[Delve] About dice, critical hits, and narrating fights

I’m normally not a fan of “critical hit” mechanics in games, per se, although it’s not easy for me to articulate why, because I do like having a method for player characters to be exceptional, and that may (indeed, often) includes exceptional talent at combat. It probably stems from my dislike of over-reliance on randomization for what happens in the game: while combat is certainly a chaotic and unpredictable situation, it feels many times like “crits” take agency out of the players’ hands and put it on the inanimate dice.

That said, in constructing Delve to emulate as much of the experience of classic dungeon-stomping adventure as possible, the specter of the critical hit looms. Now, I could wave my hand and point to the Strong special, which lets adventurers deal extra damage for an AP. Of course, you have to have that special to benefit, and one of the things about crits in fantasy games is that they are a potential outcome no matter who or what you are.

Reexamining the assumption of the critical hit is part of my reconciliation process. Just as one of the tenets of Delve‘s design philosophy is “dungeons are plots, not places,” I look at the critical hit and see that it’s not so much a matter of dealing massive damage – that’s the surface condition, to be sure, and what most game-minded players fixate upon – but instead a way of changing the narrative of the fight in a way that’s more than just “I hit, I do damage, is my opponent dead yet?” With that perspective, crits are instead a means of overlaying narrative detail onto the fight that affect the way the fight progresses. It’s not uncommon for crit systems to impose a layer of modifier to mechanically justify their results, but in the end, it’s about putting an onus for roleplaying and verisimilitude on the affected character. If the crit table says that my wizard’s leg was broken by the minotaur’s maul, then the tacit agreement of everyone at the table is that I have to factor that into my choices of action and subsequent description or break the immersion.

Delve, fortunately, already has rules for how and when to add narrative detail to the game, so we can accommodate criticals in the game by referring to those. In this case, it’s also a way to perhaps address the persistent issue from the previous post of generating points for the game currency. As with previous playtest drafts, the choice of the die (white or black) influences this decision, but instead of a static inflation of pool sizes, we introduce the idea of handing over. In a sense, every roll is now a critical: you are explicitly given narrative authority over the results of your action if you take the white die, while the gamemaster takes the narration if you go with the black die. BUT: you can choose a hand-over of narration, in which the proverbial baton is passed, albeit in exchange for the compensation of a point for their pool. So, if you roll a success on the black die, the gamemaster would get to decide how that plays out, but you can opt for the gamemaster to hand over narration to you, and a Hazard Point is awarded for the deferral. We flip the authority for failures, by the way: choose to fail on the white die, for instance, and the gamemaster gets the narration, though handing over is still an option. (The decision on handing over is always on the person who made the roll, no matter who benefits.)

That gives us a second in-port for points to the otherwise closed pools system, but one mediated by the desire to have narrative control. Pushing ahead remains the primary reliable form of growing the number of points in circulation, but this system does something else that’s interesting – it makes the decision regarding narration a tactical one.