The purpose of a gun (in TV and an RPG)

What’s a gun?

OK, back up. We know what a gun is. A slugthrower. Chemical combustion or explosive powered projectile delivery vehicle.

Or is it?

In GURPS, a gun is a kinetic energy delivery vehicle. Since Fourth Edition did away with blowthrough – a mechanic where massive damage would overpenetrate and be lost – more energy is more damage is more dead foes. See an old but interesting discussion thread here.

The mechanics of GURPS damage, their basis in a formula based on the square root of kinetic energy, divided by some factor related to caliber . . . all based in solid approximations of real-world physics.

But . . . 

What about in TV and movies? 

Well, there’s TVTropes. Wow. That’s a lot of tropes. And most of them? Most of them don’t make much physical sense. In fact, one of my hidden moments of infamy is here in GURPS’ TVTropes listing: 

  • Arbitrary Gun Power: One of the most systematic aversions possible. The closest anyone’s been able to come to divining the formula used by the authors goes on for pages.
Hey! That’s me!
But seriously: Arbitrary Gun Power?
Yes. In TV and many movies, a gun is a symbol and part of a character’s description. It tells you about the person. In practice, though? It may or may not kill you, depending on the needs of the plot. Full auto AK-47 might tell you one thing. Belt-fed tells you something else. So might a tricked out .22LR. Any of those will either kill you dead or miss you completely, might punch through the frontal armor of an M1A2 or ricochet harmlessly off of a cell phone in you pocket. They might hit you right in the chest and you’re up and at ’em despite being wounded, or ping you in the shoulder and kill you dead. The key bit isn’t the joules of energy, or the caliber, or the wounding modifier . . . it’s just a bit of characterization, that might also be used to make a plot point through violence, justified or not, mindful or mindless.
This actually occurred to me before I looked at the FATE Kickstarter draft. Actually, I still haven’t read it (but I will).
But once I had the thought of guns as merely characterization devices and plot points, I figured that FATE would handle it in a similar way. I still don’t know if it does . . . but since the draft doesn’t have a chapter on equipment in the Table of Contents at all (or at least, as such), I’m going to anticipate being (a) right, and (b) satisfied. 
Sometimes a gun is hot lead and cold death. But sometimes, it’s a fashion statement, or a nametag that says “Hello . . . My Name Is Professional Warrior.”
Sometimes that’s all that’s important.

8 thoughts on “The purpose of a gun (in TV and an RPG)

  1. No experience in that type of system. Guns in fiction are what they are — plot devices as much as anything else. RPGs are a type of fiction, but more mechanistic insofar as there are many "authors" all trying to relate their narrative. The GM creates the scene and runs the extras and antagonists; the PCs the protagonists. As such, there needs to be a way to determine what role ANY interaction functions. I'm not sure how 'gun as plot device' could work in a RPG any more than 'sword as plot device' could. So long as it is something that exists in the real world (or has some sort of real world analog that prevents it from being an arbitrary magic Mcguffin, it has to work consistently both within the game and in correlation with the world in order not be break suspension of disbelief.

    In fact, in a 3e GURPS game, I had a PC that almost broke that suspension for me by shooting a guy in the head at point blank range 3 time with a .38 caliber and NOT KILLING HIM (or even knocking him cold). Yeah, bad rolls. It was nearly unbelievable. But still possible if I really thought about it. Just highly, highly unlikely. Which is what fiction often does. Your "bullet proof cell phone" example is just this: the right angle and plain dumb luck, sure — 1 in a million it deflects a single round. Have it deflect a stream of autofire AK rounds and we're done.

    By the same token, 1 in a million that a bb kills someone outright (and then only after several minutes). Looking forward to hearing your take on Fate.

    1. "So long as it is something that exists in the real world (or has some sort of real world analog that prevents it from being an arbitrary magic Mcguffin, it has to work consistently both within the game and in correlation with the world in order not be break suspension of disbelief."

      I think this depends on what the expectations of the genre are. I pointed out the Arbitrary Gun Power trope very deliberately. Most people (and you may be an exception) don't really get bent out of shape with the results of this trope on TV and in movies.

      I've read the first few pages of FATE. As I was thinking about it, I was pondering an "Aspect" called "Enough gun for the job," in which you always managed to have the right amount of firepower, OR whatever firepower you had would be enough to do what you need. That won't work in a system with hit locations, vitals damage multipliers, etc.

      I'm a simulationist at heart, but I was trying to challenge myself to see things the other way. But in a narrative-based system like FATE, I could easily see not focusing at all on the type, damage, caliber of weapon, but only that (a) you have them when needed, and (b) they're either ostentatious or subtle, as dictated by characterization and need.

      As I say in my intro, it's atypical for me to think of them this way. I wrote the Interior/Terminal ballistics article, after all.

    2. And you've hit on exactly why I can't play games like FATE. I'm not just a simulationist at heart – it's the only style of play that I do enjoy. Abstraction is the enemy, and anything that breaks immersion is anathema.

      I do think that people like Ulfgard and myself are becoming the minority in a gaming community that seems more focused on fast, on easy, and on player narrative control.

    3. Jason: This is my natural state as well. I was thinking, however, that absent the blow-through rules, that each extra point of damage in GURPS is probably over-specific. I think this is worthy of a post on its own.

    4. As someone who runs an even more rules light than usual Frankenstein of various FATE based systems and my own hacks thereof; the main draw for me of aspect based systems for gear is that it 'skips the bullshit'. Your piece of gear is a 'that piece of gear', and can be brought in when relevant as such.

      If you get shot in the chest with a .38 and you have a Kevlar vest on? Yeah, that's the sort of thing that would matter. If they're using a big old cold war battle rifle? I don't think so.

      To my mind, even as someone who likes rather down-to-earth games, that's all I really *need* out of mechanical system for (as an example) weapons. For me personally, the immersion will follow without mechanical interference if people agree on what is realistic/reasonable, and if you don't have that sort of expectations match I suspect you're in for immersion problems whether you have intricate rules behind it or not.

      If you're at a couple hundred yards, you need a rifle to make your Guns roll to shoot some guy. If you're in a tight hallway, a long rifle could constrict your movement and give the guy with a smaller weapon the drop on you. The precise details between say, an M16 and an AKM, or a 9mm vs .45 handgun, don't tend to matter unless you've got a pretty fine grain on things, and tend to eat up time and effort I'd much rather spend on cool stuff happening in the game.

      (as for the 'why am I even reading this', I find the ongoing quest to model the intricacies occurring in an elegant way fascinating. I just have had bad results actually trying to implement it, and realized that for my own play rather than theory purposes rules light worked just as well with a lot less hassle)

  2. Ulfgard, for an example of a game where weapons are plot devices to help tell the story, see Dogs in the Vineyard. Or see many other games (Universalis, Prime Time Adventures) that focus more on storytelling and don't worry about providing mechanics to somehow represent reality.

  3. If I wanted to do guns as plot devices, I would probably do this: all guns have RoF 1 and do 1 point of damage. Whether it goes "bang" or "daka-daka-daka" is just a cosmetic effect. If you want the gun to do more, take one or more Imbuements. Your Imbuements can be whatever you like — more damage, more shots, better accuracy, whatever. It's not the gun that matters, it's the person holding it.

    Most people have 1 hit point, which includes mooks as well as innocent bystanders. Plot-significant characters, including PCs, important NPCs, and worthy opponents have normal hit points. These people get to laugh off gunshots from mooks as mere flesh wounds and grazes.

    Put these two together and you have an action story where mooks die by the score and can only stop the heroes with overwhelming numbers. They're just there for the preliminaries anyway. It's only when the Big Bad makes and entrance that the real fight begins.

  4. I played in a game ages ago where your precise gear didn't matter, only your character power level, I found it pretty fun. Since it was just abstract 'you roll attack, damage does/does not happen in X amount' could have lots of fun describing it

    It was done in over the top video game fashion, so yes, your normal attack could well be represented as summoning a Phoenix to break free from the top of the world and smash down into your foe at mach 3

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