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A pair of supplements supporting heroic and pulp fantasy gaming with new classes, magic types, spells, monsters, and more!
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Critical Hits

Posted by Autarch (Creator)

We're proceeding with good momentum. The Ceremonial Magic rules presented in the last update seem to have been very well received, much more so than the prior iteration of the rules. Several of you have written in to say that they're adding these rules to their campaigns already, which is the best feedback I could hope for.

Now I want to share with you another update - to the critical hit rules. The critical hit rules in the last iteration of Heroic Fantasy Handbook suffered from some flaws that, on reflection, I believe compromise the design.

  • The system is too math-heavy. By having critical hits occur on a roll 10 points over the target value, they require a second layer of math on every attack.
  • The critical effects are uneven in scope. Some of the critical hits offer a saving throw; some don't. The saving throws do not clearly match up to the saves offered by special maneuvers.
  • The critical effects are largely underwhelming. It's too little pay-off for a great roll and a mathematical calculation. Some are devastating; most are trivial.
  • The system relies on the "Natural Rolls" system to work, but that system (mandating that a natural 20 is not an automatic hit but instead an explosion) hasn't been well-received. 

The new rules, detailed below, address these problems. I hope you'll give them a playtest and let me know what you think.


If the result of a successful attack throw is a natural (unmodified) 20, the attacker has dealt a critical hit to its target. When a critical hit is dealt, the target suffers double damage and must make an immediate saving throw v. Paralysis. If the save fails, the target suffers a critical effect in addition to double damage. The target’s saving throw should be modified by 4 points per category of size difference between the attacker and the target, as per ACKS p. XX.

The attacker determines the critical effect dealt by rolling 1d10 on the appropriate column on the Critical Effects table. For purposes of the Critical Effects table, “characters” are combatants equipped with arms and armor, while “monsters” are combatants relying on natural weapons and toughness.

Lucky Hits: If an attacker could not otherwise have successfully hit the target except on a natural (unmodified) 20, rolling a natural 20 does not deal a critical hit. The attacker is luck to have hit at all! 

High-Level Hitter: If the attacker has more than twice as many HD as the target, the range of natural rolls on which it critically hits the target is increased by 1 (from 20 to 19-20, or with Weapon Focus, to 18-20).

Brawling: After seeing the result rolled on the Critical Effects table, the attacker may opt to inflict a Brawling critical effect in lieu of the effect rolled. For instance, an attacker with a nonmagical sword who rolls a Damage Shield result against a target with a magical shield could substitute a Brawling result instead. An attacker who fears being carried off by a flying creature could substitute a Brawling result for a Clamber result.

Shields May Be Splintered: If the target of a critical effect is equipped with a shield, he may choose to substitute a Damage Shield result in lieu of the actual effect dealt to him. This represents the character desperately absorbing the blow on his shield. 



Brawling: The target suffers an additional 1d4 damage from a strike from the attacker’s gauntlet, pommel, or shield rim. If the attacker has no metal weapons, the damage is nonlethal, but otherwise the brawling damage can be lethal or nonlethal, at his discretion. 

Damage Armor: The target’s armor is damaged, reducing its effectiveness by 1 point. Armor that loses all effectiveness is ruined. Damaged armor can be repaired at a cost of 10gp per point of effectiveness. Magic armor cannot be damaged except by magic weapons or monsters of 5 HD or more. 

Damage Shield: The target’s shield is damaged, reducing its effectiveness by 1. If the shield is non-magical, this will destroy it. Damaged shields can be repaired at a cost of 10gp per point of effectiveness. Magic shields cannot be damaged except by magic weapons or monsters of 5 HD or more. 

Disarm: The target is disarmed of its weapon (as the special maneuver). The weapon drops to a point chosen by the attacker who dealt the critical hit, up to 5’ distant from the target. 

Fatigued: The target is wearied by the flurry of blows. The target suffers a -1 penalty to attack throws and damage throws until it rests. If additional fatigue effects are rolled, the effects are cumulative. 

Force Back: The target is forced back (as the special number). It must withdraw a number of feet equal to the attacker’s damage roll. If this would push the opponent into a wall or obstacle, the opponent is knocked down, and takes 1d6 points of damage per 10’ he has traveled. 

 Knockdown: The target is immediately knocked down (as the special maneuver). Once prone, the creature can move, but only to crawl at a movement rate of 5’, to take an action in lieu of moving, or to end the condition by using an action in lieu of moving to stand up. If engaged, the prone creature remains subject to the movement restrictions of being engaged, so it can only crawl if using defensive movement, and cannot stand up in lieu of moving. The prone creature can attack, but suffers a -4 penalty on its attack throws. Alternatively the prone creature can stand up in lieu of attacking. The prone creature can be backstabbed by creatures capable of doing so. Attack throws against the prone creatures gain a +2 bonus, or a +4 bonus if the attacker backstabs the stunned creature. The conditions is ended immediately when the creature stands up. 

Impair Attack: One of the target’s natural attacks (determined randomly) is somehow impaired – muscles sprained, claws ripped, etc. The target suffers a -4 to attack throws with the impaired natural attack until it rests. 

Injure Appendage/Organ: The target must immediately roll 1d6 on the Critically Wounded row of the Permanent Wounds table. The effects are permanent. 

Injure Hide: The target’s hide is bruised, cut, or broken open such that its AC is reduced by 1 until it rests. 

Stun: The target is stunned until the end of its next initiative. A stunned creature cannot attack, cast spells, or move. It gains no benefit to its AC from its shield (if any), and can be ambushed or backstabbed by creatures capable of doing so. All attack throws against stunned creatures gain a +2 bonus, or a +4 bonus if the attacker ambushes or backstabs the stunned creature. 

Sunder Weapon: The target’s weapon is sundered (as the special maneuver). If the target’s weapon is a non-magical spear, staff, or pole arm, it shatters into splinters when sundered, dealing an additional 1d4 nonlethal damage to the target. Swords cannot be sundered by non-metal weapons or natural attacks by creatures of less than 5 HD. Magic weapons cannot be sundered except by other magic weapons or monsters of 5 HD or more. 

 Unsteady: The target is put off-balance and unsteady by a confusing maneuver or powerful attack. The unsteadied creature cannot move for 1d3 rounds.

Wrestle/Clamber: The results of this critical effect depend on the difference in size between the attacker and target. If the target is the same size category or smaller than the attacker, the attacker has grabbed the target in a wrestling hold (as the special maneuver). If the target is one or more size categories larger than the attacker, the attacker has clambered on top of or mounted the target (as the special maneuver, see below). 


These rules can be deleted as unnecessary.


Weapon Focus: The character is an expert at delivering critical hits with a type of favored weapon. Any time the result of a successful attack throw with a favored weapon is a natural (unmodified) 19-20, the attacker has dealt a critical hit to its target.  A character may take this proficiency multiple times, selecting an additional Weapon Focus each time. The available Weapon Focuses are: axes; maces, flails and hammers; swords and daggers; bows and crossbows; slings and thrown weapons; spears and polearms. Weapon Focus does not allow a character to use weapons not available to his class.

Steve Dodge, Jon Tate, and 6 more people like this update.


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    1. Autarch 8-time creator on

      We will officially be reverting to the 10+ rule, although keeping the other amendments and simplifications to the critical system. Thanks for the (incredibly unanimous) feedback.

    2. Nick J. on

      Late to the party, but I agree that 10+ over is just fine and isn't a burden to calculate. It makes sense to my brain that more skilled attackers exploit weak points more often than less skilled combatants and cause more debilitating effects.

    3. Fabio Milito Pagliara on

      I'am for the 10+! And even 20+ for greater effects...

    4. Florian Hübner on

      I would favor the 10+ version as well but I cant claim any play-testing experience as my games are currently still in summer break mode.

    5. Autarch 8-time creator on

      Oh! So 100% of respondents prefer the 10+ crit mechanic.
      That seems like more than a random sampling.
      Anyone else want to chime?

    6. Steve Dodge

      I'm also in favor of the 10+ = crit mechanic. It differentiates those with better attack throws. As Dave pointed out, the math is very simple.

    7. Autarch 8-time creator on

      I'm devastated to hear that I've deprived you of what is best in life. But I'm glad that the other mechanical improvements were pleasing. Let's see what other feedback we get.

    8. Missing avatar

      Mark Bober on

      The main benefit of the "10+ crit" is that high HD combatants are critting more often against low-AC foes - which are largely lower HD foes - all the knockbacks, knockdowns, shields splintered, and disarms paint for us Frazetta's Conan the Destroyer - and I'd considered it one of the most effective rules in the book for bringing me what is best in life.

      I'd agree with Dave. Given the tight bounds of common AC values in ACKS, knowing the difference between hitting AC 0>9 vs AC 10>19 is a relatively simple operation - certainly less effort than a secondary save or tracking additional effects over multiple rounds.

      I do appreciate the consistent inclusion of double damage, the "default : brawl" choice and shield sacrifice, and the change to a flat d10 does open up more variety in effect.

    9. Autarch 8-time creator on

      Dave - I appreciate the frank feedback! Your analysis is spot on, of course; the mechanical issues described in your post below are the exact reason I wrote the system with a "10 over target number" in the first place. So I absolutely empathize.

      I'd love to hear from other backers as to their thoughts. Sometimes those who dislike a system complain and those who like it say nothing, and it gets changed when it oughtn't.

    10. Missing avatar

      Dave Sherohman on

      Honestly, I'm disappointed to see the change in how you determine that a roll is a crit. When you're already checking "is the roll over X", also checking "is the roll over X+10" doesn't even qualify as extra math IMO - you don't have to calculate X+10, you just see if the tens digit of the roll is larger than the tens digit of X. I'm also very familiar with exploding dice mechanics and quite comfortable with them. So the objections to the old way are, to me, meaningless. (I know that most people seem less comfortable with math than I am, so I don't doubt that others have complained that it's too much math for them. I just disagree.)

      In going to a pure "natural roll" system, you get the same problem that has plagued "nat 20 is a crit" houserules since I started playing in the early 80s (and probably before that): Low-skilled attackers are (proportionally) *better* at getting crits than high-skilled attackers! If nat 20 is a crit and some level-0 peasant farmer needs 19+ to hit, then he'll crit on fully half of the times that he connects at all. But if you can arrange the situation so that you hit on a 2+, only 5.3% of your hits will crit. Even with High-Level Hitter and Weapon Focus giving you crits on 18+, you're still only critting on 15.8% of hits, still well short of the peasant whose hits have a 50/50 chance to crit, despite the higher absolute chance of critting.

      That anomaly has always really bothered me and one of my favorite parts of your original crit rules was that "exploding to-hit roll; crit on 10 over" eliminates it, making it very easy to crit on easy shots and more difficult to crit on hard ones.

    11. Autarch 8-time creator on

      That's great feedback. "Injure Appendage/Organ" is actually the one I've most agonized over. Do others agree it's maybe too much?

    12. Steve Dodge

      Looks very good. I'm considering a couple of changes.

      For "Forced Back", I'd change the last sentence to "takes 1d6 points of damage per 10’ the opponent would have traveled."

      Remove "Injure Appendage/Organ" and replace it with "Attacker's Choice". I'd rather permanent injuries be relegated to GM/player choice and not handed out on a lucky roll.

      However, I am considering a house rule called "Appendages/Organs May Be Lost". When critically hit, the opponent may choose to permanently lose a limb or organ to turn the critical hit into a normal hit. The actual effects of the lost limb/organ are up to the GM.