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.

Jul 302012
 

After watching the British Archery team go out in the first round of the Olympics, it made me realise just how much we have fallen in the world rankings in the last seven hundred years. So, presented here are my thoughts on the bowman in a role playing game. Enjoy.

The following tips and advice are all based on widely perceived historical fact, so feel free to use them, whilst I take some pleasure in using my History& Heritage degree for the first time since graduating over a year ago. The aim of this blog is to make being a ranged combatant in any medieval like setting a bit more interesting than standing at the back loosing arrows while staying out of trouble.

First let us consider one of the finest examples of a bowman from the medieval period, the English warbow user. This isn’t idle speculation, or a sense of national pride (why should I be proud of something I had nothing o do with, just because it was done by people born within a certain geographical proximity?), but is actually true. It wasn’t naturally the case though, it was actually a law that made the common Englishman so proficient. All males of a certain age were required to practice for several hours a week, giving them the barrel chested build one needs when trying to pull a big ass longbow. And I mean big. Taller than a man kind of big. One point of note is that they weren’t trained to hit targets as much as you would think. Ignore Robin Hood and the archery butts with round targets; that was very much what the better bred shot at whenever they lowered themselves to take part in this activity. No, what they were trained to do was pick a range and land an arrow in it. At the time this was key because they would be firing in volley and wanting to concentrate the arrows as much as was possible. Since most archers in roleplaying games aren’t loosing arrows with 200 hundred of their mates, we shan’t spend any longer talking about that.

Lets get to the good stuff. Why use a warbow instead of a crossbow? Sure, a crossbow is a devastating weapon, designed to work well over long distances, without losing much of its stopping power. It was also designed to be used from withing a castle shooting out, with a small team of men to cock and load it. For a quick reason as to why you shouldn’t rely on them out in the open, just look at what happened at the battle of Crecy. The rain plays merry hell with a bow string, and a warbow can be unstrung when required, with the string coiled up and put under a hat. It’s not exactly easy to re-string in a hurry – even the men who used them all the time and were built like oxen couldn’t do it that quickly – but a combat round or two is well worth it if you don’t want your arrows to fall very short indeed. If anything did go wrong with the bow, or for that matter the string or arrows, don’t fret. Due to the nature of using a bow, it should be safe to assume you know how to repair, replace or just make new bits, provided you have access to basic resources. If your GM disagrees, I’ll have a word.

On top of the basics, most bowmen would also carry around molds for arrow heads, and know how to melt down and reform metal to make new ones. This fact isn’t probably that important, unless you’re playing with a GM who likes to punish careless archers for missing their targets and instead sending arrows over the horizon. No, the thing to take advantage of here, is the type of molds you should expect to have:

Regular. Nothing too special about these, but just remember that they’re all barbed. Only way to get them out is to push them through. Nasty right? It gets better. If you’re going to be loosing more than a couple of arrows, take them out of your quiver or satchel and put a decent handful point down into the ground. Not only will this be quicker to grab them, but also give the arrowhead a nice coating of dirt. Just in case they survive the shot, the infected wound will kill them. This works for all arrow types by the way.

Bodkin. Armour piercing. Don’t get too cocky though, you’ll need to have your target within fifty feet and hit straight on. If you do though, they punch through a breast plate and right into the person wearing it.

Broadhead. Mainly used as a horse stopper, as most other arrows don’t do that much damage to the half ton of muscle that is a war horse.

To make it easier to swap arrow heads, and more of a pain to get them out of wound, they’re not stuck fast to the shaft. Simply spit down the join, then push it on to the arrow with a twist to keep it as secure as it needs to be. A simple twist and pull will take it off again meaning you can change arrow heads in a hurry if you need to.

And one final point; never rely on just your bow. Have a short sword or long dagger about you too. Sometimes an arrow will drop a chap, but not finish him off, and if they’re still wearing armour, you want something that get into the gaps between the plates (armpits are the best if you can get nice and close). And of course it wouldn’t kill you to get the blade of your weapon nice and dirty too, just to make sure it will kill the bugger you’re sticking it into.

I hope you all have some fun with that, and please feel free to show off about the cool stuff you’ve done with a bow in your own game. Next time, we discuss crossbows, and ask why they’re never as deadly in games as they are in real life.