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.