I had an interesting conversation with my gaming friends a couple of weeks ago. They’re looking to start a game in a semi-modern setting, and were casting about trying to decide which system to use. We played a game in 2008 that used D&D modern sourcebooks, and we were all unhappy with it.
It’s mostly a problem with guns. If you’re making something modern, you have two choices:
1) Have it be fun & varied.
2) Have it make sense.
Whether or not it succeeded is open for debate, but D&D modern obviously went for #1. The game is balanced so that melee combat is useful and that the game isn’t just a huge crapshoot. This means the weapon mechanics don’t make a lot of sense, because they don’t resemble the real world. And I don’t mean they break from the real world in a few minor details. The rules can be downright silly if you try to picture the fight as it takes place. You end up with situations where you hit the bad guy with a shotgun at point-blank, and yet he still somehow has enough vigor to continue fighting or even outrun the players, simply because he’s the “boss”.
The problem is that the needs of a roleplaying game are usually completely at odds with how things work in regards to guns. If you’re going for a heroic tale of champions overcoming evil, then the presence of guns in your setting is going to work against that, because guns flatten the power curve quite a bit. In the real world, there is no such thing as game balance.
Put a sword in the hands of a couch potato and send him up against a decent swordsman. He has zero chance of success. Now give an untrained dolt a firearm and send them up against a decent gunslinger. Their chance of success is low, but it’s there. If that gunslinger is going to have many such encounters, then sooner or later the odds will catch up with them.
1) Guns are chaotic. Bullets don’t care how skilled you are, and anyone can get killed by a stray bullet, blind-fire, or a lucky shot.
2) Guns are binary. You’re generally either hit or unscathed. It’s easy to imagine getting through a melee battle with lots of nicks, slashes, and bruises, but still be fit enough to keep fighting. It’s absurd to imagine a gunfight where you just happen to get grazed by a half dozen bullets without acquiring a single serious gunshot wound. Even more absurd is to expect this to happen on a regular basis. This tends to negate the entire idea of a “hitpoint” system. You’re either unhurt, badly wounded, or dead. There is no place on the hitpoint scale for “Ah, it’s only four gunshot wounds, I’m still good.”
3) Guns are deadly. If you’re slashed by a sword (as opposed to being run through) then it’s reasonable to imagine that bandages could close the wound. But gunshot wounds are rarely so simple to deal with. The trauma they cause takes a long time to heal, and you generally need surgery after you’ve been shot. Again, this works against your epic tale if a member of your party needs to go to the hospital and spend a few weeks in rehab every other fight. (Assuming they aren’t killed outright.)
4) Guns are easy to use. A master swordsman can parry anything a clumsy newcomer can throw at him. You’re not going to “get lucky” and run him through with inept newbie flailing. But with guns, this is actually possible. Anyone can be killed by a stray bullet. Once you introduce automatic weapons, it becomes even more chaotic. You can be killed in a gunfight by someone who has no idea what they’re doing.
Intensive training can improve your odds. You can lean how to stand and move to minimize your profile. You can learn how to use cover. You can learn all about weapons so that you’ll be able to judge when your foe is reloading. But that just reduces your chances of being hit. Barring supernatural powers, you’ll never get so good that you can dodge bullets. Even if you’re so amazingly good that you only have a 1% chance of getting hit in a combat round, that’s not all that helpful if you’re trying to play a game where you and your friends need to survive hundreds and hundreds of rounds together over the course of a campaign.
5) Guns render melee skills obsolete. Guns are so powerful that they basically trump everything that came before. A professional baseball player might be incredibly strong and have spent most of his life learning to swing a bat with mastery, but despite all that power and training it would still make more sense for him to use a gun if he found himself in a fight for his life. Even if he’d never used one before.
Sure, you can contrive specific situations where melee makes sense, but those are rare exceptions. In anything resembling a modern firefight, a “melee guy” is just going to have to hide someplace and hope that one of those situations arises.
6) Guns overshadow their users. It doesn’t matter if you’re a sniper, if you happen to be holding a shotgun then you need to do shotgun stuff. In a fight, you are your weapon. There’s not a lot of room for different character classes from a combat sense. You sort of end up with the idea that everyone uses guns, and your character class merely determines what gun you prefer and what you do with yourself out of combat.
7) Anybody can use a gun. It might take a long time to learn to fight with martial arts or to swing a flail without hitting yourself in the face, but Greg the grocer can pick up a pump-action shotgun off the ground and suddenly become a deadly foe.
People sometime suggest that you not “over-think” the game like this. But I think that’s part of the problem with modern settings. They seem to nudge people towards the “realism” line of thought. Fighting on fantastic worlds in the past or far away or in another dimension sort of frees up our imaginations to accept new rules. But if you’re having a gunfight in present-day New York, then fantasy contrivances tend to stick out and look silly.
Wow. Tough fight. Right. Let’s use these medkits and go back and speak to the Don.
So we’re going to put bandages over our gunshot wounds and then travel across town in our bullet-riddled car and speak to the crime boss in our blood-soaked suits?
Sigh. Can we go back to playing regular D&D?
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