My 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:
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.
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.