Critical Moments

678517My first steady group of players started playing with me around the time 2nd Edition D&D was dying. My older brother, and two friends of ours, joined me (as the Dungeon Master,  of course) in my first real group campaign. My brother had rolled up a Centaur with a Dire Tiger companion. One of our friends was a Half-Elf Wizard, while the other one was a Human Monk (well sort-of, but that is another story for another time.) I was still in the habit of drawing up a character with everyone else, so I drew up, you guessed it, another Elven Wizard, but this time he was a Wizard/Cleric.

We were all exploring the ruins of the old empire, when suddenly, we were plunged deep underground by a collapsing street. We could barely see anything from the dim light shining down from above, so my friend’s Wizard cast a Light spell. We were in  yet another ruined city, this one much more ancient and dilapidated than the first. Among the crumbling buildings, we saw several statues of brave warriors. Some of them had their faces twisted in grotesque masks of fear, or anguish, others were frozen, mid-swing or charge, almost as if their own personal battle was stuck forever in that moment in time.

Just then, the Dire Tiger’s ears shot forward, alerting us of coming danger. We all rushed and took up defensive positions, hiding behind the statues, or crouching by sections of crumbling wall. Out of the shadows a form came slithering towards our positions. It had a huge snake-like body, with a woman’s torso, arms, and head. Her hair was made of dozens of venomous snakes. In her hands she held a battle-bow. Across her back was strapped a quiver of deadly poisoned and barbed arrows. It was the legendary Medusa we faced, and we were doomed! We had no protection against her petrifying gaze, and no way to restore our allies should they succumb to it.

We spent the next several rounds simply trying to avoid her petrifying gaze and move around to a better tactical position. Unfortunately, we were in her home, and she outmaneuvered us to gain the high ground and a sniper’s perch on us. We were trapped in a corner, desperately attempting to avoid the poisonous tips of her arrows, when suddenly I rolled a natural “1” for her ranged attack against us. What was I going to do about this? There are no official Critical Hit or Fumble charts in Dungeons & Dragons. It is left to each of us, as DMs, to decide what the rules are for rolling a natural 1, or a “fumble”; or for rolling a natural 20, or a “critical hit”, or “crit” for short.

I ruled that Medusa slipped on the edge of her perch while attempting to get a better shot at us. She was given a Dexterity check to see if she could grab the ledge in time, or if she would fall to the ground below. She rolled a 3, and came crashing down. We seized our opportunity, and fled while she was recovering. We were so intent on getting away from Medusa, that we did not even care which way we were running, or what we were running into. That changed when we felt the swamp water begin to seep into our boots. We had found ourselves ankle deep in murky, algae ridden water. We began to argue amongst ourselves as to what we were going to do now. We had no idea where we were, we had no idea how to get back to the surface, and we were now wet as well. Suffice it to say, we were caught completely off-guard when the green dragon’s head came up from the deeper parts of the swampy water.

My brother’s Dire Tiger companion leaped into action, pouncing on the dragon, and attempting to rake him with his deadly claws. My brother rolls. It’s a natural 20, a Crit! Everyone starts shouting. Now, you have to understand, back then we had a rule; one 20 was an automatic hit, but two 20s in a row was a chance for an automatic kill. So he rolls again. It’s another natural 20. Everyone is freaking out, jumping out of their seats, high-fiving each other, thinking that they were about to automatically kill an impossible foe with a lucky roll. My brother rolled his d20 a third and final time. All he had to do to kill the dragon was not miss this roll. The Dire Tiger had an amazing attack, so I believe that he just had to roll above a 6 to succeed.

“…we found a way to make the roll of the dice change, in a drastic way, the outcome of the adventure, and the character’s lives.”

As the dice left his hand, we all had a feeling that something amazing was about to happen, we just did not realize what it would be. The dice hit the table and bounced, once, twice, three times. It started to come to a stop. Now, anyone who has played D&D (or any rpg) long enough can tell you, there is a moment sometimes when you can see the dice almost decide to roll just one more time. To flip that one last side. We all watched, as that dice took an eternity, before finally tipping one last time, and landing on the “1” side. Everyone went as silent as the grave. What did that 1 mean? What was going to happen now? Clearly the Dire Tiger had hit the dragon, so what had changed from him almost killing the dragon?

Again, there is nothing to cover these situations in the books. They are something that you have to deal with on your own, usually as they come up in the game as a surprise for everyone! I decided that the Dire Tiger’s claws had become embedded in the Dragon’s thick scales, and that when he went to rake the dragon, he ripped his own claws out. It was a brutal moment, for everyone involved, but one that we will never forget.

We have rolled a million d20s over the years. More natural 1s, and 20s than I can remember. So what makes those stand out so much? Why are those more special than others? Because we found a way to make the roll of the dice change, in a drastic way, the outcome of the adventure, and the character’s lives. We knew that we were dead when we stumbled into the lair of Medusa, until she rolled a 1 and allowed us the time we needed to escape. The Dire Tiger was about to rip the Black Dragon’s head off because of the two natural 20s he rolled in a row, until the natural 1 altered that moment, and my brother’s character forever…

Good Gaming my friends!

– The Dungeon Master

NEXT TOPIC: Railroad vs Sandbox

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