Rolling natural ones in DnD always feels awful, but how you handle them as a DM can make it worse. Natural ones are most of the time always fails, but when are they always fails and what should you do?
Rolling natural ones in DnD is not always a fail. It depends on what the roll was for, the severity, and depends on the player/the check.
Yes, natural ones do not always mean that a player fails, and the fail doesn’t have to be severe. Knowing when to apply different aspects of rolling natural ones
When to fail
Rolling natural ones in DnD does not mean that the player automatically fails! This is something that most DMs don’t understand, and can (rarely) make a difference.
The player only automatically fails with a natural one when they roll for attack rolls or saving throws. This doesn’t change when a player would normally fail, it just means that modifiers can make a difference. For example, a Skill check that requires a DC 10 can still succeed if the player has a +9 or greater on that skill roll.
This doesn’t mean that rolling a 1 leaves much chance of success for someone who has a +9 in that skill. If they are rolling at all, they should be rolling on a check that has a higher DC than 10. Otherwise, the DM should not be having the player roll at all. There is no point, and it is just a waste of time.
So yes, while rolling a natural one in DnD isn’t technically always a failure, it should be. This is something that DMs should be aware of so that they never make players roll frivolously on checks that should automatically succeed. This is where the proficiency of player character comes into play.
Not only should you make the player character not roll for checks that they can’t fail, but you should also change the severity of the fail based on that player’s proficiency.
Severity of failure
The rogue goes in and tries to roll a stealth roll, but instead rolls a natural one. The DM declares that the rogue tripped and clashed into pots, pans, and is now in sight of everyone.
That is a bit extreme for rolling a natural one in DnD. This rogue in question has a +11 due to expertise, stats, etc and should never trip like this on a natural one.
The severity of the failure is dependent upon the player character’s skill. If the player character is extremely proficient in said skill, then you shouldn’t make them fail so heavily. If that rogue needed a 15 DC to pass the check, they should have maybe bumped into the pots and pans to make noise, or have been surprised by something. Not fallen, crashed, and turned into a comedy sketch.
If the DC is higher, then the rogue could be overconfident and try to get past the guards too quickly. Timing the turning of the guards at an inopportune time and come face to face with them. For a DC 25, the failure can be worse but it should never be as ridiculous as falling into a pantry.
For a fighter who has disadvantage in heavy armor and only a +0 to their stealth, the comedy sketch might be warranted. They are not trained in this skill, and when they fail it is more understandable to fail horribly.
But why is this the case?
Why there are differences of severity in failure.
We took a look at the numbers earlier, but there is more too it. Yes, a rogue could have a +11 and the fighter could have a +0. That means when rolling a natural one in DnD they both fail, but the rogue’s number is closer to success. That doesn’t take everything into account. The only time the difference between success and failure matters is when a trap is disarmed or something similar happens.
Disarming traps generally, on a fail, doesn’t automatically set them off. If a player fails by a certain degree (5 or more than the DC required for my games) then you can have them go off. If it is within 5 of the DC, then wouldn’t go off. You can adopt this if you want, but it gives a degree of levity to failure for your players.
These are rare circumstances that might make a natural one not be a complete failure. If you want to implement this, then you can as a DM selectively implement it with certain skills. Just be sure to tell your players about it when they are making their characters.
These degrees of success accentuate the training and roleplay that the player characters have. So if a rogue fails at stealth when they are trained in it, they shouldn’t be as embarrassed as a bumbling fighter who tries to attempt something they are poor at.
With this in mind, should you use passive skills for everything?
The idea of a passive skill is already implemented in every DnD 5e game. This is implemented in the skill of perception. Everyone has a passive perception, and everyone has passive skill levels. How you calculate this is the exact same as passive perception. 10+ whatever your skill level is. So a +3 to investigate would have a 13 passive investigate (10+3).
This negates the chance of rolling natural ones in DnD, but when should you use passive skills?
Use them when the player would be doing something routine, and is not under pressure. If a player for example could pick a DC 15 lock in their sleep and isn’t under any form of pressure, they shouldn’t need to roll if they have a +11 to pick locks. This does not apply to them if they are under fire, or stressed in some other way.
Players can be stressed by weather, other players, or any other conditions. What constitutes as stress is up to each DM individually, but you should still use passive skills for when players are just doing something basic.
With all this in mind, players still have to roll. So, how do you have fun with a natural one?
Having fun with natural ones
Rolling a natural one in DnD isn’t fun. It almost always gives you a sinking feeling as a player. It makes you feel like all your efforts are for naught, and you find ways to appease the dice gods. Making dice jails, rubbing out the curse from the dice, weird irrational rituals start to appear.
Instead of making our players feel terrible for rolling a natural one (which is entirely out of their control), why not make it fun? The players are already going to suffer the punishment of rolling a natural one. Whatever they wanted to do fails horribly, and they don’t need to be made to fail even worse.
This is why we can transition a natural one into something grand.
If a player rolls a natural one when fighting in combat and has another attack that hits, you can turn it into something heroic when describing the situation. For example, a dwarven fighter rolls a natural one to hit and the a 23. The fighter hits the second time, so you change the description. Instead of saying there was a fail and a hit, you turn it into a story.
The fighter goes to swing and stumbles as the drow suddenly turns to the side. After swinging the miss the dwarf pushes off his right foot and cleaves into the drow using the body mechanics that he has honed through training. This makes the player feel a bit epic even when they failed, and validates what they have been working towards in roleplay.
If the player doesn’t have another attack or another attack doesn’t hit, you can chain it off another activity. Wait to describe how the player failed until the next person rolls, and make a story out of it.
The fighter fails to attack the drow and swings wide, but the distraction gives the sorcerer an opportunity to hit with a firebolt. Make the players seem like they are using teamwork even when fails occur. That not only softens the blow for the player, but it also makes the players consider teamwork which can enhance your game in the future.
Rolling a natural one in DnD sucks! No one wants to roll a natural one, but it doesn’t always have to be a fail. It should, and if you understand when it should as a DM you won’t present that situation to your players.
Instead, you will recognize passive skills and let players show off their skills in normal daily life. When showing off skills, the training and degree of proficiency from roleplay should effect the severity of the fail. This doesn’t break player immersion, and makes the player’s training matter.
Lastly, natural ones don’t have to be a pit of despair. You can have fun with natural ones and use them as opportunities to enhance your game. It can be that a player feels validated in their class. Players can also realize something they weren’t doing up until now and incorporate it into your game to make DnD even better for your group.
Use natural ones in DnD to enhance your game if you can. This makes the times that you don’t soften the blows even more impactful, and it can impact your game in a positive way in the end.
With this, I hope that I have helped you use natural ones to enhance your DnD game, and helped you understand how best to describe them.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!