Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sound the Guns!

Over on the Goodman Games forums, they were discussing adding guns to your fantasy campaign, and there were people adding in that guns should be super-rare or super-expensive or super-lethal. It occurred to me that I had never gotten to rant about my feelings about this particular treatment of guns in fantasy, so I let it all out. And here's my thoughts about it, reposted in blog form:

My great complaints about fantasy worlds that decide to introduce firearms are the ideas that firearms:

1) follow the exact same form of development as in the real world;

2) are more powerful than existing weapons; and

3) are ridiculously expensive (usually to "balance out" how much more powerful they are than standard weapons).

Historically speaking, firearms became the king of the battlefield not because of their power, but because of their ease of use. Training a musketeer takes a significantly smaller amount of time than training a bowman, even when dealing with comparatively cruddy matchlock firearms. Also, since most dungeon-crawl fantasy settings happen in a 11th to 15th century sort of period, one can safely ascribe firearms to that level of development--the earliest firearms date to 10th century China, and Europeans definitely had them by the beginning of the 14th century.

Damage-wise, a major hit from a sword will actually do more damage to a person than a direct hit from most firearms. Bullets can kill you from penetration, but the real danger is infection; and in a rules system that doesn't care about that sort of thing, it's pretty much irrelevant. That is to say: in a realistic sense getting hit by either straight-on will kill you dead, but in a narrative sense people are about as likely to get a graze from a bullet as they are a cut on the arm from a sword. And since a hero dying from gangrene is both non-fun and unlikely in a world full of magical healing, we can pretty safely ignore the perils of battlefield surgery.

To address the first point now: Why does everyone assume the same linear progression of firearm technology for a fantasy world as for the real world? The equipment list is already a hodgepodge of several centuries' worth of weapon and armor development, containing all kinds of things that are either way too advanced for a medieval world or way too primitive for the pre-Renaissance period. Also, people tend to think that magic somehow retards the development of technology, which is a little weird in a setting where magic is neither widespread nor commonly available. If anything, magic should [i]aid[/i] in the development of technology, since the people who want to master the secrets of the universe through sorcery would still be interested in mastering the secrets of the universe through science (and indeed, in more than a few Appendix N examples, science and sorcery are two expressions of the same kind of learning).

So I guess what I'm saying is this: I like guns in fantasy settings. I think they make sense and add to the milieu, especially in settings where guns would naturally be part of the world--like pirate settings, gothic horror settings, and fantasy-westerns. I don't think they need to be pigeonholed into "matchlock," "flintlock" and so on either.

A while back, I ran a setting that had firearms powered by "percussion gel," a form of gelatinous alchemical substance that explodes when it's struck too hard (basically, gel-cap nitroglycerin). The guns fired heavy iron shot, and had "cap-holes" where the used dropped in a gel-cap and then closed the lid. There's a small magnet at the back of the gun to hold the ball in place until the percussion gel detonates and sends it flying, so they can be kept "locked and loaded" for quick-drawing and immediate firing. When the trigger is pulled, a small hammer strikes the cap-chamber, causing a tiny explosion that sends the ball flying toward its target. Percussion pistols and percussion muskets (sometimes called "hammerguns") weren't cheap in that setting--but they were't rare, or legendary, or really much more expensive than a good longbow.

If I were going to stat up common firearms for DCC, I might do it like this:

Percussion pistol
Dmg: d8
Range: 20/40/60
Cost: 50gp

Percussion musket
*two-handed weapon
Dmg: d8
Range: 40/80/120
Cost: 65gp

Bullets, 30 (includes percussion gel)
Cost: 15gp

Special Rules: Because of the dangerous qualities of percussion gel, any character using a firearm rolls at +1d on the fumble table and -1d on the critical hit table. All characters are considered to be proficient with the use of firearms because of their simple operation, though some characters may object to them on other grounds. (For example, some religions may forbid their clerics the use of firearms, while many thieves eschew them for being so noisy.)

Did you notice what's not in there? Loading times. They're not fun, and they're not even particularly "realistic" given the quick speed with which fantasy archers get off shots all the time. These guns are roughly equivalent to a good melee weapon but don't get Strength to damage, and wobble the crit/fumble tables. Their range is better than thrown weapons but worse than most missile weapons, which neatly addresses the fact that most real-world primitive guns had very poor range.

"But why do they do the same damage?" someone is inevitably going to ask. Well, because for a primitive firearm like this, a longer barrel just adds stability (i.e., range) and doesn't actually let it carry a bigger load of percussion gel.

On the other hand, you could probably make one of these as a custom weapon:

modified percussion pistol
Dmg: d12
Range: 15/30/45
Cost: 100gp

Showstopper acts as a two-handed weapon for purposes of initiative.

Anyway, that (probably too long) rant is my take on the whole firearms in fantasy issue.


Reverance Pavane said...

The big problem with guns in a D&D-style fantasy medieval game is that eventually they eventually developed to an efficiency that outstripped the defensive capabilities of armour (or rather, required that armour that was proof against such weapons was too heavy to be worn effectively). Which meant that armour started being retired in favour of the ability to move decently, which means the paradigm under which the soldier/fighter operates changes, especially in a game system where what one wears is so vitally important. Far better to dodge that bullet than to resist it.

Leaving aside the lack of guns in the "source material," it simply tends to break the game system.

Which is not to say that you can't have great fantasy games with guns in them. Torg was excellent in this regard (being heavily based on real-world physics). Both versions of Ironclaw handle guns quite well too.

In one wuxia game I ran I purposefully "monstered" guns in order to portray why China was under so much colonial rule by foreigners. Simply put, guns did CON damage, not HP damage (and most of your brilliant martial arts wuxia moves couldn't be used to defend against them). Worked really well. You could tell the villains by their tendency to bring a gun to a sword fight.

In higher level games guns are a very useful anodyne to magic users. I actually ran a Mars game once where the fighters got to use wands ("pistols") and staves ("rifles") which worked quite well (while it changed the play dynamic in a good way it had the advantage that it didn't change the game system).

And in pure high fantasy games (with have no medieval or prehistory precedents) modern-style guns (actually more 19th Century in most cases) can be very useful adjunct. But these sorts of games are a lot rarer these days.

Above all. have fun!

[Percussion caps? Luxury! If you want to make guns difficult to use, use matchlocks, and have the swordsman smell the ambush ahead. And what happens when you gel gets wet? Then again, most D&D players ignore the fact that bows can't be used when it's raining (or at least not for long), so fair's fair.]

Jeremy Puckett said...

I think you missed my point.

Making guns super-lethal ignores what guns do narratively to heroes--which tends to be grazes, near-misses, and flesh wound. Any system that uses hit points or the equivalent is abstracting characters' health, so guns don't wind up doing that much more damage than anything else. The view that guns "break" fantasy worlds is a bad one, IMO.

If you want to represent more advanced guns that negate the benefits of armor in a D&D-style game, just make guns halve the benefit of armor's AC bonus. There's still some deflection going on, if not as much as against arrows. And I don't want guns to be difficult to use; that's the point of my rant. XD

Reverance Pavane said...

Actually my argument wasn't with the guns per se, but the fact that there started to be a change in both armour and subsequently weapon use that came about because of the increased armour-piercing capability of a large calibre musket ball, which marks a fundamental change in how the fighter/soldier operates.

Whilst there were still units we would recognise as knights (Super Heavy Armoured Shock Cavalry) in the 17th Century, they were dying out in the face of massed pike and musketry (not to mention cannons).

Instead the emphasis was shifting to much more limited armour than from the hay-days of the 15th Century. There was less of a need for heavy weapons to provide the mass to bash through armour effectively. So melee weapons became lighter, and "scientific" fencing became more important.

My argument is that this severely lessens the viability of the fighter in D&D-style games, so there is a natural cut-off point when people feel that the D&D paradigm just doesn't function all that well any more, and this usually happens when guns start becoming common enough items to encourage the aforementioned changes.

Anyway, that was the observation I was trying to make. It wasn't a criticism of what you were trying to do or a refutation of your point (I actually agree with it - guns don't break fantasy campaigns* and your approach is perfectly valid).

[In the wuxia game I mentioned I purposefully wanted guns to be super lethal to explain why all these foreigners were in China, ala Once Upon A Time In China. It was a design point that worked very well to support that campaign ideology. My apologies if it lead to any confusion. I might do a similar thing in a post Warring-States Japanese RPG with teppo, to emphasise the threat to the samurai way of life represented by teppo. Again, philosophy purposefully made manifest for aims of play.]

Reverance Pavane said...

Guns, often quite sophisticated ones, tended to often make an appearance in the real old school high fantasy campaigns, which sadly seem to have noticeably died out since the 80's. The excellent Anomalous Subsurface Environment being one noticeable exception of recent times.

As Greg Porter proved it is quite possibly to build a functioning machine pistol using late Roman technology. Although it will take a long time to create the ammunition to the required tolerances. [For that matter Fvlminata is an excellent game with the conceit that Cicero discovered gunpowder and armed the legions with "pila."]

And I agree with you about metallurgy. Real-world alchemy was heavily concerned with metals, so it is only natural to believe that metallurgy in a fantasy world would be far more advanced than historically. Which explains the large amount of late-era equipment in early-era social milieus.

[The Mars campaign I mentioned was interesting because it allowed fighters to operate on an equal footing with quite high-level mages - a milieu where fighters are often at an extreme disadvantage; the design brief was to create a campaign based on a fantasy Mars with minimal changes in the D&D rules - it seemed obvious to arm people with various lost tech "ray guns" by making staves and wands rifles and pistols. They needed to be as powerful match the power level of the campaign at that point.]

An interesting aspect of putting guns in a fantasy campaign is the interaction between spells and guns. Can you hex a gun? Can you stop the mechanism, prevent the charge from firing, or pre-emptively fire the charges? How much does it cost to hex-proof a gun? Can you also do this to a crossbow? All stuff you'll want to think about because your magic using characters (both PC and NPC will be thinking about it).

And if you don't want guns in a game I do really like CS Friedman's approach in the Coldfire Trilogy as to why unmagicked guns are likely to blow up in your face.

[* Although you'll find that grenades, explosives and cannon definitely do change the campaign world, much as they did in history. It becomes much easier to assault a castle or walled city (so fell Byzantium to very primitive cannon). So castles start disappearing in favour of dedicated fortresses, and nobles, now that castles are obsolete, start building far more comfortable chateaus and palaces for living in.]

Jeremy Puckett said...

All very good points, actually!