After my lambasting of the idea of 'punishing a 1 in combat', I guess its time to take a look a system that I believed handled fumbles and similar critical failures in a much better way. Not perfect by any means, simply better. And that was MERP.
MERP was 'Rolemaster-lite', set in Middle Earth. It used d100 rolls as its base mechanic, with tables. Lots of tables. Some might say too many tables. And yes, it was a simplified form of the Rolemaster game system which use, you've guessed it, even more tables! Where most homebrewed fumble systems in d20 systems rely on a flat 5% chance of failure - a 1 on a d20 - the use of d100 immediately allows for greater variability, but more of that after I explain the base MERP combat mechanics.
All combatants have 4 key combat stats:
OB - offensive bonus
DB - defensive bonus
Weapon Type - 1 handed, bludgeoning, missile etc
AT - Armour Type
An attack is resolved thus:
d100 roll + OB of attacker + situational modifiers - defender's DB. The result is then cross referenced on the relevant armour column of the table corresponding to the weapon type being used.
OB tends to improve as an individual gains levels, with fighter types improving quickly. DB is dependent largely on the defender's agility stat and whether or not they are using a shield, and is thus usually fairly static.
This is an example of one of the tables used, notice how it is easier to score damage against armoured foes (a total of 46 needed to do 1 point of damage against a defender wearing plate), but how the critical hits (letters A to E) kick in much sooner against lighter armour, and quickly become more severe (E being the nastiest):
But what about the fumbles? See that 'UM' on the table above - that is short for 'unmodified'. So a natural 01 to 08 on the roll *could* be a fumble. Now look at the weapons table, or at least part of it:
Each weapon has a 'fumble range' - thus a wielder of a Broadsword has a 3% chance of fumbling, a Dagger just 1%, and a Morning Star a whopping 8%. The chance of a fumble therefore depends solely on the combatant's choice of weapon - an unmodified roll of 01-08. Look also at the other modifiers. A Dagger gives -15 OB, and cannot cause anything more than a C critical. A Morning Star gives +10 OB, and is capable of dealing 2 critical effects with a single hit.
This give the players choice - you pays your money, you takes your chances.
One key point to also note is than in MERP greater combat skill does not directly give you extra attacks, thus the idiocy of better fighters = more attacks = more fumbles is also avoided. Instead, as they get better at fighting they hit more often (better OB), do more damage (better OB!) and inflict more critical hits (better OB!!!).
This is all good then? Well, erm, MERP did have a problem. Your OB with a Shortsword is +62, the enemy wears Chain armour (-10OB for shortswords), uses a Shield for +25DB. You've moved 15' (-10OB) to attack on the enemy's flank (+15OB). You roll 42. Now total it up and look at the table - quickly, so as not to slow the game down.
To help you it's 74, resulting in 4 damage with no critical.
So the maths involved hurts the brain, especially 4 hours into a gaming session! But what of the fumbles? Isn't this meant to be about fumbles? Ok, here's one of the tables:
Firstly take note of the extra modifier - simpler weapons have less severe critical effects - thankfully for Morning Star fans it is a 1H Concussion weapon! Then look at the effects - lots of stuns, some breakage, some comedy, more maths (!!), and very few involving hindering your allies. The effects often require added bookkeeping, so this is hard work for a beleaguered DM, who is likely to already be snowed under by keeping tracks of the ongoing effects of critical hits - lots of stuns and bleeds there too. I've only posted a snapshot of the tables - there are failure tables for manoeuvres, spells, and missile weapons too, along with attack tables for different weapon types, spells, different types of critical hit, etc etc etc.... so well, you get the idea.
It's patently obvious why the overall critical hit/fumble system works, it doesn't penalise warrior types, the effects are varied, and choice of weapon is vital. The use of d100 allows for this level of detail, much moreso than a simple d20. But it all comes at a cost - the DM needs a calculator, a degree in accountancy, and a ready supply of headache tablets.
It's a ball-ache, but it's better than the crap that people seem to take delight in cooking up for the various versions of D&D.
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