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House Rules for 5th Edition D&D Crossbows and Ballistas

As someone who has 3 crossbows (and 27 other bows - and I also makes bows and crossbows) I am ever appalled by the rules for crossbows and archery in 5th Edition D&D - and other editions for that matter.

My reasoning is because the rules don't reflect the time required to reload a crossbow, the sheer damage a crossbow does, their range, their ease of use, or their penetrating power. I am not alone in this either, crossbowmen around the world look at dismay in the way crossbows are being shown in D&D, movies, TV shows, and poorly researched fiction. (Don't even get me started with Daryl's use of the crossbow in The Walking Dead...)

The current rules are as follows:

Hand Crossbow
75 gp - 1d6 piercing - 3 lbs. -  Ammunition (range 25/100), light, loading.

Light Crossbow
25 gp - 1d8 piercing - 5 lbs. - Ammunition (range 80/320), loading, two-handed.

Heavy Crossbow
50 gp - 1d10 piercing - 18 lbs. - Ammunition (range 100/400), heavy, loading, two-handed.

The stats for the Hand Crossbow are reasonably accurate, they are fairly quick to reload. However the stats for Light Crossbow and Heavy Crossbow are woefully wrong. Not just "inaccurate", just plain wrong.

The problems are the damage (or lack thereof) and the "Loading". In the PHB:
"Loading. Because of the time required to load this weapon you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it when you use an action, bonus action, or reaction to fire it, regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make."
While that is reasonable that they would be slower, it doesn't realistically reflect how much time it takes to stick your foot in the crossbow stirrup and load a crossbow bolt - or using the windlass crank method. Therefore I must assume that these are pretty weak crossbows that can be quickly loaded by hand, instead of using a foot stirrup or a windlass.

To fix this problem and make it more realistic I have introduced to my Monday 5th Edition game the following as House Rules:

Stirrup Light Crossbow
35 gp - 1d10 piercing - 6 lbs. - Ammunition (range 90/360), moderate loading, two-handed.

Stirrup Heavy Crossbow
60 gp - 2d6 piercing - 20 lbs. - Ammunition (range 125/500), heavy, moderate loading, two-handed.

Windlass Light Crossbow
50 gp - 2d8 piercing - 7 lbs. - Ammunition (range 100/400), long loading, two-handed.

Windlass Heavy Crossbow
100 gp - 2d10 piercing - 21 lbs. - Ammunition (range 150/600), heavy, long loading, two-handed.

Large Windlass Crossbow
You will notice I am not getting rid of the old weak crossbows. They are still there. In terms of DM description I will describe them as "an old crappy crossbow". I am simply adding new crossbows that are more realistic to reload and do realistic damage.

You will also notice I fixed the ranges so that they are more realistic. In real life crossbows have comparable ranges to English warbows (think of a longbow, but even more powerful).

Quick Loading - (This replaces the standard "Loading" from the PHB.) It takes a Bonus Action to reload this weapon because it is relatively easy to reload. Because of the time required to load this weapon you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it when you use an action, bonus action, or reaction to fire it, regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make.

Moderate Loading - To reload this weapon a character must use an action or a move-equivalent action (forfeiting all movement for the round). They also cannot reload while on horseback or while being moved/jostled. Regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make, you cannot fire more than once per round (unless Hasted, in which case they can use the bonus action from being hasted to reload).

Long Loading - To reload this weapon a character must use a full round action, forfeiting all movement, actions, bonus actions and reactions. They also cannot reload while on horseback or while being moved/jostled. Regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make, you cannot fire more than once per round. (Even if hasted, they still cannot attack more than once per round.)

Lengthy Loading Speed - This weapon can only be fired once every few rounds because it takes multiple actions to load, aim and fire. This can vary on the weapon and will be listed in the weapon description. See Ballistas below as an example.

Ballistas, All Sizes Great and Small

The DMG only lists one kind of ballista, however there are many different sizes and types of ballistas. The standard DMG ballista is as follows:

Regular Ballista, Large Object
AC 15, Hit Points 50
Damage Immunities: Poison, Psychic

A ballista is a massive crossbow that fires heavy bolts. Before it can be fired, it must be loaded and aimed. It takes one action to load the weapon, one action to aim it, and one action to fire it.
  • Ballista Bolt - Ranged Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, range 120/480 ft., one target. Hit: 3d10 piercing damage.
You will note that that the standard small Ballista requires 3 actions to load, aim and fire - so in theory 3 people working as a team could reload, aim and shoot a ballista in a single round. This logically means that this isn't a very big ballista. It is quite small by ballista standards. It is probably the size of a cart, has wheels on the sides like a cannon would, and could be pulled by a donkey or a horse.

Large Ballista, Large Object
AC 15, Hit Points 75
Damage Immunities: Poison, Psychic

A large ballista is a massive crossbow that fires heavy bolts, slightly bigger than the regular large ballista. Before it can be fired, it must be loaded and aimed. It takes two actions to load the weapon, one action to aim it, and one action to fire it. In terms of size the large ballista is approx. the size of a large cart, but heavier. It requires a draft horse or an oxen to pull it.
  • Ballista Bolt - Ranged Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, range 150/600 ft., one target. Hit: 4d10 piercing damage.

Huge Ballista, Huge Object (Variant A)
AC 15, Hit Points 100
Damage Immunities: Poison, Psychic

A huge ballista is giant sized crossbow that fires very heavy bolts. Before it can be fired, it must be loaded and aimed. It takes three actions to load the weapon, one action to aim it, and one action to fire it. Due to its size this huge ballista fits on a structure the size of a large wagon and requires a team of four horses to pull it.
  • Ballista Bolt - Ranged Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, range 175/700 ft., one target. Hit: 5d10 piercing damage.

Huge Ballista, Huge Object (Variant B)
AC 15, Hit Points 125
Damage Immunities: Poison, Psychic

A huge ballista is giant sized crossbow that fires very heavy bolts. Before it can be fired, it must be loaded and aimed. It takes four actions to load the weapon, one action to aim it, and one action to fire it. Due to its size this huge ballista fits on a structure the size of a large wagon and requires a team of six horses to pull it.
  • Ballista Bolt - Ranged Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, range 200/800 ft., one target. Hit: 6d10 piercing damage.
And there are undoubtedly more variants DMs could make. I recommend sticking to the 1 action per 1d10 for the reloading/aiming/firing time. So for example if the PCs find a gigantic ballista, it might take 10 actions to reload, aim and shoot - and consequently does 10d10 piercing damage.

If the ballista is mobile, it should require an ever increasing number (or size) of beasts to pull it. A gigantic ballista for example might require a team of eight mammoths to pull it.

Alternative Ammo - Increasing Range / Forfeiting Damage

It is possible to increase the range of a crossbow bolt simply by making it lighter. The easiest way to do this are to:
  • Reduce weight of the broadhead by making it smaller.
  • Reduce the width of the shaft, and consequently the weight.
  • Make the crossbow bolt shorter lengthwise, which reduces the weight.
The reduced weight increases distance. While it is more complicated in real life to calculate how much difference this will make, in D&D terms we can simply increase the range while decreasing damage. Examples:
  • 100/400 increased to 110/440, and reducing damage from 1d10 to 1d10-1.
  • 100/400 increased to 120/480, and reducing damage from 1d10 to 1d8.
Alternative Ammo - Blunt Broadheads

Any bowhunter or crossbow hunter who likes hunting small game will know what this refers to: Blunt arrowheads, like the modern one shown in the photo on the right.

For hunting purposes blunt arrowheads (also sometimes called as bludgeoners) are used because the archer or crossbowman might hit the small game in the guts. If a sharp broadhead rips through the guts of a small animal, it will spill those guts into the quality meat - thus spoiling the meat.

Blunt arrowheads are also handy for harvesting fur, as they bludgeon the wee animal to death without damaging the fur or the meat. Since most bowhunters are using 40+ lbs bows, think of it like getting hit by 40+ lbs of force traveling at 200 fps (feet per second). The arrowhead doesn't need to be sharp to kill a wee critter with that much kinetic energy.

To put this in perspective, a 50 lb bow shooting at a deer with a sharp broadhead will sometimes see the arrow go right through the deer's ribcage and keep going. Perhaps hitting a tree behind the deer. The same bow and same broadhead against a rabbit? That would be really messy.

For Blunt Arrowheads I recommend the following change: Reduce the damage one size in die (eg. from 1d8 to 1d6), change the damage to Blunt instead of Piercing. Useful against Skeletons.

Alternative Ammo for "Stone Crossbows" and Ballistas

Windlass Stone Crossbow
Crossbows and ballistas don't actually have to use a crossbow bolts to shoot. The crossbow (or ballista) can also be designed to shoot a metal ball instead. For crossbows this would be equivalent in size to a sling bullet, for ballistas it would be sized similar to a small or large cannon ball (depending on the size of the ballista).

Historically the bullet shooting crossbow has been around for over 2100 years. It is sometimes called a "Stone Crossbow" because it shoots stones or metal balls instead of crossbow bolts. (The name will doubtlessly confuse players until they figure out what it uses for ammo.) Early versions of this weapon shot ceramic clay balls instead of metal, because they were cheap and light. Later versions used a half ounce lead ball.

So why shoot crossbow bullets or metal balls instead?

#1. Increased range. If a missile weighs less, it gains more speed and can travel further distances, but it comes at a cost of impact damage. (Some of the kinetic energy is used making the object travel faster, but this means when it finally hits the target that it deals less damage.
#2. Bludgeoning damage, combined with piercing damage if it actually does pierce the target.

I already explained blunt broadheads and increasing range/forfeiting damage further above. Using lead balls basically combines the two, dramatically reducing the weight and switching the damage from piercing to blunt.

Slingshot Stone Crossbow
To use this kind of ammo, a crossbow or ballista needs to be designed with a chute for the ball to travel through similar to a rifle barrel. Alternatives to this are using a device similar in shape to a slingshot - see photo on the right. It could also be designed with a funnel with more ammo in it for slightly faster reloading.

The big downside of crossbow bullets was that they dealt less damage. Historically stone crossbows were used for shooting birds and small game. They were very accurate at long distances, but did very little damage to the target.

For calculating the distance and damage of crossbow bullets, I recommend the following:
  • Reduce the damage approx. 25%. So 1d8 for example becomes 1d6. Or 1d6 becomes 1d4. Round up or down to the nearest logically die size.
  • Increase the range of the weapon by 25%. So for example a range of 100/400 becomes 125/500.
  • Piercing damage becomes Bludgeoning damage. Or depending on circumstances, both.

Higher Quality Weapons / Alternative Weapons

I am a fan of alternative designs for weapons, making them with extra features / modifications that other weapons do not have. Examples of such weapon modifications are:
  • Increasing / decreasing range.
  • Increasing / decreasing damage.
  • Changing the loading time requirements.
  • Increasing / decreasing weapon weight.
  • Increasing / decreasing weapon cost in gp.
  • +1 to hit / -1 to hit.
  • +1 to damage / -1 to damage.
Each time you modify a weapon, there should be a price exacted, usually in combination with the gold piece cost, weight, and the time required to make it. A prototype for example will likely take 3 or 5 times longer than a standard weapon to create as it will require experimentation.





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