May 16, 2014
Critical Hits: The Great Equalizer
So I am playing a barbarian in a friend of mine’s Pathfinder game. It is the Wrath of the Righteous campaign I have mentioned a few times before and, as someone who normally plays mystic or healer characters, playing something as straightforward and powerful as a barbarian has proved to be a great deal of fun. Our group has just discovered another group performing some sort of evil empowerment ritual in the ruins of the city we are in and so we charge into battle. Despite being low level, my character is a giant bag of hit points, so as I wade into the midst of enemies taking blow after blow, I remain for the most part unimpeded. Then the demon they have been empowering takes notice of me and tears into me with tooth and plague-bearing claw, yet I remain undaunted. In my head, I was doing the math. I could take a couple more of those blows before I would be anywhere even close to the danger zone. That would give me at least two more swings at the beast, and there were few things we had encountered thus far that could survive more than one of my sword blows.
Then the Gamemaster rolled a natural 20 and confirmed the critical hit. All of a sudden, my mighty and unstoppable barbarian was lying on the floor of the temple, bleeding out as our healers struggled to make their way over to me. Critical hits. The great equalizer of gaming.
Almost every game has some version of a critical hit. Usually it involves doing more damage than normal or inflicting some sort of ailment upon your foes, often in the form of broken bones or severed limbs. In Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, when a critical hit occurs you do a multiple of your normal damage. This is often enough to change the entire course of battle, such as in my case. That sudden, unexpected spike of damage forces you to rethink all of your plans as you struggle to accommodate the spontaneous shift in combat. Those on the receiving side will often find that the odds have turned against them. Characters who, moments ago, may have been close to full health are suddenly reduced to a very worrisome state assuming they survive the blow.
This sort of unpredictability is an important element to role-playing games. It makes combat risky, no matter how powerful your characters might be. It presents an element of danger that no amount of magical items or high quality armors can overcome. It forces players to remember that any time you draw your sword or cast your spells, you are risking your character’s life and that is something that should rarely, if every, be taken lightly. Sure, in games where combat happens often and characters are expected to wade through numerous foes throughout their adventuring careers, that might be overselling it just a bit. I am not trying to say that players should be afraid to have their characters fight. I am saying that combat always comes with risk. Without risk, where is the thrill? Where is the fun? Sure, it feels awesome to fight your way through your enemies without getting a single scratch. Sometimes. If that happened every single time, it would turn boring and the last thing any Gamemaster wants their game to be is boring.
Critical hits add a level of excitement to the game that few other things can match and it is always fun to see that spark of either fear or excitement – or maybe even both – flash across your player’s eyes when the dice falls on that glorious natural 20.
As always, thanks for reading and I wish you all good gaming, and may you roll many critical hits.
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