I played in a D&D game a few years ago, which is rare for me because I usually GM. I also don’t play a lot of D&D. Gurps and Amber Diceless are my usual systems. However I did, and one of the other PCs said something I’ve been thinking about off and on ever since.
She said, ‘The problem with modern fantasy is that no matter the theme or genre, eventually everyone starts using the power of gun.’
I don’t remember the broad context, but the specific context was PC weaponry. Modern fantasy players eventually start shooting. No matter the magic swords or vulnerabilities, eventually everyone shifts over to gun-based weapon systems. This is annoying, because swordfights on motorcycles are cool, but if you just want to kill the bad guy, shoot him. Use silver bullets. Use wooden stakes from a 40mil launcher. In a fantasy setting recognizably close to the modern world, everyone’s going to be using guns eventually.
A few exceptions exist, but she was 90% accurate.
In movies or written fiction, the authors can make sure swords remain effective. GMs can fiat things such that melee weapons are the dominant form of combat. Without such fiats, if guns and swords are intended to be balanced, guns will always win due to range. Thus the only way to maintain swordplay is eliminate gunplay, or nerf it to the same point, and then you’re not really in a modern fantasy world, at least not for combat.
The GM or authors can attempt to set scenes and stages such that swords work better than guns sometimes. The magic to kill Evil Bob might require continuity between caster and target. The PCs could weaken Evil Bob with guns, but to finish him, they need to get close and use blades. The problem is PCs are nigh geniuses at breaking GM plans, and they’ll come up with a way to shoot Evil Bob to death. Plus most rule systems support specialization. If a player has to focus on one, and that’s usually the most efficient build, focusing on gunfighting is more efficient and net superior. Then if the GM forces them to use swords, that’s sort of annoying and not as fun. Games follow fun.
Conversely, in any game that pays lip service to realism, even fantastic realism, will rely on firearms because in the real world, that’s what people use. While exceptions exist, all major militaries use guns, missile weapons, or something similar as their main combat apparatus, and have for hundreds of years. Swords ain’t coming back. Let’s ignore the meaningless exceptions. Yes, some guy at Normandy had a sword. He was an exception. Maybe there were a few. They’re a rounding error compared to gunfighters.
People enjoy fighting in games. In the real real world, we don’t fight and it pisses us off. Someone cut me off today, just being a real jerk, and I backed off and let them go ahead. I did this because I’m a functional adult. But it pissed me off, and I wanted to hit them with my car. One of the fun things about games is the players can hit someone with their car, and a good game is set up to do this. I think this a moral good. It’s a vent system, and the other PCs all agree with you that yeah, in the game you hit the jerk with your car, because in the real world, you don’t. That sets up and reinforces the expectation that games are for shooting and stabbing, and real life is for using bad language while you brake to let the jerk in. No, I am not going to get into a car accident because the jerk was wrong. I know people like that. I don’t want to be one of them.
But with the expectation that there should be fighting in RPGs, and fighting should be fun, if the game is modern fantasy, it’s going to be gunfighting eventually.
That annoys me.
I think it might be overcomeable by giving everyone a huge amount of move, such that range ceases to matter. But I don’t know if that would be fun, because part of the fun of rpg swordfighting is moving your little dude around on a map. This was one of the great problems with Exalted. To do something new, Exalted took away moving your little dude on a map, and people like moving little dudes on maps. It helps immersion. If there’s so much movement that range ceases to be an issue, moving dudes on maps might not be fun anymore.
This is the problem with video games, and I haven’t seen many of them overcome it either.
Even if you time-gated movement, you wouldn’t have overcome firearm superiority because shooters can shoot every turn. For example gratis, imagine your character could move one hex an action for free but lots of hexes with a move action. Move and attack, many hexes and still attacking, would have significant penalties. This is the way Gurps does movement. The problem is the shooter can still shoot every action, and a shooter with absurd movement would just be better than a swordfighter with absurd movement. There’s no reason to use a sword if you can use a gun.
So you say, ‘Fine. Swords give even more super movement.’
But then you’ve nerfed guns to the point where everyone would use swords.
The problem remains you can’t balance ranged and melee weapon systems in an RPG. Not given the real world consequences of game complexity. The rules can’t be so complicated the game bogs down. Everyone should be able to quickly and intuitively grasp the mechanics.
The alternative is nigh pure narrative games, like Amber Diceless and I love Amber Diceless, but it has a host of other problems.
I don’t have a solution. If you’ve got guns and fighting, the power of gun will win the day.
I want to throw one idea out there. I have not play tested this, but it’s been in the slow cooker for almost as many years as the power of gun. Huge, long range combat might work, ala Car-Wars-style ginormous maps. With significant penalties to hit due to distraction and vibration, and openly ignoring those penalties for melee weapons, you might be able to make it work.