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


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.

log in or register to remove this ad


Prophet of the profane (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


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.


Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.

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.


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.


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.


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

Remove ads


Remove ads

Recent & Upcoming Releases