Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bows, Crossbows, and Guns

AKA Adding Firearms to B/X D&D

So, today I’ve been spending a bunch of time reading up on the harquebus.

As one might guess, this is not an especially specific weapon, but a general term (along with its variant names, like the arquebus) for a rather broad class of firearm: in this case a 15th century, matchlock weapon.

Oh boy.

Here’s the grossly abbreviated shorthand genealogy of the firearm:

- Hand cannon (often just called a handgun)
- Matchlock Harquebus
- Flintlock Musket
- Cap-and-Ball Rifle
- Modern Firearms

Now the flintlock doesn’t get invented till the (early) 17th century, and after that, all the romance of man-to-man combat is pretty much down the tubes, no matter what DuMas may have written about the King’s musketeers (interestingly, the French musketeers were never all that potent a force on the battlefield of the 17th century…ah, France…). In terms of archaic warfare, flintlock is the shizzle y’all…stick a bayonet on the end and you’ve got everything you need to (eventually) develop the Redcoat, that pride of Great Britain that made England such a dominating military force up through the 18th century.

So we will skip the flintlock (musket) generation and everything later, as it is so decidedly NOT Dungeons & Dragons. Why not? Because D&D has elves, yo. And elves shoot bows (there ain’t no bows in 17th century warfare). Furthermore, D&D has magic swords (yo). And swords lose a LOT of their luster (except in a spirited cavalry charge) after the musket-bayonet combo.

Musket-bayonet also replaces the pole arm…and D&D has ALWAYS loved its pole arms!

So, no...we are simply going to concern ourselves with the handgun and the matchlock harquebus for today’s firearm discussion. But first, we need to do a quick back-up to touch on the standard D&D missile launchers, the bow and crossbow.

Both the bow and crossbow (the latter being pretty much a “mechanized” bow) have been around since ancient times and were ably represented on the battlefields of Europe well into the 15th century, long past the development of full plate armor in the 14th century. As such, they’re presence in D&D is, of course, standard.

I was a bit surprised at some of the stuff I researched regarding bows and crossbows. For instance, B/X rates of fire for these weapons are fairly accurate. Personally, I always had difficulty with the arbitrary 10 second round with regard to missile fire. The 10 second round is just fine and dandy to model the abstract nature of D&D melee combat (a character can swing a sword more than once in ten seconds, but an attack roll simply determines whether or not any of those swings land for damage, and the damage roll determines how many land and how well you land them). But limiting missile combat to “one round, one arrow?” It always seemed to me like the artificial time of the round was NOT very accurate for missile combat.

In reality (at least according to the stuff I was reading) this is actually pretty good. In battle, a longbow man wouldn’t try to loose more than six arrows per minute (i.e. one per 10 second round) due to both accuracy and fatigue considerations. In a pitched dungeon battle, the same would probably apply.

Likewise, the crossbow is slightly slower than longbow -- though unless it is one of the more powerful types, requiring a winching mechanism to draw (which I assume is NOT the case for the 5 pound B/X crossbow), it's still pretty quick. The two-handed weapon classification in B/X (which I have always assumed to mean “attacks last in round” like any other two-handed weapon) is enough of a slow-down to hand-cocked crossbows.

Regarding penetration of bows and crossbows being better (or worse) depending on range, I consider this accounted for in the range penalties to hit (though perhaps short bows and slings should take a DOUBLE penalty at range to account for both reduced accuracy AND reduced penetration).

The heavier crossbow (the kind with a winch) is said to have better penetration than the longbow, but is NOT as good as a firearm, and is slower than a firearm. This will be accounted for later…now, onto firearms.

The hand cannon is present in Europe…

[by the way, I use a European-esque setting…goes with my Germanic-Celtic roots…your mileage may vary, depending on your own cultural preference]

The hand cannon is present in Europe from the 1300s up till the 1500s when the matchlock harquebus all but replaces it (it is the slow fuse/match of the mid-1400s that makes the matchlock feasible). The hand cannon (or handgun as I’m going to call it for the rest of this post) is lame-lame-lame. Basically, you’re carrying a portable cannon, attempting to hand light it and aim it at a target, all while trying not to blow yourself up. Add to that that the thing had crappy range, had all the problems inherent in early black powder weapons, and was terrifically inaccurate, and one wonders why anyone would employ such a weapon.

Mainly for the spectacle, I'm guessing.

Fire, smoke, NOISE…all these things went into making the weapon darn intimidating, to say the least. Cannons themselves were fine and dandy against troops or fortifications (though so poor in maneuverability that they fail to replace catapults till the 15th century or so)…a portable version in the form of the handgun certainly packed a “wow” factor. Not to mention, folks obviously sensed some potential, as they continued to develop the handgun until they achieved a relatively superior portable firearm in the form of the harquebus.

The matchlock is still a pain in the ass compared to both the bow and the crossbow, but it is a helluva’ lot better than the handgun. Sometime during the mid-1400s sees the invention of the “slow match” or “match cord,” a fuse that will burn about 1 foot per hour. This allows the gunsmiths to manufacture the matchlock (and thus harquebus) in which the fuse can be held, until triggered.

What does this mean? Well, for one thing it means you can use two hands (and both eyes) to aim your firearm instead of needing to touch flame to flash pan yourself. It also means you can carry your weapon (and match cord) flaming and ready rather than having to kindle a torch in a panicked pinch.

From a D&D standpoint, this makes the harquebus a much better option for the wandering adventurer...well, better than the handgun anyway; it still has its own problems.

For one thing, convenient as the match cord is, it has some fairly problematic issues. While it’s slow to burn, it DOES burn up, and its yet another type of ammunition that needs to be carried (in addition to powder and shot). In the rain or damp, or if it gets wet, it can be difficult to light…and no cord means no bang-bang. In the dark (like underground) the match cord gives off a red light, easily spotted…and according to Wikipedia match-cord also gives off a very specific odor, making any kind of surprise (in a dungeon setting) pretty much impossible with standard nocturnal creatures (who generally have better than average olfactory senses).

Also, there's the inherent danger of carrying a lit fuse around on your person anyway…especially when you’re also carrying explosive black powder. Not to mention that the weapon itself, like all primitive firearms, has the potential to explode in your hand, possibly injuring yourself or a nearby party member, while certainly ruining the weapon.

So what exactly do you get for your money? Well, a matchlock harquebus is still a smooth bore (i.e. non-rifled weapon) and didn’t have a range any greater than a B/X short bow. A trained musketeer could fire three times per minute (about every other 10 second B/X round), and I don’t see why a harquebus couldn’t fire that fast…so long as the match cord stays dry (it remains lit while firing, though you remove it from the “lock” while re-loading). You get the same noise and smoke as the more primitive handgun (enough smoke that you probably won’t be able to see much after a firing off a few rounds from a stationary position).

But you DO get penetration. At close range, even the weakest handgun could pierce the stoutest plate armor.

So, for your enjoyment, I offer the following items to the standard B/X equipment list (folks playing different versions of the Original Adult Fantasy Game will need to make their own adjustments):

Bows (cost/encumbrance)
  • Crossbow, Heavy*+ …40gp/80cns

Firearms (cost/encumbrance)
  • Handgun*+ …30gp/90cns
  • Harquebus+ …50gp/100cns
  • Pistol+ …35gp/20cns
  • Black Powder (per shot) …2gp
  • Match Cord (per foot of cord) …1gp
  • Firearm Shot (10) …2gp
*Two-handed weapon, attacks last in round
+Takes one full round to load

Range in feet (Short/Medium/Large)
  • Crossbow, Heavy …5-80 / 81-160 / 161-240
  • Handgun …5-40 / 41-80 / 81-120
  • Harquebus …5-50 / 51-100 / 101-150
  • Pistol …0-25 / 26-50 / 51-75

Heavy crossbows and handguns add +1 to attack rolls at all ranges. Harquebus and pistols add +2 to attack rolls at all ranges. If using the optional Variable Weapon Damage rule, all weapons listed here do 1D8 damage.

Note: Pistols may be used in melee, and may also be used as an off-hand (light) weapon.
Harquebus and pistols require lit match cord to fire. One foot of match cord will burn for 6 turns. If the DM allows, a harquebus or pistol may be outfitted with a wheellock mechanism for twice the normal price (there is no match cord requirement for such a weapon).

Opponents without firearms are easily intimidated by individuals using black powder weapons, and must check Morale after the first wound suffered from any firearm (not just the first death).

Firearms are prone to malfunction. Whenever a character using a firearm rolls a “1” on the attack roll, the weapon has misfired. Roll 1D6:

1-2 Weapon explodes! (character takes damage as if shot by weapon)
3-4 Match cord goes out and must be relit (handguns explode, wheellock weapons break and must be repaired)
5-6 Weapon misfires (but match cord doesn’t go out); character may fire again next round

Let's see...am I forgetting anything? Cannons really weren't all that great until the 16th century (bombards were effective, but difficult to maneuver on the field) and really need their own post. Since I don't use Variable Weapon Damage, I allow all classes to use all weapons (except for shorties), though I suppose some folks will want class-specific designations. How about:

- Clerics may use all firearms
- Dwarves, Elves, and Fighters may use all listed weapons
- Halflings may use pistols only
- Thieves may use anything (though firearms are NOT stealthy!)
- Magic-Users may only use handguns

That's about it. I leave it to individual DMs to adjudicate the "fog of war" that comes about from firing off too many of these smoke-wagons.

; )


  1. This can only lead to B/X mages swaggering about toting twin matchlock pistols and bandoliers of black powder. I approve heartily!

  2. I've always been willing to include guns in my D&D games. I'm not one of the players or game masters who dislikes including guns in a fantasy game. In any event, I play 4E these days and am trying to make 4E D&D rules for guns like these.

  3. Great assessment! Well done :) One additional thing I did in my 2e games with arquebuses and pistols was to reduce the AC bonus your target gets from such things as dex, tumbling, dodge, etc, to show the higher speed of the projectile compared to an arrow.

  4. If players want PCs walking around with blackpowder on their person in a world where fire attacks are far more common then they were on earth (thanks to magic and fire spewing beasties) I say let them.

    What about wheel-locks? Or snaphances and miquelets?

    there are a number of annoyances with muzzleloading black powder weapons one is a failed discharge. The gun simply will not fire and will not fire on later attempts, the load must be carefully extracted and this is potentially hazardous and time consuming matter. One can also get a flash in the pan where the match touches off the ignition charge but for some reason the charge in the barrel is not ignited.A match can also simply go out and this is a rather extreme bother in combat. One can also simply forget to open the pan cover and the priming charge can't be ignited until the pan cover is opened (some matchlocks have no pan cover on the priming charge ). These are all pretty much mis-fires but with varying levels of annoyance. the latest i mention can be corrected in a moment, the other in a couple rounds and the first could take 20 minutes or longer to correct.

  5. @ Kelvin: That's the whole point. I suspect, I might cage an illustration out of you for the new book, should I include similar rules...?
    ; )

    @ Grumpy: My condolences! Good luck!

    @ Mig: I was COMPLETELY unable to find any 2E material (including the SpellJammer player's book!) to work with for this exercise. Darn it! I consider the AC of various armors to be a combo of both protection and maneuverability. But as my sharpshooter buddy pointed out "you don't dodge the bullet, you dodge the barrel." Hitting a moving target is hard enough...more so when using a black powder weapon!

    @ JD: There's a note about upgrading your harquebus or pistol to a wheellock (paragraph right after the pistol image) and this is accounted for in the Misfire table (roll of 4-5: wheellock breaks). I would consider a snaphance to be the same thing for game purposes. It is certainly possible to expand the Misfire chart to 1D8, something like:

    1-2 Weapon Explodes
    3-4 Match goes out/wheellock breaks/handgun explodes
    5-6 Gun jams (1-2 turns to clean/repair)
    7-8 Misfire (may be fired again next round)

    Some people may also want to have the misfire occur on a 1-2, rather than only a 1...ESPECIALLY under poor conditions (underground, darkness, heavy rain/snow, etc.).
    : )

  6. Excellent article. I like your proposed rules for firearms.

    Incidentally, the reason why firearms took over the battlefield was their ease of use. You could learn to fire a musket in an afternoon, a hand cannon in about ten minutes, though a hand cannon is highly inaccurate. Most of the "skill" involved in the early firearms is how not to break the lock or blow yourself up.

    Swords and melée weapons were still highly effective until about 1750 in Europe (see Scottish Highlanders). And that's on the battlefield. Man-to man, close quarters and small unit actions make swords and axes and such very potent and useful. Picture your character trying to use a matchlock in a setting like the Caves of Chaos and you might find yourself reaching for your sword and shield unconsciously.

    Elves and dwarves might be able to use guns but why would they? The longbow was effective until about 1550 where it became more economical to train musketeers But an elf lives for hundreds of years and is presumably trained since youth in the sword and bow. What kind of archer or swordsman would you be with 100 years of practice? 200? 500? A gun might seem like a toy to most elves. Likewise artillery pieces would be useless to a guy who can throw fireballs. Dwarves I can see using guns, I think Warhammer might have something to do with that image.

  7. These are a set of well thought out rules for primitive firearms in D&D, well done.

    My only quibble is the to-hit bonus, which is to account for improved armor penetration. But what about targets that don't wear armor, or monsters that rely on illusion, deception or speed/agility for their AC? Would the penetration bonus not apply in these situations?

    Ed Green

  8. Yeah, I would think about dropping the to-hit bonus too. Minus the rifling, muzzle-loaders were pretty inaccurate especially at ranges over 50 yards (which is why volley fire was so important). Perhaps you could have the armor penetration qualities balance the inaccuracy--leaving the elegant solution of having no modifier.

    Two other random thoughts:
    1. It's rather obvious, but a matchlock would be useless in rainy conditions. Good to specify these kinds of things.

    2. In the neato, cool category, there was a trend in the early 16th century to combine melee weapons like the axe and the sword with a arquebus. I can totally see one of these in a fantasy setting.

  9. Not too bad. I little too complicated for my own use, but one of the better presentations I've seen.

    However, it is obvious that you have never (or haven't read for a very long time) the Three Musketeers or any other of Dumas' work. In the Three Musketeers the sword was only used for formal duels or minor skirmishes that occurred when combatants where trying not to mortally wound one another. During most skirmishes and all major battles, muskets and pistols were employed. Swords are rarely used in Twenty Years Later or Ten Years Afterward. This trend continues in Dumas' work--swords are rarely present except as a formal dueling weapon, and even then the pistol is usually the implement of choice.

    Note that the movies tend to be a very poor representations of Dumas' works and like to feature snappy sword fights where shoot outs are written (or adding sword fighters where there is not physical conflict at all).

  10. Yeah, I think I'm in agreement with ckutalik, having the penetration advantages average out with the inaccuracy, providing no to-hit bonus.

    But then, with gun's drawbacks, why would anyone use one? I can think of at least three reasons:

    1) The aforementioned morale advantage.
    2) Lack of weapon restrictions. I think MUs would jump at the chance to use pistols as a ranged weapon over...well, what other options do they really have?
    3) Being able to wield a pistol in the off-hand, so a PC can get off one ranged shot, but still have a sword handy for close combat.

    Imo, those are some good reasons to use guns even without a penetration attack roll bonus.

    Ed Green

  11. "But what about targets that don't wear armor, or monsters that rely on illusion, deception or speed/agility for their AC? Would the penetration bonus not apply in these situations?"

    I think the way I'd address that is by using an AC penalty instead of a To-Hit bonus, with no penalty if they aren't wearing armor.

  12. JB, here is what the entry for arquebus says in the 2e PHB:
    To use an arquebus, you must have a supply of powder and shot and a piece of slow-burning match or cord. These items may or may not be commonly available. (Powder is treated as a magical item in these rules.) The weapon can be fired only once every three rounds, and then only if the character is not attacked while loading. When firing an arquebus, all penalties for range are doubled.
    If the attack roll for the arquebus is a 1 or 2, the weapon backfires, causing 1d6 points of damage to the firer. It is also fouled and cannot be used again until it has been cleaned, which takes about 30 minutes. When a (sic) arquebus scores a hit, it normally does 1 to 9 points of damage on 1d10. When a 10 is rolled, the die is rolled again and this amount is added to 10. Each time a 10 is rolled, the die is rolled again and added to the previous total.

    It then gives an example of exploding-dice damage. I have to say, I house-ruled it somehow to reflect penetration, but I don't remember what I did.

  13. @ckutalik (and everyone else) "Minus the rifling, muzzle-loaders were pretty inaccurate especially at ranges over 50 yards (which is why volley fire was so important)."

    A properly maintained and loaded musket is not an inherently inaccurate weapon they were(are) perfectly capable hunting weapons. One reason volley fire was inaccurate and of limited range was because military loads often were of notably lower calibre then the gun was designed for to enable a rapid rate of fire and reduce the chance and impact of misloaded weapons.

    Rifling was also a fairly early (but expensive) development in firearms technology. Rifling was invented circa 1498 but more common and widespread manufacture wasn't until 1540's.

    Armies intentionally retained un-rifled muskets (for centuries) with loose loads to increase loading speeds and increase rates of fire. Soldiers were instructed in the operation of their firearms and drilled in the techniques of volley fire but were seldom given the opportunity to be truly proficient marksmen (most were instructed to not actually aim as it reduced firing rate). This gives the illusion of the limited accuracy of a musket relative to it's actual capabilities in the hands of an expert.

    Crossbows are capable of accurate fire when fired by an average user only out to 30-40 yards, past that most folks aren't hitting large game. It takes time to develop the skill to fire and strike targets at 40-50 yards and years to be able to hit a target in the 70-100 yard range. Self bows take even more practice and muscle development to hit targets beyond 30-40 yards reliably.

    It boils down to skill of the man ultimately with the musket taking a little less skill to master then the crossbow and far less skill and physical development then the regular bow.

    One must also stop and wonder how often dungeon adventurers are going to need to or be able to fire much beyond 60'.

  14. @JDJarvis
    I'm not sure that the use of smoothbores in hunting proves that they could be accurate in trained hands (though I could be convinced with some compelling evidence). A few years back a friend of mine wrote a fairly persuasive argument in another geekified area of the Internet (in this case the Miniatures Page) about why he thought the musket would have been innately inaccurate in most circumstances.

    This is what he wrote:
    "The problem with hitting is the high drop in the path of the ball.

    There's a low weight to cross-section ratio for a round ball as opposed to a cylindrical slug.

    It starts off fast (after bouncing down the barrel, because the light weight means it "takes off quickly" and for the same length of barrel doesn't resist the expansion of the gas. But it slows down because of the hight intitial velocity. (the slowing air resistance varies in this speed range as the square of the velocity.) so the ball starts off quickly and straight for the first 50-75 yards or so… Then the wind resistance slows it down, the low mass (comparing to a longer cylindrical slug) doesn't keep it going, and the ball drops quickly to the ground. I think it drops 5 feet by 100 yards. So you have to be really really accurate and precise in the vertical angle that you have the gun at when shooting at longer distance. Maybe you endanger people in only a 15 yard range of distance from you with a single shot at over 100 yards. If you knew the range to the target and knew the right angle to angle your musket AND knew the difference in elevation above sea level between you and the target!!! (gravity pulls straight down!!) you could hit the enemy."

  15. I just give them a slightly better range band than bows get, a bigger damage dice, and a very slow rate of fire. No further special rules required. No weird special new rules for handgonnes - I don't use criticals and fumbles and for other weapons and don't want to single firearms out for special treatment.

  16. "The two-handed weapon classification in B/X (which I have always assumed to mean “attacks last in round” like any other two-handed weapon) is enough of a slow-down to hand-cocked crossbows."

    I'm a little late here. But the Crossbow in BX also requires a turn to reload (see page X4).

    1. Ha! Very interesting! This is the only place it's stated in the B/X set, and it's a page I don't often look at (since it is providing rule notes for players who are entering Expert via Holmes, rather than Moldvay).

      This is a very simple switch to make, and I would still leave the "double penalty" (fire last AND every other round) in place for a HEAVY crossbow. Thanks for pointing this out.
      : )