Commenters on my last article raised some very good points on the historical accuracy of archery in Dungeons & Dragons, or perhaps lack of it. This gave me cause to do some research on the difficulty of long-range archery.
According to various estimates, the mediaeval English longbow had an effective range of 180-250 yards (540-750 feet or 108-150 D&D squares). However, at this range archers would fire into enemy formations rather than individual targets. Only at shorter ranges would an archer be expected to hit a man reliably.
The modern day sport of clout archery shows that this kind of shooting is entirely possible. Men shoot toward a flag on the ground 180 yards (540 feet) away, with one point for landing within 12 feet and more points for landing closer. This suggests that even with mediaeval wooden bows and little training, a man could indeed shoot into a formation of men at 180 yards.
In shorter-range target shooting, archers are expected to hit a 40cm target at 18 metres (60 feet) or a 122cm target at 90 metres (295 feet or 98 yards). Traditional hunters typically shoot deer with a bow at a range of 25 yards (75 feet) or less.
D&D 4e’s shortbow has a range of 15 (75 feet) without penalty, 30 (150 feet) at -2, very close to what modern hunters describe. One says, “All my animals taken are between 7 and 25 yards [21 to 75 feet]. I practice beyond that but I can really see the arrow dropping off after 25 yards so I stay under that.”
That range increases to 20/40 (100/200 feet) for the longbow and 25/50 (125/250 feet) for the superior greatbow. Here we have a small problem: how do you simulate the mediaeval longbow, which by some estimates could fire 250 yards (750 feet) with an accuracy of perhaps five feet?
The only real difference between 3e and 4e’s archery is that 3e lets you fire very long distances at reduced accuracy. A 200 yard (600 feet) shot like a mediaeval archer or clout archer incurs a -12 penalty, so a trained archer can hit an unarmoured man some of the time. Unfortunately, D&D 3e doesn’t simulate mass combat well, so the massed archer effect isn’t directly equatable.
Although D&D 3e technically lets you shoot a longbow at 1,000 feet, in practice it’s not feasible. You take an impossible -20 penalty to the shot, giving an unarmoured man an equivalent AC of 30.