Unlucky 13

I generally like the idea of fumbles in games, being both true to life and literature, although they can be a problem if they’re too frequent or severe.  A fair number of published systems would have a tenth or more of an army incapacitating themselves over the course of a battle. Another thing that I think is a problem, albeit a minor one, is that most systems tie fumbles into failure, so it’s impossible to both succeed at a task but have something go awry.

Here’s the system I’m currently using in my D&D-esque game:  whenever rolling a d20, a roll of a 13 means something unlucky potentially happened.  Roll a Luck save (luck is a Stat in this system, but you could substitute some other sort of save).  Success means nothing happened, failure means something bad but relatively minor or recoverable (weapon twists in your grip and you can’t attack next turn, sun gets in your eyes, etc.).  A second roll of 13 means something quite unfortunate happened, such as dropping your weapon or falling down.  Roll again and keep rolling if 13 keeps coming up, making the result more severe the more 13’s you get.

Obviously you can adjust just how bad it is to taste; I feel that dropping a weapon one in 400 times is probably bad enough, but you might prefer that to be the result of failing the luck save, and have the roll of a second 13 be more spectacular, such as a broken weapon.  You could also make it more severe, so that e.g. a weapon breaks on a failed save after the initial 13, if you want things to be more chaotic; I lean against that, in part because in most RPGs that sort of thing can really make the PCs seem like klutzes.  During a campaign players tend to make many times more roles than any individual NPC they encounter, so a 1 in 20 or 1 in 40 shot may well turn up for each character at least once a night; if the failures are particularly memorable that can be a problem.  1 in 400 is more like once a session or less for some PC or NPC…enough to add flavor without being overwhelming.

I like this because it’s an easy mnemonic, which can be important for something relatively rare.  It’s a pain to have to, say, check each roll to see if it missed by more than X if it’s only going to really matter 1 in 400 times.  I also like it because it makes it possible to both succeed (if 13 was good enough) and still have something untoward happen, such as hitting a target but having your weapon stick.

13 thoughts on “Unlucky 13

  1. If you make your Luck save, should something lucky happen instead? Or should that be lucky number 7?


  2. Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

    I like it. I can’t think of an instant parallel for Savage Worlds, though as far as armies incapacitating themselves that system sort of (?) covers it by not having critical failures in the book (though most groups have unfortunate things occur on double 1s).

  3. @Russell – the lucky 7 idea crossed my mind, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with 1 in 10 rolls requiring some kind of confirmation roll.

    @Theron – Double 1’s being a critical failure of some sort is an official Savage Worlds rule, but since only Wild Cards have a second die to roll even large groups of extras are safe.

  4. My (current) fumble rule: After rolling a 1 on d20 in combat, roll the d20 again. Missile weapons fumble on 1-3, 2-handed melee weapons fumble on a 1-2, and 1-handed melee weapons or natural/unarmed attacks fumble on a 1. A fumble means something happens that cost you a round unless you were doing something risky like firing into a melee or swinging at a foe already crowded by allies, in which case you hit the wrong target.

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  5. @Oz – yep, that’s a pretty standard sort of d20ish Fumble rule. The only drawback from my perspective is, as I said, that I like it if you can Fumble even on a success.

  6. Not sure how much complexity you want to add to something like this, but I always liked the old Ars Magics Botch Dice system.
    In a nutshell, you roll a single time to check for fumble in normal situations. However, if you’re doing awkward things (slick surfaces, darkness, in a hurricane, channeling more magic energy than you can safely handle, etc.) you add extra rolls based on how awkward what you’re doing is. Penalties scale up pretty quickly from 1 botch being a nuisance, to 4+ being catastrophic.
    The upside is that you can give your players a hint of how bad it can get, without having to come up with specifics all the time. Also, it can be fun to roll a handful of dice if something happens when you’re really pushing your luck. 🙂

  7. Is it? I thumbed through my version. It was always implied but I was not totally certain it was official. I have only the original book.

    At any rate, that’s the rule I’ve used. It kind of makes sense in a “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” kind of way.

  8. @Doug – too complicated, I think. Plus I’m not too fond of dice pools. The odds of three 13’s in a row are so easy to calculate that it’s practically no effort. Russell may be able to do binomial distributions in his head, but I have to double and triple check even when I use a spreadsheet…

    @Theron – it’s definitely part of the Explorer Edition rules (page 56: The Wild Die), but maybe it wasn’t in 1st edition.

  9. The D6 system had an interesting take on that. You had one Wild Die, you rolled with the rest (preferably a different size and colour than the rest) and when it showed a 6 or a 1, something good or bad happened, respectively. The result on the other dice would tell you if it was an annoyance, bonus or a outright botch.

    I like that idea.

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  10. @Andreas – yeah, that’s not bad. Allows for overlap of extraordinary results with auto-miss/hit (if you’re using that). IIRC, Rolemaster used to use doubles on the percentile dice…

    @Russell – thinking about the Lucky 7 idea, one potential use would be to have that effect the other guy; that way even if you allow the player to roll both attack and defense, there’s a chance of Fumbles happening to the NPC when the player rolls a 7….

  11. @Andreas – I think what I’m thinking of was that 66 and 00 were almost always singled out in Rolemaster tables for special treatment, so not fumbles, just unusual results.

  12. Well, my current system is that a 20 is always a critical success for the roller, and a 1 is always a critical failure for the roller. If it’s on a dodge, a critical success is a fumble for the attacker, and a critical failure for the dodger is a critical success for the attacker. But it doesn’t have the “unlucky success” or “fortunate failure” options. If you have 13 be the luck number, but allow success at the luck roll to be “especially lucky” and failure at the luck roll to be “especially unlucky”, you wouldn’t add to the number of roles, and it would be symmetrical (except since 13 is higher than average, you’d have more unlucky successes than lucky failures).

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