Yay for the Critical Fail – The Joys of Natural Ones
C: What’s today’s topic, Ange?
A: Well, we recently chatted about fudging—and not fudging—dice rolls, and it got me thinking a bit about how we don’t talk enough about when the dice are just great. Like, we’ve talked about that frustration when someone—you or a player—rolls either a natural 20 or a natural one, so either an automatic, amazing success, or a critical fail…and you’d just rather that they hadn’t for plot reasons. But we didn’t really discuss the flipside, which is when someone rolls the absolute perfect result in the moment.
C: Like a natural 20 to defeat a boss?
A: Yeah, but also the exact opposite too. Because natural ones get a bad rep. Everyone’s always like, ‘Man, natural one. What a fool.’ But actually, we’ve had great natural ones. So today this is basically us cheerleading for natural ones.
C: Which is important because like, I don’t care who you are, a constant in your game, regardless of your settings, regardless of your ruleset, will be the rolling of natural ones.
A: A bold assertion.
C: I feel pretty confident in it. You got dice? You’re gonna roll a one at some point, my dude. And we should also say that there are two ways of interpreting a natural one. Like, a natural one is always a failure; you’ve straight up missed the mark. But in some games getting a natural one is extra bad, and in some other games it’s just like, ‘Nah, you failed’.
A: That’s true.
C: And we both run games where a natural one is even worse than normal failure. And by worse, we tend to mean that you fail but now in a more emphatic or comedic way, which is why they can be a lot of fun a lot of the time.
A: Right. And this is why I think they’re under-appreciated often but can be so brilliant. Like, your game is pretty grim-dark at the moment and the party is—
C: Like something off the set of Suicide Squad? Yeah, it’s kind of exhausting.
A: A little bit. There’s so much tension, and also murder and other grim backstory issues for the characters to get through. Many of us are haunted by many things, and in D&D that often manifests as literal hauntings. Which is why when we get moments of comedy it’s such a relief. And we’ve had a couple of those recently courtesy of some perfect natural ones.
C: We should stress that we’re mainly talking about natural ones out of combat. In a battle, getting a natural one is usually not the best, and it’s not generally super funny because sometimes it can put you in a lot of danger—
A: Yes, this is true. And it’s the same for moments where rolling bad can mean death, or at least significant maiming. Like rolling acrobatics to safely cross the rickety bridge over the river of crocodiles. But there are a lot of times you roll the dice for character-moments, and when you get a natural one then, so many hilarious things can happen. Most recently we got to watch the Oracle in your game, Hamish try to spy on some guards in a bathroom while disguised as a cat, only he rolled a natural one twice in a row so the whole plan fell apart incredibly quickly. It was truly beautiful to watch and it made everything so much less tense and stressful.
C: I think a lot of this was because our friend who plays Hamish is a really good roleplayer who leans into the character moments and who manages to bring everyone else along for the ride. He is brilliant at playing both the highs and lows of the character and creating these really wacky scenarios, whatever the dice roll.
A: Yeah, that’s true. A lot of my favourite natural one moments happen to him.
C: I think there is a very legitimate and understandable temptation for players to sometimes roleplay the good moments but to be…less keen on roleplaying their character fucking up. But he is great at playing both.
A: Yeah. It’s often harder to think of how to act when you get a natural one than a natural 20, right? So it’s understandable why players and DMs lean into it less. But if you can manage it, it’s worth it.
C: Totally. A lot of the time the most memorable moments are going to be things which are determined by the dice that are going to be things that you don’t necessarily expect. And just goofing it when you critically fail a roll can be genuinely fun to play out, and they can do work for your character by showing a side of them that is generally hidden.
A: Right, and it’s the same for villains. The way a big boss reacts to a natural one can often add something to their character, makes them into more of a person rather than just a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out to be defeated.
C: Do you think we as DMs tend to be more keen on natural ones? Do you think it’s different when you’re playing versus when you’re DMing?
A: Probably. Because we have more control over the narrative and know more about what’s going on, we know the moments when it’s okay to lean fully into the critical fails and to ham them up. But players know their characters the best, so can often think of the most perfect responses to natural ones, so they probably create the most memorable, most farcical critical-fail moments.
C: Yeah. And I think whether you’re playing or DMing, it’s never bad to have those moments where you’re reminded of the fact that this is not a game where you have a better experience if you succeed all the time, at every roll. It is okay to fail sometimes.
A: Hear, hear. Apart from my beautiful villains. They must never fail.