Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Getting a critical in DnD can be thrilling, leading to you dealing massive damage and potentially single-handedly turning the fight around. It can also be horrifying when you’re on the receiving end of that critical hit.
Either way, players often have trouble understanding exactly how critical hits work.
If you’re new to DnD, or are just used to 3.5/Pathfinder and are new to DnD 5e, you can stop worrying. This guide has all the answers.
Critical Hits in DnD 5e
The basic rules from the Wizards of the Coast website describe critical hits like this:
Sometimes fate blesses or curses a combatant, causing the novice to hit and the veteran to miss. If the d20 roll for an attack is a 20, the attack hits regardless of any modifiers or the target’s AC.
This is called a critical hit, which is explained later in this chapter. If the d20 roll for an attack is a 1, the attack misses regardless of any modifiers or the target’s AC.
When you score a critical hit, you get to roll extra dice for the attack’s damage against the target.
Roll all of the attack’s damage dice twice and add them together.
Then add any relevant modifiers as normal. To speed up play, you can roll all the damage dice at once.
As you can see, critical hits are maximum rolls on a d20, and are balanced by critical misses. Here the rules specify that critical hits occur when a d20 is rolled for an attack.
Remember that spells also count as attack rolls which means the information in this guide applies to them as well.
Critical hits happen most often with weapon attacks because weapon attacks are made more often than spell attacks, but spell criticals do still happen.
When a critical hit happens not only do you automatically hit your target, but you also get to do double damage. However, you are only allowed to double the number of dice you roll, not any additional flat modifiers.
You definitely get to double the number of dice you roll for spells with an attack roll as well (but not a saving throw).
The rules explain this in a little more detail:
For example, if you score a critical hit with a dagger, roll 2d4 for the damage, rather than 1d4, and then add your relevant ability modifier. If the attack involves other damage dice, such as from the rogue’s Sneak Attack feature, you roll those dice twice as well.
Critical hits are also special in one other way. In DnD 5e, when you drop to 0 hit points you must make 3 special saving throws. If you succeed with all three saving throws you stabilize and don’t die.
If you fail all three, you do die. Death saving throws can be some of the most important rolls you make in your DnD career.
Critical hits are one of the few mechanics that have an impact on these saving throws.
According to the basic rules:
If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer instant death.
What this means is that if your character suffers a critical hit after being reduced to 0 hit points, they are already two-thirds of the way to death. After that, all you can do is hope someone knows some resurrection spells.
One more important thing to note about critical hits: they only apply to attacks. In DnD 5e there is no such thing as a “critical success” on an ability check.
Although many people choose to create homebrew rules that allow for critical successes and critical failures on ability checks it’s important to remember that these are homebrew rules.
Conditions and Critical Hits
There are two conditions that change how critical hits are determined in DnD 5e. If an enemy (or yourself!) is paralyzed or unconscious, any attacks made from within 5 feet of that enemy that succeed at hitting them are automatically critical hits.
That means if you attack with a reach weapon from 10 ft away, or use a ranged weapon from beyond 5 feet the attack will not be an automatic critical hit (though you can still get a critical hit the old fashioned way!).
This also means that against a dying character, any attack from within 5 feet that hits automatically means 2 failed death saves, so if you go down in combat make sure to have your buddies protect your body!
Homebrew Options for Critical Hits
While double the damage dice is nice, sometimes you might want to introduce additional effects on a critical hit.
Below is a table of suggested effects for each of the three types of attacks.
Upon scoring a critical hit, simply roll a set of percentile dice to determine which additional effect, if any, you apply.
Common Questions about Critical Hits
How do you get critical hits in 5e?
In DnD 3.5 and Pathfinder critical hits work quite differently from critical hits in DnD 5e. In those games, a critical hit could be triggered on a variety of dice rolls that were wholly weapon dependent, and some magic items changed this.
Moreover, critical hits had to be confirmed; after you rolled high enough you would have to roll again and see if the second roll was enough to hit the target’s AC. If it was only then would your attack count as a critical hit.
In DnD 5e the rules are a little simpler. It is harder to get a critical hit, but the critical hit range isn’t weapon specific and you no longer need to confirm a hit. If you roll high enough you simply succeed.
The basic rules state that critical hits are only achieved by rolling a natural 20 (where the die shows a 20, rather than reaching 20 via a combination of die rolls and modifiers) on a die or hitting a paralyzed or unconscious enemy with an attack. However, DnD 5e has several alternate ways of getting a critical hidden across various class features.
The Champion subclass for the Fighter has two abilities, Improved and Superior Critical that allow a critical hit on a 19-20 and 18-20 dice roll. With Improved Critical your chance for getting a critical increases from 5 to 10%, and with Superior Critical your chance increases to 15%!
The Hexblade subclass for the Warlock allows you to get a critical hit on a 19-20 against any target that is currently cursed by your Hexblade’s Curse feature.
And the Assassin Subclass for the Rogue allows the Rogue to make any attack they hit against a surprised enemy into a critical (which works especially well with the Rogue’s sneak attack feature).
What is a critical miss 5e?
DnD 5e is all about balance. For every critical hit, there must be a critical miss. A critical miss happens only when you roll a natural one on a d20 (rolled without modifiers). There’s always a flat 5% chance of a critical miss.
Critical misses are different from critical hits. There are a few ways to expand the percentage of rolls that are critical hits, but nothing in DnD 5e makes a critical miss more likely except for when you roll with disadvantage. You can never roll a critical miss on a natural 2.
Another way in which critical misses differ from critical hits is that they don’t add any other penalties other than missing your attack. Critical hits increase your damage, critical misses just miss. At least, according to the rules nothing else happens.
Like the table above, some people like to add a homebrew rule that adds an additional effect on a critical miss. Sometimes these effects include damaging yourself or allies with your weapon, dropping your weapon, or falling prone.
However, including these kinds of effects on critical misses tends to have the slightly ridiculous effect of having characters who are ostensibly masters of their weapons have a 5% chance of being incompetent.
This is made worse when you consider that the more attacks a character has, the more likely they are to get a critical miss.
That’s why I recommend including some additional rolls to make the chances of such fumbles much lower than 5%, if you include them at all.
Do crits always hit 5e?
According to the basic rules above, a critical hit occurs when you roll a natural 20. Such a roll automatically hits its target, regardless of AC.
You could have a negative attack modifier and be assaulting a high level Monk or Fighter in full plate armor, but you would still have exactly a 5% chance of hitting them.
This of course begs the question, if you can make a critical hit on a 19, such as with the Champion Fighter’s Improved Critical feature, does that mean a roll or 19 or 20 is an automatic success?
There is a subtle distinction between the automatic hit feature of a natural 20 on an attack roll and the double damage feature of a critical hit. While these features usually coincide, they don’t always.
No roll other than a natural 20 is guaranteed to hit your target. This is because the designers of DnD wanted to keep the chances of that automatic success at exactly 5%.
There is only a single way in the entire game to change that chance, and that is by gaining advantage. If you gain advantage on your attack you can roll 2d20s and pick the better option. With advantage your chances of rolling a natural 20 go up from 5% to 9.8%.
However, according to the official rules you cannot have “double advantage”. That is to say, if you have more than one source of advantage (if you are invisible and the target is prone for example), you still only get to roll 2d20, not 3d20.
Personally, I think that adding a homebrew that allows stacking advantage can be fun. With enough sources, you can raise the chances of getting a natural 20 much higher than the base 5%, especially if you can add inspiration too.
Does a critical hit double sneak attack damage?
A common question about critical hits is which damage dice get doubled. This can come from new players, but also often comes from those who are used to the 3.5/Pathfinder system.
In that system, critical hits double the number of base weapon damage dice and all modifiers (which could get massive!) but no other dice involved in the damage roll.
DnD 5e is different however. Modifiers are never doubled, but in exchange all damage dice directly connected to the roll are. Sneak attack damage dice are always doubled, so are Smite damage dice, and any additional damage dice that come from spells like Booming Blade.
Extra dice that come from your weapon, such as fire damage from a Flaming blade, is also doubled.
However, there are a few sources of damage dice that are not doubled that you should look out for.
Sometimes, an effect or weapon ability will trigger only when a critical hit is achieved adding some damage dice to your pool.
When an ability says something like “When this weapon scores a critical hit it does an additional 1d4 force damage”, that means that the added 1d4 is not doubled by a critical.
That is because the damage is not part of the attack, it is only triggered by a quality of the attack.
The other instance where damage dice are not doubled is if there is a separate factor causing damage on the attack. The most common of these is when you add poison to your blade.
A poison that deals 1d6 damage on its own will never double on a critical hit. It makes sense; a critical hit is like managing to score your attack against a vital area.
Poison is pretty much poison whether it enters through a scrape or a stab.
DnD 5e criticals can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you are used to playing other versions of DnD like 3.5 or Pathfinder. What dice get doubled, and when is not always clear. Plus getting out of the habit of having to confirm critical hits can be tough.
Still, a solid understanding of critical hits can let you stack damage with additional damage bonuses like smites or certain spells. And it’s important to know how criticals can force you to fail additional death saving throws, otherwise you may find yourself in a “sudden death” situation!
With this guide, you will be an expert on how to use criticals to your advantage!
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Growing up I spent most of my time reading, so when I first started playing RPGs in middle school and got a copy of DnD 3.5’s rules I loved their collaborative take on storytelling. These days I like to use RPGs to develop my creative problem-solving skills as well.