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At least two other GMs and I will be running a shared game that uses the optional firearms from the DMG (pg 269). Renaissance arms will be available, and we will be deciding whether we will also make modern arms available. The game will start at level 2, and we currently expect it to reach level 20.

My question is, how competitive will melee martial characters be, compared to ranged firearm users? As I understand it, ranged attackers normally have less DPR but benefit from additional range. Do ranged firearm users outshine melee martial characters in damage? Do they start as competitive but fall off at later levels? Is the increase from firearm damage offset by the increased cost of ammunition or feats? All players who intend to make a ranged character already plan on picking up firearms proficiency.

Knowing this can inform how we award firearms proficiency and determine the costs and availability of different firearms.

I'm looking for answers based on experience running or playing in games where firearms were available.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Would you mind telling us more about your setting? — How available would firearms be, is it low or high magic etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 13:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Renaissance arms would be readily available but we're still determining how we'll handle the availability of modern arms. It'd be high magic. Of the 7 players currently in the group only one has no spellcasting and the majority of the rest are half or full casters. About 7-14 days of downtime will be available between almost every session. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juoa
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 16:21

2 Answers 2

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Varies

Renaissance Firearms are competitive with crossbows (higher damage compared to longer range), before introducing Crossbow Expert. Crossbow Expert relegates renaissance firearms to gimmicks. Melee characters are highly competitive, often dominant, compared to crossbows or these firearms. A Musket deals 1d12 + Dex damage (average 6.5 + Dex) once per round; a Greatsword deals 2d6 + Str damage (average 7 + Str) with each successful attack. That's a huge difference that makes muskets (and pistols) uninteresting for characters with Extra Attack.
So uninteresting that ranged combatants will prefer bows and crossbows over firearms. I played a ranged Fighter in an early 5e game; the DM was excited to have a gun-using hunter, and by level 6 I was using a scavenged longbow as my primary weapon - only the introduction of a home brew repeating firearm^ got that character to use firearms again.

Modern Firearms are a completely different beast. I was looking at a home campaign and wanted to play test the modern firearms; I discovered that they were the best martial weapons in existence. The basic pistol does 2d6 damage (greatsword levels); the shotgun, revolver, and automatic rifle do 2d8 damage (like a War Cleric with Divine Strike); the hunting rifle does 2d10 damage (like Eldritch Blast at level 5); all + Dex because they are ranged weapon attacks. That's average 7 / 9 / 11 + Dex damage per attack. And the Burst Fire ability lets the weapon deal AoE damage, slaughtering swarms.
Introducing Modern Firearms is the death of melee combat as a primary combat style. It is still a viable tactical choice, and for certain classes and builds it is the superior choice, but every competitive Fighter will choose a Ranged combat style and avoid melee-only class options (like Battle Master).

^The weapon dealt 3d8 damage, had Ammunition 6, had Range 120/500, and was magical. It was stupidly powerful as a base weapon.


While not a primary question, this statement needs to be addressed:

As I understand it, ranged attackers normally have less DPR but benefit from additional range.

The DPR for range attackers is generally the same as melee combatants. The massive +2 attack bonus from the Ranged Combat Style, uniformly d6/d8 weapon dice, ability to add their primary stat to damage, and access to the Marksman feat allows ranged weapon Damage Per Round to be about the same as melee weapon combat (lower damage per hit is offset by a 10% higher hit chance).
The most noteworthy drawback of ranged weapon attacks is a long list of incompatible class abilities.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Fortunately the artificer has access to the Reapting Shot infusion, and playing a Battlesmiths who can grab a pistol and a shield who can make use of their Extra Attack makes for a viable and reliable build. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Commented Dec 21, 2021 at 0:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu A single build does not negate any of my points. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Commented Dec 21, 2021 at 1:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ It does not, and is not intended to do so — it is meant to compliment your experience with the repeating firearm. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Commented Dec 21, 2021 at 1:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu Thank you for the effort. I am not sure it is relevant, though. Damage is still consistent with two-hand melee weapons, making Renaissance firearms a good alternative for Battlesmith Artificers but not anyone else. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Commented Dec 21, 2021 at 14:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I found both of these answers very helpful and am accepting this one because it also addressed modern firearms. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juoa
    Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 5:06
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Running games with Renaissance firearms taught me that they are incredibly setting dependent.

You have no access to the Crossbow Expert feat (Sharpshooter is an option), and the pistol notably doesn't have the light property. Generally, compare them to the crossbows, the pistol to the hand crossbow and the musket to the light crossbow. The firearm uses a damage die two sizes larger but has decreased range, excluding feats and range reduction, then these firearms will deal more damage than crossbows (or bows) if you assume that characters are proficient. The access to proficiency (training) and the availability of e. g. a Musket +2 is much more difficult to rationalise when these weapons are still in the early stages of development. Generally, access to resources like bullets and training hinges on your setting.

As a player, I once played an artificer who essentially developed them and then tested them as a field agent (so I was proficient with firearms). The gathering of resources was a side plot, and the involvement with the organisation based in Waterdeep gave the DM ample opportunities to place hooks and build immersion. The DM made gathering materials challenging, so I had to manage resources carefully — for me, this was a prime motivation that made the concept of firearms interesting. My optimised build's damage was on par with the non-casters until level 5, and I was able to hold my own damage-wise in combat even until level 11 — when the campaign ended. I didn't outshine other party members damage-wise whose role was less support oriented, though they also optimised their builds, and under different circumstances, your mileage may vary. Generally, the higher dice baseline makes less optimised builds more efficient, especially when they can add caster based modifiers to the weapon and wouldn't otherwise use the Crossbow Expert feat or similar weapon focused builds.

The lack of a dedicated Gunslinger build and the additional investment for proficiency keeps that baseline in check. The power level is still well-below what martial characters with comparable investment and optimisation of their builds can do in melee. An interesting attempt at a balanced Gunslinger is available as third-party material from Critical Role — see their Gunslinger subclass which introduces Misfire and changes Reload properties to weapons to keep a dedicated build in check. If you want to go the route of a dedicated build, it offers good inspiration to alert your eyes to what requires your attention.

The four factors you need for maximum ranged weapon damage-dealing are, descending order:

  • Multiple attacks
  • Accuracy
  • Damage bonus
  • Base damage

Missing out on an essential feature being unable to ignore the loading property would ruin DPR. TCoE introduces the Gunner feature. If it is available and your players choose it, they will end up with more DPR than a Crossbow build due to being able to take full advantage of higher base damage. While that feat is necessary, the investment is still too costly compared to optimised DPR builds, and the higher base damage doesn't bridge the gap.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have a hard time agreeing with a post that keeps saying optimal and has no maths to prove it. Reloading is only relevant if you can't simply buy more guns, and in a world where guns are an actual thing, carrying a few of them to swap as a free object interaction is far more efficient than reloading. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I don't think that a table with DPR calculations would improve the post — I would have to make a lot of assumptions within an inherently flawed approach to the topic. This questioning isn't asking for an optimised build but for an experienced-based answer, and in that vein, I answer — mostly going into concepts. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ "You have no access to the Crossbow Expert feat (Sharpshooter is an option)" You do get access to the Gunner feat, though. No bonus action attacks, but it's got the other two effects of CBE. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 3:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nick012000 correct, I mention this at the bottom of the post. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 6:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your comment talks about concept, but unless I am missing something your actual answer talks about optimal, you talk about all the optimisation feats, damage against other optimised characters and mechanical damage factors. That's an optimisation based answer to me, but without backup other than 'felt ok to me' which could have been anything from your optimisation being amazing or the other characters not being as optimal. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 9:37

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