The “Adventuring Archer” Myth

The whole world loves archery, it seems, and at some point or another want to make an archer, a lone hunter who traipses through the woods and hills of his chosen milieu with little more than his bow of choice and about 14 million arrows, laying waste to the countryside.  To me, this idea has always seemed ludicrous.  I personally happen to like archery a lot, both the English and Kyudo varieties, but if I was a skilled archer and saw some guy running up to me with a dagger, I’d hightail it or grab my own dagger.  The thought of one man casually walking around a game world with a bow, fighting enemies toe-to-toe with arrows, and living is completely ridiculous.

The bow is, no doubt, an extremely useful and powerful weapon.  With the development of more powerful bows like the English longbow, the Mongolian composite, and the yumi, armor for the poor footman became thicker and stronger, as the bodkin (armor-piercing war arrow) sliced through maille even more effectively than a pick.  Even then, a good archer with a high-pull bow could send a shaft through an enemy’s breastplate.  There were a lot of foot-pounds concentrated in that little spike.  However, the maximum damage you can impart to an enemy without striking a vital organ or somesuch is limited; people used to run across the field with several arrows sticking out of them, if they were lucky and brave (or stupid) enough.

The reasons the English didn’t go to war with nothing but archers are many, and they’re all good.  The bow took a long time to learn to use properly on the field.  It’s hard.  Archers trained from childhood, and didn’t do much else in the way of martial training.  They were valuable commodities.

Second, archers are demolished by anything that gets too close to them.  When an archer was confronted by a guy with an axe, two things could happen:  the archer was instantly killed, or his bow was shattered, then he was instantly killed.  Cavalry in particular was devastating to archers, and woe was the commander who let the enemy flank his archers with light or medium horse.  The best tactic for archers when faced with close quarters combat is to use the superior mobility afforded them by their lack of armor and run away as fast as possible.

Third, archers on the battlefield are used in large groups firing volleys, like musketeers.  Volley at the enemy when he’s at optimal range.  This means at least enough range for the arrow to actually arch through the air (get it?  Archery) so it has maximum energy as it falls to earth.  Rip up the enemy as best you can while he’s far away from you, and when he gets too close, let your infantry or heavy horse deal with things.  If your archers are fighting in close quarters with their pitiful daggers and hand axes, it’s probably because you, their commander, are fleeing the field as quickly as possible and want to buy some time for yourself.

What does this mean for the fantasy RPG archer character?  Every one of these weaknesses has a direct impact on the realistic expectations an "adventuring archer" might have at the start of his career.  The proper use of the longbow or similar weapon should be extremely difficult, and unless the milieu is set in a time where technology allows for the mechanics required to manufacture a proper crossbow, one can assume that most of the character’s life has been spent learning how to shoot.  An archer who tries to tank an opponent should realistically be quickly and unceremoniously destroyed.  An archer might be able to land a shot into the eye of a man 50 yards away, but when that man’s pals start running for him while he fumbles to grab another arrow, he’s got real problems.

There is one historical exception to the rule about archers being the meat of one’s attacking forces, and this is horse archery, only ever successfully practiced by the Mongols and the early Japanese (plus some late bronze/early iron cultures like the Parthians).  Mounted archery, while extremely difficult to learn and use, was a great skirmishing tactic, with soldiers riding right across the front lines of enemy infantry, harassing them with arrows and staying at a (hopefully) safe distance.  However, the general principles are the same:  do not get close to the enemy, run away if he charges you.  For the Japanese, this meant leaving matters to your lines of ashigaru conscripts with yari; for the less territorial Mongols, they would typically feign retreat and continue pounding their opponents at a distance, only closing to finish with saber when the enemy was already beaten soundly.

Note:  It should be noted for anyone who wishes to use this as a model for their "adventuring archer" character that the Mongols used tiny recurve composite bows with a draw weight of about 160 pounds and an effective range of about 350 yards, compared to the more typical 50-60 pound pull/200ish yard range of the English longbow.  This technology was not available anywhere else in the world.  Under the genius of Temuchin/Chinggis Khan and his best generals (most notably Subedei), they utilized speed, mobility, and deception in a way the world had never even heard of.  They were considered superhuman in almost every respect by their terrified enemies.  The Mongols were an example of imbalance in real life combat, and their total dominance reflects this imbalance.  In a mixed fantasy setting, any GM or developer who decides that players can be Mongols would be required to impose very severe disadvantages to make up for this.  A historically accurate Mongol in a world of Teutonic knights might as well have a submachine gun.

Realistically speaking, then, the use of archery in a typical fantasy medieval setting should be relegated to support in group combat, or special circumstances like killing enemies across a river (who will probably hide to avoid this after shot number one).  The use of the bow is not uncommon for hunting purposes, and it stands to reason that a well-rounded "adventurer" would know how to fire one in the circumstances appropriate to archery use.  The "solo archer," then, is rightfully confined to his primary historical purpose:  hiding in a tree stand waiting for a deer to wander by.

7 Responses to “The “Adventuring Archer” Myth”
  1. You’ve managed to get this one spectacularly wrong. While using a bow indeed takes lots of practice, it by no means prevents one from excelling in other martial skills. The warrior elites across the Middle East and Asia, such as Japan’s samurai, mastered both archery and melee weapons. English archers eagerly joined close combat with mauls, swords, and daggers when appropriate. Amerindians in southern North American even beat Spaniards senseless by using their bows as clubs according to Garcilaso de la Vega.

    I’d suggest that few RPGs actually give the bow the respect it deserve. In outdoor combat between small groups, fighting without ranged weapons on your side imposes a serious disadvantage. In the forest, the foot archer rules. On the plains, the horse archer. Wandering around in full armor and trying to chase down archers would be an exercise in futility. In a dungeon and other confined spaces, however, ranged weapons became far less important.

    Finally, Mongol equipment and physical abilities were nothing special. You find similar composite bows from Hungary to Korea. We don’t know exactly how much the average Mongol pulled, but by consulting sources from other cultures 110-120lbs appears likely for a cavalry bow. This contrasts with the average 150-160lb draw of English bows form the Mary Rose and similar figures for composite foot archers found in Chinese texts.

  2. I agree with Incanur on the most part. My research points to the fact that the long bows and composite short bows had very similar impact penetration (and optimal range) since the limit is the strength of the archer. The composite bow was largely restricted to drier climates where the materials and conditions were more optimal. In either case, the main advantage of the composite bow was that it maintained its power in a smaller package, allowing it to be used from horseback, while the long bow was much more difficult to use while riding a horse. A few months of constant practice (only an hour or two a day at that) is often considered adequate to develop accuracy at medium distances. Shooting longer ranges with accuracy or from horseback obviously takes more practice and other skills (for horseback).

    I decided to actually get rid of the ‘short bow’ category in my games unless the setting is set before the creation of composite bows. Hence, all bows have similar ranges and damage potential, but only composite bows can be used from horseback adequately. The idea of a lone archer waiting in ambush in a forest stays valid (in wet climates with a long bow), as does a lone archer on horseback (in a drier climate with composite bow). In both cases, a lone bowman needs other skills to compliment his archery (stealth and camouflage for ambushes, or horse back riding for mobility). The requirement for these skills and their proper use may fulfill the needs of game balance for those who care about that.

    On the other hand, how many players are role playing a lone archer anyways. I usually have a group of at least three players in my games and the archer snipes from the back and switches weapon when pressed.

  3. Regarding archers using other equipment and the absurdity of lone archers, this was written in the context of the fantasy MMO, where this is a staple. Character is focused on archery to the near-exclusion of all else, and when enemies close they keep shooting in melee range. Really. At this point there have been some adjustments to the model, but the idea of archery as the primary skill for a soloist is still pretty prevalent, and viable in MMOs, and it’s still annoying.

  4. What I find most annoying is how close pen-and-paper RPG encounters are (generally) forced to occur at. D&D 4th edition reminded me of this where instead of spotting an enemy 300+ feet off, it always seems like you’re stuck fighting 50 feet apart with no chance to send an opening volley or shot at a distant target. Why even have a longbow with a high range when you’re shooting at the equivalent of point blank the whole time? I guess it’s just balance.

    Anyways you might like the Arthur Conan Doyle novel The White Company ( that is written about an archery company, but feels very historically accurate and full of interesting feats of the bow.

  5. While fantasy archery does indeed not mesh with reality, it is fantasy and lends a bit to the acceptance of different cultures and ideas besides “what really happened.” Sure fantasy games are often based on medieval settings, but that’s just a rough baseline, and they are often filled with a LOT of content that wasn’t considered medieval, or even existed (like magic). Not to mention games with a crafting system and a lot of levels tend to make up their own types of wood lending to potentially different materials for the construction of a bow (but not all games). So while these games don’t fit the model of what our history consisted of, Legolas from Lord of the Rings makes a pretty convincing display on the silver screen to make it perfectly acceptable in the genre.

  6. Actually that scene where Legolas goes surfing only made me hate him, and all elves, and the genre even more.

    It’s not a matter of cultural open-mindedness. It’s, like, the laws of physics.

  7. Mu you sprout some shit lol

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