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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Go Critical with Torn Asunder

by Ken Newquist / February 27, 2005

The latest editions of Dungeons & Dragons went to great lengths to abstract the combat system, eliminating weapon speeds, dropping call shots, and creating area-of-effect templates.

All of this abstraction comes at a price though. Some of the exceptional aspects of the game -- liking being able to put an arrow through an enemy's eye socket or cleaving off an opponent's arm at the shoulder -- were lost, and with them, so did some of the variation of combat. It became all too easy for combat to be reduced to just another set of numbers.

Bastion Press' Torn Asunder supplement looks to bring the exceptional back to D&D's combat by introducing a new system of critical hits, as well as feats, optional rules, and monsters to keep that system in balance.

Going Critical

Torn Asunder introduces two related critical hits system: a generic system useable with any kind of creature, and an advanced one that customizes critical effects according to one of nine body profiles (including humanoid, draconic, and multi-legged).

Both systems use the same mechanic. Players roll and confirm critical hits just like they do under the D&D 3.0/3.5 rules. When a critical is confirmed, the player takes the first number he rolled (the initial "critical" roll), adds in his normal modifiers, and compares that to his opponent's armor class. If what the difference between the player's roll and the opponent's AC is at least five, then the critical is "mild". If it's at least 10, then it's a moderate critical. If it's at least 15, then it's a serious one.

Consequences of these strikes vary based on the severity of the critical, the body part struck and the weapon used. A mild critical hit by a mace to an opponent's arm causes "deep bruising" and impedes a variety of skill checks related to using your arm while a "serious" critical from a sword slashing severs the limb and forces a Constitution check to avoid going into shock. Rounding out the Critical Hits section are new rules for called shots that allow for the specific targeting of body parts (as well as specific effects should the shot succeed).

The "Healing and Helping" section presents rules for keeping your character alive through enhanced applications of the Heal skill for first aid, short-term care and long term care. As with criticals, the new Heal skill uses make use of "factor levels". Players declare what level they're shooting for, which establishes a target number for their Heal check roll. If they succeed, the individual gets back additional hit points. Failure either results in no healing or the re-opening of the patient's wounds. Heal checks can be further augmented using several new alchemical and herbal remedies.

Seven new healing spells further aid characters, allowing clerics to bestow damage reduction, heal players from afar, heal broken bones, and mend critical injuries. Amputees unable to regenerate their lost limbs can make use of the book's eight pages dedicated to mundane and magical prosthetics. The book also introduces three new prestige classes (marksman, spiritual healer and apothecary), 19 feats to enhance the deadliness of criticals, eight "dire" spells with critical effects, and several new monsters.

Hits and Misses

As a Dungeon Master and as a player, I like the idea of critical hits and fumbles. They add real depth to the combat, and I was occasionally frustrated by the exceedingly generic nature of d20 combat. Every blow is reduced to a loss of hit points or ability damage, and while the DM can try and be more descriptive, it still comes down to simple subtraction.

On the flip side, critical systems take time to use. Time spent looking up the consequences of a strike is time no spent actually gaming, and since my d20 combats already tend to run long, I wasn't eager to further complicate the process.

And then I read a player's copy of Torn Asunder.

Bastion successfully created a streamlined critical system that returns consequences -- possibly extreme consequences -- to critical hits without needlessly bogging down the game. I've played a dozen or so low-level sessions with Torn Asunder and they've gone very well, so much so that I bought the book. That said, I'm not sure how well this critical system will work with high level adventuring, where players have a much greater chance of doing criticals each round because their threat ranges are higher. Time will tell.

The optional healing rules give characters a reason to put ranks into the Heal skill and are particularly useful for campaigns (like mine) with no party cleric. I'd much rather let my players heal up using this skill than constantly try and come up with legitimate reasons giving out dozens of healing potions. I wish they'd spelled out whether or not these uses of the Heal skill can be used multiple times in succession (I assume not).

The book's lack of page headers is a drawback, making flipping through it looking for "abomination critical effects" unnecessarily complicated. Another "browseability" problem is the typeface and font size used for the section heads and subheads. The font is identical for both, and while the subheads are smaller, they tend to blur together when flipping through the book.

The critical hits, healing system and related spells are the portions of the book I use most, and which I've imported into my game. The others -- specifically the feats and prosthetics -- are something I'll be importing on a case-by-case basis. While they look fairly balanced at first glance, I don't want my game to turn into all criticals, all the time.

Final Analysis

Torn Asunder is easily one of the best non-Wizards of the Coast supplements I own, and within my top ten even with WotC factored in. It restores a sense of imminent danger to d20 combat and provides a more cinematic, dramatic flair to the game. It's minor design flaws might make paging through it a little more difficult, but its still pretty easy to use in-game.