Gunplay and Powder Weapons I


This is the first of two articles about including firearms in a fantasy role-playing game. This article discusses including firearms in terms of game philosophy and game preferences. The next article covers a shop, which sells firearms and seven firearms using the 4E Dungeons and Dragons rule system. Neither article is intended to be definitive, but to provide tools for a better game.

Firearms in a Role-Playing Game

A reoccurring question in terms of fantasy gaming is whether to include firearms. Objections include: problems in terms of game mechanics, historical inaccuracy, thematic inaccuracy, dealing with general problems and matters of taste. The first three objections break down upon examination of the game, real world history and a determination to turn “problems” into advantages that permit greater game play. However, objections based upon issues of game taste are usually intractable. If then the objections, to permitting firearms as a part of game play, in a particular group arise from the first few issues, then it is something potentially negotiable. If the objection is one of aesthetics then it is in the best interests of the group to drop the issue1.

Objections to including firearms based on game mechanic concerns should be a non-issue. The mechanics of a game are not the laws of physics; they do not operate on their own, but only to the extent that the players and the game master2 employ them. The game mechanics are only as broken as they are allowed to be by the participants. Most editions of Dungeons and Dragons have provided rules for creating, developing and expanding weapons, and troubleshooting problems3. There should be nothing about firearms that make them incompatible with the properly adjudicated mechanics of a game4.

An objection to including firearms based on concerns of historical accuracy is nonsensical. There were no firearms in Europe in the 10th century and there was a paucity of elves or wizards5 as well. Firearms appeared in China at the end of the 13th century6 and in Europe during the 14th century7. The Mongol and Turkish invasions of Europe and Asia did much to disseminate the weapon. Firearms did signal a sea change, albeit a gradual one, to the world but they did not stop the period from being dark, dangerous and violent – nor an immediate end to sword fights and the use of bows and arrows.

The issue of historical accuracy is probably actually an issue of thematic accuracy. When someone objects to including firearms, they are not objecting to their appearance in Europe in the 10th century, but in world like 10th century Europe, only with fantastic elements. A world where magic (for whatever reason) prohibits technological advancement. However, if one is going to be strict about this rule, then the setting should not include: beer with hops8, liquor9, chess10, buttons11, trebuchets12, combined arms tactics13, steel crossbows14, full plate mail15 or the longsword16. This is to say nothing of including scimitars, cutlasses, rapiers and katanas17 in a game. There is no logical reason for magic to inhibit the development of firearms and not to inhibit other areas and to select firearms in particular is inconsistent and even hypocritical.

There is a business adage that states, “turn every disadvantage into an advantage.” None of the problems above are unsolvable… and drama comes from tension. A bold player will ask for firearms (and a bold GM will allow it) because it is a game changer, something which will make people uncomfortable and “change things.” This should be less problematic than introducing an artifact level item into a game, as firearms are not unique and do less damage to the world than any self-respecting artifact. Lastly, no weapon or item, no matter how powerful, is a replacement for being quick on one’s feet and personal integrity and only the weak act as though this is not true.

However, all these objections and dealing with them leads to the issue of aesthetics, which is an intractable issue in terms of firearms in role-playing games. A magic wand in a fantasy setting, a blaster in a science fiction setting and a pistol are all ranged weapons that are relatively simple to use, though for some the firearm is the deal breaker. It is not an issue of chocolate and peanut butter18, but chocolate and caviar19. Dealing with game preferences is dealing with someone’s personal tastes and thus dealing with someone’s personality rather than something as easily addressed as rules mechanics or historical trivia. If the objection to including firearms in the game is one of aesthetics, then drop the issue rather than allow it to disrupt the group.

Firearms are perfectly adaptable to game mechanics and suitable, in those terms, to a role-playing game. Given the presence of elves and dragons in a game, it is silly to protest firearms as historically wrong. Thematically firearms may be wrong, but to exclude firearms while permitting many other anachronistic elements is being consistent only in hypocrisy. Firearms are indeed a game changer because their purpose is to be a game changer – the bold will grab this and run with it. However, role-playing games are about a group having fun and if including firearms becomes disruptive, because firearms offend someone’s aesthetics sense of the game, then drop the subject. One more in-game knickknack is not worth damaging the group.

Next week there will be an article on seven firearms and an in-game place to buy them.


1. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss good game etiquette and group dynamics.

2. This includes things as simple as forgetting rules and misinterpreting, therefore incorrectly applying, the rules.

3. In the current edition of the Dungeons Master’s Guide, chapter two addresses trouble shooting, chapter three addresses tailoring combat encounters and chapter 10 provides a general toolkit.

4. The design and assignment of levels and damage capacity of the firearms in “Gunplay and Powder Weapons II” followed these rules.

5. Do I really need to offer proof for this statement?

6. The earliest verifiable firearm dates to approximately 1288 in the modern-day Acheng District of Heilongjiang, China.

7. The army of Edward III of England employed a ribauldequin, or a medieval volley gun with many small-caliber iron barrels set up parallel on a platform, in 1339 in France during the Hundred Years War. Muscovite forces used canon’s in defense of the city during battles in 1382 against the invading forces of the Golden Horde.

8. The earliest verifiable inclusion of hops in beers is in the 11th century.

9. The earliest verifiable liquor in Europe, which got the technique from the Islamic world, was in the 12th century. Drinks like vodka, gin and brandy developed in the 14th century.

10. The game dates to 6th century Indian but did not develop into its contemporary form until the 15th century.

11. Buttons developed in Germany no earlier than the 13th century.

12. These weapons appeared in the 12th century.

13. This, as a military tactic, appeared in the 14th century.

14. These weapons, and the crossbows described in most role-playing games are closer to this model than previous versions, appeared in the 15th century.

15. This type of armor appeared in the 15th century, partly as a response to the longbow.

16. Longswords, as they are described in most role-playing games, did not appear until the 12th and 13th centuries and partly as a response to the development of armor.

17. None of which can be placed in the Middle Ages of Europe, so arguably they have no place in a game which attempts to be thematically true to a Middle Ages of Europe setting.

18. Two great tastes that, reputedly, go great together.

19. Two great tastes that no one would plausibly combine.



Edited by Cassey Toi

12 thoughts on “Gunplay and Powder Weapons I

  1. Having worked on firearms for the 6d6 RPG, the biggest problem is one of balance whilst making them meaningful.

    Assuming we are talking about early firearms….

    Firearms can be simply included by saying a Flintlock does 1d8 damage, just like a bow. This keeps the game balanced but it is also pointless. If the guns work exactly like a bow, then why would anyone choose them other than for a bit style?

    This also ignores the basics of how gun works. A early firearm takes a lot longer to reload than a bow. Fantasy games are not about realism but having characters perform the 13 step loading process of a black powder weapon in the same round as they move & fire the weapon is pushing most people’s credibility. If you are going to ignore this totally, you might as well call them magic fire-sticks rather than guns.

    Early guns were also less accurate, more expensive and shorter range than bows, which begs the question why did anyone use them? The simple answer was their ability to punch through armour. The arrival of the gun that sounded the death knell for plate armour.

    The hard part of designing guns into a system is incorporating enough of a flavour of the guns stopping power and the difficulty in using them, whilst making a weapon players want to use, and balancing it with the rest of the system.

    None of this is impossible and many system do it well, though mostly in systems that are designed from the ground up to incorporate them. None of the various D&D versions / supplements that have firearm rules did it particularly well so I’m looking forward to see how you tackle them in 4e.

  2. Great opening post! I’m looking forward to the next one.

    @Chris – your point about the reloading times and short range / inaccuracy is a good one. In the rare instances i’ve permitted firearms in my fantasy setting games they are exactly that: highly inaccurate (critical failure=bad), dangerous to use, but when they hit they do a lot of damage.

    One things firearms do for D&D that really stresses / challenges the rules is the notion of hitting something vs. penetrating the armor. There’s relatively no mechanic in D&D for “did my weapon penetrate the armor?” if you hit you hit – dexterity, dodge, armor protection are all wrapped up into one; and this makes firearms a challenge to implement “correctly” in D&D.

    That being said – there was a great article on Firearms for D&D 4E that was included in Open Game Table, Volume 1. The original article was written by Michael Wolf, and appears over at Stargazer’s World here: http://www.stargazersworld.com/2008/10/02/dd-4th-edition-firearms/

  3. Thank you both. It is probably not giving too much away to say that (A) I made firearms encounter weapons, and (B) I assigned them levels based on the damage they do. I like simple solutions and this seemed a reasonable course of action, a plausible way of balancing a number of issues.

  4. I will be very interested to see how you make your guns. I know I have a veritable armory under construction for my current setting. I will be eager to take a peak at your gun store as well.

  5. Maybe I did too good a job with this opening paragraph – it has set the bar high in terms of expectations.

    As for “why the 10th century,” that is a fair question and the subject almost deserves its own column. I may write one in the future. Basically it comes from, among other things, the idea of “points of light” campaigns being almost by default set in the Dark Ages, with few large political powers and lots of social chaos and economic ruin and turmoil. To fulfill the majority of the thematic tropes of the a “points of light” campaign, of a sword-and-sorcery game or a high fantasy game, then the 10th century is a better fit than the 14th, which had established kingdoms, trade patterns, political systems and so forth.

  6. I think the best way to allow the coolness and flavor of firearms without the power escalation issues. (Gunpowder and firearms being relatively simple to produce on a mass scale) is to create a fantasy version of a gun that is not-quite a gun as far as the components go. Exalted does an admirable job of this. They use a substance called firedust and shoot a short-range blast of flame rather than propel a projectile. The dust must be collected from a natural phenomenon that only happens in certain regions and doesn’t work quite the same way as gunpowder. Therefore, you have “gun-like” items that offer some flavorful combat scenarios, but the same assumptions can’t be made as they can in our world.

    This sort of thing generally works because it makes the world setting have something of it’s very own rather than a carryover from reality, and any balance issues can be resolved with an arbitrary wave of the component availability wand. Making bullets cost 100 gold apiece is a good way to keep your party from mowing down their enemies with a machinegun.

  7. I actually have some philosophical issues with that approach. For one thing it feels unnecessarily complicated. For another it feels like a case of trying to proverbially eat the cake and have it too, i.e. “We’ve got guns in our setting but they are not really guns because you can’t really have guns in a fantasy game.” If you don’t want guns, then disallow them, but the “is/isn’t” quality to that type of weapons makes the game more complicated while adding very little. So to my mind it is a useless compromise.

  8. here is how to put guns into dnd 4e.

    take your character sheet.

    see where it says crossbow?

    cross it out and write “hand cannon” or “sniper rifle” or whatever.

    no need for playtesting or rebalancing and now you have a dude with a gun!

    really i don’t see any need to do anything more than this. does it really bother you that much that you think that a gun should have -4 to hit but +5 to damage or whatever? if you really must have that sort of thing, just build your character to emphasise damage over accuracy with his feats, etc.

    i am actually currently playing a game with a human ranger reskinned as a dwarf engineer in this manner – his twin strike is a brace of pistols he whips out and shoots (they’re at-will because he has several braces of pistols blackbeard style). the encounter powers are blunderbusses and such – because they need to be reloaded between encounters, see. so you can have all the flavour of guns without needing to bring in a bunch of poorly balanced house rules. i never think “wow if only i could be 15% less accurate but do a bit more damage then i would truly be immersed”, i just have fun playing a dwarf who blasts stuff in the face with various gunpowder weapons.

  9. In Iron Kingdoms, which is a fair Steam age magical setting, they make “Blasting Powder” a magical item, similar to a potion or some of the magical dusts. Thus, if you want to make it yourself, you have to invest a feat (to learn to craft it) skill points (to learn how to make the weapon charges), and XP (to enchant it). This, also, keeps the creation of the item controlled by a magical guild called the Golden Thurible Society, who are the ones who can teach the feat (and only do so to society members). Of course, firearms are a bit more advanced there than you are talking about…there are breechloading gins and even some early revolvers…

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