“…I’m making a note here
Sometimes when you swing that sword, bring the hammer down on the smithing anvil, or finish brewing that potion, you do with such a flourish that it does more than you expect.
You do so well that there are additional knock-on effects to what you were attempting to complete.
We call those Critical Successes or Critical Hits.
When they happen it is always a time for celebration, because not only did you succeed at your task, you succeeded in such a way as to make extra things happen. Maybe you hit someone really hard, or your craft roll made you use less materials than you needed.
There are more specific rules on that to make sure everyone plays fairly though. That’s what we are going over today.
What Does A Critical Mean?
In essence, a Critical Success or Critical Hit means you rolled a “natural 20” when making a check. A Natural 20 is when the d20 rolled and landed on 20.
There are some feats, weapon abilities, and class abilities that can expand the range of that critical chance. Things such as the Keen enchantment or the Improved Critical combat feat will come in handy for that.
Overall when we say “Critical” below, we mean you rolled a 20.
Critical Hits in Combat
Criticals are going to come up most often when you are in combat. Mostly because that is one of the most “roll dense” portions of the game, but also because that is where the focus for Pathfinder is for 90 percent of most games.
Between the two Pathfinder editions there are just enough changes to highlight the differences between both Criticals.
Pathfinder First Edition
In Pathfinder 1e, when you are in combat and roll a natural 20 it is considered a “threat.” Basically, you are threatening a Critical Hit. At that point, the GM will ask you to “confirm” the roll. Confirming is as easy as just rolling again. You roll your attack a second time, using all the same modifiers you had before.
If you succeed at hitting the target on this confirmation roll, then you confirm that it was a full critical hit. If you fail, it is just considered a normal hit.
Some GMs choose to forgo the confirmation step, as it could clutter up the whole combat rolling process. Requiring multiple rolls to get to the same result can make things difficult to understand, especially for new players.
Though some GMs prefer the confirmation, because if you could never hit the original AC in the first place, then there is no reason to believe you should have scored a Critical Hit.
Once the Crit is confirmed, you then roll your damage. However, because this is a critical hit, you roll your damage twice and add it together. This has the potential to double your damage output for blow.
It should be noted that you only double up rolls on your raw damage. Any additional damage dice added by a weapon special feature like Flaming or Frost as well as the Rogue’s Sneak Attack are not rolled twice, they are just rolled once.
Increased Threat Range
Some weapons have a higher threat range, making the process of scoring a critical hit easier when using those weapons. This is sometimes justified as saying the weapon is extra sharp, or designed for hitting the most deadly places on a body.
This is listed on the Pathfinder SRD as 19-20/x2 or 18-20/x2. That means you can roll in that range and be threatening a critical hit.
For Example, the Rapier has a critical range of 18-20, so if you roll an 18, 19, or 20, then it would be a critical hit.
As mentioned before, it is also possible to increase the threat range through the use of the Improved Critical Feat and the Keen weapon quality, making a possible Critical Hit build in Pathfinder very viable.
Increased Critical Damage
Some weapons deal an even higher level of Critical Damage. This would normally be listed with the item damage on a weapon listing. Taking some examples from the SRD:
A Warhammer has its normal critical damage listed as x3. What this means is that instead of rolling damage twice, you are going to roll damage three times!
A Scythe as its critical damage listed as x4. That means you roll your damage four times!
Magic and Critical Hits
If you are casting a spell, and it requires an attack roll to hit, you can still get a critical hit as though you were wielding a weapon.
Any Ability Damage or Ability Drain from the roll is doubled like normal for a weapon attack.
If there is no attack roll, then the spell cannot benefit from a critical hit.
Pathfinder Second Edition
In Pathfinder 2e, a critical hit is when you roll your attack roll and you score 10 over your target DC or more. So for example, if you were rolling to hit a DC of 19, and your total roll is 29 or more, that would be a critical hit. Also, like 1st Edition, a roll of a natural 20 on the attack roll also is considered a critical hit.
You don’t need to confirm this critical hit.
A critical hit will double the damage of your attack. Unlike 1st edition, you don’t roll twice, but actually total your damage then multiply it times two.
Certain other attack actions like spells or the Grapple action as part of the Athletics skill, have specific effects when you get a critical success. In the case of the Grapple action, the target is restrained until your next action.
For an example of a spell effect, one needs only look as far as the Acid Splash spell. When scoring a critical hit with Acid Splash, the target takes a persistent 1 acid damage in addition to the damage already taken from the spell. This persistent damage will also increase as you heighten the spell.
Some class effects, feats, weapon abilities, runes, and magic will grant a character something called Critical Specialization Effects for specific weapon groups.
The Bow Group for example:
Source Core Rulebook pg. 284 2.0
If the target of the critical hit is adjacent to a surface, it gets stuck to that surface by the missile. The target is immobilized and must spend an Interact action to attempt a DC 10 Athletics check to pull the missile free; it can’t move from its space until it succeeds. The creature doesn’t become stuck if it is incorporeal, is liquid (like a water elemental or some oozes), or could otherwise escape without effort.
Weapons Alchemical Crossbow, Arrows, Backpack Ballista, Backpack Ballista Bolts, Bolts, Composite Longbow, Composite Shortbow, Crossbow, Daikyu, Hand Crossbow, Heavy Crossbow, Hongali Hornbow, Longbow, Repeating Crossbow, Repeating Crossbow Magazine, Repeating Hand Crossbow, Repeating Hand Crossbow Magazine, Repeating Heavy Crossbow, Repeating Heavy Crossbow Magazine, Shortbow, Taw Launcher, Wooden Taws”
In this case, when you score a critical hit with a weapon in the bow category, you can add the above special effect to your normal doubled damage. You don’t HAVE to use the above effect if it isn’t advantageous to do it, but it can add more tactical options for your character.
Critical Success Outside of Combat
Natural 20s and Criticals are not just for combat. They can be used in other aspects of the game, specifically in Skill Checks and Saving Throws.
Pathfinder First Edition
Pathfinder 1e doesn’t really use Critical Successes beyond the Critical Hits of Combat. Typically most GMs will offer some kind of bonus.
In the case of something like a critical success at persuading someone using the Diplomacy Skill, they might become allies for longer than just one scene.
Maybe in the case of making a critical success on a saving throw against a specific effect, the GM might rule you get a bonus for resisting that effect in the future.
There are no hard or fast rules in this instance, so it is all in the GM’s hands.
Pathfinder Second Edition
2e on the other hand definitely has rules for natural 20s and critical successes outside of combat. This is when the degree of success rules start to really shine.
Degrees of success tie in with that 10 above rule from the combat section. You have a critical success on a roll if you roll 10 above the DC you need to beat. If in addition to that you roll a natural 20, then you get another degree of success on top of that critical. In essence you treat your success as one degree higher.
What this really boils down to most often is if a natural 20 would lead to a success, but not a critical success (if 20+skill modifier would not have been 10 over the DC), then it is still a critical success.
When it comes to critical successes in Pathfinder, there are often degrees by which you succeed. This is shown best in Skill Checks and Saving Throws.
Let’s look at some examples of how criticals work in Skill Checks.
So let’s say a GM calls for a Balance action at a DC 15 and your dice roll comes to a 25. Not a natural 20, but resolves to that total. That would be considered a Critical Success.
Under the Balance action we can see that means you can move at your full speed while Balancing across a thin surface as normal. Unlike a normal success, which means you have to treat it like difficult terrain.
Let’s say you roll and the total comes to a 20 instead of a 25, but this time you rolled a natural 20. You would still have a critical success, because your success was raised by one category.
Had you failed the test overall with a 14 or lower, but still rolled a natural 20, then you would treat it as a normal success because the natural 20 raised the test one level higher.
Unless your DC is incredibly high, a natural 20 will almost always result in at least a success. This represents that even some characters might just get lucky. It’s all about how fate decides to help or harm you.
Saves often work the same way as Skill Checks.
Oftentimes certain effects will call for a saving throw. When that happens, you can sometimes get a critical success to shake off or avoid the effects of the magic or affliction.
Let’s take the spell Puff of Poison for example.
When someone casts this spell on you, you have to make a Fortitude Save to resist the poison effects. You would roll like normal, adding all the modifiers you would need to.
Like with Skill Checks, if you are 10 over the Save DC of the spell or just succeeded with a natural 20, then you would get a Critical Success and not be affected at all.
If you failed the save, but still rolled a natural 20, you would have a regular success on the roll.
Several Spells and Afflictions have these scaling degrees of success, to better represent how exactly easy or hard it is to shake off a poison, trap, disease, or spell effect.
Game Mastering Critical Hits and Successes
As a GM, it can be sometimes awkward to try and account for the player’s abilities and down right luck with the dice. I’ve had bosses get one-shot by a character’s particularly lucky roll, or very tough and durable PCs shrug off the heaviest doses of poison.
The key concept to keep in your mind when a character does succeed like this is to remember that the PC is the hero, and this represents the culmination of SOMETHING with their story. This is their moment to shine, even if it is all too brief.
Critical Hits should make a character feel powerful and invincible, just like critical fumbles should make them feel very vulnerable.
When you roll a natural 20, it is a dopamine hit, and nothing hurts that more than a GM who gets visibly frustrated, or just treats it like it’s nothing special. Lean into the moment in the game.
If a character is playing someone particularly devout, and they roll a critical hit/success, describe how they feel like their God/Goddess/Patron is looking down on them and blessing them for a minute second of time.
If the character is not religious and maybe magically minded, explain how they have a feeling the exact forces of the world lined up for that moment. Or how all their skills lined up perfectly for this one action.
Great cinematic example is something like the “No Mind” scene in the Last Samurai. When Nathan finally defeats Ujio in a moment of perfect clarity.
Make your players feel good in that moment of success, even if the game is something more dark and grim. It will contrast well, especially if they have been losing a great deal lately or have been building to this for awhile.
Critical Hits and Successes should be something to celebrate. If an enemy is killed with a critical hit, describe how the PC took the head of the dragon or cut the legs out from under the minotaur. Or if you don’t want to take agency away from your players, let them describe it for you.
In the case of a Skill Critical, describe how they finish with a flourish. Perhaps let them describe exactly how they finish off a skill, or resist the effect of some danger.
Remember, these Pathfinders are heroes. Criticals let them BE heroes, and should be moments for them to shine!
Stay Lucky, Pathfinder!