So my group is having a bit of a problem with ranged combat. Specifically, we’re finding again and again that ranged combat is not, generally, a viable option. There are two rules which seem to always come up during combat that result in our archer not doing any useful for most of the encounter.
Here’s the typical situation: the group is wandering through the forest (or worse and more often, a dungeon). The come upon a group of bandits, orcs, goblins, etc. — if they’re lucky the group doesn’t notice them or is far away. In the case of a dungeon, though, neither of those is particularly likely. If they’re lucky, the archer might have a round or two to fire a couple of shots, while the melee characters charge toward each other at about 120ft per round (unless either side is running, in which case it’ll be quicker). In most cases, the opposing sides are in melee essentially immediately, and that’s where the game ends for the archer.
According to Pathfinder rules, if there’s anyone between you and your target, friend or foe, the target gets cover (a +4 bonus to AC). Pathfinder also states that if you’re target is adjacent to a friendly unit, you take a -4 penalty to hit as you avoid hitting your friend. So when combat breaks out, the archer is now shooting at an effective -8 penalty. The absurdity of this situation comes when you realize that the Fighter is now rolling against an AC 13 (triuvial for our low-level group) against the hide-clad orcs and the archer is rolling against an effective AC 21 (she might as well disengage from the game). If the orcs were much more armed at all, the archer would have no chance of hitting them.
So, I get that this is “realistic” and I agree that there should be considerations for both cover from creatures and the dangers of shooting into melee, but I think it should be done in such a way that it doesn’t destroy the fun for one of my players. So I’m looking for a consistent rule or set of rules that I can apply that are less onerous than a -8 to hit.
There are a few options I’ve considered. The first is to simple state that Cover and Shooting In To Melee don’t stack, the same that multiple sources of cover don’t stack (partial cover is -4 whether that partial cover is from one stone wall or three intervening creatures; however, Rules As Written cover is a bonus to AC and shooting into melee is a penalty to hit). A second option would be that cover from creatures is only a -2 cover bonus instead of the normal -4, since creatures don’t fill space the way a stone wall does. A third option (which comes from some OSR conversations I’ve seen) is that there’s no penalty for shooting in to melee, but if you miss you have a 2-in-6 or 3-in-6 chance that you hit an ally instead. (Though some note that if you just go one that, you might as well aim at your high AC ally since a miss means automatically hitting the enemy… but I think that’s gaming the system.) A variant of that that I thought of would be that a to-hit roll of natural 1-4 hits an ally, or you only check the 3-in-6 chance if you fail to hit the target’s Touch AC (even if the attack is still a “miss”).
I’m still trying to puzzle this out, but I think the solution I like the best is to lessen the cover bonus from creatures (in all situations) to +2 and to check for hitting an ally if you shoot in to melee and miss. This way the Archer is still effective (only hitting at -2) but takes a risk when shooting in to melee, and has reason to switch to melee weapons herself (making it all a meaningful choice).
If you’ve got thoughts on the issue feel free to add them in the comments.