Making guns palatable in high fantasy [Design Theory]

Glade Riven

Adventurer
Guns are controversial in role playing, despite their historical roles. The mechanics never seem to satisfy fans of firearms, and create more arguments over realism than anything else I've seen. But I got to thinking...how or why would a magical society even begin to develope guns? Would they even be the same as "real world" firearms?

In D&D/Pathfinder...there is no need to develope guns because wizards are very good at blowing stuff up. Why buy a cannon when you can buy a wand of fireballs? Faster attack times, got a "clip" of 50 until you run out, and you don't have to carry the volitile alchemical compound known as gunpowder. But then a phrase came to mind: I have prepared explosive runes.

In the next step of fantasy world developement, "normal" guns would have bullets propelled by explosive runes instead of gunpowder. Okay, wacky gunpowder mechanics ditched. Smooth bore reduces accuracy but increases crit, so 20/x3 on die of damage and guns are always masterwork. So you don't have d20 Modern 2 dice damages. Make ammo more expensive (a bit like a set of masterwork bolts). It's a "rich people's" weapon, now.

Then you get special "trick bullets" that cast spells, maybe in a more expensive type of gun. Price as a scroll, as they are one-time-used-and-consumed.

Please do not respond with "I hate guns in all forms in my fantasy" without contributing constructive critisism.
 

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Derren

Hero
In D&D/Pathfinder...there is no need to develope guns because wizards are very good at blowing stuff up.

And that is exactly the reason why guns would be invented.
Wizards are rare as are magic items. Yet they are powerful and can decide battles. So it would be only naturally that people would look to make that kind of power more accessible.
Guns and cannons are a step into exactly that direction.

And I disagree with the "insanely expensive trick gun" ideas. The power of (early) guns were mass production and ease of use.
Why train and equip expensive knights/heroes when you can give guns to 100 pesants? With enough people shooting guns at a monster, the monster will be killed. And the guns still cost less than the magic items a mid level adventuring party has.

Thats the direction I would suggest for guns in fantasy RPGs. As NPC weapons and as fallback when you are not trained in bows/magic.
 
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Hassassin

First Post
And that is exactly the reason why guns would be invented.

Also, historically firearms made armor less useful, so that might influence their adoption in a fantasy setting. If a kingdom was known for their well armored heavy cavalry, for example, their enemies might adopt even expensive firearms to counter the threat.
 

Derren

Hero
Also, historically firearms made armor less useful, so that might influence their adoption in a fantasy setting. If a kingdom was known for their well armored heavy cavalry, for example, their enemies might adopt even expensive firearms to counter the threat.

Partially yes, but only the advent of guns prompted the armorsmith to make thicker plate armor (which was bulletproof) which we now see as iconic for knights.
Without guns those would not have been invented and scale or chain would have been the armor of choice.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Folks are going to go down the road of plausibility, realism, details of guns and armor. To me, that's a side issue. The real issue isn't historical or mechanical accuracy.

The real issue is genre. And fictional genre generally bears only a loose affiliation with historical, economic, political, and physical reality.

Guns aren't a typical "high fantasy" trope. If you just drop them into high fantasy, you'll find disconnects arise between your mechanics and your genre crop up all over the place. So, I say, it is probably unwise to do it that way. This is the way of, "Here are the mechanics of firearms, now what are the repercussions of those mechanics?" And the reasonable repercussions of the mechanics are usually going to be deeper than you wanted when you set out.

Instead, pick a gun-laden genre, and blend that with high fantasy (say, Three Musketeers, but with magic!), and the mechanical needs of your firearms will fall out on their own. The role and impact of firearms in your world (and thus, on the characters) will be well defined from the get-go, and you can design your mechanics to match.
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
I think the real problem with guns is that they highlight existing problems with the game.

It is intuitively obvious to most people that a completely untrained person can pick up a gun a shoot someone, killing them instantly. It happens all the time, often without intent. This is virtually impossible to model in the D&D hit point system while maintaining any sense of balance. The same may in theory be true of other weapons or of magic, but it seems most salient with firearms.

I think that the historical context of firearm use in D&D is much easier to rationalize than the mechanical versions that have been tried. I also think that this issue is one of the largest problems with d20 Modern and a siginificant reason why roleplaying continues to focus on the fantasy genre.
 

the Jester

Legend
Umbran has a good point.

IMC there is a group of orcs that have worked out how to turn sunlight first into a volatile liquid and then to refine it into "sunpowder". They have built muskets, pistols and cannons, all of which have a heavy fantasy feel, are tied to the campaign lore (the orcs learned the trick by converting to the worship of the sun-god Galador, which they did in order to get accepted as a civilized people so that they can get entry into the Free Trade Alliance, etc etc) and don't run into "real guns would x" problems because they are explicitly not based on our physics.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think the real problem with guns is that they highlight existing problems with the game.

It is intuitively obvious to most people that a completely untrained person can pick up a gun a shoot someone, killing them instantly. It happens all the time, often without intent. This is virtually impossible to model in the D&D hit point system while maintaining any sense of balance. The same may in theory be true of other weapons or of magic, but it seems most salient with firearms.

Ah, you see, that's not a, "problem with the game," unless you define, "does not follow real-world physics and biology very closely," to be a problem.

This is entirely genre-dependent. In the real world, a man with a melee weapon is unlikely to be able to kill a grizzly bear alone. In the fantasy world, that same bear is a non-issue. The question is whether the dragon will kill him, not the bear.

This is what I mean by it being a genre issue. In the high fantasy genre, heroes are incredibly difficult to kill, by real-world standards. They're all Conans and Rambos and John McClanes. The system is designed to support that - is that then a "problem"? No. It is a design goal!
 
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Guns are controversial in role playing, despite their historical roles. The mechanics never seem to satisfy fans of firearms, and create more arguments over realism than anything else I've seen. But I got to thinking...how or why would a magical society even begin to develope guns? Would they even be the same as "real world" firearms?

In D&D/Pathfinder...there is no need to develope guns because wizards are very good at blowing stuff up.

As mentioned above, because high-level wizards are rare (in most settings at least).

A wizard is your artillery. Powerful, but can only fire a few times per day/encounter/whatever. You still need your "grunts".

Why buy a cannon when you can buy a wand of fireballs?

Because some of a cannon's purposes don't match that of a fireball. You can't knock down a castle wall with a fireball, but you can replicate that effect with chain/grape-shot.

Faster attack times, got a "clip" of 50 until you run out, and you don't have to carry the volitile alchemical compound known as gunpowder. But then a phrase came to mind: I have prepared explosive runes.

In the next step of fantasy world developement, "normal" guns would have bullets propelled by explosive runes instead of gunpowder.

Depends on the ruleset. I don't think explosive runes cost anything, but in 4e, that's a ritual, and there's a small component cost, enough to make bullets far more expensive than arrows.

Sure, anyone can use these "gonnes", but considering the cost per shot, you'd still only give them to elite trained "gonnemen".

Okay, wacky gunpowder mechanics ditched. Smooth bore reduces accuracy but increases crit, so 20/x3 on die of damage and guns are always masterwork. So you don't have d20 Modern 2 dice damages. Make ammo more expensive (a bit like a set of masterwork bolts). It's a "rich people's" weapon, now.

But what is the point in-game? Why go to all this trouble when I can use a bow instead, and spend far less on arrows?

Only NPCs (who have more realistic training times) would favor guns, and only if they're rich. If the objective was to make guns only used by the rare NPC, then it's succeeded.

Then you get special "trick bullets" that cast spells, maybe in a more expensive type of gun. Price as a scroll, as they are one-time-used-and-consumed.

This would work quite well. We already have them for bows (arrows of death, etc) and, in the real world, "dragon rounds" and a variety of other munitions for shotguns.
 


Guns aren't lethal all the time. If you're high level (like someone who was in combat in war), it takes more bullets to kill you, obviously.

?He?s Superman?: Marine Survives Shooting By Plugging His Bullet Wounds With His Fingers - Yahoo! News

I'm thinking most people are low-level minions or commoners or 0-level characters (depending on ruleset) with at most 5 hit points. They'd be scared of a gun. Or a knife. Or a sword. Like real-life people. I'd be scared of someone coming after me with a knife, but not if I were Bruce Lee. But there's a strange effect in game terms if Bruce Lee does not fear a knife, but can still be one-shotted by a gun.

Even a fireball, a very frightening proposition, generally won't kill an adventurer in one hit. In such a world, a gun wouldn't seem as frightening.
 
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Derren

Hero
Guns aren't lethal all the time. If you're high level (like someone who was in combat in war), it takes more bullets to kill you, obviously.

?He?s Superman?: Marine Survives Shooting By Plugging His Bullet Wounds With His Fingers - Yahoo! News

Yes, but even this "superman" couldn't continue to run after the thief after being shot.
Lets be realistic, in D&D ranged weapons are vastly less powerful than equivalent weapons in the real world. First the range is reduced most of the time, second normally when you are hit by a (cross)bow or gun the fight is over for you.

Even when you survive a musket ball, and miraceously keep all your limbs, you are bleeding so much that the fight is over for you (without magical healing,...). In D&D and many other "high fantasy" RPGs people can take dozens of arrows/bullets and still fight (or charge through a hail of bullets and never be hit once, depending on the way you narrate HP).
On a open field in D&D it is pretty much impossible to prevent the melee fighters to close in on a ranged fighter as the range of them is very short and they simply can't kill the melee fighter before he reaches them.
 
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Ahnehnois

First Post
Ah, you see, that's not a, "problem with the system," unless you define, "does not follow real-world physics and biology," to be a problem.
...
The system is designed to support that - is that then a "problem"? No. It is a design goal!
You're correct that my use of the world "problem" is more of a value judgment than I intended. However, I do think this is the issue with guns. It's probably true that a human would lose to a bear in melee combat, but that just doesn't have the visceral imagery that modern people associate with a gunshot. An encounter in which a mighty hero stabs a bear with a sword until it dies seems to me to be fantastical, entertaining, but not completely implausible. An encounter in which a person repeatedly shoots another person with a gun at point plank range, hits, and does no appreciable damage is not heroic, it's ridiculous; the shooter appears comically inept. "It's just a flesh wound." This was my experience with d20 Modern/CoC d20. The underlying reality (and one which has shaped history) is that guns are much, much more deadly than arrows or swords.

There is also an issue of genre preference here. Certainly in some genres heroes do seem remarkably durable, and mid- to high-level D&D has long had superheroic heroes. I do, however, think that there's a great deal of cognitive dissonance associated with the reality factor in D&D. Many people keep meticulous track of the weight that their characters carry, the calendar, the effects of weather, and hunger/starvation, all in the name of being "gritty" or "realistic". I suspect these are often the people who are most shaken by the use of firearms in rpgs-it reminds them that the game is not as realistic as they thought it was and that the entire concept of hit points and damage is somewhat at odds with the rest of the rules.

None of this is to say that there is one correct level of simulationism for a D&D game.
 

Glade Riven

Adventurer
I'm actually a fan of the whole "poor man's magical weapon" aspect that guns would play out as. I'm huge fan of Iron Kingdoms stuff, and find that Pathfinder over-prices the weapon in the name of "balance."

For a campaign setting I'm looking at having guns as an option (smooth bore for lower ranges, 1 die of damage, worth using "untrained" because of the higher crit chance, but a feat has to be taken to be able to be a crack shot, full round action to reload). However, I was trying to think of a way to approach guns from different angle that may make them more palatable to those who aren't fans of guns in their fantasy. Then again, particular people are particular.

I suppose limiting a setting to primative cannonry or many of the creative chinese rocket-propelled weapons would work, but that's probably another thread.

EDIT: Missed a few things while I was taking my sweet time replying...

Cannons have a different objective IRL than a fireball, but in the simplified game terms of 3e, 4e, and Pathfinder multiple d6s of damage are multiple d6s of damage. Mechanically, "Fireball" in 3e/pathfinder is an explosion, and there were explosive cannonballs.

Considering how guns work in every action movie, I am surprised that people find it ruins the suspension of disbelief. I think it has more to do with Tolkien not using any sort of firearms in Lord of the Rings, followed by the myth that early guns revolutionized warfare overnight (cannons kinda did, though).
 
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For a campaign setting I'm looking at having guns as an option (smooth bore for lower ranges, 1 die of damage, worth using "untrained" because of the higher crit chance, but a feat has to be taken to be able to be a crack shot, full round action to reload).

Is this for PCs or NPCs?

Will you truly have NPCs using guns untrained? I don't think a -4 penalty (I'm assuming 3.x here) will ever make up for a high crit.

In addition, why would PCs ever take a weapon that takes a full action to reload? I've literally never seen a PC in 8 years of running 3.x D&D take a heavy crossbow. Not once. This, in fact, describes pretty well why designing "good gonnes" is so hard in fantasy games.

I suppose limiting a setting to primative cannonry or many of the creative chinese rocket-propelled weapons would work, but that's probably another thread.

I believe those weapons were more commonly used in that period than "hand gonnes". (I vaguely recall reading that it took more than a half hour for a cannon to be reloaded in the Hundred Years' War, but so little non-religious material was written then, one source isn't that great.)


Cannons have a different objective IRL than a fireball, but in the simplified game terms of 3e, 4e, and Pathfinder multiple d6s of damage are multiple d6s of damage. Mechanically, "Fireball" in 3e/pathfinder is an explosion, and there were explosive cannonballs.

IMO, anti-building cannons should never even be fired at PCs. They have next to no chance to hit (unlike a fireball, which always does damage unless you've got Evasion).

I can certainly imagine anti-infantry cannons being very similar to fireballs though.

Considering how guns work in every action movie, I am surprised that people find it ruins the suspension of disbelief. I think it has more to do with Tolkien not using any sort of firearms in Lord of the Rings, followed by the myth that early guns revolutionized warfare overnight (cannons kinda did, though).

Most people have never been shot or chopped by a sword in real life, creating a myth that having a small but deep hole through several vital organs is deadlier than having a large but somewhat shallower slash being put through you by a sword. They'll both hurt you bad, and hit points are never realistic, but ... guns have to be realistic whereas swords do not.

You're correct that my use of the world "problem" is more of a value judgment than I intended. However, I do think this is the issue with guns. It's probably true that a human would lose to a bear in melee combat, but that just doesn't have the visceral imagery that modern people associate with a gunshot.

It does to me. Having my face literally ripped off by one swing of a bear's claw means I'll never provoke one. I'd end up on my back, blinded, in one blow. Even if that's not "deadly", being shot in the gut is not necessarily "deadly" immediately.

An encounter in which a mighty hero stabs a bear with a sword until it dies seems to me to be fantastical, entertaining, but not completely implausible.

I think this is because it's possible to dodge a bear, or let armor take the hit. Against a gun, you can't dodge, but most people don't shoot very well at all in a combat situation (I think the figures are less than 25% for cops). "Realistically", a gun might be much less accurate but do very high damage, but that isn't going to work in a balanced game system.

The underlying reality (and one which has shaped history) is that guns are much, much more deadly than arrows or swords.

Is that "reality"? Learning to use a sword might take more time and effort, but I'm not seeing a sword as anything but an efficient killing instrument. Very efficient, if your target isn't in heavy armor. Use an axe or mace if they are.
 
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steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
First, I'm pretty much with everything Umbran said.

However, I was trying to think of a way to approach guns from different angle that may make them more palatable to those who aren't fans of guns in their fantasy.

And all I can think of, here, is...well...Why?

What angle do you think might exist that would "make" someone who doesn't want guns in their fantasy to suddenly find them palatable?

If you want guns in your game...then play a game with guns. Why you would and others "should" think that such a game is "high fantasy" does not seem to fly with my understanding of the definition of "high fantasy."

"Steampunk" perhaps...or, ya know, like Umbran suggested "Three Musketeers with magic" whatever period that would be....or some Pirate-Islands-Voodoo-with-Mermaids thing...all of which are/could be considered in the "fantasy" genre...but they're not "high fantasy."

So...it would seem, making people accept guns in high fantasy would require you making the definition of high fantasy different.

--SD
 

Glade Riven

Adventurer
Is this for PCs or NPCs?

Will you truly have NPCs using guns untrained? I don't think a -4 penalty (I'm assuming 3.x here) will ever make up for a high crit.

In addition, why would PCs ever take a weapon that takes a full action to reload? I've literally never seen a PC in 8 years of running 3.x D&D take a heavy crossbow. Not once. This, in fact, describes pretty well why designing "good gonnes" is so hard in fantasy games.

Already tested successfully, using NPC foes to show the players how to do it. Fire the guns, hope they hit, switch to melee and close the gap. A player got crited while at first level and nearly died. The players could have hocked the guns later, and didn't. They even used the tactic themselves. It made for an interesting game.

[MENTION=92511]steeldragons[/MENTION]
I apoligize if I am misconstruding this, but it seems from your post that somehow you are under the impression that I am out to try to force something down someone's throat. If that is the case, that is not my intent. The intent is to open up possibilities. Apparently my communication on that point wasn't clear, but sometimes when I am posting late at night I get a little...skewed. Or ranty.

It is, ultimately, a thought experiment.

As for High Fantasy/High Magic definitions, I had that argument..er..discussion on Enworld a while back. It was...informative, and I think finally locked.
 

Derren

Hero
"Steampunk" perhaps...or, ya know, like Umbran suggested "Three Musketeers with magic" whatever period that would be....or some Pirate-Islands-Voodoo-with-Mermaids thing...all of which are/could be considered in the "fantasy" genre...but they're not "high fantasy."

Sproutz on deviantART

Still, what likely irks several people is that in the time period which is considered the basis for high fantasy, guns already existed.
 

D'karr

Adventurer
Sproutz on deviantART

Still, what likely irks several people is that in the time period which is considered the basis for high fantasy, guns already existed.

On our world, yes. What does that matter to the D&D world?

In D&D you can find dinosaurs, medusas, grizzly-bears, and dragons all in the same time period. What does it matter that "guns" are specific to one time period in our world?

I think that the genre conventions are the real issue, not the time period.

If someone is playing Star Wars, they might not be too keen on using a gunpowder musket. It seems to break the "acceptable" genre convention.
 

was

Adventurer
In the campaigns in which I have seen firearms work, they were still very primitive and took forever to load. This seemed to minimize the possibility of them becoming overpowering.
 

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