Croatoan Design Journal #2 (Mechanics for Theme, Guns)

I mentioned in a previous entry that I wanted to explore using mechanics to encourage a particular style of play.  Attaching mechanics to a particular aspect of your game signals that aspect is intended to be important.  There are exceptions in both directions: some mechanics rarely come up and become unimportant, while on the other hand some important game elements are handled by roleplay and fiat (for example, the laws of Kindred society in Vampire: The Masquerade).  But on the assumption that I want my setting to have a distinct narrative AND mechanical feel, I wanted to institute some setting-unique rules.

The overarching theme of the Croatoan setting is colonialism.  I am by no means an expert on colonial history, postcolonialism, anthropology, sociology, economics, or any other discipline that has really grappled with colonialism.  But one need not be a true expert in a thing in order to study, appreciate, and write fiction about it.  I have read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” and found it compelling; it is a materialist explanation of the underlying reasons how western Europeans managed to conquer most of the world within the span of a few centuries.  The title is itself a short answer to the question.  So I thought I would use the book as inspiration for some custom rules for the setting.

Guns.  The colonizers have guns, the PCs don’t (at first).  The idea here is to design the guns as a weapon that grants distinctive advantages to the colonizers, one that makes them very powerful in massed warfare; I am thinking muskets as a primary model.  At the same time these muskets should be less advantageous in guerrilla warfare or urban combat, preserving the sword and sorcery combat niche for PCs and colonizers alike.  Fortunately, D&D is already very kind to massed ranged combat, with high d20 rolls and crits nearly inevitable with a high volume of attackers.

So what can I do mechanically to make muskets advantageous, but not overwhelming, and also make them feel musket-like?  Presumably they have a high damage output, like 1d12 or 2d6.  I like the idea of musket balls having high variability, equally likely to graze you or blow through your heart, so 1d12 damage is preferable.  These guns should have a long range, though not terribly accurate for most of that range.  So I can give them a low normal range, and a high long range, say, 20/500.  Muskets should have a unique advantage, so I gave them a quality called “Armor Piercing” which allows the attack to ignore AC bonuses due to nonmagical armor or shields.  This is a fairly complicated and novel rule for D&D 5e, since it effectively requires a determination of what 3rd edition D&D called “touch AC.”  When the PCs first encounter guns, I would do well to ask the players to create an entry on their character sheets called “Gun AC” and have them calculate it for their characters.

These muskets should also carry significant disadvantages, tied with in-universe reasons why colonizers can’t rely on them all the time and why the colonized people can’t adapt the technology quickly.  One limiting factor is cost and materials; I could assert that guns require high-quality iron and/or steel, which the colonized people do not have or is prohibitively expensive for them.  (I will get to a further exploration of “Steel” as another mechanic, later on.)  Another limitation could be the availability of ammunition.  Muskets effectively require two types of ammunition in tandem, a ball shot and a sachet of gunpowder.  This gunpowder can be difficult to produce, perhaps requiring a secret 3rd level Wizard spell known only to the colonizers.  The gunpowder can be dangerous to carry, such that exposure to area-effect fire damage requires the user to make a Dexterity saving throw or her gunpowder detonates.  Gunpowder may not work at all, under wet conditions.  One other disadvantage could relate to how long it takes to reload a musket.  I conceived of this as a disadvantageous special weapon quality called “Slow Loading,” which has all the drawbacks of the “Loading” weapon property, plus the weapon takes an action to load.  This cuts the rate of the musketeer’s attacks in half, making the musket much less attractive as an option for an adventurer.  It also enforces its utility as a weapon for defensive emplacements and massed fire, with one team reloading as the other team fires.

One other consideration is how guns work with the existing weapon proficiency system.  I propose treating every gun like a toolset, rather than a weapon, and so proficiency can be attained by spending 250 days of training.  This is difficult and expensive, but allows anyone to pick up and learn to use a gun well with practice.  I might reduce the time required to gain proficiency, representing another advantage of firearm use.  Another possible way of incorporating gun proficiency is to create a custom feat, but feats are expensive.

What is the overall effect of this rule, mechanically?  Arguably not much; as designed, muskets are not that much better than heavy crossbows.  But in terms of setting, the musket distinguishes the colonizers as possessing a strange and terrifying technology.  Despite guns requiring a relatively complicated mechanic to represent it, the intended effect is narrative: the colonizers have an edge that the PC’s don’t.

Out of nostalgia for AD&D 2nd Edition, I call this gun “arquebus.”  For some historical context see here.  I might develop other rules for cannon, and shot, as I develop the setting further.

Next week I will write more in this vein and discuss “Germs” and “Steel.”

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