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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