Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about firearms.
It’s time for a discussion on another hot-button topic! Hooray!
It’s difficult to get into a discussion about firearms in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game without someone calling the firearm system overpowered. You see it and hear it all the time on the forums and I’m sure that many of my readers have the same opinion: guns are icky and munchkin fuel.
Welcome to Everyman Gaming’s Guide to Firearms.
Let’s talk about the basics in regards to firearms because they’re somewhat unique among weapon types in the game. Here we go:
- Firearms have a one-feat proficiency. Unlike every other weapon type in the game, you don’t need a slew of proficiency feats to use different types of guns. Instead of Exotic Weapon Proficiency: pistol existing, it’s Exotic Weapon Proficiency: firearm. This includes all types of firearms in the game, including siege engines.
- Firearms have a misfire chance. All firearms note a specific range value in their entry as well as a range. This is the firearm’s chance to misfire. Most firearms only misfire on a natural 1, but some also misfire on a natural 2. The first time a firearm misfires, it gains the broken condition. The second time, it explodes in a gout of fire, damaging the weapon’s wielder and all foes in a small cone (usually 5 to 10 feet) and is destroyed. No more early firearm. Ouch.
- Firearms can be used while prone. Self-explanatory.
- Firearms take no penalty on attack rolls while you are using a buckler. So yeah, strap a buckler onto your wrist and go to town.
- Firearms can’t be loaded or fired underwater without magical aid. The exception to this rule is advanced firearms, which can be loaded underwater but not fired. Also, simply using a cartridge allows you to load a firearm underwater.
Arrows to Bolts to Bullets
Let’s do some comparisons:
- Shortbow Damage: 1d6/x3
- Longbow Damage: 1d8/x3
- Light Crossbow Damage: 1d8/19-20×2
- Heavy Crossbow Damage: 1d10/19-20×2
- Pistol Damage: 1d8/x3
- Rifle Damage: 1d10/x3
So, in a nutshell:
- Firearms get Crossbow damage (hint: better) but Longbow Crit Range.
- Firearms also get longer reload times than crossbows.
- Firearms get an inherent misfire chance, which neither crossbows nor bows receive.
- Firearms have worse range than Crossbows or Bows.
With these stat lines, firearms are actually pretty horrendous. No one in their right mind would ever use a firearm except for, you know, that one reason that EVERYONE wants to use a firearm.
- Firearms resolve their attacks against a target’s touch AC so long as the target of the attack is within the weapon’s first range increment.
Yeah. That reason. It’s a pretty good one. The entire game is designed around the AC mechanic and firearms all basically ignore it. It’s a powerful feature and honestly, it’s a little shoehorned and fairly inaccurate of real-world firearms. But that discussion isn’t a good one to start here since we’re mostly looking at firearms as a game mechanic, not as a real-world invention. Moving onward, to the balance of firearms!
The Balance of Firearms
Firearms exist in a very strange design space. It’s the same design space that’s shared by mounted archery. Let’s talk about the mounted archery rules for a second.
Firing your ranged weapon while on the back of a mount that can easily move 100 feat per round is a very, very powerful tactic, powerful enough that it basically won Attila the Hun most of Eastern Asia anyway. In Pathfinder, the power of mounted combat as a tactic is balanced by penalties: lots and lots of penalties. In order to make mounted combat balanced, you take a penalty to do just about anything related to a ranged attack while firing from the back of a mount, and in order to make the tactic function for people who invest in it, the game offers a sizable number of feats that offer absolutely no benefit to the character EXCEPT the reduction of these penalties. Mounted Archery drastically lowers the attack roll penalty for firing a ranged weapon whole mounted, as does Stable Gallop. The same applies to Mounted Casting, which lowers a penalty placed into the game.
But all in all, Mounted Archery is handled better than firarms in the game for several major reasons. For one, there’s only one Mounted Archery feat that you really need to take. But what about feats to remove the penalties associated with using firearms?
Well, I have some bad news. Except for Rapid Reload, there aren’t any feats that reduce the penalties for using firearms, and Rapid Reload doesn’t even lower the reload time to the point where you can make a full attack with most early firearms each round. This is why firearms are almost never suggested for most characters. In that one round that you shot a firearm attack against your target’s touch AC once, you could have make two or three attacks with your bow. It’s luck over reliability, I guess, doesn’t sound odd to say that an antique firearm is more reliable than a bow? (You know, except for that 5% chance that your weapon explodes and you’re out several thousand gold.)
“But Alex!” You say. “I’ve heard that the gunslinger is overpowered with firearms! He does so much damage and I can’t stop him!” Well, you’re right that gunslingers are nasty with firearms, and that’s because of the way that the Gunslinger is designed. Where Mounted Archery is designed as a single feat that anyone can take to become good at attacking from horseback, all of the modifications to the firearm rules that are needed to make firearms a respectable play style choice are locked away behind one of the most boring classes in the entire game: the gunslinger.
While the gunslinger does gain some nifty powers throughout his career, the class’s main focus is to offset the penalties of using firearms. At first level, deadeye deed allows the gunslinger to ignore the first increment rule when determining if she can resolve her attacks against her target’s touch AC. At 7th level, the gunslinger gets dead shot deed, which allows her to effectively full attack with any firearm she wants as a standard action by spending a grit point. And at 15th level, she gains lightning reload, which removes the attack of opportunity she would normally provoke for loading a firearm and also allows her to reduce the reload time of her firearm by an additional (hint: third) step, allowing her to reload even two-handed firearms in an instant. Now, don’t get me wrong, none of these powers are inherently bad for the system. The game has a long history of adding feats to the game to offset penalties rather than add new abilities. The problem with the gunslinger getting all of these abilities is that nobody else can easily get them without a super special gun archetype (example: holy gun) and if your class doesn’t get a gun archetype (most classes) or your class doesn’t copy the gunslinger’s deeds and grit mechanic (trophy hunter ranger), you’re often stuck using a one-handed firearm so you can actually reload it fast enough to make a full attack and even then, you might not be that good at fighting with guns.
A good example of why this is a strange design is the cavalier. The cavalier is a class with a strong focus on mounted combat. How does the cavalier emphasize this? He gets a special mount that scales with his level and a couple of bonuses when he charges with his mount, spread out across his career. That’s about it. The rest of the class focuses on his order and his teamwork abilities. The cavalier actually has very few mounted combat abilities because most of those abilities were wisely made into feats. Is the cavalier better at mounted combat? Arguably no, but it’s certainly easier to make a cavalier who is better at mounted combat than any other class. But the gunslinger takes all of the powers you need in order to use firearms effectively (especially dead shot deed / lightning reload) and locks them away behind a large number of gunslinger levels.
The point is this: guns are not a problem to deal with unless one of your PCs is a gunslinger.
Punching Through My Dragons!
The most common complaint that I see about gunslingers is that they make short work of most encounters on their own. They have as high of a damage threshold as any fighter but they seldom miss in combat. Why? The game favors AC from armor and natural armor to AC from Dexterity in its monster design. It is incredibly rare to see an opponent with a high touch AC in the game because the touch AC mechanic was originally designed to allow wizards to make attack rolls while compensating for their horrendous base attack bonus. But gunslingers do not have a horrible bonus, so it’s often a non-question on whether they hit or not. To this end, gunslinger “gameplay” is penalizing your attack roll in exchange for damage. You need to keep this in mind if you are going to challenge a gunslinger player.
Challenging the Gunslinger
With all of these notes in mind, here are some tips that you can use to challenge a gunslinger. All of these tips were earned the hard way GMing for a gunslinger player, so I hope you enjoy them.
- Incorporeal creatures rock. This is the biggest piece of advice that I can give you. Incorporeal creatures are NASTY for the gunslinger. Incorporeal creatures have the highest touch ACs in the game (example: the Color Out of Space has a touch AC in the low 20s) because they get a deflection bonus to AC equal to their Charisma modifier. Furthermore, being incorporeal reduces the damage from most types of magical attacks (assuming your gunslinger has a magical gun) by 50%. If your gunslinger’s using a nonmagical gun, they’re doing nothing that combat. Even if they are able to attack with a magical weapon, the fact that they’re going to have to forgo some of their penalties in order to actually hit the enemy means that the attacks that do go through are going to be soft and weak.
- Keep your Distance. If you are a Colossal creature, you have the advantage of having a reach that is larger than the gunslinger’s range increments. This means you can keep your gunslinger at arm’s length to deny her the opportunity to resolve her attacks against your touch AC. For Gargantuan or larger creatures, the Gunslinger has to be within your threatened area for her to hit your touch AC, so take advantage of that. If you have a bite attack with the grab ability, grapple that gunslinger and swallow her whole! For creatures with flight speeds, especially dragons, why would you ever land and engage the party? If it’s an option, take to the sky and reign death upon all of your foes, gunslinger included.
- Disarm the Gunslinger. If you’re using humanoids, consider in throwing characters who are proficient with the disarm maneuver at your gunslinger. Firearms are expensive enough that your gunslinger might not have more than one, and if you throw a firearm 15 feet away with Greater Disarm, you’ve really hurt the gunslinger.
- Weather Effects. I made it pretty clear about a month ago that I’m not a big fan of using terrain to make my encounters more challenging, but weather makes as much of a difference to a gunslinger as it does to an archer. If you’re running an outdoor adventure and you want to lower your gunslinger’s power for an adventure or two, throw some weather at the party. Almost all of the different types of weather impact the combatant’s ability to make ranged attack rolls.
- Track her Bullets. This is an easy one, but you’d be surprised how many GMs forget to check in with PCs to make sure they’re tracking their ammo. Gunslinger bullets are EXPENSIVE in the early levels of the game. By the mid game, you can’t rely on this to challenge the gunslinger, however. The 7th level gunslinger in our group had all of the bullets he could ever hope to fire by 6th level or so.
- No Threatened Area. Remember how I mentioned that gunslingers are susceptible to disarm attempts? Another benefit of gunslingers being ranged weapon specialists is that they don’t threaten squares with their firearms unless they possess a special ability like Snap Shot. You could have someone with no disarming training run up to your gunslinger and knock her weapon out of her hands with a good roll because she doesn’t threaten you with her firearm. This problem is easily solved by the gunslinger: wear spiked gauntlets. But it could be a good, cheesy tactic for a combat or two until the gunslinger gets the picture.
And that about wraps up my thoughts on how to counter firearms! Next time on Everyman Gaming, we’ll talk about—.
NOOOOOOO! YOU’RE NOT DOOOOOOONE!
What? The disembodied voice of Moms Against Firearms?!
YOU DIDN’T TALK ABOUT THE MOST POWERFUL TYPES OF FIREARMS! YOU’RE NOT DOOOOOOOOONE!
But, fantasy settings with advanced firearms are so uncommon, I didn’t think we would need to—.
Fine, fine! I’ll talk about advanced firearms for a minute. Advanced firearms are exactly what they sound like: bigger, badder, and in possession of fewer restrictions and penalties compared to their early counterparts. It’s easier to reload an advanced firear. It’s always a move action to load an advanced firearm because they all use special cartridges, so all you need is Rapid Reload and you’re good to go. Advanced firearms also have better range increments than their early counterparts. Although most have a range of 20 ft. or 30 ft., the rifle has a range increment of 80 ft., so none of my advice about keeping advanced firearms at bay really works for rifles.
But that said, there isn’t much to talk about in regards to advanced firearms. They’re better, yes, but generally speaking advanced firearms are better at letting non-gunslingers use firearms effectively. They’re not a huge benefit over standard firearms—.
RAAAAAAAAAAWR! TALK ABOUT THE DOUBLE-BARRELED! THE DOUBLE-BARRELED!
Oh, all right. The only advanced firearms that are truly overpowered are the double-barreled weapons. These weapons allow you to take a –4 penalty in exchange to fire with an additional barrel; it basically doubles your damage because you get the same modifiers on attack rolls and such. This is overpowered because of a lack of clarity. There is no ruling on whether or not firing a barrel counts against one of your attacks for the turn, so if you can reload your advanced firearm as a free action (which is very easy to do) you can essentially double the number of attacks you can roll during a turn. I allowed this once and it didn’t go over well for the greater Cyclops who was on the receiving end of the barrage.
So if you’re going to use advanced firearms, either disallow the double barreled firearms or houserule the heck out of the them. I have a product coming up that offers an alternative solution by changing the double-barreled rules, but until that comes out, you’ll need your own solution!
And that, folks, is my guide to firearms in Pathfinder. What do you think? Are firearms overpowered weapons or do you think they are appropriately balanced? Do you allow firearms in your campaign? If not, do you disallow them for campaign setting reasons or for balance reasons? I’m really interested on thoughts on that last one, as my setting is more than technologically advanced enough for some firearms love, personally. Leave your answers and comments below and I’ll be back next week with another thrilling GM Guide!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune gunslinger, and his favorite pastime is scooting small, unattended objects with his firearm attacks.