Cleaving Through the Ages

Medieval fighter in combat with piles of bodies

One of the things that I love the most about our Wandering DMs project is that we've had the happy accident of assembling a crack D&D research team from among our patrons and followers. Maybe the best? When we gather together for any Sunday afternoon show, we can usually get questions about the history of the D&D game, for any edition, answered live in a couple seconds flat with a citation down to the page and paragraph. It's pretty amazing.

In this vein, when we were prepping for our show a few weeks back on Sweep Attacks, my initial impression was that they'd basically died out after 1E AD&D. To be clear: I'm talking about the ability of classed fighters to get a large number of attacks against very weak opponents -- traditionally 1 hit die or less. (Since 1E didn't have a label for it, many different names have proliferated: Sweep, Cleave, Heroic Fray, Combat Dominance, Fighting the Unskilled, etc.... see the video for more.) In conversations in that show and afterward, it's turned out -- to my great surprise -- that some form of the rule has been in the core books of every single numbered edition.

Amazing. And I'd have never known that without the generous help of our viewers. Because of that community spirit, I think I can say this is first "Through the Ages" post that covers every edition from 0E to 5E. Thanks, everyone!

Chainmail Fantasy

HEROES (and Anti-heroes): Included in this class are certain well-known knights, leaders of army contingents, and similar men. They have the fighting ability of four figures... 

SUPER HEROES: Few and far between, these fellows are one-man armies! (Particularly when armed with magical weaponry.) They act as Hero-types in all cases, except they are about twice as powerful...

In the transition from normal Chainmail mass-combat, to the individual scale Fantasy combat, the basic implementation of high-powered fighters is simple: they just roll more attack dice. Noting that the Chainmail system is entirely d6-based, in a fight of equal-class normal units, each figure rolls a d6 and any "6" kills a figure. In this same situation, a Hero rolls 4 dice, and a Superhero rolls 8 dice. Elegant, yes? Of course, when D&D evolved from this system, 4th-level fighters were called Heroes and 8th-level fighters titled Superheroes. 

Now, there's a totally separate system added on for when Heroes fight fantastic monsters, in which only a single dice-roll was thrown against some target number on 2d6. Thus began the legacy of a distinctly different attack mode against basic-level types vs. higher-level opponents. 

It bears noting that in the introduction to the Fantasy rules, Gygax writes that:

Man-sized figures include: ghouls, heroes (including anti-heroes and super-heroes of the "Conan" type)... (p. 25)

And then near the end of these rules, under "Combination Figures", he observes:

There are certain natural, although rare, combinations. A good example of this is Moorcock's anti-heroish "Eric of Melnibone," who combines the attributes of the Hero-type with wizardry, and wields a magic sword in the balance! (p. 35)

Which gives some helpful literary references for exactly what Gygax had in mind for these mechanics.

Original D&D

Finding the rule in OD&D is unexpectedly tricky, to the extent that it eluded me for several years. There's this in the Monsters & Treasures book:

Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die, with any bonuses being given to only one of the attacks, i.e. a Troll would attack six times, once with a +3 added to the die roll. (Combat is detailed in Vol. III.) (Vol-2, p. 5)
That's basically the same as the mechanic in Chainmail Fantasy -- but arguably only given for monsters. (Some but not all monsters in Chainmail worked that way: ogres, trolls, giants, etc.) Plus I've definitely never seen anyone run classic D&D that way for monsters. But, here we find it more explicitly in the D&D FAQ from the Strategic Review #2 (by Gygax in Summer 1975, one year after D&D's debut), in a combat example where a Hero fights ten Orcs:

Assume the following dice score by the Hero. Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less. Hero: 19; 01; 16; 09. Two out of four blows struck... (TSR #2, p. 3)

And in addition, it's somewhat cryptically given as an essential basis for the system in Gygax's Swords & Spells 1:10 scale mass combat rules for D&D another year after that -- given on page 1, in the second paragraph of the Introduction:

At the scale of these rules a single man can be represented by a single figure on the table. So if one opponent has a lone hero (4th level fighting man) facing several figures of men-at-arms (or orcs or similar 1 hit die creatures), an actual melee can take place. The hero will inflict .40 of the damage shown for a 4th level creature on the combat tables and sustain damage until sufficient hits are scored upon the figure to kill the hero. Similarly, if a 12th level fighter is involved he will score 1.2 times the damage shown and so on. (S&S, p. 1)

Again, it's not entirely clear here, but I have marked in the margin of my copy there so I don't forget any more -- Why would a 4th level fighter get 0.40 damage multiplier in this situation? If the tables are designed for 1:10 scale play (they are; you can check the math), and it's a "lone hero", then shouldn't they only get 0.10 of the listed damage? Ah, but the solution is: they're getting a multiplier to attacks equal to their level (4), exactly as in the FAQ example. And likewise the 12th-level fighter is getting 0.10 × 12 = 1.2 damage multiplier for the same reason. Puzzle solved. 

Note that in both the FAQ and the Swords & Spells text, the attack mode is applicable to "1 hit die creatures", with an explicit example of it being used against Orcs. This sometimes unsettles players of later editions, where the benefit threshold was reduced to a lower value (see below). 

Another thing we might observe, from the 12th-level example above, is the assumption of something like theater-of-the-mind combat happening here. If we required immediate adjacency of man-to-man scale figures for attacks (something required in later editions; see further below), then there's no way that a 12th-level fighter could be adjacent to 12 enemies all at once, and thus get a multiplier of 12 attacks every round. It's more likely there's an implied walk-and-chop-and-walk-and-chop going on here.

In conclusion (although I resisted it for quite some time), given that the rule is clearly in Chainmail, in the OD&D FAQ and supplementary materials, as well as in the later 1E AD&D, I'm now convinced that Gygax's intent was to have this rule consistently present throughout all those versions of the game.


Note: This [the standard fighter attacks-per-melee-round table] excludes melee combat with monsters (q.v.) of less than one hit die (d8) and non-exceptional (0 level) humans and semi-humans, i.e. all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die. All of these creatures entitle a fighter to attack once for each of his or her experience levels (See COMBAT). (PHB p. 25)

In 1E, the rule is explicitly given as a core mechanic (although still easy to miss, buried as a footnote to a table at the bottom of the page after Rangers). It's applicable to any member of the Fighter class, including all of its sub-classes (so: Fighters, Paladins, Rangers; and later, Barbarians from Unearthed Arcana). And as alluded to earlier, a critical lowering of the threshold has occurred: no longer "1 hit die creatures", but here, strictly "less than one hit die". So the ability is usable against, say, Goblins, but not the Orcs used as the canonical example in OD&D material. 

Occasionally there's some interpretation made here that, in terms of battling man-types, this represents fighters gaining an advantage over completely untrained combatants (hapless peasants), as opposed to trained soldiers. But, by the rules in the 1E DMG, mercenary soldiers also fall into this category -- including, for example, archers, pikes, and heavy horsemen:

Note that regular soldiers are 0 level men-at-arms with 4-7 hit points each. (DMG p. 30).

It should also be pointed out that near the end of this era (and overlapping with the next), TSR licensed the Advanced D&D brand to SSI to make their well-regarded Gold Box video games, and throughout those games this ability of the Fighter classes was referenced onscreen by the shorthand label, "Sweep Attacks". Players of those popular games are thus likely to remember the ability by that name.

2E AD&D 

As an option, a warrior fighting creatures with less than one Hit Die (1-1 or lower) can make a number of attacks equal to his level (i.e., a 7th-level fighter can make seven attacks). These attacks are handled in order of initiative. (DMG, p. 57)

Here's the same mechanic in 2E AD&D, now given as an optional rule, appearing only in the DMG. Again, it's distressingly easy to miss it, because it's tucked in at the end of a section titled, "Multiple Attacks and Initiative", and still not given any memorable label. Otherwise, it's identical to the mechanic seen in 1E (a fairly common situation for this ruleset). 

It also bears noting that in the 2E Combat & Tactics supplement, among the extra optional rules given, there's one called "Heroic Fray" which gives a modified mechanic: when outnumbered by 1-hit-die types, fighters get double attacks, plus one more if holding a shield. I mention this because (a) it's given an official label here for the first time, which some players used thereafter, and (b) possibly because of that nifty label it sticks in people's mind, and some folks think that's the only place it appeared in 2E. (The OSR Hyperborea game calls the attack mode "Heroic Fighting", probably as an homage.)

3E D&D

CLEAVE  [General] You can follow through with powerful blows. Prerequisites: Str 13+, Power Attack. Benefit: If you deal a creature enough damage to make it drop (typically by dropping it to below 0 hit points, killing it, etc.), you get an immediate, extra melee attack against another creature in the immediate vicinity... (PHB p. 80)

You can wield a melee weapon with such power that you can strike multiple times when you fell your foes. Prerequisites: Str 13+, Power Attack, Cleave, base attack bonus +4 or higher. Benefit: As Cleave, except that you have no limit to the number of times you can use it per round. (PHB p. 82)

3E D&D introduced the concept of "Feats": special powers that may be chosen as characters advance in level. Fighters get additional, bonus Feats (more than any other class), and the two listed above are on their Bonus Feat applicable list. That said, not every Fighter gets the power; they must make a deliberate choice to pick up the ability. At the earliest, a Fighter might have Cleave at 1st level, and Great Cleave by (you guessed it) 4th level.

Most of us interpret this as a reworking of the rule from earlier editions; if a Fighter (with the Feat) battles very weak creatures, then they're likely to get a chain of attacks that puts many of them down. And many of us prefer the continuity of this mechanic -- unlike in 1E, where there's a huge quantum collapse between fighting "up-to-7-hp" creatures vs. "up-to-8-hp" creatures, the benefit here will more smoothly be usable against 2 HD or 3 HD creatures, just less frequently.

In addition, there's another high-level Feat in these rules called Whirlwind Attack which gives one melee attack against each adjacent opponent in a round, which I think would be equally eligible for the "heir to sweep attacks" title. But in hindsight it's the Cleave terminology which got the most mind-share (e.g., note the title of this blog, and see more below). 

4E D&D

Cleave | Fighter Attack 1
You hit one enemy, then cleave into another.
At-Will | Martial, Weapon
Standard Action | Melee weapon
Target: One creature | Attack: Strength vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] + Strength modifier damage, and an enemy adjacent to you takes damage equal to your Strength modifier. Increase damage to 2[W] + Strength modifier at 21st level. (PHB p. 77)

Sweeping Blow | Fighter Attack 3
You put all your strength into a single mighty swing that strikes many enemies at once.
Encounter | Martial, Weapon
Standard Action | Close burst 1
Target: Each enemy in burst you can see | Attack: Strength vs. AC
Weapon: If you’re wielding an axe, a flail, a heavy blade, or a pick, you gain a bonus to the attack roll equal to one-half your Strength modifier.
Hit: 1[W] + Strength modifier damage. (PHB p. 79)

Surprised to see me covering 4E (I think for the very first time)? Yeah, me too. Again, thanks to the wonderful WDMs helpers to lead me here. 

In the 4E rules, if you don't know, every character class gets a menagerie of powers to pick from, about as deep as the wizard's spell list. In the Fighter's case they're called "Exploits". Note that the very first Fighter Exploit listed in the book is that "Cleave" ability. If chosen, this can be used every round at will; it provides the ability to make a normal hit against one target, and then get some more damage, equal to the Strength bonus, against a second adjacent enemy. At first blush, that may not seem like much, but recall: 4E has a rule for "Minions" where low-level types are all assumed to have 1 hit point by default. So in this use-case that Cleave ability is basically always a 2nd free kill. (Thanks, Ash!)

And the next thing that strikes my eye is the 3rd-level power "Sweeping Blow". Of course, the name of this exploit hearkens back to those AD&D Gold Box games. Note the attack type is given as "Close burst 1", which means that the attack effect is applied to every target immediately adjacent to the Fighter in question. To me, that seems like the closest analog to the original ability. (And the ability in the AD&D Gold Box games also required adjacency, as characters were portrayed miniature-style on a grid.)

There are other powers at higher levels which expand on this ability: "Come and Get It" (7th level), "Shift the Battlefield" (9th), "Thicket of Blades" (same), "Vorpal Tornado" (17th), "Devastation's Wake" (19th), "Warrior's Urging" (23rd), "Cruel Reaper" (27th), etc. -- these work in a similar "burst" fashion, and add on effects like allowing the Fighter to move between attacks, to pull more enemies into their burst, to add conditions like more damage or paralysis, and so forth. But I feel like "Sweeping Blow" is the basis for this system (the first available "burst" attack).

(Now, it's possible that I may be misinterpreting those listings! Please leave a comment with a correction if you have any.)

5E D&D

Cleaving through Creatures

If your player characters regularly fight hordes of lower-level monsters, consider using this optional rule to help speed up such fights.

When a melee attack reduces an undamaged creature to 0 hit points, any excess damage from that attack might carry over to another creature nearby. The attacker targets another creature within reach and, if the original attack roll can hit it, applies any remaining damage to it. If that creature was undamaged and is likewise reduced to 0 hit points, repeat this process, carrying over the remaining damage until there are no valid targets, or until the damage carried over fails to reduce an undamaged creature to 0 hit points. (DMG p. 272)

In 5E, the status of this rule somewhat reverts back to that of 2E; it's only an optional rule, but if utilized, then every Fighter in the game has it by default -- well actually, every character has it by default here, even non-Fighter-types; but my point is that PCs don't pick it from a list of options as in 3E or 4E. 

Other than that, the mechanic is quite different from early editions. 5E tends to be amenable to giving PCs two attacks per round, maybe three at most; but tries really hard to otherwise limit the number of attacks or rolls made in a turn. In that light, the possible multiple-hits are all adjudicated off a single d20 attack roll, and spreads out a damage roll only to creatures that are all insta-kills. There's an echo of the 4E version of the Cleave Exploit here (as well as other higher-level powers). 

Note that the option seems to be reserved only for "player characters". That's not generally a clause you'd find in a rule from classic editions, and Gygax (at least in his writings, e.g., around saving throws or critical hits) would frequently emphasize giving monsters a fair-shake, i.e., grant any general benefit that PCs get to monsters as well. In any case, this flips one possible reading of OD&D Vol-2, where monsters get the benefit and PCs don't.

Basic D&D Line

Let's not forgot that through the 1980's and into the 1990's there was a parallel ruleset, the "Basic D&D" line, being published alongside the flagship Advanced D&D line. This includes the Holmes Basic, Moldvay/Cook B/X sets, and Mentzer's BECMI line. All of those were boxed sets that could be sold in mainline department and toy stores, whereas the AD&D rulebook line was all hardcover gaming books, generally for specialty stores (broadly speaking). The Basic line, I think, is concurrent with the biggest "spike" of incoming players in the D&D boom-fad circa 1980-1981. There are a few Dragon articles by Gygax around the time where you get a whiff of surprise/grief that the Basic line is far outselling his magnum opus AD&D line. 

Anyway, my point is that lots of classic D&D players started with the Basic set and are most familiar with those rules (assuming they didn't mix-and-match to the point where they can't tell the difference). Where is the cleave/sweep rule in that line?

Well, in this one case there isn't any, no matter where you look (and I've looked in all those dozen or so revised rulebooks trying to find it). Why is that? I'm not totally sure. You could say as a principle that while other editions were usually fairly generous about giving Fighters some way to get multiple attacks per round, the Basic line simply wasn't (outside of magic like haste). Maybe that's because the initial Basic set only covered levels 1-3, and such a benefit wouldn't really show up at those levels. Or maybe because Holmes was mostly just copying text directly from OD&D and its supplements -- not looking very much at Chainmail or AD&D, even for things that might be implied in Gary's mind by reference (also e.g.: dragon fear & detection abilities) -- and the one and only place the cleave/sweep rule is not given explicitly to PCs is in the OD&D LBBs. 

I asked Frank Mentzer about the status of the "sweep attack" type mechanic in his games on Facebook, and he kindly replied:

Menzter uses swep attacks in AD&D, but not in BECMI.

So Frank is (1) quite intentional about the rule status, (2) faithfully applies it in an AD&D game, (3) doesn't like it, and (4) tends to be sensitive about monsters getting equitable rule benefits compared to players (likewise as noted for Gygax above). Although this author might counter-argue that the balancing factor in O/AD&D is the monsters appearing in huge numbers (hundreds) if they're susceptible to sweep attacks.

As an aside, you really have to hunt in Basic/BECMI to find any way for PCs to get multiple attacks without magic. There's a loosely suggested rule in Cook Expert (p. X8), pending release of a future Companion rule set, that Fighters might get a 2nd attack starting at 20th level (and more at 25th and 30th; maximum 4 attacks per round). But that rule is not part of the Companion rules when Mentzer finally publishes it.

What Mentzer's Companion Rules set (for PC levels 15-25) does have is the following. Fighters who have sworn fealty to another ruler (either to serve as a wandering Paladin/Knight/Avenger, or as a ruler in a feudal network) get this combat option:

Multiple Attacks: The character gains this ability at 12th level. Demi-humans gain this ability at certain XP levels, as given in the class descriptions. If the character can hit an opponent with a Hit roll of 2 (calculated including all adjustments), he may make 2 attacks each combat round. At level 24 and higher, he may make 3 attacks; at level 36, he may make 4 attacks each round. This applies to ideal circumstances, and the character may use movement or some other action instead of an extra swing. (Player's Companion, p. 18)

I suppose if you squint really hard, this ability -- only usable if the PC basically auto-hits the target -- kind of has whispers of a more-attacks-against-very-weak-enemies concept? But of course it's based on armor, not hit dice or hit points, and the number of attacks given is still really very small. (Compare: In Swords & Spells a 12th-level fighter can get a multiplier of 12 to attacks; here it's just 2.) It does echo Cook's earlier proposal in that it has a top-level limit of 4 attacks per round. 

Up in the Master's Rules (for levels 26-36), there's an option where the DM might just let a character get one extra attack by wielding a second weapon in the off-hand, at a -4 penalty and loss of one mastery/specialization level there. And there's also an added piece of specialty equipment: a shield with one of various attached weapons (horn/knife/sword), which permits one extra attack per round with it. (Frank is really stingy with the extra attacks.)


I've been focusing on this lately because (1) honestly I overlooked this rule in my OD&D games for a long time, and (b) I now think it's the single most essential mechanical difference between the Basic and Advanced D&D lines from the 80's. 

In Original and Advanced D&D, the standard monster numbers appearing (by default for wilderness encounters per the texts there) zoomed up into the hundreds for humanoids like men, kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, dwarves, gnomes, and elves -- all types that were originally 1 base hit die. Anything else only had numbers up to 20 or 30 at most. There's fairly good statistical evidence that was done as a balancing factor in light of high-level fighters putting down many such targets per round. In fact, we're told that Arneson specifically used the listed numbers appearing as the trigger for fighter cleave/sweep attacks -- if the numbers were in the hundreds, then fighters got their turbo-attacks. 

On the other hand, in the BX/BECMI line, where the cleave/sweep rule is absent, then the designers (starting with Moldvay/Cook) were compelled to radically reduce the humanoid numbers appearing. This averaged by a cut of roughly 1/10th from the O/AD&D wilderness numbers (a division factor of from 3 to 13 depending on type). The most numerous monsters are goblins and orcs, who may appear in an outdoor band of up to 60. (Note that Holmes dodged this by not listing any standard numbers in his stock monster list; and the Expert rules have some text notes that camps of men, et. al., may be in larger OD&D-scale numbers.)

Anyway, players who switch between the Basic and Advanced games (and it was very common to mishmash the rulebooks together in play) are likely to be the most surprised by the sudden appearance or disappearance of the critical cleave/sweep rule. In our video discussion (at top), this was true for me & Paul, with me coming from more Advanced play, and Paul having more Basic line experience.

But it's a core part of how combat and encounters were structured in the root of the game back in O/AD&D, and that legacy is so strong and deep, that indeed it has appeared in some form in every edition since, up to the current day (Basic offshoot excepted). 

For my games going forward, I do need to make a decision for my brand of OD&D games: Incorporate the sweep/cleave rule for fighters, or some variant, or do some radical surgery on balancing encounter numbers (like the cuts done in B/X)? Which form do you like best? 

(And phew, thanks for reading all that. There's been a lot of editions at this point!)


  1. In thinking about this since the video as well as discussing it with my wife (who is far less enchanted by the old school than I am) I grudgingly came to the conclusion that the WotC style guaranteed multiple attacks per round against any opponent seems like the smoothest way to implement this, since it completely bypasses the Hd/ac consideration and gives a uniform bonus as level increases. The trouble is, of course, that it can very quickly expand combat time unreasonably, especially when applied to monsters.

    Empire of the Petal Throne has it's implementation whereby you get multiple attacks based on the difference between your level and your opponents levels, which at least smooths out the <=1hd awkwardness, but replaces it with a table lookup.

    I might try going with a ratio of attackers hd/highest defending hd rounded down as number of attacks to formulize it.

    If I haven't made it clear, I share your indecision about this rule.

    1. Great take; and I really appreciate the perspective of someone not pickled in old-school, like your wife. It's true that there's a bit of immersion-breaking that you need to talk about the hit dice to implement it. I think I'd want some way of communicating that to players without talking quantification, exactly ("appear less-trained" or something).

  2. With Metzer's advice in hand, CLEAVE seems like a good balance.

    It allows multiple attacks (potentially) but gates them behind having to drop an opponent. And requires the player to take a risk with their fighter-- wade into range of multiple combatants (and if you want to swing a big sword for that big 1d10 roll).

    However, its also a nice "hold-the-line" maneuver with PARRY & SHIELDS SHALL SUNDER-- meaning it could make for an amazing heroic stand when all combined.

    1. I've like the Cleave take for a long time. The counter-argument is: you don't kinow how many attacks in advance, exactly. With original "sweeps" you can just drop N dice on the table at once; with Cleave they must be played out sequentially, which might take longer.

  3. The BX clone I use has cleave as a core mechanic. All fighter types get 1 additional attack if they drop a foe, up to their level. Thieves and clerics get up to half level. All monsters get it as well based on HD.

    I have to say that this rule, plus bonus damage increases for fighters every 3rd level, is awesome. It makes fighters necessary even at high level. Sure a mage can drop a tactical nuke, but give me a decked out fighter with magical armor and weapons anyday for raw combat power.

    Casters are still cool at high levels. Fighters (and thieves), however, get that little boost to stay in the game.

    1. Fascinating! It seems rare to me to give it to monsters, as well.

  4. BTW - bonus is that monster cleaves make bringing troops into high level dungeons less viable. A few giants can cleave through 6 to 10 soldiers a round.

  5. In some ways Tunnels and Trolls does this better because it embraces the abstraction with a big owlbear hug. Everyone is sort of hacking at everything in its long battle round. The cleaves, multiple attacks, are a bit jarring in the time constraints of D&D even in its own abstraction.

    Maybe it's terminology what is a hit, an attack, what are hit points/what do they represent. I think some clarification may help.

    If this is simply for cinema and not actual battle prowess as defined by the game ok cool... but why does my master warrior suddenly get stymied by a creature a little stronger 2HD.

    Maybe the more abstract we allow combat to become the easier such things can fit.

    Not sure, just thinking aloud.

  6. I'm glad that you brought up the FAQ from the Strategic Review 1.2. That was precisely the source that inspired the simplified version of the Heroic Fray ability that I now use in both my D&D and my AD&D games.

    In short: when a fighter hits 4th level (Hero), he can automatically kill 1d4 enemies if they have less than a full hit die. This becomes 1d6 enemies at 6th level. Then, at 8th level (superhero), the ability upgrades: the fighter can now kill 1d8 total hit dice worth of 1 HD or weaker enemies that his weapon can reach. The die size keeps stepping up with the fighter's level (1d10 at 10th, 1d12 at 12th), while the level of creatures affected goes up as one-tenth of the fighter's level (1+ HD monsters at 15th level, 2 HD monsters at 20th level, etc.).

    1. Yeah, I think I saw on Dragonsfoot multiple people saying they'd played with Gygax and seen him do it that same way. It's kind of neat, actually. On the other hand, my OCD rings a bell that says, "not same probability distribution!" that I should probably ignore more often.

      Think I heard of that for the first time just a few weeks back. Maybe it will grow closer to me over time.

    2. In my experience the quick and easy resolution is well worth the lack of tedium involved in rolling out all those attack and damage dice individually. :)

  7. I'm not a fan of the version of cleave where it only continues on successfully dropping an opponent, because that requires that you resolve in order which exacerbates the time issue. I'm much more attracted to the idea of rolling a handful of d6s at once and eliminating a bunch of scrubs based on a target number, like in Chainmail, or even roll a d-something and that's how many you defeat as (anecdotally) Gary and Dave sometimes did.

    1. Yeah, this is a very strong argument. As you probably know, this is closest to the way I'm leaning myself these days.

      Also among the easiest to abstract into Book of War scale.

    2. I've done a post about cleaving, with a little analysis of d6 vs d20 probabilities at

    3. Hey, thanks for that, super useful!

      FWIW, one or two days ago I was hammering out an endnote in the OED Players rules that gives the option of the divide-by-3 and round to closest method. Of course, your "heck with shields" option is the same as the BOW core mechanic. (There's justifiably a difference based on the different scales involved, actually.)

    4. In my experience old school combat is quick anyway. Adding cleaving actually speeds up combat, especially at low levels when the spell casters need to save their encounter ending spells

      Against higher level foes, an occasional roll every couple of rounds adds to the epic flow imho. Practically speaking it balances out.

  8. Something I use for 5e is allowing players to select a number of targets in advance and divide their damage amongst them. There's a catch! If you miss the target with the highest AC,you miss all of them.

  9. I'm playing a fairly house ruled game with my sons and I'm calling our variation of this "Combat Domination". It's an elective combat ability for Fighters: If they have the winning initiative for the round fighters 2nd level and above can get 1 attack per level vs foes of 1HD or less. Later they can increase it to gain the attacks vs foes of 2HD or less and so on. Limiting it to those rounds the party has initiative seems to be keeping it in check. My older son is also really enjoying having his fighter lay into the foes.

    1. Fascinating! I bet that makes for high drama around the initiative roll.

      (Admittedly I roll once and then go around the table for the rest of combat, so would be harder for me to implement.)

  10. After trying a few of these, I think that I'm happiest with using the "Cleave" idea, up to a total possible number of attacks equal to the Fighter-type's level. The above suggestion to extend this to Clerics up to half their level (and I suppose Thieves too, though I am less happy in theory with that as Thieves get enough bonus fighting power from their "backstab" abilities) seems like it's probably a good addition, though I haven't used that in play—I know you don't use Clerics, and as I recall you don't use Thieves either, so it's probably not an issue for you.

    1. I actually do use Thieves -- I sometimes express that as "replace Clerics in LBBs with Thieves". (The sidebar here on my house rules says that near the end.) But my instinct is to agree with you, I would not be prone to giving Thieves (or Wizards) the sweep attacks.

    2. Ah, the sidebar just says "remove Clerics", but the "more detail" page does include details about replacing them with Thieves. On that somewhat tangential topic, I've increasingly liked the Delving Deeper and S&W:WB/WBFMAG takes on Thieves, or even the LotFP class with its d6 skills.

      In any case, to return to the topic at hand and reply to other comments here, my experience of Cleave attacks vs. "drop a bunch of dice" is that players are perfectly willing to sit still for the drama of multiple Cleaves, and it does some interesting things with dramatic timing in enough instances that it makes the slight slowing of the game worth it. Obviously, others may experience all of that differently. It depends on the group, in the end.

    3. Good experience, thanks for sharing that, actually!

    4. The key is giving a damage bonus only to fighter types. In practice, without that extra +1 to +5 damage (depending on level) thieves and clerics just don't cleave that much.

      Now if the cleric casts striking, gaining + 1d6, they start to actually cleave. I also require surprise or significant combat advantage to allow a backstab. Merely being behind someone in combat doesn't trigger a backstab.

  11. I've shared this with Delta elsewhere but for the record, in my game I use this variant rule from Hungarian retroclone Kazamaták és Kompániák:

    "They may attack multiple opponents, provided their combined HD doesn't exceed the fighting-man's own (e.g. a level 4 fighting-man may attack four 1 HD goblins, two 2 HD wolves, or a 3 HD crystal statue and a 1 HD cultist)."

    Source: https://ynasmidgard.blogspot.com/2019/12/kazamatak-es-kompaniak-basic-classes.html

    What I like about it is that it scales with fighter level without getting out of hand. The fact that it simply operates on the attack roll is also a plus for me.

    1. Yeah, quite nice! Thanks for sharing it here, people should consider that.

  12. Rules Cyclopedia D&D has multiple attacks as you describe if you can hit on a roll of 2 (p104) (We never used the restriction!)
    It also has weapon mastery, which gives a bonus to the attack roll, making it easier to hit.
    It also has bonus damage for really high-level fighters and monsters (pp106-107).
    It seems really focused on small numbers of combatants as you pointed out.

    1. That's an interesting point about the status of the multiple attacks in RC. Since it's the same ability and under the same heading as in the Companion Rules ("Fighter Combat Options"), I thought it was identical. But I see now it looks like they removed "must give fealty" piece of the rule. Interesting detail.

  13. You might want to have the subtitles be a different color than the titles, because often when I'm scrolling through a blogspot page looking for posts I'm just looking for the titles in a wall of text. If not, no worries, though. :)

    1. Thanks -- I agree, I've actually had a tasklist item to do that for a while now, haven't gotten to that yet. Bumping that up in my priority list now.

      (Also I think I've been using the wrong H# value for a while so I might have to go back and fix... a lot of stuff.)

  14. Delta,

    I would recommend a version of cleave at first level for your OD&D house rules. I have seen a version reducing the amount of rolls required. You drop an opponent you automatically hit an opponent within range. The number of opponents could increase every 4 levels. Given the duration of a combat round, I am not seeing 10 to 20 attacks within one round. Granted D&D is abstract, but I am still not seeing 10 attacks per round regardless how incompetent the opponents are.

    Another option I like, was presented in Castles and Crusades under the Barbarian Character Class. When a Barbarian reaches level 4 they get an ability named Whirlwind Attack that allows multiple attacks against opponents half their level.

    1. I think that's pretty good advice, thank you! And pretty likely the direction I'll be going in now.

      I think that C&C rule is coming right out of that 3E Whirlwind Attack feat (at least, using that name to be solid with the OGL licensing).

      Actually, I could even get comfortable with having maybe 10 attacks per round -- interpreting it not as literally separate blows, but epic strokes going through multiple bodies. (Obv. a 5E style Cleave rule that spreads out the damage is on target for that, too.)

      Agreed that declaring hit = kill in a case like that is a huge time-server, and I totally do that anytime Cleave comes up in my games currently.

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