The Wide-Swing Dilemma

Dwarven Fighter wielding a two handed warhammer - artist unknownMy party’s cleric wields a large, two-handed warhammer. It’s not a weapon which appears in any of the Pathfinder books I’ve read, but I include it in my games as a piece of standard equipment because they are awesome. In our last game session, the party was ambushed by a number of animated goblin skeletons while they were exploring the base of a giant statue. As monsters go, skeletons are not particularly deadly. But they were numerous, and none of the players had ever encountered a creature with damage reduction before. The party’s ranger was none too pleased when his arrow simply clattered through the undead’s ribcage without dealing damage.

Once I explained how damage reduction worked to my party, they figured out that the cleric’s warhammer, as a bludgeoning weapon, was able to overcome this defense. The barbarian cleverly responded by finding the largest rock she could, hefting it, and waddling around the battlefield smashing skeletons to pieces. The rogue and ranger did the best they could, but found that their piecing and slashing weapons weren’t up to the task. They encouraged the cleric to take the forefront in the battle, since her weapon was ideally suited to the fight. She did, and eventually ended up in this position:

Gibbous the Cleric surrounded by Three Goblin Skeletons--er--red glass beadsI know, my battlemat is out of scale with the miniature base. I need to do something about that eventually.

Anyway, when the player found herself in this position, she told me she wanted to try and attack all three of the skeletal goblins in a single horizontal swing. I couldn’t think of a single diegetic reason why she wouldn’t be able to attempt this. I made a quick ruling at the table, and told her that she would be able to attempt it as a full action, but that each attack would be made at a cumulative -2 penalty. So her attack on the first goblin in her arc would be at a -2 penalty, the center goblin would be at a -4 penalty, and the final goblin would be attacked at a -6 penalty. This seemed like a reasonable penalty to me, and I had the player roll her attack dice.

As it turned out, none of her attacks landed, nor did any of her attacks land on her next turn when she tried the same tactic again. The penalties didn’t even come into play, she never rolled above a 10. Bad luck, but the party prevailed, and continued on with their adventure. But the encounter stuck with me throughout the rest of the evening, and I’ve continued to ponder it ever since. My ruling ‘steps on the toes’ of two mechanics built into the Pathfinder game: multiple attacks from a high base attack bonus, and Cleave/Great Cleave feats.

If you’ve played Pathfinder, or D&D 3.x, you’re familiar with these rules. Each class has a base attack bonus which rises as the character goes up in level, and this bonus is added to most types of physical attack that the character will make. Once the creature’s BAB gets high enough, they gain secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary bonuses which are lower (-5, -10, and -15 lower) than their full BAB. As a full action, the character can make multiple attacks per round using progressively lower bonuses. But while a character must be at least level 11 to gain three attacks with their BAB, my table ruling allowed a 2nd level character to attempt three attacks. And she did it at a -2, -4, -6 penalty, rather than a -0, -5, -10 penalty. A net bonus over the official way of doing things.

Gibbous the Cleric, surrounded by Goblins!Gaining iterative attacks from base attack bonus does have a few benefits which I would not have allowed the cleric, had she asked. For example, a character attempting multiple attacks using their BAB is allowed to choose the order in which they attack their foes, can take a 5ft step in between attacks, and can even decide whether or not they want to continue attacking, or take a move action instead, after the first of their attacks. None of these should be possible if all of the attacks are made in a single fluid motion. But nor would they seem to make up for the fact that my cleric was able to access an ability which (according to the rules) was far beyond her ability.

The second rule I stepped on the toes of, the cleave and greater cleave feats, serve a similar function. If a character with the cleave feat successfully deals damage to one foe, then that character may make a second attack (at their full BAB) against another adjacent enemy. The greater cleave feat works the same way, it simply allows the player to continue making new attacks against adjacent enemies so long as the chain of successful attacks remains unbroken. Both feats subject the player to a -2 AC penalty for a round after use.

My player did not have the benefit of being able to use her full BAB on each attack, as the cleave feat allows players to do. But she also did not suffer a -2 penalty to AC, nor did she need to successfully deal damage to the first enemy in order to attack the second, or the third. And, on top of that, she didn’t need to take 3 feats (Power Attack > Cleave > Great Cleave) to make the attempt in the first place. Once again, it seems that my table ruling gave the player more a net bonus over the official rules.

Despite my ruling interfering with two official rules, I can’t help but feel that I acted correctly. I still cannot see a single diegetic reason why Gibbous the cleric would not be able to attack all three of the closing skeletons with a single horizontal swing. And while I’m sure the rules could be debated forever, I don’t particularly care. Combat balance is not sacrosanct. Player Agency is.

None the less, I am left with a few thoughts on how to improve my game in the future.

  • If a player attempts this tactic again, I think they should take a -2 penalty to AC for being off balance. I think it makes a lot of sense that a player who attempts a really wild attack wouldn’t be able to block attacks as effectively.
  • If a player attempts this tactic again, a slightly more harsh penalty might be appropriate. A -3 cumulative penalty, instead of a -2, should be sufficient.
  • Players with high base attack bonuses can make iterative attacks as a standard action, rather than a full action. This is a house rule that my twitter friend Rilgon first pointed out to me, and I’ve thought it sounded like a good idea for awhile now.
  • I long ago abolished the Power Attack feat from my games, because it falls prey to my problem with feats. I now think I’ll remove the Cleave feat for the same reason. Great Cleave can remain, as a means of allowing players to overcome the cumulative attack penalty, but only if they hit each time. After that the penalty stacks for each attack they miss.

I’m curious how other GMs would have handled this situation. Personally, it’s just edged me closer to the day when I build my own tabletop role playing system, with blackjack and hookers.

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26 thoughts on “The Wide-Swing Dilemma”

  1. I’ve been picking over the feats list since I read your linked article myself, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Cleave should go on the chopping block. I think you’re right, though, that it does meet the pre-reqs for “something anyone should be able to do.” A few thoughts I had while reading your article (so none of them have much thinking behind them):

    – D&D Next introduced Finesse Weapons, which make the Weapon Finesse feat an inherent property of certain weapons; perhaps we need Cleaving Weapons as well. After all, it makes sense to sweep through enemies with a Battleaxe or Warhammer, but less so for a rapier or dagger.

    – I like the -2 AC penalty, but I think instead of (or maybe in addition to) a to-hit penalty I might require that each successive enemy be *destroyed* before the next one can be hit. So a sufficiently strong swing could possibly shatter several skeletons, but you can’t swing wildly and just chip them all down. This may preserve the utility of both Cleave and multiple attacks.

    -Alternatively, maybe make it a single attack (as a full-round action) at -4 checked against each creature with damage evenly distributed between the targets.

    -I think this attack (one broad stroke) and multiple attacks from a high BAB (several quick attacks in succession) represent different things, and shouldn’t necessarily be equated simply because they share a common term (multiple targets). After all, with a high BAB, any or all of the attacks can be made against a single target, but you can’t do the same with a broad swing.

    -Pathfinder has a two-handed hammer known as an Earthbreaker (check the online SRD) that my group uses to represent large two-handed hammers. It does 2d6 blunt damage and has a 3x crit (both in line with the 1-handed Warhammer).

    -I think I’m going to use the “multiple attacks from high BAB as a standard action” houserule, though I think it’ll rarely come up as most of the game my group plays are below Level 6.

    1. I love the idea of finesse and cleave weapons. I may very well work that out.

      I see the logic in insisting that a creature be destroyed, but I prefer to allow a character to attempt attacking all three, and determining damage after the fact. After all, a solid blow that would stop a two-handed warhammer dead in its tracks would kill just about ANYTHING. An attack which only deals a few d6 damage implies less firm contact, I think.

      The Earthbreaker might be what I based my two handed warhammer off of. At least mine does use 2d6 and x3 crit. I’m not sure why I settled on that.

      1. By DND Next reasoning, finesse weapons are dagger, quarterstaff, rapier, scimitar, and short sword. I added Elven Curve Blade and Spiked Chain to my list (Exotic weapons aren’t listed in the DND5 playtest materials).

        If I were to create a list of Cleave weapons, I think I would put Battleaxe, Warhammer, Falchion, Greataxe, Greatclub, Greatsword, and Earth Breaker. Other weapons could potentially be used to Cleave if the feat is taken.

        I’d consider arguments that other weapons should be added to either list, but that would be my initial call.

  2. Dave Arneson’s “Chop Til You Drop” rule: Whenever a character kills an opponent, he gets another attack immediately. The maximum # of attacks per round is the character’s level (if a fighter, elf, or dwarf) or 1/2 his level (if a cleric or thief). To assist in cleaving, you can also give fighters +1 damage at level1 and an additional +1 every 3 levels thereafter.

    1. That’s got a nice oldschool vibe to it, but that’s too much of a disconnect from reality for my preference.

      Of course, in a 1 minute round, 20 or 30 attacks might not be so unusual.

  3. Me, I’m more old school. One reason I can’t fully get into 3X is those feats you just mentioned. Codifying everything or making special attacks feels to much like a video game to me. I think you made the right call, feats be damned.

    1. I like feats. I really do, I think they’re a great, functional way to specialize a character. They’re just implemented terribly. The concept is sound. It’s the application which fails.

      I’ve been thinking it may not be a bad idea for me to produce a “revised Pathfinder Feats list.” or some such.

      1. Really and truly you are right. The implementation of Feats, be it Pathfinder or 3x is horrible. Plus, I see them differently, a feat should be something grand.

        There is an idea I have batted around once and again to get rid of feats as is and use my own, Yet, my 3x players are so scared that they refuse. Because, my feats you only get a few of in your entire adventuring career.

        I will give one example of a feat I have thought up then stop ranting about it.

        Toughness. In Pathfinder, you get a few more hit points (not sure because I don’t have the book in front of me.) My version is you get +3 hit points every level plus you can continue fighting into negative hit points and you also get a bonus save for all Fort saves.

        1. That’s a cool alternative. One I’d certainly be willing to try as a player, but it’s not the direction I would take feat development.

          I think Pathfinder hit on a good scale for Feats, there’s just too many feats which focus on granting special abilities to a player. In my mind, feats should be limited to a small list of possible types. A feat should do one of two things:

          -Remove or reduce a penalty or restriction
          -Provide a bonus to a task the player can already attempt

          I can’t think of anything I would use a Feat for which doesn’t fall into one of those two categories.

        2. In my game, characters already can continue fighting into negatives (though they make Fort checks on a regular basis to stay conscious). I forget who I stole that mechanic from, but it lets Level 1 characters have last words, etc (and in my world, almost all NPCs are 1st Level, but that’s another topic).

      2. I’m really hopeful about the 5E idea of themes. To me, the early stuff I read about that system are exactly how I would like a feat system to work. As long as you don’t get too many of them, and they are not just ways to accumulate bonuses.

        1. You’ve mentioned those pretty frequently. I think I may need to break my personal rule of ignoring 5e and finally take a look at these damned backgrounds and themes Brendan is so excited about =P

          What do you mean by “a way to accumulate bonuses” by the way? Because I think that’s precisely what I *want* feats to do, but I’m not sure if we’re talking about the same thing.

          1. I could be wrong, but I think Brendan is talking about the theme of 5E gives your character something extra with more flavor than “Oh, you get another bonus to hit or damage.”

            And LS, I recommend you look into it. There really is some good stuff in 5E. And as long as they don’t heap to much more into it, it will be a pretty good system.

          2. For example, looking at Pathfinder Core:

            – Acrobatic: +2 acrobatics and fly checks
            – Deceitful: +2 bonus on Bluff and Disguise checks
            – Great Fortitude: +2 on Fortitude saves

            There are a few feats that are interesting, but most of them do not really individualize your character, and I’m not sure the benefit is worth the system overhead.

            Here is a rough summary of the five themes in the play test:

            – Guardian: allies within 5 feet of you gain a defensive bonus while you have a shield
            – Healer: you can make potions, antitoxins, and healer’s kit (given components)
            – Slayer: you still deal some damage on a miss
            – Lurker: advantage when attacking from concealment
            – Magic-user: 2 extra cantrips

            (I don’t like the mechanism of the slayer theme and the lurker could be more flavorful, but all the others are good.)

            So, you could be fighter (guardian) for a more defensive fighter, or thief (magic-user) if you wanted to simulate The Gray Mouser (a rogue who started off as a wizard’s apprentice), or a fighter (lurker) for Conan. Etc.

            1. I feel like Themes are shuffling around Class features rather than Feats.

              I’d also recommend LS check it out, but after initial interest when I heard 4E players bashing it, I’ve become more guarded. 5E would need to provide a large incentive/improvement in gameplay to pull me from Pathfinder, and so far I’m just not seeing it; at best, I can steal some of their best ideas (like Advantage/Disadvantage) and roll it into my houserules.

  4. I think, in the end, the dilemma comes down to how much abstraction you want in a round of combat. For example, I haven’t read the 3E or Pathfinder guidelines here, but I expect that there is more than one physical lunge during the 6 second round, no? So conceptualizing an attack as a single spin or thrust might be slightly off, in terms of how the round system models other things. Though, as I mentioned in a comment on a previous post, this does slightly break down when considering weapons that involve resources (generally ammunition), though with a stretch you can say that they were “looking for an opening” and were only able to get off one good shot.

    But back the the issue at hand. Despite the fact that I love improvisation in combat (and in general), I probably would have said no in this specific case for reasons of both logic and balance. The logic issue first. Part of the reason, as I understand it, that you only get one attack in a situation like that is because you are actively keeping your guard up. Attacking more than once (without the mechanical support of the rules) implies to me that you are behaving more recklessly. In 3E terms, I think attacks of opportunity by the enemies would probably be appropriate, or an AC decrease on following turns (at the very least, as both you and the cleave rules suggest).

    There are several stunt systems that might work well for things like this. I like using fumbles more than just penalties in stunt systems, because penalties can be mathematically reasoned about, whereas fumbles are a big scary unknown (which seems appropriate for combat). On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to discourage such attempts too much, especially in a heroic or swashbuckling type game.

    My own favorite method is this:

    1. I’m curious how you would have said no. To paraphrase my player’s request:

      “I’d like to make a horizontal swing and attempt to damage all three goblins in front of me.”

      A horizontal swing isn’t likely to take more than 6 seconds to perform, so on what grounds would you deny the player the right to try?

      Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out shortly.

      1. The way I would rule it, I think, is to allow one opportunity attack per monster hit past the first; so, for example, if she wanted to try for all three, there would be two opportunity attacks (the rationale being that as she went for the second, the first would try to get a shot it, and as she went for the third, the second would try to get a shot it). I would explain the trade-off beforehand and be open to negotiation if she thought of a better trade-off that would fit the situation.

        I do think it is okay to sometimes just say no, I think that is unreasonable. For example, consider a character with a sword surrounded by 9 humanoids. What if they wanted to make a spinning attack against all 9? Or the 5 in the 180 degree arc in front of the sword wielder?

      2. “I’m curious how you would have said no. To paraphrase my player’s request:

        ‘I’d like to make a horizontal swing and attempt to damage all three goblins in front of me.'”

        Unless the skeletons go to dust completely when struck, there was actually no solid reason to allow it either since the hammer would have deflected in a way to make a singular swing not possible as such.

        As for feats and removing them, for the most part that’s a bad idea (I say most part, because you do have a point about Power Attack). The whole idea behind feats such as Cleave is that they represent the additional training required to handle the weapon in a way that is often counter intuitive or requires movements of the body to overcome the physics guiding a plain strike.

        Of course, my players know I’ve studied several period fechtbuchs, performed with live steel, and have taught historical combat methodology for stage and screen actors, so I don’t often need to go into long explanations and explain myself when I say “no” to something except, perhaps, to sate someone’s curiosity.

        1. Well, couldn’t the force of the blow knock the skeletons back as well, making a single swing possible? I think there’s a fair argument either way, and the uncertainty of it can be handled with a die roll and appropriate modifiers. I’m not saying I know what those modifiers are, I’m just positing that they exist.

          As for feats, I think you have a good point, but I also think that it’s a matter of perspective and assumptions. If we assume that having proficiency with a weapon means you’ve received the requisite training to know how to use the weapon properly, even in niche situations, the feat becomes unnecessary. If we further assume that most people live and die at level one (an argument for such can be found here) then adding feat on top of feat to get essentially basic (or even advanced) proficiency seems absurd.

          I’m impressed by your credentials — I have essentially none myself — but the applicability of your expertise varies based on what assumptions are made about how and what the system is meant to model.

          1. Also, relying on feats requires/rewards system mastery. Maybe a good thing, maybe a bad thing, but worth keeping in mind.

            Rules and rulings based on specialized personal knowledge are rarely very satisfactory, in my experience, unless you are running a very detailed historical simulation game (and even then I would probably avoid such, unless all the players involved are similarly engaged and knowledgeable). Do you want your players to be reasoning about spells using their advanced knowledge of hydrodynamics or whatever?

            1. “Rules and rulings based on specialized personal knowledge are rarely very satisfactory”

              I would disagree there; I think that’s the best foundation for rules and rulings. I really feel like it’s more a matter of how granular you want to go and what that does to the game you’re playing. If it bogs it down and makes it unfun then that’s a bad thing, but I appreciate having hard facts as the basis of a system meant to simulate (some form of) reality.

  5. I think you made entirely the right call. Not only that, but also this serves as a strong example of the role of a GM in any game and that is as a friend to the players and not a foe. It’s an issue that I just wrote about recently with our current GM in which he told us no. I agree with Brendan in that it is ok to say no, but I think the reasons to say no are limited.

    If saying no means that your decision as a GM takes away from the story, the players’ fun or their willingness to come up with creative solutions then you should seriously reconsider before you say no. Likewise if saying yes has any of those effects then I wouldn’t suggest saying yes either.

    But if you say no and the player asks “why not” you had better be able to give a simple and satisfying answer without delaying the game by looking up complex rules or tracking down articles on the internet to make your point. So good call on letting this happen.

  6. Home ruling:

    Wide-Swing, or Great-Cleave (hammer and axe techs, respectively) was an action that required:

    1) Damage capability more than 2x the max health (i.e. 3d6 or similar to best a 9HP skelly and swing-through it)

    2) Strength is excess of 14 (powerful enough that the swing knocked targets back/away so that the blow could continue if it didn’t slay a target in the way).

    And that the attack be sensible: No, you cannot attack 3 trolls surrounding you. No, whirlwind isn’t a thing. No, this isn’t WoW.

    -4 AC, +2 to hit (a wide swing from a greatsword or greatax isn’t going to be easy to parry, and the weight would still hurt someone in armor), -2 to damage for each target (cumulative).

    Had a couple neat actions involving characters getting hit by allies and triggering effects off of it, which made me look twice at counters, but otherwise this has been solid for about ten years now.

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