Wednesday, June 12, 2024

An Overview of Crossbows in Fantasy Gaming

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Welcome, readers of the Fandomentals. I continue to bring you my opinions about tabletop and video gaming. This time, I’m back to what I do best, which is complaining. And the topic is going to be the presentation of historical weapons in gaming. I’m hardly an expert on the subject, but there are some issues I would like to bring to light. First order of business: the crossbow.

The humble crossbow occupies a much different place in our collective imagination than bows. They’re the weapon of a peasant soldier – usually, the bad guy’s henchman. It’s no coincidence that the LotR movies had Uruk-Hai use crossbows, while the good guys shot longbows. The image it evokes is that of a first mass-produced weapon used to outfit large, professional armies.

That image, like most ideas people have about historical weaponry, is a mix of fact and nonsense. Still, the crossbow undeniably is easier to use. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot both bows and crossbows in my life. My attempts to use the former ended in the arrow landing limply in front of me – the same went for the other people visiting the open-air museum. The crossbow, meanwhile, is something you point and shoot, much like a gun.

That means it’s much easier and cheaper to train an army of crossbowmen than bowmen. Whether you’re forming a professional army, assembling a militia or throwing together an angry mob, you can give a few hundred people crossbows, train them for a few weeks and hope they shoot mostly straight.

The other traits where the two weapons compare are more technical, and we need to be careful not to generalize. After all, there’s no such thing than a single bow or a single crossbow. Length, materials used and, in case of crossbows, loading methods all play a part.

Still, two things are generally true – crossbow bolts have more power behind them than arrows from a bow, but a crossbow needs loading after every shot. Just how long it takes and how hard it is depends on the crossbow – you could use a hand to draw some, others use various cranks and levers.


The relationship of bows and crossbows to the development of firearms is another topic altogether. But I’m going to leave that aside for now. An article about firearms in fantasy might or might not appear.

Predictably enough, crossbows are far less prominent than bows in fiction. We’ve got plenty of heroes with bows – Robin Hood, Legolas, Katniss Everdeen, and so on. Crossbows have… Wilhelm Tell, and that’s about it.

The attitude from myth, legend and fiction extends to gaming. Crossbows tend to be non-existent, marginal or ineffective, with some exceptions. Ranged weapons are bows – other kinds, like thrown weapons, crossbows, and guns, lag behind.

Being fair, the traits I outlined above do naturally make crossbows poorly-suited for the adventuring life most characters in games lead. There’s little time for loading a crossbow while a troll is trying to eat you.

I find it to be a narrow view, though. It’s certainly true in a game where you only play one character, but if you’ve got a party – like in most tabletop RPGs, and many video-game ones – it means you’ve got someone to hide behind while you reload. Even if you only control one character, a crossbow can still serve as a single-shot weapon to open combat with. Relatively few games treat them this way, though. If crossbows do appear, they often operate largely the same as bows.

I also reject the notion of crossbows being somehow unsuited to heroes and fantasy characters. You can’t fire arrows rapidly from it, like certain elf does, but a single well-placed and powerful shot can be no less decisive.

The most popular tabletop RPG is rather notorious for treating crossbows poorly. I’m going to start my assessment with the third edition of the game, as it was my first role-playing game – like it was for many people. I am less familiar with the previous ones, aside from computer games such as Baldur’s Gate. What I do know about them makes me greatly disinclined to get familiar.

The third edition’s handling of crossbows is… not good. A light crossbow deals 1d8 damage – that is to say, you roll an eight-sided dice to determine it. A heavy crossbow deals 1d10 damage. Meanwhile, a short bow deals 1d6 damage, while a long bow deals 1d8.

The downside is that the user has to load them. A light crossbow needs a move action to load – a character gets a move action and a standard action each round, and shooting any weapon requires the standard one. A heavy crossbow needs an entire round spent reloading it and doing nothing else.

Needless to say, it’s not a fair trade-off. The increase in damage is far too marginal to offset the time you spend reloading. Two potential points of damage might be significant on the low levels, when everyone is a single good hit away from incapacitation. As the players gain experience and face ever-tougher enemies, it ceases to be relevant.

Characters can keep up with the bloated health of their enemies by adding flat numbers to their damage, performing multiple attacks, or adding external damage dice. Usually, a combination of those. Crossbow users have no access to multiple attacks, since in order to do it, one needs to spend all their turn – which they can’t do, because they need to reload after every shot.

There is a way to reduce the loading time of a crossbow, thus making a light crossbow as fast to shoot as a bow… but really, what’s the point? Not only does it evoke a thoroughly ridiculous image, but it takes away the reason people would use a crossbow as opposed to a bow. If it shoots like a bow and deals roughly the same damage with every shot, I might as well just use a bow.

D&D’s fourth edition changes a lot, while still keeping the same basic framework no other system shares. Characterstumblr_lq1gs4aj1x1qehhjho1_1280 don’t rely on making multiple attacks quite as much, so crossbows are more of a choice. The difference in damage is still barely noticeable, but at least you don’t need to jump through hoops to make it work. There are some classes, like artificers and rogues, who can’t use bows, so using crossbows instead is a natural choice. It’s not very satisfactory, but it’s good enough.

The fifth edition of the game rolls back to the status quo in most ways. Since multiple attacks no longer require a full round to execute, crossbows have the “loading” property, which means that those classes which get multiple attacks each round can’t use them with a crossbow.

This can be solved by taking a special ability removing the property… at which point we’re back to the same old problem. Not to mention that using special training in order to properly use a weapon whose selling point is its simplicity is… counter-intuitive, putting it mildly.

The flip-side is that for classes that use weapons but don’t get extra attacks – such as rogues – there’s no reason not to use a crossbow instead of a bow. The “loading” property has no relevance for them. Of course, a rogue’s damage will come from their sneak attack feature, which adds a number of six-sided dice if they strike a distracted or unaware enemy. As such, the difference in base damage between a bow and a crossbow is marginal in any event.

A potentially effective tactic is to dual-wield hand crossbows, firing them like a certain adventurer archeologist would pistols. A ludicrous image, but whatever floats people’s boats, I suppose. D&D has a tendency to allow for the ridiculous while making the normal harder than it needs to be.

Turning crossbows into automatic rifles is hardly unique to D&D, mind you. A good example of it is the Dragon Age series. In the first game, crossbows are available, but irrelevant. There are no unique crossbows, so a character who wants to be an archer will use bows. In the second and third one, crossbows are unavailable to the player character – however, there is one companion who uses one. It’s a custom piece called Bianca, a one-of-a-kind automatic crossbow.


As much as I love the character who wields the crossbow, I don’t like the crossbow itself. It’s a lazy, easy way out – we don’t feel like making a crossbow work like one, so let’s make it functionally identical to a bow.

Like I said, such treatment of crossbows is hardly unique. But I do feel the need to mention a little-known game that handles them in a way so catastrophic as to be spectacular. Specifically, the second part of the Gothic series, a cycle of RPGs little-known outside Germany and Poland.

In the first Gothic game, crossbows occupy a strange role. They’re unavailable for half of the game – you can neither train in their use, nor obtain one without exploits. Once they become available, they’re just a more advanced version of bows. They require more dexterity to use, and deal more damage. Their rate of fire is slightly slower than that of bows. Weird, but the game’s mechanical side is generally paper-thin, so it doesn’t stand out much.

The second game is where fun begins. It’s more varied and balanced in terms of character development… crossbows being a big exception. Here, they’re available from the beginning of the game – but still more difficult to find and train in than bows. Which, again, is kind of contrary to how it’s actually meant to work.


Once you do get a crossbow, however… unlike in the first game, the proportion of dexterity to damage is completely different. While a bow will require roughly as much dexterity as it deals damage, a crossbow will give you 40 damage for 25 dexterity. Why? Beats me. The developers were clearly trying to do something here, but it didn’t work. As a result, crossbows get you a lot of damage for minimal investment, thus making them the superior weapon choice. Especially since, for some reason, they’re much harder to interrupt if you’re hit by an attack while firing. Finding a good crossbow in the beginning, and enough training to use it, will let you decimate enemies that would otherwise be difficult.

The second game’s expansion, Night of the Raven, took steps to rectify that. There, crossbows require strength to use, but their damage scales with dexterity. So they require both attributes, while bows need only one. Which is, once again, the opposite of how those weapons really work. Firing a bow, especially a long one, requires upper body strength and arm muscles. A crossbow’s entire purpose is to let a mechanism do the effort for you. Still, on the mechanical side, it works. Crossbows no longer outpace bows so much. They become a backup weapon for a character who otherwise uses strength.

Gothic 3 treats crossbows in a simple, but sensible way. They take a proper time to load, but deal more damage. They still require strength, which might seem nonsensical until you realize the attributes are all abstractions – dexterity now bears the name “hunting skills”, and I wonder why strength isn’t “combat skills”. It’s a shame Gothic 3 is such a terrible disappointment in so many other ways.

I’ve been complaining a lot, as usual. But now I’d like to talk about games which do get it right. Specifically, another video game – Pillars of Eternity. It’s an eclectic mix of old school and good, new ideas. The latter outweigh the former, which is why I like it.

The game has a variety of weapons and ways to use them, which differ in their speed, accuracy, damage and other traits. Crossbows deal a lot of damage with each shot, but they have a “slow” speed – which means that a character needs to wait a while before they can do something else. Moreover, there’s a separate loading action before they can be shot. Simple? Yes. But it works, and it shows you can easily do it, if you just put your mind to it.

On the tabletop games front, crossbows tend to be an afterthought, but a functional one. In the third edition of Exalted, crossbows deal damage independently of the owner’s strength, pierce armor and are deadly up close, but need loading – so the Charms that allow an Exalted archer to fire many shots won’t work with them. In Song of Swords, an indie RPG in development that strives for realistic, brutal combat, makes crossbows lethal and likewise independent of strength.

So, that’s my tale of the humble, underrated crossbow. Tune in next time, when I’ll speak about two-handed weapons, and the misconceptions surrounding them.

Images courtesy of Hasbro and BioWare

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