Melee Academy: Muscle-Powered Ranged Weaponry 101

Though the title is Melee Academy, being able to do harm at a distance is important in many genres. However, up until the invention of the windlass, cranequin, gunpowder, and fast-discharge supercapacitor, what you’re really doing is finding ways of translating your strength into injury.

Also on Melee Academy, Ranged Edition:

Peter Dell’Orto talks about Hitting the Wrong Target at Dungeon Fantastic
Mark Langsdorf Enters a Room over at No School Grognard
Christopher Rice will be talking Ritual Path Magic at Ravens N’ Pennies

For today’s Melee Academy, I thought I’d do weapon basics using only the GURPS Basic Set and segue a bit into Low-Tech, though I’ll predict that very little of substance, rather than variety, can be done.

A lot of the Melee Academy posts play in the Dungeon Fantasy space – 250 or so points. I’m going to restrict myself to about 150 points with about 40 points in Disadvantages and Quirks (about 25% of the starting total). In fact, I’ll mostly consider something like:

Attributes [120]
ST 13 [30]; DX 12 [40]; IQ 11 [20]; HT 12 [20]
HP 13; Will 12 [5]; Per 12 [5]; FP 12
Basic Lift 34; Damage 1d/2d-1
Basic Speed 6; Basic Move 6; Ground Move 6; Water Move 1

Advantages [35]
Combat Reflexes [15]
Enhanced Dodge (1) [15]
Fit [5]

Disadvantages [-35]; Quirks [-5]

Skills [35]
Axe/Mace (A) DX+1 [2]-12; Bow (A) DX+4 [16]-16; Climbing (A) DX-1 [1] -11; Fast-Draw (Arrow) (E) DX+2* [2]-14; Fast-Talk (A) IQ-1 [1]-10; First Aid/TL3 (Human) (E) IQ+0 [1]-11; Hiking (A) HT+0 [2]- 12; Naturalist (Earth) (H) IQ-2 [1]-9; Observation (A) Per+0 [2]-12; Running (A) HT-1 [1]-11; Stealth (A) DX-1 [1]-11; Swimming (E) HT+0 [1]- 12; Tracking (A) Per+0 [2]- 12; Wrestling (A) DX+0 [2]- 12.

This clearly isn’t the only or the best 150-point ranged weapons guy. In fact, there are lots of things you could choose to do otherwise. But I wanted to give an example with most of the skills GURPS Line Editor and long-time player +Sean Punch and GM recommends as Adventuring Basics. And I wanted sufficient goodness in basic stats to account for things like Per and Will being things you may need to roll against, a decent Move and Encumbrance, and enough ST and DX to be considered a well-rounded party member who has a chance to actually injure foes.  

More on that later. 

Still, you can see that the perhaps archetypical ranged weapon type, the archer, has Bow-16. Given my previous writings on the subject, that’s probably about where you’d want to be.

Of course, lose the +1 to Dodge and you can be Bow-19 and still have three points to spare. You can also ditch Combat Reflexes and Fit in favor of, say, Heroic Archer if your GM allows it. Infinite options, but that awesome Bow skill comes at the cost of being good at anything else. Because drawing out ammo and loading the bow are a combination of Fast-Draw and Bow skills, you’ll want decent levels of both.

And you need that skill, if you’re shooting a bow. Remember, with Bow-16, without aiming you can only hit the vitals 50% of the time with your foe at 7 yards. Almost certainly, then, if you want to hit to anything like distance, you need to compromise your versatility as above, or accept limitations on what you can do. Ranged attacks pile up penalties faster than anything else in GURPS.

Basic Principles of Mail-order Pain

So, you want to hurt people from a distance? That’s smart. Sometimes that “up close and personal” thing gets nasty. Still, you’re going to have to decide a few things.

The first one is, what’s your schtick? Are you a dedicated ranged weapons guy? That means you’re going to need a weapon that fires ammunition, or for which you can carry a sufficient number to make it through a combat and then recover them afterwards.

Are you using ranged weapons as an entry into melee? In that case, you have less to worry about in terms of lather, rinse, repeat, which is good. But that also means you’re going to be blowing your cash on defenses and offenses for melee, so you might not be that good at your weapon.

Bring the Hurt

There are two basic choices when it comes to ranged weapons. Those that do swing damage, and those that do thrust. From the Basic Set, here are the weapon classes. A typical value for 1/2D range as a multiple of ST is given as well in parentheses.

Thrust-based Ranged Weapons: Bolas (x3), Bows (x15), Crossbows (x20), Harpoons (x1), Knives (x0.5), Shuriken (x0.5), and Spears (x1).

Swing-based Ranged Weapons: Slings (x12 with bullets!), Atlatls (x2), and Axes and Maces (x1).

The blowpipe is the odd man out. It’s damage is fixed. Other oddities include lassos and nets, whose purpose is more grappling than injury.

There are, perhaps oddly, no real trends here. For weapons that use ammo (slings and bows/crossbows) at ST 13 without perks like Strongbow (which you should totally take, along with Arm ST 2, if you can free up 11 points) you’re looking at 1d+1 imp to 195 yards with a regular bow, and 2d pi to 156 yards with a sling.

Of course and again: unless you are taking many seconds to Aim, your practical range limit to the torso for many of these weapons will be less than 100 yards, often much less.

What’s Not Worth It?

For the dedicated ranged guy, where you intend to stay at range, certain things are totally not worth it. Bolas are only cool for the optional grapple. Knives and shuriken are neat tricks, but with paltry damage and range, are for show, not for real. Most of the rest – other than bows, crossbows, slings, and atlatls with darts – are too heavy to consider carrying more than a few of them. Five throwing hatchets weigh 10 lbs., and can only reach to 20 or so yards at 1/2D . . . though you’ll be doing 2d-1 cut  for each, which will punch through DR 4 mail and do 3 injury or more 50% of the time.

What IS Worth it?

And that’s really the trick of it when bows are concerned. If you can afford the $900 it takes to buy a composite bow, you can do 1d+3 imp, which will punch through that DR 4 85% of the time, and on an average hit will do 4-6 injury. You can also target the vitals, which pushes that to 6-9 injury (but you need the skill for it).

The other real runner up is the sling, which ramps up with your ST faster than bows. ST 13 with lead bullets is 2d pi compared to a regular bow’s 1d+2 imp, but ST 19 is a thunderous 3d+2 pi, compared to 2d+1 imp. Against unarmored folks, for average ST and higher, the imp damage type wins. For our test character of ST 13 through ST 15, the sling has a very minor injury advantage over the bow at DR5+ (both top out and do basically nothing at DR 6+).

One interesting thing about a sling: the damage really is ST-based, rather than the ST of the bow. All-Out Attack (Strong) for +1 per die or +2 damage might be available for slings (I’d allow it).

I think these two are a wash, though the availability of multiple arrow types (such as the (2) pi bodkin, as well as cutting arrows) probably edge the general win to the bow. Not by a lot, though.

Now, on the “fire and forget” end, you have some interesting choices, one of which is an atlatl throwing javelins. It hits 1/2D at 26 yds, but even at ST 13 does 2d imp at that range. All the awesomeness of the imp damage type, with the penetration of a .45 ACP. A particularly strong specimen, such as ST 17, is doing 3d imp, which is equivalent to a ST 21 crossbow (though much lower range).

Another interesting choice is the 4-lb. throwing axe. Thrown or swung in-hand, it does sw+2 cut, or 2d+1 cut for ST 13. You probably can’t carry very many, but you can wield one in each hand, chuck one, and continue. Range is less than 15 yards, which likely gives you one hit, then you’re in melee. But that first hit will do 6 injury through DR 4 mail, and probably push the recipient to All-Out Defense his next turn.

+Rob Conley reminds me in the comments section that the classic fire-and-forget tactic is the Really High ST Crossbow. It might take nine years to reload, but at thr+4, a ST 21+ crossbow is nasty. It’ll do 3d or more equivalent impaling damage, and can target the vitals. It’s an Easy skill, which means you can literally hit from 50% farther away right off the bat, and it has a higher Aim stat than any other basic ranged weapon. He calls it the Knight Killer, and he’s right. This is a weapon you give to a whole line of melee-ready friends, fire off one volley, then charge in. But that volley can be incredibly dangerous vs. any creature vulnerable to impaling damage.


Really, you’re going to want to be hiding behind someone here. Ideally a lot of someones, with Shield Wall training and Sacrificial Block. Your own #1 worry is other ranged types for the first instance, and a clear field of running that a Dodge Monkey can exploit to close within your effective range. While DF Heroic Archers can do melee combat with their bows, most real-world specimens cannot do this. So unless you’re a spear or axe guy throwing spears or axes, you’re going to lose your primary attack mode unless you are kept safe.

If you’re a 150-point character, you might look into hiring a Guard template from Dungeon Fantasy 15: Henchmen (p. 21) with Sacrificial Block and Shield Wall Training, and (say) Spear and Shield modified to give Spear-11 but Shield-14. That will give you someone with Large Shield (DB+3) who has Block-13 and a Reach 1,2 weapon to help deter pesky melee types.

Finally, you may want to just realize that most of your fighting will be at 30 yards and less. So plan on a maximum of -7 due to range (but try and keep at least 15 yards, or -5, so you have time to run the hell away if someone starts to chase you down) and offset that with Aim if you can.

Rapid Fire specialists are expensive, though. If you need to eat a -7 from range, -3 for vitals, and -3 for Quick-Shooting (and have bought Heroic Archer, Weapon Master, or TBaM to halve that -6 to -3), and still want a 90% chance to hit, you’re looking at needing an effective Bow-27 to pull that off. Yow.

Parting Shot

A “normal” ranged weapon specialist is a hard niche to fill in GURPS at low point values. You tend to be quite the specialist, though with clever choices you can be a very, very good specialist. You’ll want to discuss this with your fellow players, though – one of the ways to get to the kind of skill (Bow-18 and higher, for example) you need to be effective, often, at decent range is to give up nearly everything else.

In practice, you will be shooting infrequently, so you’ll want to make those hits count. Otherwise, go the other way, and grab enough skill to use a heavy thrown or launched weapon that does swing damage a few times, then charge into melee.

7 thoughts on “Melee Academy: Muscle-Powered Ranged Weaponry 101

  1. The tactics my players adopted is to use a max strength crossbow that we call a knight killer. It does 3d impaling and takes forever to reload.

    The idea is to shoot it them once and then close into combat. It doesn't always hit but it is a game changer when it does. Many NPCs use them as well so the players learn to be smart about how they initiate combat.

    1. I was mostly going with 150-point Normals. What you say is true, but it requires the GM to give permission for it – and I do say that you can ditch Combat Reflexes and Fit in favor of Heroic Archer if the GM allows it.

      But once you're doing that, the "realism base" starts to look like "DF at the Hireling+25point" level instead of "150-point generic GURPS TL1-4," so I left it off.

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