The number of blows struck per melee round is a fascinating and crucial topic for D&D combat.
CHAINMAIL’s Man-to-Man Combat rules and the infamous re-rendering of the same in Holmes Basic D&D immediately come to mind.
Although the Holmes version is more accessible, it is also more fraught. As published, the Holmes Basic D&D rulebook tells us: «
Each round consists of an exchange of blows with ordinary weapons. Light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round. The heavy two-handed sword, battle axe, halberd, flail, morning star, and pole arm can be used only once every other round.» (emphasis added).
This has been contentious virtually since it was published. It seems that «
light weapons such as daggers» get two blows to every regular weapon blow and four blows to every heavy weapon blow. Who would choose anything but a dagger?
To make sense of this we need to dig a little deeper. Due to the excellent analysis on the Zenopus Archives blog, we now know that the Holmes ms originally had: «
Each round consists of an exchange of two blows with ordinary weapons.» (emphasis added) followed by: «
The heavy two-handed sword, battle axe, halberd, flail, morning star, and pole arm can be used only once per round.» (emphasis added).
So the Holmes ms rendering of the combat round comprised two blows per round for each combatant, excepting those with the heaviest weapons. This seems straightforward, so why did Gygax change it https://zenopusarchives.blogspot.com/2013/12/interlude-who-edited-editor.html and how can we reconcile his edit?
For that, we’ll need to go back further.
MAN TO MAN
The notion of multiple blows per melee round exists in CHAINMAIL’s (evocatively named) Man-to-Man Combat rules which describe individual men coming to blows with medieval arms and armor at the 1:1 scale where every blow is potentially fatal. It’s visceral stuff.
As seen in the published Holmes rules, the M2M rules allow dagger (and hand axe) armed men to strike two blows per round versus men armed with the heavy battle-axe, morning star, flail, or spear. Further, they strike three blows per round versus men armed with the heaviest polearms, halberds, and two-handed swords.
Men armed with other weapons can also strike two blows per round versus men armed with heavier weapons:
- Maces strike two blows per round versus flail, spear, halberd, and two-handed sword.
- Swords strike two blows per round versus spear, halberd, and two-handed sword.
- Battle axes strike two blows per round versus halberd and two-handed sword.
- Even the morning star strikes two blows per round versus the two-handed sword.
The point to note here is that it’s the relative weapon size that determines how many blows are struck. The heavier/larger weapon always strikes one blow per round, while the lighter/smaller weapon may strike two (or perhaps even three) blows per round. Notably, opponents with approximately equal-sized weapons will always strike one blow each per round.
So M2M grants lighter weapons the advantage of striking more than one blow per round versus several heavier weapons. However, this advantage comes at a cost.
In the M2M system, initiative is determined by weapon size. The larger weapon almost always strikes the first blow in the first round. In many cases, the first blow would be fatal and that would be that. Furthermore, the M2M attack matrix favours larger weapons against armor, making them more likely to strike a killing blow. So it paid to carry a larger weapon.
On the other hand, if a man with a lighter weapon could avoid that first blow he could potentially strike multiple return blows, albeit at lesser odds of penetrating armor. So it also paid to carry a smaller weapon.
Unfortunately, this consequential detail was largely omitted in the Basic D&D rulebook, but it did not vanish entirely. In the first print of The Keep on the Borderlands Gygax reminds us that pole-armed fighters will «
strike the first blow when used against a charging foe»B2 1st print p8 area 1. as in, these larger weapons strike the first blow in the first melee round, exactly per M2M.
The awkward thing about the M2M construction of blows per round is that the number of blows can change on an opponent-by-opponent basis—or even on a round-by-round basis if opponents switch weapons—because it’s determined by the relative size of the opposed weapons.
The Holmes ms simplified all that. It does away with relative weapon sizes and any need to compare opposed weapon sizes round by round. Instead, it flips to absolute weapon sizes.
The Holmes ms has each combatant striking two blows per round with regular weapons, or one blow per round with the largest, two-handed weapons. Regardless of what their opponent is armed with.
The Holmes ms version is immediately more intuitive to play while more or less capturing the gist of the M2M rule. The main difference is that opponents with regular-sized swords or axes strike two blows each per round, rather than the one blow each per round they strike in M2M.
WHAT ABOUT WARLOCK?
At this point it is worth mentioning Warlock, an early D&D variantWarlock first published in The Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9, August 1975. which Holmes was exposed tohttps://zenopusarchives.blogspot.com/2012/02/warlock-or-how-to-play-d-without.html.
Warlock also features multiple blows per melee phase (analogous to a melee round). It allows 1 to 4 blows per phase by absolute weapon size, with daggers striking 4 blows per phase, two-handed swords but 1 blow per phase, and other weapons falling in that range according to their size. This is coupled with variable damage dice (daggers dealing 1 die damage, and two-handed swords 3 dice) as well as variable hit probabilities (daggers and two-handed swords being 5% and 35% likely to beat plate armor, respectively). Arguably, these features are adaptions of M2M’s blows per round, Greyhawk’s variable weapon damage (albeit Warlock sticks to six-sided dice), and the M2M weapons versus armor matrix, respectively.
Like Warlock, the Holmes ms determines the number of blows by absolute weapon sizes. However, the Holmes ms advocates 2 blows per round with regular-sized weapons and 1 blow per round with heavier weapons, which lies somewhere between Warlock and M2M. Warlock allows 4 blows with the lightest weapons, 2 or 3 blows with regular weapons, and 1 blow with heavy weapons. M2M allows 2 — or rarely 3 — blows with the lighter weapons and 1 blow with most weapons. Possibly, Holmes’ construction is nearer to Warlock in this regard.
Could Holmes have borrowed his multiple blows construction from Warlock rather than from M2M? Or could he have conflated the two in his reduction? It seems a logical possibility.
BACK TO THE GYGAX EDIT OF HOLMES
Regardless of the inspiration for blow per round, the Holmes ms was submitted after 4th February 1977http://zenopusarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/appendix-manuscript-copy-order-form.html, enabling Gygax to set about editinghttps://zenopusarchives.blogspot.com/2013/12/interlude-who-edited-editor.html it soon after.
Gygax certainly noticed Holmes’ 2 blows per round with regular weapons, because he (infamously) edited that section of the ms. When Basic D&D was published in 1977 it contained:
Each round consists of an exchange of blows with ordinary weapons. Light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round. The heavy two-handed sword, battle axe, halberd, flail, morning star, and polearm can be used only once every other round.Holmes Basic D&D rulebook, p20.
D&D players have struggled with this ever since.
THE OPPONENT’S ROUND THEORY
Here is a theory.
It is plausible, if we squint at it through CHAINMAIL-tinted lenses, that Gygax’s edit of Holmes could be an echo of the earlier M2M combat rule. In which case we would read it like this:
Each round consists of an exchange of blows with ordinary weapons» so two figures with regular, ordinary-sized weapons get one blow each.
Light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round.» If one has a dagger he gets two blows to the other guy’s one.
The heavy two-handed sword, battle axe, halberd, flail, morning star, and polearm can be used once every other round.» If one of them has a two-handed weapon he gets one blow to the other guy’s two.
In this speculation “round” refers to the opponent’s round.
Admittedly it’s not obvious, particularly if the reader isn’t familiar with the M2M rules. However, the pivotal piece is that this reading reverts to relative rather than absolute weapon sizes, per the original M2M construction. It may not be obvious, but at least it makes some kind of sense of Gygax’s contentious edit.
LACK OF EVIDENCE
Unfortunately, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands doesn’t support this interpretation. It is explicit that pole-armed troops at the keep have «
#AT ½» and has an explanatory note that «
#AT ½ indicates that the weapon may only be used once every 2 rounds». This essentially torpedoes the Opponent’s Round theory. Gygax is explicit (in B2) that pole-armed men strike one blow every other round–regardless of their opponent. So it’s absolute weapon size that matters.
The escape clause here is that B2 likewise offers zero support for daggers striking 2 blows per round, despite this being unequivocal in Gygax’s edit of Holmes. B2 includes several dagger-armed figures such as the Mad Hermit—a 3rd level thief whose combat advantages are described at length (B2 p13) — with no mention of blows per round. So something apparently had changed by B2. Perhaps Gygax’s thinking had moved on in the 3 years between Holmes (June 77) and B2 (1980) such that the M2M construction of blows per round was no longer front of mind (if it ever was).
Whatever your favoured interpretation, the number of blows per round remains a fascinating element of D&D combat.
|↑2||B2 1st print p8 area 1.|
|↑3||Warlock first published in The Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9, August 1975.|