Choosing the right ranged weapon in Dungeons & Dragons

When creating a character, many players I’ve known have neglected to select a ranged weapon. This is normally a mistake. Without a ranged weapon, you’re vulnerable to any beastie that can sit back and shoot at you, especially when you can’t reach it yourself. Whether it’s a flying dragon or an archer on the other side of a crevasse, having a ranged weapon handy means you can do something apart from just dodge. D&D combats work best when everyone can get involved – being able to focus fire on one creature until it drops is a key tactic of the game.

That said, not every character is able to wield a longbow and shoot four arrows a round. What are the things you need to know about when selecting a ranged weapon?

Important Note: I talk about “ranged” weapons a lot here, but I’m including “thrown” weapons in that category. I’m sorry – I tried describing them all as “distance” weapons and it just didn’t work. Keep reading to learn the difference between those categories, but I apologize if anyone gets confused.

Proficiency

Undoubtedly the most important factor in your choice of ranged weapon is whether you’re proficient with it or not. Hand Crossbows, Heavy Crossbows and Longbows are martial weapons, as are tridents (which can be thrown). We’ll ignore nets and blowguns, as they’re specialist weapons outside the scope of this article. Everything else is a simple weapon.

A few classes have special access to proficiencies: Bards get the hand crossbow proficiency, Druids have only a limited selection of weapons (daggers, darts, javelins and slings being the ranged ones), and Rogues have access to hand crossbows. Sorcerers and Wizards can only use daggers, darts, slings and light crossbows.

Range

I find the range you can attack at tremendously important. It’s the big problem with thrown weapons – they have very short ranges. Typically, flying creatures will stay at least 60-80 feet away from you if they can, which means that most thrown weapons will attack them with disadvantage. It’s not a good place to be.

Shortbows, longbows, light crossbows and heavy crossbows are the ranged weapons of choice, as a result. If can wield one of those weapons, you should normally take one with you into the dungeon. Only druids are unable to use any of those weapons, so they’re the only character who probably should be using a sling.

But can’t the spell-casters use their cantrips to attack at range? Certainly they can, and – at the lower levels – that’s almost certainly what they’ll do. However, it’s nice having a weapon you can use when you come up against foes that your spells don’t touch!

Damage

The third most important feature of a weapon is its damage. Unfortunately, you can’t just look at the damage rating of a weapon. There are a few other considerations to make, which I’ll go into below (ammunition, thrown, loading). And then there’s the big one: the ability score you use to attack with.

The way Dungeons & Dragons works, weapons are either melee (using Strength) or ranged (using Dexterity). Those are two categories the weapons are divided to in the Player’s Handbook. Melee weapons that can be thrown have the thrown keyword, and their ranges. By default, a thrown melee weapon uses Strength to determine the bonuses. Thus, a javelin is a melee weapon, whether it is thrown or used to poke opponents, and so always uses Strength to determine your attack bonus and your damage bonus.

However, some melee weapons also have the finesse keyword. That allows them to use Dexterity modifiers for attacks, and that flows over to thrown attacks as well. So, if you throw a dagger (finesse, thrown), you can use Dexterity or Strength to determine your bonuses.

Because accuracy is tremendously important in determining the average damage a weapon can do (no use in using a crossbow if all your attacks miss!), it’s hard to ignore it when determining what ranged weapon you should use. I consider having a good range on your weapon more important – because there are lots of situations when a thrown weapon won’t make the distance – but you’re going to have a lot of combats when you need to throw something against an opponent only 20 feet away. What’s the solution? Well, it is to have both. Have a short-range damage weapon, and a long-range weapon for when needed.

Another solution comes from the feats. Sharpshooter allows you to treat long range shots as close range (that is, they don’t have disadvantage). It’s not always great, but can be useful – if you have the feat to spare!

Rate of Fire

First level characters have it pretty easy. They get one attack per round, and that’s it. High-level characters, especially fighters, get more attacks per round. And it’s at that point that the rate of fire of a weapon becomes important. You see, you can’t just fire any number of bolts at an opponent!

Thrown weapons are very obvious – they are one-use, then they’re gone. There’s another problem here: you can only draw one new one per turn! Drawing a second dagger counts as your interaction with an object. You get one free interaction with an object each turn, but the next one costs a full action. So, a fighter throwing four daggers a turn just isn’t going to happen. Sorry!

Ammunition weapons, however, get to draw their ammunition for free as part of the attack all the time. So, a fighter can happily shoot four arrows a turn – or even eight, thanks to a very high level and action surge!

Unfortunately, a few ammunition weapons are also loading, which means they take a long time to load. Crossbows, in particular, have this trait. It doesn’t matter how many attacks you can make, for each action, reaction or bonus action you use to make an attack, you only get one shot. A Fighter could use Action Surge to make two shots, as each is made from its own action, but this seems a waste.

The way around this is to take the Crossbow Expert feat, which allows you to ignore the loading quality for crossbows you are proficient in.

I’m hopeless with this weapon!

A character with an 8 Dexterity armed with a shortbow is not the most intimidating sight on the battlefield. There are times when you’ve got the weapon just because otherwise you’re doing nothing. That’s fine. Almost useless is still better than being useless, but the distinction can be a fine one at times. Honestly, most of these characters should have spells that can do things in combat. Fighters? Make sure you have a longbow. Even with an 8 Dexterity, you can still attack several times in a turn and do some useful damage.

Shields

Most non-thrown ranged weapons need two hands. Stowing a shield and taking it out again takes time. That’s the main reason to have your primary ranged weapon as a thrown weapon. When you’re fighting an opponent that keeps its distance, it’s fine to take the time to stow your shield and get out a longer-ranged weapon.

Equipment issues

Beginning characters don’t begin with much gold or equipment. It’s fine to start your career with inferior weapons. Just remember to upgrade them when you get the chance. You might start with a dagger as your only ranged weapon, but that doesn’t mean you have to end you career with one. Find out what weapons you can use. Find out the best armour you can get – and upgrade when you can.

Ammunition is something that I and many DMs don’t track, assuming you can get to a store to replenish it every so often. However, in extended missions in the wilderness, the supplies the players have with them become an actual plot device. So, be aware of how ammunition is used: After a battle, you need to spend a minute recovering ammunition, and you only get back half (rounded down) of what you used. So, if you shot 15 arrows in a combat, you’ll only get 7 back, and only if you search.

Also be aware of how much you’re carrying. Encumbrance is another thing that DMs like me don’t always pay attention to… until they realise you’re carrying lots and lots of stuff. This is primarily a problem with thrown weapons, which tend to be big and bulky.

The Sling

Mike Risher wondered why I didn’t recommend the sling more. After all, it has several things going for it: Most classes can use it; it costs 1 sp; it weighs practically nothing; it is extremely easy to conceal; and it is easy to find ammunition for (rocks work).

All of this is true. And, as he says, there’s nothing stopping a character from having it as their back-up ranged weapon. The problematic thing about the sling is its poor range and damage: 30/120 ft. and 1d4 bludgeoning damage is quite underwhelming. Still, it’s not hard to carry one around if all else fails!

One unusual feature of the sling: It’s the only one-handed, ranged weapon using ammunition that doesn’t have the “loading” trait. I’m not sure how you can put a new rock in without using your other hand, but – by the rules – you can! So, it can make multiple attacks per turn and only requires one hand to use, allowing you to still wear a shield. This may be important!

Conclusion

The reason to have a ranged weapon is so you can participate when the opponent doesn’t run up to you. Even if you normally use spells, there may be times when a weapon is your best option, and it works a lot better when you have one. For characters with lots of attacks, like the fighter, the longbow is generally the best weapon (or heavy crossbow with the Crossbow Expert feat), while if you’ve only got one attack the heavy crossbow is best – assuming you’re proficient with it.

This being D&D, it might not be a bad idea to get a few silver arrows or bullets (for slings) while you’re at it… you never know when a lycanthrope will be around the corner!

4 comments

  1. Craig

    One ranged weapon has the finesse keyword – the dart. It is a unique weapon, being the only non-ammunition based ranged weapon. It does the same damage as a thrown dagger but costs 1/40 the price. By the way, I describe the “ammunition” weapons as “launchers”, to differentiate them from thrown weapons.

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  2. Clancey

    One reason my Rogue (main weaponry light crossbow, daggers and Rapier) carries a sling is that using only piercing weapons can be a disadvantage when up against opponents with resistance to them, in which case I can break out the sling for bludgeoning damage. As for the low damage – most of my attacks are sneak attacks and the damage comes mostly from my sneak attack property. Also, at a pretty low level, my party came upon a Wereboar. With no silvered weapons in the party, and all of the magic users out of commission, I reached into my money pouch, loaded up my sling with silver pieces and did quite a bit of damage to him — whilst mourning the divestiture of good lucre, naturally.

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  3. BasCB (@Logist_BCB)

    As for the sling and ammunition, I have read about expert users preparing several stones in their hand and stringing together multiple sling shots into a barrage of 3-5 shots. I guess that could work.
    Also I love that idea of shooting the silver coins Clancey

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