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Since the lengths of the bows and, presumably, the optimal drawn string - bow center distance, are different, my DM has said that shortbow arrows and longbow arrows are different items, and trying to use a shortbow arrow with a longbow, or vice versa, would result in a penalty to attack rolls.

I am not sure whether this is an official rule or a houserule of hers, but that's not the main point. (Although I'm still curious about this.)

My main question is, by this logic, do a longbow arrow and a composite longbow arrow constitute separate items? In other words, is a longbow similar enough to a composite longbow for arrows made for one of them to be usable with both?

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If the DM's ruled that arrows for a longbow and shortbow are different, the DM should also rule that arrows for composite longbows and composite shortbows are different from those. In fact, the house rule may be even more challenging than that because the only way to use the rules as written to reach that conclusion is by consulting Table 7–5: Weapons (PH 116-7). That table lists separately bolts under each of the heavy crossbow, the light crossbow, the hand crossbow, the heavy repeating crossbow, and the light repeating crossbow, and lists separately arrows under each of the longbow, the shortbow, the composite longbow, and the composite shortbow. Under this reading, all bows and crossbows should use different ammunition if any of them do.

The DM may even think she's doing the PCs a favor by allowing them to use at a penalty arrows or bolts designed for the wrong kind of weapon! A stricter DM would've ruled the wrong type of ammunition is flat-out impossible to use with the wrong type of weapon.

TobyY. noted in a comment that the real-world advantage of a composite bow is its self-bow-like draw-weight and draw-length but a shorter bow stave, making it a safe assumption that longbows and composite longbows can share the same arrows, while Zeiss Ikon's answer discusses how some bows will be massively less effective with the wrong arrows. Either way, though, if the DM's relying solely on the weapons table, real-world evidence and experience don't matter.

However, this is a house rule

The game makes no distinction, so far as I am aware, for example, between arrows designed for a Medium creature's longbow and arrows designed for a Medium creature's composite longbow or shortbow. (Arguments can be made both for and against bigger and littler ammunition being required for bigger and littler weapons, but I'm pretty sure that's beyond this question's scope.)

The Player's Handbook, for example, in the starting packages has the half-orc barbarian, dwarf fighter, human fighter, and human paladin carry shortbows and the elf ranger carry a longbow, yet all carry just arrows. This is consistent throughout the game. No mention's made of needing different bolts for different crossbows or different arrows for different bows except in splatbooks that detail specific weapons. (Frostburn's bone bow, for example, says that it "is designed to fire exceptionally large arrows specially made for it" (75).) Even the hand crossbow's bolts cost and weigh as much as the heavy crossbow's bolts.

The exception is the repeating crossbows, both of which use 5-bolt clips of the same cost and weight that cost and weigh as much as 10 bolts for a hand, light, or heavy crossbow. (Even then, a solid argument can be made that the extra weight and expense isn't for the bolts but for the ammunition clips in which they're sold.)

Just to confirm, the Monster Manual's half-celestial paladin (144-5) has 10 silvered and 10 cold iron arrows and a masterwork composite longbow (+4 Str bonus), and the harpy archer (150-1) has 10 cold iron arrows, 10 silvered arrows, and 5 +2 arrows for her +1 frost composite longbow (+1 Str bonus). Neither entry designates the arrows as composite longbow arrows.

Finally, the Dungeon Master's Guide on Table 7–13: Common Ranged Weapons (223) lists different kinds of crossbows and bows separately but lists ammunition in simple lump sums of 50 arrows, 50 crossbow bolts, and 50 sling bullets, undifferentiated by the weapons intended to fire them.

Sometimes game designers omit what they assume readers will perceive on their own, and, y'know, sometimes readers just don't make the same assumptions the designers do, instead readers seeing what they want to see. That's not an insult, and maybe it's even become important for some reason: the DM may have big plans that hinge on this house rule ("Only the greatest of the halfling archers can slay the King of Storm Giants with this +5 giant-king-slaying Small shortbow artifact arrow!"). I don't know. I do know, however, that in such a campaign, unless playing a swordsman or wizard were equally complicated, I wouldn't try to play an archer.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This looks very complete. And as far as I can tell, my DM probably only assumed that arrows were different items because they're listed separately in the PHB. \$\endgroup\$ – Ariane Nov 30 '15 at 17:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan the main real-world advantage of a composite bow is that you can get the same draw-weight and -length from a shorter bow stave compared to a self bow. It's probably safe to assume that longbows and composite longbows have the same drawlength because of that, so could use the same arrows without issue. Real-world logic can be... iffy in RPGs, but it might still be a useful addition. Otherwise, +1 for a nice answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Toby Y. Nov 30 '15 at 22:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TobyY. Look at this scan from my Player's Handbook. puu.sh/lH1LR/8dc79a635a.jpg It seems D&D composite bows are even a tiny bit longer than their non-composite counterparts... which makes no sense as to why a composite longbow is usable on a horse while the normal longbow isn't, but anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Ariane Dec 2 '15 at 20:51
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In the real world, virtually all bows will accommodate virtually all lengths of arrows (not counting Japanese style, which are extra long, and short children's sizes). The real differences in arrows that would affect accuracy (= attack roll penalty) are quality, and spine. Quality is obvious; a badly made arrow won't shoot as well as a well made one. Spine is the stiffness of an arrow, which must be matched to the draw weight of the bow for best accuracy (the arrow flexes as it is released, and if the flex rate doesn't match the speed with which it leaves the bow, it will cast to the left or right). A heavier bow generally needs a stiffer arrow, so a character who gets a strength bonus for damage with a bow would need stiffer arrows, while one using a lighter bow than his strength permits would need softer ones.

This, however, isn't covered in the rules, and would be a house rule. Further, many short bows (for horse use, for instance) were just as heavy drawing as a long bow, due to use of different materials (composite bows were invented by the Egyptians and their contemporaries to allow a horse-bow to shoot as "hard" as a simple long bow, recurve came from similar needs, as did modern materials and ultimately the compound bow).

Given it's extra record keeping, most GMs won't bother, but if your short bow isn't a composite, it's a reasonable house rule that you need softer spined arrows than a full length war bow due to lower draw weight -- that would also be why a short bow does less damage and has less range. Fletchers, who make arrows, will generally mark them by spine weight, and an archer would know what spine his bow needs (unless he armed himself from a fallen enemy, for instance, and is thus using an unfamiliar bow).

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