Welcome to another Black Citadel Gear Guide. Today, we’ll be covering the gold standard of ranged martial weapons in Dungeons & Dragons 5e: the Longbow.
We’ll be taking a look at how this weapon works, which classes can make the best use of it, and how it stacks up against some of the other options available to an adventurer looking to deal some serious damage at range. We’re also going to be talking about options for magical longbows and ammunition.
Ready? Let’s get started.
Martial Ranged Weapon
Proficiency with a longbow allows you to add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll for any attack you make with it.
What Is a Longbow and How Does It Work?
Longbows are the go-to ranged weapon for fighters, rangers, and any other martial character who needs to dish out serious damage from a distance.
Longbows work similarly to other ranged weapons. They allow the wielder to fire a piece of ammunition (in this case, an arrow) at a target within the weapon’s range that the wielder can see. The character wielding the weapon makes an attack roll with a d20 (adding their Dexterity modifier and proficiency bonus if applicable) against the target’s AC. If the result is equal to or higher than the target’s AC, the attack is a hit, and the wielder rolls a d8 (plus their Dexterity modifier and any other modifiers, like the +2 damage from the Archery fighting style) for damage, which is then subtracted from the target’s hit points.
The character shooting the longbow needs at least one piece of ammunition (an arrow) to fire the bow and must have both hands free to use it.
Unlike simple ranged weapons — like the shortbow, the light crossbow, and the sling — that any character can be proficient with, the longbow is a martial weapon and is therefore only accessible to the more combat-oriented classes in the game.
Let’s look at the longbow’s properties one at a time.
Weapons with the two-handed property require you to have both hands free in order to load, aim, and fire them. You’ll need to stow any shields, torches, or other weapons you’re carrying if you want to use your longbow, and you’ll need to account for the time it takes to switch weapons if you want to change to or from your longbow in the heat of battle.
In D&D 5e, all ranged weapons have a distance at which they are effective and beyond which they can’t reach an enemy at all. These effective ranges are expressed with two numbers, denoting the short and long ranges of a weapon.
Beyond melee range (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 longbow has a range of (150/600), meaning it can attack targets normally up to 150 feet away and with disadvantage up to 600 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 30 squares away and with disadvantage at targets between 31 and 120 squares away.
Honestly, this is the big selling point of the longbow. Assuming you have a clear line of sight to your approaching enemy (something like the Sharpshooter feat, which lets you ignore half and three-quarters cover) and that enemy has a 30-foot movement speed and is taking the Dash action to charge at you every single turn, you can use a longbow to spend a full 10 rounds of combat peppering them with arrows. Even if some of those shots are made at disadvantage, that’s a lot of time hitting your enemies when, in all likelihood, they can’t do anything to threaten you.
Weapons with the Heavy property cannot be wielded effectively by creatures of small or tiny size. A size small or tiny creature attempting to use a weapon with the Heavy property would roll with disadvantage. This is primarily due to the fact that heavy weapons are large, unwieldy, and difficult to use, and longbows are no exception.
There’s a reason why, in the real world, the crossbow was the weapon of choice for untrained peasant levies, and longbowmen were the elite peasant troops who metaphorically and very literally unseated the supremacy of heavily armored knights on horseback: longbows need an immense amount of strength to fire. In terms of the longbows (or “war bows”) used during the 100 years war and after, 120-160 pounds was the average draw weight to use them in battle effectively. For contrast, the maximum draw weight for an Olympic competition bow today is about 60 pounds.
Weapons with the ammunition property are designed to fire pieces of ammunition (crossbow bolts, stones, bullets, or in the case of the longbow, arrows) that are consumed in the process. Arrows are probably the most common type of ammunition (other than the small stones you put in a sling) in the world of D&D and are readily available in most towns, where the average price is 1 gold piece per arrow.
Arrows are used with a weapon that has the ammunition property to make a ranged attack. Each time you attack with the weapon, you expend one piece of ammunition. Drawing the ammunition from a quiver, case, or other container is part of the attack (you need a free hand to load a one-handed weapon). At the end of the battle, you can recover half your expended ammunition by taking a minute to search the battlefield.
Arrows are usually stored in a quiver, which can hold up to 20 arrows at a time and costs 1 gp.
Magic Longbows and Magical Ammunition
While magic swords and other melee weapons are relatively commonplace in D&D 5e — something which is immensely helpful, considering the number of creatures with a CR of 5+ that have resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical attacks — there are fewer obvious ways to make your ranged weapon attack magical.
The easiest option is to get a magical longbow, which can be found (like all base-weapon types) in +1, +2, and +3 variants. According to the Dungeon Master’s Guide:
“If a magic weapon has the ammunition property, ammunition fired from it is considered magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.”
Therefore, there’s no need to invest in magical ammunition if you have a magical bow to start with.
However, lower-level parties may not have gotten their hands on a magical ranged weapon yet (as I said, they’re way rarer than swords), and therefore, tracking down some magical ammunition is a good way to bridge the gap if you find yourself fighting something especially nasty.
You can buy magical ammunition of the +1, +2, and +3 varieties, but my favorite option is the Arrow of Slaying, which is a type of weapon designed to kill a specific type of creature or group of creatures (an arrow of bugbear slaying and an arrow of goblinoid slaying both affect bugbears, but the latter also works on hobgoblins and goblins).
If a creature belonging to the type, race, or group associated with an arrow of slaying takes damage from the arrow, the creature must make a DC 17 Constitution saving throw, taking an extra 6d10 piercing damage on a failed save or half as much extra damage on a successful one. Once an arrow of slaying has dealt damage, it reverts to being a normal arrow.
How Much Does a Longbow Cost?
A longbow ties for 2nd place in terms of the most expensive ranged weapon on the basic D&D 5e equipment list (excluding firearms), tying with the Heavy Crossbow at 50 gp and being outpriced by the more intricate and rare Hand Crossbow.
With the added need for ammunition and a place to keep it, setting up your character with a longbow, 20 arrows, and a quiver to keep them in will cost 71 gold pieces. After the initial investment, however, purchasing arrows usually doesn’t prove too much of a financial hardship, as any enemies you fight who use bows will typically have extra ammunition you can loot from their bodies.
Longbows vs. Other Ranged Weapons
Assuming your character is proficient in martial weapons, you have a decent degree of choices laid out in front of you when it comes to picking a ranged weapon with the three top-tier choices (based on damage output and versatility) being the Heavy Crossbow, the Hand Crossbow, and the Longbow.
Each option is the best choice in the right context.
- The Heavy Crossbow deals more damage (d10) than a longbow but has a shorter range and the Loading property, which prevents it from being fired more than once per round without the Crossbow Expert feat. This, therefore, is the choice for characters who don’t have multiattack but want to put out a respectable amount of damage per round.
- The Hand Crossbow deals less damage (d6) but only requires one hand to use, meaning that you can have one hand free to hold a torch, shield, or a second weapon. If you also take the Crossbow Expert feat, you can either dual-wield hand crossbows or use one as your off-hand weapon when two-weapon fighting.
- The Longbow deals middling damage (d8) but can be fired multiple times per round without the need of a feat, meaning that in the hands of a character with multiattack, it quickly outpaces the other options in terms of damage per round.
Which Classes Should Use a Longbow?
Unless you’re playing one of the four classes that start out with martial weapon proficiency (the barbarian, fighter, paladin, or ranger), you’re going to need to take a feat like Weapon Master, multiclass into one of these four classes, or choose a subclass that grants martial weapon proficiency (like War Domain cleric or the College of Valor bard) in order to be able to use a longbow.
Any class that uses multiattack at range can benefit from a longbow, especially if they struggle with defensive options, like a ranger in medium armor.
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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.