D&D 5E What Exactly Is A Critical Hit?


The High Aldwin
EDIT: Given the nature of some of the recent responses, I will attempt to clarify the nature of this thread and why I posted it. I am well aware this is "just a mechanic" and I have no need to "learn to live with it" and so forth. If you don't have a reason for it other than it is there, fine, but for the people who have a reason (narratively or otherwise), I am asking what that reason or purpose is to them.

This is meant to be a meta-discussion on the nature of the game mechanic: the critical hit.

In 5E, we know a critical hit is scored when you roll a natural 20 on your attack roll. The mechanic allows you to deal double dice for damage before adding modifiers. The mechanics are simple enough.

But what exactly does that mean in the narrative? Why bother having it?

IIRC, 2nd edition (or perhaps a Dragon Magazine issue) was the first place the Critical Hit (and Critical Fumble) were offered as optional rules. Many groups used critical hit tables and house-ruled a natural 20 in 1E and even earlier. I cannot reference 3E or 4E since I don't have the books, but despite rules to define the mechanic, I cannot find any reference as to what it is supposed to be.

IME, most groups play it as a "solid hit", etc. but that makes no sense in 5E because the first "solid hit" is the one that is supposed to reduce your HP to 0. Prior to that, every attack that succeeds reduces HP, represented by skill, luck, or whatever "rolling with the hit" or "moving so it barely touches you" or "the tree branch snaps back, absorbing the blow" (the "luck factor"). This, of course, leads to the issue of "hits" that don't actually hit and "damage" that isn't really hurting you in any significant manner (maybe you strain a muscle or turn your ankle while avoiding the bulk of the hit, etc.).

Other groups play a critical hit is no different except the target area is much more vital, and thus the abstract HP loss is increased. A blow to the head that shaves off part of your coif or something as you barely turned in time to avoid having your head lopped off. The cost (in HP loss) is higher because of the increased danger such attacks represent.

The attack roll used to be binary: you hit or you miss. Natural 1s and 20s add a bit more when automatic misses and hits, respectively, and enforcing any sort of critical hit or fumble rule adds another level away from the initial binary outcome.

So, what, exactly, does a "critical hit" mean to you and your tables?
Why do they cause more damage?
What reason to you attribute to it other than just the thrill or idea of "the best possible result" in the natural 20 rolled?

FWIW, I ask all this because of the house-rules I have been developing, and wonder how they might work with different groups' interpretations of the critical hit rule.

Thanks for your contribution and perspective. :)
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Not your screen monkey (he/him)
It's a hit to an area that does more to take the enemy out of the fight than usual. It might be a hit to a nerve cluster, it might be a blood gusher, it might be a hit to a joint that causes more pain or structural damage (such as with an undead creature or construct). It ultimately doesn't matter - it's abstract enough that it can be any of these and more. The important point is that it tends to take the fight out of the opposition faster, whatever it is.


My group tends to describe hit severity as a reaction to the amount of damage done relative to remaining hit points. So a critical hit doesn't necessarily mean gouts of blood or whatever, unless it results in significant progress toward dropping the enemy. A critical hit that rolls low damage or low relative damage isn't anything special therefore.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
A critical hit, narratively speaking, could be a turning point in the fight. It may not be a cut or devastating blow itself, but perhaps its a feint that leaves the opponents defenses weak in a momentum turning way. Maybe the receiver of the critical can build up the reserve to turn the momentum back? Or this could just have been the end of the fight it just hasn't played out yet.


Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
As you've already stated in your OP, hits and misses don't necessarily dictate what happens in the fiction. Critical hits are no different. They're more likely to deal more damage, so they're "hits" that have a better than normal chance of getting you closer to defeating your opponent. It ain't over until it's over.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
HP is an abstract combination of luck, skill, divine favor, will to fight, etc. When you dodge or parry at the last second, or roll with the blow, or some fortunate coincidence occurs that turns a potentially fatal hit into a minor hit, that resource becomes depleted somewhat. The more damage a hit deals, the more difficult it was to dodge/parry/roll with/luckily avoid, etc. and so the more of the resource representing your ability to do so is depleted.

A critical hit, then, is a hit that takes significantly more energy/willpower/skill/luck/whatever to avoid taking serious harm from. Maybe the attack came in extra fast, so it was harder to dodge or parry than usual. Maybe it struck with extra force so rolling with it was more taxing. Maybe it was perfectly aimed for an opening in your armor and should have killed you but some incredible coincidence occurred to stop it (the old bible in the breast pocket stopping the bullet trick, for example). Again, it’s abstract, so the precise details aren’t important. What matters is, the attack was for some reason about twice as hard to not get killed by as usual.


It's a game mechanic in the board game that is D&D combat. It was given the fluffy story name of "critical hit"... but as the entire fluffy story of D&D combat makes little to no narrative sense, so too does the phrase "critical hit" make little to no narrative sense.

We put the board game into the middle of our stories as a change of pace, but trying to justify it narratively is pretty much a fool's errand. So enjoy the board game for what it is, but don't think too long or hard on it. And then once the board game is done and you go back to the roleplay narrative creation... don't get too wrapped up trying to make it "fit" into the story you all are creating. Wave a couple hands, give a few descriptions, then move on.


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