1879: Things That Go Bang
In which we discuss firearms and how they work in the CoreStep mechanic, and present diverse historical notes of interest.
One of the larger challenges of creating a Steampunk game to follow on to Earthdawn, and using the same mechanic, is the idea that weapons are Strength adders. In Earthdawn, there are no Name-giver-portable weapons that don’t rely on the user’s Strength in some way. The Melee Weapons, Throwing Weapons, and Missile Weapons Skills all assume that you’re using something muscle-powered, whether it’s a club, a sword, a flight dagger, or an elven warbow. All of these weapons have Steps that add to the user’s Strength to calculate the total Damage Step. They all stage up the same for extra successes. 1879 uses the same mechanic and Skills with the same names as Earthdawn‘s Talents. If you hold it and hit people with it, throw it at people, or pit your Strength against the launch mechanism, such as in drawing back a bow, the weapon adds to your Strength for the final Damage Step. Simple, no?
Fire cannons, you say? But those just have a straight-up Damage Step, and let’s get real, nobody but a troll would even think about trying to pick up one of those and shoulder-fire it, and even then, only in a desperate situation or after a few shots of Mountain’s Blood (or both). Those are magical items, anyway, and their Damage is determined by the True Air and Fire going into the combustion chamber. Their stats are more akin to a really thumping great wand. Earthdawn does not have explosive propellants. It does not have non-magical firearms.
Steampunk, on the other hand, assumes a semi-modern era, one with telegraphy, airships, polarizing goggles, and pistols that can be carried low on the hip, in a shoulder holster, or concealed in a large reticule. Guns are the great equalizer, the thing that goes bang just as effectively as a Mage’s spell, that can be wielded without spellcraft, that can be reloaded without access to true elements, that anyone can obtain and use. There’s just one huge catch: they don’t add to Strength.
Logically, a gun shouldn’t be a Strength adder. It has a fixed muzzle velocity, a specific throw weight, a carefully measured amount of propellant in each cartridge. You can reasonably expect to hit your opponent within a known distance, and have a fighting chance of hitting something at a longer distance. The Firearms Skill works for the to-hit, just as Missile Weapons would work as the to-hit for a crossbow. The Damage Step, however, has to be treated like a low-voltage spell, and work sort of the way that fire cannons do. But then there’s those pesky extra successes, and we don’t want to shortchange the player there, so we have to think about staging. Historical accuracy plays no small part here, either. If we’re going to say that the British infantry carries Martini-Henry Mk.II rifles, we have to model that specific firearm in our weapons stats. The good news is, that gives us a benchmark.
What we did was to look at the general effectiveness of a few of the more common models of the era, and compare them to the Martini-Henry. We then set the Base Damage of the Martini-Henry to Step 9, which is one Step better than the Earthdawn troll axe or two-handed sword. It’s not great compared to a longbow, which with its Damage Step of 5 (1879; Earthdawn gives it a 4), only needs a Strength Step of 4 to equal the rifle. The scary part, and guns should be scary, is the staging.
In 1879, extra successes on a to-hit roll to the effect. Every 5 points you beat the Target Number by is an Extra Success. If your enemy has a Physical Defense of 9, and you roll a 15, you’ve got one extra success. With only one point toward the next one, it’s not worth rolling karma unless you have to. If you shot them with a longbow, your Strength Step of 6 (let’s assume you’re a little more buff than average) plus the longbow’s Damage Step of 5 givs you a 10. That extra success gives you another +2, so you have a total of Step 12 for your Damage Test, which bumps you up from 2d8 to 2d10. All melee, throwing, and missile weapons, all the weaponry that adds to your Strength for damage, gets a staging of +2.
Firearms don’t get to pull your Strength Step in, so we gave them higher staging to compensate. The Light Pistol, basically a derringer or purse pistol, gets a staging of +2, like Strength-adder weapons do. Everything else gets more. Medium Pistols get +3 Steps per extra success, Heavy Pistols +4. So, you let off a round with your howdah pistol, basically a sawed off shotgun balanced for one-handed use and requiring a very strong person to not have it break their wrist, same roll as the longbow up there, 15 against a 9. The howdah pistol’s got a Base Damage of 8, you don’t get to throw in your Strength, but it’s got a staging of +4. You’re now equal with that nice shot with the longbow up there. Give it one more success, and the longbow goes up to Step 14, 2d12, but the howdah pistol goes up to Step 16, d12+d8+d6, and now you’re talking real money here.
Put the longbow up against the Bolt Action Rifle, essentially the Martini-Henry, and things get a little more interesting. The longbow has a Base Damage of 5, plus the aforementioned Strength Step of 6, for a total base damage of 11. The rifle has a 9. The longbow stages at +2, the rifle at +4.
So our rifle becomes very nasty indeed in the hands of someone who knows how to use it, and maybe can throw karma in when they need a good shot. What’s more, you can switch to express ammunition, a sort of predecessor to hollowpoints, and add a new level of nastiness. Express ammo adds +2 Steps to the weapon’s Base Damage, but more, it adds another +1 to the staging. Let’s put express ammunition in our rifle and see where we end up.
Oh. Ouch. And express ammunition is available over the counter in many places, although you’d better look and act like you know what you’re doing, and they still may ask a question or two about what you’re hunting that requires that kind of takedown power. And this doesn’t even get into Forging, which in Earthdawn can be done to melee weapons, but in 1879 can be done to firearms.
So yes, they’re supposed to be scary, especially when you consider 1879‘s lack of tank-like armor, thread items, and blood charms, and the scarcity of healing potions, as compared to Earthdawn. Sometimes the best option is to not get into a gunfight in the first place. Good luck with that.