Project Pentagon: Crossbows and Not-Earth’s Physics

About a year ago, I was involved in a discussion on the Paizo boards about why crossbows are worse than bows in the Pathfinder RPG (and, by extension, D&D 3E, and in this blog I’m using the umbrella term “the game” to mean both PF and D&D). It got really in depth about what a real person could do with a bow instead of a crossbow, the relative power of bows vs. crossbows, the training required for bows, and so on. Here is the sequence of the discussion points.

(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)

1) A light crossbow is a simple weapon. Fighters are automatically proficient in all simple weapons, so a fighter knows how to use a light crossbow, and is considered a proficient user of that weapon.

2) A longbow is a martial weapon. Fighters are automatically proficient in all martial weapons, so a fighter knows how to use a longbow, and is considered a proficient user of that weapon.

3) A 6th-level fighter’s BAB is +6/+1, so he gets an iterative attack when he uses a full attack action.

4) If that fighter uses a light crossbow, the crossbow’s reload action requirement (a move action) means he can’t use a full attack to fire the crossbow (he has to use a standard action to fire, then a move to reload). To get that iterative attack, the fighter has to take the Rapid Reload (light crossbow) feat. He’s getting fewer shots per round than the longbow fighter.

5) Because the longbow fighter doesn’t have to spend a feat to use that iterative attack with the longbow, the longbow fighter is at an advantage compared to the crossbow fighter, even though the two fighters are otherwise equal (the fault is with the weapon, not with the user).

6) Therefore, the light crossbow is a worse weapon than a longbow, at least in game terms.

At the time I had several responses rebutting this “crossbows are worse” assertion, such as: (a) it’s easier to learn how to use a crossbow (any class with simple weapon proficiency can use it), you can fire it from a prone position, (b) you don’t have to worry about a low Strength score with a crossbow, (c) the differences between light crossbow and longbow aren’t a factor until you’re dealing with exceptional characters (at the upper limit of Earth human ability), and so on. However, my main point was: longbows have a better fire rate than light crossbows in the game because the game tries to model reality, and in reality longbows have a better fire rate than light crossbows.

On some level, it is important for a game like a fantasy RPG to model reality (with “reality” meaning “like it is on Earth”). For example, if a PC wants to jump across a 5-foot-diameter pit in a corridor, the player should know that–like on Earth–it’s not too hard to do a standing broad jump across that distance, and easy if you have a running start. If the PC can see that the pit is 50 feet deep, the player should know that–like on Earth–the odds of surviving a 50-foot fall aren’t good. Many of the basic skill DCs in the book are based on how hard it would be for an untrained human to accomplish that task (climbing, jumping, swimming, and so on).

This is important because the players are on Earth, and knowing the game world is Earth-like gives the player a good frame of reference for what a typical person ought to be able to accomplish. Otherwise the player couldn’t rely on their Earth knowledge for the most mundane things, and would have to ask the GM about everything they encounter. Can I safely jump over a 1-foot-diameter hole in the floor? Can I step from this sidewalk down to the street without dying from falling damage? Can I see that person 10 feet away in broad daylight? Obviously we don’t want that, so the game rules assume an Earth-like environment with Earth-like physics. So if a player or GM isn’t sure how something should work in the game, and the game doesn’t explicitly tell you, you can assume it works as you’d expect it to work on Earth. It hurts if you stick your hand in a campfire. Digging a big hole with a shovel takes as long as you’d expect it to. If you eat, eventually you’ll have to poop. And so on. Common sense stuff.

But there are things in the game that simply wouldn’t work using Earth physics, and we accept them anyway. Dragons can fly, even though their wingspan is insufficient to provide enough lift for their body weight. Tree-sized giants are still able to stand even though the square-cube law says their legs shouldn’t support them. Giant bugs are able to breathe even though they don’t have lungs and absorb oxygen directly through their exoskeleton. A person who is sufficiently skilled at combat usually can routinely survive a 100-foot fall onto a stone floor. Elves and humans can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, even though they’re different species. And so on… and all accomplished without any magic. So clearly the game is not trying to accurately model Earth physics 100% of the time.

In other words, the game ignores Earth physics when Earth physics gets in the way of cool stuff being in the campaign.

Flying dragons are cool in a fantasy RPG… goodbye, Earth physics! Tree-sized humanoids are cool in a fantasy RPG… goodbye, Earth physics! Giant bugs are cool in a fantasy RPG… goodbye, Earth physics! Half-elves are cool in a fantasy RPG… goodbye, Earth physics!

So why not say, “rapidly shooting a crossbow is cool… goodbye, Earth physics”?

Let’s look at the big picture. Let’s say a player wants to make a badass archer character. If that badass archer character uses a light crossbow, why should that character be worse in combat (in terms of fewer shots per round without learning an extra feat to keep up) than the equivalent character using a longbow? Sure, you could create a different set of abilities for a crossbow that a longbow couldn’t access, just to make the two weapons different, but… is that really necessary? What does the game gain by adhering to a “realistic” depiction of crossbows vs. bows? What does the campaign gain for it? Especially in the context of a world where Earth physics ran away screaming from dragons, giants, and bear-sized spiders?

Answer: The game doesn’t gain anything for trying to stick to Earth physics on this issue. It’s more fun if the game lets you be a badass archer whether you use a crossbow or a bow. From the perspective of “I am a player and I have a cool character concept,” there’s not a significant difference between the bow and the crossbow. If your character concept is “Daryl from The Walking Dead,” your character should be able to be a badass without someone pointing out, “you’d deal more damage per round if you used a bow instead of a crossbow.” There’s no need to reward the bow-user or punish the crossbow-user for their choice of nearly-identical-except-for-reloading-time weapons. The Rule of Cool says it’s cool if my crossbow-fighter can do cool stuff just like your longbow-fighter. It’s cool even if Earth physics would insist that some longbow actions are impossible for crossbows, and vice-versa.

(You can insert a whole sub-argument here about historical accuracy, the benefits of piercing vs. armor, certain kinds of armor making certain attacks obsolete, certain attacks making armor obsolete, and so on. If you’re an expert on historical combat and historical weapons, that argument has a place–in the context of Earth history. But unless you know how tough dwarf skin is compared to human skin compared to dragon skin, or how strong basilisk leather is compared to cow leather, or if a mithral arrowhead is better or worse at piercing plate than a steel arrowhead–or any of a dozen other weird fantasy issues–your historical Earth combat knowledge might be completely wrong in a world where not-Earth physics are the norm.)

So why did I argue in favor of using Earth physics on the Paizo boards? Because I was explaining why the game rules–and the game world–worked as written. I was not in a position to change those game rules or the fundamental physics of the default game world… and honestly, at the time I probably would have resisted changing them even if I had the opportunity. But my feelings have changed about this design concept, and so with my own game, I’m abandoning the “it has to work this way because that’s how it is on Earth” argument. Therefore:

In “Project Pentagon,” I’m using the Rule of Cool for this topic: the differences between bows and crossbows are cosmetic as far as the rules are concerned. For example, if a character could attempt 3 attacks per round with a bow, that same character could attempt 3 attacks per round with a crossbow. Anything you can do in combat with a bow, you can do with a crossbow. Because it’s cooler that way, and because the game doesn’t gain anything by “punishing” a crossbow fan for their choice of weapon.

How can you fire a crossbow so fast? Who knows! There are a lot of things we accept about “fantasy physics” without knowing exactly how they work. How is a dragon able to fly without magic or triple-sized wings? How come giants don’t collapse under their own weight? Different world, different dimension, different laws of physics. It just does. Better than “a wizard did it,” it’s “not-Earth physics did it.” In other words, just because it’s physically impossible for someone in the real world to fire a heavy crossbow five times in six seconds doesn’t mean a powerful fighter in a fantasy game shouldn’t be able to do so.

(Obviously this sort of thing would only apply to conceptually similar weapons. I still think the game should treat a greatsword differently than how it treats a dagger or a whip, because those weapons have a different “thematic niche,” but you could apply the Rule of Cool to let you treat a short sword and a hand axe as basically the same, or a greatsword or a greataxe the same, and so on.)

To sum up: just as you shouldn’t let a magical/nonmagical bias hamper design decisions whether or not an exceptional hero can do exceptional things, don’t let “that’s not how it works on Earth” hamper similar decisions.

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Five Moons RPG cover

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23 thoughts on “Project Pentagon: Crossbows and Not-Earth’s Physics

  1. I think this is a point on which reasonable can differ. I’d argue that Pathfinder/D&D actually does gain something by making the crossbow a mechanically inferior choice of weapon compared to the longbow. What it gains is differentiation of character niche by class. If a game is going to have character classes (which I won’t argue is necessarily desirable, but it’s a choice that D&D/PF has made) and some of those classes are to be more combat-effective than others, then dividing up weapons by mechanical effectiveness is one way (though not the only way) to support that difference. On the other hand, the games indeed lose something by drawing that distinction, which is the “rule of cool” factor in this area, such as not really being able to effectively model Daryl from The Walking Dead. I don’t think one approach is necessarily superior to the other, but they certainly serve different purposes in a game.

    If I were to play a (fantasy) game where crossbows and long bows were mechanically equivalent, I’d probably want it to be one that went a step further than that and, as you suggest, treats a great sword and a great axe as the same, and a hand axe and a dagger as the same. Basically I’d probably just want a few vague categories like light, one handed, two handed, ranged and leave pretty much everything else as descriptive fluff.

    In your position, designing and eventually marketing a fantasy game in a universe that has at least one 800 pound gorilla in the form of Pathfinder and potentially another very similar gorilla in the form of the recently resurrected D&D, that kind of loose, rule-of-cool stance strikes me as quite advisable because it means your game is aimed at least a somewhat different niche than PF/D&D.

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    • True, my “it doesn’t gain anything” is an oversimplification. PF/D&D does gain something from having crossbows work differently from bows: they’re both games where there are a lot of complex, fiddly bits, and games like that usually make a point of rewarding system mastery (where you have to learn a lot about the rules in order to make the “best” choices for your character).
      After working on a game like that for 14 years, I’m wanting to create (and run) something simpler that doesn’t require as much system mastery. The fact that doing so sets my game apart from various gorillas is a pleasant coincidence. 🙂

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      • I do really like it when weapons have different trade offs and abilities between them, but I agree too many parameters muddies the design space and hinders system mastery. I think 5th Edition has the right idea with that regard. It has fewer weapons with fewer numerical characteristics. Differences mainly come from properties, especially considering finesse is a weapon property instead of a feat.

        Plus, I imagine Pentagon might have the “fighter styles” mentioned in the other article to help give different categories of weapons a different feel.

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    • Pro “Rule of Cool” Full Stop (ESPECIALLY for Warrior types)

      You can still have two weapons be different, without them being inherently worse. In 3.5 D&D, there was least an attempt to make them different where Crossbow =higher damage, better crit rate, & Bow lower, but stronger crit, it was better reflected in its “Great” version, though yeah Crossbow wasn’t as good. While can do what ye can to make weapons serve a purpose, through a list of weapons, there will always be an inferior option in a case like that.

      So I’m All For blanketing weapons into types like: One-handed, Two-handed, Reach/Polearm, Double Weapon, Light weapon?, then possibly have a trait or two ye could assign to the weapon to give it purpose or make it more interesting. Like “finesse” (if that’s a thing), or ability/bonus to trip/disarm/bullrush/grapple (or its equivalents), which reasons for that can be various, and described in their entry.

      D&D just had the problem of making too many weapons due to Authors liking them, after the fact Monte mentioned it was for “system mastery” or Ivory Tower is moreso coincidence.

      “it is important for a game like a fantasy RPG to model reality”
      When people have always said that, they moreso meant “consistency”, consistency within the gameworld of your actions. Much like how combat rules for most games have consistency, AC is static (unless something declared otherwise), but skill rules can be all over the place with that action in the same session. I agree good to have a frame of reference, but I sincerely doubt anyone wouldn’t assume an earth-like sensibilities with playing humans in a game where the question isn’t replaced by something supernatural(Mind Caulk see to that). In case humans in that setting are supernaturally strong, or Gravity is not as rough, then it likely becomes less important to track, and those questions getting asked (If I know I’m John Carter of Mars, I’m not going to worry if I can walk, lift something heavy, jump, pull a lever, or tie knots as I know I’d more than qualified to do so).

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  2. Personally I’m for “Narrative Realism” – it doesn’t have to be modelled using a physics model, it just has to be something you’d believe if you saw it in a movie or read it in a book. It only has to _feel_ right, not _be_ right.

    A dagger doing the same damage as a 2-handed sword wouldn’t feel right to me, but crossbow and longbow? Sure.

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  3. I think you can have it both ways. Keep the slow reload time but allow crossbows to be built with strength bonuses, just as bows can be, only without requiring the crossbow wielder to actually have that level of strength. Then you’d have two very different weapons that are both very effective, just in different ways. It would improve realism as well, as crossbows really can be built to be extremely powerful, but more importantly, it would mean that William Tell could actually be as badass in the game as Robin Hood.

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    • You *can* do it that way, just as you can build more abilities into swords so they crit more often and more abilities into axes so they crit harder. But I think the trend with D&D/PF has been to focus too much on number-crunching exact details about your weapons, and in my game I’d rather it focus more on your character’s role in the team of PCs, the adventure, and the campaign.

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  4. A fighter relies on full-attacking and adding their ability modifier to damage roll in order to do their job. A weapon that does not let a fighter do that punishes the player for choosing that option since the game does not present any other good way for a fighter to deal damage. I support the motion to unify that aspect of weapons to ensure cool character concepts aren’t denied for arbitrary realism (I’ve always been a big fan of the Deadly Dealer feat).

    This was why the Musket Master archetype frustrated me. The firearm rules go out of their way to establish a meaningful trade-off between using one-handed and two-handed firearms. You could full-attack with pistols, but muskets did more damage and had double the range, a very important characteristic for a firearm. Instead of reinforcing the niche of piling on damage to a single shot at the cost of full-attacking, the Musket Master threw it all out the window by letting you full-attack with muskets. Not only did it eliminate the dynamic between pistols and muskets, but also the Musket Master blew the game’s big chance to defy the “if you can’t full-attack, it sucks” aspect of Pathfinder.

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    • Point noted about the musket master (I don’t really have anything else to say about it, as I was focused on the Beginner Box when UC was being written, so I didn’t have much input about firearms stuff).

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  5. I find it strange how the mechanics of the game will drastically shift which weapon is superior.

    In AD&D and derivatives the composite longbow is the weapon of choice. Great range, full rate of fire, good damage, and lots of different characters have ways to gain proficiency with it. How much of an edge it had changes with different versions, but overall if you can use that weapon you want to. Your class and level were what determined how good you were with all weapons.

    In GURPS, most players I know grab the crossbow. It was fairly common to get an over-strength crossbow with a winch and use it as your alpha-strike. Since you already knew how to use it, you might have a lighter version for when you wanted to do ranged combat. It just wasn’t worth it learning both weapons and the crossbow was easier to initially learn. It took a significant effort to learn to use a bow effectively, and a lot of characters would rather learn a melee weapon to go along with their ranged weapon rather than overly specialize. No class or level, you have to learn each weapon separately.

    It will be interesting to see what happens in your system.

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    • Case in point, I was looking at the AD&D 2E PH last night, and a light crossbow in that book deals 1d4 damage (heavy crossbow 1d4+1). I recall a discussion during the 3E design where the designers realized, “we should increase crossbow damage so it’s not pathetic compared to bows…”

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  6. I do not disagree with anything you have written here. After all, in the real world it is extremely difficult to fire multiple accurate shots from a longbow in 6 seconds, and impossible to do so with a front-loading musket. So it is entirely reasonable to allow the same suspension of disbelief for a crossbow or sling.
    However, I also feel that another benefit could be given to a crossbow as a balancing factor which does not require the same suspension. Perhaps something which mirrors the “real world” advantage of crossbows – that they could punch through heavy armour. How unbalancing would it be if crossbows attacked against Touch AC?

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    • I’m not a fan of touch attacks (because it totally wrecks the AC of monsters, most of which don’t wear armor–case in point, CR 10 young red dragon is AC 22, touch AC 10… but the expected AC of a CR 10 creature is 24!). But there are ways to add cool effects to bows and crossbows, or to differentiate them by giving different powers to each type.

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  7. I suspected I would get a reply of that nature, as that was also my apprehension.
    As I said, I agree with the logic of your blog and that cool trumps physics (I have a Musket Master in one of my games, for example), but wish there was an alternative that serves both.

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    • It really depends on how much you want to redesign the game. Bows already have the “mighty” option that deals more damage; for Pathfinder, you could create a similar option for crossbows, except adding to the attack roll instead of the damage roll, or an effect like Deadly Aim, where you can take attack roll penalties in exchange for more damage, or even something like Vital Strike.

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  8. Hi Sean! I really like what I’ve read so far and I’m really excited about your project. I will support your Kickstarter and I also think most of my friends in my gaming group is going to support it.
    I had question regarding your take on “Not-Earth’s Physics”. Will this also mean that you will take a look at skills and what one should be able to do with skills? Perhaps saying that beyond level 10 or 15 (5 or 7,5 Pathfinder) you can do things that we would consider more than humanly possible?
    I always thought that at some level characters should be able to do cool stuff with skills, at least with the movement skills and certainly the skilled classes such as the bard and rogue, and the mundane classes that are especially trained in doing mundane stuff. Cool stuff could be:
    jump up high in the air and slam dunk a dragon; turn invisible; walk on water; walk on air; or whatever. (It’s actually one of those things I heard about as a kid that the Buddhist masters of the east could do. Walk on water, levitate, selfheal, etc. and I think it will always be conspiracies regarding what can or can’t be done in regard to “Earth’s Physics”. This is also a common theme in Science Fiction and in stories based on Eastern Myths.)

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  9. In Pathfinder a 16th level character could fire 6 arrows per round. That’s 60 per minute or 1 per second. On Earth you could fire about 12 arrows per minute, or 1 per 5 seconds. That’s 1.2 per round. So the real question is, why would a crossbow use Earth physics, when a longbow doesn’t?

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      • Yeah, I know. This is likely to start a whole new discussion on physics. I’m just saying a crossbow firing multiple times per round is as unlikely as a longbow firing multiple times per round. If you would allow one, then you would allow the other.

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