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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thrown Crossbow Bolts

Brendan at the Untimately blog has some commentary on a 4e player's (positive) experience with OD&D. It's a very interesting read in its own right, but I thought I would have a little tangent on one of his comments, prompted by the 4e player's first experience with "all melée weapons do 1d6 damage":
An important assumption of OD&D, in my mind, is that unless otherwise stated things work relatively realistically. This is the wargaming context at work. In other words: I don't think the rules suggest that a thrown crossbow bolt should be considered a weapon.
The rules don't suggest this, but should it be allowed?

In keeping with the assumption of "relative realism" Brendan alludes to, the limiting factor to a crossbow bolt thrown by hand should be its short range and imprecision. You can throw a dagger, so why not throw a crossbow bolt? Essentially, it becomes a dart, close in size to a lawn dart, actually. Lawn darts are illegal in the US specifically because of their potential lethality, so it's not that far-fetched that you could use one as a weapon. Later editions of D&D certainly didn't seem to think so.

The main reason you wouldn't throw a bolt is that firing the bolt from an actual crossbow improves your range. Any thrown object is limited to fairly close quarters in D&D; short range is 10 feet, which is also melée range, so you gain little by throwing the bolt instead of stabbing with it. If you have a house rule that ranged weapons fired in ways they weren't designed for are at half range, it's even worse: 10 feet would be medium range, 15 feet would be long range. (I'd probably use this house rule myself; it could apply to firing bolts from a regular bow as well.)


  1. The crossbow bolt wouldn't work, it doesn't have the mass. That's why it is shot from a crossbow, to give it the kinetic energy it needs to penetrate and do damage. You would be vastly better off stabbing with it and putting your weight behind it.

    The Romans actually used a lawn-dart type weapon as a substitute for javelins. They were meant to be used at short range and by rear rankers tossing them into the rear ranks of the enemy during hand-to-hand fighting. these darts (Plumbatae or martiobarbuli) had the mass to do damage that a bolt does not.

  2. That would make sense in, say, AD&D. But if you are using 1d6 for all damage, mass is not as important. If mass really concerns you in a 1d6-only system, you can go with 1 point of damage on a 5+ roll.

  3. It is possible that a case might be made. I am by no means an expert on any particular kind of weaponry. The question is, I think, where is the line drawn? What is allowed to belong to the weapon category? What about throwing an arrowhead?

  4. See, I think this is one of your strengths as a DM. You are willing to carefully and rationally consider any crazy-ass thing a Player comes up with!

  5. You (and the 4e blogger) are sort of missing the point, and you're probably bringing too much of later editions (and their short combat rounds) into the thought process. Admittedly it's very hard to let go of the other system knowledge we have, but...

    In OD&D, weapons don't deal damage. Attacks deal damage.

    It's the one minute combat round, where an attack represents the aggregate potential to inflict some damage on the enemy. In fact it doesn't necessarily matter whether you have a weapon, as long as you're in a position where you can cause the enemy to suffer damage.

    At the end of the round, if he suffers damage, you're free to rationalize it however you want. Maybe you landed several quick, deadly dagger thrusts once you got within your claymore-wielding opponent's guard. For all the system cares, the opponent can have died from you stomping his head with your foot after he tripped on your spilled crossbow bolts. The details really don't matter, and that's why the particular weapons don't matter.

    Admittedly this gets kind of weird once you start thinking about ranged attacks, primarily due to ammunition tracking. But note that 3LBB OD&D doesn't give any guidelines (IIRC) for bow rate of fire (for example), or the amount of ammunition that must get used up in order to count as a ranged attack.

    The DM is well within rights to infer that 10+ arrows are used up in a round of missile fire. Or that you are assumed to hurl 5 daggers as part of a round of missile fire.

    Really, where I'm going with this is that the familiar process of "first choosing how to attack and then mechanically resolving the attack" is not necessarily the right way to do things in OD&D. It's just as valid in most situations to first mechanically resolve the attack, and then choose how the result happened.

    (This also dovetails with Gygax's explanation of what saving throws mean on page 80 of the DMG: First you roll, then you rationalize. Admittedly, that's AD&D. But he explains the same method in a letter in White Dwarf #7, about a year before the publication of the DMG. Still a chronologically gray area, and for saving throws instead of attacks, but worth pondering.)

  6. While I understand that it is attacks that do damage not weapons, I find it a very implausible rationalization that d6 damage would be done by throwing a crossbow bolt.
    I would ask that we return to the blackboard for a more plausible rationalization.

  7. You might have missed the whole point. (Either that or I am missing your point.)

    In OD&D, thrown crossbow bolts don't do d6 damage. (Neither does a sword, for that matter.)

    In OD&D, an "attack" is not a swing, thrust, or hurl. An "attack" is just a term representing a round's worth of combat against an enemy, plus the roll to resolve the success of it. That effort may (or may not) have included a thrown crossbow bolt, but the throwing of the crossbow bolt is immaterial in and of itself.

  8. Perhaps I have missed your point, Guy, but I believe I am adding to it:
    You recognize the 'attack' as a round of combat which is followed the dice roll to resolve it & I speak of the description of the events at the table that rationalize these abstractions & situate them within a context or the narrative events in the game.
    While "the throwing of the crossbow bolt is immaterial in and of itself" to the mechanic, my point is that it is material in terms of the description of events because that description grounds the abstract mechanics in a realistic imagined context where, it is assumed, Newtonian Physics apply (unless otherwise stipulated).

    My point is that a thrown crossbow bolt is as likely to cause damage as a thrown crossbow string -- unless it does cause someone to trip -- and including it the description of combat undermines the emergent realism of the context unless it better rationalized:
    like saying it caused someone to trip. Otherwise it can be assumed that the thrown crossbow bolt directly contributed to the combat damage, which it wouldn't do, and there serves to undermine other assumptions about hoe physics works with the game's narrative context.

    My point is tiny; I'm asking for a better description that actually rationalizes the mechanic. Are we OK?

  9. I understand what you mean now, thanks. I think we do see things mostly the same way.

  10. So, I don't need to buy weapons, then?
    My allergy ridden character can just sneeze and his opponent, socially compelled to say gesundheit (or the equivalent), will then be wrought with such internal conflict (kill vs. be polite) that it will reduce his ability to fight be 1d6?

  11. @Guy

    Thanks for that comment. I had not thought in those terms before: attacks doing damage versus weapons doing damage.

    The relevant text from the 3 LBBs that I can find is:

    All attacks which score hits do 1-6 points damage unless otherwise noted.

    This begs the question: what is an attack?

    There is also this:

    ALTERNATIVE COMBAT SYSTEM: This system is based upon the defensive and offensive capabilities of the combatants; such things as speed, ferocity, and weaponry of the monster attacking are subsumed in the matrixes. There are two charts, one for men versus men or monsters and one for monsters (including kobolds, goblins, orcs, etc.) versus men.

    So it's not clear, though the "weaponry" does suggest that weapons are assumed (though the waters are muddied because of the application to monsters). Also, one was expected to fall back to Chainmail if not using the alternate combat system, and I think it is fair to assume that Chainmail troops are armed with military weapons.

    Is anyone aware of a clearer definition of what constitutes or allows an attack? If a character is bound and gagged on the floor, should they still be allowed an attack? Anything can be retroactively justified (perhaps the character was able to loosen the bonds and strangle a captor). What if the character was rendered unconscious by a drug? Should they get an attack as well in that circumstance?

    If there is no such definition, I suppose this demands a house ruling!

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