New DM Handbook: Rethinking Firearms

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New DM Handbook: In-Game Games
D&D Dragonborn Illustrate Why the Reason Why Matters

New DM Handbook logoNo, this isn’t a conversation about gun control. This is about introducing and including modern firearms into your Dungeons & Dragons campaign from the Dungeon Master’s Guide (264). With some help from Ty Johnston, who graciously aided me in my implementation for this article with his thoughtful insights and suggestions, I have something I think can be integrated into any campaign that wouldn’t explicitly forbid it by the nature of the world. I’ll go into further detail later when I’m going to be talking about ammunition, but gunpowder doesn’t even need to be introduced into your world to make it work.  Artificers could infuse a cantrip-level spell of thunderwave, which we’ll call thunderblast, that can be activated by a mechanic in the firearm itself, which would then propel the ammunition without the need of gunpowder.

A bit of a disclaimer: Nothing in this article has been playtested. All of this is completely theoretical. While I plan on playtesting it at the first opportunity, and I’m going to be including it as a part of my own personal campaign guide, the players I currently have access to need a little more time to be comfortable with playing the basic game with the basic mechanics from the Player’s Handbook before I start offering more advanced options or Unearthed Arcana, much less experimental homebrew rules that I know I’ll need to adjust frequently. So, if you, my dear droog, would like to playtest these mechanics, please feel free to share your suggestions and experiences in the arguments section below. Please be respectful, especially to each other, but I always welcome constructive criticism.

Introducing Firearms

GunsInstead of just throwing modern firearms into the pool and using the existing rules for ranged weapons, I decided to introduce them in a way that ensures they’re given proper balance that also makes sense while still making use of them make sense. I also wanted to make sure players who wanted to use firearms had to build their characters towards it and not just be able to tack on something that has potential to be overpowered. In order to make it work in the ways that I do things, I had to tinker with the rules from several different angles. Obviously, I think it’s a better way of doing it, but I am a bit biased. By all means, change things for your own campaign, if you decide to include some iteration of my mechanics at all, but that’s really the true beauty of Dungeons & Dragons.

Perception is Key

I knew very early on I wanted to nerf the capability of modern firearms for the sake of balance. Sure, they don’t compare much against spells, but they do outclass the traditional weapons from the Player’s Handbook (149). Without some degree of balancing, there’s not much of an incentive for combat players to use the more traditional weapons. Very recently (and why I’m now ready to write this article) I came up with a way to balance them while still using an ability that would be critical for the use of a gun: Wisdom.

Sniper firearmsWisdom includes two of the most important parts, which are perception and focus. Realistically when using any ranged weapon, being able to line up a shot requires a very attuned sense of perception and a razor focus which isn’t nearly as necessary when you’re within five feet of your target. Wizards of the Coast could’ve just as easily used the Wisdom modifier to determine the attack bonus and the Dexterity modifier to determine the damage bonus to provide a sense of the high level of hand-eye coordination in order to effectively use a ranged weapon. I doubt they thought of that, but even if they did, it would’ve spoiled the point of 5th Edition, which is to make things more accessible, and keeping track of multiple modifiers would’ve muddled things.

BowWhy didn’t I just stick with Dexterity and be done with it? Unlike bows which require at least some level of dexterous and nimble proficiency, firearms don’t. For better or for worse, they’re the great equalizer. In the conversation of Force=Mass x Acceleration, the amount of force is close to universal because the F=MA quotient is internally driven. Bows rely heavily on operator efficiency, so Dexterity becomes more important. Even crossbows lean towards needing to be dexterous, because the loading process requires precision, nimbleness, and efficiency in order to be able to provide maximum results, or in a  worst case scenario, to not place it an an awkward position that could create a catastrophic misfire. With firearms, Dexterity is important for the handling of a weapon, but strong situational awareness and a strong focus on the target are just more important. So, beyond balance, Wisdom just makes more sense.

Who is Proficient?

James BondIt would be easy to just align firearms with their bow and crossbow counterparts. Those proficient with hand crossbows would also be proficient with pistols (which should actually read as semi-automatic pistols, not automatic pistols), and those proficient with longbows would also be proficient with automatic rifles. To me, that takes away some of the thematics, and blunders the balance, but more importantly, it makes modern firearms less special. If a Bard and a Rogue are both proficient with pistols, it would miss the point of the functions of the two classes. For a Rogue, a pistol would be a close-range weapon with long-range capabilities, making it more like daggers. Bards, like most spellcasters, use weapons as a means of defense, not attack, and the hand crossbow is a way to keep enemies away.

Even within the context of those who would have modern firearms, it wouldn’t make any sense for everyone to be proficient with all of the firearms. Barbarians, as an example, wouldn’t have any use for a pistol or a hunting rifle, but they’d love the personal touch of a shotgun. It makes sense that both Rogues and Rangers would be proficient with hunting rifles, but the nature of each of the classes would dictate that Rogues would have use for pistols, where Rangers would prefer automatic rifles. Of course, Fighters would be proficient with all modern firearms, being that it would be a significant part of their training. Here is a breakdown of what classes would get what:

John Wick firearmsAs you may have noticed, not everything I picked makes logical sense within the list, which is very off-brand for me. However, storytelling is more than just getting things right. It’s about providing a feeling or an essence of something. In this case, I primarily concerned myself with what weapons would be more thematic with familiar tropes across most forms of media. As an example, there’s no logical reason why pistols and revolvers wouldn’t share proficiency. When I introduce the modern firearms feats later on, they’ll be more logically assigned, but using the example, revolvers tend to be strength and power, where semi-automatic pistols tend to be associated with high-octane action and agility. The Gun Fu Monk has both because pistols and revolvers are used heavily in the sub-genre.

Including Firearms

Including firearms properly is more than just the game mechanics of it. It’s about integrating it into your game’s society and of striking the right balance for players.

Magic or Gunpowder?

GunpowderThis shouldn’t have any impact on the game mechanics. A pistol should always do 2d6 damage, regardless of what kind of game you’re running, kind of like how a katana is still a longsword or a recursive bow can be a longbow that Gnomes and Halflings can use. So, if you’d rather not introduce gunpowder into your world, imbuing bullets with my aforementioned thunderblast cantrip is a great workaround. It would also be an equally expensive process compared to refining gunpowder in that era, so it makes very little difference. Thunderblast would be as loud as using gunpowder, so even that effect would be the same. The actual cantrip for thunderblast (in case there’s an Artificer in the party) would be:

You can include gunsmith stores, who specialize in the process of developing ammunition as well as the buying and trading of modern firearms that’s completely different than traditional blacksmiths and armories.

Guns, Ammo, and Resource Management

AmmunitionAnother way of creating balance for firearms is to force players into managing their ammunition. The Dungeon Master’s Guide doesn’t list a price for ammunition for modern firearms, but they should. Modern firearms do double the damage that bows do, so they should cost at least that much more. However, since modern firearms wouldn’t use the same types of rounds, they should be distinct the way that bolts and arrows are distinct. Each of them have distinct advantages and disadvantages, which should be reflective in the cost as much as anything else. Shotguns, as an example, must reload after every two shots, forcing the player to burn through actions and bonus actions much more frequently. The revolver has six shots for the same damage, and the automatic rifle for 30 rounds (or three burst fire rounds). Ammunition should also be sold by clips, and not individual rounds. So, balancing everything out, the ammunition costs should be:

  • Semi-Automatic Pistol: 3 gold pieces (15 shot clip)
  • Revolver: 2 gold pieces (6 shots)
  • Hunting Rifle: 3 gold pieces (5 shots)
  • Automatic Rifle: 6 gold pieces (30 shot clip)
  • Shotgun: 1 gold piece (5 shots)

ReloadingIf the ammunition uses a clip, then they must reload the whole magazine, which forces players to count their ammo, especially those who use automatic rifles because if you don’t have 10 shots left in your clip, you don’t get to use the burst fire property. Also, dropping the clip before it’s run out will drop those unused rounds until they can be retrieved later (assuming the party wins the encounter) and recombined during a long or short rest. Those that don’t use clips may reload at any point without worry about wasting ammunition. Just like in real life, though, rounds for each type of modern firearm don’t work with the others, so that is another consideration for players.

G36CNot all balancing goes against the players, though. To start, ammunition is significantly smaller than arrows and bolts. As a result, players who use modern firearms aren’t severely limited the way their ranged Dexterity companions are, and ammunition is significantly lighter, especially when weighed against damage dealt. As a result, players who use firearms can go longer periods of time without needing to restock. It’s more expensive for them to restock, but they can stock up at more advantageous times. They also don’t need to concern themselves with quivers and whatnot. Modern firearms are self-contained, so bullets and clips can be positioned for quicker actions. That’s not going to affect combat mechanics, but it’s not unreasonable for DMs to consider that when setting a DC for stealth checks when a character is out scouting ahead of the party.

Next Week

I’m going to conclude this article next week with ways to implement modern firearms. More specifically, I’m going to provide some class archetypes for modern firearms, as well as the feats I promised. Until then, Stay Nerdy!

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Follow Joshua Brickley:
Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

4 Responses

  1. Kyle Boissonnault
    | Reply

    I only have one issue with this so far, that is the mistake in naming a “clip” as the holder of ammunition for the firearms, the proper term is magazine or “mag” if you are feeling lazy like me most days. Other than that I like the mechanic and thematic thought you put into this. Might try using it in my games at some point.

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      Thank you for the positive feedback. Under normal circumstances, I’m much more likely to be focused on the criticisms, because I’m confident with my work, and I feel that I only need to hear what I need to be able to improve it. While I still gladly would embrace those (even harsh) criticisms, my confidence with tackling this subject has been quite low, so it’s good to know that I’m not too far off base. I hope you equally enjoy my take on archetypes and feats that would best suit modern firearms that I’m working on for this week’s article.

      In regard to the nomenclature, you’re absolutely right. It was a conscious decision, but you’re 100% right. For the same reason why I chose to use “shots” instead of rounds or shells, or even the actual traditional round sizes that WotC was likely envisioning for their modern firearms (probably 9mm, .357, 5.56, 7.62, and 00), I went with clips over mags because I figured it would be more recognizable for the average reader. Sometimes inaccuracies do a better job of relating truth than facts do. I have a future article in mind that covers the benefits of utilizing tropes, which would include things like this. Still, good eye. I love it that my small fanbase is that discerning. Keep on keeping me in check.

  2. Christopher Campbell
    | Reply

    Another thing would be suppressors, cause to me, Rogues & to an extent Rangers, whom would use firearms (pistols/rifles) would more then likely would want to have suppressors attached to said firearms otherwise firing the non-suppressed firearms would/should automatically “break stealth”. Though, technically, almost any firearm could have a suppressor attached [except for the double-barrow shotguns].

    Also, what about the submachine guns like MP-5’s, Bergmann MP 18, “Tommy Guns”, etc which would be the equivalent to the former Repeating Crossbow that no longer “exist” in 5th Edition. So, honestly, I would suggest to any/all DM’s that consider adding in “Modern Firearms” should consult with their group(s) on 1) Era of Firearms [as early firearms, especially rifles, were inaccurate] 2) Kinds of Firearms [especially if they were to include the more modern types of firearms] 3) Which Classes would be Proficient with which Firearms 4) How “Stealth” would be effected 5) Magic vs Gunpowder vs W/E (as you’ve pointed out in the article.

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      Lucky for you, this is an old post, so I have at least part of your answer ( I built in a silencer for the Rogue, but being that the Ranger has the Silence spell, I didn’t feel the need to include it in the class.

      In regards to the submachine gun, I built everything off the modern firearms rules out of the DMG. That being said, I would just classify them under automatic rifles. Frankly, there’s no need to create special rules for everything. It’s not like everything is actually balanced against real world physics. At most, a submachine gun would work exactly like an assault rifle, except do a semi-automatic pistol’s amount of damage.

      Everything else is pretty spot on, though.

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