Mercenaries, Bow Ranges, and Cleaving

I think that a few different systems have colluded in individual realism to create an unrealistic situation.

First, the crossbow has a longer effective range than a bow, longbow, or composite bow. At first I was stunned because no other versions of D&D I’ve played did this. I remembered ACKs is committed to realism so I looked it up and, sure enough, crossbows do a pretty good job of matching bow distance and have the added benefit of substantially more force behind the bolt.

Why then are they always characterized as the “easy weapon anyone can use?”. Well, this is supposedly evened out in rate of fire. I have no experience with editions before 3e, but in 3e/pathfinder (and 4e to a lesser extent) it ends up that crossbows have difficulty capitalizing on iterative attacks or feats like rapid shot due to reloading not being a free action (move in 3e, minor in 4e). The longbows also get extra range, and the composite longbow even gets to do extra damage via strength. In ACKs, having a high rate of fire is represented by cleaving, in which composite bow had 4, regular bows 3, and crossbows/arbalests 2. Makes sense, only someone talented enough to utilize the higher rate of fire will have any benefit. As long as you’re dealing in player characters the model works.

However, things break down a bit when you start hiring mercenaries. As expected, with Bowmen being historically harder to train, they are more expensive to hire than crossbowmen (longbowmen especially). Except these recruits are going to be mostly level 0s, level 1s at best if they’re veterans. The end result is you pay more for mercenaries who don’t have as much range as crossbowmen and are unable to capitalize on the increased cleave potentials.

I’ve got a low level player who’s hired a couple bowmen and uses a bow himself. On a few occasions he’s run up against the crossbow being the obviously better weapon, and I’d like to come up with some house rules that in at least some way brings the supposed benefits of bowmen and longbowmen to the mercenary level. Any advice is appreciated!

Hi Jard!

I think the bow has taken on a semi-mythical status in gaming because of the famous victories of British longbowmen, the mighty Mongols, and the Elven archer. But outside of these examples, the crossbow was a generally more feared weapon. Bows have existed for thousands of years, but crossbows were so  scary that medieval lawmakers regularly tried to outlaw them. Pope Urban II banned them, as did the Magna Carta.

Being a bowmen required years of training and considerable arm strength. There was therefore always a limit on their numbers. Being a crossbowmen required little more than a crossbow and a bit of practice. Historically, crosswbowmen were more common as mercenaries than bowmen. Bowmen were primarily employed by armies which used peasants or nomads who grew up with familiarity with bows - the English, the Mongols, the Scythians, etc. 

If you want to give bowmen some additional love, you could allow them to add their STR bonus to their damage rolls. (Perhaps a flat +1 for mercs). Pulling an ancient or medieval bow required enormous strength. The effort was so great that it shows up in the skeletons of longbowmen, who show significant bone thickening in their right arms from years of bow-pulling. 

Or you might consider a +1 to hit, to represent the difficulty of avoiding plunging fire.


Thanks, Alex. Your commentary is insightful as always. Those are probably quicker/more effective fixes than what I was considering, and will help the bowman earn those extra 3 to 18gp over crossbowmen. The best I could come up with was possibly a penalty to initiative or surprise rolls for wielders of crossbows. I also contemplated declaring that bowmen/longbowmen were higher level, but the differences in wages can’t reasonably represent even level 0 to level 1. I think I’ll go with the accuracy bonus and see how that feels.

My simple solution was to make Crossbows Move or Fire, as it takes more time to load a crossbow than a bow and is not typically something done on the run. So crossbowmen are much less mobile, especially if they want to keep up a steady stream of fire.

This gives them a slight disadvantage to the bow, but then I also give them a bump in die size for damage. This makes the Arbalest, at D10 damage, particularly fearsome.

Or you could say that Longbowmen always get 1 cleve, even at level 0.
Might not help your PC, but your Mercs can earn their extra XP alright.

Wait. do mercenaries gain XP? at what rate? half like a henchman?

Oops, typo… I meant to say GP.

Yes, mercenaries (and other 0-level characters) do earn XP. Like all hirelings, they do so at half the rate of PCs.

Note that it's the fact of being a hireling that makes a character earn XP at half-rate, not the fact of being an NPC. An independent NPC villain would, e.g., level as fast as his PC antagonists.



Interesting… supposing Henchman eventually got high enough level to themselves take henchmen, would the sub-henches gain 1/2 or 1/4 XP?

Henchmen can take henchmen. Sub-henchmen still get 1/2 XP.

I’ve been doing 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, etc.

The main reason for this is because if I don’t, the hench-of-hench shares rocket their level up to match their leader too rapidly. With the continued halving, everyone is always trailing at least a level behind.

I might try both, and see what feels better. I can imagine a risk of getting to where the level difference between the lowest and highest tier of henchman/players is too much to have them go on the same adventures.

I would think that would be okay. After about three or four tiers, it starts getting a bit ridiculous anyway.

Looking at Cameron’s latest hench list, the deepest is about three deep (hench-of-hench-of-hench) which gives 1/8 XP. A 9th level fighter with 260,000 XP might expect his henches to have 130K (level 8), the hench-of-hench to have 65K (level 7), and the hench-of-hench-of-hench to have 32.5K (level 6, and 1/8 XP).

Four deep would still manage level 5, and would get into numbers that are, as Asaris mentions, kind of ridiculous.

On the other hand, 1/2 XP for ALL henches regardless of depth would encourage something different that might be worth doing: the most distant henches would tend to splinter off and leave when they started to reach unsustainable hench levels. This would keep the hench-branching minimal.

On the other pseudopod, 1/2 XP for all henches means that high-level characters can just about insta-level new hires.

I haven’t started a campaign yet, of course, so this is all just baseless theorizing from my end!

It seems like both methods COULD work and each creates interesting situations. The DM and the players will likely have to pick what method works for them (unless Alex wants to blow us all away with insight on how half XP for all hirelings has some important aspects).

I don’t know how it works math-wise, but supposedly the reason henchmen get 1/2 shares of XP is that they’re not making the important decisions. Since there’s no level of decision-making that’s less than “none”, it’s 1/2 shares (and turtles) all the way down.