Magic & Guns

Shortymonster recently wrote a post on black powder weapons in RPGs. This is a bit more scatterbrained than some of my other posts, so bear with me.

Firearms are few and far between in RPG fantasy settings. There are several reasons for this: most fantasy RPGs take place in some sort of mish-mash of early to high middle ages with a smattering of ancient Grome thrown in, fire-arms lack fantasy romance of bow and sword, early fire-arms kind of sucked unless there were hundreds of folks lined up all firing in the same general direction, and in any fantasy setting where magic exists, magic is going to be more powerful than a fire-arm.

In fact, in many fantasy settings, magic tends to be thrown out in apologia as to how there can be 2 to 3 times as much recorded history in the fantasy world as there is in our own, yet somehow there has never been an industrial revolution. Magic was the easy road over industry.

But think about how time consuming magic is; is it really the easy road?
First, firearms: 20-40 seconds to reload a muzzle-loader seems like a long time, but compared to reloading magic missile? Crap, that’s like a whole freakin’ day of ramming powder, wadding & ball for a meassley xd4+whatever of damage!¬†Secondly, ANYTHING: magic is cool and powerful and nice because it is MAGIC, but for a lot of things, it isn’t near as practical as having a powerful machine that can do the same thing over and over.

Now, back to fantasy settings that have lots of scrolls. Gosh, there are a lot of them, aren’t there? In Morrowind, I’m typically lugging around a veritable Nag Hammadi. Where are all of these scrolls coming from?

A thought: industrialized magic. Why can’t magic manufacture take a henry ford approach? Halls of low-wage, low-level magic users copying scrolls, over and over again. You’re not going to see a lot of high level scrolls out there, but most of the useful every day magic is going to be pretty low level, even in terms of war-magic.

Back to fire-arms. In some games, we’re given the Arcane Archer: a character whose magic capabilities tend to be focused on improving missile combat, accuracy, effects of arrows, etc. So, I thought, why not an Arcane Marksman? I suppose this could work, and play out the same way that an Arcane Archer might, but with a specialization in fire-arms and artillery. However, we’re still back to the same problems of archery being more effective solo than fire-arms and magic being more powerful on its own.

Where the fire-arm WOULD give advantage would be if it were in the hands of someone who was not a magic user but granted its user the ability to cast spells.

When compared to the fire-rate of a bow, the muzzle-loader would fall short. But, when compared to the casting time of a spell 1-3 rounds, the 3-4 rounds for the gun does not look as bad when you look at firing a shot not as a missile attack in combat but as a non-magic-user casting a spell. The other advantage, ammunition. In a game with a Vancian magic system, a fellow with a bag of magic bullets is going to be able to “cast” a lot more spells than even high level magic users. Sure it will take them a bit longer on some, but actually less time on others.

Onto the mechanics of it. There are a few approaches:
Bullets as potions – In many systems, potions are not alchemical brews, homeopathic tonics or any sort of legitimate pharmaceutical item, but rather a liquid suspension that has been magically imbued with the properties of a particular spell. A potion of healing is not medicine, it is a one time use item that casts heal-wounds on whomever drinks it.

Because most bullets are fired once, you wouldn’t have to worry about casting Permanence. One shot, one spell. So, rather than imbuing a potable liquid with a spell, magic users could imbue the molten lead of a musket-ball with a spell. The problem here is that your run of the mill fantasy setting smoothe-bore arquebus is highly inaccurate (an understatement!); therefore, for this approach, an area of effect spell on the bullet could be triggered by impact. The disadvantage of this is that, unless you wanted to do some hand-waving, these bullets would be more dangerous to carry around than nitroglycerine.

This is where the wadding could come in. The wadding used could be imbued with a delaying magic that, when ignited, both triggers the spell in the bullet and delays its activation.

Or, another option… The wadding itself is a tiny spell scroll, “manufactured” by the low-wage mages. This option would not even require a ball. Rather than be read, these spells are activated by burning, like a prayer stick. Just point, shoot, cast. Perfect for people who can’t read magic. While it would be just as expensive (maybe moreso) than regular scrolls, a wealthy person could have quite the armament for themself, able to outgun (so to speak!) even the most powerful magic users. Or imagine, a powerful lord commissioning a musketeer unit that on an opening volley was able to rain down powerful magic?

10 responses to “Magic & Guns

  1. You bring up a couple of great ideas here. The idea of using the wadding as a delayed spell effect is original and potentially useful. It could be major part of a fantasy world’s adaptation to industrial magic which could lead to an updated modern fantasy world.

    • Thanks! I think that some people might be really fiddly about game system rules and the mechanics of scrolls, enchanted items & such, but a DM who had an open mind to magical experimentation in their game (“well, spell scrolls don’t HAVE to be read, I guess…”) could allow for particularly creative players to even help foster a magical industrial revolution in their setting. It would make for some really interesting high-level play & great large-scale combat opportunities.

      • It could be a magical industrial l revolution or it could be a pure technological one, depending on how the DM wants to approach Magic. Is Magic simply a system of controlling the natural elements of the World in a particular way, which justifies most systems reliance on INT for magic or is a gift from the Gods, that as more powerful weapons are developed are potentially losing followers and their worship resulting in their weakening powers, ala Fritz Leiber. Either of these cases would develop in a fascinating world.

  2. You should have a look at the Eberron setting for D&D – it does not talk about gunpowder but it is based on a Magical-Industrial revolution, with hundreds of low level spell casters acting in concert to bring about a Henry Ford type situation.

    • I might take a look at it. I’m vaguely familiar with it (I heard Vin Diesel wrote a campaign for it), but never played it. Truth be told, I’m only cursorily familiar with a lot of the D&D settings, having usually only played in people’s home-brew settings. So, I guess I take the risk any time I post things that an established world has already done them. Good to know that there have been others with the same idea, though!

  3. I want to start off by saying that I enjoyed this article and it has given me some great ideas for future campaigns. That being said, over industrializing magic bullets or wadding or whatever starts to become more and more pointless. Why not just use wands? I can see that given the size of an item like a bullet or small scroll, the overall costs might be cheaper to create each item, but a wand has more charges, can be given personal activation commands, has no reload time and is generally going to be easier to use.
    If we are only talking about flavour, why not just create a wand that looks like a musket, pistol or whatever (heck, a multicast chain gun would scare the hell outta your players and it only has to fire magic missiles) (man are my players gonna hate me). All of these things can be created given the rules outlined in either edition, 3.5 or in Pathfinder (4th ed doesn`t exist for me).

    Just a few thoughts… Happy gaming!

    • Thanks for reading!

      In response to the points you bring up, wands tend to be hella expensive to create and enchant (stupid valuable diamonds, permanency spells, lots of high level wizards working to create one item).

      A wand out of charges is just a stick. A gun, magic or no, is still a gun. Also, a bayonette fixture would make it equivalent to a 1d8 pole-arm.

      As for ease of use, in a lot of cases, wand use would be class-based and subject to Use Magic Item. A gun would be the same as using any weapon. Anyone can use a gun. That’s why even crappy guns quickly overtook bows at the end of the middle ages.

      • My issue with the hella-expense of wands is that the same expense is going to hit magic bullets and guns. The cost of wands is admittedly higher in 3rd ed., but in Pathfinder it balances out. Create Magic Arms and Armour and Craft Wand have the same output. You have to be a 5th level caster for both and each creates 50 uses for the same cost (50 bullets or a 50 charge wand).

        Wand use isn’t a class based thing at all. Yes Use Magic Item plays a factor, but that’s only if someone hasn’t specifically shown you how to use the item. It takes only a few minutes to teach a large group of people how to point, press, and speak a command word well enough to fire a wand, but it takes a great deal of training to show someone how to load, aim and fire a musket with any skill (although very little training to simply aim, point and shoot blindly). And with a wand of Magic Missile, there’s no miss chance.

        True the gun overtook the bow due to its ease of use, but I believe that a wand takes even less skill, is easier to carry, has no ammo, has a higher rate of fire and is not prone to a cunning wizard just lobbing a well placed fire ball into the gun powder stores.

        Both weapons would be prone to dispelling, as your magic bullets would be rendered useless in an AoE dispel. Then we’re back to guns and powder.

        I suppose it comes down to style and your enemy. If I were fighting an arcane caster (or an army with arcane casters) I would prefer wands as the dispel is much harder to pull off, and there’s no gun powder kegs to blow me up. If I were fighting a non-magical enemy (or army), a bunch of guns would be devastating. Although the introduction of any magic counter would cause your riflemen considerable issues.

      • I think it really comes down to what system you’re looking at doing anything in. I haven’t played Pathfinder, but in 2nd & 3rd edition D&D, creating any sort of magic item was prohibitively expensive in terms of time, money and experience, so one might as well have gone all out for creating magic wands. In systems like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, creating minor magic items such as scrolls and potions are relatively cheap.

        So, I think it all depends on what system/rules you’re using.

        Also, simply aiming, pointing & shooting blindly is just about all you CAN do with a musket.

        More accurate guns would be another story. My favorite ending in any fantasy movie was Wizards, where instead of a big magic battle, the good wizard just pulls out a gun and shoots his evil brother.

      • This isn’t a criticism of you at all, but I’d like to point out that simply the line of reasoning which you present is a large part of why we don’t see guns in fantasy rpgs & fantasy settings: wands are easier than guns. Both in terms of game mechanics and setting exposition.

        It’s just the dominant school of thought and the game systems have evolved to reflect and ensconce the gun-free fantasy paradigm.

        I’ve only had a few opportunities to use fire-arms, but with no training, I was pretty decent with both shotguns and pistols. On the other side of things, no matter how many times I’ve read Book 4 or the Liber Al vel Legis, I don’t think I could use a wand even if Crowley himself showed me how ;)

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