One of the best survival strategies for a D&D character is to be out of range. If your foe cannot reach you, to strike or to retaliate, then you have the advantage. So some more cautious players prefer ranged weapons, seeking to avoid melee. And some prefer projectile weapons over thrown weapons, the better to be even farther out. And some try really hard to use their projectiles from as far away as possible.
|Merida agrees! It's hard to shoot a long ways in the forest. Gosh darn trees!
So how far away can you get and still hit your target? Say that a bow has a range increment of 100 ft, to a fair approximation. Max range with a projectile weapon is 10 increments. At two increments, you are at -2 to hit; three, -4; four, -6; five, -8; six, -10; seven, -12; eight, -14; nine, -16; and at last, 10 increments, at -18 to hit. Call that 1,000 ft. at -18 to hit with that longbow. Fair enough -- to shoot SO far away, you should have a hard time of it.
But you really want to shoot things that are distant from you. So you take the Far Shot feat, and you have a bow with the magical quality of Distance. This is not really very hard to achieve -- following standard wealth allowances, a 5th or 6th level PC should be able to afford a +2 bow equivalent. The Far Shot feat (prereq: Point Blank Shot, go figure) cuts your range penalty in half, from -2 per extra range increment to -1. And the Distance ability doubles the weapon's actual range increment. That's a rare case of a doubled doubling in D&D. NOW, a target 1,000 ft away is just five range increments distant, not 10, so at two increments, you are at -1 to hit; three, -2; four, -3; five, -4. Only a -4 penalty to hit a target 1,000 feet away! Sweet!
The game tries to discourage long distance shooting by making point blank shot a prerequesite for all the other shooting feats -- once you are incentivized to get your +1 on attack and damage within 30 ft., you are disinclined to shoot from further out. For missile-based rogues, even more so, since usually sneak attack damage only applies within that same 30 ft. But you, oh cautious archer, realize that Point Blank Shot is a sucker's play, and although you understand that you have to pay the feat tax, you still want to be far from your foe. So you take aim with your +1 Heavy Crossbow of Distance, noting that 10 range increments means 10 x 120 x 2 = 2,400 ft, or almost half a mile! And with Far Shot, your penalty to hit at that range is just -9!
Now come on, seriously, how useful is that kind of incredible range to you, now that you've worked so hard to get it? That is to say, if you first see the enemy when it is 200 ft away, your 1,000-ft-plus range is not helping. Back in First Edition D&D, if this old grognard's memory is at all accurate, each terrain type had an encounter distance, given as a random range. You might run into an owlbear in deep woods at a range of 5-60 feet, or a hill giant in the hills at a range of 100-400 feet. [I'm making these numbers up out of thin air for illustrative purposes.] Well, what are the encounter distances you should use in Third Edition D&D or in Pathfinder? Pathfinder is pretty derivative of 3E for these rules, which include these encounter distances, from shortest to longest (on average):
- Downpours, blizzards, fog: 5 ft.
- Sandstorm: 1d10×5 (27.5) ft.
- Underwater (murky): 1d8×10 (45) ft.
- Marsh terrain (swamp): 2d8×10 (90) ft.
- Gentle hills: 2d10×10 (110) ft.
- Underwater (clear): 4d8×10 (180) ft.
- Desert terrain with dunes: 6d6×10 (210) ft.
- Marsh terrain (moor): 6d6×10 (210) ft.
- Mountain terrain: 4d10×10 (220) feet
- Desert terrain: 6d6×20 (420) ft.
- Forest fire: 2d6 × 100 (700) ft.
- Plains terrain: 6d6×40 (840) ft.
- Avalanche: 1d10×500 (2,750) ft.
So bottom line: The farthest you can hope to meet something that you would want to shoot is about 900 ft away, in open plains or maybe on a ship on a smooth lake or calm ocean. So maximizing your range beyond that is unlikely to deliver returns, generally speaking.
But wait! There's another factor to consider. Can you even SEE your target a quarter mile off? Well, if the foe is trying to use stealth, then probably not, because you get a hefty -10 on your perception checks per 100 ft. that the target is away from you. For 1,000 ft, taking -100 on your perception check is killer. Even if your target has a 3 Dexterity, wearing plate armor, and is huge in size, if it has cover or concealment, and it says it is using stealth, you probably can't see it.
So if it has no cover or concealment, then the encounter distances above should serve pretty well. Go on, you! Get to the plains, and get shooting!
Note: This post has been substantially revised since it was first posted. Major reversion: 10 Sept 2015. Small typos fixed 12 Nov 2015.