Keep Guns (And Also Steampunk) Out of D&D

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Keep Guns (And Also Steampunk) Out of D&D

Okay, I’m back up on the soapbox, and today it’s because I’ve finally had enough of hearing about how it should be – or, even worse, it is – okay to include firearms in Dungeons and Dragons. Including guns in D&D is a horrible idea, and rather than just spouting meaningless rhetoric, I’m going to give you solid game theory and hard-won DM experiences to make sure that you understand how completely right I am about this. And, because the two things are irrevocably wedded in my mind, I’m going to take some time to dish abuse out onto steampunk as well. If you hate guns and steampunk in D&D, this article will make you feel good inside. If you like guns and steampunk in D&D, maybe you’ll see the light after you read this, or maybe you’ll just get angry. It’s okay. People who like guns and steampunk in D&D are wrong, and wrong people deserve to be angry.

Hang on, though… first let’s have:

Not Quite An Edit

OK, folks, let’s stop for a second. Yes, that introductory paragraph is pretty inflammatory, and I wrote it that way on purpose. This is one of those topics that people tend to feel strongly about, and I figured I would just throw down the gauntlet, because haters gonna hate. I’m not going to change that paragraph, because that’s not how I do things, but I am going to put this box right up in front of the article. And the reason I’m putting a blue box right up front is that I’m upsetting some thoughtful people who have commented on this article. I’m also upsetting some jerks, who can take a hike. But for the others, please allow me to clarify.

This article is about why I personally don’t like to use guns in my D&D games. If you don’t feel the same way, that’s fine. Your tone is your own to determine, and it’s based on you and your players. However, if you don’t like guns, steampunk, and the rest, it’s possible you share my reasons. And if you need to defend your viewpoint, this might be useful for you. The fact of the matter is that as a DM, you need to be sensitive to your players’ sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your own, or contort yourself to accommodate whatever your players like. You do sometimes need to set boundaries, though, and when you do it’s nice to have some reasons. These might help you, and at various times they have been useful to me. I’ve had players over the years who really wanted guns, and I’ve had to tell them no, and when I did I gave them some reasons. They didn’t always like my decisions or agree with my reasoning, but at least I wasn’t giving them “no, because I’m the DM and we do things my way around here”.

Now, I’m not backing down off of the issue completely. I do think that there are mechanical issues that come up when we start to bring guns into D&D. I strongly believe that D&D is ill suited to handle guns, and that when you try to shoehorn them in you either get bows that go bang or else game-killing instant death-sticks. That bothers me, because I know that firearms and archery are very different… marksmanship of both sorts have been hobbies or professions of mine at various times, and it bothers me acutely to conflate them. If you want to conflate them, go for it. If it doesn’t bother you, and your verisimilitude gets along fine, that’s up to you.

Hopefully this second introduction clears a few things up. The original introduction was written as a big old screw-you to the sort of people I expected to read this article and hate it, but it’s become an insult to thoughtful and courteous DM’s who have commented here, and for that I apologize.

One more thing, if you please, though: I’m not going to go through this entire article and edit everything that might conflict or seem to conflict with the contents of this blue box. I think that editing the article is fundamentally dishonest, and I won’t do it. Please don’t point out how this box conflicts with things that are said in the main body of the article. I’m sure there are many things along those lines, and if you want to make an issue of them on their own merits or lack thereof, go for it. But don’t point out contradictions between the article and this box, because that’s not the purpose of the box, or of the article.

Thanks, readers.

Why Guns Wreck D&D: Tone and Play

There are two main reasons why having guns in D&D is such a bad thing. One of those reasons is a matter of logic and perception, and it has to do with why the magical world of D&D has no room for technology in it, and how guns count as technology no matter how you care to explain them. Steampunk is tied right into this problem, as well. The second reason is a matter of gameplay, and how introducing guns into the way D&D is played, in a mechanics sense, ruins how we deal with everything from equipment to turn-based combat. Each of these deserves its very own discussion, and that’s exactly what I’m planning on doing. Right now, in fact.

Guns, Magic, and Technology

The world of Dungeons & Dragons is a magical world. There’s no getting around that, and there’s really no need to try to get around it. Most of the character classes have at least some spellcasting ability, even if it’s only in a subclass option, and even classes that don’t technically have “magic” (I’m looking at you ki-wielding monks) have abilities that basically work like magic. Magic comes from all kinds of sources: deities, careful study, a little dragon blood in your heritage, you name it. But there’s definitely magic in D&D.

Anyone care to guess how many races in D&D have the ability to cast spells just because of being that particular race? Four of them. Another three beyond those have racial traits that specifically reference magic. So, out of all of the D&D races in the PHB, only humans, dwarves, halflings, half-orcs, and dragonborn can pretty much ignore magic, although dragonborn breath weapons are suspiciously like spells.

And then we get into classes, and the field narrows further. Again, I’m only looking at the PHB for the purposes of this article, so if something’s in Xanathar’s, I’m not paying attention to it here. The line has to be drawn somewhere.

How many classes have nothing whatsoever to do with magic? None of them. All of the classes have at least one subclass that has magical ability. How many subclasses have nothing to do with magic? Four of them: one type of barbarian, two types of fighter, and one type of rogue. And yes, monks have magical ability, so don’t try to split hairs.

The point here is that magic is deeply ingrained in D&D, to the point that it’s almost impossible to even create a character who has no magical ability or talent. I actually tried to run a campaign once with no magic in it, just to see if it could be done. We made it through about six sessions before the boredom just became too much, at which point everyone put their human fighters and halfling rogues back on the shelf and tried something different.

Why Characters Having Magic Really Matters

The point I’m trying to make here is that D&D has magic in it, and it might seem like I’m overstating the point. We all know that D&D has magic in it, so why am I making such a big deal about it? Because it’s really important, and here’s why:

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

We have robustly established that the world of D&D has magic in it, and that the amount of magic in it is substantial, and now we have Clarke’s Third Law to contend with. The magic integral to D&D is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology, and the problem with guns becomes much clearer. The essence of the problem is that guns and magic end up sharing the same status whenever you try to put them together, like this:

If we represent the phrase “sufficiently advanced technology” with the symbol “X”, and the word “magic” with the symbol “Y”, then Clarke’s Third Law can be written as

“X is indistinguishable from Y.”

with the further consequence that

“Y is indistinguishable from X.”

It also doesn’t matter whether “magic” is represented by “X” or “Y”, because the consequences for the application of Clarke’s Third Law are the same either way.

The uncomfortable situation that we have reached is that when we introduce advanced technology into a world with magic, we have to lump both things together because we aren’t able to distinguish the one from the other. An example is in order, and it will involve a tiny spoiler from Dragon Heist. Don’t worry, nothing that will alter the plot or progression of the adventure will be revealed, so players can feel free to read on.

Dragon Heist’s Flirtation with Gunpowder

There are guns in Dragon Heist. Depending on how the story runs, there is the possibility that the PC’s will encounter enemies who have what are essentially muzzle-loading pistols. These pistols work by propelling a bullet with the controlled explosive force of a magical substance called “smokepowder”. There are actually a couple of other places in the hardcover where “smokepowder” makes an appearance, and in those situations it serves the purpose of exploding to demolish something.

The question we all need to be asking ourselves is how “smokepowder”, which is produced by using magic (or alchemy, or somesuch) is different from “gunpowder”, which is produced using chemistry. The answer is that there is no difference. They are indistinguishable: they do exactly the same job (blowing things up and propelling bullets) in the same way (by exploding) and using the same apparatus (metal tubes and lead pellets, or some kind of breakable cask or container). We get guns and bombs, and they work the same way whether magic or chemistry is nominally how we reached that effect.

Logic, Perception, and Duplication of Intent

This is the essence of the argument from logic and perception. When you include devices that propel a projectile by using an explosion, in such a way as to direct it through a tube which one points at one’s enemy, it doesn’t matter whether you say that it was done by magic or whether you say that it was done by chemistry. You have created a situation that is identical either way, because the means by which the task was accomplished cannot be distinguished from each other. From there, you get an unpalatable option. Will you introduce modern technology into a fantasy world that shouldn’t have it, and also doesn’t need it? Or, will you make the meaningless excuse that you’re “using magic” somehow, so it doesn’t count as technology? You end up in the same boat either way.

There Is No Objection from “Alchemy”

Also, don’t start explaining to me that the existence of “alchemy” in the world of D&D makes any difference at all. Alchemy is not science, and it never was. Even in the actual real world, alchemy was never science. It was magic, but with laboratory equipment. We can have alchemy in D&D without much trouble, as long as it doesn’t start behaving exactly like chemistry and producing things that are exactly like gunpowder so that we can have weapons that are exactly like guns. Don’t start splitting hairs.

When you put technology in a world that is already full of magic, you’re muddying waters that were fine to begin with. You don’t need guns, because you already have weapons and magic spells that damage enemies at range. You don’t need hand grenades, because you can get a “necklace of fireballs” and throw one of the beads to blow things up. Even characters without spells of their own can have wands, or rods, or jewelry, or other magical items that let them do the same things as their spellcasting compatriots.

And the magical items are magical, and they work by using magic, and they have no technological components. The fireball bead doesn’t have some kind of explosives packed into it. The wand that shoots magic missiles doesn’t fire them down a tube (and then have gyroscopes and infrared sensors to make sure that the magic missiles always hit, for that matter). That’s the way it should be, because in the world of D&D that’s the only way that doesn’t conflate the magic that belongs in the world with the technology that doesn’t.

And I Also Mentioned Steampunk…

Steampunk in the real world is essentially an art form, and it uses mechanical components like gears, springs, gears, pendulums, steel, gears, copper, and gears to create a kind of post-industrial aesthetic. Or some art-speak like that. And a lot of it looks pretty cool, actually. As far as its existence in the real world, steampunk is pretty innocuous, because everyone knows that steampunk “devices” are actually art. I got my brother a set of cufflinks that were made out of the kind of tiny gears you find in a mechanical watch. Nobody expects them to do anything other than look cool and keep your cuffs fastened. Steampunk in reality isn’t any more harmful or undesirable than impressionism or doo-wop. It’s just art, and you like it or you don’t.

But it causes a big problem for D&D, and that’s because it encourages more confusion between technology and magic. There is actually an acceptable level of technology in D&D, and it has to do with gears, pulleys, counterweights, and that sort of thing. Back in physics class, we called these things “simple machines”, and you can do a lot with them individually, and you can do even more with them when you start combining them in creative ways. There might be a system of cogs and chains that are used to crank a drawbridge up and down. A sailing ship could use block-and-tackle to handle the ropes and sails. An ore mine could have a system for ratcheting mining carts along rails to the top of the shaft. The point is that D&D technology uses a lot of the same components that steampunk-as-art uses, but not for artistic effect. D&D technology uses those things because a world with too much magic would ring false.

Could we actually use magic to deal with drawbridges and sailing ships and mine carts? Probably we could, because we have spells that basically give certain characters telekinesis (that’s you, mage hand), and also spells that summon up various helpers who can move things around (stand up and be recognized, unseen servant). But it’s just easier and more sensible to use mundane physical devices for some jobs. Again, it’s a matter of tone. Sailors muscling around ropes and sails is expected behavior, but sailors using magic spells to move the sails around is just a little odd. If you don’t think that’s odd, then you should probably just stop reading this article and move to Eberron; you can get a magical train ticket or a magical airship ticket from your local magical-means-of-travel agent.

So, D&D technology uses a lot of simple machines to do mundane sorts of work, and steampunk-as-art uses a lot of simple machine pieces to create fanciful and aesthetically interesting creations. And now we run into trouble, because steampunk-as-art takes a hard left turn and starts to turn into steampunk-as-technology. Steampunk-as-art can’t exist in D&D, because you sort of have to progress beyond a certain level of technology before you can start creating avant-garde nostalgic art with it. Any steampunk that you find in D&D is going to be there because it’s masquerading as legitimate technology.

Alchemy is not science, but is actually magic with lab equipment. Steampunk-as-technology is not engineering, but is actually magic with some gears and levers glued onto it. I’m going to pick on Dragon Heist again, because there are a boatload of steampunky inventions at the temple of Gond. Are they magic, or are they mechanical?

The designers seem to want to go with “both”, and that’s a problem. If you can’t use a level of technology appropriate to D&D to accomplish a task, then you use magic instead. Need a way to keep a door closed? Try a mechanical lock. Need something better than a mechanical lock? Use an arcane lock spell. Slap glyphs of warding on the door. Stone shape the opening closed unless someone goes at it with a pickaxe. There are all kinds of options, but creating some kind of “magic gears” and “arcane levers” to stick on there shouldn’t be one of them.

If you start down that road, you can pretty much make any technological device: you start out building it with simple machines appropriate to D&D, and when you hit a place where that isn’t sufficient, then you use some kind of ill-defined magic to fill the gaps, until you can get back into gears and pulleys, and then use some more vague magic when that falls short. The process never has to stop. Would you like to have an airplane? Give it enough gears and belts, flapping wings that would never work, some gnomes to pilot it, and a good old slathering with “magic” to make up for all of the technological shortfalls and ridiculousnesses, and there you go.

Keep the steampunk out of D&D. It’s just another way to sneak in technology by claiming that “it’s really just magic”. But it isn’t just more magic. It’s a way to use “magic” to legitimatize technology that is beyond the reasonable standard for a D&D fantasy world. And at this point I don’t think I should need to reiterate why that’s a bad idea.

But I can’t resist, so I’ll do it anyway. D&D creates a magical world of fantasy, and it’s a world that doesn’t need modern technology to function beautifully. Not having modern technology is part of the point of it all. When you try to interject modern technology into the magical fantasy world of D&D, you run into trouble because you suddenly can’t separate the magic from the technology. They are doing the same job, after all. When you create an alchemical substance that is no different that a chemical one so you can fire bullets, or when you enchant some gears and pulleys to make a da Vinci-esque helicopter, you’re just finding ways to legitimize introducing technology into a world that has no place for it, and no need for it.

Magic is already there in the D&D world, and it does a great job of handling all of the things that we in the real world need technology for. Just let it do its job, and you won’t have to worry about all of this conceptual stuff I just spent upwards of two thousand words on.

So now let’s get out of all of this philosophical metaphysical bullshit and into the nuts and bolts of how the game is played. Yeah, that’s right, we’re going diving into game mechanics. But first we have to talk history, and at this point you should pretty much expect that sort of thing from me.

Guns and the D&D Combat System

The second reason why guns don’t belong in D&D is that they ruin how combat works, and they ruin it very thoroughly, in a number of independent ways. Let me say right now that I’m writing an article for a D&D website, and I’m not writing a research paper. The historical facts I will be presenting in this context are not made up, but they are being presented to illustrate the problems with firearms being introduced into the D&D system of combat mechanics, and the level of detail and rigor is in keeping with that rationale. So, all you military historians (and armchair military historians) out there can start cutting me a break right now.

Operating Firearms Is Complex

There have been a number of technological innovations in how firearms work over the years, particularly in how the main charge of gunpowder (the one that drives the bullet) is ignited to begin with. Because we’re talking about D&D here, I’m going to rule out the percussion cap, which explicitly relies on chemistry to create a spark when a certain chemical preparation is struck violently. If you happen to be wondering why I think this is a problem and should be ruled out, please look at the words “chemistry” and “chemical preparation” and then go back and read the first part of this article again. Moving on, then.

If we were going to have firearms in D&D, the best way we could solve the problem of how to ignite the main charge would be to use the flintlock as a model. Starting fires with flint and steel is already built into D&D; you can buy a tinderbox just about anywhere, and one of the things inside a tinderbox is flint and steel. People have been knocking various substances together to make sparks for thousands of years, and the flintlock is just a very creative way to use those sparks.

Flintlock Basics

A flintlock is really quite simple. The main charge of gunpowder, along with a piece of cloth wadding and of course the bullet, sits at the closed end of the gun barrel. A small channel leads from the inside of the barrel, where the gunpowder is, to the outside of the barrel, where there’s a shallow pan with a smaller amount of gunpowder in it. When the trigger is pulled, the mechanism drives a piece of flint against a piece of steel in such a way as to cast sparks into the shallow pan of gunpowder. When the gunpowder in the pan ignites, the main charge is also ignited by fire passing through the channel. And that’s how a flintlock works: flint and steel, plus gunpowder and a spring.

So, to get a flintlock ready to fire, you had to accomplish a number of things. You had to get the gunpowder charge, the wadding, and the bullet down into the open end of the barrel, and then use a ramrod to pound it down into the very bottom of the closed end, and pack it all in there nice and tight. Then, you had to get some gunpowder into that shallow pan, in order to catch the sparks from the flint and steel. Finally, you would have to operate whatever mechanism your flintlock used to drive the flint onto the steel, which generally meant pulling back a hammer of some sort, and then either pulling a trigger mechanism or just letting the hammer go and snap back.

This took some doing, and it’s really remarkable to think about going through this whole process over and over again while other people were actually shooting at you the whole time. How fast could you get it done? Professional soldiers with plenty of experience and practice could often get off four shots per minute, so getting a single shot ready to fire would take about fifteen seconds.

So, what you really needed to get from that whole blue box (other than fascinating technical trivia about early firearms design) was the number of seconds it would take to fire a shot from your flintlock firearm: fifteen seconds. In D&D terms, that’s about three combat rounds. So, on your first turn in the combat, you fire your gun, and hopefully hit your enemy, which is another problem entirely. Anyway, BANG, and now you’re getting ready for that second shot. So on your next turn you do nothing, because you’re reloading. And on your turn after that, you’re still reloading. And, on your next turn after that, you may still be reloading, or maybe your DM will decide that you can actually shoot again on that turn rather than making you wait another whole round.

If you’ve ever been part of a D&D battle, and I’m assuming that since you’re reading this article that you have, you know that battles that run more than about three or four rounds are quite rare. The sensible thing to do, then, if you had a gun as one of your weapons, would be to shoot it once and then go to your saber or bayonet or something that you could actually use over and over for the rest of the fight. It wouldn’t matter how proficient you were with your firearm of choice, because it would basically be good once per battle.

I actually once ran a campaign which was supposed to be based on the Renaissance type of swashbuckling Three Musketeers action genre, and so the characters had muskets and pistols, as well as rapiers and suchlike. There was also some casting of magic spells going on, too, but it was a pretty weird campaign, so go figure. The point of the story here is that the players quickly got tired of using their firearms, because swords and magic spells were so much easier and more effective to use. The adventure essentially drifted away from the whole inclusion-of-Renaissance-weapons dynamic.

The swashbuckling tone persisted just fine, but everyone realized early on that the firearms were mostly there for show, because they were just too inconvenient to use. They became roleplaying props, and that was okay, in its own way. Was it worth putting guns into D&D in order to have them as roleplaying props? I think probably not. You should be able to swashbuckle just fine without your useless pistol; just get a really ornate rapier and a glove to smack people with when you challenge them to a duel. No gunpowder required.

Firearms and Armor: No Contest

Something that you’ll notice about warfare before firearms and warfare after firearms is that soldiers stopped wearing armor. At one point in history, there were any number of types of armor, from the simple and inexpensive hardened or padded leather right on up through custom-fitted full-plate suits, and soldiers and other military types wore armor into battle. And, that armor was well-adapted to the weapons they were carrying into those battles. Blows with edged weapons, stabs with pointed weapons, bashes with blunt weapons, and even shots with arrows or crossbow bolts, could be stopped or at least mitigated by the right type of armor.

Fast-forward to the Napoleonic era, and now nobody is wearing armor at all; not even close. Soldiers of every rank and specialty are now wearing uniforms made of cloth. And, they’re carrying firearms, which send lead projectiles flying out at incredible speeds, and those projectiles will go right through those cloth uniforms with no trouble at all. The thing is, those projectiles would go through the previous sorts of armor without much problem either. In this new iteration of warfare wearing armor was cumbersome, and outfitting your troops with armor was expensive, and so militaries the world over just stopped using armor altogether.

This is actually reducible to numbers, which I will be rounding off a bit, and also which will be somewhat based on modern versions of D&D weapons, because longbows and crossbows are still being manufactured out there, and it’s a lot easier to find stats on them than it is to try to find stats on really authentic replicas. Ultimately, close enough will be sufficient for my point to get across.

A shot from a longbow, remembering that arrows are not perfectly aerodynamic and thus vary in velocity during flight, propels an arrow towards a target at about 150 to 200 feet per second. A crossbow bolt can move quite a bit faster, maybe as much as 300 to 400 feet per second. Neither one of these is even close to the speed of a bullet from a gun.

Even fairly low-powered rifles, like the .22 caliber models that you might use for target shooting or picking off squirrels (which are delicious in a stew, by the way, and shame on you if you’re going to shoot a delicious animal and not eat it), are going to have a muzzle velocity of upwards of 1000 feet per second. Some air-powered pellet rifles (basically BB guns with attitude) can get up to those muzzle velocities as well, even with no gunpowder involved. When you get into higher caliber projectiles, the amount of powder being used goes up as well, and the muzzle velocities can increase dramatically. The fastest muzzle velocities of modern cartridge firearms are well in excess of 3500 feet per second.

And, the larger the projectile, the more energy it strikes the target with. You might have an old-style flintlock musket with only 1000 feet per second muzzle velocity, but the projectile coming out with that speed is half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter, weighing maybe a couple of ounces. Whatever it hits, it’s going to hit like a Mack truck. It’s not stopping, it’s going through, and that’s why we don’t have knights in armor, and haven’t had them for hundreds of years. The armor wasn’t stopping bullets, so the smart move was to stop wearing it.

Armor and Armor Class in D&D

So, to break it down as simply as possible, you have only three types of physical armor available to you in D&D. I’m going to be looking primarily at 5th Edition here, but if my memory serves correctly (as it unfailingly does) you’ll find the same type of things in 3.5 and Pathfinder. Here’s how it works:

Light Armor will raise your base Armor Class a small amount, but you’ll be able to add a bonus from your Dexterity statistic to raise your overall Armor Class further. Essentially, characters wearing light armor are relying mostly on dodging attacks, and only a little bit on deflecting or absorbing attacks.

Medium Armor will raise your base Armor Class more than light armor, but you only get to use a small bonus from your Dexterity statistic to raise your overall Armor Class. Characters wearing medium armor are able to dodge around somewhat, but they’re also relying on their armor to deflect or absorb attacks that hit.

Heavy Armor raises your base Armor Class a lot, but that’s it. You’re a tank, now (and by this I’m evoking the actual armored vehicle, not just spouting game lingo), and you don’t dodge. You just take the hits and hope your armor protects you from the damage.

I’m talking about dodging hits and taking hits here, but please understand that both of those things are “imaginary” components of Armor Class. There’s only one AC number, but when you think about a lightly armored character and the ways in which an attack that doesn’t meet their AC “misses”, it makes more sense to think in terms of a dodge that results in no damage. You treat the AC for that character in the plate armor the same way, but when an attack doesn’t meet the AC and “misses”, what’s really happening is that the weapon is striking the character but failing to do any damage because of the armor. We roll all this into one concept of Armor Class, and that’s a good thing to do. Just understand that the AC is representing two different ways to take no damage from an attack: dodge and absorb.

There is a reason to think about AC in terms of dodge and absorb, though, and the reason is that when you put guns into D&D, there is no more absorb. Bullets go straight through armor, including the really heavy-duty plate armor. So, all of a sudden, that fighter with the plate armor and an AC of 18 now has an AC of 10. The AC increase was totally based on absorption of damage, and that doesn’t work with bullets. Wearing all of that plate armor also means that the fighter can’t dodge, so all it really does is weigh him down and make him an easy target.

Being denied the ability to effectively use heavier types of armor is a game balance issue. When the combat system was designed, and when different classes were balanced to interact with that system, the classes that are more focused on weapon fighting got access to heavier armor. And, in the long run, heavier armor is a better choice: plate armor in 5th Edition gets you an AC of 18, and you would need a boatload of Dexterity to get that high of an AC in light armor. Giving access to skills and abilities is how the game gets balanced, and wearing heavier armor is definitely a class skill. Guns just reverse the situation, so now it’s better for everyone to have a high Dexterity and wear light armor, which is in fact just what happened in the real world when guns became a part of warfare.

Rifles, Muskets, and Hitting Where You Aim

We’re not going to stop there, though, because there’s another problem with guns in D&D, and it also comes back to technology. And, as before, we can see how warfare changed in the real world as firearms became more sophisticated.

Napoleonic warfare is just the fancy name for when all of the soldiers line up in nice even ranks, facing each other across the battlefield, and they all aim their guns at the enemy and fire all at once, and then it’s the enemy’s turn and you stand there and wait to see if you get hit. It seems really ridiculous, but when it was devised as a new tactic for battles with firearms, it wasn’t really as silly as it seems now. The problem with early firearms is that they were not accurate in general, and especially not accurate over long distances. Lining everyone up and then everyone shoots at once in the same general direction was actually a pretty good way to make sure that at least some of your soldiers hit some of their soldiers some of the time. And it worked fine that way for many years.

It stopped working when someone realized that by carving spirals in a gun’s barrel (which is called “rifling”, as in a “rifle”) they could make a bullet spin in flight, increasing range and accuracy by a lot. When the American Civil War rolled around, Napoleonic tactics didn’t work anymore, because these new rifled-barrel muskets actually did a good job of hitting what the soldiers aimed at, and soldiers who lined up in nice neat rows got cut down like grass. When you read about the massive casualties in that war, a lot of it goes down to using musket tactics against rifles.

When you include guns in D&D, you have a very uncomfortable choice to make. If you stick with smooth-bore muskets, like the flintlocks we talked about would have been, then you’re going to have to either deal with very inaccurate guns or else just sort of ignore that unfortunate fact so that you can have guns in your D&D game. If you really want to have accurate firearms, you’re no longer talking about Renaissance technology; instead, you’re introducing post-Industrial Revolution technology, just a few steps away from modern cartridge firearms. Suddenly the seemingly innocuous guns in your game are getting really advanced. Next you’ll be wanting laser blasters.

Yes, I’ve Also Seen That Chart

There is actually a chart in the 5th Edition DMG that gives stats for modern and futuristic weapons, like assault rifles and antimatter blasters and hand grenades. If you look at the chart, and you consider what I said earlier about AC and firearms, you’ll realize that it’s a ridiculous thing to even come up with, much less present as something that DM’s might actually want to use.

I’m sure the reason that they put it in there is in case your homebrew takes you through a time-and-space portal for a brief jaunt in the non-D&D multiverse, and your characters need to have some six-shooters or something.

Anyway, the concept is ridiculous, and the numbers are ridiculous, and the fact that they included it in the DMG is ridiculous. Please don’t use that chart as some sort of justification that it’s okay to use guns in D&D because “look, there they are in the core rulebooks.” There are lots of really silly things in those books, but I’m not going to get into them today. This article is about guns.

So, accurate firearms are a big problem if you’re going to include guns at all. With the kind of guns that you would find in the sort of Renaissance-era adventure that isn’t too much of a stretch from the not-quite-medieval-Dark-Ages-era that’s generally the level of technology for D&D, you’ll get guns that won’t hit anything, unless you immediately start hand-waving that away. Now you’ve not only included something that’s problematic to begin with, but you’ve immediately had to start fiddling with the concept before anyone even fires a shot. Hacks that immediately require further hacks are usually not worth hacking.

Summing Up Accuracy and Armor

That’s the gist of how guns wreck the D&D combat system. If you want to include guns, you’ll need to figure out how characters with heavy armor will derive any benefit from that proficiency when there are death-bang-sticks out there that make your plate armor just a big weight that keeps you from dodging out of the line of fire. You’ll need to account for how early firearms can’t really hit much of anything, and firearms that can hit targets intentionally are just a breath away from what we have in the real world today. Also, remember that any firearms are going to take time to load and fire. Lots of time. More time than you’re going to have in any combat, unless of course everyone is standing around reloading rather than doing something sensible like hitting people with the butt end of their guns while they’re busy reloading.

Leave Guns Out of It

It comes down to this, folks. If you’re introducing technology into a world that doesn’t need it and has no place for it, except to replace something that works just as well, you’re making a mistake. Putting guns in D&D doesn’t add anything to the game that isn’t already there; at best, they do a lousy job of replacing something that already works, like a magic spell or an existing weapon.

If you’re really set on using guns in your D&D game, you should be aware that you’re going to have to take extensive liberties with how firearms actually function in combat. You’re going to have to ignore how bullets go straight through even heavy armor. You’re going to have to ignore how early firearms weren’t accurate, but accurate firearms are very modern. You’re probably going to have to ignore the fact that firearms take a long time to reload.

Get ready to hand-wave all of this away, and realize that when you do that, what you’ll have is a longbow that you’ve renamed “gun” and now it fires bullets and makes a loud noise and operates on some quasi-science principle that’s being stretched to its limits to function at all in a world that’s designed and created for fantasy adventures.

And, if you don’t find any of the theory convincing, then you can at least listen to the war stories of a DM who’s tried it all. Worlds without magic don’t function in D&D, because you’re leaving huge portions of the game unused, and it gets really boring. Worlds with guns that are even a little bit realistic don’t function in D&D, because realistic guns are so inconvenient that players just stop using them and go back to their swords and crossbows. Worlds with both guns and magic get very strange, because you’ll be forced to account for why there are both, and because spellcasters will beat the hell out of gunslingers any day of the week. The only positive experience I have ever had with any kind of gun-like element in a campaign was where the characters had to complete a series of quests in order to get the materials to make a giant siege cannon to blow a hole in the evil emperor’s castle, at which point they went in with their swords and crossbows. And yes, this was prior to when the orcs did that same trick at Helm’s Deep in the Lord of the Rings movies, so they actually cheated off of me rather than the other way around.

Some things can’t coexist without essentially being the same thing, and that’s what happens with guns and magic in D&D. It’s what happens with any kind of advanced technology and magic in D&D, and it even happens when the technology is supposed to be relying on magic to work. If you want to play a game with guns in it, there are plenty of tabletop RPG’s out there that have guns in them by design, which means that someone planned for them to be part of the game, instead of just trying to graft them on later because “wouldn’t this be nifty.”

It would not be nifty. Leave the guns and steampunk out of D&D. If you include them, and you do it right, you won’t like the results. If you include them and do it wrong, on purpose, knowing that you’re doing it wrong, and not caring that you’re doing it wrong, then you have succeeded in doing something that I just can’t understand, and I’m glad that I can’t. But, hey, it’s your game, and you can do things any wrong way that you want.

12 Responses

  1. Dsaida says:

    this is dumb, imagine not being able to get creative with DnD. uh oh retard alert

    • Well, you’re certainly welcome to disagree, although “retard” and a lack of capital letters makes criticism less effective. The point here is that I don’t like guns and steampunk, and I’ve thought carefully about why. If that’s a benefit to someone else, it’s time well spent.

  2. erichthegreen says:

    Wow, you must really hate the whole Artificer class. But then, so do I, and for the same reasons. No guns in my campaigns unless they are like the MacGuffin instance you described.

  3. erichthegreen says:

    I would add that when it comes to guns, neither armor nor DEX/dodging is going to help one bit. You can’t dodge a bullet, certainly not once a trigger has been pulled nor even when someone has aimed it at you with their finger on the trigger. Only in superhero movies or the Matrix can you dodge bullets being fired at you.

    Now, if you are thinking that you would see someone raising a gun in your direction and you would duck behind cover or drop prone, then that’s more in the province of an action, not the kind of assumed defense you get from your DEX bonus to AC. The DEX bonus that would matter here is to initiative – do you win initiative and thus have a chance to move to a position of cover before they fire, or do they fire at you where you stand? The dodging AC bonus that DEX provides is what you do when someone swings a sword or throws a spear or (straining a bit, but technically possible) draws a bow in your direction. In those cases, the weapon is moving at a human scale, so you (a human) have some chance of moving away from it. (Okay, not very realistic with a crossbow, but I’ve seen people catch arrows fired by a bow, although I know the archer is using a light bow or less-than-full draw so the arrow isn’t going at full combat speed. Still, it’s proof-of-concept.)

    So my point is only that while heavy armor does nothing to stop bullets, the reduction to your dodge-based DEX bonus to AC from wearing heavy armor doesn’t really matter. Even a non-armored character isn’t going to dodge bullets. The problem with wearing armor in a gun-heavy world is the expense and weight and the reduction to your march speed/distance. Might as well carry a boulder everywhere you go. (Actually, you might be able to drop the boulder and hide behind it if someone starts shooting at you).

    • Something I recently learned about during a Call of Cthulhu one-shot was the mechanic of allowing a PC to dive for cover if they were being shot at. The action economy for CoC is very different, but to translate it into D&D, it would be using your reaction to impose disadvantage on the gun attack, and then doing nothing on your next turn. So, if you needed to have a MacGuffin gun, that’s how I would handle it. Of course, if nobody in your fantasy setting would recognize a gun and know that diving for cover is a good idea… well, that’s part of why I think guns don’t belong in D&D.

  4. MightyMaus says:

    I agree mostly with this. Guns do break DnD. (I was once challenged to build the most overpowered character I could using guns. It was a fighter with a M2 Browning that could mow down dragons) I believe that if one person gets guns, every one should have guns, and then you now have a game that is more Warhammer 40k and less Dungeons and Dragons. If you want to play DnD with guns done right take a look at SW5E, a rewrite of DnD for the Star Wars universe. I’m running a campaign using it right now, and it is a blast.

    • It’s interesting that you mentioned the M2 (or Ma Deuce as we used to say), because it really illustrates how D&D gets guns wrong even as a ultra-rare plot item. The DMG doesn’t give any damage numbers for a heavy machine gun like the M2, but it’s hard to imagine what would even be appropriate. The same goes for the frag grenade. Having actually used military weapons extensively, I can tell you that the damage they put out is a lot more than the movies and TV tend to depict. That being said, if I were going to include a gun in a D&D adventure for any reason, I wouldn’t treat it mechanically as a weapon at all, but more as a “wand of power word kill”.

  5. OK, then. Let’s get this out of the way, because I really hate putting too fine a point on things. I’m approving this comment, which is actually one of nine (yep, nine, count’em) comments that this reader sent me this evening. I will not be approving the other eight.

    But, I’ll summarize: this Anon(ymous) DM thinks I’m wrong about guns, steampunk, and the rest. That’s fine, you don’t have to agree with me, not even if you read my site and comment on it. He is “not here to argue [he’s] here to open my eyes” to my “flaws in logic” so I “can grow” as a person. That’s really patronizing, but some people are sanctimonious and have no tact.

    I’m approving this comment to make a simple point: I have a limit on the length of comments on this site for a reason. It is optimal for me. It is not incumbent on me in any way to read as much commentary as you care to write. This is my site, on which I publish my thoughts and ideas, and which I keep hosted without ads because I love D&D. If you want to disagree with me, do it briefly. If you need more space, WordPress offers free blogs to all comers. I have comments enabled because I enjoy hearing thoughtful feedback, even if I disagree with it, but don’t come here to preach to me and then complain that I didn’t give you enough space to voice your opinions. And don’t make nine separate comments in order to get around my very reasonable limit on comment length. And if you’re going to be critical, have the courage and common decency to not hide behind something like “AnonDM”.

  6. Osprey says:

    The core of your complaint here seems to be less about mechanics and more about tone and aesthetic. That is, including guns in a traditional, Tolkeinesque high fantasy world is tonally dissonant and utterly breaks the sense of genre. Which I agree with! I would not introduce guns in a high fantasy campaign either. But… that’s not the only genre in which you can play D&D. Even just going off of official settings, we have Eberron, which is gaslamp fantasy and Spelljammer, which is basically sci-fi mixed with some Age of Sail tropes, among others. Having a gun in Eberron is not tonally dissonant. It reinforces the players’ sense of genre, and leads to them having more fun. How the guns work– whether by magic or principles of physics– fundamentally isn’t that important to how your players experience the world (it’s kind of funny that you bring up the Arthur C. Clarke quote, which makes basically that point, but then miss the upshot of it). I’ve run urban fantasy D&D campaigns in modern settings, campaigns in settings inspired by the Mediterranean world of the 1600s, and a Stephen King-esque haunted house one-shot, and included guns in all of them. (In the one-shot, the guns all began malfunctioning as the characters entered the house. It was a great genre-establishing moment! Spoooooooooooky!) If you prefer to play in high fantasy settings only, that’s a totally valid preference, but D&D is a pretty flexible system mechanically and narratively (which, to me, is one of its greatest assets over other TTRPGs that are more specialized to particular genres), and I think it’s weird to tell people to stop having fun the wrong way if they like playing in other settings.

    • The point here is largely about tone, and not as much about mechanics. I actually responded to a previous comment on this article to that effect: I don’t like guns in my D&D, and this article is about why. That being said, I do stand by my comments about the mechanical issues regarding integrating guns into a game that has been mostly about swords and spells since it’s inception. I think that the implementation of guns in D&D is clunky, giving us essentially bows that go bang, and that’s a verisimilitude issue for me. If it doesn’t bother you or your players, go for it.

  7. Lyrander says:

    I stumbled upon this article while looking for Pillars of Eternity stuff and while I like some of it (especially the part about how lazy “Steampunk” elements just muddy and confuse how magic integrates in to the setting) there’s one part that just sticks in my craw.

    “Something that you’ll notice about warfare before firearms and warfare after firearms is that soldiers stopped wearing armor”

    That’s just not true.

    Full plate armor as we understand it didn’t see battlefield use until the arquebus did. In fact, full plate was specifically introduced BECAUSE of the arquebus. What’s more, the term “bulletproof” originates from armor makers shooting their product so they’d have a dent as proof that it stops bullets.

    Even when firearms penetrating power started significantly outstripping the defensive power of metal plates, metal body armor still saw use well in to WW2 as protection against shrapnel and was only abandoned because of the discovery of synthetic fiber armors like kevlar. I think it just feels like metal armor went away after the high medieval era because the focus of a lot of stories shifted away from the kind of soldiers who had a lot of armor on.

    Historical goofs aside, I can 100% respect not having guns because you feel that they don’t fit the “vibe” you’re going for or you just don’t want to have to make mechanics for them. You’re the DM after all.

    • Thanks for the insight on firearms and metal armor. I think I probably got the wrong idea from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, which is of course fiction, and not even historical fiction really. In the book, the Yankee brings late 19th century tech to the world of Arthurian legend, and it screws everything up, which is sort of the point of the article. Next time I’ll have to be more careful and deliberate when I choose sources; thank you.

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