Monday, January 16, 2017

Bows in Dungeons and Dragons

Hello Readers,

Sorry I haven't been around in a while. What have I been up to? Writing. And playing Dungeons and Dragons. 

On writing: Book four is coming along very well. Still months away... but it is coming.

On D+D: Our group is on its third year together and it is going great. The campaign is based on the world of my novels, set 300 years after the events of the (not yet published) fifth novel. 

I recently saw a post on the Facebook Dungeons and Dragons 5e forum asking if a longbow could be shot from horseback. 

There were a lot of replies. Some were good. Some were bad. Clearly there was a lot of confusion about bows and archery. I thought that I'd take the time to write a short post about bows and clear up some of the confusion. 

I became interested in archery and bowmaking (bowyering) while writing my first fantasy novel over ten years ago. The research I did motivated me to make my own bows and it is a still a hobby of mine today. (Besides being a bowyer, I also wrote and taught a course in Military History. I also [used to be] a very active historical miniatures wargamer.)

Hadde the Landomeri wielding a heavy recurved composite short bow. Did you notice that she's using a thumb draw and that the arrow is on the right side of the bow? This is a horse-archer's draw. Most European cultures used a three finger Mediterranean draw and placed the arrow on the left side of the bow. Do you need this level of detail in your D+D adventures? Nope.

What does the D+D Player's Handbook have to say about bows?

There is a "shortbow." It is a "simple ranged weapon." It costs 25gp, does d6 piercing damage, and has a maximum short range of 80 feet and a maximum long range of 320 feet. 

There is a "longbow." It is a "martial ranged weapon."  It costs 50gp, does d8 piercing damage, and has a maximum short range of 150 feet and a maximum long range of 600 feet. 

What is wrong with the D+D bow? Nothing, and everything. 

How can it be both?

Well, nothing is wrong with the way D+D archery works if you want super-simplified archery. Is that ok? Absolutely! How much complexity do you want in your game? How slow and complicated do you want each round of combat to be? It is a fantasy role-playing game after all. It isn't a complex military simulation. 

However... with just a few changes, we can make bows in D+D much more interesting and realistic.

Let's talk about bows for just a few moments. The simplest form of bow is the "self bow." A self bow is made from a single piece of wood - and a string. That's it. Nothing fancy. How long is a self bow stave? It could be very short - just a few feet long - or up to seven feet long. A self bow can be a "shortbow" or a "longbow."

So what's the difference? Draw weight and draw length. A very short self bow cannot have either the same draw weight or draw length as a long self bow. What do draw weight and draw length do? Draw weight (the pounds of force needed to draw the bow to full draw) imparts greater initial velocity to the arrow. Draw length allows the arrow to be on the string longer - allowing for a longer period of acceleration imparted by the string. 

It is (basically) the thickness of the bowstave that gives greater draw weight. Why can't a short self bow have the same draw weight as a long self bow? Because a short, thick stave will break instead of bending. 

How should this affect the game? Well, self-bows come in many flavors. I'd propose three categories of self bow.

Light Self Bow (short or long): cost 20gp, d4 piercing damage, range 40/160, no minimum strength to use. (Less than 40 pounds real world draw weight.)

Medium Self Bow (long): cost 25gp, d6 piercing damage, range 80/320, minimum strength 10 to use. (40 to 80lbs real world draw weight). 

Heavy Self Bow (long): cost 30gp, d8 piercing damage, range 150/600, minimum strength 14 to use. (Greater than 80lbs draw weight). 

Personally, I'd allow for Warbows of >100 lbs draw weight to do +1 or more damage for exceptionally strong archers. 

Why are the costs so close? Speaking from experience, there is little difference in the effort to make a "light" self bow compared to the effort to make a "heavy" self bow. The tools and materials are identical. It is, however, more challenging to manufacture the heavy bow and there should be some higher cost involved.

The above image is of my @4' tall daughter shooting a light (short) self bow I made for her. The draw weight is under 20 pounds. It is so light I'd only let it do 1-2 points of D+D damage. [Halloween a few years ago.]

The  above image is of me shooting a medium weight (long) self bow I made. It is a 6'6" English longbow (Ash wood) that draws 50#. [The Red Knight's Deed of Arms - @4 years ago.]

Can you shoot a longbow from horseback? No! At least not at full draw. The draw length and size of the bow make it extremely difficult to draw and loose an arrow from horseback. It isn't (and wasn't in history) effective. English mounted longbowmen rode their horses to battle, but dismounted to fight. 

But I saw a guy do it on Youtube. Yeah, I saw the video. He isn't drawing the bow anything close to full draw. Look, it's your D+D campaign. If you want longbow horse archery, haflings to wear human sized plate, and for characters to eat mud pies for sustenance... go right ahead. Longbow horse archery isn't a thing.

What about Japanese Yumi longbows? Yes, the Japanese practiced longbow archery from horseback. However, a Yumi bow is held 1/3 of the way from the bottom - not half way like you would an English longbow. If your D+D culture allows for Yumi bows, go ahead and allow them. However, make sure they aren't allowed to be used inside. The bow tip will hit the ceiling. Look how high above my head the tip of the English longbow rises. The Yumi bow would be even higher. 

What about heavier short bows? Didn't the Mongols use very powerful bows? Didn't they shoot them from horseback?

You can make a very short bow very powerful. How do you do that? 

1) You can make a recurved bow. Using dry heat, steam, boiling, or by adding glued on siyahs, you can curve the tips of a bow forward. This makes the bow more efficient and adds velocity to the arrow being loosed. However... this can also stress the bow and can require the following at heavy draw weights....

2) You can add animal sinew to the "back" (forward facing) part of the bowstave. The flexible sinew stretches as the bow is drawn, adding greater draw weight to the bow. It also allows a short bow to be drawn much further without breaking the bow. The glued on sinew actually holds the bow together. 

3) You can add horn to the belly (the part that faces the archer) of the bow. Horn resists compression and adds draw weight to the bow. (There are some bows - some extremely short - that were made entirely from horn.)

By doing all of the above you have manufactured a composite bow. 

The above image shows the glued on siyahs on an unfinished bow I am currently working on. I will eventually add sinew and the bow should come in at a 65 pound draw weight. 

Great! I want a really short, really powerful bow! What's the problem?
Well, your really short, really powerful bow is going to be very expensive. Bending the tips/adding siyahs, gluing on sinew, and gluing on horn is very difficult and very time consuming. 

I'd propose the following:

Medium Composite Bow (short, sinew backed wood): cost 100gp, d6 piercing damage, range 80/320, minimum strength 10 to use. (40 to 80lbs real world draw weight). 

Heavy Composite Bow (short, sinew-wood-horn): cost 150gp, d8 piercing damage, range 150/600, minimum strength 14 to use. (Greater than 80lbs draw weight). 

Again, I'd allow for a super heavy composite. 

What about a composite longbow? Can't I make a SUPER powerful bow for my characters with 20 points in strength? Sorry, adding sinew and horn to a longbow just doesn't work. The added mass slows down the tips of the bow and you lose arrow velocity. 

In the above image I am shooting a Skythian composite short bow. [The bow is pretending to be a Turkish bow at this event.] The bow draws 50# - the same weight as the longbow above. However, due to superior construction, the bow looses an arrow at a much higher velocity. Note the size difference between the two bows. This bow is made for horse archery. It's small size allows for amazing trick shots and versatility of use. 

This image shows me ATTEMPTING to draw a Korean composite bow to full draw. The draw weight of this bow is 85 pounds at 28" draw length! It is a proper war-strength bow. At 33" this bow draws over 100 pounds!  It is the same size as both the Skythian bow in the picture above it and the self bow I made for my daughter. This bow was an extremely generous gift given to me by a reader - Chris Verwijmeren.

What about proficiency rules?
I'd make all of the medium and light bows "simple ranged weapons" and all of the heavy bows "martial" ranged weapons. Why? Because there's more to drawing and loosing a heavy bow than just pure strength. There is a lot of technique required as well. 

Do you need to do any of the above? NOPE! It's just what we do in our campaign. Hopefully it was informative and helpful for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!

Further reading - I blogged about Archery Writing Don'ts a while ago. It might add some more realism to your campaign. (Or it will just be a buzzkill when you realize just how unrealistic some of the things you've been doing are.)

All my best,