Given the overall sophistication of Eberron, it can seem strange that people use medieval weapons. In a world of airships and warforged, why haven’t people created more effective personal weapons? Rising From The Last War highlights the spread of wandslingers, soldiers who fight using damage-dealing cantrips. But becoming a wandslinger requires specialized training; you can’t just hand a peasant a wand. So the question remains: in a world that’s this sophisticated and has an industrial base, wouldn’t people develop effective weapons that anyone can use?
Gunpowder is one possible answer. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes rules for firearms, and I present my thoughts on this in this article. But it’s not my preferred answer. One of the basic ideas of Eberron is that it’s not a setting that mixes magic and technology, but rather a world in which magic is used instead of technology. So rather than having the people of the Five Nations use gunpowder, I’d rather find an alternative that fills the same niche but is unique to Eberron. So: we’re looking for an affordable weapon that anyone can use without training. This weapon should be better than a medieval crossbow, but it doesn’t need to match a modern firearm; in general, Eberron’s advances are closer to the late 19th century than to what we had in the 20th. This ties to the simple point that this weapon shouldn’t break the balance of the game. If you introduce a cheap weapon anyone can use that does twice the damage of an offensive cantrip, you’ve just broken the balance of the magic system. Beyond that, weapons don’t NEED to do more damage. Hit points are an abstract system. Per the PHB, “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” If a character has 30 hit points, that’s not supposed to mean that you could stab them in the heart four times with a dagger and they’d laugh it off; it reflects the idea that you can’t land a killing blow until they run out of hit points. If they’ve got hit points, they’re able to parry an otherwise lethal blow, or a potentially deadly arrow only grazes them. 1d8 is all the damage it takes to kill a goblin or a commoner; the fact that you can’t kill a more powerful creature with a single shot isn’t necessarily the fault of the weapon, it’s the cinematic idea that you can’t land the lethal blow.
So with all that in mind, what are we actually looking for with a superior weapon? The weapons we have will already drop a commoner with one shot, so we don’t need better damage. Two obvious factors are range and rate of fire. We want our weapons to be faster and more effective than medieval weapons. But here’s the fun fact: they already are. The crossbow defined in the Player’s Handbook IS better than a medieval crossbow. The crank method for reloading a medieval crossbow limited an archer to about two shots per minute; using a light crossbow, you can fire ten bolts per minute. A modern crossbow in the hands of a skilled shooter has a range of about 240 feet; a light crossbow has a potential range of 320 feet, provided you’re skilled enough to hit at long range. The 1861 Springfield rifle—a common weapon in the American Civil War—could fire 2-4 shots per minute. Again, the crossbow isn’t a match for modern automatic weapons… but at ten shots per minute, it’s not a medieval weapon.
You can dismiss these statistics as unrealistic, designed for ease of play; after all, who would ever USE a crossbow if it took five rounds to reload it? But the alternative is to embrace it, to say that it’s not that these statistics are inaccurate: it’s that the weapons aren’t medieval. Perhaps the soldiers of Galifar I used medieval-style crossbows, with more limited range and a slow crank to reload; the crossbows used today are the result of centuries of Cannith engineering. So if we accept the idea that the statistics of the crossbow are sufficiently effective as a common weapon—the next question is how it delivers those things. How is it that you can fire and reload a crossbow in six seconds while also moving 30 feet in that time?
One thing I’d immediately throw out is the idea that Caniith crossbows use an integrated quiver… or clip, if you will. When you are loading a crossbow, you are performing an action that resets the bow and sets the next bolt in place. This is slow enough that you can’t fire two bolts in that six-second frame. But you don’t actually have to go through a process of drawing a bolt from a quiver and setting it into place by hand in addition to resetting the bow. I’m not suggesting that this eliminates the Loading trait (though see Accessories, below); I’m fine with the idea that the process of resetting the bow and advancing the clip is slow enough that you can only loose one bolt per round. But it’s still far more effective than a medieval crossbow and helps to justify that six-second move-fire-reload cycle. A quiver can hold up to 20 arrows; I’m just suggesting that the quiver is part of the weapon. With this in mind, crossbow bolts in Eberron could be smaller than we usually think of them—aerodynamic densewood quarrels—making the idea of an integrated quiver a little more manageable.
The next question is how the Cannith crossbow delivers that increased range—meaning the bolt has greater force—while simultaneously allowing you to load the bow more swiftly than a medieval weapon. I can see two ways to explain this, though there’s certainly more!
Mundane Weapon, Supernatural Methods. The Cannith crossbow isn’t a magic weapon… but it’s made using magical techniques. It may be made of wood, but Eberron has woods we don’t have access to—bronzewood, darkwood, densewood. The cord may be alchemically treated, stronger and more flexible than any mundane material. The reloading system is a clever and efficient design; there’s no strength requirement on a crossbow. This takes the idea that the crossbow looks like a traditional crossbow (aside from the possibility of an integrated clip); it’s just better than any crossbow we have.
Arcane Science. The crossbow isn’t a magical weapon… but it can still operate using magical principles. The concept of Eberron is that magic is a science. The spells of the wizard are one manifestation of that science… but that doesn’t mean they’re the only way magic can manifest. Magic can generate kinetic force, as shown by a number of spells. So, what if those principles were used to to add force to a physical bolt, as opposed to generating a bolt of pure force?
So imagine the interior of the barrel of a crossbow engraved with arcane sigils. A quarrel is likewise engraved with symbols. When the quarrel moves against the barrel, the symbols create an arcane interaction—a formula that adds kinetic energy to the bolt. With this in mind, the only force the bow has to provide is the initial push of the bolt down the barrel; it’s a spark that triggers the arcane interaction. Which means that the reason it’s so much easier to reload a Cannith crossbow—why you can thumb-load a hand crossbow—is because the bow itself is actually WEAKER than a medieval crossbow, because the true power of the weapon doesn’t depend on the tension of the bow. This also means that the crossbow doesn’t have to LOOK like a crossbow as we’re used to it. It could be closer to a rifle—the longer the barrel, the longer the arcane interaction, thus the short range of the hand crossbow, and the heavy crossbow as the largest and longest weapon. The “bow” could be a relatively small component of the weapon. Essentially, it could resemble a firearm; the point is that the force of the weapon isn’t coming from a chemical reaction, but rather an arcane one. This wouldn’t make the standard crossbow a “magic weapon” for purposes of damage resistance. There’s nothing magical about the bolt itself; It’s simply the case of an arcane reaction generating force. The game mechanics are unchanged, it’s just a different way of presenting the weapon, reflecting the fact that it is superior to a medieval crossbow.
Now, if you DO follow this idea, one could ask why this arcane reaction isn’t being used in other ways. Well, who’s to say it isn’t? It could well be that the lightning rail operates on a similar principle—that the bound elemental provides initial motive force and enhances speed, but that the arcane interaction between coach and conductor stones is the same principle that provides the kinetic force of a Cannith crossbow. Beyond this, the central concept here is that magic is a science, and science evolves. The Five Nations DID use medieval crossbows, and they’ve discovered a technique that has allowed the creation of a more efficient weapon; they could be actively exploring other applications of this kinetic formula. Arcane magic can generate heat, force, and light. It can transmute objects or teleport them. Spells are examples of what can be done with arcane science, not its absolute expression.
All of which is to say that the wandslinger represents one application of magic in war—the idea that knowledge of combat cantrips is becoming more common, and that there are people who fight their battles with fire and lightning. But there can also be a path of arcane science that focuses on enhancing physical tools… building a more efficient versions of weapons people already use, creating tools that can be used even by people with no training or magical talent. Rather than feeling like the crossbow doesn’t fit your vision of the world, consider what could make the crossbow fit.
Once we embrace the idea that the crossbow isn’t a medieval legacy, but rather a modern weapon that’s actively being improved, there’s lots of ways one could improve upon it. Consider a few ideas…
Bayonet. The light crossbow is a simple weapon that can be used without any training and that has an impressive range. Whatever form the weapon takes—whether you embrace the idea of arcane science or just keep it as a traditional crossbow built with superior techniques and materials—it makes sense that the light crossbow is the equivalent of the infantry rifle. With that in mind, it makes sense to have a form of bayonet—a fixed blade allowing a soldier to use the crossbow in close quarters even if they run out of ammunition. It wouldn’t have the reach of a long rifle, but it would still provide the archer with a melee option that doesn’t require them to drop their crossbow. Personally, I’d see this as a simple, two-handed weapon that inflicts 1d6 piercing damage—less effective than a spear (which can be thrown and inflicts 1d8 piercing when used two-handed), but still an effective weapon.
Spellbolt. Following the principle of an arcane reaction triggered as the bolt moves across the barrel, I could imagine a bolt that is designed with a specific arcane payload that’s triggered when the bolt is fired… effectively taking the place of a grenade launcher. The advantage of this would be the ability to project a spell effect farther than normally possible. A fireball normally has a range of of 150 feet; if you could attach a fireball to a heavy crossbow bolt and fire it 400 feet, it’s a dramatic improvement. The catch, of course, is that scrolls and wands require the user to be able to cast the spell (or at least require attunement by a spellcaster). That limitation could be preserved here; perhaps a spellbolt can only be used by a spellcaster, who takes a bonus action to prime the bolt before firing it. Or perhaps this is a new development, and the bolt can be used by anyone as long as it’s fired from a specially designed crossbow. If this is the case, I’d emphasize that this is a recent development; such spellbolts could be rare, and potentially volatile! Note that this is a different approach from the siege staff, which is essentially a long wand; a siege staff can only be used by a spellcaster or someone with specialized training, and projects a purely magical effect.
Silencer. Illusion can be used to create or dampen sound. It’s easy to imagine a magical device that could be attached to a crossbow to eliminate the sound produced by firing or loading the weapon. It would be up to the DM to decide how effective this would be—whether it could allow a well-hidden creature to remain hidden when firing, or whether it would simply prevent the shot from alerting anyone outside of line of sight.
Reload. While I’ve suggested an integrated quiver as part of the Cannith crossbow, my thought is that this justifies the rate of fire allowed by the Loading trait, not that it negates it. However, especially if you follow the idea of the crossbow empowered by arcane science, you could create a superior crossbow that replaces the Loading trait with the Reload trait associated with firearms in the Dungeon Master’s Guide: “A limited number of shots can be made with a weapon that has the reload property. A character must then reload it using an action or a bonus action (the character’s choice).” The size of the clip would be up to the DM. Again, I wouldn’t personally make this a standard feature—but it would be interesting if, say, Cannith East had developed a new design that was being used by elite Karrnathi units. Likewise, I could see an advanced hand crossbow with Reload 6, allowing a dual-wielder to get a few shots before needing to reload.
This is probably more than anyone ever wanted to hear about Keith’s thoughts on the crossbow, especially since my primary point is the rules don’t have to be changed. But what I hope you take away is that something can be inspired by a medieval tool and still feel modern. Whether it’s a crossbow or a stagecoach, the people of Eberron use magical techniques to improve on the mundane; this can involve flashy effects like fire and lightning, but it can also simply involve something that appears to be mundane and yet is superior to what we’re used to.
Thanks to my Patreon supporters for their support. My next major article will be on either the Znir Gnolls of Droaam or on Dolurrh, the Realm of the Dead—right now, the Patreon poll is tied!
What have you done with ranged weapons in Eberron? Have you added firearms or explored other magical solutions? Post your ideas below!