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

DND_Reborn

Legend
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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billd91

Hobbit on Quest (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.
 


Reynard

Legend
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.
 

payn

Legend
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.
 

Hriston

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.
 

Charlaquin

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.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
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.
 



Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But what exactly does that mean in the narrative? Why bother having it?

It seems to me those questions are not strongly related.

In the gameplay, it is a rare event that increases swing in combat, which keeps combat resolution from becoming too predictable.

In the narrative, half the time it means little - the average critical hit is roughly at the maximum of a normal hit. So, half of critical hits aren't really special. The other half of critical hits attain things you can't get otherwise, and so narratively... they're lucky shots that do more damage.

It isn't all that deep, honestly.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff (She/Her)
It's a rules-first game, fiction and mechanics are inherently separated. You have to learn to live with it, otherwise you're gonna question literally everything in the game
 

Minigiant

Legend
A critical hit is a more dangerous caused by the attacker's accuracy and not the weapon's deadliness.

AKA the defender has to defend a more vulnerable or hard to defend area of their body.
 

embee

Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.
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A critical hit, for me, means that I'm going to go a bit above and beyond for the description. It's the Zack Snyder slo-mo moment. It's a Fatality in Mortal Kombat. It's when the aspect ratio shifts to IMAX. When a player lands a crit, they get to feel like a hero.

If the monster gets killed, it's killed in the most gruesome way, possibly verging on Sam Raimi proportions. If the monster would get left with less than 5hp, I may fudge it and kill it. Or I may leave it standing stunned for the next PC to kill, leaving the players bicker over who gets to say they killed it.

Yes, it's arbitrary. But that's the charm of it. It's something to shoot for. It serves no mechanical function. It is purely for the aesthetic enjoyment of the game and to make the math of combat feel more cinematic.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . 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. . .

But what exactly does that mean in the narrative? Why bother having it?
To the game-play, a Critical Hit is just a way to spice up combat. It's telling that the CH showed up as an option in 2nd ed. Apparently, combat wasn't interesting enough - and the variety of rolling a die for damage wasn't helping.

In the narrative, it's the equivalent of a professional wresting stagger. You've done something cool and painful-looking to your opponent, even though your opponent can probably just clear his head and continue fighting as normal in a moment or two.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
The first rule of 5e is forget the idea that the rules translate to making any real world sense.
True, but you can translate the rules to make narrative sense.

I like to see a critical hit as a connecting blow to the helmet, a direct hit on the breastplate, your hat being pinned to the tree by an arrow, or any similar "close calls". It's a highlight in the fight that can become a dull series of dice rolls, something worth taking the time to describe - or asking the player to describe - and one of the few moments where the aesthetics or conceptual representations of a character can come into (narrative) play.
 


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

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.).
This really depends on how the group (especially the DM) handles HP. In 5E, you take nothing but nicks and scratches from anything above half HP, with the one taking you to 0 HP as a serious wound (since it can kill you), however the "meat points" argument has been around forever. Since HP are abstract, it leaves the specifics entirely up to the imagination, and no matter how much you try to describe them in the books, each person is going to imagine them differently.

As a DM, I generally follow the notion for players that you suffer only minor impacts at less than half HP ("tis but a scratch!"), but enemies are treated as bags of meat. If a player hits, the creature bleeds or suffers some appropriate visible injury. This is partly to let the players know they were successful (and hint to resistance/vulnerability), to let the players feel more important (their hits are meaningful, but they shake off enemy hits), and because nobody really cares about the healing of enemies after the fight (unlike the PCs and allies). In the case of a critical hit, however, the PC takes a wound they normally wouldn't take until at half HP. This makes those feel as bad as they actually are.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
As a DM, I generally follow the notion for players that you suffer only minor impacts at less than half HP ("tis but a scratch!"), but enemies are treated as bags of meat. If a player hits, the creature bleeds or suffers some appropriate visible injury.
I kind of do a blend of this: hitting a PC and hitting a monster have (usually) fairly similar effects vaguely based on relative ratio of current h.p. vs total h.p., and as I have it that there's always a small element of "meat" in any hit points ("but a scratch" is still meat IMO) there's often* visual clues as to what effect you're having...and the foes, if intelligent combatants, also get these same visual clues when they hit the PCs.

* - i.e. no matter if something starts with 15 h.p. or 120 h.p., if it's lost about 1/4 of those h.p. it'll look slightly winded/wounded while if it's down 3/4 it'll generally look (and probably feel!) like it's taken a beating.

** - but not always - you can hit an ooze or an air elemental or a wafty undead all day long and not see any visible result until it reaches 0 and just falls/drifts apart.
 

Interesting. I’d love to be able to replicate narratively (tend to use TotM but even on a grid the visual setting details are sparse) the type of fight you see in movies. Thinking of the fight in the Jason Momoa Conan film where they’re fighting in a kind of construction site? The use of ‘furniture’ and the movement around the scene...
Hard to do in D&D. Easier in something like Seventh Sea, but D&D is very grid-built, even for TotM fights: to use a rugby analogy, it makes fights scrums, rather than dynamic back play.
Approach target; exchange series of blows; take some damage; kill target; acquire new target.
I’d love some more ‘visually’ dynamic fight scenes. Actual ‘scenes’. But I struggle to do this.
Don’t know why I posted this. Just to share my thoughts, I guess (I did used to be funny, back before the Great Realignment); for now, to cast Protection from Snark:
  • I love D&D
  • I know it’s not perfect
  • Much of my issue is to with my own imperfection
  • I know there are other games available
  • Despite knowing that HP are essentially a combo of skill, endurance, and luck, I find myself as DM all too often narrating each hit, no matter how small, as some sort of damage; not sure I could ‘sell’ a roll of 10 damage as ‘you harry him and he is getting tired’.
  • In which case, maybe Crits are cuts/wounds...the only ones you make unless it’s the 0HP-maker? That pause where the bad guy snaps his head back, runs his fingers over the cut on his cheek and looks at you as if to say, ok, game on. The ‘I am O-ren Ishii and I apologise for mocking you; I will fight with all my strength now’ moment.
It’s just hard when you don’t get a crit in a fight on either side to effectively narrate that whittling down process.
  • Lockdown has caused me to blether
  • Sorry
 

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