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Weapon Ranges

Long-distance runaround

Converting real-world weapon ranges to an RPG makes me sad and a little anxious. Sad because it's bound to turn out wrong. Anxious because there's a good chance the wrong range value will spark pointless debate over how far a long bow or M16 really fires, and then someone posts a You-Tube video of them firing a ranged weapon at a distance not at all in agreement with what's in the rulebook, and then people are like, "This game sucks—it doesn't even do javelin range right."

So I've been mulling over weapon ranges, and I think I found an answer I'm comfortable with.

Traditional Approaches

The "standard" for weapon ranges was set by D&D, which used a fairly intuitive short/medium/long range mechanic. The idea being (as near as I can tell) that each weapon had a maximum (long) range value, and that it could be reduced in even increments for effective (medium) and close (short) range shots. What's important is that the range increments were based on "thirds" of the maximum. So if a long bow could hit at a maximum of 21", medium was two-thirds of that (14") and short was one-third (7"). This made for neat math, but required that all maximum ranges were divisible by three. Rarely a real issue, but you'll note that we're already accepting a bit of abstraction.

Also important in this mechanic is the concept of a range modifier to your "to-hit" roll. Different versions of D&D handled this differently: B/X imposed a -1 penalty at long range, granted a +1 at short range, and left medium untouched. Another version (I can't remember exactly which) left short range unmodified, but imposed a -2 penalty at medium and -4 at long. Regardless, the idea is that the farther your target, the harder it is to hit.

Another approach I've seen is to establish a single range value, call it "effective range" and assume that any target within it is equally easy to hit. This is more in keeping with the abstraction (i.e., non-simulationist) model I prefer, but it doesn't account for point-blank shots (which should be easier to make) or for targets that are outside effective range, which (when you look at real-world weapon performance) could conceivably be hit—there's always some example (however isolated) that shows how a crack shot reached out and touched someone at a ridiculous distance.

Either system has merit, but neither really feels right for Chimera, which relies on abstraction to be fast and flexible. As I've said before, Chimera is more concerned with what happens than how it happens. In other words, the game moves faster when you concentrate on likely outcomes instead of fussing over exactly how those outcomes are achieved.

Ineffective Range

Keying on the abstraction layer, the single value, "effective range" mechanic is closest to what I'm after. However, this introduces another potential issue—how do you derive that number?

The first hurdle is finding real-world data, and it's surprisingly difficulty to find sources that give consistent effective range values for a given weapon. The Colt M1911 .45 calibre pistol for example. The 1911 Pistols website says effective range is 75 yards. My copy of Twentieth-Century Small Arms (Chris McNab, 2001) puts effective range at 114' (pg. 65). That's a difference of 111 feet. Now, it's probable that "effective range" means different things to different experts, but frankly, it's not worth my time to figure it out. Because I'm writing a game.

The effective range question is harder for archaic weapons, possibly because such weapons—like the long bow, javelin, crossbow, sling, et al.—were all hand-made and infused with too many variables (like building materials and ammo weight) to ensure completely consistent performance. True, you can safely assume that a long bow shoots farther than you can hurl a javelin, but by how much and what if you're using flight arrows or your bow was made of elm or maple instead of yew? Again, you have to rely on an abstraction to make them work in the game.

The second hurdle is translating whatever range value you come up with to the tabletop. Not really a problem unless you're using minis, but as a game designer, you have to account for the possibility. Let's say your M1911 has an effective range of 110' (see—I'm already fiddling with the real-world data). If your battlemat or combat grid is marked in 10' squares, that's a range of 11 squares. Let's say your long bow has an effective range of 640' (well within the conservative and maximum range values I've seen). That's a range of 64 squares, which (as it happens) is a lot of squares, but still manageable.

But when you get into modern firearms, the issue becomes apparent: the Barrett M107 .50 calibre has a range of 5,906'. Are you gonna count out 590 squares? Do you even have a battlemat that big? When you incorporate weapons like this, you can hit anything on the board, which is another way of saying range isn't really a factor. Which got me thinking...

Home On (my) Range

I had already applied a good deal of abstraction to weapon damage; assuming range is just another aspect of weapon performance, why not use the same model?

Think of it this way: certain weapons connote range—you think of a pistol as a short range sidearm, a rifle is a long range firearm, a sub-machine gun falls somewhere in between. As with damage, it's more important for weapons to have workable ranges relative to each other than it is to figure out exactly how far away you can drop a target. The trick is to establish a set of consistent range values first, then assign weapons to them. For example:

  • Close (2"): blowgun, most pistols, hurled melee weapons
  • Short (4"): short bow, powerful pistols, shotgun, sub-machine gun, hurled aerodynamic weapons
  • Medium (8"): sling, early rifles, long bow, light machine guns
  • Long (16"): most rifles, medium machine guns, RPG
  • Remote (32"): heavy machine guns, autocannon, catapult
  • Extreme (64"): anti-materiel rifle
  • Ludicrous (128"): artillery

This removes the need for much research (and the guesswork associated with it). It also keeps things manageable on the tabletop in that most small arms max out at long range (16")—longer range weapons (e.g., heavy machine guns and artillery) still work on the battlemat, but they tend to be fixed position guns, so that provides some balance.

To determine a real-world weapon's range, you pretty much decide on where it falls within the scale above. Again, small arms are rarely above long range, fixed weapons are rarely less than remote range. Apply reasonable variation as you see fit. For example, most pistols are close range weapons, but an exceptionally powerful pistol, like the Desert Eagle, might be short range.

In game terms, there's no modifier for shooting at a target within the specified range. If your target is farther away (let's say up to twice effective range to have any chance of hitting), apply a "to-hit" penalty and reduce damage (e.g., in Chimera, the Shoot roll is DL +1 and downgrade the damage die by one step).

Final Words

Is this the best solution? Not for simulationist games, no. But for abstracted combat models, fast resolution on the tabletop, and a flexible way to introduce new weapons into your campaign, it's a good start. I'm trying this out in my Chimera campaign now—if it sticks, I'll add the mechanic to the next release.

In the meantime, what do you think?

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  1. Mattbot
    May 5th, 2010 at 17:56 | #1

    This is a tricky problem which I’ve tried to tackle before. One of the main things to work out is the difference between range and accuracy. The world record for a sling cast is something like 200 meters, but I’m sure that slinger would be hard pressed to hit a man sized target at that range. Likewise, a 5.56mm round fired from a M4 carbine might travel over a kilometer but hitting anything beyond 300 yards is a required a heavy dose of luck in addition to skill.

    I’ll speak to modern weapons as I’m not as knowledgeable with primitive weapons.

    Accuracy is a combination of projectile ballistics and weapon design and ergonomics. Pistols have decent projectile ballistics but because they are so small and unsteady, it’s hard for a shooter to fully realize their ballistic potential. A Desert Eagle may have more power than a 9mm pistols but it doesn’t make it much easier to hit something with it. Apply a bonus to damage rather than range.

    The difference may seem minor, but I think you should determine broad weapons classes and assign ranges based on those rather than do the reverse.

    The are about the ranges a shooter should be able to use an unmodified skill check:

    pistols = 10 m
    shotguns = 20 m
    smgs = 50 m
    carbines, assault rifles = 250 m
    scoped hunting rifles, scoped marksman’s rifles, machine guns = 400 m
    scoped sniper rifle = 500 m
    scoped heavy sniper rifle = 750 m

    At up to twice the listed range, I’d suggest a 1/2 skill check and at up to four times the listed range, I’d say one hits only at the same chance as a critical hit. Below half the listed range, the shooter should get a bonus but nothing too generous.

    Point blank range should be a special case. In an opposed combat situation, controlling panic at this range is just as important as shooting skill. Anyone at this range might have to pass a willpower check (or whatever is appropriate for your system) or suffer a penalty to hit. I read an FBI analysis on police shootouts from the early 90’s which said the average distance in a shootout was under 10′ and it took an average of 15 pistols rounds fired to land one hit. Adrenaline might be handy if you have a sword but it apparently doesn’t help with obtaining a good sight picture with a gun.

    One last thing to note with primitive weapons. Bows and slings were often employed in mass fire against mass formations. Any historical effective range information you read might be assuming such a situation. That wouldn’t apply for a single archer firing at a point target.

    Hope you find this helpful!

  2. May 5th, 2010 at 21:42 | #2

    @Mattbot : Great comment, and you’ve hit on some of my pain points. I essentially agree that range and accuracy get muddled together in ranged combat mechanics. I take your point on assigning ranges to broad weapon classes – it’s basically what I did with damage (q.v., Weapons and Damage article).

    The approach above is easily adapted to that model – basically take the basic weapon types already defined and assign the range values accordingly. It’s sort of an iterative process, which I don’t seem to have conveyed (my excuse is that I’m too close to the author for such objectivity…).

    In fact, this is essentially what I did with my own weapon construction system (basically a pimped-out spreadsheet that handles all the weapon characteristics to come up with weapon stats). If this approach turns out to be sound, I’ll be sharing that in the weeks to come, so you’ll get a better idea of the method(s) behind my madness.

    Good call on the Desert Eagle – pistols (as Small weapons) get 1d4 damage, so taking your advice would put it at 1d6, but still with standard pistol range (which, for now, I’m calling Close).

    The gist of this approach is to use the single-value, effective range model for missile weapons. What was tripping me up was getting that single value–just too many contradictory figures out there, and not being an arms specialist, I’m just looking for workable numbers for game use. I’m thinking that a standard set of range values will do the trick–it’s just a matter of applying them to weapons in a reasonable fashion, and your examples above are totally in line with what I’m after (exact numbers notwithstanding, as the methodology is the same).

    Point blank is interesting, but I assume that most PCs will pass the panic check (pretty much like how they never need to check for morale). NPCs–particularly fodder types, on the other hand…

    I also grok you on the mass fire deal–when you’re firing 100 arrows at a line of troops, pinpoint accuracy isn’t really a consideration. Agincourt proved that (and Braveheart–Hollywood that it was–isn’t far from the truth on that detail). But since we’re talking about single archers and single targets, those pesky PCs need some kind of mechanic to work with…

    Thanks for the input, Matt. At least I know I’m not completely out in the weeds!

  3. deimos3428
    May 6th, 2010 at 14:17 | #3

    Just a random idle thought, but for some reason, this reminded me of your post on size comparisons.

    Perhaps you could merge the two concepts and make a unified mechanic for determining the melee and/or missle ranges of a weapon/monster of a given size?

  4. May 6th, 2010 at 17:31 | #4

    Any similarity between the two is based purely on my compulsion to categorise everything.

    That said, it would make sense to add Range to Chimera’s existing weapon categories. Looks like a job for my OCD…

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