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

jgsugden

Legend
This is a highly subjective area of the game as the concept of what hp damage represents is very fluid and subjective.

To me, a hp loss is the taxing of the toughness of a creature. It is not a significant wound. It might represent a light burn, some small cuts, some bruises - but as it does not result in the creature facing reduction in their capability, I can't see it as anything more than minor nicks, even when a 400 hp creature takes 300 damage from an attack.

Curing spells clean up some of those nicks, and reinvigorate you. Temporary Hit points are like a short term high.

Under this view, a critical hit is just a more taxing attack. It just connects in a way that saps more of the reserves of strength from a foe.
 

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jgsugden

Legend
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...
What you want is the narrative of a cinematographically interesting fight. That is all possible in the narrative without any mechanics required. I don't narrate every attack, but I tend to do so when it is a meaningful hit, or when the die rolls are fun (high/low damage roll or attack roll).

Although mechanically the monster may have just moved 5 squares, rolled a crit and then an 11 and 12 for their damage rolls. However, I'll tell the players, "One of the orcs turns his cold gaze on the paladin, snearing something incredibly foul in Orcish, before charging straight at the paladin in a frenzied rage. As the paladin raises his shield to block the orc's seemingly wild strike, the orc surprisingly dives low, using the blind spot behind the paladin's shield to hide, and swings the axe beneath the shield. It catches the paladin's armored thigh, splitting the plates and drawing a deep gash in the leg that nearly knocks the paladin off his feet. The orc then rises back up, directly staring the paladin in the eye as his foul breath crosses over the shield, and prepares to swing his axe down in what he clearly thinks will be a vicious killing blow."

Matt Mercer of Critical Role fame provides combat descriptions far better than mine. If you go back and watch early episodes of Critical Role, and then more recent ones, you'll see that his players get better and better at doing it themselves for the blows their PCs are landing

When doing this, I (and my group) often ignore the mechanics of the game.

One dwarven barbarian in my game was run by a player that had a Mortal Combat fetish, and whenever he took down a foe he'd describe just how we killed the creature, and it rarely had anything to do with the axe attack that he rolled from a mechanics perspective. And I let that story element change the battle scene. In one memorable moment, he rolled a hit with his axe for 18 damage which was enough to kill the soldier he was fighting.

However, he described it as grabbing the guy by the throat and shoving his face into the adjacent blade barrier spell, swinging him back and forth between the buzzing blades, trying to catch as many blades as he could. This reduced his victim to tiny bits, as if he was run through a chipper shredder like in Fargo.

I said, "OK, you're covered head to foot in blood at this point, and everything within 5 feet of you is slick with blood." The gory visage ended up giving him a bonus on a key intimidation role he made later, and the slick footing ended up tripping up another bad guy that tried to charge the barbarian a moment later.

I also don't keep the monsters static in combat. Even when there is no obvious reason to move the monsters, if I can do it and not provoke an OA, I often do it just to keep things more hectic. It has a lot of odd benefits. At times, I end up sabotaging PC plans that I did not anticipate, and at others I open up a gap that a PC needs to get in the perfect attack. Both of those things tell a better story.
 

Ace

Adventurer
A critical hit is an abstraction of a blow against a vital location which speeds up taking enemies out of the fight.
 

Gorg

Explorer
View attachment 133600
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.

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.

We always did more or less, a combination of the above. Combat really wasn't narrated- except for highlights. The Pro wrestling stagger is as good an analogy as I've seen.

The regular hits we looked at mostly as general battering, nicks, etc. What happens in any good boxing match- or fistfight- wearing each other down, inflicting minor- but painful- damage, getting in their head etc until eventually one fighter gets tired or loopy- and "fatal" damage is inflicted.

Critical hits are akin to those uppercuts, right crosses, haymakers, and jabs which DO land right where you aimed them. Or that lucky wild swing that catches the other guy at just the wrong moment. That one HURT. And the crowd all went "WHOAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!"

We DID narrate the crits that ended someone, or dropped them to a handful of hp. That just made it more fun and exciting. Players were encouraged to describe just what they did, and our DM would ham it up. Like a free called shot.

That's as deep as we ever got into it. Our table rule was natural 20= double damage. Not roll twice then add modifiers, double damage. A nat 1 was a critical fumble. Or, as the internet would put it: an epic derp. (think about what might happen if that full power swing with your sword or warhammer were to miss and slam into the stone wall. At best, the painful vibrations would cause you to lose your grip on it- at worst, the blade might shatter) Again, we used this variant to add flavor and dramatic tension. I had a fighter once, who had to resort to using iron spikes as weapons when his sword shattered, lol. (we always imagined them as being like railroad spikes, not pitons) The table didn't let him or ME, live that down for quite a while.
 


robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
In seriousness this is where the language chosen for some game mechanics works against the narrative description. A critical can hit certainly be an encounter ender if it hits at the tail end of the combat, but more often than not it’s at some less critical moment and nothing seems to change.

For me, I try to offer some side benefit to a critical hit. for example if a monster was grappling another PC and received a critical hit I might have them release the PC or at least make a save to continue the grapple. That way the critical has made an interesting change in the battle beyond just draining some HP.
 


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