One of my favourite rules from TSR era D&D is that fighters get 1 attack per level of experience versus 0-level Humans and monsters of less than 1 HD. Consider the following:
Heroes attack 4 times per round, Trolls & Ogres attack 6 times per round, Superheroes attack 8 times per round, and Giants attack 12 times per round versus Normal Men. Normal Men are defined as typical soldiers.
— Paraphrased from Chainmail by Gary Gygax & Jeff Peren
“Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die, with any bonuses being given to only one of the attacks, i.e. a Troll would attack six times, once with a +3 added to the die roll.”
— D&D Book II Monsters & Treasure by Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, page 5 (premium edition)
“Note: This excludes melee combat with monsters (q.v.) of less than one hit die (d8) and non-exceptional (0 level) humans and semi-humans, i.e. all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die. All of these creatures entitle a fighter to attack once for each of his or her experience levels (See COMBAT).”
— AD&D Players Handbook by Gary Gygax, page 25 (premium edition)
There are two reason why I like this rule. The first is that it evokes Conan wading through an army of Picts, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake! The second is that during my years of fighting in the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) I would watch the very best fighters mow down the novices like a scythe through wheat. When I was one of the novices, I can tell you that the attacks came so fast and furious, I was defeated before I could react. Come to think of it, the same thing happend to me during my martial arts period as well.
But why stop with 1st level soldiers? It has always struck me as odd that a 1st level fighter is such a threat to a 20th level fighter (e.g. Conan) that the 20th level guy redirects so much of his effort into defence as to reduce the number of attacks from 20 to 1 (depending on edition). It is most certainly true that masters of the martial arts fight more cautiously against another master so I support the idea of less number of attacks. But why not a continuum instead of a binary solution. Consider the following:
“A super hero, for example, would attack eight times only if he were fighting normal men (or creatures basically that strength, i.e., kobolds, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and so on).
Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less.” [emphasis mine]
— Questions Most Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules, (presumably written by E. Gary Gygax) The Strategic Review, Summer 1975, Vol. 1, No. 2
Note that what Gygax is saying is that if the Orcs were instead Gnolls (2 HD humanoids) and the fighter a Superhero (8 HD), the ratio is 2:8, simplified to 1:4 so the combat is treated as “non-fantastic” meaning that the superhero gets… 8 attacks or 4? I think his intention is that the superhero gets 4 attacks per round versus Gnolls and 8 attacks per round versus Orcs.
Getting back to my question of Conan the 20th level legendary fighter versus the 1st level veteran, according to Gygax’s FAQ, a 20th level lord gets 20 attacks per round versus the 1st level veteran because the ratio is 20:1. Likewise, Conan would get 10 attacks per round versus a 2nd level warrior, 6 attacks versus a 3rd level swordsman, 5 attacks v. a 4th level hero, 4 attacks per round v. a 5th level swashbuckler, 3 attacks vs. a 6th level myrmidon, 2 attacks per round versus 7th–10th level fighters, and 1 attack per round versus fighters of 11th level or higher.
Gygax’s system of attacks per round based on the ratio of Hit Dice between humanoid combatants explains why Conan can wade through lower level fighters but fights more cautiously against his peers. Which is always what I observed and experienced first-hand in the SCA and in martial arts.
Given that this FAQ appeared before the publication of Grayhawk, why was it not included in that supplement or the AD&D rules? Obviously we can only speculate at this point, but I suspect that it has to do with fighters, paladins, and rangers getting multiple attacks per round at higher levels which first appeared in the AD&D Players Handbook in 1978. Although, Gygax did retain the attack/level when facing creatures of less than 1 Hit Die and 0-level Humans.
I like this rule so much, I shall refer to it as the “Conan” rule. The next question then, is ‘how broadly or narrowly should this rule be applied?’
Ever since the Giants in the Earth series of articles appeared in Dragon Magazine in 1979, I realised that fighters are effectively a core component of all other classes. That is, since all classes increase in combat ability, they are effectively lower level fighters as well. For example in the AD&D Deities & Demigods, Merlin is a 14 level Druid, 15th level Magic-User, and 10th level illusionist. He has no levels in fighter per se. 14th level Druids have a THAC0 of 12 exactly like a 9th level fighter. Therefore I ruled that Merlin can fight as a 9th level fighter and gets 3 mêlée attacks every 2 rounds. So from that point forward, I gave all classes multiple attacks per round based on their equivalent fighter level. The fact that I was not the only DM to do this is proven by 3rd edition doing the exact same thing. In 3e, the number of attacks per round is determined by a character’s Base Attack Bonus (BAB) rather than an arbitrary table.
Carrying this one step further, non-fighters are treated as their equivalent fighter level for determination of how many attacks per round they receive versus lower level creatures but also for high level fighters versus them! After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander…. So if Merlin did not want to waste any spells, he could smack 9 squires per round with his quarterstaff but Syr Launcelot (Pal 20) could reprimand Merlin at 2 attacks per round (ratio of 9:20).
So this is all very good for humanoid versus humanoid combat, but what happens when it is combat versus bears or owlbears? Alligators or dragons? What Gygax calls “fantastic combat”? I think that this is where the attacks/round of high level fighters should come into play. D&D is an abstraction and it is very difficult to adjudicate how much of an owlbear’s combat ability comes from skill versus natural talent. Theoretically, an RPG could work out that difference but no edition of D&D has done that (aside from 3e allowing humanoids to take some class levels) and I have no desire to do that as well.
So if fantasic combat relies on the multiple attacks/round rule rather than the opponent ratio, then why does Conan get only 1 attack per round versus his doppleganger instead of 2 attacks per round (AD&D fighters levels 13+)? I rule then that the minimum number of attacks per round is always what the fantastic combat rules allow for. So Conan always has a minimum of 2 attacks/round regardless of how high level his opponent is or whether it is humanoid or not.
Below is my expansion of Gygax’s rule that can be applied to all versions of D&D:
Conan Rule: “Fighters” get multiple attacks vs. lower level opponents
Abstract: Fighters get 1 attack per level per round divided by their opponent’s fighter level with a minium equal to their standard number of attacks/round. For eample, a 4th level gets 4 attacks per round versus a 1st level fighter (4:1), 2 attacks per round versus a 2nd level fighter (4:2 = 2:1), and 1 attack per round versus 3rd level fighters and higher (4:3).
This house rule is an expansion of one that appeared in the D&D FAQ published in The Strategic Review number 2, obstensibly written by E. Gary Gygax in 1975 prior to the release of the Grayhawk expansion.
In this rule, “fighters” include the fighter class as well as the equivalent fighter level of other character classes and humanoids (creatures of roughly human size, shape, & movement). Equivalent fighter level is determined by examining the base attack capabilities of the character class (To Hit, THAC0, or BAB). For monsters, use their Hit Dice or BAB if using 3rd edition rules. For example, in AD&D clerics of 1st & 2nd level have the same THAC0 as 1st level fighters, as do magic-users of 1st–4th level and thieves of 1st & 2nd level. Therefore they are all treated as 1st level fighters for determination of attacks/round.
The number of attacks a fighter gets against lower level opponents is determened by dividing the level of the attacker by the level of the defender, drop all fractions and give a minimum attack per round of 1 or higher if the rules allow for a higher number of normal attacks per round, e.g. AD&D fighters get 2 attacks/round at 13th level, 3e fighters get 2 attacks/round at 6th level.
For example a 9th level lord versus a 1st level veteran gets 9 attacks (9 ÷ 1 = 9) while the 1st level veteran gets but a single attack (1 ÷ 9 = 0.1111). Versus a 2nd level fighter, the lord gets 4 attacks (9 ÷ 2 = 4.5), versus a 3 level fighter he get 3 attacks (9 ÷3 = 3), versus a 4th level fighters he gets 2 (9 ÷ 7 = 2.25), versus a 5th level fighter and higher he gets only a single attack per round (9 ÷5 = 1.8). Note that in AD&D the 9th level lord has a minimum attack of 3/2.
What about Great Cleave? In third edition, fighters with the great cleave feat (at 4th level or higher), upon killing an opponent may attack another opponent within range. In this way, a fighter could theoretically kill all creatures within range so long as he hit and killed each one of them in a single swing (see the pictures at the bottom of this post). However, as soon as an attack misses or does not kill an opponent, the great cleave ends. In contrast, under the Conan Rules, a 4th level fighter gets four attacks against 1st level opponents regardless of whether he hits and/or kills the opponent. Thus, these two rules can work together if you so desire.
High level fighters will also becomes closer to magic-users in power. A 9th level lord now gets 9 attacks per round versus that press gang of 1st level sailors instead of only 1.
For those of you who think that this rule is too cinematic or literary, consider the follow except from the book “This is Kendo” which depicts a fight scene from the film “Sanjuro.” Yes, I am aware that I am referring to a scene from a film, but this was done without any wires or CGI and was choreographed by a expert in kenjutsu (whose name I forgot).
I want to thank Delta of Delta’s D&D Hotspot for reminding me of the D&D FAQ in Strategic Review that mentioned number of attacks based on the hit dice ratio. I do not know if I unconciously internalised this article after I read it back in 1978 and forgot the source or if I developed this idea in parallel. Regardless, it is gratifying to see that at least at one point in time, Gygax and I shared this idea.