Monday, May 29, 2017

Slings and Arrows and Outrageous Formulae

The word "sling" appears nowhere in the entirety of Chainmail or any of the core books of Original D&D. (Well, one exception: a reference to a "sling-ended catapult" used in aerial combat in Vol-3). It does appear in Supplement I in the damage table (1d4 points vs. man-size, p. 15) and corrections list ("All hobbits add  +3  to hit probabilities when using the sling", p. 68). But without anywhere the rules giving them a range, rate of fire, or cost, it's a bit of a murky issue. In AD&D Gygax gave them a range in between that of a short- or longbow, and a rate of fire half that of bows. I wanted to do some research to make sure that was dialed in correctly for my games.

The amazing thing is that numerous sources state that slings had a rate of fire at least as fast as bows, and a range that likely exceeded them, with a heavier and faster projectile, that was possibly more accurate and more damaging. How can this be? Of course, you also have the case of the crossbow with clearly deficient rate of fire, and thus borderline useless in standard D&D play. And yet at a late point it was favored over the bow. Why?

Among other resources, I came across a very nice article by Chris Harrison (Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute), originally published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (2006). Near the conclusion he writes:
When looking at the evolution of ranged weapons, there is a trend towards increasingly simple operation. The sling requires enormous skill, one that can generally only be obtained with training from childhood (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Wise, 1976; Ferrill, 1985). Without this mastery, a person armed with the weapon would be practically useless. The sling is exceptionally difficult to aim because it is being rotated when fired. It is common for people to fire projectiles backwards when they are first learning, meaning a high degree of proficiency is needed before they can be safely placed in a battlefield situation. On the other hand, the bow could be taught at any point in life, and be deadly with minimal experience. The bow does not suffer from the sling’s accuracy problems because of its ability to be drawn and then aimed. However, archers did have to be strong, which increased the required training time (Wise, 1976). The development of the crossbow with a mechanical device to cock the weapon enabled anyone to use it and have the ability to kill even an armored soldier at distance. The crossbow was the first true ‘point-and-shoot’ weapon, as it could be cocked and then easily aimed using the large stock. Although much slower to reload than bows, it was seen as an acceptable tradeoff for the ease-of-use gained. The shift to firearms was similar. They were even slower than the already sluggish crossbow, at least at first. However, the operation was simple and there was no physical strength needed to load the weapon. Also, its ‘point-and-shoot’ nature made someone with almost no experience immediately useful on the battlefield, and very deadly. This evolution occurred primarily because of changes in military and governmental organization. In feudal times, lords could recruit their serf population as soldiers (Wise, 1976). Many of these men were already proficient with the bow or sling, which were used for hunting game. However, by the High Middle Ages, nations and cities had developed large standing armies, which were recruited, sustained, and equipped by the government (Martin, 1968). An increasing number of these recruits were from urban populations which had far less exposure to ranged weapons. These units had to be trained from scratch and there was a high turnover. This led to the increased use of weapons that were deadlier with less training. The sling was perhaps the least effective choice of ranged weapon in this role. 

See the full article here. We might phrase that observation in economic terms; the advance of missile weapons was to get cheaper and faster -- lower quality, but able to be fielded in larger numbers and in that way more powerful. We might well look to many things in our own era that became dominant by virtue of being crappier but cheaper: MP3 audio encoding, travel agencies, car ride services, etc.

This is not something that D&D models very well. By default Fighters simply have proficiency in all weapon types. If the sling were the best missile weapon in an expert's hands, then every Fighter would be carrying slings and nothing else. If we want our game to look like the medieval era that would be a bit jarring. In any heroic story, the protagonist uses the weapon common to his people; e.g., David with his sling, Robin Hood with his longbow, William Tell with his crossbow, etc.

So in lieu of modelling more ancient/personalized weapons as taking greater amounts of training time and commitment, AD&D reverses the statistics to make sure that slings are a deficient choice for adventurers. What could we do to give slings their real-life fire rate and range (and advantages in small size, low weight, conceal-ability, etc.) without their completely eliminating the use of bows by PC adventurers? Or would that actually be acceptable?

54 comments:

  1. Good post. Unfortunately, all solutions I can think of introduce additional rules. You could, for example, model the length and difficulty of training by Weapon Proficiency Points. A fighter would, as an example, receive 4 points at 1st Level and 1 additional point every other level (as compared to a Magic-user, who gets 1 point at 1st level - as well as spending restrictions - and 1 additional point every 4th level). Being proficient with crossbow costs 1 point, with a bow 2 points, with a sling 3 points.

    Using a weapon you are not proficient with incurs a penalty of -X, where X equals the proficiency cost of said weapon, and increases the fumble range by X as well.

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    1. Brilliant. Totally stealing this idea...

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    2. I'd give fighters a free point in every weapon.

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    3. That is probably the best way to directly simulate that. I'm personally (as you can guess) not sure whether I want to add that to my games yet.

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    4. You could give expert slingers a to-hit bonus. Specifically, the one mentioned as a racial bonus for hobbits in Greyhawk. The bonus is clearly cultural, not biological, so my thinking is that it should be available to characters of any race if they put in the time to learn (or if they come from a human culture that practices slinging and learned it during childhood, with DM approval). The cost of gaining this bonus in play could be either a fighter feat (using Delta's house rules) or some kind of 'proficiency slot' scheme like what is used in AD&D.

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    5. Hmmm, it's an interesting observation that I already have "Weapon Specialization" as a feat in OED (gives +1 to hit, +2 damage with any one weapon; not exactly the same as the halfling sling bonus). So in theory slings could have a penalty that get offset by that. Although it would still be sub-optimal for any Thieves or Fighters below 4th.

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  2. Sorry, meant to add that in this way you can easily make a sling a better ranged weapon than a bow and there still will be only few fighters (and fewer other characters) using it. The same goes for crossbow and bow: most characters will just use a crossbow.

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  3. I think it makes sense to model "it takes more training to get good at this" with a penalty to hit.

    A sling may have better range and damage, but if it is -2 to hit, most 0th level soldiers shouldn't be using them.

    A weapon with a larger range increment can have a difficulty penalty to hit and still have an accuracy advantage at long distance.

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    1. I agree. In a game where you increment bonus to hit in specific weapons through weapon mastery (rather than better to-hit chances for all weapons known every time you gain a level) you could just start Slings out with -6 to hit and Bows with -4.

      Why would anyone use a Sling? That's a very different question from Why would a PC use a Sling?

      A slinger would be someone who trained from youth with a sling because it's the only available weapon. We all carry skills from our youths that aren't terribly valuable now that we have access to different tools. A boy shepherd needs to be able to sling rocks at wolves but there's no way he can afford a bow.

      As for the bow / crossbow situation, I feel there should be some synergy in skill but maybe only 50% (so if you have Bow 8 it counts as Crossbow 4 by default unless you have higher Crossbow skill also). Sling feels like it would synergize instead with thrown weapons.

      Why would a PC use a sling? Maybe because the sling is incredibly cheap and ammo is plentiful. The sling is incredibly concealable. It can be fashioned by hand in an afternoon without tools in someone's room at the inn. For an untrained person maybe throwing rocks is a better choice, but if you can drop points into sling skill for +2 to hit it should even out with throwing. This is especially worthwhile if your system has increasing learning costs, so someone could rise from Bow +7 to Bow +8 and gain one to hit bonus, or else spend those points to gain +0 to +1 in eight different weapons and gain more versatility.

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    2. Another reason why a PC might use a sling is if the background of the character, randomly generated or chosen by the player, included some sub-optimal skills. A PC might have been a shepherd before going to sea and being captured and forced into basket-weaving.

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  4. Maybe I would make all the same range and damage but give the following differences:

    Sling: +0 to hit, more damage*, chepest, concealable.
    Bow: +2 to hit, standard price.
    Crossbow: 1d8 damage, +4 to hit, expensive, bulk, have reload time.

    * Use the next dice size, if bows do 1d6 damage, than slings do 1d8 and so on...

    Note: I use only one type of bow and crossbow. I don't see the granularity of types of bow and crossbow as something necessary.

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  5. In my game:
    Crossbows are "commoner" weapons that anyone can wield - wizards (cf. Basic D&D), torch bearers etc. They are slower firing than bows and do slightly more damage. They can be used in any position - prone, in particular. Given that most encounters become melee in one round, the low rate of fire is not often a drawback.

    Bows are only useable by fighters and thief-types, others get a -4 penalty. They shoot 1x/round (I have 6 second rounds, and this allows for possible aiming and movement and fog of battle). They can only be shot standing or kneeling.

    Slings are also specialist weapons, equivalent in rate of fire, with a flatter but equivalent damage die (d4+1 not d6). They can be used one-handed, but only standing up, and they require 3' of space to one side of you.

    All these device weapons have an equivalent effective range (200'). This is far beyond most adventuring encounters' starting range, and reflects the reality that aim far outweighs throw-distance if you are not modeling massed shooting.

    In my campaign, a few characters have used slings instead of bows, mostly "got to be different" types.

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    1. Nice reminder of the prone/kneel/stand differences. It is so ingrained in my brain that I have forgot it.

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  6. I think VS AC mods could help with the slings v arrows problem a bit. But I control these sorts of things by assigning weapon proficiencies based on cultural and social background, not class, and then making it differentially difficult to learn new weapons in-game (depending on the weapon).

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  7. I tried posting earlier, but it hasn't shown up. It would make the most sense for a slinger to be a class. Classes represent the character's lifetime (so far) of training and that's exactly what a sling requires.

    As a downside, the slinger would not be able to use armor heavier than chainmail and couldn't use any two handed weapons (and still sling) would prefer short swords. They also would have to pick a sword or a small shield for armament.

    On the other hand (literally) Slingers often trained to fight with a sword in their left hand. People hated going up against left handed fighters because they'd strike around your shield which is in your left hand. As such they should get a small armor avoidance advantage.

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  8. When it comes to missile weapons, the AC system really breaks down because it doesn't emulate reality. Guns and crossbows not only were easier to use, but had great penetration. Slings could do the most damage, but have no penetration. Crossbows could be slow and low damage but ignore armor. Bows could be in between, possibly with a small bonus to hit to emulate the point and shoot.

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    1. In a lot of cases with chainmail and leather armor a sling would do damage like the armor wasn't even there. I could see a case being made for plate mail being more resistant to slings but I'm not super sure a real difference would exist. The Spanish conquistadors reported that the Mayan slingers were only slightly less deadly than their muskets and they wore breastplates and helmets. The Mayans were killing their horses in a single shot.

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    2. See also David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. He cites research that demonstrates the deadliness with which slingers wielded their weapons. One of the reasons David was able to confidently face the giant was his ability to aim his sling attacks. A well placed blow to the temple would take down just about any fighter; and it wasn't a lucky hit, either.

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    3. Yeah, I was going to bring up armor penetration as well...not sure how a sling would hold up against 12th century armor. Even though the sling had pretty much phased out (as described in the quoted article), not sure if it would have held up to the changing "protection technology."

      For my part, I prefer to just look at it as another weapon capable of dealing a mortal wound (D6 damage). There are pros AND cons to carrying a weapon with a visible "intimidation factor" (like a bow or crossbow).

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  9. The obvious disadvantage of a sling is that it can only be used outdoors (or I guess in a big hall type room). A six foot man, with his arm extended straight up is reaching maybe eight feet, add a two to three foot sling, and the release point is going to be 10+ feet off the ground. You also need three or four feet behind and in front of you, for arm motion and stepping into the throw.

    Useless in the vast majority of indoor environments. Would even be challenging inn all but the most open forest, too.

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    1. Take a look at this youtube video at about 4:48 You'll see that there are some really compact slinging styles. This guy isn't so good, but the form is there to get the idea.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mI6DKTgw3KA

      This guy is good, watch at about 1:10, His form is pretty tight. It's probably tighter than most sword swings. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0a_IHHcw6do

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    2. You only need a little space overhead and about a foot and a half maybe 2 feet of space to either side as a sling can cast a stone swung parallel to the ground and also can be thrown with a pretty direct trajectory for short ranges.

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    3. Interesting. That's not how I learned to sling, but I'll freely admit to not being very good. I always went straight over. Much easier to aim that way, I found.

      I suppose ours like throwing a ball, there's a lot of possible arm slots, from straight over to sidearm to submarine, all possible of generating significant velocity.

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    4. Emmett, thanks for those videos, they're great! That second guy is downright scary.

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    5. Thanks for posting those video links. Fun to watch. A couple of observations.

      When the second/better slinger in the first video hits from 40 feet, he does so by arcing his shot. This would track with the Holmes Basic rule (page 20, third paragraph, added by Gygax, http://zenopusarchives.blogspot.com/2014/01/part-15-hits-with-arrows.html) of disallowing slinging except in high roofed areas. But then neither of the slingers in the first video are demonstrating good form (there is a masters thesis online which covers slinging techniques pretty well: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1032&context=anthrotheses), so I don’t think a high roof should be necessary.

      The guy in the second video is compact, but note that the optimal technique, which he is using, calls for full extension of the arm. Pause the video at 1:46. His arm is fully extended, and then the sling extends even farther out. That’s about 5' feet without taking the rest of him into account. So as compact as his sidearm delivery is, it still doesn’t seem to argue for allowing slinging by someone marching or standing beside another in a ten foot wide space.

      Nothing conclusive here, but it may be that sling use in the tight quarters of a dungeon is appropriate mainly for a solo adventurer or when the fighting breaks out in an open space.

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    6. Scott, thanks for the link to that thesis by Eric Skov, that's amazing!

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  10. I think for the OED weapon rules, I would give slings statistics equivalent to short bows but also with the plate-cracking power of maces/flails, due to their reputation against helmets. Basically, slings are better than shortbows for fighters, unavailable to thieves, and situationally better or worse than longbows depending on whether you need range or penetration - the comparisons I've seen between slings and bows focus on ancient world bows, rather than the powerhouse Welsh/English longbow, so I think there's room to put the sling lower in range there.

    Slingers would be rarer and more expensive as mercenaries than archers (comparable to longbow archers) if I extended the mercenary table to include them, which would probably only be really justified if you wanted to include halflings, for whom they would be an appropriate troop type.

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    1. I checked over the OED house rules and its annotations (thanks so much for cluing me into those, they're such a great resource), and you've got thieves able to use slings but not crossbows. I think if I went with the rule I stated above I would reverse that. Then, to re-differentiate light crossbows (which thieves also have access to), I'd give them the spear ability to be readied for a free attack, which emphasizes both their point-and-shoot nature and the fact that, unlike bows, they can be aimed with a quarrel drawn without tiring the user.

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    2. That should state "slings, but not shortbows".

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    3. I wrote-up a quick summary table to clarify: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eMLu4q8Tt-UywyKuCMVBVM9m7ImqC635w82IHsLmGkQ/edit?usp=sharing

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    4. Thanks for the comment. A large part of the motivation for this post is in fact re-evaluating my rule for thief missile weapons. However, I'd be pretty loathe to take slings away from thieves (they were consistently given to them in AD&D, and they reflect the Thieves' Guild in Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories).

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  11. I might allow a player the choice to aim their attack for a round or two. Crossbows, requiring no muscle effort, could be aimed for up to 2 rounds for a +2 chance to hit, while bows can only be held for one 10-second round for a +1 bonus and slings not aimed at all.
    Slings, then, could keep their high ROF and range. Bows and crossbows would be able to outperform slings at long range, at the expense of time spent not loosing arrows.

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  12. I just read an article last week about the excavation of an ancient Roman battle site. Many hundreds of lead sling bullets were found.

    Tests showed they had the momentum of a modern bullet, and several of them were drilled with holes to produce a whistling noise, presumable for a morale effect. I'll try to dig it up later today.

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    1. Here it is:

      http://www.livescience.com/55050-whistling-sling-bullets-from-roman-battle-found.html

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    2. That's great! Thank you!

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  13. It says that the sling bullets had the stopping power of a .44 magnum, but the numbers in the article don't back that up at all.

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  14. Thank you for posting this! I am now tempted to go back and revise my weapon proficiency system...

    Just for those of us who want fidelity, how would you stat slings, given this new information?

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  15. I am pretty sure that slings were ineffective against the improving armour of the middle ages. They are ancient weapons with good reason.

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  16. I suppose one simple, cheesy way we could model the proficiency issue is just by fighter level. Like: Normal men can use crossbows, 1st-level fighters can use self bows, 2nd-level fighters can use slings. Some world-building issues with that, but it's a thought.

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    1. That is interessting but I prefer to give a bonus to hit for bows/crossbows so I can emulate the need of less training (ie less levels) to accurate use of bows/crossbows.

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  17. So I have been thinking on this a day or two, short of repeating other folk's good ideas: What if the sling normally provides the "D&D standard" poorer ROF, range, damage. In order to "unlock" the better/historically accurate sling values, you have to "specialize" in the sling. OED already has Fighter Feats, so add "Sling Master"?

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    1. I kind of like how that folds into the system. One problem that occurs (noted above) is how I don't give a feat until 4th level as a Fighter. So it would rule out squads of thieves and normal soldiers using them.

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  18. From the second video above, here is what I glean, in 3rd edition lingo: Watermelon is AC 12 (cat sized, stationary, and unarmored). Watermelon was at 25 meters, but call it 25 yards. Since it was a challenge, I take that to be long range (-5 on attack roll). Slinger hit the watermelon 3 of 17 attempts. That's a roll of 18-20 on d20. So at short range he would have hit on 13-20. If he were equivalent to a first level fighter with average dex (+1 on attack roll) then he should only need to roll an 11 to hit an AC 12 creature at short range. So the difficulty of using a sling, even for this proficient slinger, accounts for a further -2 attack penalty. Impose a -2 penalty on all sling attack rolls. Maybe halfling racial bonus eliminates that penalty.

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    1. Nice analysis and it fits with my idea with slings just shifting the bonus by -2. I mean: slings -2 to hit, bows +0 to hit and crossbows +2 to hit.

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    2. Hmmm, nice analysis. My prior study had me thinking that size, stationary, and range bonuses should all be larger than 3E numbers (link). Which in this case winds up mostly canceling out. That is, for OD&D: AC 9 - 8 (size) + 6 (stationary) = 7. For a target on the d20 of: 20 - 7 (AC) + 8 (long range) - 1 (1st level) = 20. So in my current system having the Specialization feat or being 3rd level would model this guy. Which is to say that no extra sling penalty is needed, hmm. (Thanks so much for pointing out the 17-of-20 statistic in the video!)


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  19. Dragon 268 has a list of historical alternative slings and dart throwing devices.

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  20. Make the sling an exotic weapons, like the flail or the double-bladed whatever. Requires special training to avoid hitting yourself, shooting backwards, etc.

    I, for one, do not use fumbles in combat; with these exotic weapons, I might (natural 1 equals disaster).

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  21. Some important facts about slings:

    Their effectiveness was with sling bullets. Just picking up stones are only useful against unarmored individuals and have a much shorter range. They do not have the penetrating power of sling bullets.

    In order to get sling bullets, you have to be in a region that regularly uses slings.

    Crossbows were replacing bows and slings because they require almost no training to use effectively. The idea of a sling as an exotic weapon in the late middle ages makes sense.

    Good slingers and, for that matter, good archers were trained from an early age. That's great as long as they don't die. Japanese kamikaze pilots arose out of the same problem - their good pilots had already been shot down. A poor pilot doesn't make a good dogfighter, so aim your plane at the target.

    Crossbowmen didn't take years to train. Their effectiveness penetration-wise wasn't really much different than a bow. While they had potentially higher draw weights, they had a much shorter draw, and used lighter ammunition. That meant they fired their ammunition at a higher speed - they could fly farther with a straight trajectory - but their penetration power was less or the same due to the lower mass. A heavy crossbow with a cranequin could take as long as 30 to 60 seconds to reload. In my campaign crossbows that heavy do have a better penetration, but they are usually used once in any given combat.

    Back to the sling - in my campaign, getting the full benefits would require a feat. And because you gain those benefits only when you have access to sling bullets, it's not as useful as many other fighting styles. In most cases, it's only somebody who has a particular background (shepherd) that might have it.

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  22. One thing we've lost since 1E D&D (lost specifically in Unearthed Arcana I believe) is Thieves being unable to use bows and crossbows, leaving only the sling as a long-range weapon. I think this was primarily due to Lankhmar guildhouse thieves favoring the weapon. I just really like it. And it makes going multi-class as Fighter/Thief a lot more meaningful. Now giving Magic-Users the sling is just dumb.

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    1. I'm not a fan of class-based weapon restrictions. Historically, crossbows were used because they were so easy to use and I allow any class to use them.

      However, even though slings with stones are not terribly effective against medium or heavy armor, nor helmets, in a town or city they would be much more effective.

      I could see a thieves' guild specifically training their members in the use of a sling for several reasons, starting with:

      #1 you always have access to a weapon as long as you can get a strip of cloth and a rock.

      #2 you are never caught with a weapon.

      I like the use of feats to grant special features in the use of a weapon. So proficiency in a sling is being able to use it, but having the feat means that you are an expert in its use, and can use it to its fullest potential.

      One of the things that I have in my campaign, is that joining an organization can give you access to things that others don't. Specific spells, for example, or in this case, access to a Slinger feat. Since joining an organization isn't easy (especially something like the thieves' guild), and you don't necessarily get access to special knowledge until you've reached a certain level within the organization (not character level), I can control access to the feat. Which also means a lot of NPCs can have it, but it's harder for the PCs to get it.

      It's another way to gain new skills and such in a campaign that has very slow level advancement.

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    2. I lean towards agreement with 1d30 on having Thieves use slings for literary and legacy tradition reasons. It feels like it makes sense for city-bred thieves. (Although then likewise that expectation makes it tougher to fit thieves into outdoor adventures.)

      I do like the idea of organization giving ability access, but I've never made it happen in practice in my games.

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  23. I think that you could model this by having a difference between someone who starts with a sling proficiency (training since birth) and a PC who picks it up later (newbie).

    e.g. Rules Cyclopedia has levels up to grand master (GM) giving a +8 attack bonus.
    So:
    Start with any missile weapon proficiency: 0 initial penalty; GM +8.

    Pick up sling after 1st lvl: -8 initial penalty; GM +0.
    Pick up bow after 1st lvl: -4 initial penalty; GM +4.
    Pick up crossbow after 1st lvl: 0 initial penalty; GM +8.

    So slings are hard to learn, bows are easier and crossbows are easiest of all.
    If you want to be the best with the sling or the bow you have to come from a culture that grows up with that weapon. Otherwise, learn the crossbow.

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