Dec 032012

Welcome to this, my latest look at historical weapons that make their way into fantasy games. I’m going to say right from the get go, that most of the time I think this particular weapon is portrayed reasonably accurately in the games I’ve seen them in, but there are way more to them than most people realise. Usually they are seen as reasonably easy to use weapons that don’t do a ton of damage and don’t have a minimum strength requirement. This absolutely fine for a very basic crossbow, but that is far from what you can do with this amazing bit of kit.

Take a look at the image to the left there, and you should notice a couple of things which aren’t always obvious in more fantasy themed depictions of the weapon. First, there’s the stirrup at the dangerous end. This was an almost universal component on crossbows, and was used every time the weapon was cocked. It would be placed point down, and the user would put his foot through the stirrup, and then use his entire body’s strength to draw the string back until it locks over the trigger mechanism. It would be near impossible for a regular archer to put this much strength behind each draw of a long bow, and gave the crossbow a rather impressive range.

This was not quick to accomplish though, and as such makes it unusual to see them on an open battlefield. Check out an earlier post to find out what happens when a bunch of Genoese crossbowmen were sent out to fight against British archers without shields to duck behind when cocking their weapons. It is reasons such as this that the weapon was favoured by those inside a castle under siege. With two men cocking and loading, and a third to shoot through the narrow slits in a castle’s outer walls, you could continuously rain bolts down onto the besieging army without ever being in danger of their arrows.

The other noticeable difference in the image above is the winch. This was to be found on weapons with an even larger draw strength. The crossbow was held in much the same way, a foot in the stirrup, but the strength needed to draw it was so great that a winch would need to be used. This made the weapon very popular, as you would not necessarily need to have a strong army to use it. Even young boys, old men, and injured soldiers could wind the winch. The power that such a crossbow looses its bolt with is staggering. Even using the entire body, as mentioned above, would not do as much damage. It’s worth mentioning at this point that games systems that have an accurate amount of damage listed for a crossbow cocked this way are few and far between. One shot from one of these things would almost certainly kill you.

Cock it with a winch, and we get to a whole new level of damage. To fully appreciate it, I would like to draw your attention to a rather wonderful French film called The Brotherhood of the Wolf. Sadly I have been unable to find a video clip of this scene, but the entire thing is worth picking up if you see it anywhere. The scene involves three protagonists preparing for a big show down, using flintlock pistols and throwing axes and what-have-you. Well, two of them are. The third, a young French Noble is quietly winding a winch throughout the scene, as he watches his friends destroy pumpkins arranged on spikes for target practice. When he’s finally ready – and it does take a while – he knocks a bolt, aims and fires. The pumpkin is obliterated, and a marble statue behind it explodes into sharp fragments. Now, I know this is a film, and not to be taken too seriously, but bear that amount of damage in mind when you think about what a crossbow can do in your next game.

I was seriously contemplating giving up a separate article to repeater crossbows, but in the end decided that would be a bit of a waste, as I would just end up going into unnecessary details. The short story is this; repeater crossbows are weak sauce. By necessity, the mechanism that draws back the string is small, simple and light. This means that it just does not have the power to fire a bolt with anything like the strength of a hand-drawn weapon. True, there are huge mechanical devices that break this rule, but siege engines are a topic for another time. No, handheld repeaters are not your friend unless you have few other options. To put it in a bit of context, if a standard – hand cocked – crossbow would do d6 damage, then something that requires the whole of the users upper-body strength to cock would likely do d8-10, with a winch powered weapon doing at least d12: a repeater would be lucky to manage d4.

As always I hope that some of the above was useful to my readers, but feel free to weigh in below with thoughts of your own.

  9 Responses to “An Historical look at Crossbows in RPGs”

  1. I’ve been discussing crossbows with one of my players in my postapocalyptic Endland campaign. He wants to use the crossbow as a hunting weapon and for long-range self-defence. I did a bit of research and found that most hunters consider 30-50 yards to be the effective range, 70 yards tops, despite the much wider maximum range of such weapons. So hunting, yes, taking long-range (=more than 100 yards) shots at people and expect to reliably hit someone, not so much. But if you hit something, you do a nice amount of damage. At least that is how I’m going to handle crossbows in the game – or am I completely off the mark here?

    • You’re pretty close to the mark there. An extra point to bear in mind with regards to accuracy is the quality of not only the weapon, but the bolts too. I’m typing this from my mobile so not in a great position to research this, but see if you can find some footage of an arrow or bolt in flight. Unless the flights are spiralled, effectively working like rifling in a firearm, the flight is far from steady.

  2. As a history and medieval war nerd, these are always my favorite posts from you!

    A lot of fantasy and historical war games I’ve played have always favored bows over crossbows. When I first played Sword of Aragon as a kid, I assumed the convention stood and typically equipped my archers with bows. It was only when I went back and replayed it in the last few years that I took a chance on crossbows and found them to be significantly more powerful and effective, especially with less experienced troops.

    Also, few people realize how ancient the crossbow is, dating back to 5th century BC China.

    I wonder if its absence in so many settings is due to reticence by many high fantasy story-tellers to include anything particularly mechanical?

    • Could be. I love them though, and think that they should be used a heck of a lot more. For an idea of how truly powerful they can be in some games, check out the stats for CP2020. They got it right…

  3. Good article. Crossbow, like guns, rely on mechanical advantage to allow anyone to use a fairly effective weapons. Is a well trained and healthy archer more effective? Almost always. But you cannot show a bow when laying on the ground, or keep it ready to fire, or have someone else reload it for you so you can fire it even when sick or wounded.

    Alex, crossbows are amazing weapons but (I think) they are perceived as being much less heroic than bows.

    • The fact that they’rs always ready to shoot, could also be a disadvantage. Bowmen were able to un-string warbows with ease, and protect the strings from the elements, not so much your crossbowman…

  4. What’s the loading time for the heavier crossbows? Surely not less than the 6 seconds you need to fire/reload them every round?
    Even this light crossbow seems (almost) twice as slow as a comparable longbow:

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