Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Gunslinger By Any Other Name...

At this point in time I've had the "gunslingers don't belong in fantasy games" conversation with an arbitrary number of people greater than 10, and somewhat less than 100. It is amazing to me the sheer resistance some storytellers have to the very idea of the gunslinger (while at the same time giving a free, no-questions-asked pass to the alchemist), despite its inclusion in both Pathfinder's Ultimate Combat and having these characters strongly represented in Golarion's canon. For some reason many storytellers don't even want to hear the name of the class, and they will disallow gunslingers entirely along with any and all variations that give other classes access to black powder weapons. I asked myself why over and over again, but I never came up with an answer until now.

Maybe it's the name of the class.

What's In a Name?

Everything, if you're the man without one.
This sounds like a silly, nit-picky thing to harp on, but consider it for a moment. The word gunslinger has very definite connotations in the minds of most Americans. It brings to mind Clint Eastwood and six-shooters, duels at high noon and flying lead. It also paints a 19th century world, which jars those who were trying to create something more Tolkien-esque. While there are fantasy gunslingers (Stephen King's character Roland Deschain comes to mind, as does Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane), they're few and far between.

Let's re-examine the class, then. Pathfinder's gunslingers have primitive, single shot flintlocks, blunderbusses, and most importantly muskets. They can wear light armor, and they have a knack for deeds of derring-do. They take great risks with little care for their own lives, trusting on luck to see them through. In the flash of steel and the boom of gunpowder these reckless combatants fight through to the bitter end with grit and skill.

You know what that sounds like? The Three Musketeers. Can you get more classic adventure than that?

I maintain that you cannot.

A Little Bit of History

For those who are still on the fence, here's something else you should consider.

What am I missing?
If you look through your Core Rule Book (or your Player's Hand Book, or really most other books for a medieval fantasy game) you're going to see an entry for a rapier. You know the sword; a long, fast blade popular among fencers (and supposedly elves) who fought with dexterity and precision over raw power? You typically pick it because it has a high critical hit range on it?

You know why the rapier exists? Guns.

As I illustrated in this article right here, nothing in warfare is static. As guns big and small became standard parts of the battlefield, old protections went the way of the dodo. Heavy armor and shields were no use against cannons, while maneuverability was. Without steel armor in between your sword and your opponent there was no reason to bring a heavy sword to the fight. Lighter, swifter weapons from cavalry sabers to trench swords became the order of the day.

Blades did not vanish overnight though. Bayonets turned muskets into deadly spears, combat knives were kept near to hand in case a charge didn't falter under a volley, and swords were still used more often than not when fighting got thick. The rapier became the weapon of choice for city-dwellers (making it an ironic choice for an elf), because armor was typically not worn while out on the town. While pistols were popular, they were also dangerous and chancy at best. Rapiers offered personal protection, speed, and they were also in vogue during the Renaissance.

Doesn't it seem a little silly to include weapons that came about because of guns, but to balk at the inclusion of the guns themselves?

The Uneasy Truce Between Science and Magic

There seems to be this strange notion that science and magic exist on a sliding scale. A low-tech world means there's plenty of magic to go around, but a high-tech world means that magic is on its way out. Time and again in popular fiction we see that technology and magic don't mix (Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books are a solid example of this trope), or that they're somehow separate but equal (Harry Potter played with this, even though it never explains why wizards who work in London don't understand how technology works). I can't say where this trope originates (A Flight of Dragons is one of the oldest examples I can bring to mind), but it seems to be based on the idea that a world that embraces technology leaves behind its beliefs, its superstitions, and its sense of wonder at the world.

In short, it leaves behind its magic.

There's no mechanic that states this. There are no rules that say the presence of gunslingers suddenly means archmagi lose their spells, or that clerics have a harder time reaching their gods. It doesn't mean that magical beasts are any less of a threat (though it does mean you can head-shot zombies with style and swagger), and it certainly doesn't mean you can take on dragons and expect to win (though again, fighting a dragon with a gun does have a certain, gonzo charm that can't be denied). It just means there's a new class of fighter in town, and she's got a whole new brand of boom to add to the game.

Why Sometimes, But Not Others?

Perhaps one of the last lines of defense for storytellers is that gunslingers (whatever we choose to call them) simply aren't setting appropriate. If someone has created their own setting and disallowed black powder, then that's his or her prerogative. Gunpowder is astonishingly easy to invent, given the fact that ancient China had it, but the issue of whether or not the relatively basic building blocks for the material exist in a world to be harnessed is another matter for another day. The point here is that storytellers against gunslingers will say they have no place in dungeon crawls, or on open fields fighting demons.

But sailing pirate ships, that's perfectly okay.

I'd roll a reflex save, if I were you.
The logic seems to be that there are certain places where gunslingers are allowed, and certain places where they "don't make sense." Swashbuckling adventures in the Shackles, or in the blighted deserts of the Mana Waste are gunslingers' home turf after all, so it would be silly to disallow them. On the other hand if someone wants to play a paladin who captains a privateer vessel the way some of the Knights Templar did, or perhaps take an alchemist to study the peculiar origins of the Wastes, very rarely is that met with the same level of scrutiny as bringing a gunslinger to Varisia or into the mountains of the Land of the Linnorm Kings.

The more specific a storyteller is with when and where a certain class is allowed, the more acrobatics that need to be done for it to make sense. With at least two nations making heavy use of black powder weapons it simply doesn't seem logical to limit whether or not someone can wield them. As long as the player explains who they are, and where they acquired their training and weapons, it should be no more of a story issue than it is a mechanical issue.

And if a fighter having a touch attack screws up the whole campaign, it might be time to re-think how tough your monsters are.

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