So, the most recent Roll20 session ended with the player characters in, not to put too fine a point on it, dire straits. A brace of lucky rolls on my part let a goblin patrol get a bunch of hits on the PCs; had we gone with rules as written, two PCs would be dead, but instead I went with these rather fun critical hit rules and the shit has consequently hit the fan in a somewhat more interesting way. Shim’s character now has a cool new scar, and Dan’s character has a broken left arm and a severed right arm.
This is possibly the nastiest thing to happen to the PCs in a tabetop session I’ve ever presided over (with the honourable exception of Paranoia) in terms of rendering PCs close to death or unplayability. Obviously in horror games there have been dire threats and direr consequences, but that’s a somewhat different thing from breaking a player’s character and having them roll up a new one.
This outcome was not planned; it stemmed from a combination of the players being steered into an area where the goblins would be patrolling by their guide, me making a roll to determine that the patrol would run into them, and a series of bad luck following on from that. The players were consciously taking a risk by a) pushing deeper into the dungeon and b) launching into combat when their magic-user was out of gas, but even so I don’t think they were expecting the trouble they got (and if they’d been a little unluckier this could well have turned into a TPK).
This outcome has me really excited as a referee.
Not in a gloating-about-stiffing-the-players sort of way, mind; I am more pleased about the fact that the players seem to have found the session exciting, and in the tonal shift that has resulted from this. So far, the players have been reasonably lucky in their fights, a combination of good rolls and good tactics helping them curbstomp most of their enemies. This fight, though, has made the world feel much more dangerous to me, and I imagine it’s done the same for the players.
In addition, Dan losing an arm is precisely the sort of setback which energises a game. The next session is going to kick off a high-stakes adventure in which the PCs will be trying to convince the temple of the Sage – the deity most compatible with One-Armed Jack’s alignment – to prevail on their god to intercede to allow Jack to recover his combat ability. (Yes, he could retrain to fight one-handedly through mundane means, though not in a timescale which would really let him be an active participant in the present campaign.)
This is a huge advantage, by the way, of using a critical hit system such as this one: it opens the door to having system outcomes yield adventures where a character’s future is really on the line. I have already given the group fair warning that saving Jack is going to be hard; persuading a deity to dish out a 7th level spell beyond the usual capability of the local priests to request usually is. That means the next session is going to have an actual PC’s very future at stake, where failure could happen at any moment through one moment of moral weakness or wrong ill-considered choice. I’m thinkng the Sage’s quests ought to have a strong element of CHOOSE WISELY to them, especially when they’re all about enabling a man to kill again. This is going to be interesting, and I think I’ve hit on a way to tie it in with some campaign setting material of more general interest too.