Monday, March 17, 2014

Crossbows, Bows and the Dungeon

As a referee, I am known among my players for emphasizing the capricious nature of missile weapons. I believe in the chaos of melee, and when a character fires into melee and misses, I often have them make a second roll to hit against a nearby target. Often an ally. That's not to say I don't like missile weapons. When I was younger I wasn't half bad at archery, though mostly with modern compound bows. My father did a lot of hunting and while I picked roleplaying over hunting deer, I did a good deal of practice.

(My father did have a friend who used a hand-crafted recurve bow on a boar hunt. Even my dad had the sense to use a compound bow.)

D&D of course has three kinds of bow: self bows (short and long), laminates (composite bows) and crossbows. In Holmes the differences are mostly technical ones to do with range, and even Moldvay with variable weapon damage sticks them all at d6. So why would you use one over the other?

Bows are fast. Crossbows are slow. That's a fundamental difference - bows should fire quickly while crossbows need reloading. In reconstructed Holmes combat I'd think about giving bows 2 fires per round while keeping crossbows to 1/round and heavy crossbows at once every other round. So why would you have a crossbow at all?

The reason turns out to be simple. A crossbow is designed to be drawn and held at tension. You cannot be a sniper with a longbow. You can't hold someone at the point of an arrow for more than a handful of seconds; if the string has a reasonable draw weight, you'll start to waver sooner rather than later. If you want to wait for an enemy to pop his head around a corner and fire, you want a crossbow. If you intend to hold a victim at the point of a weapon, a crossbow is the better solution. If you want to do your dungeon exploration and be able to fire on an opponent at a moment's notice, that's a job for a crossbow.

A crossbow seems like a dungeon weapon to me in a way a self bow doesn't. Traditionally self bows and composite bows were fired up, to get a better trajectory, and were used for raining down hundreds of missiles rather indiscriminately on an enemy force. Crossbows were more of a siege weapon, the kind that really feel like dungeon combat.

In a dungeon, I figure that most arrow traps are crossbow-type rigs. This makes it easy to have a pressure or tripwire switch that releases the tension and lets the arrow fly. Besides, the kobolds who go around checking on the traps probably aren't strong enough to pull it on their own and need a winch.

When fighting in a dungeon environment, it's probably best to keep rules that encourage characters to drop their missile weapons and switch to hand-to-hand fighting once in range, so when I run a Holmesian game I might not go with adding a second bow fire and stick with once per round. After all, that aiming has to happen at some point. And meanwhile my players may want to check for crossbows....


  1. It's such a coincidence that just today I was making myself that same question, but I would have never thought that answer. Thanks for the insight. :D

  2. Great point about the reason to select a crossbow.

  3. The thief in my recent run of B2 always walked around with a loaded crossbow in the Caves - nobody else used any kind of bow. He would typically fire it off and then draw his sword. It was always nice when he nailed an opponent who had just appeared for 5 or 6 points of damage (often killing them) but he missed just as often and was forced to melee.

  4. This is a really good point, and one I am amazed (and ashamed!) that I missed. I've usually upgraded crossbow damage (back when I still used weapon-based damage), but this is an entirely new spin. Thanks!

  5. If you keep a crossbow drawn for very long, especially in a humid environment, the string will slack and it will lose power. They were not designed to be kept on the nock for hours at a time. Minutes, perhaps, so you could nock them before you expect trouble.


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