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A modern compound bow

DC Heroes RPG – Bows and archery


Introduction

Bows have been around for 10 to 15,000 years, and have been used on every continent but Australia. They’re not just a staple of historical and heroic fantasy stories, though – super-hero comics have a remarkable density of archers, with Hawkeye and Green Arrow being of course the big two.

Like with our other Weapons Locker articles this is a technical feature, with stats and rules bits that are used in almost every writeups.org entry featuring bows. Like with our other Weapons Locker articles, it also includes selected information of interest to role players using these weapons in a game. It’s edu-ca-tional, we tell you.

Like with our other Weapons Locker articles, this entry is entirely about *fictional* weapons, in that we only care about how such weapons perform in stories. Realism isn’t a concern, though there’s enough information for verisimilitude.


Bows and quivers

Three types of bows

Low-powered bow
[BODY 02, Projectile weapon: 02, Ammo: 01, Recommended STR: 02, R#03, Bow Advantage (see below), Limitation : Low Penetration]

Usually a small, light bow with a weak pull. It might have been improvised by a knowledgeable person using a branch and some string, or it might be an early shortbow. Many Classical bows (such as those used by Ancient Greek or Egyptians), and most Native American bows will fit into this category.

Draw weight is somewhere in the 40-50 lbs range, and arrows are more likely to wound than kill. It is primarily a weapon for hunting small game.

Such bows are usually what is called a self bow. That is, they are made from a single piece of carefully chosen wood. Slightly more advanced bows, or bows made in areas lacking suitable trees, are backed bows – usually with sinew glued to the back of the bow to improve tension.

Shapes vary. Most look like the letter D, but many ancient bows looked more like the letter C while many American and European bows looked like the character [. Size depends on origin – somewhere between 1m and 1.7m high, with weight in the 600-700 grams range.

Variant – ninja half-bow

[BODY 01, Projectile weapon: 02, Ammo: 01, Recommended STR: 02, Miniaturisation: 02, R#03, Bow Advantage (see below), Limitation : Low Penetration, Drawback: Must be assembled before use, which takes a minimum of three Phases for a highly trained specialist.]

In the stories, ninja have special hankyu (“half-length bow”, or shortbow) that can be disassembled in two halves, each hidden within a kimono sleeve. The bow is then swiftly assembled and strung before use.

Medium-powered bow
[BODY 03, Projectile weapon: 03, Ammo: 01, Recommended STR: 03, R#02, Bow Advantage, Limitation : Low Penetration]

A more powerful bow, with a pull around 60-75 lbs – a serious weapon for ancient war. Historical examples include most European and Chinese longbows, which are usually taller than their wielders (1.8m high or so).

Another approach in this category is the composite bow. Those have a body made of carefully selected, assembled and layered wood, sinew, bone, horn… depending on what’s locally avbailable The short, heavy Turkish bow is a fine example of a composite bow.

In modern parlance a composite bow and a compound bow are two different things – more about compound bows later.

Note the Recommended Strength number in the stats. Operating bows in this category requires superior upper-body strength as well as lengthy training. Being an archer is being a specialist.

Hawkeye (Clint Barton) archery picture by Aja

Badass bow
[BODY 04, Projectile weapon: 04, Ammo: 01, Recommended STR: 04, R#02, Bow Advantage, Limitation : Low Penetration]

This niche is filled by whichever bow has a fearsome enough reputation, with actual ballistics being unimportant. For instance :

  • The Anglo-Welsh longbow
  • The Japanese daikyu
  • Bows built for exceptionally strong persons, like Odysseus’ bow in Homer’s tales (which ordinary warrior couldn’t even string)
  • Fantasy bows that sound sufficiently ominous (like the bone bows of Melnibone in Stormbringer) or are built and used by folks reputed for their nigh-supernatural craftsmanship and archery (which usually means Elves)
  • Modern custom-built bows bristling with shiny accessories whose role is unguessable to the layman, but sure look dangerous

Of course, almost every comic book or video game badass archer will have a badass bow.

The English longbow…

…was also used in Wales, but this pales compared to Robin Hood’s narrative footprint. It is a huge affair – two metres tall or even more. It’s hard to tell what their pull weight was, though 80+ lbs. seems likely. This is an awful lot, especially if one is to aim correctly.

As a result there’s a whole body of facts and legends about yeomen archers, and an oft-quoted proverb (“to train a yeoman in archery, start by training his grandfather”). The training regimen took a while to develop and had to start at a very young age.

Various apocryphal-but-we-don’t-care-in-this-article titbits include :

  • skeletal deformations caused by lifelong training (such as an enlarged left arm, or horn and bone spurs along the right one)
  • historical longbows having such a high draw weight that no modern bowman could accurately shoot them
  • the English longbow being the ultimate and most devastating battlefield weapon of its time

There is also plenty of folklore around how to select the height and weight of the bow assigned to an archer. Same height as the archer with his arms raised, same weight as the archer at birth, etc.

The Japanese 大弓…

… (pronounced daikyu, meaning ”great bow”) is asymmetrical, with ⅓ of the height under the archer’s hand and ⅔ above. This means that it can also be used while riding a horse.

The drawing technique is different (more on that later) so the draw weight is usually circa 70 lbs, and the bow is usually about 2.1 metres tall. They are usually built of bamboo and wood laminate.

The great bow was, along with the sword, a symbol of both martial excellence requiring lifelong training to master, and of the warrior caste. Kyujutsu (techniques of archery) gave birth to kyudo (the way of the bow), a contemplative and meditative expression of older Japanese aesthetics and Shinto spirituality.

Thus, along with the brave samurai, the other cliché daikyu expert is the Zen master – who might even be blind.

Green Arrow (Stephen Amell) with his weapon

Quivers

The main ways of keeping your arrows ready for use are :

  • Stuck in the ground just in front of your firing spot. This was probably the most common approach for non horse-mounted archers. Welsh and English longbowmen had the charming habit of urinating on their arrows, though one doubts it actually helped infecting wounds.
  • Another common way in Europe was to have them tucked under your belt – especially if you were but a poor yeoman. It is difficult to carry more than five or six arrows in this way, though.
    One Japanese version is a rectangular piece of cork attached to your belt, in the small of the back, in which you stick about four arrows. This is used by DC Comics character Shado.
  • The usual fictional quiver is rigid and worn on the back. While this allows for carrying a bunch of arrows, this is not the most convenient arrangement – much like your back is not the most convenient place to carry two-handed melee weapons.
    This is so prevalent in fiction, however, that this carries no game penalties in terms of fast-draw. And in comic books, rigid back quivers can carry up to 40 arrows or so (and some characters have two quivers).
  • A more historical variant is an arrow bag. It is a tube of tough fabric hanging against your right shoulder blade and buttock, with all arrows pointing downward. It might have leather spacers to separate arrows and protect their fletching. The bag also has flaps at both end, to insert or draw arrows (which is always done point-first). It is not unusual to pad the flap holding the arrow heads with straw, so the points won’t damage the canvas.
  • Some rigid quivers were worn along the right thigh, hanging from the belt. It’s unusual to have more than 12 or so arrows in those, though.
  • Modern hunting compound bows can have the quiver attached directly to the bow, holding 4-10 arrows. It can be attached and detached easily with a thumbscrew.

In DC Heroes terms, use the Ammunition Load Drawback (in our New Rules – Drawbacks document). A 20-arrow dorsal quiver would thus look like this — [BODY 01, Projectile weapon: XX, Ammo: 20, Limitation : Ammunition load for my bow].

The same quiver holding two kinds of arrows could be bought as, say, one 12-arrow quiver and one 8-armour-piercing-arrow quiver – though it might physically be the same container.

Modern bows

“Modern bows” are more technically called compound bows. Appearing in the 1970s, these use one of the great mechanical strength multipliers – no, not the lever, the pulley. Compound bows thus have a very long string set in cams that multiply the strength of the archer.

Some fantasy bows might present the same multiplier by being composite bows made of supernatural material, such as dragonthorn wood.

Here are two compound bows :
Medium-powered compound bow [BODY 03, Projectile weapon: 03, Ammo: 01, Recommended STR 02, /STR/ 03, R#02, Bow Advantage, Limitation : Low Penetration, /STR/ only to use the bow]

Badass compound bow [BODY 04, Projectile weapon: 04, Ammo: 01, Recommended STR: 03, /STR/ 04, R#02, Bow Advantage, Limitation : Low Penetration, /STR/ only to use the bow]

Note how very strong archers (STR 04) will thus be equally efficient operating an ancient bow or a compound one. This models most genre fiction.

Lara Croft aims a bow with a burning arrow under the rain

Modern archery gadgets

Modern bows can also bristle with gadgets. These usually play no role in the story, and are just here for the tacticool factor. But a modern archery specialist might actually use them, so here are the main ones :

Stabiliser

This is a 6”-8” cylinder mounted on the bow and pointing in the same direction than the arrow. A stabiliser is basically a shock absorber, lessening the felt weight release and vibration. This makes a bow quieter, and easier to keep on target for successive shots, in order to make tight arrow groups. It also lessens fatigue when firing many arrows.

Using high-quality stabilisers, padded cams, special string, etc. a fictional bow can be made quite silent, and thus vaguely plausible as a special military force weapon. Such a bow would have a Stealth Archery Suite [BODY 03, Thief (stealth): 03, Limitation : Thief (stealth) only to muffle the shots].

Arrow rest

Those are swivelling fins that raise and support the arrow as the string is drawn back, lining it up with the eye. When the arrow is shot they softly slide away in order not to interfere with the arrow and its fletching. Arrow rests have no game effect, but describing how the smooth metal fins raise the arrow as the string is drawn can be cool.

Laser rangefinder

For precision archery, knowing the exact range to the target is important to compensate for arrow drop. Laser rangefinders have no game effect, however – high-skill archers can precisely eyeball the target without a rangefinder, and in fiction mediocre bowmen will not hit anything important with or without electronic gadgets.

Less technological bows will have a more traditional pivoting sight with day-glo yardage markers, facilitating the estimation of range, and a bubble level. Pendulum sights were also a common solution some years back, but are usually only useful at 25 metres or less.

Breeze detector

For long range shooting, some bowmen use a breeze detector – as arrows are quite susceptible to even light winds. This is simply a very small plastic bottle that can squirt fine mist in the air, allowing you to visualize the direction and strength of wind. Like the rangefinder and for similar reasons, it has no game effects.

Peep sight

This is simply a hole you can look through. This is much like closing one eye before shooting, only more efficient as it focuses vision where you are aiming. A peep sight is worse than useless when shooting fast, but for careful aiming shots it is useful.

Good models have four equidistant, day-glo points around the hole. By eyeballing the angle of the target between the various points, you can achieve what is basically a crosshair effect. The dots are day-glo since hunting often takes place at dusk or dawn.

Peep sights have no game effect, but I suppose you could go wild and have a wide-angle optical scope with actual APs of Telescopic Vision mounted on your high-tech bow. Or even, God forbid, a laser sight on a balanced sight arm.


Applied archery 101

DC Heroes rules

The main problem with bows is that they have Ammo: 01. So an archer will have to “reload” (grab, nock and draw a new arrow) to shoot anew. See the Ammunition Restriction discussion in our New Rules – Drawbacks document for more.

The Lightning Release Schtick (see our Schticks document) is thus critical to combat archery. It is what separates heroic archers from guys with a bow.

The Bow Advantage

Strength and skill play an important role in archery. This is represented by the Bow Advantage. It affects EV and Range :

  • With the Bow Advantage EV can be raised to (user’s STR)+1, but cannot exceed the bow’s native EV+1. This is only possible for users who meet the Recommended STR.
  • With the Bow Advantage Range can be raised either as (user’s STR)+3, or (applicable Subskill)-4. This is capped at twice the native Projectile Weapons APs of the bow, so a Projectile Weapons: 04 bow cannot have a Range above 08

Skill-enhanced Range represents parabolic shooting. It allows the greatest archers to do very long-range shots like they do in stories.

Mulan about to shoot a simple bow

Can Be Fired From Horseback Advantage

Most bows cannot be fired from horseback, so those that can have an Advantage.

The cost of this Advantage is entirely dependent upon the campaign. In a low-tech campaign where bows are the main long-range weapons and horse-riding is the main form of transportation, it would be worth five points. In a modern setting, this is more of a sidenote and is worth a single point.

The best historical horse archers were a big deal — think of the Mongols — but it ain’t what it used to be.

Bows with this Advantage can also be using when crouching. Which means they are easier to use while taking cover.

Through a line of twelve axe heads

Strength is a key aspect of archery, particularly ancient archery. As modelled, it is almost always best to use the bow matching your exact STR score. Since the range of likely STR scores is but three values (2 to 4), there’s a bow for STR 02 people, a bow for STR 03 people, etc.

See the New Rules – Miscellanea document for more about Recommended STR mechanics. A few archers use the Mighty Thews Schtick (see the Schticks document) to draw bows that would realistically be beyond their strength.

If compound bows exist in the setting, they perform a similar role but multiply the effective STR of the wielder via their cams system, raising strength by one AP.

Shooting volleys

Releasing two (or more !) arrows at once is usually a sign of a Manoeuvre – a Flailing Attack, a Critical, a Multi-Attack… For simplicity’s sake it still consumes but one Ammo, as usual – since it’s a single attack. The multiple nocked arrows are just a SFX.

General information

Western and Eastern styles

When drawing, a typical European archer will have the back of the arrow drawn to nearly rest against their face (usually the cheek). A typical Asian archer will draw their arrow higher, and the rear of the arrow will be behind their head (generic Asian arrows tend to be longer, too – one meter is not uncommon).

Likewise generic Europeans nock their arrows so they lie on the left-hand side of the shaft (if they are right-handed), while generic Asians use the other side.

Occidental shooting is traditionally said to be slower and more precise, and Oriental shooting faster and more intuitive. Depending on the story, this difference can be emphasized or ignored.

A third, modern way is to use a gadget called a release aid. This is a robust wrist wrap with a rod extending between the fingers. At the end of the rod is a sort of clamp, which holds the string. Thus, the string can be held back with the entire wrist, arm and shoulder, not just the fingers.

The clamp is released by a firearm-like trigger on top of the rod, allowing for careful aiming and precise shooting. Release aids are usually used in European-style shooting.

Some ancient styles of arrow release used small metal objects to lessen felt draw weight. For instance the Mongolian shooting style has the string resting against a metal ring worn on the thumb.

Kyudo archers wear a special glove. The thumb of this glove is reinforced using wood or an other hard material, and has a notch carved for the string right where the thumb meets the knuckle.

The bow is pulled back by making a thumbs down sign with the knuckle joints of the fingers slightly extended and pulling back. The bow is fired by twisting the wrist upward to release the string from the glove’s notch.

Protection

Archers will often wear protection when shooting – starting with some leather to protect the wrist against the sharp bite of the string. Protecting the whole arm and even part of the chest is not a bad idea, and clothing must be prevented from interfering with the drawing and release.

Oriental-style archers will often add a headband in order not to add their ear to the shot, unless they are soldiers already wearing a helmet.

As to the myths about Amazons cutting off one breast to better shoot their bow, it seems to be a metaphor. Even an unusually buxom archer will manage fine with an appropriate brassiere, and she can always add a piece of protective leather on her chest if expecting to shoot in chaotic, stressful circumstances.

Assuming that she’s not wearing armour in the first place, that is.

Maintenance

Ancient bows are not AK-47s. When not in use they have to be unstrung, otherwise the string will become less taut. This is a problem if you unexpectedly need to use your bow in a hurry. Hot climates will also damage the wood over time.

But the main issue is humidity. Its effects on wood or even composite layers are unkind, and a damp string isn’t the best. Bows can be regularly treated with beewax or a similar substance to shield them against humidity, and in rainy or tropical climates you’ll also want to regularly wax the string of a low-tech bow.

As can be imagined, being at sea is terrible for most ancient bows.

Modern bows, especially expensive one, are far less vulnerable to the environment thanks to synthetic materials.

The Celestial Archer shoots a magical arrow at the Moon

I used to be an adventurer like you…

Surviving being shot with an arrow is only the beginning of the problem. Most arrowheads cannot simply be torn away from the wound without massive tissue damage. They are one of the few weapons at low tech levels that will routinely be stuck in their target.

Most fiction ignore such gory issues, as heroes hit by arrows somehow get easily rid of those. But in grimier genre, things are going to be more involved. The best way is to push the arrow all the way through the body, cut off the head when it gets out on the other side, then yank the shaft from the other end.

This is, needless to say, horribly painful. And it may not even be possible if there’s bone in the way. Furthermore, the wound will keep bleeding until the arrow is out and it can be properly treated.

If you can’t get rid of the arrow that way, you’ll have gradually widen the entry wound channel with small blocks of wood and special tongs (while getting rid of the flowing blood and having the patient very drunk and/or very restrained by burly assistants) until you can yank away the whole arrowhead.

The alternative is rapid infection and painful death.


Arrows

Specialty heads

Specialty heads aren’t trick arrows – they are realistic or semi-realistic arrows you could purchase at a specialised store or smithy.

  • Broadhead/hunting arrows : the basic. Some modern takes on these have the blades pop out of the shaft after they’re fired, but beyond looking cool it has no in-game effects.
  • Rabbit/blunted arrows inflict Bashing Damage. A high-tech version could be done by affixing a beanbag in lieu of a broadhead. In a pinch it is always possible to use some garbage to blunt a arrow – say a wine bottle cork, adhesive tape and an empty soda can.
  • Bodkin/heavy war arrow. A bodkin head looks like a sharp, elongated pyramid. These arrows are meant to punch through plate armour. If they are of sufficiently high quality they will have Sharpness (Projectile weapons): 01.
  • Incendiary. A rag soaked in flammables is wrapped around the arrowhead, and lit just before shooting. With such an arrow the Range is diminished by 1 AP, but it has some chance of setting what it hits on fire. Unless you’re firing at something readily flammable, a conflagration is unlikely though. Incendiary arrows have a better chance of working in large volleys.
  • Halfmoon. These very broad head are intended to cut ropes. They are often of Japanese origin, and were allegedly used to cut the cords holding heavy Japanese lamellar armours together. The Range of these arrows is lowered by two APs, but a Trick Shot to cut a rope using these has its penalty lowered by one CS.

Katniss Everdeen aims a simple bow

Trick arrows

These will require the Gadgetry skill, as they are not… particularly realistic.

  • Vaguely realistic explosive arrow [BODY 02, Projectile weapon: 03, EV 05 (Area of effect 0 APs), R#04, Ammo: 01, Bonus : Projectile weapon and EV can be Combined, Limitation : Ammunition load for my bow]
  • Comic book explosive arrows [BODY 02, Bomb: 07, R#03, Ammo: 04, Limitation : Ammunition load for my bow]
  • Net arrows [BODY 02, Snare: 06, R#03, Ammo: 04, Limitation : Ammunition load for my bow]
  • Electro-arrows [BODY 02, Projectile weapon: XX, Lightning (No Range): 07, R#03, Ammo: 04, Bonus : Projectile weapon and Lightning can be Combined, Limitation : Ammunition load for my bow]
  • Line arrow [BODY 06, Cling: 05, Note : carries a 3 APs long line, Limitation : Ammunition load for my bow, Cling only to have the tip adhere to a surface, Note : easily reusable, and thus has no Ammo Drawback]
  • Smoke arrow [BODY 02, Fog: 07, Ammo: 01, Limitation : Ammunition load for my bow]
  • Boxing glove arrow [BODY 03, EV 03, Ammo: 01, Bonus : EV can be Combined with Projectile weapon, Limitation: Ammunition load for my bow, Limitation: Range is reduced by one AP]

For further ideas, see the grenades selection. Howbeit trick arrows tend to have on or two APs less in most Powers than grenades, due to a smaller payload.


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By Sébastien Andrivet

Helper(s): Darci, Roy Cowan. The illustrations are random images from the Internet.

Writeup reorganised on the 8th of September, 2014.

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