"Sweep" attacks in classic D&D

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
In the last year or so, Dan "Delta" Collins has done a bunch of analysis on his somewhat math-heavy OD&D blog, about the old OD&D/AD&D rule that Fighters get to make one attack per level against regular men/orcs. In OD&D it was against man-sized / 1HD or less monsters. In AD&D they scaled that back to creatures of LESS than 1HD, putting "regular men" at 1-1 HD, and trained soldiers at 1HD. Although I've come to think that was a mistake.

This in part comes out of Chainmail, but is also solidly rooted in the fantasy fiction D&D is meant to model. Elric, Conan, John Carter, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and similar really heroic figures are able to take on whole groups of men or orcs and cleave through them, piling up mounds of bodies in battle.

If you look at the wilderness encounter numbers in OD&D and AD&D it also becomes apparent that this rule makes it possible for Fighters to meaningfully contribute to fights when humanoids may be encountered in numbers from 20-200 or 30-300! To be fair this isn't the ONLY way to handle such numbers of opponents. The rules provide the ability to try to Evade encounters, and many DMs support PCs using clever tactics to reduce the number of foes the PCs have to face at once, perhaps with skirmishes and ambuscades. But on reflection there is some elegance and balance to, say, a Fighter getting five attacks a round against a pack of orcs at the same level a Magic-User learns Fireball or Lightning Bolt, and it definitely reduces the "linear Fighters, quadratic Wizards" effect, where Fighters have an unfortunate tendency to become second fiddle to the mages once the mages learn 3rd level and higher spells.

Perhaps not coincidentally, B/X expected characters to be at least 4th level before engaging in wilderness adventures. Although to their credit, the developers of the Expert set seem to observed that the wilderness numbers encountered in OD&D and AD&D for monsters like Orcs, Goblins, and Gnolls were very high, and scaled them back by about a whole order of magnitude. I think this was with the intent of keeping things simpler, with no one ever getting multiple attacks in B/X. But for my money, I really like the idea of skilled Fighters being able to do this.

I've been playing in an OD&D game for almost two years where we use this rule, although with the limitation stated in that edition that attacks after the first don't get any to-hit bonuses for level. This way you're not double-dipping for your character level, gaining both improved THAC0 (though not really THAC0 yet) AND the extra attacks for gaining in level. I've definitely been pleased with it in play. It certainly makes Fighters feel more heroic when a pack of orcs is encountered, to not be so dependent on a Sleep spell to do most of the heavy lifting.

One downside some folks don't like is the extra time required to make and resolve the extra attacks. Some folks find the speed and simplicity of a single attack or action part of the appeal of OSE or B/X. There are a couple of possible simplifications which can be made to accommodate this.

One is simply to make a single attack and damage roll for up to as many adjacent/in melee (grid vs. TotM) opponents as the Fighter's level. Another is to roll a die with as many sides as the character has levels, and have them kill that many foes within reach, abstracting out that average damage is going to equate to average HP for 1HD foes, and subsuming the attack rolls in that single die. So for a 4th level fighter, they can simply kill d4 Orcs per round. For a 5th level Fighter, you can simply roll a d6 and re-roll 6s. Same with a 7th level fighter and a D8.

Joshua Macy, on his blog, alternately suggests rolling a number of d6s equal to the number of attacks allowed, with a target number from 3-6 based on what kind of armor/AC the opponents have. He made a nice table converting the numbers needed to hit given ACs on a d20 to d6s with a little rounding. This lets you factor in the armor class but still get the attacks resolved quickly with a small handful of dice.

Another sticking point can be the very "all or nothing" nature of this rule, where it only comes into play against enemies of 1HD or less, and then as soon as the foes have 2HD or more, the Fighter is back to 1 attack only. Personally I still think it's a useful and enjoyable rule, because there are enough such enemies that are likely to be encountered (just in large groups) at higher levels, but if you want to make the ability work more broadly, you can make it work as a ratio. Say, divide the HD of the enemy into the Fighter's level to find out how many attacks he gets. So a 6th level Fighter gets 6 attacks against Orcs, 3 against Gnolls, 2 attacks against Wights, and only a single attack against a foe of 4HD or more.

Have any of you played much with this rule, or variants of it? What are your experiences like?



 

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I've played ACKS, which has a cleave / 'chop til you drop' rule.. Wherein every time your character drops a foe to 0 hp, they can make an additional cleave attack against another nearby foe. The character gets a number of additional cleave attacks equal to its level/hit dice. There is also a damage bonus granted to fighters every 3rd level. The damage bonus allows high level fighters to typically do enough damage to one-shot low level humanoids and so they can cleave through groups of them.

This makes fighters awesome. I use this rule in every OSR game I run.

Some interesting effects of the rule..

1. Sometimes in a combat with large numbers of low level foes, a single high level fighter will throw a bunch of cleaves and single handedly break the enemy morale. Depends on initiative and who decides to go first. We kind of narrate this as this character turning to the group before and just calling out "I got this" and the rest of the group just looks on in awe.

2. It helps the magic users out because a couple good fighters can do to a group of foes what a fireball can. It evens out the power level between martial and casters.

3. Since cleave works when you drop any foe to 0hp, it is useful against even high hit die foes. Sometimes players will gamble on taking out a minion hoping they can then cleave to the stronger foe.

4.You can cleave at range, so its fun to Legolas a bunch of approaching goblins with your bow.

5. Just makes a game that is normally rooted in struggle and difficulty a little more heroic in feel.
 

Volund

Explorer
I run an OSE game and I let martial classes (THACO improves every 3 levels) cleave extra damage against foes, regardless of HD, that are in melee with the attacker and next to each other, or behind one another if it is a spear or polearm. I like this rule for several reasons:
No extra die rolls.
Makes combat quicker.
In actual play it doesn't come up that often so doesn't change the game very much.
Makes Slow weapons like two-handed swords and polearms more fun.
In a game without critical hits or extra attacks, it seems awesome to the players and they love it.
 

ThrorII

Explorer
I've been adding OD&D back in to my B/X lately. I decided that at 4th level, fighters get 4 attacks against 1HD creatures, and at 8th level they get 8 attacks.

Each attack is rolled individually, but I am also toying with just rolling a d4 or d8 to see how many drop.
 

Cruentus

Adventurer
I have not used Cleave or similar in my OSEA games, but am always looking for something to give fighters a little edge. I think a limited activation "extra" or carryover damage to adjacent targets might be good.

I'm thinking of my last game where the PC (Pal4), his squire (Knight1), and two heavy cavalry (1HD) faced off in an ambush against 10-16 orcs and orc sargeants. It was close run, the orcs fleeing on Morale with the squire and 1 cavalry being badly hurt. If we had a cleave of 4 attacks for the Pal for his levels, he'd have mopped the ambush pretty single handedly, turning a tense protect the caravan encounter into being barely memorable.

For me, keeping the action rolling and keeping rolls down, I think I'd lean in the direction of rollover damage or the "kill dX enemies on a hit", versus multiple attacks (and playing on VTT makes it trickier, as those extra rolls would also be "off sheet" per se, using Fantasy Grounds, especially if you're using 1st level thaco and such). In person, I'm all for rolls, its easy to grab a bunch of dice and do it quickly.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I have not used Cleave or similar in my OSEA games, but am always looking for something to give fighters a little edge. I think a limited activation "extra" or carryover damage to adjacent targets might be good.

I'm thinking of my last game where the PC (Pal4), his squire (Knight1), and two heavy cavalry (1HD) faced off in an ambush against 10-16 orcs and orc sargeants. It was close run, the orcs fleeing on Morale with the squire and 1 cavalry being badly hurt. If we had a cleave of 4 attacks for the Pal for his levels, he'd have mopped the ambush pretty single handedly, turning a tense protect the caravan encounter into being barely memorable.
What edition are you playing? I don't recognize "OSEA".

My experience using the rule is in OD&D so far, where the highest level Fighter we've had was 5th (then I got killed by a random encounter with a 10th level M-U in the dungeon; Lightning Bolt with a failed save was rough!). We also follow the guidance from Monsters & Treasure that only one of the attacks gets bonuses for level.

I do like the cleave/carryover damage to another adjacent enemy idea, though. Nice and quick to resolve. It definitely seems like it would work even better using the mechanic from ACK Monayuris mentioned where fighters get a damage bonus based on level, which improves their ability to do this, especially against low-HD foes.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Doh! I should have been able to figure that one. :LOL:

A common minor boost I've seen used in B/X / OSE is to bump Fighters (only) to d10 HD. But yeah, I really favor letting them be a bit more heroic with some greater offense.
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
Another is to roll a die with as many sides as the character has levels, and have them kill that many foes within reach, abstracting out that average damage is going to equate to average HP for 1HD foes, and subsuming the attack rolls in that single die. So for a 4th level fighter, they can simply kill d4 Orcs per round. For a 5th level Fighter, you can simply roll a d6 and re-roll 6s. Same with a 7th level fighter and a D8.
That's how I handle it. (As I mention a couple of times in the comments on Dan's blog.)
 

Orius

Hero
I don't really have a big problem with the idea myself. It helps to keep things interesting for higher level fighters after all. I know 3e tried doing this with multiple attacks and feats like Cleave, Great Cleave, and Whirlwind Attack with decidedly mixed results. Earlier in 2e, there was the Heroic Fray option in Combat & Tactics, but I don't remember offhand how it worked.
 

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