D&D: Black Powder

My homebrew Dungeons and Dragons setting for our weekly game is currently in what can easily be described as an epic high-fantasy time period. I have made no secret, however, that technologies and the world have advanced. 1200 years prior to our current timeline, there was a Roman-esque Empire which collapsed. That Empire, the Varyans, built their power on the technology of bronze and iron, and the world is currently in the age of steel (and mithril, of course). The obvious extrapolation for me is that, at a suitable time in the future, the world will discover gunpowder and all of the associated technologies that come along with that. Gunpowder weapons are described in the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I do not feel they adequately represent the advantages that gunpowder weapons imparted as the world transitioned from bows and arrows and melee weapons to muskets and beyond. So, I sat down, looked at those advantages, and came up with some rules that I think better represent the weapons which would come about in a “black powder” Dungeons and Dragons setting, as well as how to balance your game with these powerful changes.

The first, and most obvious advantage, of gunpowder weapons are their stopping power. The Brown Bess flintlock musket, the musket that “built the British Empire” in many ways, fired a .69-.75 caliber musket ball. That’s a bullet 3/4 of an inch being propelled at 1000 feet per second. The standard English longbow, by comparison, fired an arrow at a mere 170 feet per second. When you think about the devastation that English longbowmen were able to inflict on even heavily-armored opponents, such as at the Battle of Agincourt (where French knights in full plate were slaughtered by English soldiers with longbows), the destructive power of the musket in comparison comes into focus. Not only could it punch through plate mail, but the bullet often ricocheted inside the target, tearing apart internal organs or shredding muscles holding limbs together. The prevalence of muskets in the hands of soldiers was inversely proportional to the number of soldiers wearing armor on the battlefield: by the late 1600s, few, if any, wore any armor at all on the battlefield.

Dungeons and Dragons’ combat system is built around the concept of Armor Class, with heavier armor imparting bigger defensive bonuses. Full plate, at a base AC of 18, is the “heaviest” armor. In order to represent the penetrative qualities of gunpowder weapons, I suggest adding a “special” stat to the weapons’ stat block:

Piercing X: When attacking a creature wearing armor with this weapon, the target’s base Armor Class from their armor is reduced by X, to a minimum of 10. This does not affect the target’s dexterity bonus to their Armor Class.

For example, a Piercing 8 weapon would remove the +8 to Armor Class granted by plate mail to the base of 10, while a Piercing 4 weapon would reduce the base AC of plate mail to 14. This enables you to scale the penetrative qualities of different gunpowder weapons based on their purpose as well as the time period. Earlier gunpowder weapons might have a lower Piercing quality, as might pistols or blunderbusses.

The second advantage, intertwined with the first, was that it was incredibly easy to train a soldier to use a musket, especially later flintlock musket. It took far less time to train someone to use a musket compared to a longbow. Thus, you ended up with a deadlier soldier in terms of stopping power in a fraction of the time. Gunpowder weapons still had the disadvantage of taking time to load each shot, however, and with their current stat lines, no one would use them in a Dungeons and Dragons game. The DMG gives a musket a damage of 1d12, and then requires the user spend either a full Action or a Bonus Action to reload the single shot. Over every two turns, a player with two attacks will be able to attack only 3 times instead of 4, and lose both of their bonus actions over those two turns. When it comes to ranged weapons, almost every player will choose some sort of bow, which they can shoot multiple times per turn and still have their bonus action free (or use their bonus action to attack again). The statline also does not represent the “democratization of the battlefield,” where foot soldiers became king. To balance things out and make gunpowder weapons more viable, all we need to do is double the damage. A flintlock musket’s damage becomes 2d12, a pistol becomes 2d10, et cetera, while retaining the loading downside. This makes gunpowder weapons much more attractive to players if your intent is to run a black powder setting, while also making regular foot soldiers more deadly.

The third advantage is not historical, but rather fictional. I asked myself: in my setting, with the prevalence of magic, why would muskets become so popular? The answer: they can be viewed as mage-killers. When you think about the Shield spell, it is a mage reacting in time to an attack by throwing up a magical barrier. For a melee attack this is easy. For an arrow from a bow, more difficult, but still possible based on range. Against a musket ball traveling 6-8 times the speed of an arrow? I’d say next to impossible, but maybe that’s a bit too harsh. To represent this, I came up with one additional rule for black powder weapons:

Muzzle Velocity: If a creature would cast a defensive spell as a reaction to an attack against this weapon (such as Shield), that creature must first make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw. On a failure, the creature does not react in time and cannot cast the spell.

This rule makes it much more difficult to get those Shield spells off, but not impossible, while still not forcing the player to burn a spell on a failed attempt.

These rules can be added into your game all together, or you can pick and choose depending on the flavor you are going for. You can modify them based off of technology available or what different races or nations come up with. Keep in mind that this drastically changes the power curve on these weapons, and musket-wielding enemies can wipe out a 1st-level party in a single round. If you intend on including all three of the above rules in your game, here are some possible options you can pick and choose from to balance your game:

  • Start players at a higher level. I generally do this anyways as I find lower levels can be tedious for experienced players, but a higher-level start gives your players an extra boost of hit points.
  • Give players extra hit points at the start. Simply double their starting HP if starting at level 1.
  • Make mithril, adamantine, and magical armor immune to the Piercing quality of gunpowder weapons. These armors are much rarer , and can enable players who really want to still be melee fighters to have a place where they don’t feel overwhelmed or weaker than everyone else. Empowering players is a MUST.
  • Lower the attack bonus of black powder weapon-wielding enemies so that they hit less often; when they do hit, it will be like a freight train, so reducing their likelihood can balance out the damage.
  • For specific encounters, add much more line of sight-blocking terrain to the battlefield to enable characters to take cover (and gain the associated AC bonus) and/or close the distance to gunpowder-wielding enemies.

As always, good luck, and happy gaming.

Why You Should Run One-Shots

My regular Edge of the Empire group plays a session in our campaign roughly twice a month, due to our conflicting personal schedules. Sometimes we get lucky and play three times a month, and sometimes unlucky and play only once. We have been playing since March of 2018, and one of our members has taken two extended leaves of absence, one for four months to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, and one for two months to bike from Alaska to roughly Vancouver. Some of you may ask, “Rambling GM, how have you even kept that group together, how are you still playing the same campaign??” That is a question for a different post. Today we will talk about what we did during those leaves of absence, and what we sometimes do when a player drops out last minute or during those weeks when someone can’t find time to make it to a game: One-Shots, and why you should incorporate them into your DM/GM stable.

For our purposes, One-Shots are any roleplaying game storyline designed to run a complete arc in one session (though occasionally this might stretch into two based on what happens at the table and player desires). Generally, One-Shots are played with different characters from the ones a roleplaying group normally plays. But why should you run them?

First, and most practically, they allow your roleplaying group to still get together and play something even if one or more members either can’t attend at all that session, or had planned to attend but dropped out last minute for some reason. I doubt you will find many people in your group who will turn down an opportunity to get around a table and roll some dice. Players in your group will be happy that they can get together and play a game, especially if it looked like they were going to have to skip a week. They may still be disappointed that they can’t continue their normal campaign, but I promise you, that will not last long. No one in my Edge of the Empire group has ever been disappointed with playing a One-Shot.

Second, One-Shots will expand the horizons for both your players and you. If you are going to run a One-Shot, I challenge you to run it in a system you are unfamiliar with. Normally play Dungeons and Dragons? Try out the Star Wars RPG system from Fantasy Flight. Normally play FATE? Jump into Pathfinder. It’s not just the system, though, you should also try to run the session in a different type of setting than normal. The idea is to give yourself and your players an opportunity to explore new characters, themes, systems, and stories than you normally get to in the main campaign. Who knows, you may discover a new favorite game. I have run Dark Heresy, Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, and Legend of the Five Rings for my group. While some players tend to enjoy playing the same type of character across games, some will relish in the chance to change it up: my very science-oriented Droid Technician from Edge of the Empire played a fire-and-brimstone (literally) Ecclesiarchy Priest in our Dark Heresy game:

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Third, One-Shots are great fun because they last only a single session and players normally have very little attachment to their characters. Some of the wildest moments in my GMing career have occurred as part of One-Shots. Players are willing to throw caution to the wind and attempt some truly ridiculous stunts that they would never risk in a campaign. One player spent every point of his remaining luck on a single roll in our Call of Cthulhu game to leap from the door of one moving car to the hood of another and stick the landing during a chase scene. They also let you plan encounters with no sense of guilt, because if everyone dies, hey it was just a One-Shot.

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As for getting ready for One-Shots, here’s a tip: plan your One-Shots in advance, and have them ready to pull up on short notice. One-Shots benefit from being more railroad-like in structure because of the limited time you have to finish them, and players are more interested in getting from encounter to encounter in a One-Shot than doing any sort of in-depth character-building roleplay. For that reason, I’d take some time to plan them out extensively to ensure that everything runs smoothly and at a good clip. Planning the sessions in advance of even knowing you will need one also enables you to salvage a session that is on the verge of falling apart if a single player drops out. Ensure you have access to the maps, minis, notes, or anything else you need even if you plan on running a normal session.

I’ll close with a final note: for those of us who play one-on-one, two-player roleplaying campaigns as well (my wife and I have been playing an Age of Rebellion campaign for 3.5 years and a D&D campaign for a year and a half), One-Shots are also great for you! We have explored new game systems, new characters, and new settings and had a blast doing so. They are good to pop in after finishing a long campaign arc to change things up and decompress a bit, especially if the arc was particularly intense. All of the same notes above apply to one-on-one games, so I encourage everyone to try it out.

As always, good luck and happy gaming.