You’re wandering through the badlands and Orcs ambush your party. You, as the party tank, stroll confidently forward and deliver your battle-cry; “For Procrastinitus The Unfinished!” and in return you’re struck by an arrow.
DM: Take 5 hitpoints.
No problem. You’ve got over 60 total HP left, an unspent surge, and the Cleric still has healing spells. A minion’s arrow is a drop in the bucket. You raise your sword to the heavens and charge into battle.
DM: Take 2 hitpoints, and move at one-quarter speed. The arrow was a bodkin point and pierced your thigh, meaning your leg-meat is stapled to the inside of your armor.
Okay, now the DM is just being petty and pedantic, but whatever. Fine. You remove the arrow first and…
DM: Make a constitution check. Removing the arrow without pushing it through tears tissue on the way out, and you could only push it through if you removed your armor.
Goddamnit, whatever. Fine. Fine. Fine. You make your check and you’re still conscious. You use the surge to heal some damage, and we’re back in business. Now on to the Orcs–
DM: You’re dead.
DM: You’re dead.
The hell you say!
DM: Yah. Dead. Like, giant bag of uncooked hamburger inside a 3mm-thick steel suit, dead. Apparently archers are opportunistic as F&%#, and they’re not actually shooting the armored soldier to outright kill. See, the first few shots are called ‘controlling fire’ which is meant to make the tanky fighter stop in his/her tracks, move into a less advantageous position, or slow his charge across the killing field. You stopped, you died. The end.
Alright, I’ll admit it– I’m not that much of an asshole when I run my games. But sometimes I’m tempted. Usually when a player takes arrow damage and doesn’t ask “Where?” or “What kind of arrow?” or, god forbid, “Is it still in me…?”
So today, to sooth my anger over players who don’t respect archery ranks, are 5 facts about arrows in combat that D&D players couldn’t give two twiddly-shits about.
1) Different Arrows Have Different Purposes
Not to be confused with in-game ‘effects,’ different arrow heads, weights, and woods all carry different consequences. I know what gamers are thinking when I mention this concept; we already have mithril arrows, enchanted arrows, cold-iron arrows, etc…
What if I told you that you don’t have to limit yourself to rare metals and enchantments to damage higher-level characters? What if I told you you’re allowed, as DM, to introduce a bit of reality to your game? Here’s how it could play out:
Scenario 1 – The Bodkin: The player is struck with standard 1d6 arrows, except the enemy used bodkin points (see picture above, top right two) specifically designed to puncture armor plates. The arrow heads are heavy (1,000 grain) and when falling on an enemy at 45-degrees, ignores a few points of armor. Now your squad of faceless, single-hp minions actually stand a chance of doing real damage against the party tank– if they’re all shooting at the same target.
Scenario 2 – The Broadhead: The player is struck with an arrow that can’t penetrate armor, but if it strikes flesh will be near-impossible to remove without a toolbox and a team of surgeons. The broadhead (above picture, far left) has too wide a impact surface to bite into metal, but will slice through organs, tendons, and veins, and it can’t be yanked out without turning the wound into fried Mongolian beef. The arrow has to be pushed through the body and out the other side to dislodge it, as portrayed in every movie about Cowboys vs Indians.
It may seem petty, but reminding a player their character has an arrow sticking out of them, getting in the way of their actions, mucking up their dexterity checks and lowering their spell concentration, adds a very real psychological burden to an otherwise forgettable (in D&D) injury.
Scenario 3 – The Poop Arrow: Sure, there was probably a more grown-up way of titling that, but it’s too late now. And when I say “Poop Arrow” what I mean is any wooden arrow with a shaft that’s been soaked or treated with a decaying organic substance designed to infect the wound upon penetration. Bear in mind, I specifically mean ‘infect’ and not ‘poison’ in a game-mechanic sense.
Characters immediately know when they’ve been poisoned, and will take action accordingly. Infection is more devious. If the character doesn’t use magic to heal to full (which removes the infection according to game rules) then make a point to tell the player that their fighter is still missing one or two HP’s, even after a long rest. The wound never closes. That last hitpoint never comes back naturally. And, over time, if they player doesn’t consult an actual healer, they start experiencing flu-like symptoms, which can lead to septic shock…
2) Arrows Are An On-Going Problem (And Almost Always Kill)
The link and picture above are from a very well-written Michigan bowhunting safety website. And, as their website mentions, arrow wounds are frequently less painful and less startling than bullet or blade wounds. It’s quiet. It’s sharp, which means less pain and ripping. And it’s almost always deadly over time.
An arrow on the battlefield isn’t necessarily intended to outright kill. An arrow is not like a bullet. Instead of shredding tissue and creating cavities in the body like a passing bullet, an arrow lodges in the body and plugs the hole it just made. This means there’s not a lot of blood. The really sinister part of an arrow wound comes in the removal of the arrow, and the gradual slowing effect it has on a charging army.
If you’re running up a hill with an infantry 1,000-strong, one man getting hit with an arrow isn’t the end of the world. You may shrug it off, or wrap bandages around it and fight on. However, if every third man in your 1,000-man army has a leg that suddenly limps, or an arm that can’t support a shield, or a sucking chest wound, suddenly a large portion of you army is devoted to keeping that wounded one-third mobile.
Reenact this with the players. Tell the injured fighter he can only move 10 feet per round unless aided by the barbarian. Tell the wizard he’s too distracted to cast spells unless the thief applies pressure around the arrow wound in his shoulder. Suddenly half your party is devoted to keeping the battle going, and all it took was a few cannon-fodder Orc archers.
3) Not All Bows Serve The Same Function
This one seems pretty simple, but most tabletops completely ignore it. Ever wonder why a hunter in the woods doesn’t arc his shot (fire into the air at 45-degrees)? Why doesn’t the archer on the battlefield just wait until the enemy gets closer, and shoot in a straight line without holdover? Why doesn’t the horse-mounted Mongolian rider use a body-length longbow instead of a horned recurve bow?
Simple questions, right? Yet I’ve never seen this come up in a game.
Here’s what I propose; Don’t let the players use a 6-foot longbow from horseback. Don’t let players steal a hunting bow and use it as a long-range phalanx bow. Make them decide on a style of bow based on the type of combat they plan to get involved in, not just whether they want to roll a 1d6 or 1d8. That’s nonsense.
4) Archers Don’t Fight Alone
Yes, there are circumstances where lone archers can kick lots of ass. Yes, there are times when we’d rather stand back and plug the troll with arrows rather than get clubbed to death. But here’s the thing; lone archers hanging back and supporting a group of swordsmen should be the exception, not the rule.
In modern terms think of the fantasy trope of the lone-archer as a sniper, instead of the much-more-common rifleman. Aragorn up there is going for kill shots, while avoiding his companions. That takes a lifetime of training coupled with incredible natural talent. Not everyone can be an Olympic sharpshooter. So having one or two Orcs with short-bows hanging out behind a squad of melee skirmishers is suicidal and counter-productive. Remember, your archers are trying to Stop/Slow/Move the enemy. This can’t be done with a couple of jerks wielding hunting bows.
NPC archers in your game should be three things;
1) Lightly armored.
5) The Goal Of Battle Is To Rout Or Stall Enemies
The picture above is from the battle of Agincourt, 1415. It was a conflict in which the French should have dominated the English, because they were a) on French soil, b) the English were exhausted, and c) the English were suffering starvation and dysentery. Oh, and the French had about 50,000 men, while Henry V commanded a paltry 8,500, more than half of which were lightly-armored namby-pamby archers.
If this were a game of D&D a party of 8 exhausted players would be squaring off against 50 Orcs with advantage rolls. The players would flip the table and spit on the game pieces. So how did Henry V win this monstrous cluster-f%@#?
Stop, slow, and move the enemy with arrows.
The Battle of Agincourt is one of the supreme examples of what battlefield planning and controlling fire can do to an enemy force. Henry V positioned himself on the other side of a freshly plowed field, which turned to a quagmire of mud after the first few lines of French cavalry and infantry tried to cross it. Spoilers: they got shot.
Volley after volley from the Welsh bowmen stopped, slowed, and moved the enemy around the field of muck until it was practically quicksand, with lots and lots of dead Frenchmen. This is the true power of arrows on the battlefield. Even conservative French estimates give the English a 6:1 kill ratio. This would have been even steeper if the English had pursued them in a rout. A rout, by the way, happens when the enemy breaks formation and runs in the opposite direction, giving the victor an “attack of opportunity.” Which historically accounts for more battlefield deaths than men who died of actual hand-to-hand combat.
Keep that in mind during your tabletop game. When the demoralized Orcs flee from the party, less than 20% of them would have died during the actual fighting. The rest would have been shot, in the back, by the players, well after they reached the end of the table.
“Don’t let him escape! He might have trinkets we can sell!”