Over the years I’ve tried various methods of spicing up combat in my old-school games, including using different flavors of critical hits and fumbles charts. Like many of you, I’ve tried them both as a referee and a player, and I can say unequivocally that I dislike most of them.
Initially they are fun – “Ooh your PC tripped and fell on his own dagger… roll damage… oh damn, you’re dead!”…riotous laughter (yes, this actually happened to me). But after a while they tend to get old and samey, and at least in my games we have eventually dropped the table-driven critical hit and fumble charts.
Worse are the charts that describe some sort of debilitating injury, like losing a hand, or breaking a leg. I find results like this don’t mesh well with the intentionally abstract nature of old-school combat, and are difficult to adjudicate. Just how should losing a hand affect a fighter? Do they lose more hit points bleeding out? Is it their weapon hand? Are they ambidextrous? Can they still use a shield? Maybe they get -2 to attack rolls forever… but is that too severe of a penalty for rolling badly? Do they get a chance to train and learn how to use the other hand effectively? So now we are adding some training rules in the mix? Bah! Call me a curmudgeon, but that is all too complicated.
What I have settled on over the years is this – if you roll a natural 1, you miss. Even if you can’t possibly miss, you miss. You can make it a flavorful miss if you want to describe it that way, but nothing untoward happens apart from that. If you roll a natural 20, you hit. Even if you can’t hit, you hit (barring magic or silver weapon requirements of course). Further, you do maximum damage. Not double, or triple. No exploding dice. Just maximum damage. Nice and simple, and it still gives players some bit of cool factor for rolling that natural 20 (I also use this rule for monsters and NPCs).
As far as spicing up combat – I think the players should be the ones doing that, enabled by the aforementioned abstract combat and old-school style “rulings over rules” play. They can be descriptive about routine attacks, or try unconventional attacks. “I leap from the ledge and try to land on top of the Goblin’s head” or “I flip the table over and push it into the Orc shield wall”. The variations are endless. A good referee will make rulings on the spot as to when such an attack succeeds or fails and the results.