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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Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
As a huge fan of FATE, I think this is the way to handle things in a d20 system.
If you happen to also use 13th Age's "One Unique Thing" rule, (and equate Fate's "Evoke" with Numenera's "Intrusion") then that means that when somebody rolls a 1, you can quickly survey what is unique about this situation and escalate it.
Raising the stakes is pretty much always fun.


I prefer fumbles in combat only in certain circumstances, such as when you're fighting on a bridge (check to fall off!), or when fighting the BBEG (check to not be disarmed) - for general monsters, and general situations, I ignore fumbled attacks for PCs.

For monsters - assuming the PCs are higher level - I let the PCs determine the result but limit it to simple things like the PC disarms the monster, or trips it over, or stuns it for a moment (loses it's next action, or PC gets adv on next attack - whatever).


I mostly hate fumbles - the result of DMs who both used house rules that made them too common and who went way over the top with the consequences of a fumble. If I'm fumbling 5% of the time (and with my dice, it's seems to be way more than that), I shouldn't be shooting myself in the foot every time.

The one method I do like is the Complications in Firefly (and Cortex+ generally) - if the dice come up a '1' then the GM can choose to pay the player a plot point and then generate a Complication, that then makes later actions more... interesting.


Shane "Shane Plays" Stacks
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.

I agree. The mechanic is interesting, but the idea that we should never ever feel bad kind of gets on my nerves.

Some of the most memorable moments in gaming come from fumbles, just like with crits.

I also agree that if you eliminate fumbles, you should eliminate crits.

That being said, the GM intrusion mechanic itself is interesting and all fine and dandy. I just don't see an overwhelming need for it.


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.)

This ^^^

In FFG's Star Wars last Friday we twice had both a despair and a triumph happen in the same roll. Triumphs and Despairs are close analogies to Crits and Fumbles. Also these happen regardless of the success or failure of the roll.
It is fun for the whole table as the player (s) get to decide what they would want for the triumph and the GM gets to decide what he wants the despair to represent (both side must agree of course).


I'm totally ok with no fumbles. They never seem to serve anything of value even as a failure mechanism and since it happens 5% of the time it happens often enough to where its annoying. That and the only reason they seem to be valued at tables is for the 5 seconds of stupid slapstick.


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.

Esp. when a lot of high level powers allow you to act quicker, and hence make more checks.

A high level fighter gets to attack multiple times per round... and hence has a higher chance of screwing up per round than a newbie.

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