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In games I DM, it is common after combat for players to tell me that they go around and recover the items that expended as ranged attacks. While this certainly makes sense for a hand axe or thrown hammer, at some point bolts and arrows should not be reusable (through either loss or damage and deformation). Is there any guidance on how long an arrow/bolt/dart should last, and is this modified by hits/misses and the characteristics of the target?

In the absence of RAW guidance, can someone suggest a mechanism for ammunition recovery that does not burden combat with a significant increase in tracking/documenting shots?

There is a lot of non gaming source data (and some cool videos) here

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Page 146 in the Players Handbook is the only source I can find that mentions anything regarding arrows being destroyed or used up, in general.

"Weapon Properties
Many weapons have special properties related to their use, as shown in the Weapons table. Ammunition. You can use a weapon that has the ammunition property to make a ranged attack only if you have ammunition to fire from the weapon. Each time you attack with the weapon, you expend one piece of ammunition. Drawing the ammunition from a quiver, case, or other container is part of the attack. At the end of the battle, you can recover half your expended ammunition by taking a minute to search the battlefield."

As for arrows disappearing and being used up because of wear and tear, I see no actual rules for this. You could assume that half the arrows you don't find were arrows that broke off during the fight, or were too damaged to reuse.

The answer to your questions, in order of your:

  1. "Is ammo reusable and recoverable" Yes
  2. "Is there any guidance on how long an arrow/bolt/dart should last, and..." No
  3. "In the absence of RAW guidance, can someone suggest a mechanism for ammunition recovery...." Other than using the RAW, as shown, it might be easier to talk to your players and see if they would like to do this as well.

A game feature to consider for increasing spent arrow harvesting: the cantrip, Mending, used by Bards, Sorcerers, Wizards, Clerics, and Druids. (PHB p. 259)

Mending is something I would allow a player to use to recover a few extra arrows as well, but not all of them. Technically the RAW guidance on how long arrows last. Statistically (based on recovering arrows at 1/2 usage rate) they're going to break after 1-2 shots, after which they become unrecoverable either because they are lost or broken. Mending can repair a mundane item like an arrow. ~From a comment by @Randomorph

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would revise this to remove your suggestion and just keep the RAW citation. The OP requested a simple house rule and I think your suggestion is needlessly complicated as it involves tracking the durability of each individual arrow the player has. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Dec 24 '16 at 15:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Technically this is guidance on how long arrows last. Statistically they're going to break after 1-2 shots, after which they become unrecoverable either because they are lost or broken. Mending is something I would allow a player to use to recover a few extra arrows as well, but not all of them. \$\endgroup\$ – Randomorph Dec 24 '16 at 15:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Randomorph, that is an excellent suggestion, and a great use of a simple cantrip. \$\endgroup\$ – tillmas Dec 24 '16 at 15:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I added Randmorph's comment about mending to go along with your point 3. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 24 '16 at 16:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ A house rule I found very amusing and engaging was to have the archer keep track of his shots. Shots which went wide typically either hit rock or embed themselves permanently into something and are irrecoverable. Shots which hit, however, can be recovered. For flavor, critical hits shattered the arrow, making it irrecoverable. It worked out reasonably close to the official rule of 1/2 recovery, but was more engaging and made the critical hits feel all that more awesome! \$\endgroup\$ – Cort Ammon Dec 24 '16 at 21:40
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RAW

As Jihelo mentioned, the PHB states:

At the end of the battle, you can recover half your expended ammunition by taking a minute to search the battlefield.

This refers to mundane ammunition. It's important to note that for magical ammunition, the DMG states:

Once it hits a target, the ammunition is no longer magical.

This implies that if you miss, the ammunition is still magical. That means that the player (or you) needs to keep track of whether they hit or not whenever using magic ammunition.

Actual Play

The PHB's suggestion is probably the simplest reasonable method to keep track of ammunition, since you only have to keep track of how many shots you've fired. Any other system would require that too, in addition to some other variable.

Personally, though, I've never kept track of ammunition in games I've DM'ed or played in, unless it was magical. Mundane ammunition is so cheap (1gp for 20) and plentiful that I don't think the effort is worth it beyond specific difficult situations.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Once it hits a target, not the intended target. If I miss and hit the wall, how does that count? \$\endgroup\$ – Federico Poloni Dec 24 '16 at 21:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FedericoPoloni, it'd be up to the DM. Magic items are magic, so an arrow of dragon slaying that hits a gnoll might waste its charge, or it might "know" that the target was a dragon and not "activate", or it might do something else entirely. As a DM, I'd personally be charitable and say that the charge doesn't go off unless it hits something it can affect. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Dec 24 '16 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire concerning arrow of slaying, you don't need to house rule to be charitable in this way. If you read the block for these arrows, it says that "Once an arrow of slaying deals its extra damage to a creature, it becomes a nonmagical arrow.". So hit any creature but the focused one will not dissipate the magic effect. \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Jul 16 '19 at 12:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zoma: Though it's worth noting that this is seemingly only true of the arrow, +1/+2/+3 and the arrow of slaying. The unbreakable arrow and the walloping ammunition in Xanathar's Guide to Everything don't say they lose their magic after they hit - so they don't lose it. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 2 at 5:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zoma: It is indeed an excellent resource for both players and DMs. :) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 3 at 9:48
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After a bit of a headache, I have an answer to a specific part of the question.

Since the other answers clearly define whether or not ammunition is reusable (yes) and recoverable (yes, you get half back), I'll leave those to this one sentence.

However:
Is there any guidance on how long an arrow/bolt/dart should last, and is this modified by hits/misses and the characteristics of the target?

Ammunition has a "half-life" of 1 (but it's in shots, rather than time). From this, we can gather the average life span of a piece of ammunition, using the formula for mean lifespan (Thanks @GCL)

$$ \text{mean lifetime} = \frac{\text{half-life}}{\ln(2)} \text{} $$ (or just use a half life calculator)

and you get a very long decimal that tells us that

A piece of ammunition lasts about 2 discrete uses

(There's technically some rounding up from 1.44)

And since the limit of the infinite series \$0.5^n = 1\$; plus the first use of the arrows, you can expect to get about twice as many shots from a number of arrows (not counting rounding down for odd numbers).

So, if you start with 64 arrows, you'll get about 128 shots with them.

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I personally would make these arrows retain their magic and make them unbreakable for normal usage, provided that they don't have specific purposes such as slaying. (Those I would actually suggest will deteriorate with expending their magic.)

After all, why would a magical weapon like a dagger or sword or mace retain its magical quality if it hits a target, but an arrow wouldn't? Logically it makes zero sense, even for a fantasy game.

Characters may still have a chance of not finding less specific purpose magical arrows if they missed their targets (by, let's say, over 5 on their dice rolls) and wouldn't recover them at all on a critical fail. However, they may have to use detect magic to assist in recovering them (except for critical fail).

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Ammunition is recoverable and usable.

At the end of the battle, you can recover half your expended ammunition by taking a minute to search the battlefield. PHB.146

A character who takes a minute to search the battlefield will recover half their expended ammunition.

To adjudicate what half of the ammunition is recovered, the PC who expended the ammunition will choose (since their character is the one searching, actively attempting to locate the ammunition).

A player should keep track of their ammunition unless it has been agreed upon before hand to use alternate rules for ammunition in a particular game.

Throughout this chapter, we use the term character sheet to mean whatever you use to track your character, whether it's a formal character sheet (like the one at the end of this book), some form of digital record, or a piece of notebook paper. PHB 11

The above passage denotes that a player is responsible for tracking and recording aspects of their character on a character sheet.

An easy way to keep track of ammunition is to enter it into the equipment section of your character sheet. For instance a quiver that has a capacity of 20 arrows, a player could write: Quiver; arrows 20/20

When they fire 6 arrows, it would be recorded as Quiver; arrows 14/20 If they take 1 minute to search the battlefield and recover 3 arrows, they would notate Quiver; arrows 17/20

Note there is no distinction between the original arrows and the recovered arrows, they are not damaged, they are functionally the same.

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