I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Thursday, June 13, 2024

The importance of cleaving mooks

I recently wrote a couple of posts about how B/X Fighters are too weak and how to fix them.

There is one thing I want to elaborate further: "cleaving" (or sweep attacks, etc.). 

As it often happens, there is a great post in Delta's blog about the subject, which covers most of the topic.

This is an ability the fighter had in OD&D and AD&D, that is missing from B/X. Here is how OSRIC describes it:

"Fighting the Unskilled: When the fighter is attacking creatures with less than a full hit die (i.e. less than 1d8 hit points), the fighter receives one attack for each of his or her levels of experience, e.g. a 4th level fighter attacking goblins would receive 4 attacks per round."

Delta's describes the importance of this rule when fighting hundreds of goblins. Notice that the number appearing for goblins is:

- In B/X, 2d4 in the dungeon and 6d10 in the wilderness. 
- In AD&D, it is 40d10.

This rule is useful not only to give the (very) high level fighter a chance against a goblin horde, but also to balance the power of fireballs (and similar spells) somewhat.

There is also a narrative importance to this rule that is worth mentioning.

In fiction, the "main villains" are often surrounded by low level "mooks" that must be defeated first by the protagonist. In RPGs, I've seem PCs ignore all mooks over and over again to attack the villain directly, as if the main villain was all that mattered. 

Which, fair enough, can be a good tactic, especially in the absence of "opportunity attacks" and the like.

However, it makes me wonder if the reason is not the lack of a cleaving rules, which would often encourage the fighter to make 10 attacks against the goblins instead of going directly for the goblin king/captain - which is a bit less likely to die in a single blow and usually deals significantly less damage than 10 goblins combined.

If you decide that the death of a leader will cause some penalty to morale, this introduces and interesting tactical choice.

Fighting hordes of mooks at once is also something that Appendix N characters like Conan and Elric can do.

In addition, let's remind that hacking down hordes of ores feels awesome for the fighter.

Amazing art by Dean Spencer.

My main issue with "Fighting the Unskilled" is that it lacks nuance. A 10th-level fighters has 10 attacks against goblins, but only one or two against orcs. 

Notice that orcs also appear in greater numbers in AD&D than B/X, but are not subject to these extra attacks.

Another difficulty is how these "extra attacks" combine with multiple attacks. If a 7th level fighter has 3/2 attacks, how many attacks does he get against goblins? Seven? 8/7? 

Weapon proficiency confuses things further.

This is why I like the "cleave" solution, from 3e, as explained in Delta's blog:

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.

(Of course, I added similar feats to Old School Feats and I use them in my games.)

I'll add that this kind of cleave works smoothly with multiple attacks, magic weapons, weapon specialties, etc: the higher your attack and damage, the higher the chance to use this.

[One small aside: one thing I haven't considered in this post or the one before this is the 5e cleave method of "damage overflow": if you reduce an enemy to 0 HP, any excess damage is dealt to a nearby foe of same AC or lower. This is also a very interesting solution because it is simple, fast as smooth, while it also gives meaning to high damage rolls against goblins, etc.]

In short, if I were to add ONE single ability to B/X fighters, it would be this "great cleave". 

I do not think it would be enough, mind you - I still think they deserve extra attack to improve damage output against solo monsters  - but it would be a great start.


  1. >2d4 in the dungeon and 6d10 in the wilderness

    Possibly upwards of 6d10 × 5 in a wilderness lair, which is on the same order of magnitude as AD&D.

    One other "mook rule" perhaps worth mentioning is the Heroic Fray from 2nd Edition's Combat & Tactics book. That version of the rule allowed fighters attacking less-than-1-HD opponents to make double their normal number of attacks per round against them (so 2 attacks at 1st–6th, 3 attacks at 7th–12th, or 4 attacks from 13th level and up), plus one bonus attack that has to be a punch or kick or shield bash; and more interestingly, it scaled, with 11th level fighters able to Fray with 1 to 1+ HD monsters, 12th level fighters with 2 to 2+ HD monsters, 13th level fighters with 3 to 3+ HD monsters, and so on.

    I mention this to help explain how I beef up fighters at my table.
    • Multiple attacks as per AD&D (+1 attack⁄2 rounds for every six levels gained above the 1st).
    • Heroic Fray (as per 2e) at 4th level. It works on 1 HD monsters initially and scales by 1 HD per four fighter levels (1+1 at 5th, 1+2 at 6th, 1+3 at 7th, 2 HD at 8th, 2+1 at 9th, etc.).
    • Sweep Attacks (as per 0e) at 8th level, vs. 1 HD monsters initially and scaling by 1 HD per eight fighter levels gained (so 1+1 at 10th, 1+2 at 12th, etc.).
    • Fighter Combat Options (from BECMI) at specific levels: Set Spear at 1st, Lance Attack at 2nd, Parry at 3rd, Disarm at 5th, Smash at 6th).
    • Various abilities noted for Super Hero figures on Chainmail's Fantasy Reference Table become higher-level fighter abilities (Detect Invisible Enemies at 7th, Enemy Troops Within 15″ Check Morale at 9th).

    1. Sounds good and balanced!

      The chainmail abilities are a great reminder of how )D&D fighters were tougher, justifiably so in my opinion.

      The 2e version I hadn't considered, looks very interesting (and your progression looks even better).