Being an American, I happen to like guns.* I also really like ICRPG. To date I have not always loved the experience of bringing firearms and gunplay together with my preferred RPG system for a smooth-running and satisfying experience.
Debates about the pros and cons of Master Edition’s addition of the Gun Effort category and associated reordering of the effort dice aside, just as some members here have decided for their tables that parsing melee weapon classes into different categories makes sense for the application of effort mechanics and damage dealing, I understand that the same approach could be applied to firearms.
Our fearless leader has defined “significant math” as one of ICRPG’s core principles; the system is streamlined and easy to intuit because the rules tend to lean toward more meaningful differences and changes within the mechanics of the game, emphasizing a coarse granularity between conceptual categories rather than bogging the system down with countless fine distinctions specific to individual instances within the same broad category of constructs or concepts that, in the end, don’t have a meaningful statistical impact on the results of the action or the in-game narrative.
Just as most ICRPG GMs and players quickly get comfortable with CLOSE, NEAR, and FAR distances on the tabletop, where 25 feet and 30 feet are considered “about the same” for purposes of play, it is proffered in the rules as written that (most) weapons do pretty much the same spread of damage—D6 weapon damage, from a pen knife to a claymore—which means three hits (on average) will (almost) certainly kill a healthy normal person, whether they are incapacitated and bleeding out over the course of a minute or virtually decapitated on the final blow. We all know this is not completely “realistic,” but we are willing to find it sufficiently realistic within the game, owing to the benefits that choice offers us during play. If we adopt such a supplied rule, we never have to look up a basic melee weapon’s damage output in a rulebook, and during character creation we are free to flavor our PCs to fit a preferred theme, concept, or archetype without weighing in-game consequences.
If a collapsible nightstick and a morningstar do the same melee damage, then, by extension, we could agree that a .22 and a .44 magnum handgun both shoot a “bullet”, which puts a “hole” in a target creature for D6 (old rules and many hacks) or D8 damage. By the same reasoning used with melee weapons, I can live with that, even though my knowledge and experience both with firearms and with injury epidemiology inform me that it isn’t particularly “realistic.” It’s a convenient inaccuracy that provides an elegant workable solution.
However, while most melee weapons apply either a “pointy end” or a “smashy end” to a target for the same roughly equivalent effect when viewed in broad strokes, the endless variety and nuance in both early and modern firearms may sometimes prompt GMs and players to find at least some meaningful differences across the very broad range of historical, current, and speculative applications of ballistic technology.
There are two approaches one could consider in creating new pseudorealistic gun mechanics: 1) respecting the power level of the projectiles and 2) respecting the rate of fire.
The first, power level, except at the extremes of the continuum, may be significantly less useful to model accurately in a fast-and-fun tabletop RPG context. While the guys hanging around your local gun shop will debate the underlying minutiae regarding calibers, ballistics, and stopping without end as long as there’s free coffee (and there is nothing wrong with this), common Western service pistol and carry handgun calibers all have relatively similar efficacy (insert grain of salt here) for incapacitation and “ending the fight” by various measures, even though muzzle velocities and muzzle energy vary significantly. People who get shot once or twice tend to die—or at least lie down on the ground and think about dying.
Therefore, for an in-game mechanic where firearms are but one tool in a vast array of roleplay action options available to characters rather than the primary aim (pun intended) of the game, mincing over caliber concerns may not give GMs the best bang for the buck (again, pun intended).
That said, a more meaningful difference within a roleplaying game context like ICRPG that could arguably reintroduce a little more realism is the difference between handgun and long gun (rifle/shotgun) ballistics; generally speaking, projectiles fired from long-barreled (typically two-handed) weapons deal more damage and more grievous injuries than projectiles fired from handguns, so it is reasonable for a GM to put handguns and long guns into different effort categories, with rifles and shotguns using a bigger die than pistols and revolvers. It’s simple, it’s clean, and nobody has to go running to some table to look anything up.
Second, we consider the rate of fire (or, in some cases, the presentation of multiple projectiles by other means). The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the real-world historical advent and proliferation of first multi-barreled and later fully automatic crew-served battlefield weapons that quickly led to man-portable shoulder-fired automatic small arms for a single combatant (as early as 1885). From an engineering and field deployment perspective, this landmark change brought about a constant technological struggle to balance rate of fire (bullets in the air per minute) with the requirements for cartridge power, effective weapon range, and accuracy. Guns shooting powerful cartridges at very high rates of fire are notoriously difficult to control, but a controllable weapon shooting more moderate cartridges at a reasonable rate can put high percentages of those shots on target within its effective ballistic range. Especially in short bursts, these weapons have a reasonable chance at allowing the shooter multiple hits on a single target with a single quick and efficient aiming action.
The vast majority of RPG encounters involving gunplay (especially in ICRPG) will be well inside the maximum range of most modern cartridges fired from the conventional small arms of both yesterday and today, so again cartridge caliber and power is likely to be a low-yield point of differentiation when it comes to improving realism of selective-fire/full-automatic in game play while preserving the smooth feel of the germane rules during play.
Instead, a more reasonable option to consider is to consider rate of fire, differentiating full-automatic (continuous fire while the trigger is depressed) and selective-fire (multi-round “burst mode” and/or full-auto settings) weapons from slower-rate weapons that fire once per trigger pull (like semi-automatic handguns and rifles, double- and single-action revolvers, lever- and pump-action long guns, etc.). Again we have two good options: 1) assigning full-auto weapons a higher effort die for damage than semi-automatics or 2) treating bursts of projectiles as distinct but related attacks all with the same damage output.
Of course, as originally put forth by our fearless leader, ICRPG made no such distinctions…
“If you are using claws on a monster, it’s a weapon. [Holds up D6] If you are using teeth on a giant biting worm, it’s a weapon. [Holds up D6] If you are using machine guns in a gangster scene, it’s a weapon. [Holds up D6]”
However, with the dawn of the Master Edition, where guns now have their own category of effort and energy/magic effort may be receiving a bump in effort at your table compared to play under Core 2.0 rules, it may worth considering workable revisions to that original streamlining to differentiate with a nod to realism. This is the simple acknowledgment of the fact that, in most cases, while getting shot sucks a lot, getting shot twice sucks more.
The first approach, in line with the spirit of the original mechanics published in ICRPG for simplicity’s sake, is to bump full-auto gun effort up to a larger effort die than the one used for semi-automatics and single-shot firearms. If you’re using D6 for damage dealt by your magnum revolver, perhaps a burst from your Uzi does D8. If you’re assigning D8 for damage to the .380 ACP hit from your superspy’s Walther PPK, a three-round hit of 5.56mm NATO from your marine’s M16A4 might deal D10 instead.
Is changing the effort category and using a bigger die for the damage roll completely realistic? Certainly not. Is it quick, clean, and easy to implement at the table, with neither calculations nor additional steps? Indeed, and it does at least differentiate the game mechanic in the general direction of realism, making it a reasonable compromise. GMs who choose this pseudorealistic hack are prioritizing smooth implementation of the rules at the table, while still balancing the concept of significant and meaningful differences with the added conceptual flavor of more powerful automatic firearms within the game.
Conversely, the second pseudorealistic approach to handling selective-fire multiple-projectile firearms in the game is to keep the damage of each projectile the same but account for multiple projectiles fired as a single game action for full-auto guns.
In the real world, full-auto firearms have a cyclic rate (shots fired per unit time during automatic fire) and an ammunition capacity (the number of rounds carried in the magazine), and so these are translatable with workable accuracy to in-game statistical analogues; in truth, most real cyclic rates are too too high to track during an in-game action turn of several seconds, so as a workaround we might substitute either a burst mode round count (such as 3 for the aforementioned M16 rifle) or a player-allocated number of rounds (with a reasonable cap, such as 10 for a long string fired from a Tommy gun). These two gun stats, capacity and burst round count, work in concert at the table. The M16 firing three-round bursts from a 30-round magazine will go dry after ten game rounds, while the Tommy gun loosing ten rounds each turn from a 20-round stick mag will be empty after two game rounds.
Weapon attacks (like all checks in ICRPG) are made against a target number, either an encounter target level or the Defense (“AC”) stat of a player. This process for determining successful hits remains the same for selective-fire firearms attacks under this alternative mechanic. However, the multiple projectiles fired in a burst are not wholly independent of one another; we do not think of a burst of rounds from a machine gun as projectiles each having their own equal chance of hitting unrelated to the other, but rather a second bullet following the path of the first but potentially disturbed in its aim by the recoil of the round before it, compounded with each subsequent round. Therefore, in an imperfect nod to realism, we can choose to decide that 1) if the first carefully aimed shot in a burst is off the mark, the rest of the burst is likely to miss as well and 2) each subsequent round fired after a successful hit with the first projectile is increasingly less likely to hit. In truth, this is not necessarily strictly true for real-world automatic firearms (cf. “walking in”), but it is a convenient in-game oversimplification that reflects certain realistic trends in likelihood, and it allows us to create an elegant in-game mechanic to model multiple complex real-world factors.
Thus, as an alternative mechanic for full-auto gunplay, a player can choose a target and fire a burst/string of rounds as an action on that player’s turn, respecting the in-game rate of fire and current ammo capacity of the firearm. A single weapon attack roll (DEX) is made (with applicable modifications), and it either falls short of the target number, resulting in a miss for all rounds, or it succeeds, matching the target number or exceeding it by some difference. Matching the target number exactly is treated the same as if only a single shot had been fired; only the first shot hits and the rest either go by harmlessly or cause collateral mayhem at the GM’s discretion, and damage for a single hit is rolled. However, in most cases, the weapon attack DEX roll is likely to beat the target number, and that difference plus one is equal to the number of rounds in the burst/string that hit, up to the number of rounds fired in that turn; this is equivalent to decrementing the attack roll result by 1 on each successive shot. Damage is then rolled for each successful hit, making multiple hits the norm when automatic firearms are in play and making full-auto guns significantly more deadly than under the previously described first mechanic that just bumps the effort category for the multiple-projectile attack.
So, for example, in an encounter with a target of 12, a marine makes an gun attack on an enemy with a modified DEX roll of 13, as she lets loose a burst of three rounds from her M16. With this single roll, we know instantly that two rounds hit (13-12=1; 1+1=2), say for 5 and 3 points respectively, so the enemy suffers 8 hit points of total damage and is badly wounded as one round goes by (GM can determine the effect), the marine’s rifle still holds 27 rounds (down from 30), and the firefight continues. Bloodied but holding on, the enemy combatant decides to empty his Kalashnikov with eight rounds left in bitter retaliation. He rolls a 14 against the marine’s Defense of 14, so she takes one hit as she dives for cover and a string of seven misses zips over her head. Her body armor soaks 2 points of damage from a weapon damage roll of 3, so she gets by with losing only 1 hit point of damage and cracking some ribs from the blunt trauma. As the enemy makes his last stand and goes for a grenade, the marine lines him up for a snap shot and fires another burst of three rounds; this time she rolls a 19, and all three rounds hit for a total of 13 hit points (6, 5, and 2). The tango goes down for good, and the marine can fall back to safety and regroup with her unit.
As an optional modification to this second mechanic, if these high round counts per turn make the damage output under full-auto fire too steep for taste, a gamemaster can reasonably choose to decrement the damage dealt by each successful hit by one point (cumulative) on each subsequent round, reflecting the idea that follow-up shots in the same burst are likely to compound the wounds made by the previous shot(s) rather than compromise new (presumably healthy) locations. (The analysis necessary to determine the truth of such a premise and its magnitude based on real-world data is complex and fraught with obstacles, but there is sufficient potential for logical plausibility that it can be used in-game without necessarily jeopardizing suspension of disbelief.) Thus, the first hit in a three-round burst might do D6 damage, the second D6-1, and the third D6-2; however, there should be a minimum damage of 1 hit point for any successful hit from a firearms projectile. This scales back the awesome power of selective-fire weapons to make full-auto firefights potentially a bit more dramatic, with lots of rounds flying but with opportunities for combatant stamina to still have some effect.
Thus, in an alternate universe, where the tango rolled an 18 to hit the marine above with five of eight shots instead of just one bullet, raw damage of 6, 5, 4, 4, and 1 was rolled for the hits, each decremented by 1 for a modified array of 6, 4, 2, 1, and 1 (minimum). If the GM is being nice, the marine’s body armor soaks 2 points per hit, modified to 4, 2, 0, 0, and 0, so she survives but suffers some pretty bad wounds. Conversely, if the GM is hardcore, the total damage of 14 from the five hits in the burst is only reduced by 2 points by the armor (using the same logic as the damage reduction, that hits in the same location are all compromising the same area—it works both ways!), so the marine loses 12 HP and dies a valiant but tragic death.
Is this second alternative for full-auto gunplay more complex? Certainly so. Does it add more realism? Maybe. I think it employs as few dice rolls and as little math as is feasible in order to integrate some conceptual factors that can still add potential new dimensions to game play by mirrroring the real world.
If I were going to have the occasional assault rifle show up in Alfheim, I probably wouldn’t bother with mechanics like these, but if I were centering a combat-heavy RPG campaign around small-unit skirmishes and ballistic combat using modern firearms, I would definitely consider them.
The two important questions are:
- Is it fun?
- Is one of these mechanics smooth enough to work at your table?
Only you can decide what works for guns in your game.
This was just my best shot.
*NB: My opening line was intended to frame my topic with a certain lightness regarding both a cultural issue that can be extremely polarizing in certain spheres and some prevalent stereotypes related to it; mine was a statement of facts about myself that bears no disrespect toward those who are different from me, nor does it in any way make light of the problems of gun violence and warfare we face together as a one species around our planet. Runehammer is a community of creativity and positive interaction, not a political forum, and the contents of this article are offered in good faith within the context of its true aim. Thanks for reading and understanding my intent.