Guns in D&D

Guns… are a strange thing. They are a game changer. Suddenly, there’s this little pipe, that will allow you to kill a person across a room, in an era ruled by swords and strength. Anyone can simply pick up a pistol and shoot, and that will be as powerful as a blade (if not more so). Sometimes they are handled badly in D&D-likes. I’ll talk about that.

I’ll mainly talk about this in the context of “Early firearms in games similar to dungeons & dragons”. That might affect the points made inside.

Bad Guns

So what do people do wrong? Well… there’s mainly two things:

  1. “Guns are just crossbows.”
  2. “Look at all these 100 special rules!”

1. takes away the specialness of guns, as well as their place in the game. If they become nothing more than glorified crossbows, why have them at all? They are interesting because they changed the battlefield, not because they go “BANG” really loud and are expensive.

2. ruins the point of D&D-like games, namely their simplicity. Even in the “I have 10 000 character options in my 999 sourcebooks”-type of 3.5, the core rules are simple. Roll a d20. If you hit, roll damage. Having guns being the exception makes them cumbersome.

How to Fix It?

There’s a couple of things you could do to differentiate guns from other weapons.

  1. Guns don’t give a shit about your armor.
  2. Guns can make really horrific wounds (exploding damage).
  3. Guns are less reliant on ability to kill someone.

(1) Guns ignoring (fully or partially) that you’re wearing armor, makes them good because they bypass the standard method of reducing the chance of harm to oneself. It’s bad because in the period when guns where new, there was such a thing as Proofed Plate. That’s basically bulletproof armor, tested and with a warrantee. What you could do is have them ignore the dexterity portion of armor class. You don’t dodge a bullet (though you might dodge the gun). But, as D&D isn’t at all about realism anyways, some of that might work.

(2) Guns having high or exploding¹ damage makes guns interesting because they can mess up someone… sometimes. The exploding damage makes guns scary. Sometimes you just roll three tens in a row and end up doing like 34 damage to someone. That’s like a small Fireball. If you want to make them even more interesting, you could have the gun literally explode too, perhaps if one rolls a 1 for damage.

(3) Guns having perhaps an inherent attack bonus or something similar makes clear that the gun brings something different to the table. It’s a weapon you could toss to anyone, and have them be able to shoot a knight to death. It’s a little bit similar to (1).

All of these should obviously be countered by the negatives of the early firearms. They were unreliable and sensitive to water, took ages to reload, and were rather expensive.

Guns in Disposable Heroes

In the game I’m running now, the firearms do two dice of damage instead of one. On top of that, they have exploding damage (for having the piercing property). The counterpoints are just the price and the “one shot per combat”-reload time. It’s working pretty well.

We’ll see if they invest in more guns when they get more money. So far, they only have two pistols from background gear and two from loot. They get occasional use.


I think guns shouldn’t be demoted to “reskinned crossbow”, because the crossbow niche is already filled… by crossbows. Making them different and interesting without being convoluted can improve your combat ecosystem. But that’s just my two cents.

1. Exploding damage is when you can roll another damage die if you roll the highest number possible. If you have 1d6 for damage and roll a six, you throw in another die and add them both together.

One thought on “Guns in D&D

  1. Your option (1) does point out some of the difficulties with traditional AC. It has to be both “armor class” AND “dodge class,” haha.
    Perhaps there’s something to be said for having guns ignore light armor, but not heavy? Or chain armor, but not plate?

    In the end, I think the approach you end up taking in your games is one of the best. High damage drives home the unique lethality of firearms, but restrictive reload rules limit their use (and model an actual problem with early firearms).

    Liked by 1 person

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