Firearms Create Fantastic 5E D&D Storytelling Opportunities
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted get locked and loaded for a discussion of the place for firearms in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. They go over where and how firearms appear in 5E D&D and touch on perspectives related to included them in games. For me the question of whether firearms feel appropriate for D&D brings up a broader view of just what kind of fantasy D&D represents. So let’s get into it.
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Technology’s role in 5E D&D
The very first sentence of the introduction in the Player’s Handbook describes 5E D&D as a storytelling game in worlds of swords and sorcery. Right off the bat this description implies settings where magic forms the basis for technology. The first chapter of the Dungeon Master’s Guide supports this implication too where it states how technology and society are based on medieval norms form the baseline assumed by the rules.
There’s certainly room to consider firearms in this context. Medieval times refers to the Middle Ages, which lasted from the 5th to the late 15th century. This period means a huge span of time! It includes when black powder (or gun powder) was invented during the 9th century so in this sense it’s not far fetched in the least for firearms to find a place in a standard 5E D&D campaign.
Another place to look is Appendix E in the PHB. Every edition of the game includes this section of inspirational reading where the designers of each edition share the works that inspired them along with Gary Gygax’s original list from the game’s original text. A great deal of fantasy literature appears in these appendices and some of them create a direct line between swords and sorcery fantasy blended with higher technology. For example Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series refers to the adventures of a version of the Eternal Champion. In this case Hawkmoon’s adventures take place in a post apocalyptic works with elements of medieval society like swords and horse-based transport with advancements like laser weapons and ornithopters.
The question then becomes if there’s a place for firearms in your particular 5E D&D world and if so in what capacity. Chapter 9 in the DMG includes a section on firearms with examples ranging from black powder pistols and muskets to antimatter rifles. Mechanically these examples here in many cases present firearms as much more powerful than the more conventional weaponry 5E D&D characters wield. Herein lies the space for exploring firearms in your games — as storytelling devices.
All things being equal it can be challenging for players to wrap their heads around how and why firearms appear in 5E D&D. Exceptions exist of course, most notably through the artificer class where firearms are explicitly mentioned with a caveat of approval from individual Dungeon Masters. Conversations about firearms in the game often include the perspective on magic and beg the question why this more crude technology might develop when magic exists.
Given these circumstances I think firearms make terrific additions to a campaign. Not every nation can boast equal levels of magical might. Firearms represent a way for civilizations to level the playing field. Imagine a nation with zero magical resources rapidly growing in power through technological might in the form of firearms. There’s no counterspell for bullets and cannon fire!
At the end of the day whether firearms belong in 5E D&D remains in the hands of individual groups. The fantasy worlds of D&D speak to the imaginations of the players and not the system. The fantasy genre encompasses a tremendously vast scope and the game itself has evolved far beyond the roots in the European medieval milieu. Players around the world discovering D&D interpret the game and its rules through the lens of their own imaginations and this helps the game flourish.
So, do firearms belong in D&D? This is 100% up to each group of players just like anything else in their individual games. In my own setting like other aspect of the game they exist when it becomes relevant in the same way any other part does. The circumstances mirror all the monsters in the game in the sense they don’t necessarily exist in a setting until they’re introduced. When they serve to introduce a plot, create tension or help the players tell the emergent story of their characters then firearms become as important and natural as anything else.