Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Welcome to another Black Citadel gear guide. This time, we’re going to be tackling one of the most popular and misunderstood weapons in Dungeons & Dragons 5e: The Light Crossbow.
We’ll be going over how they work, how light crossbows stack up against other ranged weapons, and when you should pick one over, say, a Shortbow.
We’ll also take a look at the Crossbow Expert feat and how you can use it to transform your character into a ranged death dealer as well as some of the official (and, because the official options kinda suck, homebrewed) options for magical crossbows and ammunition.
Ready? Let’s pull the trigger on this bad boy.
Simple Ranged Weapon
Proficiency with a light crossbow allows you to add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll for any attack you make with it.
How Does a Light Crossbow Work?
The Light Crossbow (as opposed to a Heavy Crossbow or a Hand Crossbow) is a simple ranged weapon. That means it’s accessible to anyone and everyone with 25 gold pieces in their purse.
Of course, a case of 20 bolts (or quarrels) is going to run you basically the same again at 1 gold piece each.
So, for a mere 45 gp, you can get yourself set up as a bonafide crossbowman. What does that mean?
Light Crossbows in D&D 5e have a number of properties associated with them: they inflict 1d8 piercing damage, use Ammunition, require Loading, have a Range of (80/320), and are Two-Handed. Let’s break that down.
The damage is pretty self-explanatory and functions in the same way as any other ranged weapon.
When firing a Light Crossbow, roll 1d20, adding your proficiency bonus and Dexterity modifier.
If the result is equal to or higher than the target’s AC (accounting for any bonuses or penalties applied by other things like cover), then the attack hits.
By using your weapon this way, you expend one piece of ammunition.
To calculate the damage dealt by a Light Crossbow, roll the weapon’s damage die (1d8), and add your Dexterity modifier.
Check to make sure whether the target is resistant or vulnerable to piercing damage and halve or double the result accordingly.
Weapons with the ammunition property require, uh, ammunition to fire. In the case of a Light Crossbow, this means bolts.
Crossbow bolts tend to be shorter and thicker than arrows meant for a bow, meaning the two aren’t interchangeable.
They’re readily available, given the popularity of crossbows as the weapon of choice for most peasant levies (like the militia, not the jeans) throughout the feudal-fantasy world.
Alongside encumbrance, tracking ammunition is probably the aspect of D&D 5e that’s most readily ignored.
There are plenty of DMs – myself included, sometimes – who’ll mention in their Session Zero that “I don’t track ammo in my game.”
I’m here to tell you (and past me) that you should totally be tracking ammunition in your game. Well, your players should. See, tracking ammunition can radically change the tone of your combat encounters.
A fight in which no ammunition is tracked feels more like an action movie; characters loose arrows like Rambo or Dutch from Predator fires a machine gun.
It’s cheap and pretty cool, but the assumption that whenever you reach into your quiver there’s going to be an arrow there means you’re (understandably) taking what should be a finite resource for granted.
Now, consider a fight in which ammunition is being tracked. Things immediately feel a little more desperate.
A character who might have otherwise just pinged away with their shortbow at an enemy behind cover might pause, taking time to ready an action for when the enemy pops back out again or maybe engage in a risky flanking maneuver to get a clear shot.
All because they’re painfully aware they only have three arrows left.
The fight starts to feel grittier, more like a war movie.
As a DM, it’s an extra vector of pressure you can apply to your players, especially the ones playing rogues or bards – any class that would very much rather stay well behind the fighter in platemail if given the choice.
Of course, both styles are totally valid, but if the only reason you don’t require your players to track their ammunition is that you think they already have a lot going on and they’d probably forget anyway, I have some solutions.
This is a mechanic stolen from The Black Hack. Instead of tracking individual pieces of ammo, a quiver gets a Usage Die (UD). This should start off at, say, a d12.
Each time a piece of ammunition is pulled from the quiver, roll its UD. On a result of 3+, everything is fine. You have enough ammunition.
On a 1-2, you start to exhaust your supplies. Decrease the quiver’s UD by one “increment” (a d12 becomes a d10 becomes a d8 and so on) and continue.
If the quiver’s UD decreases all the way to a d4 and your roll a 1-2, the piece of ammunition you removed was your last one. The quiver’s UD can be replenished by adding arrows to it.
A few arrows recovered from fallen enemies might bump it up an increment or two; spending 20 gp to buy a whole sheaf of bolts or arrows from a local armorer would bring you back to a d12.
Magical or other kinds of special ammunition should either still be tracked individually or given their own UD.
There’s an argument for treating all consumables, from food and water to (hot takes incoming) spell slots this way, but that’s a whole other article.
If you want to track ammunition individually but don’t want to forever by erasing and writing down new numbers every time you take a shot, grab a d20 (the same number of bolts that fit in a case) and match it to the number of arrows you have remaining. Simple.
Add more d20s if you have more than one quiver. Now you have no excuse for losing track of your arrows. Just flip the die to the right number and move on.
This method is a little more narrative and abstract, but I still like it. Ammunition isn’t tracked, and you just assume your quiver is infinite… until your roll a natural 1. Then, the DM can declare that you’re out of ammo.
It’s a nice added complication for a ranged character.
If it’s the first round of combat and it would make no sense for the character to run out of arrows, you can have something else happen (a snapped bowstring, a dropped quiver) that means the player is going to have to devote some time to rectifying the situation.
Loading is the weapon property that gets misinterpreted the most in all of D&D 5e.
Tons of players and DMs (myself included) have looked at this property and assumed that it means you need to take a full turn to reload your weapon in between shots. This is wrong.
To be fair, that’s how it worked in 3e, but it’s not how crossbows work in the current game. If it was, this article would just be a big flashing banner that says “DON’T PICK A CROSSBOW.”
In D&D 5e, the Loading property means that, because of the time taken to load this weapon (which makes sense, look at how long it takes to load and fire a crossbow), you can only fire it using an action, bonus action, or reaction once per round of combat.
Taking the Crossbow Expert feat, which we’ll look at more below, allows you to ignore this property, but otherwise you’ll only ever fire a Light Crossbow once per turn in combat.
In D&D 5e, all ranged weapons have their effective ranges expressed with two numbers, denoting the short and long range of the weapon.
Beyond 5 feet, which imposes disadvantage on ranged attacks, weapons can be fired normally up to their short range and with disadvantage up to their long range. A weapon cannot attack a target beyond its long range.
A Light Crossbow has a range of (80/320), meaning it can attack targets normally up to 80 feet away and with disadvantage up to 320 feet away.
If you’re using a battlemat or map broken up into 5 foot squares, this means you can shoot normally at a target up to 16 squares away and with disadvantage at targets between 17 and 64 squares away.
Weapons with the two-handed property require two free hands to be loaded and fired, meaning that you need to stow any shields, torches, or other weapons you’re carrying if you want to use your light crossbow.
Is the Light Crossbow Good?
The Light Crossbow is available to all character classes in D&D 5e as a simple weapon, but it’s definitely not the best choice for every class thanks to its properties and damage die when stacked up against some of the other alternatives.
Light Crossbows vs. Other Ranged Weapons
The Light Crossbow is probably best compared to the other ranged simple weapon most commonly used by adventurers: the Shortbow.
The Light Crossbow has a larger damage die – a d8 as opposed to the Shortbow’s d6. This means, on average, you’re going to be doing 1 more damage per round.
But, you get that little bit of extra damage at the expense of being able to fire multiple times in a single turn.
This means that, whereas a character with multiattack (like a 5th-level fighter, for example) can shoot a Shortbow as many times per round as they can make melee attacks, the same fighter using a crossbow can only fire once.
At higher levels, a martial character with a crossbow is going to find their ranged-damage output severely lessened as a result.
Otherwise, Shortbows and Light Crossbows are pretty evenly matched. Both have a range of (80/320), both cost 25 gp, crossbow bolts and arrows both cost 1 gp each, and both require two hands to use.
Comparing a Light Crossbow with its martial counterparts, the Heavy Crossbow, the Hand Crossbow (the principle advantage of which is that you can hold a weapon, shield, or torch in your off hand), and the Longbow, isn’t really fair as martial weapons tend to be better (if more expensive) across the board and any character with martial weapon proficiency shouldn’t waste their time looking at the options for simple weapons in general.
Slings are, almost universally, worse than either a Light Crossbow or a Shortbow – dealing just 1d4 bludgeoning damage with a shorter range of (30/120) – but use simple stones for ammunition, which are free.
Which Classes Should Take a Light Crossbow?
The Light Crossbow is a great choice for any character that can only typically make one attack per round (rogues, bards, druids, and clerics – as well as any full spellcaster classes) and lacks another way to deal ranged damage.
Wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks all tend to have access to a solid ranged-damage cantrip which makes an ammunition-dependent ranged weapon kind of unnecessary.
Rogues are probably the prime candidate for a Light Crossbow, as they can’t use martial weapons in general and never unlock multiattack – instead using Sneak Attack to apply as much damage as possible in a single hit.
That being said, if you’re willing to invest in a feat for your character, crossbows of all kinds become a very viable option for any build.
The Crossbow Expert Feat
The Loading property places some severe limitations on just how effective a Light Crossbow can be, especially if you’re playing a class with multiattack.
If you’re willing to invest pretty heavily in a “crossbow-centric” build, however, you can still work around this hurdle by choosing the Crossbow Expert feat.
Source: Player’s Handbook
Thanks to extensive practice with the crossbow, you gain the following benefits:
- You ignore the loading quality of crossbows with which you are proficient.
- Being within 5 feet of a hostile creature doesn’t impose disadvantage on your ranged attack rolls.
- When you use the Attack action and attack with a one handed weapon, you can use a bonus action to attack with a hand crossbow you are holding.
Granted, if you’re investing in this feat (which means forgoing either a different feat or an ability score increase) to get multiattack with a crossbow on a martial character, you’re probably better off either using your proficiency with martial weapons to grab a Heavy Crossbow or a Hand Crossbow, which lets you take advantage of the secondary part of this feat and make a crossbow attack with a bonus action.
However, there are a few non-martial characters – the Hexblade Warlock springs to mind – that can benefit from this feat while using a Light Crossbow.
Magical Light Crossbows
Crossbows are a sorely underrepresented template for magical weapons in D&D 5e. Beyond the +1 Light Crossbow, we only have the Dragon Wing Light Crossbow from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons.
Dragon Wing Light Crossbow
Weapon (crossbow, light), rare (requires attunement)
The limb tips of this magic bow are shaped like a dragon’s wings, and the weapon is infused with the essence of a chromatic, gem, or metallic dragon’s breath.
When you hit with an attack roll using this magic bow, the target takes an extra 1d6 damage of the same type as the breath infused in the bow—acid, cold, fire, force, lightning, necrotic, poison, psychic, radiant, or thunder.
If you load no ammunition in the weapon, it produces its own, automatically creating one piece of magic ammunition when you pull back the string.
The ammunition created by the bow vanishes the instant after it hits or misses a target.
When it comes to magical ammunition for crossbows, we encounter much the same dearth of cool options, with the exception of the excellent Walloping Ammunition from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
Crossbow Bolts, Walloping
This ammunition packs a wallop. A creature hit by the bolt must succeed on a DC 10 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone.
Otherwise, however, options are thin on the ground.
This is a shame, because cool, impactful ammunition is one of the best ways I’ve found as a DM to give low-level parties magic items without knocking the whole concept of balance into a cocked hat.
Much like potions, ammunition is consumable.
Sure, there’s a chance that you can recover it after the battle (when spending a minute searching for your mundane ammunition, you recover half the number of arrows or bolts you fired, according to the RAW), but I’d probably rule that magical ammunition expends its effect after being fired, so it’s very much a one-use effect.
The next time your players find some magical crossbow bolts, roll a d6 on the table below to determine its effects and roll the associated die to determine how many are found.
Firing one of these bad boys is sure to make your party’s Light Crossbow wielder feel super impactful.
1. Drainer Bolts (1d4)
These black-feathered quarrels sap the life force from any creature they hit.
When a living creature is hit with a Drainer Bolt, in addition to taking damage, it must pass a DC10 constitution saving throw or lose any damage resistances it has until the end of its next turn.
2. Jumper Bolts (1)
These bolts are tipped with blue steel that permanently emit a static charge.
When you use these bolts, you can choose to immediately teleport to the space where the bolt lands (if you hit a creature, you appear in the nearest unoccupied space) using your reaction.
Alternately, if you hit a creature of size large or smaller, you can use your reaction to force the creature to make a DC10 Constitution saving throw or be teleported to the nearest empty space to you.
3. Sapper Bolts (1d4)
These bolts were made by dwarven siege engineers.
When fired into nonmagical stone, they cause an area of 1d4x10 ft square of stone to crack, crumble and collapse. These arrows deal double damage to constructs.
4. Tracer Bolts (1d6)
Crafted by elven trackers, these bolts force any creature hit with one to succeed on a DC12 Dexterity saving throw or be wreathed in pale amber light.
You have advantage on Wisdom (perception) checks made to find or track this creature, and it cannot turn invisible.
5. Shatterbolts (1d8)
These bolts explode with a small magical charge upon impact.
Every creature within 10 feet of where the bolt lands must succeed on a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw or take 1d4 force damage as a hail of cold blue magical force erupts from runes along its shaft.
6. Bleeders (1d8)
With wicked serrated tips, these bolts are designed to rip muscle and sever tendons, slowing down a hunter’s prey. When you hit a creature with a ranged weapon attack using this bold, the creature must succeed on a DC10 Strength saving throw or have its speed reduced by 20 feet for a number of turns equal to the damage dealt by the attack.
That’s it folks.
Hopefully, you enjoyed our guide to Light Crossbows and everything they can and can’t do.
See you next time and, until then, happy adventuring.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.