On Why Archers Should Just Use Swords

Posted: 3 June 2012 in House Rules
Tags: ,

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.

  1. Daniel says:

    It strikes me that you’re in a bind between “realism” and fun for your players, and I’m not sure why not to resolve it one way or the other.

    Realistically, there’s a reason you leave your archers behind when you’re storming a castle room to room. At best, maybe an archer with a nocked arrow could get a shot off for free while the other side is charging, which is less useful in a HP system like D&D. So you could say, “look, guys, this is a very dungeon-y game; archer archetypes aren’t that appropriate.” Or, “make sure your archer is useful when she changes to melee, even if she’ll really shine when we’ve got a whole field and she’s mowing down orcs from a hilltop.”

    Or, if you care more about your players being able to play whatever they want and have fun, damn the realism, why not just go whole hog in the other direction? 4E solved this by basically having feats and class features that let you use a bow in combat as effectively as any other weapon. You could make available (or Pathfinder may already have?) the ability to ignore cover from allies, shooting into melee, and OAs for using a bow when you’re based, and just let your archer be a Legolas-style badass, loosing arrows into orcs’ faces.

    • Jack says:

      That’s exactly the issue I’m having. I want to preserve realism as much as I can, but I don’t want strict realism to ruin our fun, either. We are, after all, playing a game with elves and dragons and fireballs.

      Pathfinder has feats that lessen these penalties, but they’re further down the chain than we typically like playing (I like low-level play). I may chat with my players and see if maybe what we need to do is adjust our tactics (have the archer switch to melee) and have more scenes where ranged combat can be meaningful (open fields and charging hordes).

      Since we are doing low level, the fact that it’s an hp system doesn’t hurt too bad, as 1d8+1 damage has a fair chance of dropping enemies.

  2. LS says:

    I rule that creatures only gain cover if there’s a player in between the archer and the target.

    This forces the melee fighters to try to “herd” the targets to give the archer the best available shot. Not only does it increase tactical considerations, but it promotes teamwork.

    And isn’t there a feat to reduce the penalty for firing into melee? If there’s not, then I’ve house ruled one into my games. One of the two. That’s what feats are good for. Rather than giving players new abilities, they should just make players better at things they can already do.

    • Jack says:

      There is a feat, Precise Shot, that removes the -4 penalty for shooting in to melee. Any maybe that’s the answer; I definitely agree that improving existing abilities/options is what Feats should do. At low levels, though, Precise shot is only available to dedicated Fighters or Humans (as it requires Point-blank Shot as a pre-req).

      • LS says:

        I’ve been pondering the idea of removing nearly all prerequisites from feats. None of them are so amazing that they would really unbalance a game if they were introduced to.

        • Jack says:

          I had that very same thought just last night. Obviously Feats that build on feats (Iron Will and Improved Iron Will) should stay chained, and I’m not sure how I feel about Level and BAB requirements…

          • LS says:

            I’ve never enforced the class requirements on any feat which doesn’t specifically require a class ability. Most commonly this comes up with fighter feats, like Weapon Specialization. And many of the feat chains seem completely arbitrary. Why do you need to learn to deal extra damage within 30ft before you can learn to shoot accurately at greater distances? (Point Blank Shot > Far Shot)

    • Ben says:

      This right here. Seems like a win-win-win.

  3. […] Comments LS on On Why Archers Should Just Use SwordsJack on On Why Archers Should Just Use SwordsDaniel on On Why Archers Should Just […]

  4. Alavar says:

    I know i’m pretty late to this party, but i find it necessary to put in my 2 cents.

    Firstly, a bow and arrow are simply not meant to be used in small skirmishes especially not once melee combat has broken out. Bows and arrows are used in volleys to soften up a group of combatants before melee breaks out.

    Secondly, if your archer isn’t smart enough to get a vantage point that gives him a clear shot, he isn’t very smart. If your players are only ever in dungeons or narrow caves than the DM isn’t doing a very good job.

    That being said its completely reasonable to assume that a character needs a feat to use the bow and arrow outside of its normal style (volley).

    • Jack says:

      Hey there! Good points, and I generally agree, but you’ll find my “but” in paragraph 4 – overall, a system that results in a given class being as removed from combat as a ranged character is just isn’t much fun, and fun is at least part of why we’re playing. Also, despite the title, these rules apply to more than just bow and arrow: see also slings, throwing knives, sorcery…

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