Ranged attacks in fantasy

Most fantasy RPGs are base-melee. They assume swords, claws, and clubs from adventurers and monsters alike.

Many modern and sci-fi RPGs are base-ranged. They assume pew-pew lasers and bullets.

Balancing (“preserving interesting choices” for) these two options can be tricky. A good question for fantasy RPGs is this: why NOT use a ranged weapon? There should be a downside to preserve melee as the base.

In Maze Rats, “attacking with a ranged weapon is impossible while in melee.”

In D&D 5e, you have disadvantage if you have a hostile, armed opponent next to you, whether you’re attacking them or someone else. This is a decent abstraction…

In Troika! there is no downside to ranged attacks unless you’re shooting into a melee that contains your buddies, in which case you might shoot them instead. This can be a problem because of…

Tests vs. Contests

All attacks in Maze Rats and D&D 5e are tests. They are one-sided “my number is higher than your armor, I deal damage.” There’s no risk for the attacker, which is why people default to saying “I attack.” All the incentives are there.

Other games see how odd this is (“whaddya mean there’s NO risk to whacking someone else?!”) and opt for making melee attacks contests. In Troika! both sides roll an attack and the higher total roll deals damage. This is excellent because something will move the fight forward, regardless of how bad one or both sides roll.

But if ranged attacks become like melee attacks, a contest, that could get ugly. It doesn’t work to say in fantasy, “we’ll both roll ranged attacks, me with my bow and you with your sword and the higher roller will hit the other.” Too many people throwing their swords across absurd distances. Nope.

(Aside: it would be fun to see contest rolls for ranged attacks in modern and sci-fi RPGs. Fail, they shoot YOU.)

What is usually opted for in these melee contest designs like Troika! is to turn ranged attacks into a melee tests from other games with no risk to the attacker.

And now we’re back to ranged attacks being better than melee ones.

Some options: You could decrease the damage of ranged attacks. You could painstakingly track every piece of ammo. You could make ranged attacks vs. targets close to them at a disadvantage or impossible. You can have ranged weapons take two hands, removing the use of a shield.

But I like Dungeon World’s approach to attacks… Mostly.

Hack and Slash and Volley

This is how Dungeon World handles melee:

Hack and Slash: When you attack an enemy in melee, roll+Str. On a 10+, you deal your damage to the enemy and avoid their attack. At your option, you may choose to do +1d6 damage but expose yourself to the enemy’s attack. On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you.

And this is how they handle ranged attacks:

Volley: When you take aim and shoot at an enemy at range, roll+Dex. On a 10+, you have a clear shot—deal your damage. On a 7–9, choose one (whichever you choose you deal your damage):

  • You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger as described by the GM
  • You have to take what you can get: -1d6 damage
  • You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by one

They are both one-sided contests. The player rolls the dice for both of them, the monsters dealing their damage when the player does poorly (again, keep the fight moving forward). But the penalties for failing a ranged attack are more interesting: place yourself in danger, deal less damage, or lose ammo.

But you as the player get to choose.

Eh. That changes the player’s stance to making choices outside of their characters (same with opting to take damage to deal more damage in ‘Hack and Slash’). BUT those options are interesting (except maybe dealing less damage), provided an archer cannot carry a bazillion arrows.

Let’s see what this yields when we keep the player’s stance to that of their characters, keep the attack a one-sided contest, and keep ammo abstract.

Ranged attacks in Adventure Hour!

Ranged Attacks and Ammo. If a player succeeds a roll involving a ranged attack, their opponent takes harm. If the roll shows something bad happens, the adventurer loses 1 ammo (arrow, bolt, stone, etc.). A character without ammo cannot make a ranged attack.

Only the player rolls. Success, deal damage. Fail, something bad happens with losing ammo being the minimum.

So, ammo. You have 3 ammo per slot with 10 slots to carry things max. With one slot holding a ranged weapon, you could have 27 ammo max and room for nothing else. It’s abstract, but it does the job well. In practice, players are scrounging for arrows on occasion, not paranoid all the time that I’m going to punish them for not looting corpses for goblin arrows. You can take more ammo along for the ride, but there is an actual cost for doing so.

Other consequences. Having “something bad happen” on a failed roll gives flexibility for those, “be stuck in a bad position” and “deal less damage options.” But it’s not a choice for the player. Instead, they opt into the possibility before engaging in the dice roll.

GM: Alright Beau, you want to shoot the goblin leader. If you fail, you’ll lose ammo and the orc next to you will press you into the wall with its shield. Understood?


GM: Chris, you want to shoot the goblin leader? If you fail, you’ll lose an ammo and kill one of his cronies instead of him. Got it?


GM: Dallas, you want to shoot the goblin leader. If you fail, you’ll lose ammo. Fair?

Dallas: Actually… I’m out of ammo. Guess I’ll have to run up and whack him with my crossbow instead…

GM: Right on. If you fail…


All rolls in a fight should move things forward by dealing damage, spending resources, or increasing the threat of danger. This includes ranged attacks.

What started as a complaining session turned into a design journal for the upcoming game.

I’m thrilled to announce November 1st as the release date for the Adventure Hour! PDF and printable booklet (Maze Rats- and Cairn-style). It’s oozing with potent design choices (like this) and adventure tools. Can’t wait for you to try it. 🙂

One thought on “Ranged attacks in fantasy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.