Cleaving Attacks

Dan Collins of Delta’s D&D Hotspot has a new post on what he calls “Cleaving Through the Ages”, where he goes into the history of making multiple attacks against low-level foes through every edition of D&D, as well as the pre-history in Chainmail. And an exhaustive round-up it is, too. Without repeating it here, the basic idea is that ever since Chainmail, every edition has had some variant of a rule that allowed Fighters (and usually only Fighters) to plow through multiple opponents in a round. Among other observations, this turns out to be an important balancing factor in very early editions between the PCs and the huge numbers, into the hundreds, of 1 Hit Die enemies they might encounter in the wilderness according to the standard encounter charts. In Chainmail and OD&D, a heroic figure could attack as many 1 Hit Die enemies as the hero had Hit Dice (more or less, you can see Dan’s post for the gory details), potentially eliminating them all at once.

Later editions tended to tone it down, and often made it contingent upon success: If you hit the enemy and you killed the enemy, then you could immediately try to hit another adjacent enemy until you either failed to kill one or ran out of enemies. It’s this version that’s usually called “Cleave” in D&D and its kin. Personally I like the name “Sweep” since that’s what we used to call it back in the day.

There are a couple of problems with this, but for me the biggest one has always been it just takes too long to resolve at the table. One PC getting multiple actions on a turn always has the potential to make things drag, and it’s exacerbated when there’s potentially a big disparity in the number of actions. An 8th-level fighter getting 8 attacks vs a wizard’s one (maybe) spell can drag on, and making it so that they have to be resolved in order and you have to determine for each attack how much damage it did and whether that kills the foe before making the next attack and then updating the HP on the final foe makes the worst case even worse, even if often it’ll cut the round short before every last foe is attacked.

On the other hand, something along those lines has been part of every edition of D&D and really is needed to let the fighter’s keep up with the later-game area-of-effect spells that casters get. Carving through hordes of creatures one per round is for the birds.

So what should we do? My favored approach is to look all the way back to Chainmail, where you just roll one d6 per the PC’s hit dice and if you hit the appropriate target number you eliminate the foe. Against 1 HD foes this is pretty justifiable: in OD&D all weapons do 1d6 so the average will exactly kill a 1 HD enemy. You can roll them all at once, count the successes, and cross off or remove that many foes, so minimal book-keeping. If, as seems reasonable, when you’re using variable damage dice for weapons you say you can’t cleave with a small weapon (i.e. no d4 weapons), then it’s at least 50-50 that any hit kills, and more likely than not if you have any Strength or magic bonuses at all.

But how does that stack up against the normal (aka “alternative”) combat system using d20s to hit? I mean, you could roll a fistful of d20s and count successes whenever you got better than 15, 16, or whatever based on the foe’s armor class, but that seems…a bit fiddly? What would it look like if you wanted to use d6 for that, like the good old days? Would it be that different?

As it turns out, no. Take a look at the following chart, showing what an ordinary man with no bonuses needs to hit the various armor classes (for simplicity using Dan’s Target-20 system)1.

ACArmorTo hit on d20To Hit on d6THD6 roundedTHD6 truncatedThe Heck with Shields
2plate + shield186666
4chain + shield165.33555
6leather + shield144.67544
Roll needed for a 1 Hit Kill

If you divide it by three to reduce the max needed 18 to a 6, you get the To Hit on d6 column. Then, depending on whether you round or truncate that result you get some pretty easy to understand patterns. Either plate needs a 6, chain needs a 5, anything less needs a 4, or only plate and shield needs a 6, combos down to chain needs a 5, down to naked is 4, and naked is 3. A final option is to fudge it and say we don’t care about shields: Plate 6, Chain 5, Leather 4, Unarmored 3. I’m a little bit torn between saying come on, at least pick up a shield and saying chain and plate really ought to be different, but in the end any of these seems perfectly workable since it’ll be really rare to have a situation where the 1 HD foes have mixed kits. Most likely you just write down the single target number for the whole lot of them and you’re done with it.

So that’s my current plan for handling Cleaving/Sweeps in all the D&D-like games I run. Against 1 HD foes (or likely against any foes where your average damage is a 1 Hit kill) just roll d6s against the target number based on their armor and sweep them off the board.

  1. Justification for this, if needed, comes from the fact that at least the earliest versions specified that the attacks were carried out using the normal man row of the table, and that in any case allowing for both multiple attacks and bonuses to the attacks is a form of double-dipping.