Wednesday, November 30, 2011

He's Got a Gun!
Firearms in Fantasy Settings

Okay, so I know it's been talked about before, but I was thinking about this on the drive home the other day and figured it might be worth blogging about.

There seems to be an overwhelming feeling among fantasy RPGers that if you bring a gun to a sword fight you will somehow ruin the game. Various reasons are given ranging everything from "realism", through period accuracy, and on through game balance and cross-genre pollution. While it is understandable that folks may not want guns in their games, there is nothing mechanically to fear from them and even the various thematic arguments do have a few valid arguments against them.

Mechanically speaking, a gun is just a weapon. Setting aside auto-loading guns and sticking with more archaic firearms, there is little that makes an arquiebus or musket any more useful to an adventurer than a crossbow. Though the damage output is likely to be higher, most RPG weapons still inflict proportionately low damage in their respective systems than they would in real life. In many ways a firearm could almost be seen as the two-handed sword of the missile weapons set, inflicting a higher level of damage in its role.

The high damage output of a firearm is balanced out by the slow and fiddly reloading method. Unless you fantasy firearms wielder is blessed with the early invention of all-in-one ammunition, he'll have to spend a good bit of time between shots. This may not be much longer than a heavy crossbow, but there are many more components to this that all must be coordinated in a veritable ballet of finesse and efficiency. While the archer needs only pull an arrow from his quiver, nock, and draw it back, the musketeer must maneuver his weapon, shot, wadding, powder and primer this way and that, all the while removing his weapon from an aiming position. Even the crossbowman, who must also take his weapon out of an aiming position need only get his bow cocked and then grab his next bolt.

In pure mechanical terms, this all sounds like a matter of degrees but if you consider that weapons in RPGs are intended for adventurers, operating in small groups and fighting in skirmish type engagements, thee practicality of a musket suffers greatly. While their are historical precedents for the use of archaic firearms in skirmish engagements, these were still with groups of like armed men fighting in some form of drill and supported by other men fighting in a similar style.

A warrior, armed with a musket in a dungeon delve is unlikely to benefit from other firearm equipped adventurers. In addition, the smoke and noise of his shots is likely to prove distracting and hindering to others in his party. With their visibility obscured and the roar of a boom stick in their ears, a party may find spells difficult to use, and a lacking in the coordination and communication that the close quarters of dungeon combat would require. One or two shots and the already claustrophobic passage will now be choked with smoke as the orcs close range.

But Eli, what about pistols?

Pistols seem like the adventurer's best firearm. Lighter, more compact, and able to be carried in braces of multiple pistols, the pistol really is the choice firearm for the dungeon dweller. Sure the smoke and noise will still be a problem, but at least the reloading issues are minimized by the ability fothe warrior to carry a couple of pistols that he can fire early in the fight and then either fight with them as clubs or put them aside to fight with melee weapons, saving reload time for after and between fights. While the wizard is memorizing, the cleric is busy healing the fighter and the thief is distracted trying to steal gold from the party, the pistolier can be busy cleaning and reloading his braces of pistols.

Next time I'll look at the thematic, role-playing, and setting aspects of firearms as I see them.

Thanks for reading,



  1. I GMed and played in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st ed and we usually had a good selection of firearms in our groups. Some way they control firearm acess was you had to trained to use a given weapon. Nobody could just pick one up and start shooting up the tavern. The firearms were expensive and rare, even if you come up with enough money to buy them you have to find someone willing to part with one. A player brandishing a brace of two or three pistols would have to worry about thug, footpad and pick pocket trying to snag a small fortune in one simple mugging. The shot and powder are equally rare, unless you have an alchemist with a cart full of aparatus rolling with the party. Then you run into misfires, wet powder and certain spell effects that make firearms either inoperable of more dangerous to the user than the target.
    I think they can add to the game, my friends and I had alott of fun using them, good or bad.

  2. We are currently playing Dragonlance in a Victorian Setting and are using the Pathfinder rules including the rules presented in the Ultimate Combat and Ultimate Magic for firearms. So far the game had progressed rather effectively as I have opened up the idea of firearms as uncommon but not rare items. I did have to do some tweaking of the firearms costs which we have down to a single gold per shot including ammo and powder.

  3. I've used and allowed firearms in both WFRP and D&D games. I have never found that they throw off game balance or anythign similar to that. The idea of making it a seperate feat or skill is a good one (Exotic Weapon Proficiency or Specialist Weapon). I would allow a non-proficient person to fire one, at a hefty penalty, but not reload one.

    Limited sources of powder and long reloads make a brace of pistols a decent opening gambit, but not seriously more offsetting than, say, a high level Magic Missile spell, which doesn't miss and causes a respectable amount of damage.

    As far as flavor goes, that is your real barrier. If the players and GM don't liek the feel of early gunpowder weapons, so be it. Me, I like having flintlock type guns available.

    Just don't piss off my old WFRP Duellist when he has a loaded duelling pistol in reach. Or your day will be very bad, and end abruptly.


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