Abstracting Missile Attacks

The Problem
One of the long-standing criticisms of D20-style combat is that melee attacks are abstract, while missile attacks are concrete. That is to say, each melee attack throw actually represents the best attack of several abstracted thrusts, slashes, and ripostes. However, each missile attack represents one, specific, missile being fired - which must be tracked on an arrow-for-arrow (or bolt-for-bolt, sling stone-for-stone) basis. This "concreteness" poses a problem for the otherwise abstract system of rounds, hit points, cures, and so on.

Each missile attack actually represents some abstract number of missile shots. It might be 1, it might be 2, it might be 0 (you didn't get an opening). Since the number of attacks is abstracted, so too is ammunition. Ammunition is now recorded in bundles of 20: A quiver of  20 arrows, a case of 20 bolts, or a bag of 20 sling stones. Whenever a missile attacker rolls a natural "1" on his attack throw, it means he has expended all of his available ammunition in that quiver/case/bag. 

EXAMPLE: Marcus is carrying a longbow and a quiver with 20 arrows. He is sniping from a castle wall at invading goblins. Over a series of rounds, he makes attack throws. Occasionally he hits, kills, and cleaves, taking additional attack throws. On the 6th round, his attack throw is a natural 1. Marcus has now used up his ammunition.

Handling Magic Arrows
The first issue that arose in playtesting was how to handle magical arrows, which come in small numbers and can't be readily replaced. The solution is that magical arrows come in bundles. There are four bundle sizes: Large, Medium, Small, or Tiny. Those correlate to finding 3d10, 2d6, 1d6, and 1d4 magical arrows on the treasure tables. (Note that what applies to arrows also would apply to, e.g. magic bolts, magic stones, etc.) 


Large Bundle: You run out of magical arrows if you make a natural attack throw of "1-2".
Med. Bundle: You run out of magical arrows if you make a natural attack throw of "1-3".
Small Bundle: You run out of magical arrows if you make a natural attack throw of "1-6".
Tiny Bundle: You run out of magical arrows if you make a natural attack throw of "1-8".

EXAMPLE: On the wall, Marcus sees an ogre chieftain and his thanes approaching. He procures his Medium Bundle of Arrows +2 and begins to fire them. His first attack throw is an 11, a hit! Next round, he gets an 8, a miss! The third round, a 14, a hit! The fourth round, a 12, a hit! The fifth round, he rolls a 2. He misses, and has used up his Medium Bundle of Arrows +2.

I'd be highly interested in the results of playtest by anyone who tries this system.





I’ve done something very similar with firearm ammunition before in a modern RPG, and it worked well. I honestly found the ability to reasonably track ammunition more useful than a change in combat abstraction (which is a bit theoretical), but it certainly made tracking ammo more pleasant. Your magic arrow solution extends it nicely; I’ve been avoiding giving out magic arrows because it’s just a pain to track individual shots. Will have to give this a shot on Sunday.

  1. Average results using this rule:

“1” : 19 arrows.
“1-2” : 9 arrows (down from 16.5 arrows).
“1-3” : 5.6 arrows (down from 7 arrows).
“1-6” : 2.3 arrows (down from 3.5 arrows).
“1-8” : 1.5 arrows (down from 2.5 arrows).

Note that if you ignore the rule on the first attack from a virgin bundle, most of the numbers line up a bit better.

  1. I probably won’t be using this rule myself. If each attack throw represents 0-2 actual missiles, then using up 1 ammunition (0+1+2)/3 per attack throw on average seems fine to me. The existing rules may need a descriptive update, but no additional rules.

(It’s also worth pointing out that a bundle of 20 could result in 30 actual hits pretty easily … or could run out in 1-2 attack throws. If you just call it 0-2 arrows, average 1 per throw, that’s not a problem.)

What I used to do* was give out small tokens for special, expendable resources of all sorts (potions, magic arrows, etc.). When a PC wanted to use it, they “spent” it by giving it back to me. Small poker chips with sharpie worked pretty well - white for ammunition, blue for potions, red for everything else.

  • I haven’t run an honest-to-goodness old-school game in a while, and I’m still building my ACKS setting right now. So I will be doing it again, as well.

Hmmm. Good point, Thomas. 

Something the averages above don’t touch on is the swinginess of the rule.

Running out of arrows on a “1” means that a person has approximately (rounded heavily) these likelihoods of running out of arrows after a given number of attacks:

0 throws: 5% - firing the entire bundle at once looks cool, but hits nothing.
1-2 throws: 9%
3-5 throws: 12% - 26% chance of 4+ arrows per throw
6-9 throws: 14% - 40% chance of more than 2 arrows per throw
10-15 throws: 16%
16-20 throws: 10%
21-30 throws: 14%
31-40 throws: 8%
41-50 throws: 5% - 12.5% chance of less than 0.5 arrows per throw
51-60 throws: 3%
60-100 throws: 4%
101+ throws: 0.5% - 1 in 200 bundles is secretly a cornucopia magic item.

If magic arrows are reusable, then the “cornucopia” simply becomes a set of very sturdy and well-made shafts. Collect them after the battle and you are good to go.

I think it’s interesting, but it doesn’t answer for the times when a character uses a missile weapon that doesn’t require ammunition… throwing a javelin for instance.

I also think that how many shots you take in a round can be occasionally abstracted by the cleaving rule. I usually require the player to use an additional piece of ammunition when taking advantage of cleave while using a missile weapon.

Javelins require (or rather are) ammunition, but how many magic javelins are you carting around that it is a bother to keep track of?

The point is, that these rules are (at least partially) a response to the following “disconnect”:

1)That melee attacks are abstract… you actually make several attacks during a round but the attack throw represents the one that “counts”


2)Missile attacks are not abstract… because the attack throw you make uses up only one actual piece of ammunition

Thus, the proposed rule “abstracts” missile fire for bows, slings, and crossbows, but not thrown axes, daggers, darts, holy water, javelins, oil, and spears, unless you assign ammunition values to those too.

In other words, the rule only abstracts some of the missile weapons.