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.

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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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.

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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JudgeMonroe

First Post
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".

In Monte's game, monsters don't roll, so all the 1s in a game session are coming off a player's palm as attack or defend actions. So in the context of the OP, the frequency of a 1-roll is very relevant and even more important to avoid the "1-is-fumble" house rule.
 

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".
No, because the consequences of a fumble can extend between encounters, and few monsters ever survive their first encounter with the PCs.

As an extreme example, I once played in a Pathfinder game where the GM house-rules that two consecutive 1s on an attack roll (confirmed with a failure on the third roll) would result in auto-decapitation. Over the course of the campaign, this happened to five enemies and three PCs. The enemies would have been dead in a few rounds anyway, though, and the PCs could otherwise have survived for months of play time.
 

JudgeMonroe

First Post
No, because the consequences of a fumble can extend between encounters, and few monsters ever survive their first encounter with the PCs.

As an extreme example, I once played in a Pathfinder game where the GM house-rules that two consecutive 1s on an attack roll (confirmed with a failure on the third roll) would result in auto-decapitation. Over the course of the campaign, this happened to five enemies and three PCs. The enemies would have been dead in a few rounds anyway, though, and the PCs could otherwise have survived for months of play time.

As an extreme example, that's definitely a stupid rule (albeit with odds somewhere south of 400:1 if I'm reading that correctly). Although I think I probably played a game of WFRP where that happened just as a matter of course.
 


As an extreme example, that's definitely a stupid rule (albeit with odds somewhere south of 400:1 if I'm reading that correctly). Although I think I probably played a game of WFRP where that happened just as a matter of course.
The third roll is just a basic miss on a normal attack roll, so it works out to roughly 1000:1 on every attack. Of course, this was Pathfinder, so some people were making six attacks per round, and I would roughly estimate 100 attack rolls total over the course of a session (for both sides). Almost negligible over the course of any single session, but multiply that out over a year and it's bound to happen eventually.
 

Chimpy

First Post
I like the system in the latest Star Wars line of RPGs where rather than a fumble, a "threat" or "despair" roll can mean a narrative shift away from the player's favour in the scene. I like the idea of success or failure being a sliding scale with more possible outcomes, rather than just "yes or no".

(And yes, it happens to the NPCs too.)
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
In Monte's game, monsters don't roll, so all the 1s in a game session are coming off a player's palm as attack or defend actions. So in the context of the OP, the frequency of a 1-roll is very relevant and even more important to avoid the "1-is-fumble" house rule.

Yes. In a game system where the player always rolls the dice to attack and defend, fumble rules make the game less fun. Sure you can incorporate crits on your defense to be opponent fumbles, but still the swingyness is more offputting than in a game where you're always rolling attacks. (And skill check fumbles are generally uninteresting to me - attack rolls aren't a big deal because you make a lot of them, but you only make a relevant skill check with a particular skill a few times per session. That makes a fumble even more annoying out of combat.)

I personally have stopped using "you fail" as an outcome for PC skill checks in general unless the immediate failure is dramatically interesting. Instead the PCs almost always "fail up" in my games. If you make the roll you get the outcome you want. If you fail the roll and failure is boring you likely get the outcome you want too, it's just that something bad will also happen. Possibly immediately, or possibly at some point down the road when a complication would be more interesting. I store up bad karma tokens as a GM and spend them when I feel like it would make an interesting twist. It makes the game less of a simulation of real life but more of a simulation of a drama and that seems to be a style that works. Monte's article seems to be suggesting something similar, except that my reading of the Cypher system is that GM intrusion is supposed to be an immediate reaction to the player's bad roll, and I've found that that doesn't work well for me personally - I do better if I have more time to work in the complication.
 

Oofta

Legend
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".

Not really. Monsters typically max out at 2-3 attacks with many only having 1 while higher level fighters regularly have 4-6. In addition, some character builds will have 1 big attack (such as rogues) which will only fumble 1 in 20 rounds where builds that are supposed to the penultimate fighters will fumble ever 3-4 rounds.

Add in classes that never have to roll to hit (e.g. wizards) and suddenly my 20th level two weapon fighter looks like a a bumbling fool that's more dangerous to his compatriots and himself than to the monsters.

At the end of the day, is it really fun to have a character singled out as the guy who regularly fumbles 2-3 times per combat? Especially if the fumbles are significantly detrimental?

Don't get me wrong - every once in a while if someone is trying to do something very risky/difficult I'll warn them that failure may have dire consequences and go from there. But it has to be appropriate to the scene.

[EDIT] Note that I'm specifically talking about D&D and it's variants here. While fumbles have never been officially part of the rules, I've seen plenty of DMs that think they're "fun".
 


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