Critical Hits: a history of a the battle between gamers and game-designers for nuance in combat systems

A reader writes, "The early history of role-playing games seems like a constant battle between the creators of Dungeons & Dragons and its fans. Sometimes, like with critical hits, the fans wanted the game to be one way, but Gary Gygax and the folks at TSR just wouldn't have it. The case of critical hits shows that the fans have the real power, and that even if it takes decades, eventually D&D will implement critical hits, damn it."

The history of critical hits was written by Jon Peterson, author of the fantastic-looking Playing at the World, a history of wargames and RPGs. Looks like an excellent companion to David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men.

As competing game systems emerged, they almost unanimously included critical hits inspired by fan efforts to specify hit location. Bunnies & Burrows (1976) lets your rabbit score a critical on a "to hit" roll of a natural 0 on a d10, and then roll again to determine where the critical landed. The Arduin Grimoire (1977) has percentile-based tables for the results of critical hits and fumbles, though it only obliquely hints at when they should be invoked. Direct competitors like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) and Runequest (1988) featured critical hits prominently. By this point, D&D did not merely ignore critical hit variants: it explicitly rejected them. Gygax wrote in Dragon #16 (July 1978) that "the 'critical hit' or 'double damage' on a 'to hit' die roll of 20 is particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D." When critical hits (or fumbles) are played, as he puts it, "the whole game system is perverted, and the game possibly ruined" by the precipitous deaths of powerful monsters or player characters. This text anticipates the blanket dismissal that would show up in the Dungeon Masters Guide the following year of "such rules as double damage and critical hits" (pg.61).

Nonetheless, the term "natural 20" did creep into the vocabulary of the Dungeon Masters Guide, and while many magic sword rules from Greyhawk had been modified, we still see that a weapon like the "Sword +2, Nine Lives Stealer" will draw life force from an opponent on "a natural 20." The mythical resonance of the natural 20 is too compelling to resist. Despite decades of continuing prohibition of critical hits, they were almost ubiquitously incorporated into house rules and thus the everyday play of D&D. Controlling the rulebooks does not enable you to stop a good idea. At some point, the rulebooks have to change to meet the demands of players, and, decades too late, they did for critical hits.

The First Critical Hits [Jon Peterson/Playing at the World]