Shooting Into Melee

Shooting into Melee is often a point of debate, and handled in a variety of ways. Either it makes aiming more difficult, or it is judged as hitting your comrade on a 1, or in other ways. Under the German Midgard rules, as well as under GURPS rules, it means that if you miss you mark, you must roll un-aimed attacks against other possible targets, be they friend or foe, along the arrow trajectory.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though, even on a clean hit, you have an even chance of hitting any person in the melee. If two of your friends battle one foe, and you shoot at that foe, in two thirds of cases you will hit one of your friends.

Hit or Miss

That is quite un-intuitive, of course. Nobody is such a moron, even an untrained man with a crossbow in a chaotic battle, as to be just as likely to hit a friend as he would a foe, at a distance of five or six yards.

Lots of people will attack the concept and deem it silly.

Lots of others will defend it passionately and cite back-and-forth-movement of the combatants locked in deadly struggle, or flickering torchlight.

Personally, I know where I stand in this, especially if we also remember that AD&D has combat turns of 1 minute — 60 seconds! — in which two arrows can be shot. So given you take 15 seconds to nock an arrow, you still have a window of 15 seconds to aim. That should be plenty to be at least somewhat more likely to hit the foe, even if you are drugged or poisoned.

So I deem it silly. If that makes you angry, you belong to group 2.

Doubting Giants

Honestly, many people, namely true fans, will even defend misprints as weighty wisdom too sophisticated and smart to be truly understood, but still important to adhere to. Their deep fascination with and awe of the creator will not allow them to acknowledge that all humans can make mistakes — maybe not even the creator, but someone in the print shop.

But we will here adopt a perspective where we dare to doubt, and cast disbelief on the wisdom of the 50/50 chance to hit friend or foe in melee. Our question: what on Earth made the AD&D designers rule it that way? The answer is easily found: Mass Combat.

Volley fire

DnD came, as everyone knows, from Chainmail mass combat. And here the logic holds. If you have 100 archers who shoot into a melee of 250 halberdiers fighting 200 pikemen from a distance of 80 yards, or even worse, 150 yards, and maybe arching shots over friendly troops, then yes, then you will have a pretty even chance of hitting your friends who are busy stabbing at the enemy.

With such distances even the arguments about bobbing and weaving in mortal struggle hold true, because the arrow will take a substantial amount of time to pass from bow to target, and once the arrow is there, positions may be very different.

Shooting into Melee should be tricky and risky, yes, but AD&D went overboard with it by porting some rules from Chainmail or Swords & Spells from the open fields of Agincourt into the mossy 10″ corridors and 20×30″ rooms underground.


The OSR game “Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea” (short and concise, right?) is, at a very basic level, heavily informed by the designs of AD&D. But it has deviated from the AD&D way in many aspects, most strongly in as it tries to establish a pulp atmosphere instead of a high fantasy atmosphere. That means that they make magic more special and steel more important, and that they concentrate on detail. And one of these details is the handling of shooting into melee. Spoiler alert: They handle it in the way that I lined out above. To quote the actual passage (from the 2nd edition):

Firing into Melee: If his target is in short range
(S), a missile shooter may attempt to “thread the
needle”, firing at a −2 attack penalty. However,
if the attack roll is a natural 1–3, and this result
qualifies as a miss, then the ally is targeted
instead (randomly determined if more than
one). The shooter must make a new attack
roll (also at a −2 attack penalty) to see if he
hits the ally.
This combat action is not an option if the
target is at medium (M) or long (L) range.
Instead, each combatant (friend and foe
alike) stands an equal chance to be hit. For
example, an allied fighter engaged with
2 hyæna-men would stand a 1-in-3 chance
to become the missile shooter’s target.
N.B.: When calculating the odds of potential
targets, Large creatures may be considered
equal to two or more men, per referee

There: The offending oddity, repaired.
However, there are still the purists who think that AD&D can do nothing wrong and if it does not feel right then obviously the feeling must be wrong, and the rules must be right.
But there is that one golden rule, or rule zero, or rule 1, depending on who you ask, that says: The gamemaster decides.

So, as always, ask your GM, or DM, how it will be handled.
And if the answer follows the ADnD book to the letter, so that it really makes no sense to attempt the shot, then just don’t shoot. But after the game, sow some doubt about this 50/50 rule.


Picture by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels

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