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Crossbow Expert: hand crossbow & shield

I'm working on stats for royal guards of a homebrew capital – using Guard Captain as template. I gave them a hand crossbow and the Crossbow Expert feat, thinking it would allow them to wield a shield in one hand and a hand crossbow in the other.

Crossbow Expert mentions on PHB p. 165:

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.

At first I thought that would be enough to be wearing a shield while attacking with a hand crossbow, but the Loading property actually says:

Because of the time required to load this weapon, you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it when you use an action, bonus action, or reaction to fire it, regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make.

So "loading" refers to loading speed, and the feat makes you faster. It's the Ammunition property that, by RAW (PHB p. 146), doesn't allow wielding a shield while attacking with, and reloading, a hand crossbow:

[...] 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). [...]

Related:

Question

How would it unbalance gameplay to remove the limitation "requires a free hand to load" for hand crossbows? Thematically, it makes sense, because in my setting this city is rich enough to have such fancy technology as "semi-automatic" hand crossbows (however that would work). Since my world setting allows it, it would be only fair if it's also an option for the PCs – if they happen to acquire such a weapon and/or training. I'm mostly interested in the shield & hand crossbow combination, but if I'm overlooking other potential exploits that would unbalance gameplay please inform me.

I'm fine with allowing it for NPCs (for my guards) because I can just calculate the new CR, based on increased DPR and AC. As DM I have enough control to keep that balanced at the table. When allowing it for PCs as well though, I'm not sure which unbalanced exploits I might be overlooking. A good answer includes an analysis of mechanical costs and benefits for PCs when removing the limitation "requires a free hand to load".

To remove this limitation, I'm thinking of three possible ways:

  1. Tweaking the Ammunition property of hand crossbows specifically.
  2. Adding a feature to the Crossbow Expert feat.
  3. Solve it through magic by making the fancy crossbows of the royal guard uncommon magical weapons that can be reloaded without having a free hand.

An amazing answer includes a game balance analysis on these possible solution as well.

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Already-powerful high DPR builds get better defenses

RAW, if you combine Crossbow Expert, Sharpshooter, and the Archery fighting style, you have the basis for some of the most damaging builds in the game. This is (slightly) counterbalanced by the inability to use a shield.

With your proposed changes, those high DPR builds can wear a shield for similar defenses to a sword+board character. A plate-wearing sword+board fighter with the Dueling fighting style will have AC 20. A studded leather-wearing crossbow+board fighter with the Archery fighting style will now have AC 17-19 (depending on their Dexterity), instead of the AC 15-17 they would have without a shield. Dexterity is already a more versatile stat than Strength, and this will increase its power even more.

In case it isn't clear, the real problem here is the Sharpshooter feat. With it, the hand crossbow's normal range extends to 120 feet and you can take -5 to hit (-3 if you consider the Archery fighting style) to get +10 to damage. Combine it with the bonus action attack from Crossbow Expert and you get a terrifying amount of damage. If you restrict one-handed loading to be incompatible with Sharpshooter, most of the problems go away.

Implementation-specific considerations

  1. "Tweaking the Ammunition property of hand crossbows specifically." This does not have any particular problems besides the hand crossbow + shield ones listed above. It does allow for niche shortsword + hand crossbow fighting, which is flavorful for a Swashbuckler rogue, but not particularly powerful.
  2. "Adding a feature to the Crossbow Expert feat." This also doesn't have any particular problems, either. Shortsword + hand crossbow characters would need to take Crossbow Expert to work.
  3. "Solve it through magic by making the fancy crossbows of the royal guard uncommon magical weapons that can be reloaded without having a free hand." This is essentially the same as point 1 once the PCs get their hands on one or two of the royal guard crossbows. Depending on your players, this may also encourage them to...relieve...one of the guards of their crossbow. On the other hand, Ben Barden rightly pointed out in the comments that forcing the players to choose between a +0 repeating hand crossbow and a +3 hand crossbow may give you greater control over balance.

Cost/benefit for exploiting one-handed loading

Fighter (and most other martials)

There is definitely a cost to taking Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter, but in this case, the cost was already "paid" once you chose to play a ranged DPR build. If you want to play optimally, you're going to want both of those feats anyway. Here are four different ranged fighters (using no subclass features) at level 6, all with the Archery fighting style, shooting at an AC 15 enemy:

  • +2 DEX at L4 and L6; 2 longbow attacks for 15.7 DPR.
  • Crossbow Expert at L4, +2 DEX at L6; 3 hand crossbow attacks for 17.4 DPR.
  • Sharpshooter at L4, +2 DEX at L6; 2 longbow attacks for 19.0 DPR.
  • Crossbow Expert at L4, Sharpshooter at L6; 3 hand crossbow attacks for 22.8 DPR.

View the AnyDice program that generated these

Keep in mind, this is the worst level for Crossbow Expert + Sharpshooter, and it's still on top. At level 8, the first fighter already has 20 DEX and can't go higher, but the Crossbow Expert + Sharpshooter fighter gets even better. Any bonus to hit (from +X weapons, proficiency, bless, or Battle Master's Precision Attack) only widens this gap.

Rogue

The key to a successful rogue build is landing Sneak Attack every turn. The standard way to accomplish this is to attempt to Hide each round to gain advantage on your single attack. Unfortunately, hiding is sometimes impossible, leaving even a high-level rogue with a single d20 roll to determine all of their damage for the round.

The Crossbow Expert feat provides an alternative, by offering a different use for the rogue's bonus action: another attack. Two attacks (without advantage or disadvantage) are strictly better than one attack with advantage, making Crossbow Expert's bonus action better than Cunning Action in most cases. They may both hit and maybe even crit. Better yet, if the rogue connects with the first attack, they can still choose to use their bonus action to Hide or reposition.

Changing the Crossbow Expert feat won't have a huge effect on pure rogues, but may encourage them to dip a single level of fighter for shield proficiency and the Archery fighting style. Tweaking the Ammunition property itself would mean that rogues with a fighter dip wouldn't need to take Crossbow Expert if they're okay with a single attack.

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    \$\begingroup\$ #3 is at least adjusted by the fact that they can't use any other magical hand crossbow at the same time... and it may have social implications if the magical guard crossbows are particularly distinctive. It is also unlikely to be accessible at first level. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 16 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden The social implications are a possible limiting factor, but those ramifications would be DM/world dependent. I'm not sure what you mean by "can't use any other magical hand crossbow at the same time". Why would they want to? Crossbow Expert doesn't require you to fire a different hand crossbow as a bonus action. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Apr 16 at 20:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ the point is that if you're using your +0 Stolen Guardsman Crossbow, then you're not using your +3 Artifact Hand Crossbow of Starfire or whatever. If you're of a level and in a game where getting +1 or +2 on your primary weapon is pretty readily available, that can make up for missing a shield pretty quickly. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 16 at 20:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ As an additional suggestion to #3, I have found a lot of success in giving players power, but keeping a specific number of uses to limit how long they can have the item. If you are concerned about it unbalancing your game in the long term a solution I have used many times is to add charges to it, or require ammunition that is particularly expensive / hard to get. The royal guard spares no expense, but your adventuring party might find it hard pressed to spend 100 gp per bolt once they run out of whatever they obtained when they "procured it". \$\endgroup\$ – cntrstrk14 Apr 16 at 21:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Vadruk I've edited in a cost/benefit. I also fixed some of the implementation-specific considerations that didn't make sense when I read over them again. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Apr 17 at 19:31
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Some Beefing Up is Totally Reasonable

First off, the hand-crossbow, with its short range, loading property, and inferior damage to other ranged weapons is generally a sub-optimal weapon in most situations. It is effective in concert with a large supply of light throwing weapons in the other hand (load and fire crossbow, draw dagger, throw dagger: pretty decent for a rogue), and a few other situational times, especially if you allow preloading for true one-handed fire first round. But, generally it is suboptimal, and thus some beefing up can be more an instance of putting it on par with other weapons rather than outclassing them.

Taking that into account, let's consider the closest game analogues and how they will vary based on class.

The Closest Analogue For Use with Shields is Melee Weapons

Fundamentally when a warrior with martial weapons chooses a one handed melee set up they are making the decision for a less powerful primary weapon in exchange for a shield. Since for pure ranged weapons there is no existing shield option, and since for throwing weapons there is no two-handed option, pure melee seems to be our closest analogue. What the relative advantage is will vary based on what weapons are available to that class.

A class with martial weapons is generally making the decision of a two-handed weapon which will give them an average dice damage (not addressing crits) of 6.5 or 7 for a long word, or 5.5 for a polearm with reach, vs. having a shield or second weapon and having their primary damage do and average of 4.5. So a loss of 2-2.5 damage in exchange for the AC boost, or 1 damage and reach. Were they to use hand crossbow and shield in lieu of heavy crossbow it is a trade-off of 5.5 and vastly more range vs 3.5 with an AC boost, which is comparable and seems like a substantial and probably balanced sacrifice on this front.

While the advantages of more range are many, the particular shortness of the hand crossbow has an additional wrinkle. The 30 ft. non-disadvantaged range will mean that many enemies can get to you in one turn much of the time, and then you're a ranged fighter in melee, which for crossbow non-experts sucks.

The hand-crossbow would be comparable to use of throwing weapons with shield. This would then be less powerful by comparison for throwing, since you have to have a lot of extra weapons, but more powerful in terms of having a melee option, so again probably balanced.

Different Sort of Boost for Bards and Rogues

A light weapon one-handed weapon has a very different significance for shield-less classes that get hand crossbows, namely Bards and Rogues.

They don't have shields or two handed weapons beyond going two-handed with a long sword. In terms of the latter, the melee sacrifice they are making is generally between doing 2 more damage with a double handed longsword (and having to invest in strength to do it and not getting the rogue sneak attack damage) vs. something they can dual-wield and/or use with finesse. More often we have the trade between rapier, for a free hand and average increased main attack damage of 1, vs. short swords for dual wielding or daggers for dual wielding with a throwing option.

Beyond the earliest levels the dual wield options make less sense for bards as they increasingly have use for an instrument focus in the off hand and for the bonus action they would use the second weapon. For the rogue however, the choice of dual daggers or shorswords is much more powerful, as they get a second bite at the sneak attack apple.

What this really all boils down to, is that a rogue (and to a lesser extent the Bard) will benefit a great deal from the exchange between an average 4.5 and a lot more range with a light crossbow vs. 3.5 on a hand-crossbow, less range, and an offhand attack or otherwise free hand. Nevertheless the range difference is quite substantial. The hand crossbow requires being within movement range of most creatures to shoot without disadvantage and these are both light armor classes (depending on the Bard: Valor and Sword bards have different dynamics).

On the whole it still seems reasonably balanced as a choice for a bard: between having to stay fairly close to the threats with double hand-crossbows or with a hand crossbow and spell focus in hand, or getting to stand way back and having slightly stronger attacks, especially if your table is not sticklers about juggling that spell focus such that you can use it easily with a bow. The Rogue however, is really going to benefit from that extra attack. Or if the enemies rush them while ranged, they can dash or disengage with a bonus action so the danger from being a weapon wielder with a range of 30 feet from the enemy is somewhat less of a problem now.

The Elephant in the Room: Crossbow Experts in Melee

Where this all starts to, perhaps, unravel balance-wise is when you have people (either out of a particular aesthetic or because they are power-gamers) decide it is time to go handcrossbow and shield instead of melee weapon and shield in melee. Versus a one-handed weapon they would otherwise use it is the loss of one average point of damage for adding range to what they would otherwise do. That is probably objectively superior for anyone using a shield (or for our bards and rogues) to using an actual melee weapon. And then they could take the Sharpshooter feat and do the -5 to hit for +10 damage trade—that many people consider overpowered with a shield—which is otherwise impossible.

On this last point, however, I would say that they have to take a feat for it, namely Crossbow Expert. There are lots of other ways they can make their character awesome with that ASI, so this is a privilege they are paying for. Same goes again for upping the ante with an additional feat cost: Sharpshooter.

Sharpshooter

  • Attacking at long range doesn't impose disadvantage on your ranged weapon attack rolls.
  • Your ranged weapons ignore half cover and three-quarters cover.
  • Before you make a ranged attack with a ranged weapon with which you are proficient, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If you do so and the attack hits, it deals +10 damage.

Also, if we accept that the hand crossbow option is not all that much better amongst the ranged weapon options, then the same two handed vs. one handed melee math applies in this Crossbow Expert build vs. a normal two-handed Crossbow Expert build. If you don't believe that the feat as is has broken the game then this really isn't going to break the game for you.

Also the simple decision to hand out a magic shortsword or dagger (or anything else) of awesomeness rather than magic hand-crossbows can change the calculus of what is optimal at the DM's discretion.

Conclusion - Probably Balanced in Most Situations, Maybe Tweak

Basically this will make the hand crossbow a really strong choice for the rogue even without Crossbow Expert: one of the strongest, but probably not so strong as to be an issue.

It will make it a much stronger choice for everyone else than it already is (particularly bards spending on how stringent you are about holding magical foci), but it is weak as is so that won't be a problem, and it will have a comparable relationship to other ranged weapons for them as one handed melee has to two-handed melee.

But once you throw the Crossbow Expert ranged-weapon-in-melee-feature into the mix, it becomes much more problematic as suddenly it starts beating out melee weapons while still having range. But once again this combo really doesn't unbalance things any further than Crossbow Expert already does.

If it bothers you, however, one solution is simply to say that this feat's feature does not apply to these hand-crossbows. Maybe they have weird magic or design or maybe holding them steady with one hand while an enemy bears down on you is just harder than doing so with a two-handed ranged weapon.

Implementation

Any of the options you give would probably work fine, it really just matters whether you want it to be an anyone can do it thing, a you have to take a feat thing, or a find a specific item thing.

I would recommend number three where they are special items. It creates, I would say, the fewest balance issues (and especially vs. the panoply of other special items in the game). I've argued that it's really only in dual wielding by shieldless classes that the balance becomes questionable, and this would allow a DM to simply not let that rogue get ahold of two of them. It also generally provides the most flexibility to adjust a game element you seem on the fence about as it plays out.

The second suggestion is the least optimal for game balance, as it both increases the power of an already very powerful feat and creates the potential situation of having to retroactively adjust something that a player invested in (taking the feat). I would add that this option gives increased power to people exclusively. This is especially the case when they are using the shooting in melee feature, the lack of which being part of what would keep hand-crossbows balanced—even while having to stay in fairly close range.

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The other answers have already done a great job of addressing game balance issues and there is nothing I can add on that front. I do however have a suggestion for the implementation side of things that could help you keep limits on availability. It doesn't even require magic.

Hand crossbows that work in conjunction with a special magazine built into the back of the guard's shields.

The shield-magazine is designed so that the hand crossbow engages a set of rails and the user gives a hard push on the grip of the crossbow. A pair of hooks hold the string so as the user pushes the crossbow forward the string is held in place until it locks into the cocked position and a bolt is pressed into a spring steel clip on the crossbow which holds the bolt in place. This loading action can easily be performed one handed and requires less time than getting an arrow from a quiver, nocking it, and drawing back the arrow on a bow so the rate of fire is not a concern.

This implementation means that the players would need to acquire not just one of the special hand crossbows but also the matching shield. It also places a limit on the number of bolts that can be fired in an encounter since you can easily say the shield-magazine is difficult and/or slow to refill and only holds 10 or 20 bolts or whatever number you think is appropriate. You could also say that it can only be reloaded using a special tool kit that never leaves the armory.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You should first summarize your answer to the direct question (e.g. by quoting/paraphrasing the balance issues mentioned in other answers) before suggesting additional homebrew workarounds to any potential problems caused by it. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 17 at 7:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I might suggest adding that since it requires the shield this would also eliminate double crossbows, which is it's own potentially unbalancing can of worms. \$\endgroup\$ – Benjamin Olson Apr 17 at 15:19

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