The Art of Playing an Archer Without a Bow for 5E D&D
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted let loose on playing an archer in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. In the video they discuss various class features and abilities to make deadly archers for 5E D&D. Playing an archer or ranged combatant of any sort in an RPG is something I hold near and dear to my heart. Way back in my earliest days of playing D&D both the tabletop version and through video games like the classic Gold Box series I took a shine to this kind of character. Two distinct experiences stand out to me why playing an archer is one of the best options for an RPG character, at least in terms of combat. So let’s get into it.
Archery in D&D ftw
When Neverwinter Nights was the hotness I created so many characters and started new campaigns with them, and rarely got beyond recovering the four Waterdhavian creatures. Not until playing an archer anyway. Once I started slinging arrows with an elven archer the game took off for me and I completed the main campaign along with every little side quest, then Shadows of Undrentide, then Hordes of the Underdark. I realized something very important about playing an archer in D&D or any RPG, or really any game where you have a choice of character types.
Ranged combat makes a tremendous impact on effectiveness and survivability of characters.
Ever since playing through Neverwinter Nights relying primarily on archery, I always consider a character’s ranged combat options. And I don’t mean spells, not even cantrips like firebolt and eldritch blast with long range and inexhaustible supply. I’m talking mundane means of dealing damage at range. Video games, especially those like Neverwinter Nights where you can pause the game at your leisure, are certainly different than 5E D&D at the table with dice, other humans and unrestrained parameters. There’s no monster AI scripts or barriers to what you can do imposed by programming. But the fact remains if you can cause damage at a distance you’re ahead of the curve.
This scenario was illustrated clearly to me during a 3.5 D&D campaign I played for a long time with a huge group of players (12!). One of the characters was an archery expert, and I remember so many times the player peppering enemies with her archery expert’s arrows long before monsters could reach the party. She didn’t run out of spells or special abilities and through clever use of positioning and movement she kept her character in good health most of the time.
The second experience to show me the value of ranged combat was playing through Mass Effect as a sniper. The greatest video game story experience of my life was super easy with my Commander Shepard taking out enemies before they could even get close to her squad. From the get go I put every bonus point and perk I got my hands on into her sniping skills. By the time I activated the Crucible I’m pretty sure Liara and Garrus (my two usual squadmates) were pretty bored by the whole affair. Cerberus operatives, husks, mercs, robots and all the other enemies rarely saw Shepard or her squad because I was taking them out from so far away.
Playing an archer in 5E D&D can offer a similar experience, but there are some caveats. First off, you’re playing in a group with other people. Creating a character who single-handedly takes down every monster from 600 feet away before they even get in range of your companions is neither fun nor necessary. It’s a group game, and you don’t have to be the ultimate solo badass warrior because you’ve got friends to share in the struggle. Also, it might not be much fun for them if every time the party rolls initiative they pass their turn while you put clothyard shafts in every monster in sight. On the other hand maybe that’s your group’s dynamic and your ranged combat specialist is a deadly sniper protecting the rest of the party. If so, run with it and you won’t be disappointed!
Ranged combat crunchiness
Like Dave and Ted discuss in the video there are tons of ways to go about playing an archer in 5E D&D. Many classes have fantastic features to buff your bow skills and they didn’t even get into multiclassing options. Before I get into what I feel the best approach to archery is I’ll preface this with an admission. I’m not a number cruncher.
My longtime belief when it comes to games like 5E D&D or really any game involving combat is this: your goal is to reduce enemy health to zero while retaining your own health. Pretty simple, right? And to me the fighter represents this in the purest form. In the case of 5E D&D, the Champion fighter specifically. No frills, no set up and no resources to manage. You hit things hard with your weapons while protecting your health with armor.
Every other character and their combat tricks strives for this same goal, they just arrive there in fancier ways. Maybe this is a multiclass combination and when it comes online the results are astounding. Maybe with the right preparation a character can deal out amazing damage by pouring their resources into a single attack or throughout a single combat encounter and then they’re spent. But a Champion fighter? What will they run out of that every other character doesn’t also need to worry about too?
When it comes to playing an archer I’ve got to believe fighter is the best choice. But is a longbow the best option? Maybe a heavy crossbow for the d10 damage dice? For my ideal ranged combat specialist in 5E D&D I’m looking at an ancient weapon — one of the very first projectile weapons — developed around 10,000 BCE.
“The simple sling is often neglected when reviewing the long history of ranged warfare. Scholars typically focus on the simple thrown spear (javelin), atlatl, throwing axe, bow, and crossbow. However, in experienced hands, the sling was arguably the most effective personal projectile weapon until the 15th century, surpassing the accuracy and deadliness of the bow and even of early firearms.”
Scoff at the sling if you like but here’s a couple of things to note. Unlike a longbow or a heavy crossbow, a sling does not have the heavy property. This makes the weapon accessible and viable for Small creatures like halflings and goblins. Sure, they could use a light crossbow or shortbow but guess what? Those weapons both have the two-handed property. In the shortbow’s case it deals an average 1 point more damage than a sling, and the light crossbow has the loading property too.
A sling can be used one handed so your Champion can carry a shield (and wear heavy armor). And with your Extra Attack and Action Surge you can zing sling bullets with Improved and later Superior Critical — both features where a halfling’s Lucky trait adds value. A sling’s range is outpaced by other ranged weapons but in my experience combat rarely takes place at extreme ranges like the 600 foot long distance of a longbow. And besides, do you want to be like the archery expert from my old campaign or Commander Shepard with a sniper rifle and take everything down while your friends sit there and watch?
So there’s my pitch to you for playing an archer. Of course you should always play characters that mean something to you and are fun to play. After mulling the idea of ranged combat I’m quite taken with the idea of playing a halfling Champion fighter who masters the sling. Is it archery? Not by the technical definition but when it comes to 5E D&D the Fighting Style gives you a +2 bonus to attack rolls you make with ranged weapons. Works for me!