Light Crossbow: Still the Weapon of Choice for Low Level Wizards in 5e

One of the nice things about D&D 4e was that wizards and other spellcasters got to step back from the old routine from previous editions of relying on the crossbow during easy fights or after they expended their paltry assortment of spells at low levels. They had at least 2 powers they could use over and over again to do solid damage equivalent to a basic melee strike (often with very cool added bonuses).

Alas, in 5e the crossbow comes to the forefront again. A layperson may be forgiven for assuming that a low level wizard doesn’t really need a crossbow; after all, they have plenty of cantrips they can fall back on to do a wide variety of elemental damage. My response is that unless they are fighting monsters with vulnerability to fire, cold, or electricity, the crossbow is almost always a better bet until level 5.

My reasoning is simple:

  • Damage: A wizard using point buy is often going to have a 14 or 16 Dexterity, depending on their race. With a 16 Dexterity, a wizard does 1d8+3 damage with a crossbow, blowing the 1d10 firebolt out of the water. That’s an average of 2 extra damage, which may not sound like much until you consider that it’s a 36% increase in damage that has less variance, making it much more likely to make the difference between an injury and a kill. Obviously, the effect is less potent for a 14 Dexterity Wizard, but 1 damage is still significant when the damage values are so low.
  • Spell Effects: Fire Bolt, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp have relatively minor spell effects. In short, the effects of these spells are very situational. Fire Bolt is good for environmental effects, like setting an oil slick on fire or lighting a torch, but has no direct effect when used against a target. Ray of Frost has some use in the first round of combat or when an enemy if fleeing, interfering with their ability to approach and escape effectively, but its utility is limited during the bulk of combat when significant movement across the battlefield tends to become less important. Shocking Grasp is arguably the most useful, but it’s melee only; it’s really best as a way to do some damage and still withdraw (presumably to pull out your trusty crossbow). And of course, both Ray of Frost and Shocking Grasp only do 1d8 damage, which puts them even further behind the crossbow in the damage department.
  • Crossbow is better than ever!: The light crossbow has the loading quality, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that all the loading quality does is restrict you to one attack per action, bonus action, or reaction. Since wizards almost never get more than one attack per action, this tag is no real impediment. In contrast, in 3.5, a light crossbow required a move action to load, which could be a real pain.

In short, because crossbows add your ability bonus to damage, they tend to do a lot more damage than similar cantrips, which use a bare damage die. The cantrips, while situationally useful, just don’t pack enough of a punch to justify their use during the majority of combat. The same principle holds true for clerics, who would be well advised to steer clear of Sacred Flame (which only does 1d8 damage) and focus on a melee weapon (probably a mace) or a ranged weapon (hello again light crossbow), depending on their ability scores and preference.

All this becomes moot at 5th level, when cantrips do 2X damage dice and melee and ranged weapons see no change for Wizards. Of course, by that point, wizards have access to 9 1st-3rd level spells and the ability to refresh up to 3 levels of spells after a short rest once per day.

While I don’t think the damage-cantrips are useless (they have situational benefits), I would advocate steering clear of them at level 1 and then picking up your favorite damage-cantrip at level 5, when it has some more obvious benefits over the mighty light crossbow. Mage Hand, Minor Illusion, and Prestidigitation are all super fun, lending themselves to a wide variety of wacky uses, and it’s hard to imagine not wanting all three in your wheelhouse. Even the humble Light spell has more utility than most of damage-cantrips, but maybe that’s just because I don’t like keeping track of torches.

What do you think, dear readers? Do you agree with me that it is annoying to keep track of torches, or is that one of the things that makes D&D meaningful and fun?


12 Responses to “Light Crossbow: Still the Weapon of Choice for Low Level Wizards in 5e”

  1. I’ve always found this to be bogus.

    Considering that commoners in England, France, Germany, et al, grew up with Longbows, or shortbows, and illegal hunting, I find it wrong that inexperienced Wizards are relegated to a weapon that required training for proper use.

    It’s one of the reasons England preferred the Longbow — no training required! They grew up with it! for this reason, Longbowmen were always more plentiful than crossbowmen.

    Also, in the D&D world, it’s just the opposite. EVERY “farm boy” has a cross bow and knows how to use it. Why, even Wizards — who engage in NO physical training — can use one!

    Total nonsense.

  2. JSpace says:

    I thought wizards could only use daggers? I must be old or something. Yikes. Just from reading the first page of the new basic D&D pdf I’ve figured out that it’s probably not for me. It’s still miles from the blue and red books I learned to play D&D with (still use them today in fact). That first example of play felt like a slap of reality in my face. DM: “…You’re looking at the gargoyles?” Player: “Yeah.” DM: “Make an intelligence check.” Me: “Whaaaaaaat?!!!!!”

  3. Rhenium says:

    Jspace: I agree, use of crossbows caught me out as well, perhaps I am also old school. I’ve been mainly focusing on Pathfinder, but the same ruling is there as well.

    I wonder if this is due to the “one shot wizard” being something that people don’t want to play in a game, as incoming players want to mix it up in combat right away and don’t want to have to wait around while the fighters have the fun. Similar to the daily powers of clerics being able to use spell like ranged effects (fire, ice, etc) dependent on their deity’s areas of specialty.

    Also flattening the hit point assignment (all classes get d8 except fighters) feels strange to me. Rogues and wizards just aren’t meant to be in combat, they’re feeble at early levels because they become more powerful later on.

  4. hdan says:

    Mystic Scholar, I think you have it backwards re: crossbows v. longbows.

    England had regulations that made sure all able-bodied men got in a ton of longbow practice every day.

    Crossbows at that time were considered anathema by the Church, since they could be used with almost no training, and mere peasantry could take down even NOBLES with one. (Oh the horror!)

    The downside of crossbows is that they were bulky and relied on carefully hand-crafted mechanisms (there was no other way to craft!), and were not as easy to replace as bows and strings were. As manufacturing became more sophisticated, the crossbow and later the musket became the clear leader in “low skill, cheap ammo” weapons.

  5. JSpace says:

    On occasion I encounter similar thoughts from players new to my basic D&D games. “Only one spell?” and in the case of clerics “No spell until 2nd level?”. The way I get them adjusted is to stress the goal of play. You win by recovering treasure from the dungeon and lose by fighting monsters. When the DM is rolling a lot of dice you might be doing something wrong. When the players are rolling a lot of dice they are definitely doing something wrong. Granted this may not apply to modern D&D/ Pathfinder. Also, bows and crossbows are generally a waste of space and time in the dungeon. Hand-Axes and daggers (which mages can use) are the missiles of choice because they are usable in melee, at range and most importantly as tools. They also have the nice side effect of leaving more room for treasure on your person, you know? Practical, not theoretical.

  6. Rhenium says:

    Jspace @5:44 pm: Interesting approach, one I lean towards. I agree crossbows are fairly limited in dungeons, perhaps people forget just how limited torches and lanterns are in their illumination. Thinking of the “Fellowship of the ring” as an example, about the most impressive (and useful) spell Gandalf came up with was “Light”.

    I wonder if the newer editions suffer from “magic inflation”. Magic is truly something miraculous in the earlier editions, even “Create water” (now a cantrip I believe) would be enough to make quite the scene. “Resurrection” in some ways is the ultimate ability, and what is that a 4th or 5th level spell now?

  7. JSpace says:

    Yeah. High level, high magic, always feels like high fantasy to me. As a player, I’ve rarely had characters make it to high levels and when they do, I’m always itching to play something new. That sort of grim desperation of low level play always appealed to me and my friends (and still does). Who’s carrying the lantern? Marching order. Hirelings and mules running away at the worst possible frigging time. “He had the last of our oil!” Each move could be your last. Forcing open a door is yet another encounter check closer to doom. I can picture the manical, scaly, nearly invisible serpent men emerging swiftly and silently from the edge of torchlight. The cleric busy puking his guts out while the thief gets his face ripped off. So fun. Dungeons & Dragons should be scary and it is if you run those old editions pretty much as is. Unfortunately, I don’t see a way to capture that kind of magic playing D&D5 without major houseruling. So far.

  8. paul says:

    lol @ the last paragraph

    You’re right, Rory, didn’t notice that about crossbows. Granted, the Int-based attack bonus for cantrips is probably +1 better, but that probably only increases cantrip expected damage by 10% or so which still leaves them short of a crossbow. Close enough that it might not make a difference though.

    I think that 5e is more old-school than 4e but not as old-school as old-school. Both have their place: I’m buying all the 5e books but I’m not throwing away my OD&D books either. If Mornard ever visits NYC, maybe I’ll get in some old-school OD&D, although given the choice, I’d probably try Chainmail.

    In short: any edition of D&D is fine with me. I’m even coming around to 2nd.

  9. Rhenium says:

    Jspace @9:04 pm: My D&D proclivities tend to overlap with my love of Call of Cthulhu… four nervous, inexperienced adventures (investigators?) alone in the dark when the last torch sputters out and the kobolds ready for revenge…

    Now that is what makes counting torches worthwhile! :)

    Back to the original article, I have not read the rules for 5th. But spent much of the evening comparing 3.5 and Pathfinder (for which I have the books). Crossbows for wizards in each edition, and somatic spells (i.e. almost all of them) require one hand free. How this affects reloading (a two hand action) Rory mentions above.

  10. Paul says:

    I’m coming around to this representation of the crossbow though. Historically a peasant with a little training would be deadly with a crossbow in his hands, but not as deadly as a trained longbowman. These rules encourage low-level people and non-fighters to use crossbows while level 5 fighters are better off with longbows. Rules model history in a cute way.

  11. Tom Aparo says:

    The difference between longbow and crossbow was the amount of training involved (the longbow took 10 years of constant drill shooting over 200 arrows a day on a bow that gradually approach or exceed a 100lb pull, also the arrows were longer and the string drawn to the ear and the bow was pushed forward rather than the string drawn back.) The crossbow was much easier to learn. A month could make you a passable shot. The crossbow could also outrange a longbow but not accurately. The real advantage the longbow had was its rate of fire. A longbow could advance and shoot several arrows before a crossbow could be reloaded. A group of 50 archers could fire over 500 arrows accurately every minute, 50 crossbow men under 250. Composite longbows and the Turkish steel bow reportedly shoot over 300 yards routinely. The army that Henry the 5th had at Agincourt actually would have crushed the British regular army we faced in the revolution if they were able to get past the artillery. But muskets were even easier to train with than crossbows.

  12. Mandudebro says:

    Mandudebro is the secret name for the fabulous me.

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