Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Jacobeans versus Aliens: weaponry

A significant part of the setting is, of course, period-appropriate(ish) equipment, and weapons are the first thing that tend to come up. One obvious and (I think) interesting point is the interplay between technologies, because at this time firearms are still very much in development.

Here we run into some problems. The New World of Darkness rulebook provides precisely one archaic weapons, sef the crossbow. And it's not that archaic, because it's clearly there a) to hunt vampires, and b) on the assumption that they're fairly readily available in the modern day. What we don't have is black powder. Jacobeans need black powder.

After much digging around, and a lot of forum threads that are unreliable or houserules, I find a couple of websites that feature weapons tables from actual White Wolf books. There's a problem. Over the years, White Wolf has used the Storyteller System (old World of Darkness), the Storytelling System (new World of Darkness), a rerevamped set of rules in the God-Machine Chronicles that is technically (I think?) a new setting/canon for the ruleset but also includes rule changes, variant rules in Armory supplements, and quite possibly variation between books. I can't find any discussion of exactly what is changed. I can't find any explanation whatsoever of what the different weapon properties are supposed to represent in each edition. As such, trying to assemble a coherent set of weapons from the disparate material is a formidable challenge.

Another issue is that I'm not just trying to collect existing weapons. The weapons rules I can find seem, to my eye, to betray a C20th-centric viewpoint. I suspect the idea is that you might pick up a weapon in a museum or somewhere, and use it in the modern day. This means that balancing and modelling archaic weapons against each other isn't really a priority. There's certainly weight given to differences between matchlock and flintlock weapons, but this works out as variation in stopping power, which doesn't seem to be much different from what I can research. The reason all those weapons are -lock is that their key features were the firing mechanism, which traded off over time between complexity, cost, safety, reliability and military usefulness.

One thing that I can't find rules for is an absolutely crucial point: training. All ranged weapons are handled by a single Skill with dots counting for bows and firearms alike. Training and reloading were the key points in the question of bows vs. firearms. At this time in history, battles were (as far as I can tell) essentially fought with firearms, with bows only turning up for hunting, or used by militias and other impromptu groups. However, PCs are special cases. For small-scale operations, there are actually a lot of reasons to prefer a bow.

Essentially, the trade-off made between bows, crossbows and firearms was mostly about training. Until really quite late in the day, a skilled longbowman was simply flat-out better than a skilled crossbowman, who was better than a trained soldier with a firearm. Bows of both types had enormous range and remained accurate, far beyond the point where musket balls went off track. The evidence I can find is inconclusive, but it doesn't seem as though firearms had a very substantial advantage (if any) over bows in terms of stopping power: all three could fell an armoured knight.* An expert archer could loose five or six arrows in a minute; a light crossbow two or three bolts; and a firearm could fire once.

The main difference is in training. A really good archer needs to be trained from childhood and stays in constant practice; they're irreplaceable. Learning to use a crossbow takes a short time, consisting mostly of target practice and familiarity with the mechanism; there is no need for years of training muscles and building strength. Cheap conscripts and militia recruits with crossbows could be fielded in large numbers, and were a viable alternative. Firearms continued this trend; the weapon was even more unreliable than a crossbow (and liable to explode) and even slower, but more powerful at close range, and needed minimal training. If a musketman gets killed, you find another conscript and give them a few days' training.

*Bows are very, very scary weapons, considering they use some hair and two sticks to kill people standing hundreds of yards away in complete silence. If that person is entirely covered in metal? You use some hair, two sticks and a four-inch iron spike.

For PCs, though, this isn't an issue. They're special cases, not representative citizens. If we ignored the training issue, then there's no good reason not to pick bows 99% of the time.

Really, the question is, what kind of character do you want to build? Bows are very old-fashioned, but fast, accurate and reliable, and mostly immune to the weather. Firearms are modern, scary, effective, incredibly slow to load, and unreliable. If you want to be a very effective warrior, then it's best to devote time to training in the longbow. Alternatively, a little target practice allows you to use a firearm competently even if you're physically weak, or prefer to spend your time learning other things. You just need to hope that one shot will count.

My plan is to build a purchase system for archery. Being competent with bows will incur significant costs compared to firearms. I'm not yet sure exactly what kind of purchase this will be. Initially, I thought of making it a merit (seems logical). However, merits are incredibly cheap to buy both at character generation and later on. This needs to be a more significant investment. If you're a longbow expert, you really do not have time to kid around with many other hobbies. You certainly can't become proficient with them over the course of a few days.

On the other hand, it shouldn't be crippling. It all depends on the points at which a bow becomes a better option.

On to loading times. In reality, reloading a firearm took around a minute. For skilled users of simpler models, it was potentially a mere thirty seconds. Here's a problem: in the World of Darkness, that is anywhere from ten to twenty rounds of inactivity while you reload a weapon. I'm not sure whether this will be mechanically satisfying, since people are going to want to actually fire their weapons. Moreover, the enemies are going to have rather more effective modern weapons. I note that they treat crossbows as taking three rounds to reload, when they also took about thirty seconds.

Proposed rules

These rules depart non-trivially from the core World of Darkness rules.


Firearms take time to reload. They require no significant training and are largely unaffected by the user’s Strength. Pistols are small, and can be carried loaded as an emergency weapon. The powder charges can be repurposed to lay fire trails or block open locks. Black powder leaves a distinctive residue and strong odour after firing. The reloading time of a firearm depends on its firing mechanism. Firearms can be fire from a crouch or prone, but only matchlocks can be fired the wrong way up.

  • Most firearms have smooth bores, and cannot be aimed to great effect. They are limited to a single bonus die from the Aim action. Only rifles can benefit from the maximum 3 bonus dice. This shouldn't make a lot of difference in-game, since I don't think the Aim action gets much use outside ambushes.
  • Because weapon Damage seems to partly reflect accuracy rather than stopping power, I have given all firearms the 8-again trait. This is commonly given to weapons seen as powerful and unwieldy, such as axes, and seems appropriate. Firearms are on a par with all but the best archers in terms of lethality, but are hard to aim.
  • Firearms have significant penetrating power, and as such have the Armour Piercing 1 trait.
  • In very damp conditions, there is a chance of misfires due to powder or strings getting wet. Firearms have a percentage chance of failure based on their technology.
  • Firearms have a listed reload time. This is based on the time taken by an untrained user.
  • A firearm can be carried loaded and ready to fire. Some can be concealed.
  • Reload times assume the use of cartridges. If loose powder is used, reload times are increased by 1 round.

The reload times for firearms are cinematic, not realistic. In a game, it's just not going to be much fun to spend a full minute reloading when the game's built for 3-second rounds, and I think you'd just end up with everyone charging into melée instead. Or getting mown down by aliens who can fire every round (although I will also probably cap that). On the scheme I'm proposing, with Merits, an unskilled user can just about manage a reload during combat if they really want to, while a skilled user can fire once every three or four rounds. Still not as good as a bow, but any weakling can manage it.

Originally, I had a scheme where Skill dots decreased reloading times. I quite liked this, because it felt elegant and intuitive. I cut it in the end because the rules ended up seeming too complicated - I've already got multiple rules for each weapon type, although most are just statements of the obvious. I decided in the end that Merits would handle this, along with the

Firearm types

Of the firearms, flintlocks are essentially the best compromise, being the most advanced. They are faster to reload than the wheellock, safer and more rainproof than the matchlock (10% failure). They are also fairly reliable.

Matchlock weapons must be lit to be usable. A lit matchlock is highly visible, and cannot be concealed under clothing. They are very vulnerable to damp conditions (20% failure). The use of live fire and powder makes misfires dangerous, as flashbacks can shock or scorch a user.

Wheellock weapons are slow to load, and prone to jam on misfires. While relatively safe, the complex mechanisms tend to jam unless very carefully maintained. They are resistant to rain and atmospheric damp, as the powder is covered until the moment of firing.


This is an optional misfire chart for Critical Failures on firearms use. Roll 1d6, with a -1 for matchlocks (robust but dangerous) and a +1 for wheellocks (safe but tricksy). Alternatively, the GM can suggest a suitable misfire for the circumstances.

  1. Flashback. An accident or error causes a small explosion that injures the wielder. This inflicts 1 Lethal damage, ignoring armour.
  2. Recoil or Powder Burn. Stray powder goes off and scorches exposed skin, or the weapon recoils painfully. This inflicts 1 Bashing damage, ignoring armour.
  3. Misfire. The weapon simply doesn't fire. Try again next round.
  4. Powder Clog. Old residue in the touchhole prevents the weapon from firing. Spend a round clearing it, and you can fire the following round.
  5. Misfire. The weapon simply doesn't fire. Try again next round.
  6. Flash in the Pan. The priming charge ignites noisily and dramatically, but not the cartridge. You can spend a round re-priming it, and fire the following round.
  7. Misfire. The weapon simply doesn't fire. Try again next round.
  8. Jam. The firing mechanism jams, and must be carefully unjammed. You need three successes on Firearms checks to fix it (successes are cumulative).

For the purposes of the game, I'm also handwaving the possibility of firearms exploding. Yes, it could happen, but I don't really want PCs getting maimed or killed by their own weapons when those are not some weird experimental device, but their standard armament. I'm limiting this to small flares that can cause minor injury.


Handbows are the best weapon available. A longbow in skilled hands can penetrate armour, punch through wooden walls, and be fired several times a minute with great accuracy. They can be used ballistically, aimed or for short-range defensive volleys. Using a bow well is a serious challenge. It requires a Merit (Archer) to string, draw, aim and fire a bow with any skill. Bows can't be fired without standing Bows have Strength ratings with a minimum and maximum; you cannot fire a bow unless you meet its minimum Strength, while the maximum determines the highest Strength bonus you can claim for drawing it. Handbows are generally the best ranged weapon, but by far the most demanding to use.

  • Bows don't roll dice for damp; they're either wet or not (a narrative decision). A wet bow halves its range and Damage because the string stretches, making them inaccurate and weaker. Bowstrings can be removed by hand to keep them dry; restringing a bow requires Strength equal to the bow's rating.
  • Bows use the user's Strength to determine Damage. Any bow has a maximum Strength rating, based on its size and draw.
  • Bows can use unusual arrows, like bodkin points. These generally affect the bow's performance. For example, a bodkin will give Armour Penetration 2, but halves the weapon's range and Damage due to its weight.
  • Bows have reload times, representing the need to take and nock a new arrow, but also muscle recovery between volleys.
  • The range increment of a bow is equal to the lower of the weapon's or the user's Strength, multiplied by 20. A Strength 2 bow used by a Strenth 4 archer has range 40/80/120.
  • You must take the Archer merit before you can take any Skill dots in Bows.


Crossbows are not as fast as bows, but are faster than firearms to reload. No cleaning is required, and a broken string is easier to fix than many blackpowder faults. They have minimal risk of misfiring, and can’t explode. They are silent, and leave minimal traces after use. Quarrels can often be reclaimed. A crossbow can be kept ready to fire for long periods, fired accurately in both direct and ballistic fire, and fired from a crouch or prone. They can't be fired at all unless upright. The drawing speed of a crossbow depends on its weight; heavier bows require mechanical assistance.

  • Crossbows don't roll dice for damp; they're either wet or not (a narrative decision). A wet bow halves its range and Damage because the string stretches, making them inaccurate and weaker. Crossbow strings can only be removed or restrung using a special tool, which requires about one minute of work.
  • A crossbow, like a firearm, has an inherent Damage value.
  • Crossbows can use unusual arrows, like bodkin points. These generally affect the crossbow's performance. For example, a bodkin will give Armour Penetration 3 but halves the weapon's range due to its weight.
  • Crossbows can be carried loaded and ready to fire.


I'm making a couple of changes to Merits to reflect the fact that NWoD assumes modern technology and culture.

Firstly, some Merits can't be taken.

  • Combat Marksmanship. Most of the benefits are inappropriate for black powder weapons. Only pepperbox weapons allow multiple shots, and rapid reloading is simply not possible.
  • Any other Merit that assumes inappropriate technology or knowledge.
  • Any Merit that the group judges inappropriate due to cultural or historical specificity. Some combat styles, such as Shurikenjutsu or Jukendo, are superficially culture-specific, but had European equivalents at or before this period.

Next, new Merits.

Firearms Drill (• to ••)

Prerequisite: Dexterity • and Firearms ••

Effect: The character has been drilled in efficiently and safely loading firearms. They can significantly reduce the time needed to reload a weapon.

• Safe Hands. All load times for handheld firearms (pistols, muskets and rifles) are halved, rounding up.
•• Ramrod Snap. All load times for handheld firearms (pistols, muskets and rifles) are reduced to one-quarter, rounding up.

Bow Training (••• to •••••)

Prerequisite: Strength ••

Effect: The character has the extensive, exhausting training needed to proficently use a bow. Only a character with this Merit can place any dots in the Bow skill.

••• Archer. The character can train in the Bow skill.
•••• Quick Recovery. The reloading time for Bows is halved, rounding up.
••••• Untiring Arms. The reloading time for Bows is reduced to one-quarter, rounding up.

Crossbow Drill (• to ••)

Prerequisite: Crossbow •• Strength •

Effect: The character is trained in the rapid and efficient loading and drawing of crossbows.

• Quick Nock. All reloading times for crossbows are halved, rounding up.
•• Smooth Action. All reloading times for crossbows are reduced to one-quarter, rounding up.

What's the point?

In theory, these rules should leave characters with a reasonable choice about what weapon to use, that isn't a simple answer. I hope.

The bow is a great weapon. It's fast, silent and (with a decent Strength) the equal of firearms against unarmoured opponents. Its sheer rate of fire gives it the highest average damage over time. Aiming allows you to take very accurate shots at relatively long distances. A strong character with a bow can do appalling amounts of damage.

However, combats aren't always about damage over time, especially given small groups. Both firearms and crossbows can outstrip the damage of a bow wielded by a weaker user. When the first shot really counts, these weapons can be carried ready to fire. They allow ambushers to lie prone, and effective firing from cover. You can easily use them at very short ranges and in enclosed spaces. If you really want one shot to count, a heavy crossbow is the weapon of choice against both unarmoured and lightly armoured targets. With time to aim and prepare, a rifle is very effective.

Armour changes the equation again. Firearms' penetration gives them a huge advantage (ignoring a point of armour is the equivalent of +3 dice). Against any level of armour, firearms are typically better than a bow unless the archer is highly skilled, very strong or a mixture of the two. Of course, at short distances an archer can use bodkin ammunition to overcome this problem.

Bows and crossbows are silent, which is usually good. However, enemies are liable to make noise anyway. The noise and flash of firearms can attract unwanted attention, but also alert allies that something is wrong, and shock enemies or beasts. Arrows are harder to carry and conceal than cartridges.

Choice of firearms is also not entirely simple. The matchlock is vulnerable to damp and somewhat unsafe, and hard to conceal, so it's not going to be a first choice. On the other hand, a ready source of flame and light is sometimes useful, and it's the best one to use if you're trying any gymnastics. The flintlock is a good solid compromise weapon. The wheellock is the slowest to load, but that's not a problem when you only expect to take one shot. While it's prone to jamming, it's also safe and can be used in the rain without much difficulty.

A character who wants to be highly effective with ranged weapons should probably bite the bullet and buy archery training. The investment of three Merit dots at character creation is a substantial one; the last two dots offer increased speed but aren't essential.

Ranged Weapons

Class Type Damage Range Size Reload Max Aim 8-again Damp AP Special
Flintlock Pistol 1 15 2 6 1 Yes 10% 1
Flintlock Musket 2 30 3 6 1 Yes 10% 1
Flintlock Rifle 3 50 3 6 3 Yes 10% 1
Wheellock Pistol 1 15 2 9 1 Yes
Wheellock Musket 2 30 3 9 1 Yes
Wheellock Rifle 3 50 3 9 3 Yes
Matchlock Pistol 1 15 2 6 1 Yes 20% 1
Matchlock Musket 2 30 3 6 1 Yes 20% 1
Matchlock Rifle 3 50 3 6 3 Yes 20% 1
Strung Bow Str Str x 20 3 4 3

Drawn Hand crossbow 1 20 2 4 3

Drawn Light crossbow 2 40 2 6 3

Drawn Medium crossbow 3 80 3 9 3
Requires belt hook or goatsfoot lever
Drawn Heavy crossbow 5 120 3 12 3
Requires cranequin or windlass

Melee weapons

Class Type Damage Range Size 8-again AP Special
Melee Mace 3

Melee Main gauche 1

Adds 1 Defence as an offhand weapon
Melee Knife 1

Melee Spear 3
4 Yes
8-again if bracing or charging
Melee Halberd 4

Melee Sabre 3
2 Yes
8-again from high ground
Melee Rapier 2
Melee Sword cane 2

Bashing if sheathed
Melee Bodkin 1


  1. That is an excellent system, my friend. Very well though out. Congratulations. I will adapt from it and use something similar in a campaign over here. Thanks!

    1. Thank you! I'd be very interested to see what use you can make of it, so please do let me know how it turns out. What is the campaign you're running?