Apr 18, 2012

Abolishing Exploding Damage for Guns

One of the things I hate in games is when melee weapon damage is relatively static - you roll a die, add some modifiers and maybe roll a critical hit that doubles that - while under the same system gun damage explodes: You roll a die, and if it's above a certain result, you roll the die again, and if it's above the result again, you roll a third time, etc. then add some static modifiers or double it for a crit or whatever afterwards. I can take this in systems like the Warhammer 40K RPGs, where all damage has a chance of exploding, but I've seen many implementations of guns in D&D and its variants in particular where guns have a surprising deadliness compared to stabbing three feet of steel into someone's guts.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but from what I have read it's totally possible to be shot and hit many times, at least by handguns using modern rounds, without experiencing incapacitation. While guns can and do kill, I'm not convinced that they are deadlier than melee weapons, or that a round hitting a person incapacitates them more quickly than a sword hitting them does. I'm especially not convinced of this with regard to unrifled black powder weapons firing musketballs. 

In Emern, I made a conscious choice not to have exploding damage for guns, or even to give them an extremely high base damage compared to other missile weapons (they are a bit higher, but the end result is about 2.5 average points more damage for an arquebus over a bow, in exchange for a lower rate of fire, once every other round). The one semi-exception to this principle is the +2 assault rifle a PC (Chris Brown, the Berserker) got last session from the Overlord to help him capture some Jaguarmen so the Overlord can sacrifice them to power a spell that will create a submarine so the PCs can go find the Overlord's former partner, "God", who is believed to be living on the bottom of the sea near Sword Isle. The assault rifle only deals 2d6 damage, but can rapid fire on fully automatic, which has the effect of +4 to hit and +4 to damage to represent the extra rounds. Chris Brown used it to kill an invisible giant spider last session, though he also slew a fellow PC (fortunately Nine-Fingered Samuelson was wearing a ring of regeneration the Overlord had given him). The Overlord needs God to help him adjust the microwave communications array on his tower in the lost city of Zancalla so that he can obliterate the Snakemen rocket armada coming from the moon.

Similarly, while I'm not happy with the exact stat profile guns were given in Clockwork and Chivalry, I do think like that the damage is within normal ranges for melee weapons, and that C&C uses a system (Mongoose Runequest 2 / Legend) that doesn't have exploding damage at all. I've been thinking of redoing the damage and load times, and skipping the somewhat complex 2 combat action penalty for shooting a matchlock, since I can't see why any combatant in MRQII would ever use one. Managing the combat action economy is critical to winning, and any weapon that costs you too many CAs to use, especially when the damge is not insane, is not a smart choice.


  1. Musket balls do a fine and dandy job of ripping someone up and putting them down becasue they are round blobs of lead and not shaped modern bullets. That said there really is no reason for firearms to inflict more damage on a successful hit compared to a well placed sword blow. Firearms made it easier to dish out the damage at range than did all the alternatives, one can become effective with a firearm with weeks of training as compared to years required for all the alternatives.
    Any reason for exploding damage on guns (beyond the DM/game wants to make them cool) is just as justifiable applied to all other weapon types.

  2. All of your above comments are true, but I have always imagined the exploding damage on D&D firearms (for example) to represent a blow in a critical location.

    You cannot defend yourself from gunshot as you can from melée weapons, so I imagined the critical system was really not applicable. Additionally, while a man may survive a sword-cut to the head or an arrow in his face (both well-documented) I think it unlikely that a musket ball in a similar location would be as forgiving.

    1. I tend to let crits deal with hits in a critical location, so I still don't favour guns over swords there. A hit means that just that to me, with the capacity to defend one's self being AC or whatever defense statistic one uses.

      Also, musketballs are mainly penetrating weapons, just as arrows are. The chance of surviving one is basically the same as any other force rapidly penetrating the skull (including rapiers and arrows). While a musketball moves more quickly, its mass and permanent cavity are smaller than either an arrow or rapier. There's a term used sometimes in discussions of wounding of the "ocular window", which is the small region on the front of the skull that has to be penetrated to actually incapacitate someone. Otherwise, you end up with a lot of holes in cheeks, missing ears, and cracked skulls, but not necessarily fatal wounds.

      I will say I've actually been amazed since I started reading to find out how unpredictably effective being shot is. Even falling down in pain clutching the wound is a learned behaviour that only happens some of the time.

  3. Firearms are more deadly than melee weapons in the modern day, because few people are trained with melee weapons, and as they feel the thing penetrate flesh, they hesitate. A bullet once fired doesn't hesitate and always goes in as far as physically possible.

    So the difference is psychological or cultural, and at most is an argument for damage being related to or limited by character skill.

    As for damage, humans are funny things, really. Some people have been shot multiple times and survived, others have broken their ankles stepping off a street curb. A good argument for random damage!

    1. It's funny you mention "stepping off a street curb", because last month a girl I knew broke both the bones in her right shin when she tripped stepping over a 4 inch high planter.

      Regarding guns and psychology, while people hesitate with swords, they also very rarely shoot to kill unless they have been trained to do so as a reflex (there are a few other confounding factors here - David Grossman's book On Killing covers them). Instead, they mostly fire to scare off the other person.

      From what little reading I've done, combat situations are mostly dominated by whoever is best able to keep their shit together and act in a purposeful, controlled manner. It's one of the reasons that I think roleplaying games ought to measure character's ability to remain calm.

  4. Yeah, exploding damage for firearms is pretty much 100% crap. Back in medieval times there was a call to ban springloaded crossbow bolts because of the ease with which they could penetrate armor. It's hard to give a musket that much more of an advantage.

  5. This is way late to the party but modern firearms are often less deadly than their 19th century counterparts. Tatsuji Inouye was able to start mapping brain functions during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 because with the introduction of jacketed high velocity ammunition for the first time you had people who were shot in the head and survived. In general modern military ammunition is quite poor at transferring kinetic energy to flesh even when it has considerable penetration power. My thought is that most weapons damage should "explode" to represent the possibility of lethal hit unless there are specific called shot rules in play.