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Rethinking firearms in D&D

I plan on having firearms as a prominent feature of a D&D campaign I’m currently planning, and I’ve been thinking about how I want them to work. I would classify the technology level of the world I’m planning to be roughly “early-modern,” specifically around middle 18th-century levels. The world will be one full of fairly developed muskets and cannon.

The D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide offers some stats for muskets and early pistols, and their take is definitely worth looking at. They essentially make muskets slightly better heavy crossbows. The musket is a two-handed loading weapon that hits for 1d12 damage, making it slightly better than the heavy crossbow, a two-handed loading weapon that hits for 1d10. The pistol is less clearly analogous to any specific preexisting weapon. It does more damage than the light crossbow, and is also one-handed, while the light crossbow is two-handed. However, unlike the light crossbow, it is a martial weapon, so it is reasonable to expect it to be superior in certain ways. Both the pistol and the musket are given significantly worse range increments than bows or crossbows, making them much more likely to miss at longer ranges than the similar crossbows.

The loading mechanic has interesting implications in 5e. What it does is that it prevents you from attacking with it multiple times per round. For characters without access to multiple attacks, the restriction has no effect. Loading has a large effect, however, on characters who get multiple attacks starting at level 5. Crossbows and firearms are therefore most useful to characters who are less skilled in martial combat.

This is actually a reasonably historically informed result. Bows required somewhat more skill and specialized training to use effectively than a crossbow, but were very deadly when used correctly. D&D is by no means attempting to be deeply realistic, but I do think this was a clever way to get at the feel of crossbows being a weapon for less-skilled warriors. Modeling firearms off of crossbows is also reasonable, since early firearms were similarly oriented towards lower-skilled users. It’s a neat feel to have skilled bow users firing off many precise shots a round while musket users blast just once a round for a bit more damage if they manage to hit.

However, in my game I want firearms to stand out. Specifically, I want my players to feel like the game plays differently for having firearms in it. The DMG provides firearms that slide into the system easily and don’t change things that much, which is a reasonable approach, but I want to push things more aggressively and emphasize the transformative nature of firearms.

Looking to history again, a characteristic feature of early firearms, particularly muskets, was that they took a long time to load. I’ve decided that I want to really capture the idea of firearms as being slow but powerful. So I’m creating a new type of loading mechanic: firearms will require an entire action to reload. In exchange, they will deal substantially more damage than any other weapon available. Currently, I’m thinking of having a musket deal 2d8 bludgeoning damage on a hit.

So what effect does this have on balance? Well, if you average out the musket’s damage per round as compared to someone using a heavy crossbow, their base weapon damage will be a little less (2d8 every other round vs 1d10 every round). Additionally, if you have a positive dexterity modifier, then the musket will lose out further on damage per round, since the crossbow user will be adding their dex twice as often as the musket user. Anyone with multiple attacks will almost certainly avoid muskets altogether, because they can still only fire once per round, and reloading in the next round sacrifices multiple possible attacks.

To make up for this disadvantage, muskets will give players a big opportunity to “frontload” damage in a fight. As a general rule, in a D&D fight, you always would like to do as much damage as possible early on rather than later in a fight. If you can knock enemies out of the fight quickly, they will have fewer rounds to act against you. If a player is able to have their weapon loaded before the fight starts, having a chance to deliver a lot of damage very quickly in the first round is a significant advantage. It means that ambushes using firearms will be an especially effective tactic. However, if the player is caught unaware and without their weapon loaded, their damage will end up “backloaded,” coming later in the fight than the crossbow user’s damage. My proposed musket rule will therefore make pre-fight strategy and planning substantially more important.

Another tactic I wanted to bring into the game is the idea of the bayonet charge. In actual battles, it was common that soldiers would start by firing shots at the enemy, then fix bayonets and charge in. I’m not necessarily looking to be highly realistic, but it would be cool to come up with some mechanics that would encourage this sort of hybrid fighting style. What I came up with is that players can fix a bayonet to their musket as part of a move, much like drawing a weapon. A musket with fixed bayonet is treated as a two-handed melee weapon that deals 1d8 piercing damage. This means that a potent tactic is to fire a shot in round one for big damage, then in the next round fix bayonet and charge in. If you start off loaded, this lets you have frontload your initial damage, but then continue to keep putting out damage each round thereafter as a melee combatant. The disadvantage to this is that you need to be skilled in both ranged and melee combat for this to be effective.

Finally, I want to have a feel where muskets in particular are meant for the common soldier, not requiring much in the way of special training. Therefore, I want to make them simple weapons. For now, I’m actually going to leave pistols as they are in the DMG, as martial weapons that load like crossbows, since I think that works for a good pistol feel.

The overall effect of these changes is to make muskets a powerful ambush weapon available to basically every character. Even if you don’t have a good dexterity score, you still have a decent chance to hit for a lot of damage with a musket if you’re properly prepared. I think this captures a lot of the feel I’m going for.

Next time, I’m going to look at seeing what mechanics I can come up with for a player who wants to specialize in using muskets. Specifically, I’m going to look into designing a musketeer fighter archetype that specializes in using the musket and turns the idea that the musket is for unskilled warriors on its head.

Image Credit: US Department of Defense, photo by William D. Moss

Tom Goldthwait (@Authw8)
Tom is a furry woodland creature. At times, he emerges from the enchanted forest to make a new blog post.

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