't laughing at me when I play this game I'm doing it wrong"-efan


Mod Squad
Staff member
FATE is a great game for collaborative story-telling, if that's what you're into. I don't know why anyone takes that as an insult. It's apples-to-oranges with RPGs, though, and there's nothing wrong with that.

A few things -

1) If you have questions about moderation, please take it to e-mail or PM. People can get banned for arguing over moderation in-thread. Please don't do it.

2) You really want us to believe that you honestly don't think calling it a "hippy story-telling game" was not intended to be disparaging? Fine, I will play it your way. Please listen to the moderators when they tell you that something *is* insulting, and adjust your approach, rather than argue with us about it. Your readers find it insulting. Please stop.

3) I believe you have been informed before, that the construction is effectively the same as the edition warrior's "Game X is not an RPG."* You have been told that you are not actually an authority that gets to make such declarations. Doing so comes across as both arrogant and judgmental. The act of trying to define people and their games out of a realm is pretty darned rude. On top of that, in terms of logical fallacies, it is actually a form of "no true Scotsman" ("no true roleplayer") - you are effectively hiding the rhetorical weakness of your position behind the emotional reaction you elicit from the reader.

*Edition wars are actually a subset of the general case of "dichotomy war" - old school/new school, 3e/4e, sandbox/railroad, storytelling/RPG - all these are human-constructed, artificial dichotomies that are often discussed as if they are distinct black-and-white, polar opposites. One more way to divide gamers into "us" and "them". We are tired of it, and don't have much patience for it being used. You *claim* it is apples and oranges, but you are incorrect - the games have more similarities than differences, you simply discount the similarities.


One thing I have considered as opposed to a fumble per se is to give the target an action. Call it an "opening". A chance to counter attack, attempt a disarm, carry the attack off line (causing the original attacker to miss his next attack), move 5' without penalty (from the original attacker), etc. All requiring a die roll / check to succeed. This could be considered "worse than a fumble", but it does require the opponent to attempt something (and they may, or may not, succeed). It also makes sense in the flow of combat. To me anyway. I haven't tried this, but the idea has knocked around my head for a bit. The opposite of this could replace the critical as well. One downside I can think of is the increased complexity of combat interaction. Of course some people might find that to be a good thing... additionally if the game you are playing has AoO it could get even more complex. Or just plain messy :)


I don't have fumble tables or anything of the kind, but I must admit the temptation to throw a curve-ball at someone who rolls a nat-1 is impossible to resist, in the same way that turning a nat-20 into something memorable is impossible to resist.


No whatever spin you want to put on it, these are fumbles and they can open the door to even more interesting situations in the game.
Opening the box and finding something on fire when you expected to find gold is not the same as the whole table jeering at you when you roll a 1, and the DM gleefully unrolling his six page fumble table and demanding a d%. That's the difference the author is arguing, not some subtle point of definition.


First Post
I think "Interesting Complications" are much better than detrimental fumbles. Also, complications can occur on any skill check, not just a combat one.


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.
I don't really see why.

In 1st ed AD&D a roll of 1 on a saving throw always fails, but there is no rule that a natural 20 always succeeds. Symmetry doesn't have any particular virtue in this domain that I can see.

Allowing a nat 20 in combat to be a critical hit is basically giving the damage output of attacks a non-linear range - it's mostly linear but with a spike at one extreme. Whether or not this is a good mechanic - and in my experience with it in 4e it doesn't seem to do any harm - is independent of whether or not there is some corresponding spike at the bottom of the "miss" range.

I've played a lot of RM (which is where the MERP table has its origins), and it is not symmetrical at all. In RM, nearly all successful attacks trigger rolls on a crit table, but only a small number of failed attacks trigger rolls on the fumble table.

I really don't think the symmetry you call for has any special significance in designing RPG mechanics.


I don't really see why.


I really don't think the symmetry you call for has any special significance in designing RPG mechanics.

Yep, I agree with this. Symmetry has a certain attraction to the bit of me that likes things neat and orderly, but I've seen enough to realise that "neat and orderly" isn't necessarily a virtue in game design.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Yep, I agree with this. Symmetry has a certain attraction to the bit of me that likes things neat and orderly, but I've seen enough to realise that "neat and orderly" isn't necessarily a virtue in game design.

Me too. Symmetry is a perfectly normal human aesthetic preference, but that's all it is. Symmetrical things aren't necessarily the best things. Whatever works for the game, not whatever satisfies my need for symmetry!


Symmetry has a certain attraction to the bit of me that likes things neat and orderly, but I've seen enough to realise that "neat and orderly" isn't necessarily a virtue in game design.

Exactly, Quadratic Wizards were fun....remember all that crazy talk about needing class balance, so much poppy-cock! :devil:


I find some of the harsh criticism of Monte Cook's article to be unwarranted, as the criticism seems divorced from the medium and context: i.e. a friendly, light-weight article on the MCG website meant to promote the MCG Cypher System design philosophy. It's not a scathing indictment of the critical fumble that people make it out to be. After all, the article begins with a prefacing note that "it’s a funny moment, and we’ve all been there" before also noting that the natural 1/critical fumble "has some negative connotations," which it undoubtedly does. It may have been too absolute to say "Bruce feels bad" instead of "Bruce may feel bad." And one may say that he moved the argument to a position of feels, which some gamers likely believe to be irrelevant, but it is something which a smart party and GM should be cognizant about since it affects group dynamics. It does not affect everyone or every group the same way, but it should be monitored, especially if it has a long-term negative impact on player enjoyment.

Also, one may argue that if the Natural 1 is no longer a critical fumble, then the Natural 20 should not be a critical or automatic hit. Okay. Well, perhaps it would help to know more about the Cypher System first, since a Natural 20 is not an automatic success like it is in some systems. One can roll a Natural 20 and still fail to hit the Level 7+ monster. The only "automatic success" in the game is if you lower the difficulty rating of a check to 0, as in you don't have to bother rolling at all. And a Natural 20 is only a "critical" to the extent that it gives the player the option of either +4 damage or a major effect (temporary blind, disarm, etc.). But players also receive a +1 damage bonus on a Natural 17, a +2 damage bonus on a Natural 18, and a +3 damage bonus or minor effect on a Natural 19. There is no symmetry with the d20 roll in the Cypher System.

Furthermore, rolling a Natural 1 is not a critical fumble/failure, nor should it be treated as one in the context of the Cypher System. A GM intrusion, however, represents a greater degree of narrative flexibility in convey that Natural 1. If all Natural 1s are critical fumbles and automatic failures, then that limits the narrative. But a GM intrusion can not only be a critical fumble but also a myriad host of other narrative complications. The player may even succeed at that skill check with that Natural 1, but in the process alert the attention of the guards.


I get what Monte is saying. They aren't always fun for players or DMs, and they aren't always as fun as we remember them in hindsight.

Critical fumbles can be great fun and everyone has a story about how Joe the Barbarian accidentally cut off the head of Bob the cleric, or how Sheila shot Paul while shooting into melee, or how a botched spell caused the fireball to ignite on the party. Good times.... at least, in nostalgia, maybe not at the time. My problem is when they are too frequent or they are too damaging or both. Players shouldn't be too upset to roll a 1 because over the course of a campaign they are going to roll at lot of them. Also chances are, one player will roll worse than others and suffer most of the effects of fumbles, and depending on their personality it might be very annoying to them.

Five percent of the time is too often, as players typically roll a lot of attacks, especially the non casters. Systems that require one to confirm the critical are better, but you run the risk of never seeing a fumble at higher levels when hitting is easy. A saving throw or ability check to avoid the fumble might be better.

The other problem is that of fumbles that are too damaging. When limbs are being cut off, or player characters killed, it may raise a chuckle 10 years later, but at the time, it's often not as fun. It's also jarring and non-heroic when hordes of orcs barely dent your group but your healer struggles to reattach the leg that just got cut off by an errant battle axe, or the super genius wizard never gets a spell to work all night. Better to have those accidental hits strike NPC's or perhaps have weapons blunted to do less damage temporarily or some other less serious outcome, or for spells just add some wild magic style effect.

As a DM I neither embrace nor outlaw fumbles and go with rulings over rules. If a player character rolls a 1 and I think of something interesting to happen, it happens. Same with a roll like a 2 or 3. I might let the make an ability check to avoid or mitigate the outcome. Or I might just say "you miss" and move along. The risk of course is that I might appear unfair, but I haven't had that complaint yet and it keeps things moving and still allows for some unpredictability, so it works for our table. If an NPC rolls a 1, there is much more of a chance for a fumble, and certainly if I think of something entertaining.

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