Aug 052013

I haven’t done a weapon post in a while, because I like to bring something to the table that might not be common knowledge. As much as I could wax lyrical about basic sword fighting techniques or go on at length about my favourite kind of axe, it’s all stuff that most gamers will be familiar with. What doesn’t get that much attention though is the humble sling. I can see why, as most fantasy role playing games are set in a time period pretty similar to that of the dark ages through to the high medieval period, and at that time, slings were nowhere near as common as they once were.

There are very good reasons for this in pure historical terms, but few of them translate well to a role playing game. For instance the time it would take to become proficient with a sling was far too long. Most people who knew how to use them to full effectiveness trained since they were children. Although medieval bowmen also practiced from a young age, it wasn’t as necessary to be competent with the weapon. In game terms this shouldn’t be a big deal though, as time spent to master skills is a little bit more abstract.

In terms of using a weapon for warfare, the bow is superior as it is easier to arrange for massed ranks to volley fire. The sling, by its very nature is tricky when it comes to getting more than a handful of people to loose their shot in unison. But since standing in massed ranks firing arrow after arrow is hardly what most people would expect out of a role playing experience, this again shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Finally – before we get to the good stuff – warbows and crossbows were excellent to shoot from behind cover. They were especially good when it came to firing through loopholes in walls. Doing this with a sling is pretty much an impossibility.

Sling-1-There are a fair few excellent reasons to use the sling more in RPGs though. Firstly the range and damage of a sling – firing optimal ammunition – is at least as good as a bow and arrow. Average range is roughly 150 metres by someone without a lifetime of practice, but the world record by a skilled user is considerably longer. The velocity of a lead shot is also greater than an arrow in flight. This means that accuracy is improved as it can be fired at a slightly more direct angle rather than a large arc.

Arrows do have a slight edge when it comes to penetration though, as they have a smaller point of impact and are much more likely to pierce flesh and armour. Don’t think that I’m selling the sling short though, although a shot is unlikely to punch through armour, the can still do a massive a mount of blunt trauma damage. Based on anecdotal evidence a lead shot can punch an inch deep dent into a corrugated iron. Just imagine what that would do any flesh beneath the metal armour. You don’t need to imagine too much though, as we know from historical documents that ancient Roman army surgeons had a special set of forceps used to extract shot that was embedded into combatant’s flesh.

So, we have a ranged weapon that matches if not exceeds the longbow in terms of range and damage, and it is also a damned sight easier to make it, as is the ammunition it uses. An effective sling is made from natural fibers such as hair and flax, which is pretty easy to come across almost everywhere. Although it is time consuming to weave a sling, once you know how to it, practice will reduce the time taken to make more. And compared to the time required to make a compound bow or to treat the wood necessary for a warbow, it was really very little time at all.

As for ammunition, well basically you can just pick up something that would suffice from the ground. Any small stone will do the job, but if you can find them, stones that have been smoothed by river water are far superior as the smoothness makes them more aerodynamic. The ideal shape is not unlike an Rugby ball, as this allows the shot to sit snugly in the sling pouch, and aids in the aerodynamics by putting on spin on the shot. What you really want though is a lead shot. Because it is a denser material it will better velocity and be much more likely to cause an injury. The fact that each shot can be cast to a desired shape is also very important.

If you’re just picking stones up from the ground then each shot will need to be made differently to take into account the changes in weight and size of the stone. As mentioned above the density of the lead means that you can will do more damage when you hit, but it will also have a better range and accuracy and too. And if you want to have some fun, it is possible to cast your own personal message onto a lead shot. Historical examples include the Legion number of the soldiers loosing the shot, and some slightly sillier ideas like, “catch!”, and “beware your teeth”.

In conclusion, for a single user wanting something quick and easy to use and obtain ammunition for, the sling is pretty perfect. Maybe not ideal within the enclosed spaces of a low ceiling-ed dungeon corridor, but out in the wild, there’s a reason that they were used for centuries to hunt with.

  23 Responses to “The sling in RPGs.”

  1. Great post. Slingers, in the ancient world, were one of the staples of any good army. In situations where the first handful of casualties could make or break a battle, a crack force of well trained slingers who could unleash on the front ranks before melting to the back (usually mixed troops would use a checkerboard-like formation to allow for quick retreat by skirmishers on the front lines), and do some serious damage. Also, they were great for harassing camps and cavalry from the hills.

    Even more neglected, however, is the potent staff sling. Perhaps not as accurate as its smaller non-staffed ancestor, the leverage could get quite some range on the shot, making it a very effective siege weapon. Plus, you had your ranged weapon and your close combat weapon all in one.

    • I only own one RPG that has stats for a sling D&D version3.0. I don’t seem to remember them being that good, do you think that’s why people don’t use them much?

      • I think it’s because people don’t really know what they are, and systems often include them only as an afterthought. I need to remember to include staff slings in the RPG system I’m writing and make them overpowered as all get out. Magic spear-tipped staff sling? Ranged attack, 2 handed blunt attack, and piercing attack. Why wouldn’t every elf-fighter, light fighter, magic user build use a staff sling?!

  2. Being a modern slinger, I appreciated this article.

    • That’s made my day! It’s not easy to find out that much about the sling in current usage, I was just wondering if I had made too many glaring errors?

      Oh, and how often do you get to practice? Most sources claim that it takes a very long time indeed to get beyond competent with the weapon.

      • I didn’t notice too many errors. A fun fact that you missed is that they were used militarily as recently as the Syrian rebellion, and with great effect in the Spanish Civil Wars (where they were used to lob LIVE GRENADES at the enemy). I don’t have sources on either of these at the moment, but I know they’re true.

        The oldest surviving sling is from roughly 3000BC, of Egyptian make. And that one was quite elaborate. We know they’ve been in use since around the rise of Neanderthal man, and most likely were discovered independently by several groups around the same 2000 year period.

        I practice sparingly, but more in the spring and summer. I’m far from “deadly” accurate, but with just over a year of experience, I can hit a small target 150-200 yards away. That’s enough to stop you from getting speared, before the rise of the longbow.

        Aside from sling, I also practice in several other paleo and medieval weapons. It’s a fantastic way to spend free time :)

        • I did read a little about contemporary use with grenades. Since it takes a fair bit of practice to use the sling well at all, I think it might be a struggle to convince people to use them to lob explosives about.

          Nice to know my ranges weren’t too far out.

  3. You have my full support. The sling is an excellent and under appreciated weapons.

    I take up my issue with the poor treatment of slings in general and especially in Pathfinder here:

    • Just had a look, and it’s nice to see some support for the sling. As mentioned in a previous comment, I’ve not even seen stats for slings in that many places. Damned shame that when they are used, they’re underpowered.

    • I’ve decided that Staff Slings should be mechanically the most powerful weapon in 3rd ed. A Fighter with focus & specialization would get bonuses to both ranged and melee attacks with a single set of feats. Magic users get an all in one ranged/melee weapon with their simple weapon proficiency. Staff Slings are the new Vorpal Blade.

  4. Too, slings can be ridiculously inconspicuous when not in use. Need to sneak a ranged weapon in some place? Tie the sling around your wrist as if it’s a small and plain bracer or bit of decoration. Tie it around your waist like a small belt. Put the whole kit, stones and all, into small pouch.

  5. My father was a third world shepherd as a child. When I was growing up in the suburbs of the US he tried briefly to teach me how to use a sling that he fashioned out of shoelaces and a dollar bill in about 30 seconds. I couldn’t get the thing to work at all but he was able to dent a stop sign severely enough that the stone was lodged into the surface. I practiced for a month before I gave up and just went back to Atari. His sister later mentioned that he sometimes fed the family by hunting birds with a sling. Birds in flight. Don’t underestimate a sling.

  6. Funnily enough I just replied to somebody on Twitter a few days ago who was scoffing about the uselessness of slings in D&D. I’d imagine it has largely to do with their rather poor damage die in editions past 0e – back when all weapons did d6 damage and all hit dice were d6s you’d hardly be laughing at a sling, and rightly so!

  7. […] Notes:  Inspired indirectly by Shorty Monster‘s column on Slings in RPGs. […]

  8. And for you, a new magical sling!

  9. Might amuse you to know that Varg swung by my post on Staff Slings over the weekend. Of course he’s been messing around with them LOL

  10. […] shortymonster, Art, History and RPGs, and myself, there have been several posts on slings in RPGs as of late.  […]

  11. […]  Editors note: this article was first published on […]

Leave a Reply