On Iterative Attack Penalties

A few days ago I posted a surprisingly provocative question on Facebook.

I expected many of the reactions (most common response: “Yes”), there were suggestions I have no idea what I’m talking about (I’ll leave that for other to judge), and some interesting and actually insightful comments.

More Interesting Comments

“Averaging Instead of Cumulative Penalties”

So instead of +11/+6/+1, average the attack bonuses and use the same for all attacks. An interesting idea, and lends itself to this simple pattern:

  • One attack, full attack bonus
  • Two attacks, full attack bonus -2
  • Three attacks, full attack bonus -5
  • Four attacks, full attack bonus -7

It could be -3/-5/-8, but I rounded in favor of the attacker because reducing that first attack bonus is a greater cost than improving the later ones is a gain.

I expect that it’s no real coincidence that this aligns well with flurry of blows and the Rapid Shot feat.

It does have the limitation that it removes the ability to decide after the first attack whether you’re going to make iterative attacks or do something else (like run away from the thing you failed to hit with your best attack bonus, despite 18 on the attack die)… but Vital Strike has that same limitation.

I’d be willing to use this in a ‘maintain the current balance’ replacement for the current rules.

“At Level 20, No. At Level 8, Very Yes”

This is an intriguing answer.

I think that at level 20, it almost certainly is not unbalancing. It changes some elements of balance, but overall it won’t do much.

At level 8, though, changing +8/+3 to +8/+8 can have a significant effect on combat. This is approximately where the power curves are changing.

I can’t say for certain that it’s unbalancing or not, but it’s worth further investigation.

“Full Attacks are Rare”

In my experience, yes, they can be. There are some builds that get them more often, but I’ve also seen many fights where the high-damage combatant doesn’t even get there before the fight’s over.

Less Interesting Comments

I’m going to summarize the sorts of comments I feel worth response, and respond to them.

“Yes” and “Very Much Yes”

Succinct, at least.

“The Math Works for a Reason”

In the sense that the math supports certain outcomes, certainly. I’m questioning those outcomes.

“You Must Be New Here”

I’ve been playing long enough I remember when multiple attacks did not take iterative attack penalties. You got fewer of them, sort of: a level 7 warrior in AD&D2e got ‘3/2’ attacks (one attack one round, two attacks the next, then one, two, one two). Given how infrequently a melee character gets to use iterative attacks (in my experience) I’d be willing to equate the extra +1/2 attack with a modern PC getting the potential of an additional iterative attack. The levels even line up, more or less (+1/2 at level 7, +1 at level 13)… close enough, especially when you get another +1/2 for specialization.

“It Makes Initiative More Important”

Not really. For initiative to really matter, the characters must be in a position to act and take advantage of going first. For the most part, this means “able to act at range”, unless the fight somehow starts at melee range. Which, okay, can happen in a dungeon, but in my experience fights usually start with at least some separation between the participants.

Which leaves ranged attacks: bows (since it’s hard to get iterative attacks with a crossbow due to reload time) and magic. Your archer will probably hit more often, but I’m not convinced it’ll catch up to the wizard who can drop a fireball on many enemies at once. with a saving throw that will likely be hard to beat (if it isn’t, you’re high enough level to use a better spell), and still does damage even on a successful save. Meanwhile, the melee brute is busy hustling across the field to get to his first opponent. We’ll wait until he gets for his his initiative to matter.

In short, inasmuch as rocket tag is a thing, your brute melee fighter, the one best able to take advantage of this change, still doesn’t particularly play that way.

“Need to Increase Defenses and Spell Power”

Spell power is the last thing we need to increase. It might be worth increasing Armor Class, though, which could give us things that only the real professional combatants should be dealing with.

Ignoring, of course, that AC doesn’t apply to saving throws, and spells like targeting saving throws. See “last thing we need to increase”.

To Answer My Question

Removing the iterative attack penalties, without changing the number of attacks available, will affect balance. I do not think it would be a detrimental change.

It’s also not the change I would make… but ‘it would ruin game balance’ is not the reason why.


  1. Reverance Pavane

    The only reason you get a decaying attack bonus in 3E-derived works is that it was considered by the authors to be a useful method of determining the level at when a character gets an additional attack. [Which can come in handy if you run a multi-classing variant where you add the BAB bonuses of each class to determine the characters actual BAB.]

    Unfortunately 3E-derived rules also had a noticeable AC creep in their monster descriptions from earlier editions, especially when creating opponents for fighters (not to mention the potential AC creep for the fighters themselves), which often made these secondary attacks useless for the prime opponents of fighters at high level. [These opponents also being quite unsuitable for non-fighters because of the high AC, putting an artificial split in the nature of battlefield opponents since nobody enjoys fruitlessly hammering on an invulnerable target.] So these secondary attacks with decreased bonus are really only good against lower level opponents. They just help clear out the dross a bit faster. [D&D combat being famously boring and slow mechanically – nobody complains about a magic user clearing a room of orcs with a fireball, but do the same thing with a fighter tends to lead to frustration on the part of the gamemaster and boredom with everyone else, even if the end result is effectively the same.]

    Because of the mechanics of standard D&D combat I think my preferred version is to put all your eggs in one basket and increase the damage roll with multiple attacks but keep it as one roll to actually hit. Although you can assign each die of that damage to different targets if you like. So a +1 longsword does 3d8+3 damage in an attack with +11 to hit (in the example given, assuming no strength bonuses). This could be allocated as a single damage roll, or three 1d8+1 damage rolls for example (as long as they are against opponents of equivalent or lesser AC). Or as a lot of games did, in the past, simply treat it as a cleave and transfer any excess damage to the next opponent (assuming their AC is less than the primary target).

    Remember that it is the entire process of applying damage that has always been the fundamental D&D combat process and that the two rolls (the “hit” roll and the damage roll) are simply methods of applying the damage distribution (a convolution of both distributions) to the target (which is why Arms Law/Rolemaster worked), even though they needed a look-up table to do it). They are not really separate rolls (or at least they shouldn’t technically be).

    • Roll against your chosen target, then assign up to (what would have been number of iterative attacks) worth of damage, either in units of normal damage or even down to hit points if you drop your target? And if you pick something with a higher AC than the target you initially picked, even if that’s below your roll, that assigned damage does nothing?

      That’s an interesting approach, Ian.

      Another possibility is pick a target and roll, and you can still assign damage as you see fit but the initially-chosen creature must be first and you’re still constrained by what AC you manage to hit. That is, if I am up against something with AC 14 and something with AC 19, I might choose the softer target first to be certain of effect, then either apply 0 damage (missed!), all damage (hit AC 14 but not AC 19), or I got lucky and hit AC 20 but the softer target gets the first piece of it before I pass the rest to the harder target.

      Curious, curious… I’ll need to think about this.

  2. HDA

    I’d have a multi-pronged answer to this, but overall I think it could really be worth a try to keep full BAB.

    1- The 3.x designers seemed to think that having a full BAB is a tremendously powerful class ability. I’m sure we all realize it really isn’t, compared to all the alternatives. Not having that 20th level fighter wasting a few of his attack rolls every round is probably a good move.

    2 – Still playing 3rd edition mate? I feel your pain. But there is a way out. Hell, even 5th skips most of this nonsense if you can’t convince your players to crack open 1e…

    3 – I run Mathfinder at home, but I keep it to Epic 6 to curb the system’s worst excesses. Try it, you might like it.

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