Tales from the Gazebo – Guns in Games: Swashbuckling Balls! (Musket balls that is)

Guns in Games: Swashbuckling Balls! (Musket balls that is)
By Cape Rust

The crossbow could be seen as one of the first rifle-like weapons. They had a trigger, they had a stock and they took a long time to reload (a full combat round depending on what rules system you are using). Crossbows added the benefit of providing “firepower” the common soldier could easily learn to use. The first man portable firearms were built on this premise and in some ways kept some of the same features (see above). Ball-flinging guns were the first types of guns and if you called them a flintlock, musket or even blunderbuss, they all used gun powder to fling a concentrated ball of lead or some other material towards one’s enemies with the intent of doing bodily harm. This was the guiding principle for gun design for hundreds of years.

This type of firearm is the type you’ll most often see used in fantasy games to the advent of the cartridge firing firearms. I discussed the use of guns in a fantasy setting last week and minus a few multi-barreled experimental models, the single shot, slow loader will be the norm. The first guns were heavy and unreliable, but as you move forward in gaming timeline terms, weapons improved. Moving from the traditional fantasy setting (if there is such a thing) into a swashbuckling 7 seas type setting, the musket becomes more prevalent, but the mixture of melee and ranged weaponry makes things more fun and interesting; combine all of this with the fact that most people didn’t wear heavy armor on ships and all sorts of mayhem ensues.

Guns can ruin a good swashbuckling game quickly. As much as you might cringe by the reference, the Pirates of the Caribbean series has thus far really handled the use of guns well. The guns are there, they are used, they sometimes malfunction at the worst possible time and while people are killed with them, they are not the focus. Swords, a quick wit and lots of luck still rule the day. I mention this because I’ve been a part of way too many games where guns ruined the swashbuckling feel of the game. From a GM standpoint, there are several realistic ways to negate the dominance of firearms that won’t leave your players feeling waterlogged.

Salt water, salt air, and sea weather conditions. These three things alone play havoc on the proper functioning of guns. Guns have metal parts and nothing can ruin a gun quicker than salt air. These days, guns are designed to resist the ravages of the salt air, but back then, not so much. The combination of the salt air and inadequate and inconsistent manufacturing provide a GM with lots of reasons why a gun might not work 100% of the time. The salt air and the salt water both work in concert to ruin the proper functioning of guns, but the real kicker are sea weather conditions. Rain, sleet, high winds, blistering sun and rough seas are all things that sailors encounter regularly. Because of the design of the firing mechanisms and operation of many of these older guns, moisture alone could cause a critical malfunction. Things like wet or spoiled powder can stop a maritime marksman quickly. Combine all of that with the quickness and brutality that is shipboard combat and reloading that pistol or rifle becomes a much more difficult prospect.

Allow a few shots with guns while ships are closing and giving the player characters a chance to get in a few ranged shots (from a platform that is constantly moving up and down), then one good close up shot before blades are drawn. Because of the short range of pistols, they are often a really cool, last ditch or epic close-in kill kind of weapon. Rifle stocks and pistol handles make great bludgeoning weapons and the old sucker punch flip the pistol over and hit the foe in the face is effective and looks really cool. If you have a player who really wants to play the sniper role, let them. Post them in the rigging during ship to ship combat and let them fire away, but the increased range and ship movement will make those shots really difficult, but no one said navel close combat was going to be easy. Having the sniper character has an added benefit, if all of the players are rolling badly and this happens to be a battle they can’t lose, that sniper might be able to pull off that shot that takes out a key leader and changes the tide of the battle (pun intended).

Guns in game are fun and can add real flavor to a game, but don’t let them shift the feel and the focus of the game. How fun is it to board an enemy ship with swords drawn and dagger in teeth only to find out that the sharpshooters killed every last combatant on the ship? When you players take to the seas make sure that you remember that pirates carried rapiers for a reason.

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