Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pistols & Plate Armor

[several of the posts to follow, including this one, were written on my plane trip back from Madrid...they reflect my musings during a period of near total exhaustion, so be warned!]

Although I don’t have access to the internet right now (I am currently on a transatlantic flight back to the States), I’ve finished reading both the novels I brought with me and find myself wanting to blog a bit. This post (or series of posts) will go up sometime after my return; I certainly found plenty of food for thought during my two weeks in Spain.

For instance, why the hell aren’t there firearms in D&D?

Oh, I’m aware that the arquebus (isn’t that a kind of primitive pistol?) made an appearance in one edition or another…either 1.5 (Unearthed Arcana) or 2nd edition. But if memory serves, that’s it, and it has (as far as I’m aware) not been in any of the WotC+ editions, unless in some supplement book or campaign setting.

Why not? Because gunpowder isn’t “fantasy” enough? Because it would somehow upset the balance of power in a game? Because “hand crossbows” are cooler?

While my baser, inflammatory nature prompts me to write “GARBAGE” in big bold letters, please humor me as a normal person asking an honest question: why isn’t gunpowder and primitive firearms a part of the fantasy world?

I mean, I can offer up a couple-five theoretical answers myself, but I am curious as to what people think. Let me offer a couple observations on the matter:

- Armor in general has been developed as a defense against the weapons of warfare. Plate armor, while present in Roman times (the lorica segmentum or whatever it was called), but that’s not what most people are thinking about that’s a very different thing from “plate and mail” the kind of armor most folks associate with 14th through 16th century Europe. And the supplementing of mail with fitted steel plates is something done in response to the excellent penetration abilities of weapons like the crossbow and firearm.

- Now, that being said, the crossbow (present in D&D) was used side-by-side with the firearm well into the “plate and mail” armor period. In many ways it was more accurate, easier (or as easy) to load and fire, and had just as good penetration. Prior to “rifling” technology, the range was probably better as well, depending on the size of the comparative weapons. The crossbow collection in the Royal Palace of Madrid is quite extensive and was a significant part of the armory, side-by-side with the handgun (which appear to be prized as highly for their decorative potential as for their use in combat).

- THAT being said, it should be noted that the development of plate armor WAS effective in stopping shot from firearms…plenty of real breastplates on display exhibited dents from actual shot that had been deflected, saving the lives of their wearers. Yes, plate armor was no match for cannon fire…but plate armor would be no protection from catapult shot either (and catapults and trebuchets were still being used in the 14th and 15th centuries alongside cannon also).

So why exactly is it that D&D…a fantasy game of archaic weapons and tactics…does NOT include firearms? After all, it DOES include “plate and mail.” Is it just that one wants to have the image of the “knight in shiny armor on horseback charging the dragon with lance”…and no pistols in the scene? First off…um, when does such a thing ever occur in D&D anyway (that fighter is generally going to have a supporting cast helping him handle the dragon including a wizard with plenty of cannon-like firepower)? And second…just because firearms exist doesn’t mean you don’t still use a sword and shield.

Look, in Spain (let me note once again: gold mine of cool info, folks)…in Spain, the army in the late 15th or 16th through the 17th century divided its troops into four parts:

- the artillery (the dudes with the cannons)
- the cavalry
- the musketeers (rifleman)
- the pikemen

Of these, all but the artillery guys (and maybe even they) were carrying swords as standard weapons, not decoration. They used a four pronged approach to warfare that served them quite well for several centuries…after all, Spain WAS a major world power up until the 20th century (and who knows…they DID just win the World Cup this year…). All these guys would wear some form of breastplate (at least) with the pikemen (natch) wearing near full plate armor…and swords were standard weapons for melee fighting (the pikes were for breaking up and defending against cavalry and other pickemen).

You don’t lose your small scale, man-to-man combat with the invention of firearms. Masses of English longbowmen didn’t render the blade obsolete either…and they were plenty effective (if not moreso) than guns for several centuries.

So why not include firearms in D&D?

Here are some possible theories, off the top of my head:

1) Not true to D&D’s “literary roots.” You generally don’t see firearms in “sword & sorcery” stories. Conan doesn’t use guns. Elric doesn’t use guns. Fafhrd and Mouser don’t use guns. Of course, those stories generally take place in some “primal age” before the sinking of Atlantis or the 4th Age or whatever. Of course, with the exception (perhaps) of Elric, those guys don’t wear plate armor either. ALSO, being “primeval” they exist long before the Christian-mythos inherent in the hodge-podge that is D&D (i.e. “no clerics” in sword & sorcery).

2) Historical Laziness. Plate armor without firearms based on poor research/knowledge. OR poor understanding of how firearms would affect the game (issues of “game balance;” thinking they would somehow render other weapons/equipment moot).

3) Design Laziness.
Throwing up their hands at the thought of creating “accurate” rules. Or figuring out how much such weapons would cost. Or how much damage they’d do. Or figuring the equipment list is already plenty long. Or something.

4) Guns aren’t “magical” enough. In a game where magic is an accepted part of life, the “science” of gunpowder/chemistry seems out of place. Alchemists brewing “potions” with eye of newt? Yes. Mixing up saltpeter and sulfur? No. The Age of Reason leads to the end of the Age of Magic or something. And can a magic-user craft a +2 Blunderbuss or a Pouch of Endless Shot or something?

5) Inertia.
D&D doesn’t have guns. So D&D doesn’t have guns.

Now I recognize that there are other fantasy RPGs of the sword-swinging variety that tackle the whole issue. Warhammer FRP DOES have firearms AND plate armor. Ars Magica is set in the 12th-13th century and has neither. Pendragon, set in the middle ages ALSO has neither. And certain genre-specific games (like ElfQuest and Stormbringer) only have the technology portrayed in their respective Intellectual Properties (plate armor SANS firearms, though only in specific circumstances/cultures).

Here’s the deal folks: that last tactic may work for other games, but D&D has (historically speaking) NOT had a specific IP associated with it (much as WotC may trademark otherwise). This was always one of its strengths…that it could be adapted to any type of fantasy, small combat, explorative adventure setting.

And IF your conquistadors are hacking and slashing their way through the jungle, despite the sun beating down on their steel plated armor, THEN WHY NOT allow them to carry a musket or two or a brace of pistols?

Because it’s “too useful?” Um, all damage does 1D6 in B/X (and even with variable damage charts, I wouldn’t have a gun do more than 1D8, or whatever a crossbow does).

Because shot is “too cheap to produce?” Um, it’s little easier to smelt musket balls than it is to fletch arrows, and putting powder together in the right proportions is a lot trickier…and as with other missile weapons, ammo is going to be a lot harder to come by once you’re out on safari.

Because it’s not “magical” enough? Good. Fine. Not everything need be magical. Magic arrows are a lot more common than magic bows (and is there even such a thing as magical “shot” for a sling? David and Goliath might say so)…and magic swords are much more common than those. Rightly so…when it comes to combat, D&D has always favored the sword over the arrow anyway…why should pistols be any different.

Because I don’t have an accurate price list for guns? Um, D&D has never been incredibly accurate with regard to pricing. Use historical values or your own fantasy economy and “wing it.” I prefer something like comparative costs in Mordheim (the Games Workshop game) for this type of thing.

Honestly, I see no reason not to use firearms in D&D, unless you’re really big into having light catapults aboard sailing ships (which I always thought was a little ridiculous) or use a lot of siege warfare and feel D&D castles wouldn’t stand up against cannon bombardment (not with the Rules As Written, certainly). But I know A LOT of folks never explore that far into the game rules anyway; i.e. most folks aren’t doing naval or siege warfare in their D&D campaigns. So why not throw a pistol or two into the mix. I’d rather see THAT, than a standard party of adventurers carrying “hand crossbows” purchased using the Unearthed Arcana rules!
; )


  1. Honestly, I think it's (5): Inertia. There are a lot of people in this hobby who have a very limited conception of what fantasy is. I have had a gamer tell me, in all seriousness, that because a particular setting didn't have elves, dwarves and hobbits, it wasn't fantasy.

    I think the same psychology is what leads to grumblings about guns in D&D, or robots in D&D, and so on.

    AD&D2 had the arquebus ("This weapon available only if allowed by DM"), but it did also have that wonderful 1600's supplement, A Mighty Fortress I think, which was chock full of firearms and cannon.

    Oh, and welcome back!

  2. Oh, and that above isn't necessarily a criticism. If you don't want guns, or robots, or chicken-riding hedgehogs in your fantasy, that's fine. Unless I'm going for a specific feel, I like my fantasy to be broad; after all, this hobby is all about imagination.

  3. 1e DMG page 113 - you get all the Boot Hill stuff converted, so we just adapted that back in 87 for our fantasy campaign
    .. then I turned the page and found powered assault armour, gonzo ever since :)

  4. Great post. I'd love to see guns as an option in old school D&D. I see no reason why they would be terribly unbalancing for all the reasons you mentioned. And it would be fun to take the game into later eras (or science-fantasy/sword & planet settings for that matter).

    Any info on guns in the B/X Companion? ;)

    (Incidentally, you have been getting some fabulous reviews as of late. I'm looking at my budget to see if I can make the purchase this month).

  5. Option 6: Players are Opportunistic Bastards

    D&D sometimes seems like it's half-western anyway. Give them guns... no, you don't have to give them guns. Just establish the existence of guns and soon it'll be Gunfight at the OK Corral (and Guy Fawkes...) unless you come up with continuous contrivances to prevent it.

    That's not the game I want to run, and it's quite easy to avoid.

  6. Ranges for the arquebus are actually listed in the OD&D supplement, Greyhawk, but there is no information for damage or price. It's also listed as a weapon along with the cannon in Chainmail.

    Gygax was explicitly and consistently down on gunpowder in D&D. I can think of at least three times over two decades that he ranted about it (alongside things like spell points). I definitely don't think his ban comes from laziness nor ignorance just his point of view on the overall effect it would have on a medieval fantasy setting.

    Living Fantasy has a long-ish section on the topic in fact. Saying things like:
    "Firearms changed absolutely the course of warfare, and thus the world. A handgun is a relatively simple weapon to use (point and shoot), doesn’t require much in the way of complex weapon training, and the bullet can at close range penetrate the finest plate armor used by heavy cavalry and knights. The crossbow was also akin to this weapon; however, it was bulkier, both in size and ammunition. The cannon can send balls to level a castle, or spew grapeshot or lead bullets to cut down swathes of foes. Muzzle-loading firearms are easy to make, so to equip and field a large force of men so armed is relatively simple and easy."

    "Firearms changed absolutely the course of warfare, and thus the world. A handgun is a relatively simple weapon to use (point and shoot), doesn’t require much in the way of complex weapon training, and the bullet can at close range penetrate the finest plate armor used by heavy cavalry and knights. The crossbow was also akin to this weapon; however, it was bulkier, both in size and ammunition. The cannon can send balls to level a castle, or spew grapeshot or lead bullets to cut down swathes of foes. Muzzle-loading firearms are easy to make, so to equip and field a large force of men so armed is relatively simple and easy. Historically, this put deadly, ranged weapons in the hands of conscripted peasants—and even rebels. Wars could now be fought by fielding large formations of relatively untrained men, and the greatest knight could be laid low with a wellaimed, or even lucky shot from an arquebus. Large weapons such as mortars and cannons can reduce the effectiveness of a castle’s walls. At the very least, fortresses had to fundamentally change to better defend against such technologies. In short, the well-trained man-at-arms, the knight and the castle became obsolete. Once they were gone, so vanished much of the need for feudalism in general. The trained warrior was no longer the key to the protection of society. You may be saying, well, so magic and supernatural creatures should change things as well, right? The problem is that those who can cast magic are like archers, well trained, so getting a mage who can cast destructive spells is a lot harder than getting technological devices built for the masses, and mages on both sides tend to cancel each other out. We also assume that mages, for all their power, have limits based on fatigue and relative power. Consider also the effect of firearms on the “monsters,” and like populations. When societies with technology meet those lacking it, the latter are soon brought low and destroyed."

    Not to sound like I am quoting scripture. I had some gunpowder weapons for a while in my own campaign which is technolgically akin to the late 1400s.

  7. @ CK: Thanks for this comment, and the quotes.

    I think perhaps that Gygax is forgetting his own abstract rules when he starts talking about the effects of the handgun. After all, a 0 level character (or Normal Human to use the B/X term) has the same chance to hit with a handgun/musket as a NH with a short bow, crossbow, or sling...thus, all are equally "trained" or "untrained" and have an equal chance of getting a "lucky shot" and doing "lucky" or "unlucky" amounts of damage (1D6, possibly more if variable damage rates are used).

    Rather than limiting the EXISTENCE of firearms ("oh, gunpowder doesn't exist in this world") I personally think access can be limited by limiting the expense and availability of decent powder...and who's to say that keeping that powder dry and useful is any less cumbersome than a case of crossbow bolts? This can be reflected in the campaign make-up if such "balance" is needed.

    BTW: I'd love to play a game set in the 1400s... : )

    @ Raggi: YOUR players may be opportunistic bastards. Mine keep getting killed! And I'll bet you ANYthing, they knock their own teeth out... ; )

    @ Risus: Actually, there ARE some notes/suggestions for including lasers and such...firearms should be easily adapted, as well. Give players MORE reason to spend that gold on carts and mules to pull 'em (i.e. lugging cannons that have a good chance of self-destructing!).

    @ Sean: In the past, I actually adapted straight BH rules to AD&D rather than vice versa...but I was a sadistic bastard... ; )

    @ Kelvin: Thanks, man, it's good to be back. Hey, which illustration do you think JM thinks is derivative of the original B/X books? I haven't a clue myself!

  8. I've not seen anything beyond the covers of the original books, so I have no idea! There is a tiny nod to the AD&D1 DMG in the black orc picture, but anything else is unintentional.

  9. One of the boons of 3rd edition was the plethora of fire arm rules ranging from AEG's Swashbuckling Adventurers to Freeport to Iron Kingdoms. With 4e seeming to struggle with 'where to go' in terms of it's evolution, the fact that they haven't done some firearms and fantasy ala Spelljammer or straight out fantasy pirates is somewhat baffling.

  10. Conan doesn’t use guns.

    Solomon Kane carried a brace of flintlock pistols, and those stories influenced my D&D at least as much as the Conan stories.

    The problem is not guns so much as the complications that come with kegs of gun power. Gun powder could change the game, particularly at low levels. My inclination would be to make powder expensive and/or rare. At the very least, it would be incredibly dangerous stuff to transport and use.

  11. Dunno. My campaign does have guns. Players haven't run across them yet, given that session #3 is happening tomorrow night, but there will be rifles doing 1d6 damage. And plasma guns, and other goofy slightly-gonzo stuff. Nothing will have the stats to make players want to stray too far from the normal set of medieval wepaons, and if they do feel like plinking away with their pistols, hey, it's just a short bow by another name. So I fully intend to let them.

  12. We tested firearm rules for Labyrinth Lord(I've published them in Oubliette Issues 2&3 and the next part will be in Issue 4). They worked well in our game and we're currently rethinking one of our campaigns to include them.

  13. That little dent in the breastplate was typically placed there by the blacksmith/merchant selling the piece in proof that the item was "bulletproof" and most buyers would pass on a breastplate that did not have such.

  14. I definitely included guns in my longest-running D&D game - but it was set in Freeport, so swashbuckling piracy demanded them! If I were trying to evoke the age of Chivalry, they would feel out of place, unless I was deliberately trying to set a campaign at the end of such an age.

    One point though: when you say that Gygax was forgetting his own abstract rules, you are forgetting something as well. From all reports, Gygax definitely did not view the rules as holy writ, and his purpose in writing them was to provide some kind of simulation. He seemed to be more interested in making sure the rules created the kind of stories he designed the game for, and less in putting down a set of rules and then studying the implications thereof. If a rule conflicted with his sense of "realism" (or "heroic fantasy plausibility" if you prefer) I have no doubt it would have been discarded or changed.

    One other issue with guns that you didn't bring up is that gamers can be really funny about their weapon rules, especially if they own and use the weapon in question. I got into an argument with the owner of the local store about how to realistically portray guns in D&D—he was of the opinion that they did not belong, because they should be some kind of magic armor-defeating über-damage weapon, and no amount of pointing out that a single blow from a broadsword or hit from a broadhead arrow will kill you just as dead could change his mind.

  15. In a world with fire elementals, flaming arrow spells and imps, woe be it to those who manufacture and store black power. At least, so I have heard argued.

    I do not have much of a place for firearms in most of my fantasy worlds but I am not inherently opposed to them. Depends on what the group wants out of their fantasy.

  16. @ JoeG: I don't remember firearms in SpellJammer (I may need to re-read those books)...I think I still have at least one of those 2E books, so I'll have to dig 'em out. Thanks!

    @ Paul: I'm not sure Solomon Kane is an inspiration for D&D...but he SHOULD be!
    : )

    @ Harv: These were breastplates of the Royal Armory and had been worn in battle...perhaps they'd been "dressed up" to make their nobles look more "battle worn" but that may just be the cynic in me. Haven't you ever watched Fistful of Dollars?
    ; )

    @ Ed: Man, I want to try this...maybe a wandering inventor/tinker type will show up at the Keep on the Borderlands!

    @ Drnunch: Huh. I haven't experienced too much of this particular geek-ness, but I don't doubt it's out there. I suppose I'll just have to tighten my DM spurs and put the boot in if it arises.
    ; )

    @ Seaofstars: Exactly. See...these games have a way of "self-balancing, huh?"
    : )

  17. JB- there are definitely guns in Spelljammer, so they're worth checking out.

    It's worth reading up a bit more on armor and guns. As soon as guns started getting more common, people started wearing less and less armor. Breastplates were made with the intent of stopping bullets, and as Harv said, armorers selling them actually would test them with a pistol, or put a dent in pretending that they had. I'm sure that armor you saw had indeed been worn in battle, but if it had a dent right at breast-level, it was almost certainly sold that way. This is the origin of the phrase "bulletproof", that they had tested and "proved" the armor could stop a bullet. But in fact at short range with a proper charge, they really couldn't.

    You can handwave it all under the abstraction of B/X/C D&D combat, but it's definitely an issue when it comes to verisimilitude.

  18. I think in Gygax's mind the firearm was some sort of magic wand that crushed Medieval times not through the threat that it represented to armor (There was some, but lets be serious. Picks, armor cutting weapons such as Poleaxe and hammers and crossbows were tearing knights apart long before firearms were on the field.) but moreso the evolution away from that era and into the Renaissance based on what the gun has the "potential" to become, and everything else that came along with it. Obviously, it took a long time to get there, but it was a major stone in the road.

    As far as no skill what a bunch of nonsense if I ever read anything. Blackpowder weapons are slow to reload and fire and require a lot of training to keep up on. Soldiers that aren't trained are irregulars, and break rather easily versus conventional forces. That takes time and discipline to maintain. In addtion their accuracy was flat out terrible prior to the rifled barrel... and it is very vulnerable to water.

  19. I have guns in my setting, often referred to as busters or lode-rails. Who says they have to run off of gunpowder, anyway?

    I use Vael, a collected energy that is condensed and very powerful, when used properly. Sound like gunpowder by a different? Sure. But it's 'fantasy' that way.

    I'd rather be with a gunman than the wizard who doesn't know how to properly handle his damn fireballs.

    As to the original question as to why good ol' Dungeons and Dragons doesn't have them, it would break their system and destroy the image.