Whenever you play with the technology level of a fantasy game (or any roleplaying game, in my experience) one of the first things that the players go hunting for is new weapons technology. In the case of most steampunk settings, this means the great gun race has begun.
In this series of posts for the RPG Blog Carnival on the theme of Steampunk and Klokworks, I’m looking specifically at firearms in a steampunked Dungeons and Dragons game. This post is about rules for firearms, and the next will be some magical firearms for your steampunked game.
Adding firearms to a D&D game can change it drastically, or it can just add a bit of flavour to the world to set it apart from most ‘classic’ medieval-styled D&D campaigns. If you want the rest of the game to remain much the same as it is in classic D&D, the trick is to place enough controls on firearms as to make them rare. An excellent example of this is the Arcanis setting from Paradigm Concepts. At heart the setting is a classic D&D game – but one of the human cultures in the game has developped a firearms technology that includes most of the classic black-powder firearms you would expect, up to full-on clockwork multi-shot firearms.
The primary control in this setting is that these weapons are not legal for ownership except by the nobles of the ruling human sub-race. And since the vast majority of the game world is settled and civilized, most of the games will involve a significant amount of time spent in the presence of those who would enforce these laws.
Further, the game uses a magical blasting powder instead of true blackpowder, meaning that the supply of powder is restricted by the game environment and it becomes easy for a DM to prevent player access if the guns become a game issue. Finally, the guns remain very high-renaissance era, much akin to the example firearms in the 3.x DMG – this makes them good to pull out and fire once, but not easy to reload in combat. They are, in most games, used as a one-shot short range missile weapon and then reloaded after the fight. Some few characters who decide to specialize in firearms will do so by carrying multiple loaded handguns on a bandoleer – an expensive proposition.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the Iron Kingdoms, a setting where you expect to find people with various blackpowder long-arms. Again the technology prevents these guns from completely overwhelming traditional D&D weaponry because of reload times, but they are a lot more common overall than in Arcanis. In this setting black powder is more easily obtained and firearms manufacturers are more widely known instead of being an order of militant (and religious) monks as they are in Arcanis. This provides for a very different flavour of game setting, one that is a lot more along the lines of what is expected of a steampunk setting, and a lot less “D&D with some guns”.
In addition to availability, how you stat out firearms will have a serious impact on how much use they see from player characters. This is a simple game design trick used to help set various settings apart. Want a particular weapon to be more common in your games? Give it a minor boost that gives it that slight edge over other weapons. While some see this as breaking the delicate balance of the game, it will almost instantly change the equipment used by characters and in that way change the feel of the game. In 3.x we had tindertwigs, glowrods and other alchemical exploration tools that made the setting feel very “adventurer-friendly”.
In the 3rd edition DMG, firearms are given damages roughly equal to crossbows. As such, they provide no real motivation for their use besides the potential “cool factor”. Most later d20 products stat out firearms more in kind with the firearms from the d20 Modern rules, which always use 2 dice for damage instead of one. This makes them superior to most other ranged weapons when it comes to damage, although at a far greater cost and higher cost-per-shot. If you want to keep damage down, but still make firearms interesting to players, providing a mechanical advantage such as multiple shots (in a revolver style) will be enough to change the balance from crossbows to firearms. These clockwork firearms are particularly appealing in a steampunk setting. In either design, however, keeping the price of the firearm high makes it so they retain an additional cachet as being a high-priced item and one worth saving up for so level one characters can’t start with them and instead yearn for them.
As a footnote, I absolutely recommend that anyone looking to focusing on handguns in a Dungeons & Dragons game look into E.N. Publishing’s “E.N. Arsenal: Pistols“