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?