When Ultimate is ultimately low


Asking experienced ICRPG GMs: How do you handle or narrate it when a player crits but then rolls a 1, or in general really low, on their ultimate D12? Do you allow reroll below a certain threshold or do you take it at face value?

Somehow, I feel that a natural 20 should always be awesome and not be immediately followed by a disappointment. I can think of these options for very low D12 rolls:

  • Just swallow and move on.
  • Reroll below a threshold (below 4 or even below 6?) Fixes the math but it also takes away from the D12 variability.
  • Explode the D12 on low values. (This doesn’t feel right to me because it breaks the meta-rule that low rolls are weak and high rolls are strong.)
  • Give the player some non-damage additional effect to the attack or effort.

D20 as Ultimate

Good question! You could handle it a couple ways. The first one is bring Hero Coins into play. Those hero coins can be a safety net to bad rolls or low rolls when your need them.

Another way, like you mentioned, is to reroll if the ultimate die is lower than a certain threshold. In Altered State, you reroll anything four or below. They actually say that Ultimate should feel Ultimate so reroll those lower numbers.

For me, personally, I would aim for those two options to start with and see if that helps.


Good point about the hero coins, thanks!

For brainstorming, some more options I could think of:

  • On a crit, always max out the normal effort die and then add the D12. At least the player wont crit with 1 + 1 effort, then.
  • Add a constant “boost”, e.g. crit makes (normal effort) + 4 + D12. (Fixes the math, keeps variability, but feels very artificial to me. Not elegant.)


Absolutely. Great options!

I’ve also seen GMs grant an extra action or extra effect. Like “you rolled a crit on that Don’t Die on Me save, not only do you stabilize them, but they get an automatic recovery roll.”

Or hey that you rolled a crit on that attack, so even though you didn’t roll high on the damage, I’m going to say he’s stunned for a round. All attacks on the monster are EASY for the next round.

There’s plenty of ways you can interpret a Nat 20 roll beyond just adding the Ultimate die and that can mitigate low rolls too


This is a situation—“big” hit, low output—that I definitely don’t fudge. The dice have spoken! I handle it 100% narratively instead.

When the crit is rolled and the instant table excitement dies down, I immediately call for the damage roll. When the total output is disappointingly low, I let the storytelling take over.

I describe the epic precision and strength of the character as the seemingly devastating strike lands. Depending upon the exact nature of both the weapon and the foe, I usually describe how the blow does some kind of visible damage and/or leaves a gruesome wound or mark.

Then I describe in equally epic terms how, despite having just been tagged in the worst of ways, the target powers through the demolishing hit and miraculously stays standing. Maybe the hit drew first blood on a creature that is deceptively tough, so the blow that would have put down a lesser monster suddenly reveals this opponent’s true strength. Maybe the battle has been viscous and prolonged, putting the opponent at low hit points, and the big hit that the player hoped might have been the coup de grace turns out to be the strike that fuels this pitiful “walking dead monster” in its will to live a few moments longer and make an epic last stand.

There are as many possibilities for telling the story of moments like these as there are combinations of die rolls, monsters, and player characters. Tell one that your players remember, whether they stand fast and eventually defeat the foe who would not go down, or whether they suffer unexpected tragedy as fate turns on them suddenly when they do their best and still lose the day.

This is not a time to play softball—particularly in a system like ICRPG that has concrete mechanics like Hero Coins (and Memory Rings and Dark Pact) baked into the system to turn such letdowns right back around in favor of the adventurers. This is not the loss of a beloved PC that the player has invested in heavily—at least not yet. This is just one bad die roll with the promise of many more to come in one’s time at the table. This moment of unexpected disappointment is a vital part of the game, reminding them that few things in the dungeon are absolutely certain. That’s what makes it an adventure.

If you have players who still whine about it after more than a minute, you are only doing them a favor and fulfilling their need to have someone help them put on their big-person pants one leg at a time and learn to remember that, while we play games for fun and the session should leave everyone better off at the end of the night, that fun is born from the rhythm of individual highs and lows, of which this low damage roll is only one. Learning that lesson in-game only reinforces its truth and value in our larger lives.


I mostly have max effort for the weapon, and then roll Ultimate. At the very least, it’s max effort +1… I also allow that max effort count as if it was rolled as well for anything that might affect an ability, loot, etc…


I like this option of doing max weapon die +1d12, it’s simple, it’s fast.


Good points about narrating mixed results. I’ll definitely keep your advice in mind for situations like natural 19 attack + 1 point of damage rolled, even if I might decide to do something else for crits.


Yeah, me and another GM friend think about create, lesser Crit on 18 and 19.

NAT 18 normal effort + a stunt
NAT 19 normal effort + choose: +1d6 or + a stunt
NAT 20 MAX effort + choose: +1d12 or + a stunt

Fall on ground
And so on…


Regarding “fudging”: I should have made it more clear that whatever rule I would eventually pick, it would be a hard-and-fast rule for both players and monsters, so the players would also see brutal crits coming their way.


There’s precedent for re-rolling an ultimate roll below a threshold. It’s a rule in Altered State, as Kane mentions. “Ultimate should feel ultimate!” I don’t think this is fudging if it’s a rule that’s clear at the start, and is used consistently for everyone – including the bad guys :smiling_imp:

I normally try to be very generous with hero coins, and let players reroll a low ultimate roll with a hero coin. That puts the ball in their court. Plus it feels good to hand out the hero coins.


Oh, check out item 50 on the Epic Loot Table. Hankerin has heard the petition of us low rollers and granted us a mighty boon!


I like the idea of optionally disarming with a crit. My players are adults who don’t have much RPG experience and usually the first thing they say in a confrontation is “I try to disarm him/her/it.” If disarming is at all feasible in the situation, I could then just say “well, then try to roll a 20 on your attack”.

Of course, this will then also be an option for the bad guys. Anyway, I find disarming a difficult topic as a GM. It is so frequent in movies and stories but it poses lots of questions for the GM. How difficult is it? How to balance it with other combat options? Is it permanent or can the weapon just be picked up again? Can the opponent wrestle the weapon back from the PC? Do the ones doing the disarming need to drop their own weapons?


For crits, I think it’s standard effort +ULTIMATE; I have maxed out that base effort in the case of a NAT 20, though against the PC, this gets deadly fast.


What I see with this kind of rules, is the player will more choose to pass the enemies or negotiate. Like a old rpg we know, that a wizard begin with 1d4 HP.

Of course, that depend of what level of danger, and feeling you want to grant to your games.


Some good options have been covered - here’s another way to do that.

You get the big crit at the perfect time - but then roll two 1’s. Snake eyes on this big moment.

Feels kind of flat…

Just started trying this and must say it works pretty well. The idea came from the The Way of the Ming Vase here https://friendorfoe.com/d/Old%20School%20Primer.pdf

Instead of relying on big damage to be the “thing” give them a benefit - especially if you get low damage numbers. Benefits can be, “Blood/Mud/Crud flies into the eyes of the bad guy behind them - they aren’t getting a turn this round” or “You disarmed them and flung their weapon away” or “They got knocked into a bad position they’ll roll hard to hit this or next round” something along those lines.

My two drachma,


A common homebrew rule I use for games that can have critical hits is max out the base dice before the critical hit/roll bonus takes effect.

Example: roll critical on spell do 10 + Ultimate effort


That, and you can decide to have baddies crit with a straight roll.


You could also swap a D12 for 2d6.


Lots of good ideas here. I use Khan’s Hero Cards instead of Coins and if I hand them out for “poor” ultimate rolls they might sometimes even want to roll poorly haha.

The auto max effort concept is a pretty no-brainer one for me. Makes rolling a nat20 even more worth it. Although an alternate Mastery system (with bonus abilities at 10, 15, and 20 nat20s) also works as well. So even if they roll ULT1 then they at least are making forward progress towards a Mastery.

Not quite related to low effort rolls, I do enjoy systems like Mouseguard that reward players for failure. ICRPG had roll EASY if previously failed and that’s cool but I love that in order to level up a skill in Mouseguard you are required to fail. Maybe I can figure out a way to work that concept into ICRPG as well.

Maybe just keeping track of failures per stat?