[RPG] When did rolling a natural 20 on the d20 become a “critical success” in the history of Dungeons & Dragons


I've only played Dungeon @ Dragons in its 5th edition, and I have only limited exposure to earlier editions from PC games, but never understood the rules behind them (or knew the calculations), so I've never known whether the term “natural 20” and its meaning of critical hits and success is in earlier editions.

I've read and watched some D&D-themed comics and videos, and I've noticed there are plenty of examples that suggest that rolling a natural 20 means critical success, i.e., succeeding in whatever you are attempting, regardless how stupid and bizarre the result may be, including seducing the BBEG and marrying them.

I'm mainly interested in how and when rolling a natural 20 was introduced as resulting in a critical success. This may be in attack rolls, ability checks, or saving throws. The earlier the better.

Best Answer

The first appearance of natural 20 as a critical hit in published rules seems to be in AD&D2e, on p. 86 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. It's explicitly an optional rule. AD&D1e specifically disclaims the idea, on p. 61 of its Dungeon Master's Guide:

Such rules as double damage and critical hits must cut both ways — in which case the life expectancy of player characters will be shortened considerably — or the monsters are being grossly misrepresented and unfairly treated by the system.

Natural 20s as critical hits were certainly in use as house rules long before AD&D2e. When I started playing in 1979, one of the groups I played with were running a modified version of Original D&D, deliberately avoiding most AD&D innovations, and they had been using natural 20s for years. These applied both to monster and character attacks, so the monsters weren't being treated unfairly.

I don't have experience of the differences in play style this creates, never having played any kind of D&D without critical hits, but I suspect it made us more cautious than players not using criticals.

Empire of the Petal Throne had a critical hit mechanic in 1975. There weren't any articles in Strategic Review magazine about criticals, but there was one in Dragon #39, and there may have been others.

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