Monday, June 10, 2019

The Crossbayeux Tapestry

I’ve honestly started this article three times now. Originally I wanted to do a piece that talked about the historical "fact" of Crossbows vs Short/Longbows, that way we could use it to make reasonable approximations for the game we love to play. One of the only facts I was able to uncover was that there were scant facts to be had. Most of people’s assumptions about all bows come from conjecture, myth, and most likely hyperbolic, historical reference. So instead of providing “facts” to base my article on, I am going to base it on my own perception of the subject, flawed as it may be. Please note, I am not claiming to be an expert, and I am not overly concerned with “facts”. What I am concerned with is how items play out in our fantasy world, and that each of them has some place of its own. I know the old adage, “Crossbows were easier to train, unlike bows which took years to master.” I don’t buy that. I had never shot a bow in my life and after about 15 minutes I could hit a reasonable size target at a good distance. Unless by training you mean pure physical strength, but most bows in D&D do not have a STR minimum.

These guys get all the glory, crossbows get no respect.

Over the years there has been much discussion in the D&D communities over how to best represent crossbows and their chief competitor the bow. There have been many different ways of looking at the issue through range, damage, rate of fire, ease of use, accuracy, versatility, and famously armor penetration. Oftentimes the bow wins out in these comparisons and you do not see many PCs based around the crossbow, but will see many archer concepts. As a note, my strongest influence will be B/X D&D, but as always this can be applied to many different systems. Also, unless noted I am speaking about a hand drawn crossbow and not the heavier variety that required mechanical help to load.

Why crossbows are generally not good in B/X

They do the same damage as bows, and they can outdistance all of the bows as well. At first they seem like the perfect choice. The devil is in the details though. Many people play with the rule that crossbows are slow, and thus go last in the round, and on top of that they can only fire every other round. This makes them truly dreadful and the main reason that no one in their right mind would take them. The little bit of extra range at the sacrifice of both speed and rate of fire is too much. This almost seems like a double penalty for the same thing. Yes, crossbows are slower to reload, I would either make them go last OR make them shoot half as much. The latter appears to have more “facts” behind it as many YouTube videos show bows shooting almost exactly twice as fast as a crossbow. 

I'm sure people have seen this video already, but here it is again.

Rate of fire is important on two fronts, character efficiency and player fun. As far as an efficient character, it seems obvious that a character firing twice as often over time will do more damage to the opponents. Even more vitally important is player fun. There is nothing more boring that sitting out half the turns in a combat waiting to reload. In my games I actively encourage new players to steer away from the crossbow, and pick up the short or longbow, because I want them to be rolling dice each round. 

Ways to help the crossbow

Oftentimes in games the crossbow has the ability to penetrate armor, better than a short/longbow. This has confused me over the years, because you hear about the English Longbow are how it cut through armor, not the crossbow. Then it is crossbows that cut through armor, and the Longbows do not. In my limited experience, a hand drawn crossbow is no better at going through armor than any other type of bow, and might be worse. More so, I personally do not like the ability to ignore levels of armor for these weapons, because it is often forgotten, and somewhat subjective. The GM has to determine is this creatures AC based more on speed, or armor? What about a combination of the two? How much then? It can slow a game down, and I am not about that.

Lesson to be learned, armor is very tough.

One of the main ways I make the crossbow a bit more appetizing is to make it a bit faster on the draw. Crossbows have the advantage that they can stay ready to fire for an extended period of time. You can load a crossbow, and walk around with it ready to fire. Unlike a bow, which if you walk around with it pulled back, you will eventually get tired and have to relax your arms. What does this mean in game terms? I would allow a readied crossbow the ability to fire before the 1st round of combat’s initiative is rolled. One quick snap shot, then the owner can decide to drop it and draw weapons, or begin the reloading process. This makes it a good choice for frontline fighters, as they can get one shot off before the melee begins. 

Another way you can make the crossbow better is to allow a person to line up the perfect shot. We have very few “facts” about crossbows, but one thing that is known is that they were used in siege warfare. People could rest a crossbow on a support, and line up a shot for an extended period of time, and then just pull the trigger. How do you translate this into game mechanics? I would allow the crossbow to aim for an extended period of time, compared to a standard bow. I think that either weapon can line a shot up for one round, granting a +1 bonus to hit. After 10 seconds of drawing a powerful longbow, you get some diminishing returns due to fatigue. On the other hand a crossbow can aim up to an additional two rounds for a huge +3 bonus to hit. This seems to be in keeping with both weapons, and seems to be how they were intended to be used. 

Things to remember

Crossbows are a more versatile weapon in its uses compared to the standard bows. You can use a crossbow while laying down, in a tree, hiding in a bush, or a variety of other uncomfortable situations. A long bow is about six feet tall, with a short bow coming in between three and four feet tall. These traditional bows require more space, and cannot be used as tactically. Is your party having to crawl through a tunnel, you are not going to be able to use that longbow in that circumstance, but the crossbow would still be an option. They have specific situational advantages and GMs can create scenarios that allow the crossbow to shine. 

Players will often buy helper and retainers for all sorts of situations. Guards, torchbearers, animal handlers, grooms, even valets. In all my time playing D&D I have not seen a player hire someone to reload their crossbow. This was not without historic precedent, and would take away one of the main disadvantages of using the crossbow. This allows the player to keep up with the other types of archers, and still have the situational advantages of the crossbow. 

This is the type of situation that a loader would be nice.

I hate when there is an obvious choice in a game, and in B/X it is obvious if you can, do not use a crossbow. I am hoping that this article might spark some ideas in your head on how you might make it advantageous for a player or enemy to use this weapon and not relegate it to the Tomb of Forgotten Weapons.


  1. I have done "living history" with both a short bow and a crossbow. A crossbow at short range is an automatic critical; they are just that easy to aim if you are familiar with the weapon. Additionally, unless the dungeon is WELL-LIT with HUGE rooms and LONG hallways, I don't see any bow as a useful weapon underground.

  2. I agree in principle, but from a game perspective I want all the options available. I know D&D isn't historically accurate, I just want a place/use for all weapons.

  3. A warbow is about 120lbs pull. The usual first biw fir sport archery us about 20-30 pounds

    A 120 pound bow at battlefield distance is a different matter to a sports bow

  4. True, but most Warbows are not aimed, correct? They are fired in mass at a blob of troops. To me, aiming at a target about 30 or so yards out is more applicable to D&D, because that is the range that combat is fought.

  5. "Many people play with the rule that crossbows are slow, and thus go last in the round,"

    How many groups have you encountered that play with this rule?

  6. Maybe I should have rephrased that, there is a rule in the expanded B/X material that has that. I do recommend not using it.

  7. So have you encountered any groups which actually use that rule?

  8. Yes, I have. Not frequently, but yes.

  9. "True, but most Warbows are not aimed, correct? They are fired in mass at a blob of troops. To me, aiming at a target about 30 or so yards out is more applicable to D&D, because that is the range that combat is fought"

    Any medieval English bowman worth his salt could put an arrow through a bracelet at 100 yards. At 200 yards, an arrow would fall within feet of its target.

    While volley fire was important in the development of warfare at the time, accuracy of the bowman can't be overstated. At Agincourt, Henry V had about 5,000 bowman. Each bowman could fire (as we saw in the video) about 10 aimed shots a minute (probably actually closer to 12 with an upward number of 20). That works out to 60,000 arrows in a minute. Now, on the surface, that would seem to indicate that you are correct...that they just threw a ton of arrows out at the enemy.

    But, think about this for a minute....In the example of Agincourt, how could a travelling army carry that many arrows? We're told that Agincourt lasted 2-4 hours. At 60,000 arrows a minute, after 15 minutes Henry's army would have gone through nearly a million arrows. There is simply no way that the army carried that many arrows, much less enough to last 2 hours.

    Now, we've also seen in the video above that a piece of plate armor was able to withstand a bowshot from 20 yards, and it looks like they used a bodkin head in their shot which has the best chance to penetrate armor. Given that the French attacked with their lords and men-at-arms (not with the peasantry), it is pretty safe to assume that most were well armored. Estimates of French range from about 10,000 to 50,000 (The English only had about 1,000 men-at-arms in addition to the bowmen)

    Now, there are lots of reasons why the French lost that battle, weather and tactics primary among them. But considering that the English arrows would have run out long before the end of the battle, that the English men-at-arms were vastly outnumbered by the French, and assuming that the lightly armored bowmen would not have been very effective against the men at arms in close combat, one can assume that the bowmen were effective because they were able to accurately put their arrows into weak parts of the French armor; likely visor slits or joints.

    So, while I would agree that the volley fire at 200 yards would be devastating against lightly armored troops, against armored troops, it would be virtually worthless. Within 100 yards, a bowman could pick his spot in order to maximize the chance of finding a weak spot in the armor.

  10. I still think the accuracy is a bit of hyperbole in the above statement. The longbow has a place next to the katana in wargame/RPG/history geek circles as being held in higher regard than it actually was at the time. Personal feelings I admit.

  11. At the time, the logbow (and bowman) had near legendary status. It was credited for centuries with the defeat of the Knight and with few exceptions, England was the only country that encouraged their yeomen to train regularly. At that time, English armies went into the field with far more archers than they did men at arms.

    It is only in modern times that historians have begun to rethink the legend of the longbow. Crecy and Agincourt, thought at the time to be exemplars of the power of the bow, are now seen as victories having more to do with tactics and geography...not to mention the complete overconfidence of the French nobility.

  12. If it was as overwhelming as it was described, other countries would have adopted it, just like all other military technology.

  13. No, not really. And the reason behind that is twofold.

    A. The training of a bowman DID take years. A decade at least. The strength it took to pull a war bow, not back to your eye so you could aim at your target, but all the way back to the ear in order to give the bow all its power, required immense strength. There have been excavations of gravesites of archers near battles and a couple of the things that we have found in the remains is that the tendon (I think...I'm not a medical person) in the RIGHT shoulder (and almost exclusively in the right shoulder) had worn the groove down where it was supposed to rest. A second thing found is that the upper torsos are considerably more developed than the lower torsos. Now, put those two things together. These men had drawn the heavy bow so often that it physically changed their bodies. It wore out the groove of the tendon-joint because of the repetition and it caused them to have massively large chest cavities. It would be like if every day at the gym was upper body day.

    So, the time involved in training an archer wasn't just going off the to town square, shooting a few arrows at the target with a weak bow and going off to war. This was something that people did day in and day out for years. I've always wondered why in D&D a longbow was open to everyone. It seems to me that one would need at least a 16 STR to be able to use a longbow effectively.

    The second reason why it was pretty much only England that developed this is that they were (generally speaking) the only country that encouraged their citizens to train in martial ways on a regular basis. This may have to do with the fact that, as an island nation, historically they had to repel invaders...Saxons, Vikings, Normans... But it could be equally true that since each of those groups ended up conquering England, that the people (being invaders) were more apt to have come from warrior stock and therefore passed down their knowledge of weaponry to their descendants. Either could be true.

    But the French had a different history, one where only Nobles had the right to bare arms and they refused to train their people in warfare. The German Principates were so busy fighting each other that I doubt if they had the resources available to them to train commoners. The Italians....well, the Italians DID come up with a technology every bit as lethal as the longbow. It was called the crossbow. Not the light thing that they showed reloading at about 1/2 the rate as a longbow in the video, but the big, heavy bow that took a crank to load. It outdistanced a longbow by some 20+ yards and had all the punching power that a longbow had. It's problem was its reload rate (much slower than the video. The commentator even mentioned that the rate of fire on a heavy bow would be much slower). So, to tackle the rate of fire problem, they had great big shields called a pavisier that the bowmen could hide behind while winding their crossbow. This was a very effective weapon since it could cut down longbowman before they could even fire, and armies would spend small fortunes on Genoese mercenaries who would use this weapon.

    I am curious. You admitted early on that you never fired a bow until recently, that you don't have much knowledge of the bow in general, yet you still seem to think that your gut gives you better insight than people who use the bow and/or have made a study of the weaponry of the era. Why?

  14. Well, I am giving my feeling as far as the historical angle, but as mentioned in the article, for this issue I'm not interested in "facts". I am interested in playability and making a place for this item, plus I saw people debating this topic online and decided to throw my hat in the ring.

    I've clearly admitted that strength is an issue in using the Longbow, but many people separate that from training. They'll say, "Soldiers using the Longbow needed exceptional strength AND training." The conjunction and implies two distinct and different things. Strength I admit is needed, said in the article. Training, I'm not so sure. You can train someone to fire a bow or crossbow in relative short order. I don't think one is inherently more difficult than the other.Especially when you take into account that most bowmen were used in blocks firing at blocks. The amount of training it takes to "Hey, everybody. Fire at that block of dudes to the west," isn't much. But for the third time I will admit the longbow users were buff, and they certainly didn't skip upper body day.

  15. I suggest that you go to an event where archers display their skill. See if you can draw a 120 lb. bow to your ear. Odds are you'll fail. At that point, you can get the 20 lb. bow that you used to hit a target at 30 yards away. Move the target to 50 yards. Pull the string back to your ear (not just to your eye) just like real longbowmen did, and fire 10 shots. Let me know if you hit the target once.

    Skill and Strength were very important. To believe otherwise is simply ridiculous. The belief that "most bowmen were used in blocks firing at blocks" has no basis in history or fact. (In fact, bowmen were used primarily in line formation so that they didn't have to fire over the heads of their compatriots. Flat trajectory was far better than an arced trajectory.) They were frequently deployed on the flanks and in front of the infantry.

    Look, I'm not trying to make you feel stupid or anything. But your writing displays a willful disregard for what is actually known. If you aren't interested in "facts", then there is no real reason to bring up the debate of longbow vs. crossbow at all. You could just as easily said, "Here are some creative uses for a crossbow," and gone from there. But instead you try to make comparisons to a longbow when you clearly have no interest in the comparison being accurate and dismiss corrections by saying you aren't interested in facts.

    If you are going to "throw your hat in the ring", it should be expected that you have verified your opinion with facts. Otherwise, all you do is muddy the waters.

  16. I bring up the Longbow, because it is an obvious choice in the game. It is just better. So I offer a bit in context, to say "This is generally why I feel this way." I don't like obvious choices in RPGs, so I wanted to try add some ideas to make crossbows better. People almost seem personally offended that I dare to write this, seems strange to me. I read blogs all the time I disagree with, I just move along with my day generally.

    As for why I disregard many people's opinions, mostly because I don't know them from Adam. I have a person claiming to be a Medieval Scholar on FB correcting me. He cannot string two complete sentences together and his abuse of grammar is criminal. People's credentials are often lacking. Many people are history geeks that have read a single book and are now "experts". I taught History, as my sole profession for years, and still would not dare to call myself a historian.

    As for reenactments and the people who go to them and try these things out, ok I will rely on their wisdom on the situation.

    Here is a someone from that field, that has some trust in the community at large. His opinions on this matter generally line up with mine, so I am not off in left field.

    As for feeling dumb, that would be difficult. I transitioned to working in Higher Education at this point, instead of primary education. I debate with people leagues more intelligent with me everyday. I've learned to have a thicker skin.

  17. Dr... "The longbow has a place next to the katana in wargame/RPG/history geek circles as being held in higher regard than it actually was at the time. " I think you hit the nail on the head here & are now caught up with a superfan.

    Unknown, you seem almost offended at the idea hitting a few targets on your first try does show archery can be readily learned by most. Just as if he'd kept at it a few afternoons a week for a few weeks he'd have been able to pull heavier bows & hit further targets.

    When we get to the idea that there were literal armies of "at least" Str 16 archer/supermen who were patiently aiming shot after shot right through the visor I think we left rationality behind. Eyewitness accounts of the battle and aftermath describe the air as thick with arrows (so thick, the French feared they WOULD be pierced through the visor or weak points by sheer volume or chance) & that afterward, the white fletchings of the arrows were as thick as snow upon the ground.

    As for crossbows- the shooting/situational versatility is simply up to the DM & players to utilise or emphasise during play (the first time you say "no" or penalise a bowman will make an impact & get people thinking).

    As for differentiating bows & crossbows mechanically without adding complexity- I'd simply give bows a longer range (better if PC's CAN strategise their way into exploiting that),
    crossbows ignore 1 category of armour (I have never found that to slow my game down one bit, it's easy, I'm already knowing if AC comes from speed or hide/armour in my description of the scene),
    but act as if encumbered (disadvantage roll in my game) for initiative each round after the first.

    I'm not too concerned if these reflect reality, as the original post notes you can find arguments & evidence for or against any of these. But it does provide a legitimate choice & point of difference or style & encourage some tactical thinking suited to each weapon.

  18. Thank you for the comment. I agree with everything you are saying. I want to add interesting choices for my players, and not have something that is always better in all circumstances.

  19. Good blog, I just discovered it.

    I think there's a slight over-complication to much of the rules stuff (5e suited... Not B/X?) but there's ideas to engage with. Thinking of going East & Ancient world instead of West & Dark/Middle/Early Modern with my next game. So I'm digging through some posts, thanks!

  20. I have a writing partner who does most of the 5e stuff. I cover mainly OSR.