Violent Resolution – Home on the Range

While getting up close and personal in combat is a staple of the genre, so too is rendering your foe ineffective from a distance. Archers and catapults were part of the wargaming scene from which RPGs emerged from the beginning, and this trend only increased as the games turned their focus to conflicts based on firearms.

This particular column will look not at details of the weapons themselves, but will look at how the ability to use ranged weapons varies from game to game.

This will include the concept of expertise: The ability to properly employ, with skill and effectiveness, various ranged weapons from thrown rocks to machineguns. It will also deal somewhat with effectiveness, which is what happens when a ranged weapon hits (whatever that means in a game) the target.

It will also speak to differentiation, the ability for otherwise similar characters employing ranged weapons to make themselves distinct from each other. In most cases, differentiation is part of – or really a subset of – expertise, and will be treated as such.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e

In fantasy games, typical ranged weapons include thrown weapons (rocks, knives, axes, and spears being pretty popular) and muscle-powered ranged weapons, such as bows and crossbows. Modern-flavored games (and some people who enjoy late-era fantasy including musket and shot) include guns as well.

When people consider firearms, however, they’re usually thinking about games closer in flavor to Twilight: 2000 or Delta Green than The Three Musketeers, so a lot of the comparisons or analysis will borrow from d20 Modern rather than D&D5, if only because it has worked examples.

Expertise and Differentiation

The key to weapon use is “Proficiency.” If you are proficient with a class of weapons, you get to add you Proficiency Bonus (from +2 to +6 depending on your level) to your hit roll. Additionally, there are Feats and Fighting Styles (such as Archery) that can give extra bonuses (the Archery fighting style, for example, gives +2 to all ranged weapon attacks).

Pretty much anyone can use any weapon regardless of proficiency – the character is just better at it with proficiency and additional skills. This is a bit different from armor, where if you are not proficient you cannot use the protection type.

The weapon proficiencies are broad categories – Simple Ranged Weapons and Martial Ranged Weapons, for example. Regardless of category, your ability to use these weapons is based on a 1d20 roll, plus your proficiency bonus, plus a hit bonus (and in 5e, damage as well) provided by your DEX modifier (up to +5), and finally any boosts provided by magic or quality equipment.

The game makes no real distinction between aimed and unaimed fire for “everyman” actions. Feat selection can allow things like “Precision Shot” which trades a hit penalty for a damage bonus – which despite my previous sentence, can be seen as the impact of aimed fire despite not taking a formalized aiming action during your turn.

The basic roll applies anywhere within the weapon’s range, which is a property of the weapon, not the user. All shortbows can fire to a range increment of 80 feet, maximum 320 feet, while a throwing axe will hurl out to a max of 60 feet. Your attacks have disadvantage if you extend the range past the first range increment. Beyond that, you’re out of luck: Strength or skill cannot extend this reach. For firearms, the premise is the same – the 3.5E-based d20 Modern has a 9mm pistol’s range increment at 30 feet, while a 7.62 caliber battle rifle is 90 feet. As the maximum range of a 9mm pistol is on the order of 5,000 feet, and the max range of a 7.62x51mm rifle is on the order of 13,000 feet, the rough tripling of increment is about right, even if there are on the order of 150 increments contained within the maximum real range of these weapons. In games derived from d20 Modern, the penalty is -2 per range increment, to a maximum of five increments for thrown weapons, and ten for firearms.

Importantly, though, most hot combat does not occur at the range of a mile – that tends to be the realms of dramatic narration or even “out of combat combat,” – volley fire and precision single shots that take rather longer than a combat round in D&D to line up. From that perspective, the 900-foot maximum normal range (at -10 to hit) of a d20 Modern battle rifle isn’t too terribly wrong (though another 1.5-2x wouldn’t exactly hurt, either).

There will be several potential forms of differentiation in a D&D-based game. The first is the usual proficiency bonus for classes that focus on fighting. A modern equivalent of the Archery Fighting Style would be another good way to go, giving a bonus with all or particular types of ranged weapons. The other is of course proper selection of Feats. Sharpshooter would be a good choice, allowing trading skill for damage, while others such as Crossbow Expert could be modified to pertain to handguns or longarms. Games that are brought forward in time based on D&D 3.5 and 5e would invoke (perhaps custom-designed) feats based on weapon type (perhaps there’d be a Shotgun Master feat, paralleling Crossbow Expert, or even Close-Quarter Battle Fiend, which would give a boost to the utilization of long weapons at less than, say, 30′ range, or allowing firing with full accuracy after movement).

Effectiveness

Assuming a hit is scored, damage is then rolled. An arrow from a shortbow hits for 1d6+DEX Bonus in 5e, a longbow is 1d8+DEX Bonus. For firearms, the damage is a flat roll: 2d6 for a 9mm pistol, 2d10 for a 7.62 battle rifle round, and 2d12 for something as large as a .50 BMG. In a game like D&D5, where high level characters have many hit points, this requires firm adherence to the notion that HP represent ablation of grit, luck, and skill – because a normal human getting hit squarely with a .50 BMG will usually end up in more than one piece, killed almost explosively.

There are a few “massive damage” alternate rules, many of which allow a character to take a hit from even a .50BMG and not be instantly killed. The 50HP threshold that is the default rule, and even the 25 + 2 x Level or HD rules allow a 2d12 hit to not trigger the threshold in either case, making such wounds (or at least one) eminently survivable. Only the alternative where your massive damage threshold is set equal to your CON will allow a single shot from a rifle to drop a character in one hit. Games where a single hit is supposed to be a threat may wish to invoke this threshold instead of others that might be suggested. Cinematic games will go the other way.

Fate

Much like any other combat activity, ranged attacks are handled by a Conflict, usually of a skill such as Shooting against a defensive skill – perhaps Athletics. The basics are no different from any other conflict – part of Fate’s appeal – and the particulars of the weapons are optional detail via Extras.

The thing about Fate and the way it handles mechanics-based activities is that “shooting” can be used for, potentially, any one of the four major action types – Overcoming an Obstacle, Creating an Advantage, Attack, and Defend.

While most will think of shooting as an Attack, if you are, for example, shooting out a light source in an Evil Overlord’s lair, you will probably be Creating an Advantage, rather than Attacking. So it’s important to remember with Fate that while you will likely be basing your roll off of some version of shooting skill, defensive rolls might be against Notice or Stealth as easily as Athletics – it depends what the scene calls for. A contest of fast-draw might be an opposed attempt to Create an Advantage as well.

The basic question in Fate is “what do you want to do,” not “what game mechanic are you utilizing.” The skill set listed in Fate Core is also only a recommended list, and is often customized for individual games – Fate wraps an appropriately-scoped skill set around a genre, and doesn’t force-fit a singular skill set to all genres.

While the analysis in Violent Resolution is, in the end, about game mechanics, the overall purpose of the game designer’s intent for any given game is important, as well. Fate keeps things high level by design.

Expertise and Differentiation

Expertise is going to be based on your skill level with the relevant category, in this case Shooting in Fate Core. The four available tiers for starting characters in Core (from +1 through +4) actually provide significant differentiation in expected result, as a +2 shift relative to a foe in a contest is a dominating one. Considering the centralizing tendencies of 8dF, even a one shift difference is a strong one.

The other side of the expertise coin, rather than base skill, will lie in Aspects and perhaps most importantly, Stunts. These are infinitely variable and based on dynamic discussion between the GM and player(s). Some good examples can be found in the link:

  • Scope User. You know how to use a scope. +2 to create advantages with Shoot related to aiming while using a scope or laser sight. (adapted from http://dfrpg-resources.wikispaces.com/Stunts)
  • Rain of Lead. +2 to create advantage rolls with Shoot when you create an aspect relating to suppressive fire. (adapted from Spirit of the Century SRD, §6.15.2)
  • Sniper. Once per scene, you may make an attack with Shoot from up to ten zones away, provided you have a sniper rifle and scope. (Peter Blake)
  • Shot on the Run. Once per scene, you may move one zone, attack with Shoot, and then move one additional zone, provided there are no situation aspects restricting movement. (Peter Blake)
  • Trained As a Unit/Team Player. You were trained alongside the rest of your unit, and now that unit is like a single organism. +2 to create advantages with Shoot whenever working with another character who is from the same unit as you and who also has this stunt. (A similar stunt could exist in many other skills.) (adapted from http://dfrpg-resources.wikispaces.com/Stunts)

So despite a high-level viewpoint that the system could be considered mechanically coarse, if you want your character to be distinctive even within a specialty, it can be done. Four Special Ops soldiers, each with +4 in Shooting, could be differentiated as a sniper, suppressive fire expert, CQB master, and a grenadier simply by choosing the right Stunts and Aspects.

Expertise (given by your skill level) and differentiation (what Aspects and Stunts you have on your sheet relevant to ranged weapons use) in Fate are really part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, the differentiation is the key bit, unique to each character, and built right in to the design process.

Effectiveness

As noted in a prior column, there is no inherent differentiation between fists, arrows, and .50 caliber bullets where wounding is concerned. Such differentiation is the realm of “house rules,” though such rulings, rather than rules, are officially sanctioned and may be critical to the feel of a particular genre. There are plenty of ways to differentiate between weapons, including minimum shifts on a hit, adding to the shifts on a hit – perhaps randomly, perhaps as a fixed value, or the nature of the Aspects assumed when Consequences are taken.

GURPS

There is, notionally, little distinction between ranged and melee combat in GURPS, in that in both the attacker will roll 3d6 against an adjusted skill, and if the defender is aware of the attack, he gets an active defense. One of the key bits that makes ranged weapons different in practice is that they are among the most heavily penalized skills in GURPS. The typical penalty for fighting in a room, hand-to-hand, without a single photon in it (total darkness, or being blind) is -10. This is also the penalty for shooting a man-sized target at 100 yards.

Against those penalties are set significant equipment and action-related bonuses. A decent gun (say, a full length M16) will give +5 if you take a turn (one second) to Aim. Focusing only on your shot, and taking a few more seconds, putting the weapon on sandbags or using a really good sling can give another +4 combined. A scope can add yet more (a 10x scope is +3). So that 100-yard shot will be at a net of +2 to skill if you take four or five seconds to make that happen.

The high resolution that is brought to bear, so that every choice is given high agency, is both the benefit and the bane of GURPS (the um and the yang of it in Korean terms). There are many ways to lump this together and make such choices easier for the players (range bands, packages of stuff to do all at once, etc.). But these have less to do with the character-facing items on the sheet than choices available to all those who would employ ranged weaponry to do others harm.

In fairness, my biases as a GURPS author, and one very much interested in the representation of ranged weapons in RPGs in particular, are on full display in this section. I own that – but there’s definitely more than one way go to here, and I’ve had as much fun doing West End Games’ Star Wars RPG as I’ve had with GURPS. I appreciate GURPS as providing a level of detail and resolution for this type of play, a style I enjoy very much.

Expertise and Differentiation

The way to demonstrate expertise within the framework of the GURPS system is by choosing the right skills to do the job. Most things a character bent on causing others harm wants to do will have a particular skill associated with them. Archery will use the Bow skill, while a crossbow uses the unsurprisingly-named Crossbow skill. Firearms will use Guns or Gunner depending on how the weapon is employed, and within (for example) Guns there are required specialties – Rifle, Pistol, Shotgun, Submachine Gun, Grenade Launcher, etc. Related skills may have strong defaults, such that (for example) if you know Guns (Rifle) at 14, you also have Pistol and Shotgun at 12.

While the fine resolution is perhaps the default of the game, there are numerous ways to bring that up to a less-differentiated norm. Wildcard skills cluster related skills and specialties together, and there are some good consolidations of Guns skills in particular suggested in an article in Pyramid Magazine (Pyramid #3/65).

GURPS specifies a lot of activities through the assignment of penalties: Shooting at the head is -5, being in close combat is at a penalty equal to the weapon’s Bulk rating (or -2, whichever is worse), and taking two shots at two different targets, each of which is at -6. If a character is supposed to be good at some aspects of shooting but not at others, there exist ways to fully or partially compensate for this by buying off penalties through the use of Techniques – a small point investiture relative to a full level in the skill (though having more than two or three is inefficient).

As with the Fate example, you can have a Close Combat Specialist, who has bought off the usual penalties for shooting on the move, a grenadier with high levels in Grenade Launcher (and maybe some explosives), a suppressive fire expert with high levels of Gunner instead of Guns, and a Sniper who has purchased the Deadeye perk as well as taken levels in Precision Shooting or (more likely) Targeted Attack, allowing you to buy off half the penalty to shoot at a particular location. For Gun Fu awesomeness, you can purchase Gunslinger, which halves penalties for Rapid Strike (more than one shot at different targets, or purposefully different locations on one target – such as the Mozambique Drill), or other high speed, low drag abilities.

Effectiveness

Assuming your foe doesn’t dodge out of the way, in GURPS getting hit by gunfire can be pretty spectacularly fatal. If a typical hero has 12-15 HP (and Joe Average has 10), that’s looking at unconsciousness after 4d worth of damage on the average, death rolls starting after absorbing the average roll on about 8d. Absorbing 24d worth of hits (again, on the average) will kill any normal person.A pistol bullet might do about 3d of injury to a non-vital area per shot. A rifle will do about 5d-7d, while a big machinegun bullet like the .50BMG is rockin’ at 18d injury per hit. To a non-vital area.

Quantifying this in dice rather than points is something I find useful to show the impact of different projectiles, which show much, much more extremes in GURPS than many other games, and certainly more than all of the others considered here. GURPS rolls the dice to determine points of penetration, subtracts armor if present, and then applies modifiers for location and wound size. Talking about this in dice is a bit of a personal quirk.

Hit the vitals or skull? Pistols will hit for 8-9d, rifles at 15-20d, and a single .50BMG to the vitals is about 36d. Better wear those ballistic inserts (which, by the way, will stop about 10d worth of before-armor penetration; that .50BMG will average about 7 points penetrating causing about 10 points of injury, or a still-likely-fatal 21 points to the vitals).

You can also choose to simply adopt real-world tactics: shooting from behind hard cover, from ambush, or heaven forbid, not getting into gunfights at all.

Night’s Black Agents

Resolution of gunfire or any other ranged weapon in NBA has pretty much the same mechanic – roll 1d6 and hit if you roll above a target number that is often 3 or 4. It would be somewhat fair to say that gunfire is one of the assumed methods of communication, but it would be equally fair to say that no method of violence is mechanically privileged or penalized over another.

Expertise and differentiation

To first order, skill in using ranged weapons will mostly fall under Shooting (personal firearms, bows, and crossbows) or Weapons (most melee thrown weapons). Skill levels are deceptive in Night’s Black Agents, since they are more about spotlight time looking good than a mathematical simulation of every shot made and scored. Chewbacca may only appear three times on screen with his bowcaster – but when he does, something’s going to die.

The point expenditures are still somewhat functionally equivalent to skill, and allow a character to look good on screen more times per scene than another with fewer allocated or spendable points. If your agent has a Shooting (or other relevant) skill at 8 or higher, there are also special move she can do, such as suppressive fire, a sniper shot, or extra attacks.

Since any character with the right number of points in Shooting can use any ability, mechanical differentiation is low . . . but NBA is not about mechanical differentiation in most cases. If the agent is a sniper, then she will use the Sniping option, and never Suppressive Fire. A CQB specialist may well use extra attacks and called shots a lot, but not sniping or suppression. Differentiation is a matter of choices made in what your agent looks coolest doing, and that’s a matter of background and characterization.

Effectiveness

Any mention of vampires and guns must
include an image of Kate Beckinsale

It is relatively likely that an agent will hit what she’s aiming at. If your bad guys are capable of making General Ability spends of their own, it is nearly certain that your agent will also be hit at some point. Perhaps often.

When considering arrows and guns, even a Health of 8-12 can only make it through a couple of “hits” before wounding and unconsciousness are a real threat. At 1d6 or 1d6+1 per hit, two hits risk being Hurt, and four risk being Seriously Hurt – the kind of wound that hospitalizes you.

NBA is a game of dramatic tension, and that tension isn’t going to be the type that lasts over hours of monotonous exchanges of fire. It will be short, sharp conflict, and then victory, retreat, or death.

Savage Worlds

All of the games presented here except for GURPS lump most, if not all, ranged combat into a single skill, and Savage Worlds is no exception: like Fate and Night’s Black Agents, Savage Worlds uses Shooting to cover nearly all forms of ranged combat.

Savage Worlds is designed around miniatures combat (though it has advice on playing without them), unlike the more abstract Zones of a Fate game. As such it provides a list of penalties to be assessed for Range, Cover, and Illumination, though the list is quite short and general (by design). Firearms that fire many projectiles may get multiple attacks, represented by the number of Shooting dice you get to roll when making an attack.

Expertise and Differentiation

Skill and effectiveness in Savage Worlds is driven in part by simply being a Wild Card, and gaining the benefit of the Wild Die. It is also driven by the size of the die being rolled, with a d6 considered Average, and the highest die type being a d12. So die size is one axis of difference between characters

The other, more flavorful axis to make characters distinct is that of Edges. Combat Edges, in particular, allow specialization where a character is better than his peers at doing certain things.

Awareness can also be a good Edge – and truthfully, if there’s one skill, edge, ability, or point sink I will make regardless of game system or genre, it’s whatever stands in for Perception or awareness in the game. But that’s me.

Savage Worlds has a lot of supplements, and the prospective GM can draw Edges from many of them (helpfully collected here). Being good at suppressive fire or being fast on the draw are examples, but many others exist or can be created.

Effectiveness

Weapons are not strongly differentiated in Savage Worlds, with most pistols doing 2d6 and a .50BMG doing 2d10. But Extras are up, down, or out, so the question is mostly if the damage is enough to deliver a wound, which against an average guy is rolling 9 or higher (Shaken plus a Raise). From that perspective, one hit from a pistol will render a foe Shaken, and two will take them out. One shot from a rifle (2d8) will, on the average, take out an Extra . . . and SMGs and assault rifles have rates of fire of 3, so bringing the pain on an Extra (or even a Wild Card) has a very real chance of a one-shot, taking the target down and out of the fight. To that extent, getting hit once by a .50 BMG or a 5.56 in the chest is probably “spectacularly messily dead” vs “likely dead when he bleeds out,” and is dramatically equivalent.

An aside: having damage/injury variable from very low to very high with a goodly amount of randomness is probably a design feature, not a flaw. Especially given how many scary wounds are actually survived, and how incidences of what should be minor injury can result in terrible consequences. So if I pick on games for giving a low upper bound on damage for vehicle-killing rounds such as the .50BMG when they meet a human target, you will not see me do likewise for a minimal lower bound. Grazes do happen.

Finish Him

Of the five games presented here, GURPS is the standout for the level of resolution that can be (and honestly, usually is) provided in terms of distinguishing between characters, weapons, and abilities within the already-narrow specialty of shooting holes in things. The ability to resolve with high levels of verisimilitude anything from a 1,000-yard headshot to a furious exchange of unaimed and inaccurate gunfire at a few yards distance plays right down the middle of the game’s strong suit. That it can also be expanded or blurred to handle high-action genres such as Monster Hunters (related to the series of books in spirit, but not a license), using Gun Fu rather than Tactical Shooting – each of which tunes the game to allow particular types of awesome makes it a very versatile tool if you are inclined to accept the game’s paradigm. The downside, as mentioned earlier, is that in order to offset the very large penalties that can stack up for range, target location/size, and environment, a character either needs to be ridiculously good, or take many turns lining up each shot – this can be quite frustrating to those looking to act every turn. On the flip side, it’s hard to get disemboweled with a sword from 50 yards away . . .

The other games paint with a broader brush. Fate can be surprisingly and delightfully crunchy, with the open-ended nature of Aspects and Stunts countered by the very well-defined mechanical support provided to invoking them. While Fate Core provides a scant paragraph on differentiation through equipment, the Fate System Toolkit and various worked examples allow as much tweaking as an individual game requires.

D&D treats ranged weapons like any other in most respects. Damage is similar to melee in most cases, and a relatively short unpenalized range is offset by the fact that in many of the standard environments where ranged combat is used (dungeons, unsurprisingly) the range is plenty long enough to span the dimensions of nearly any room. If the party is fortunate enough to perceive a threat at range, in a wilderness or larger internal cavern, the stand-off provided by bows and crossbows can be very handy. A melee Great Weapons Master and a ranged Sharpshooter can enjoy the same benefits (-5 to hit in exchange for +10 damage) . . . but our sharpshooter can do it from full range without suffering Disadvantage. While ranged weapons may not be preferred over melee (and neither are superior to many forms of spellcasting), they aren’t gimped either.

Night’s Black Agents paints with a very broad brush, with agency and differentiation provided largely via point spends and characterization, rather than detailed lists of skills, maneuvers, or equipment. While there are plenty of rules for common combat actions (Called Shot, Sniper, Disarms, etc.), they are kept firmly within the narrative basis for the game.

Savage Worlds splits the difference a bit. Deliberately aimed at “roll and shout,” the game uses easy to remember game mechanics (such as NBA or D&D) but also has a small list of commonly-assessed penalties (such as GURPS). Weapon damage is enough to threaten any character, and one can expect to see movie-like behavior when engaging foes: Extras drop in two shots with a pistol, or one with a larger weapon. The autofire rule hearkens me back to WEG d6 Star Wars: you have so many dice, spread ‘em around as you like. Easy to remember and to play.

In all cases you can design and play an effective combatant with ranged weapons, though each game provides a very different user experience. Depending on what game style you enjoy, you can definitely find a home that you want to live in; likewise you may well find that there are those that are anathema. More so than melee, the game design choices strongly influence how a scenario plays out, and how it feels from, to borrow a Night’s Black Agents term, a player-facing perspective.

One thought on “Violent Resolution – Home on the Range

  1. Very nice breakdown!

    Glad to see d20 Modern get a mention, too; probably the latest published d20 game I cared much for. Unfortunately, I wasn't a huge fan of their gunplay. I leveraged their "CON for Massive Wounds" rule, to invoke fear of death in my players a bit since at the time they wanted something more dangerous than our prior D&D experience. Unfortunately, firefights felt clunky to us at the time so there wasn't much of it in the system test out, and the campaign actually ended up designed as an Urban Martial Arts one instead. I did a post-apoc game a couple years ago, but I don't think we had any shooters then, either. Which reminds me, I need to get some sample characters up soon.

    GURPS is the only other system I've run, but no games as yet have been shoot heavy. I am working on that, however. Just typically do not have much in the way of projectiles, though my "current" WHFB campaign does involve blackpowder pistols – which can indeed ground a man in a single ball. I've done a "sewer crawl" with some shooting, but it was short range, low skill stuff. A future campaign may actually make use of military grade firepower, which will be interesting.

    I've voiced my opinions on modern firearms in GURPS before. I would encourage anyone who utilizes firearms in their games to check out the Pyramid article referenced above, as it does a very good job clearing up the clutter, and giving you less to worry about tracking on character sheets. For bows, there's also The Deadly Spring!

    Cheers!

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