At present the enemy shoot and sling beyond our range, so that our Cretan archers are no match for them; our hand-throwers cannot reach as far; and when we pursue, it is not possible to push the pursuit to any great distance from the main body, and within the short distance no foot-soldier, however fleet of foot, could overtake another foot-soldier who has a bow-shot the start of him. If, then, we are to exclude them from all possibility of injuring us as we march, we must get slingers as soon as possible….
from The Anabasis, III.3, by Xenophon,
soldier and member of the Ten Thousand
Premise: Perhaps because it was cheap and universally accessible, the humble sling has been shafted by our modern archery fetish. It deserves better than the javelin range and improvised-weapon damage that it receives in 5th edition.
It makes good sense that every single character class is proficient in the sling.
Slings are cheap. If you can make ropes or cords and can find some rocks, well, there you go. They’re also easy to transport and you can wear a bunch of them easily, often in ways that are pretty easy to conceal. And that means you can practice with them frequently, if you wish, without carrying around a lot of gear. In a D&D setting, then, even folks who are too poor or too scholarly to ever try on full plate armor might know how to use a sling.
Their accessible nature also helps to explain their ubiquity across geography and chronology: They’re one of the few weapons to appear in virtually every early culture on the globe. The slings of the Aztecs inflicted nasty injuries on Conquistadors, who feared the sling bullets more than they feared the arrows. And for much of the history of warfare, slings and arrows occupied the same battlefields even when they weren’t holding hands, famously joined, in the speeches of Hamlet.
Even if I weren’t about to suggest some house rules on slings to bring them more in line with their historical impacts — and yes, I fully plan to do just that — you could make an argument that every single PC, from the barbarian to the wizard in the back, should be armed with at least two slings as back-up weapons, simply because … well, why the hell not? They don’t add to encumbrance, you can wear them as belts or headbands or wristbands, or garters, or as tethers or cords attaching gear to your packs, and even if you don’t carry a sack full of bullets like a professional slinger, you can almost always find or make something to hurl.
But of course, very few PCs carry them. At 1d4 damage, why not just throw a rock instead? Or pick up any object near you and use it as an improvised weapon — since all improvised weapons do the same damage as the sling?
When many cultures found the sling useful, or even terrifying, but almost no PCs do, that disparity is a pretty big hint that maybe we have misrepresented the poor sling.
Here’s another hint: Back in AD&D, 1st-edition days, the sling bullet did as much damage as a heavy crossbow bolt. Go ahead and check. Moreover, sling stones had ranges better than shortbows, and sling bullets could match the range of a longbow. Many readers will be skeptical when I say this, but … yeah, those specs sound about right. It’s rather impressive, actually, looking back at it, how much thought they clearly put into the specifications for the lowly sling.
So it’s a little disappointing that, as of 5th edition, we’ve turned slings into ways to throw a rock a little bit further.
Don’t get me wrong: In all sorts of other ways, 5th edition is a better overall game than any edition that’s come before it. And I do, really, truly understand the game-balance reasoning behind nerfing the sling:
- Unlike the shortbow, the sling is one-handed, even if few PCs take advantage of this. (See the picture above? He’s holding a shield. And yeah, that happened at times.)
- It’s cheaper than the shortbow: 1 cp vs 25 gp.
- And 5th edition aims for simplicity. Simplicity was, in fact, one of the stated design goals (and a good one). And that meant avoiding the need for a lot of special weapons rules.
- So there isn’t much room to improve the sling without either a) ensuring that no one will ever buy a shortbow, or b) adding complicated rules in violation of D&D’s new minimalist aesthetic.
If you prefer that kind of game balance and simplicity, that’s totally cool. Really. I’m not going to hijack your game at d4-point. (Though d4 are terrifying, particularly when hidden in carpet fibers.)
But if you’re open to an alternative sling system that might result in people carrying slings as often as people historically did, read on.
The Fortunes of Slings and Arrows
The new specs that I will suggest later take into consideration the following principles about slings as they historically compared to bows, based on the research I’ve been able to review:
- Slingers could carry multiple lengths of slings. A long sling was suitable for long-range shooting. A short-sling, for straight-line, close-range shooting.
- Sling bullets hit harder and flew further than stones.
- Either bullet or stone could ruin your day: Romans invented special surgical tools specifically to pull sling bullets out of human bodies. Ballistics gel tests show sling bullets embedding completely within simulated tissue and puncturing internal organs. By historical accounts, even armored opponents could be killed with them.
- Short slings could be pretty accurate at short distances, and in windy conditions, long-range slings could reach further and hit more accurately than arrows. Arrows tended to be buffeted off course more easily than rocks and bullets were.
- The official 5e rules already state that ranged weapons suffer disadvantage in Strong Winds. A fairly simple, reasonable house rule might hold that feathered and shafted projectiles also operate at half-range in strong winds.
- In still air, without wind, arrows were probably more accurate than slings. (There’s debate over this, but I side with Lindybeige. The target size comparisons that he makes are persuasive.)
- Whether slings could shoot further than bows is also disputed (even here at the Ludus). However, I’m going to go with historical sources like Xenophon, quoted above, who was writing from actual military experience and whose accounts were backed up by folks like Procopius: Trained-from-youth expert slingers probably had better range than most historical archers. Scholarship comparing “muzzle” velocities for bows and slings seems to back them up. When the bows on Xenophon’s side couldn’t match the range of enemy slingers, his side didn’t blame the wind or wait for the wind to die down. They went and recruited expert slingers to outrange the other side.
- Bows already have one significant advantage in D&D that seems about right — they have a better Normal range than slings do. A shortbow can fire to about 80 feet without incurring disadvantage, while the sling incurs disadvantage at 30 feet or more. That seems fair. This point is going to be easy to overlook because both players and DMs often ignore range penalties, but you could seriously ramp up the damage on slings and still PCs would still prefer to use bows in most instances simply because attacking with disadvantage — as slings will against foes more than 6 squares away — cuts damage per round roughly in half. Bows, in short, are awesome because, as long as you’re not in high winds, they have awesome Normal ranges — you can shoot them at targets a long ways away without incurring disadvantage.
- Therefore, one reasonable option for fixing slings while ensuring people still have a reason for buying a bow might be to ramp up the sling’s Long range (its maximum) while keeping its Normal range at a humble 30 feet.
- Even then, there’s a funny caveat to sling ranges: The maximum range of a sling seems to be highly dependent on the skill of the user, both for modern shooters and for ancient ones. That is, a hobbyist slinger might top out at 150 yards, while an expert slinger can hit targets nearly 450 yards (1,350 feet!) away. Maintaining game balance between sling and bow may require accommodation of this fact. I played around with several ways to account for advanced skills with slings and decided, ultimately, on a feat.
With those points in mind, here are some suggested weapon stats. I’ve noted the changes in red typeface.
Sticks & Stones & Weapon Stats
SIMPLE RANGED WEAPONS
- Shortbow. Cost: 25 gp. Damage: 1d6 piercing. Weight: 2 lb. Notes: Ammunition (range 80/320), two-handed. In strong winds, range drops to 40/160.
- Short Sling, Stone. Cost: 1 sp. Damage: 1d4 bludgeoning. Weight: –. Notes: Ammunition (range 30/100).
- Short Sling, Bullet. Cost: 1 sp. Damage: 1d6 bludgeoning. Weight: –. Notes: Ammunition (range 30/150).
- Long Sling, Stone. Cost: 2 sp. Damage: 1d4 bludgeoning. Weight: –. Notes: Ammunition (range 30/300), loading.
- Long Sling, Bullet. Cost: 2 sp. Damage: 1d6 bludgeoning. Weight: –. Notes: Ammunition (range 30/450), loading.
MARTIAL RANGED WEAPONS
- Longbow. Cost: 50 gp. Damage: 1d8 piercing. Weight: 2 lb. Notes: Ammunition (range 150/600, heavy, two-handed). In strong winds, range drops to 75/300.
You are an expert at slinging rocks and bullets. When armed with a sling, you gain the following benefits:
- Double both Normal and Long range for any sling you wield.
- The long sling does not have the Loading property when you wield it.
- When you use a sling, your stones and bullets inflict +1 bludgeoning damage.
Finally, we should rethink the weight of that bag of 20 bullets from the equipment lists.
Raise it from 1.5 lbs to 5 lbs.
Despite its small size, the British Museum’s specimen of a Roman lead bullet weighs 105 grams. Twenty bullets would weigh just under 5 lbs. Which is one reason, among several, why people might not walk around carrying buckets of sling bullets. Note that another disadvantage of using sling bullets instead of arrows is that it’s a lot easier to find an arrow after you’ve fired it. A bullet that misses will bury itself in the earth. You very likely will never see a bullet again after you have launched it.
Discussion: Why Your Ranged Warrior Should Carry Both Weapons
Lindybeige outlines some pros and cons of bows and slings, noting several weather and intimidation-related reasons for preferring one over the other, depending on circumstances. But even if we go just by the numbers I’ve revised above, I think any serious DEX-built ranged-weapon specialist would probably want to carry both a bow and a sling.
If I’m shooting at targets 100 feet away in low wind, I’m going to want to use a bow because the sling has disadvantage at that range while the bow reaches such targets just fine. Disadvantage hurts.
Also, the long-range sling has the loading feature (to reflect the wind-up you have to do to keep the sling from dragging on the ground and losing its payload).
So the bow kicks ass in a lot of common situations. As it should.
But the sling suddenly becomes a compelling back-up weapon if …
- my targets are outside of bow range. I can hit them (if I’m lucky) and they can’t hit back!
- I run out of arrows or break a string.
- I’m in high winds. In strong winds, the ranges of bow weapons get halved, but the slings–though they already have disadvantage at long range–suffer no additional disadvantage in high winds and don’t suffer a range reduction.
So there you have it: the case for a better sling. I think I’ve restored some of the sling’s former and more accurate glory while retaining game balance among weapons. I’m aware some readers might disagree or think the additional complications are unnecessary. But if you’re tired of everyone being Legolas and Katniss and you’re wondering how to instill some ranged-weapon variety, something like the above suggestion might be the ticket you’re looking for.†