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.

2 thoughts on “D&D: Black Powder”

  1. How do you see armor piecing working on natural armor? Like say, for a dragon? Or a lizardfolk NPC? Do monks and barbarians have to do an extra bit of math EVERY TIME they’re shot, like the paladins and clerics? If I wizard can’t say a word and gesture, can a rogue use Uncanny Dodge to deflect the damage? Can a barbarian really ignore this stopping power with his rage? Can a monk catch a bullet?

    I would add an additional effect of carrying black powder, to give musketeers a reason to hunt mages. Gunpowder can be secured or unsecured. It takes, say, a bonus action, to move gunpowder in and out of those conditions. If you take fire damage with unsecured gunpowder, make a dex save DC 10+ # of charges on you or they detonate, which will probably hurt.

    If I was a rifleman PC, I’d hire an NPC Powder boy, who holds my second gun and spends his actions each turn reloading for me.

    I think your gun rules would make a really interesting setting, but they’d work best with a fully thought out world as opposed to just dropping them into the world. Creatures who are resistant to being shot get a massive powerboost, while creatures that were great vs arrows but not guns are now in trouble. The civilization that can create the stuff has strong economic power, and there are certainly spells that effect the use of guns.

    If you haven’t, I recommend reading the Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points all. For natural armor for most mundane creatures, yes, I’d see it reduced for the most part. For magical creatures like dragons, probably not.

      I agree 100% that the world really should be a full black powder world, and that’s what these rules intended to be the basis of, not dropped into a normal D&D campaign. When we get around to running our campaign in that setting, there will have been a ton of tweaks to all sorts of rules, creatures, and the like to try to balance it better.


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