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Loaded Dice: Bigger Guns

Loaded Dice: Bigger Guns

Screenshot from The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Why Do Gunslingers Give So Many GMs a Heart Attack?

I think by now we’ve all had that argument with our storytellers. You know the one. It has raged across forums and at more Saturday night gaming tables than I’d care to mention after Paizo released Ultimate Combat. It’s the debate that starts with the question, “May I play a gunslinger?”

The Argument for Gunslingers

The simplest argument is that if a player has the book, and that book is part of the canon of a game, he or she should be allowed to play it. This is particularly true if a GM is running a game set in Golarion, the world Paizo has detailed for Pathfinder games and where at least three countries have gunslingers aplenty (the Mana Wastes, the Shackles, and Numeria, for those who have the Inner Sea World Guide handy). As long as players are willing to explain how their characters came to practice the art of the gun, and why they aren’t found within those national borders, there’s really no reason to bar them.

The Argument(s) against Gunslingers

People have put forth a lot of arguments against the gunslinger class, and, after looking over the reasoning, there is really only one reason to bar the class from a game: the GM says no. There may be very legitimate reasons for the GM to choose not to allow the class, such as running a game set in a bronze-age world where both magic and technology are rare, but most other arguments against the class as a whole fall pretty flat. Let me show you what I mean.

The Class Is Broken

Gunslingers were designed specifically for Pathfinder, and the powers they’re given are relatively minor in comparison to what other classes gain access to. They have a combat class’s base attack bonus progression, they can use most weapons (including guns), and, as they go, they gain access to deeds and grit. These deeds cost points to use, and while they’re useful (a 1-round dodge bonus to Armor Class, quickly clearing a misfire, being able to pool several shots into a single blow), they’re hardly game breakers. Aside from a bonus to initiative and to touch Armor Class (necessary since the base class doesn’t gain access to more than light armor), gunslingers are like fighters who gain ki powers instead of bonus feats.

Guns Are Broken

The basic firearms presented in Ultimate Combat are minor threats past level 3 or 4. The most dangerous firearm that doesn’t require a cart to haul around is the double-barrel musket, which deals d12 damage. While it’s true that firearms are considered touch attacks within the first range increment, the farthest a weapon can fire is 40 ft. After that, it’s considered a normal attack, and it takes a range penalty on top of that. Add to guns the fact that they have a misfire range, can blow up in a character’s face, and can take anywhere from a single action to a full round to reload, and the danger is vastly overstated. Even if a gunslinger specializes in reloading quickly and uses a weapon with a spray pattern, guns are not much of a danger to enemies with damage reduction, cover, concealment, and magical barriers against attacks.

Many GMs won’t allow advanced firearms in their games, at least not until higher levels. If a character doesn’t have multiple attacks per round, there’s not much to be gained from a firearm with multiple shots except not needing to reload. This is a useful trait, but it doesn’t make a gunslinger as dangerous as a spellcaster unless there’s an antimagic field. That said, assume for a moment that a fighter simply took the trait Dangerously Curious, and invested heavily in Use Magic Device. Would allowing the fighter to cut loose with ray spells from a wand, which have a farther range and often a bigger punch than guns, be any less game-breaking than allowing a gunslinger with a one-shot pistol that does a d8 of damage?

There’s No Reason Guns Can Be Made in this World

For some reason, lots of people think guns are extraordinarily difficult to craft. They’re not. Players have Craft (Alchemy) on their skill lists, and all of the ingredients necessary for making black powder exist in any world that even closely resembles Earth. With an entire class dedicated to alchemy and making bombs, black powder is a tiny, tiny technological achievement. After that, all someone has to do is stuff it down a metal tube followed by a lead bullet from a sling, and voila, the gun is made! It’s also important to remember that a gun doesn’t require black powder to work. Since the 1770s, air rifles powerful enough to punch through steel pipes at range (like this one) have been possible to make. If a player has access to metallurgy, a powerful bellows, and creativity along with some good rolls, inventing one of these weapons is fairly simple.

Lastly, though, if a game allows spellcasting classes, then that means there is magic in the world; all bets are off as far as what’s possible. When using simple spells like create water coupled with heat metal, it’s possible to build a steam engine that requires no fuel and which can run on indefinitely. Making a gun with that sort of physics-altering power in the world is truly a simple, and relatively minor, achievement.

Guns Don’t Belong in a Fantasy World

There are some players and GMs who feel that anything that doesn’t show up in classic high fantasy (think Lord of the Rings), or in sword and sorcery (like Conan), doesn’t belong in their games. There is nothing to be said to that because it’s a matter of personal taste and belief, versus an argument about a fact.

Gunslingers are, when examined as an archetype, some of the most ideal heroes. From the Magnificent 7 to Roland Deschain, heroes who fight with guns and grit fit very well into the feeling of adventure a game is often looking for. If a gunslinger simply does not fit into a world, particularly one the GM has created, then that’s a storyteller call. However, if there’s a place in the established canon for a gunslinger, and there’s an entire class for them, the only reason to deny them is based purely on story.

The Cardinal Rule

It’s important to remember that while the world influences the PCs, the PCs also influence the world. A gunslinger coming to a place where such folk are not common will start tongues wagging and could lead to attempted mimicry or a demand for the gunslinger to reveal his or her secrets. A daring wielder of the art of the gun might even gain a following among those who want to imitate a gunslinger’s ways, for good or ill. Bottom line; if the players can do it, then the bad guys can do it too.

Lastly, and this is a note for all GMs regardless of their stance on the issue, there is a counter for everything. If a gunslinger starts getting cocky, put the party up against enemies who use cover or tower shields so that the gunslinger can’t get a clean line of fire. Introduce enemies with armor modified to stop bullets, a la the Gun Tank (Ultimate Combat, page 50). Also, as with any other character, a gunslinger can’t shoot what he or she can’t see, so using darkness, concealment, invisibility, and all the other tricks of the trade is just one more way to tip the scales in the bad guys’ favor.

For more tips, tricks, stories and gaming insights, visit Neal Litherland’s blog Improved Initiative.

8 thoughts on “Loaded Dice: Bigger Guns”

  1. I agree, mechanically there is no reason to ban a gunslinger from a Pathfinder campaign. But they would not fit well in some campaign worlds (such as, say, an ancient Greece inspired one). So, work with your GM and other players to makes sure they do not mind that you want to play a gunslinger and it will not disrupt their enjoyment of genre, as some people really do not like the mixing of guns and fantasy.

  2. First, off, I have no issue with Firearms being “broken”. Nor do I think they don’t belong in fantasy. Generally, steampunk does an excellent job of integrating them.

    My issue with firearms in fantasy gaming (especially D&D/Pathfinder) is that once a culture makes the gunpowder leap, there’s no going back.

    I can accept a lot of crazy things in my fantasy and my ability to suspend my disbelief is pretty good. But I find it difficult to wrap my brain around a Campaign World were firearms are present and are not in the process of rendering most other forms of combat obsolete.

    Armor and swords go bye bye relatively quick. Where sword fighting takes a great deal of training and skill, not so with the firearm. It will take over. It works too well not to.

    As GM, I can always use liberal amounts of Handwavium and say, it’s my world, and keep it in stasis. But it’s just not logically consistent to do so.

    Granted, the same could be said for other weapons like rapiers. But firearms introduce the changes on an order of magnitude.

  3. I’ve been itching to run a gearforged gunslinger against the evil vril menace ever since we patronized Sunken Empires. The Wasted West only makes the longing worse.

    Good article.

  4. @JimSullivan:

    Check out the Guardians of the Flame series, by Joel Rosenberg. It does a good job of showing that transitory period of guns and swords. Or look at the anime, Full Metal Alchemist. Additionally, while guns might begin to dominate the battlefield, it can take hundreds of years. Hand-to-hand melee was still very common in pitched battles of the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Until after the Great War, those swords were not simply ceremonial.

    Given that most Pathfinder-esque games do not cover extended timeframes, and their window of history is suitably narrow, I don’t find firearms all that ludicrous, especially when combined with memory magic, demons, dragons, and everything else common in a game world. Yes, bullets are great against people, but there are enough other terrible things in the fantasy realm which will simply shrug off gunfire and keep (special) melee weapons relevant.


  5. Ben,

    I read Rosenberg’s Gaurdians books. They never did anything for me. And while a I enjoyed Full Metal Alchemist, it’s purely a matter of taste but I wouldn’t care to game there.

    My main point wasn’t that the author was entirely wrong, only that he hadn’t addressed all of the reasons that some DMs forbid firearms in their games.

    I do agree that there was a long transition period and that Pathfinder doesn’t cover those time frames. But, the long and short of it is, I don’t really care for them in my Pathfinder game. Firearms, for the reasons I explained before, break the sense of milieu for me. Odd, I know, since Golarion is a kitchen sink setting, but that would be why we also have no intention of campaigning in Numeria.

    And I am aware that hand-to-hand was common in Revolutionary War battles. Heck, they were common well into the 20th century, and by some accounts, still happening in Afghanistan. But in the American Revolution, as now, the sword or edged weapons were fall back weapons. A last resort.

    Guns became the primary weapon of the soldier/warrior/combatant. In Pathfinder, as long as gunpowder works, there is really no good reason for any adventurer to not carry a firearm along with whatever other weapons they might need(knife for silent kills, etc).And some people are cool with that. Great. Have fun. But myself, I’ll pass on that game.

  6. Morgan Boehringer

    Hand(gun)s down the best thing I’ve ever read on Gunslingers in Pathfinder/RPGs.

    From the very simple breakdown of the actual math applied, to the flavor and theme realities, this really clears the air for me* .

    A very well thought out, set out, and well written article Neal.

    *Thanks also for the link to the wind rifle!

  7. Like every option available in the large list of books and websites, they are there to help make your gameplay and/or your character more fun and entertaining. Take them or leave them. However, if you leave them and your players want them: You might need to find another group of players that share your taste!

    The game is about fun and entertainment…. for the whole group.

  8. Tanya Huff’s novel “The Silvered” from a few years back takes place in a neat setting where fantasy/magic is running smack into napoleonic-ish advances in the standard (nonmagical) millitary hardware and tactics that is completely turning their world upside down. It might be a good resource for somebody wanting to run a campaign with that kind of flavor/setting.

    This is a great article, one of the other commenters already addressed how much firearms will eventually have that effect in any world, (a horde of peasants with cheap, breakdown firearms will still make hamburger out of knights in plate even with a high failure rate) but equally, a good GM can keep it limited in a myriad of ways. Mine simply said the geochemistry of the world ’round here makes putting together the *right* stuff to manufacture the explosive powder required is difficult, time consuming, and takes high alchemy rolls.

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