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Flawed House Rule: Weapon Fumbling

posted Monday, October 6th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionGame DesignThird Edition

I’ve talked about house rules before and why some are worse than they seem: double-rolling hit dice, realistic sneak attack and 3.0 power attack are some examples. Today’s crap house rule is weapon fumbles on natural 1.

Dropping your weapon on an attack roll of natural 1 is so common a house rule that many players assume it to be official. Rules as written, a roll of 1 is simply a miss. Some DMs like the added risk of a fumble, but there are a number of reasons why it might not be a good idea.

First, it adds in a greater element of random chance, which usually favours the opponents. Your opponents are often weaker, and more numerous, so one of them dropping a weapon is less significant. They are also more likely than you to use natural weapons (bite, claw, etc), which cannot be fumbled.

Second, it’s annoying. In third edition D&D, you waste the rest of your full attack and have to spend a move action to pick it back up, which provokes an attack of opportunity. In fourth it’s a minor action to recover the weapon so you only really lose one attack, but it’s still annoying. In addition, unattended weapons are vulnerable to being taken or damaged.

Third, it strains believability. It makes sense that a legendary warrior might still fail to make the occasional attack, but not that he drops his sword at least once in every battle. You can soften it with something like a Reflex save, but fighters have the lowest Reflex, and if you feel the need to soften fumbles there’s a good chance you don’t really want to use them.

Comments

  1. Oz

    October 6th, 2008

    The way we handle fumbles is that after a Natural 1, roll d20. On a 1-3 it’s a fumble. On a 2 or 3 that means lose a turn because you dropped your weapon, stuck it in the wall, slipped and lost your balance, etc. (narrative varies depending on the situation, but it’s the same mechanical result). On a second 1 you hit something you didn’t intend, most likely an adjacent ally, or hurt yourself.

  2. amatriain

    October 6th, 2008

    I handle fumbles in attack and skill rolls the following way: if you roll a natural 1, roll again and add the attribute modifier for the roll you were making (that is, Str for a melee attack, Wis for a spot check etc). If the second roll is under 10, it is some spectacular failure. This makes it harder to fumble the more naturally-suited you are for certain skill or type of attack.

  3. Reverend Mike

    October 6th, 2008

    We use a % fumble table, with numerous effects…most of which entail saves to avoid the effects, but some can get nasty…

  4. Psynister

    October 6th, 2008

    Very seldom do I bother with the incredibly annoying mechanics of a fumble. When I do, I usually represent it by granting Combat Advantage to enemies that start their turns adjacent to you. You screwed up, so the opponent’s get an advantage, but you’re not totally screwed for a single d20 roll that you have absolutely no control over the results of.

    In 4e, dropping items can be a near game-ending penalty with how readily monsters (or players) can push/pull/slide people. If you drop your weapon and do not have the actions left to pick it back up, I’ve got a Thunderwave ready to push you half-way across the map followed up by picking up your weapon and tucking it away. You then have no chance of getting it back until I’m dead, unless it’s a small enough weapon that you can use Thievery to get it back.

    A Hard Solo villain can roll a 1, drop his sword, and then find himself pushed back by the wizard, pushed even farther by the warlock, pulled in another direction by the swordmage, and then his weapon finds itself ready and waiting in the hands of the party’s Tank/Striker. It now sucks to be Mr. Villain man, and he has no way of getting his weapon back.

  5. AlorinDawn

    October 6th, 2008

    If you handle the fumble as you handle the crit it will all work out. If you roll a one, confirmt he fumble by rolling again to see if you hit the opponents AC, if you miss on the confirmation roll, you funble.

    That legendary warrior you mentioned shouldn’t have too much to worry about. A low level adventurer on the otherhand has a lot more to worry about. I’ve found that it al works out if handled as detailed above.

  6. Darkfire

    October 6th, 2008

    So even the best fighter in the world has a 1 in 400 chance of hitting themselves or an ally whenever they take a swing and a 1 in 200 chance of disarming themselves? Sure, it’s better than 1 in 20 but it’s still way too high a chance for being out of action for potentially two rounds and drawing one or more AoOs as you go chasing after your weapon.

    A small, temporary, (in)competence penalty, say -1, on your next attack or on your AC for the next attack against you (player’s choice) with both expiring after your next round would be more appropriate, so it can be likened to being putting yourself off-balance for your next attack or over-extending and leaving yourself open to a counter*, with the penalty being completely mitigated on a DC10 BAB + half your Dex bonus ‘skill check’** to allow for martial skill and natural ability to affect how well you deal with the mistake.

    For martial characters, it would become a non-issue by 9th-level, sooner if they’re at all dexterous, with high Dexterity 3/4 BAB classes keeping roughly in step. Even Wizards/Sorcerers wouldn’t be struggling to make it at that stage but then they’ve got plenty of options when it comes to improving their offensive/defensive capabilities or just avoiding making attack rolls altogether.

    *I’m not sure how you could flavour it for ranged attacks. Over-extending is still an option with a thrown weapon but it’s harder to justify the AC penalty with a projectile weapon or a ranged touch attack: Maybe taking your eyes off your surroundings while sighting your target? Just stumbling on a root or a rock? Cursing loudly due to the poor shot and drawing undesired attention?
    For the attack penalty there are a few more possibilities: a sticking/over-sensitive trigger for crossbows or a bowstring slapping the inside of the wrist on the previous shot to spoil your aim. Stumbling or messing up your breathing also works.

    **to avoid the usual ‘auto-fail on a 1′ rule that applies to saves.

  7. Porter

    October 6th, 2008

    What about inverting the old critical hit rules?

    On a 1 simply re-roll your attack roll; if the second roll also results in a miss, then you fumbled. That way you avoid using a Fighter’s weaker Reflex save. This inverts the on a natural 20 – roll again and if your second attack hit – it’s a critical. It correctly makes those with better attack rolls more likely to get critical hits than the classes with poor attack rolls, and also makes them less and more likely to fumble, respectively.

    That said – I’m not really a fan of fumbles. It’s bad enough that a natural 1 is always a miss/failure.

  8. Wil K.

    October 7th, 2008

    Our group technically has a fumble rule (make a DC 10 dex check on a nat 1 attack roll), but what exactly happens if you fail that dex check is up to the DM – it used to be hit adjacent ally or self, with the option to drop your weapon instead of attempting the Dex check (our fighter was a fan of lugging around multiple greatswords, so he didn’t mind), but recently it’s been of a ‘your character looked very incompetent with that attack’ sort of thing (essentially a horrific miss, flavour-wise). Personally, I think fumbling is a stupid rule (along with its evil twin multiple criticals (successive natural 20s)), since it tends to hurt the players much more. When I’ve DMed (we switch off), I’ve just ignored the rule for the players, but kept it in effect for mook-like enemies (because it’s actually quite funny when a sahuagin bolts his foot to the ship’s deck, but not so much when the cleric does).

  9. Tommi

    October 7th, 2008

    Furthermore: Characters with multiple attacks suffer. Monks are very prone to fumbling, as are two-weapon fighting rangers.

  10. Sian

    October 7th, 2008

    I’ve read a lot of discussions on fumbles, and it comes down to this:

    As you said, it greatly favors the opponents. they show up for one combat, usually die, are meant to do so, and thus are not as heavily affected by fumbles by PCs who will roll to hit hundreds of times in their career. Especially fighters, rangers and such.

    Also, fumbling is just no fun. Ps are supposed to be competent heroes, and dropping your weapon or having some mishap even once every hundred strikes just doesn’t contribute to feeling like a badass.

  11. Palm

    October 7th, 2008

    Our house rule is. Fumbling on the first attack in the turn makes you provoke an attack of opportunity, this opportunity attack can itself not lead to other opportunity attacks. Usually it used to trip, disarm or push or w-ever.

    The reason it only on the first attack is so it wouldn’t hurt ppl that’s using many attacks rather than strong ones. In all this rule is very balanced and does a good work to add some extra flavour to the combat. For extra flavour you could rule that you cant use your weapon when using this AoO, opportunistic face jab ftw. =)

  12. Darkfire

    October 7th, 2008

    @Porter: Unfortunately this means that everyone is significantly more likely to fumble against opponents with a high AC regardless of their level: A human fighter of 5th-level focusing entirely on defense can have an AC of 35+ (+1 full plate, +1 tower shield, +1 dex, +5 from combat expertise, +2 or 3* from fighting defensively, +1 from dodge, +1 natural armor from amulet, +1 deflection from ring all for 7,830gp and two or three* feats) whereas an offensive focused player will have maybe +12 or +14 to hit meaning if they roll a 1 against such an opponent, they’re going to fumble 95% of the time (so it’s a 19 in 400 chance).

    @Wil K.: A straight Dex check works but tends to favour ranged-fighters, rogues and other high Dex classes who will spend their ability points on Dexterity and money on Dexterity improving items. Anyone who doesn’t do this is just as likely to fumble at 20th-level as they are at 1st which just jars against their otherwise significant increase in martial prowess.

    @Tommi and Sian’s 1st point: Agreed. As with any probability based failure chance: the more times you try your luck, the more times you will fail. Martial characters get multiple attacks sooner (excepting flurrying monks and dual-wielders/rapid shot builds) and will try to maximise their use of full-attacks so are likely to fumble sooner than anyone else and are affected the most by the loss of a weapon. Using a fixed DC and BAB as a bonus on the check against it with no auto-fail would ensure that these characters become increasingly less likely to make a fatal error in combat.

    @Sian’s 2nd point: Agreed. A minor penalty which becomes insignificant at higher levels works better.

    *If they opt for able learner so they can put 5 ranks into tumble.

  13. Chris Tregenza

    October 7th, 2008

    Strangely, the science of how often humans make mistakes is not that well researched. The best site on the subject is: http://panko.shidler.hawaii.edu/HumanErr/Index.htm

    The research suggests that for very simple, low stress tasks, humans make mistakes 0.5% of the time, or 1 in 200 times. An example task might be pouring yourself a drink. A task you have done thousands of times in your life, but how often do you get it wrong? E.g. spill the drink, over fill the glass, forget to put the cap back on the bottle etc etc.

    When it comes to complex, multi-step tasks in high stress situations, the error rates got way up to 30% or more. Sword fighting counts as a complex task, done in high stress situations.

    Not all mistakes have the same consequences. A mistake in sword fighting may mean dropping your sword or it may mean having your balance wrong so your next attack is weak or even stepping into the opponents blow and getting your head cut off.

    Lots of mistakes a fighter can make in D&D are covered by other rules, e.g. simply missing your attack or your opponent dishing out a critical hit on you. So even though a sword fighter may have an error rate of 30%, the actual number of times they drop their weapon will be much lower.

    Experts in a skill are also better at recovering from errors. Consequently a 10th level fighter might notice his grip on his weapon is weak just before he tries to hit his opponent and pull his blow; whereas a 1st fighter would only notice when their sword goes flying out their hand.

    If you want a vaguely realistic system of fumbles then:

    Rolling 1 on a d20 is always a miss and is a potential fumble. A second role is required to avoid the fumble, with a DC 10, to which the players can add just their base attack. However if they role 1 on the second role, they automatically fumble.

    This ensures that better fighters fumble less often than worse fighters but that anyone can fumble.

    To get an idea of how often even experienced fighters should fumble, try watching some top quality sports. How often do top quality athletes not only get it wrong (e.g. miss the catch) but completely mess it up (e.g. fumble the ball)?

  14. Darkfire

    October 7th, 2008

    @Chris:
    Sure, even the best people make mistakes from time to time however let’s consider tennis for a minute: You see players making mistakes, playing poor shots, hitting the net or plain missing the ball, but how often do you see a tennis player dropping their racquet while they’re actually playing a point?

    Based on a 1 in 400 or greater chance, you’d being seeing it, on average, every 3 matches (Think about a 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 drubbing and you’re looking at least 108 hits (winning player acing on all first serves (4*3*3=36), losing player either double-faulting or losing a point on return of first service (2*4*3*3=72)) and probably a minimum of 144 swings at the ball (assuming the losing player attempts to return every ball played at them and double faults badly enough that the winning player doesn’t even try to play the return)) more likely every match.

    So, using the ‘roll two 1s and drop your weapon’ (i.e. 1 in 400 chance), you’d expect to hear of a dropped racquet roughly every other match and it not being unusual for it to occur twice in a long match. I can’t find any stats for this but must admit I didn’t look too hard.

    Anyway, to get to my point: a 1 in 400 chance of such a severe mistake as dropping your weapon *regardless of your level of skill* is way too high. If you still want to have a chance of a drop at high levels, have the roll for a second 1 as normal but then have a DC21 BAB save to prevent the fumble. Fumble chances would then be the following:
    BAB 0 : 19 in 8000
    BAB 4 : 16 in 8000
    BAB 12: 8 in 8000
    BAB 16: 4 in 8000
    BAB 18: 2 in 8000
    BAB 20: 1 in 8000

  15. Swordgleam

    October 8th, 2008

    I’ve never heard of fumbles as being flat “drop your weapon.” Everyone I know either uses a crit fumble table, or does something else.

    I like fumbles a lot. In a combat last session, several players rolled critical hits – and one rolled a critical fumble while firing at an enemy directly behind another party member. What do you think the group is still talking about: How Keyspelia did double damage against that hyena, or how Keyspelia alerted Rex to the presence of a scorpion by shooting him in the back?

    In my current campaign, I’m having the players describe their fumbles. It’s working out great. Some of them opt to drop their weapons, but most of the time, something a little more dramatic (or comedic) happens.

    Maybe great epic heroes of legend never screw up, but I doubt it. And certainly lower-level characters should have the opportunity for colossal failures.

  16. DnDCorner

    October 10th, 2008

    I stopped using critical fumbles a long time ago simply because they are so devastating. If the campaign needs some added humor and it isn’t going to get anyone killed I will add a little descriptive flair to the miss, i.e. “You (nearly) took your buddy’s ear off with that one” etc. but I try to keep it from screwing the party over.

    A blind archer firing into melee vs. concealed opponents who rolls a 1, however, will most certainly hit the wrong target ;)

  17. Wyvern

    October 10th, 2008

    The GM of the group I play with has a house rule that rolling a natural 1 ends your attack action (i.e. you lose any additional attacks you may have). Most of our PCs are below 6th level, so it actually comes into play most often with creatures that have claw-claw-bite attacks.

    Saying that fumble rules are more likely to affect the PCs than their opponents is misleading. What matters is not how often it happens to any individual opponent, but how often it happens to the opponents as a collective group.

  18. Darkfire

    October 10th, 2008

    @Swordgleam:
    While no doubt very entertaining, the trouble with allowing your players to choose their own outcome for a fumble will lead to eventual discrepancies in the severity of the penalty. Those players dropping weapons are penalising themselves more than say an archer engaging in a bit of friendly fire or more than they would be by simply injuring themselves. Hell, at high-level, if given the choice between taking damage or losing out on 2 or 3 more attacks I’d only drop the attacks if the damage would knock out/kill my character. Although, for RP purposes, it would be far appropriate to lose out on attacks as a result of self-inflicted injury.

    I’ve no objection to fumble tables providing there’s a nice sliding scale of penalties on it with the least/most detrimental penalties being the least likely roll. A job for 2d6 or variable margins on a d100 maybe?

    @Wyvern:
    Sure, everyone is as likely to fumble as everyone else and the more attacks you make during a round, the more likely one of them is going to result in a fumble. Under your GM’s house rule and at levels 1-5, a fumble is only ever worse than a miss for dual-wielders, rapid-shot archers, flurrying monks and multi-attacking creatures all of whom could miss out on an attack (or two).

    That said, consider situations where PCs are outnumbered significantly but are at a slightly higher level and you’ll see that one of the opponents fumbling is less detrimental to the group of opponents than a PC fumbling is to the group of PCs.

    Example: For a group of 4 PCs vs 20 orcs (an easy encounter for 7th-level PCs). Let’s say for a moment all of the PCs are in martial classes, have taken improved two-weapon fighting and have necked Haste potions so will have a total of 5 attacks each a round.

    An orc fumbles an attack. This has no baring on the rest of the orcs’ attacks. In fact, as group, regardless of the number of fumbles rolled, they make 20 attacks a round.
    A PC fumbles an attack and, under your GM’s house rule (which is more reasonable than a fumble resulting a dropped weapon), loses between 0 and 4 subsequent attacks. As a group, the PCs will only make between 16 and 20 attacks in a round where one of them fumbles and may potentially make only 4 attacks if they all fumble on their first attack.

  19. Wil K.

    October 11th, 2008

    @ Wyvern: in general, it is true that fumbling (in most people’s use of the house rule (bad stuff happens like: drop weapon, hit friend/self, etc.)), fumbling IS more damaging to PCs than to monsters/enemies: if fumbling can cause the fumbler to die or nearly die, the expected lifespan of a PC drops significantly; enemy lifespan also drops, but not to such a massive degree. Monsters and other enemies weren’t meant to last very long (usually 5 rounds in combat), so the fact that they died a turn or two earlier really doesn’t matter that much. But most PCs in most campaigns are designed to last at least through the session (and usually multiple sessions and multiple adventures), and if fumbling (like its also evil twin cascading criticals) causes them to die in a combat, then the play experience is severely interrupted. Some people may find this sense of death fun. Personally, I find it stupid – it’s far easier and funner to simply be mature enough to RP the aspect of the fear of death (though some games will intentionally ignore this) than to have to deal with common ‘random’ PC death in the game. It is a game, and the point of a game is (in my opinion) to have fun. Personally, having players’ characters randomly die is not fun.

    (Not to say that death shouldn’t be without it’s troubles: we usually play with a ‘temporary’ negative level (can’t be removed with restoration, etc.) that goes away when you next level up rather than the permanent negative level. That way, there’s still a strong penalty for death, but after a while the penalty goes away, letting you play at the same level as the other characters again. (In older editions, where XP to level was more exponential, this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem (even if you *gasp* had to start at 1st), since although you’ll have a rough time for a little while, you will quickly re-level to where you were before in the time it takes your friends’ characters to level maybe once. Just an observation I’ve heard related to me, not actual personal experience.))

  20. Hereward

    November 17th, 2008

    Personally I like the idea that heroes get it wrong sometimes and use fumbles on a Natural “1″.However I use a slightly weighted system based on a “D% + characters level” to generate the results.This means in the system I use that at 10th level it is impossible to hit yourself or a friend.At 20th level it is impossible to drop a weapon or snap a bowstring.After this it is a case of gradually diminishing combat disadvantages.So a 1st level character rolling “96″ for example on a d% will only suffer a minor disadvantage, he was lucky, a 34th level character rolling a “1″ on a d% is still going to have a significant disadvantage the following round but is not going to be brutally disadvantaged, his experience saved him.I could factor in ability scores as well and may get round to it one day but I would rather play the game than spend too long writing tables.
    Its my first visit to this site.Its a nice resource and the comments and arguements seem well constructed.I guess my final comment is that fumbles add a nice random element that can liven up the game.Spectacular fumbles live on in the players memories long after fantastic criticals have been forgotten.

  21. Tetsubo

    December 25th, 2008

    I haven’t use a critical fumble system since 1E. They just penalize those with more attacks, as has been stated. On a natural ’1′ I often just describe a mildly humiliating result of the roll. “Looks like Ragnar is taking up farming as he buries his sword point in the dirt.”

  22. Quicksilver

    August 29th, 2009

    Why have any chance of fumble at all when it’ll just piss off your players more and while your monsters can’t be pissed off through multiple encounters and it won’t effect the game if the npc’s “get mad”?

  23. Dan

    October 28th, 2009

    We make a Reflex save on a roll of natural 1. If you make it, you simply lose the rest of your attacks. If you fail, you fumble your weapon and need to pick it back up as a move. If you fail with a second natural 1, you throw your weapon, in a direction determined by a d8 roll and a distance determined by d4 squares. If there’s a creature in the line of effect between you and the ‘destination’ square, that creature must make a reflex save to avoid it or take base weapon damage. The whole throwing-your-weapon rule tends to make a funny moment rather than a realistic one, but that’s what we prefer a lot of the time.

  24. Nick

    December 4th, 2009

    I completely agree that this is a crap house rule. When I run, a 1 is just a bad miss, and maybe a moment of social embarrassment if it matters (like a duel for instance).

    My line of thinking is that if I completely screwed up just 5% of what I do at work, I’d definitely be fired. It’s just not realistic.

    Now I do incorporate bad things happening, but it’s usually when someone fails a skill roll that would already have a bad consequence. Even then I only do so if the roll fails by 10 or more.

  25. Zach

    April 11th, 2010

    My group has experimented with this house rule in many many different ways but we decided to keep it because it made sense to us. Sometimes it isn’t the fact that your weapon just slips out of your hand but to the fact that your weapon is actually trying to hit something that is mobile and wearing stuff to try to stop your attack. Every attack is supposed to be hitting someone’s sword or shield or armor or thick hide on a moving target that is also trying to kill you.

    It’s not as simple as a tennis match as someone suggested earlier. In tennis you have a large springy paddle hitting a light soft fluffy ball. In medieval combat you are swinging a 3-15 pound object very hard at someone who is likely to be trying to counter that by also swinging a 3-15 pound object or deflecting it with a shield. Maybe you lose it because you are disoriented from the fight or a hit, maybe it is because your footing slipped while you were swinging and you started to use your hand to maintain balance or somehow lost focus on your grip, maybe it’s because your hand hit his shield on your swing and your hand goes numb for a moment. It’s not that hard to believe that in a medieval combat situation with all the variables going on that even an experienced warrior is going to lose his weapon some time… but very rarely. Here is our solution to this house rule.

    If you roll a natural 1 you get to make another roll that is d20 + Dex Modifier + Weapon Focus (if applicable) + Weapon Enhancement vs DC 10 Recovery. At level 1, a big brute fighter might have a +2 to retain his weapon while a nimble rogue might have a +5. At level 10 a fighter with a +2 weapon might have a +5 bonus while the rogue might have a +7. By level 20 any combatant should be at least a +8 making failure only on a natural 1. There are 4 possibilities to come out of this. (Odds based on a +5 bonus)

    1. Roll a natural 20: Critical recovery! You quickly realize the situation and regrip your weapon (regain your footing for natural weapon users) during the attack so that no one is the wiser and you retain the rest of your attacks. (1:400 odds)

    2. Beat DC 10: You successfully retain possession on your weapon (or retain your footing for natural weapon users) but in a manner that your foe realizes your mistake and goes on the offensive. You retain the rest of your attacks but have -2 to hit and AC til the end of your next turn. (1:27 or 15:400 odds)

    3. Fail DC 10: You successfully keep your weapon (footing) but it requires your entire concentration to do so and manage to fend off attacks. You lose the rest of your attacks for that round and suffer a -2 AC until the end of your next turn. (1:133 or 3:400 odds)

    4. Roll Natural 1: You are in danger of losing your weapon/footing in such a manner that it is going to fly away (completely slip). Make another roll using the same DC as before. (1:400 odds)

    5. Beat DC 10: Revert back to choice number 3. (1:500 or 16:8000 odds)

    6. Fail DC 10: You have completely botched your attack. Not only do you lose the rest of your attacks this round but next round as well and suffer the -2 AC. You do manage to hold onto your weapon unless you willingly let it go, if you choose this option it is assumed you think that you are better off being defensive and you no longer suffer the -2 AC and are free to draw another weapon next round (providing another bonus to quick draw). Roll a d8… weapon flies 1 square in that direction starting from the square directly in front of him and rotating clockwise. (1:2667 or 3:8000 odds)

    7. Roll a natural 1: The weapon’s gone and you didn’t even know it was going to happen. You are shocked at the departure of your weapon (footing/overswing) that you lose the rest of your attacks, but you do not suffer the penalty to AC. (1:8000 odds)

    That’s our system and none of it is too drastically bad the PC in the unlikely event that they fail THAT bad. You have to remember too that when you are a legendary warrior… you are also fighting legendary monsters and NPCs and not those orcs you slaughtered as a child… they know how to press the advantage as well. There’s only a 0.05% chance that you could lose your weapon and a 0.70% chance you lose your attacks for the rest of the round. And that’s for just moderate warriors and it only gets harder to epic fail as you level. Complicated? Maybe… but so is combat.

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