Reconsidering combat fumbles

I never really liked having fumbles in combat. I know some DMs like to have players drop weapons, potentially hit other players, fall down, and all sorts of unfortunate things happen when PCs roll a 1 on their attack. I just don’t like it. It’s sort of kicking a player when they are down. Worse of all, it’s not because of a bad choice or poor decision, they just bumbled a die roll.

I think as a game philosophy, 4E has moved away from this idea. I like that the save or die concept has been dropped. Players have a few chances to turn things around. So the idea of having fumbles in combat seems to go against the grain of 4E.

I do like the idea of critical failures for skill checks. Even with a PC that has spectacular diplomacy training, you could have some noble zoning out and thinking about what wine they should drink with the evening meal, completely ignoring the pleas from that character. I don’t mind that players completely blow skill checks. I usually set them up with a -4 penalty to their following check (and conversely give them bonus if they roll a 20).

I avoid fumbles in combat though. You get a lot of dice being thrown around. Get a group of 5 folks rolling D20s, after a few rounds you can expect that one of them will roll a 1. Another reason I never liked it is that you tend to penalize the player that has multiple attacks. That chance of having a single fumble for the wizard that plops down a burst hitting 4 monsters is going to find it mushrooming from 1 in 20 to nearly 20%.

Still I’m wrestling with doing something with fumbles in combat. It does add a small aspect of chaos in how a combat develops and makes things a little more unpredictable for players. I don’t want some major mishap like a player falling prone, but I am wondering about having some small penalty.

So I’ve settled on taking a cue from the DMG. If a player rolls a natural 1 on their attack, they complete their turn as normal but grant combat advantage until the beginning of their next turn. If a player makes multiple attacks, only the attack roll for the first target is subject to being a fumble, with the rest of the attack rolls ignored if a 1 is rolled (just counts as a miss). That way there is a slight chance a player can get a fumble and it is the same regardless of how many attacks you make.

I see this as a player overswinging, losing their footing, or something else happening that makes them distracted and not able to effectively keep their guard up. Possibly that wizard had a surge of energy that landed a bit too close, distracting them, or they summoned too much energy temporarily making them a bit dizzy.

I’m going to try this out a bit and see how my players feel about it. I think they might welcome a little more randomness in fights, and hopefully not get too worked up about granting combat advantage. So if you have critical fumbles in combat, how do you work them out?

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