5 Tips For Playing Better Gunslingers
A Pathfinder RPG Guide
Exploding onto the scene with the release of Ultimate Combat, there has been perhaps no more controversial class than the gunslinger. A breath of fresh air to some players, and a blatant breaking of genre conventions for others, the class is simultaneously loved and hated to similar degrees.
However, it can be hard to see past the title of this class, and to step out of the stereotypical box we think of whenever we hear the word gunslinger. If you want to make your character stand out, while exploring everything the class has to offer, then keep the following tips in mind!
Additionally, if you want to see more of this series, check out the 5 Tips master list over on Improved Initiative. And for more gaming and geekery, consider taking a moment to check out my full Vocal archive!
Tip #1: Where Did You Get Your Guns?
Those who take to the trails of adventure tend to bristle with sorcery and steel, but even among such companions it is unusual (in most places, anyway) to see someone carrying a firearm. Though the gunslinger class begins play with a busted gun that only they can use properly (and which they can upgrade into a proper shooting iron as the campaign goes on), it's important to stop and ask exactly how your character got hold of their gun in the first place.
It's central to their skill set and class abilities, so it should in some way also be central to their story.
For example, if only noble families and their retainers are allowed to carry guns (something that was in the early run of Pathfinder's world building when the game still ran on the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition discussing the new and unique phenomenon of firearms), then what does that say about your character? Are they a former noble, cast out with only their broken pistol as a reminder of who they once were? Or are they a younger sibling, given the gun as a reminder of who they are (like a particularly deadly signet ring) before they seek their fortune in the world? Or were you a bodyguard or retainer, who is now out on their lord's business (or seeking vengeance on those who harmed them)?
For the record, if any of those sound interesting, then 5 Tips For Playing Better Noble Characters is another list you should definitely check out.
If you aren't going that route, though, then dig a little deeper. Is your character a former soldier, trained in the use of these unique weapons? Are they a gunsmith, refining and perfecting their craft to show just how potent these weapons can be in the field? Were they subject to a particularly harsh environment, such as magic dead zones or places where sorcery was rare and unusual, making a gun far more reliable? Are they a warrior capitalizing on the fear that firearms can generate, the swagger in their step showing they aren't afraid to put their black powder bravado to the test?
The only limit here is the setting, and your imagination.
Tip #2: What Is Your Profession?
Gunslingers, much like wizards, paladins, and clerics, often fall into the trap of players just using the name of the class (a label to describe a package of abilities) as the character's in-game career. I talked about this in What is Your Profession? (Character Creation From a Different Direction), but it's certainly worth repeating here. Being a gunslinger means your character has certain class abilities, skills, etc., but is that really how they introduce themselves to potential clients?
So take a moment, and ask what title your character uses, and how that alters your perception of them. Because the guns are their tools, but what job are they using them to complete?
Is your character a musketeer, combining flashing steel and a booming gun as an elite skirmisher on the battlefield? Are they a bounty hunter, using unique, alchemical cartridges to bring down their quarry once they finally track them down? Are they a big game hunter, seeking out the most dangerous beasts to bring them down with a volley of lead, or a single, specially-crafted bullet? Are they a gang enforcer, or a wandering knight errant? A bandit, a pirate, or even something as exotic as an explorer, or a treasure hunter? Perhaps they're a marksman, or a shootist, performing shows of skill for the public using their signature weapon?
If any of those sounds like a good start, you might want to check out some of the following supplements for inspiration:
Tip #3: Who's Behind The Gun?
You could argue this happens to most classes in RPGs at one time or another, but it's one of the more common pitfalls I've seen with the gunslinger. Just as a barbarian is more than their rage, and a fighter more than their sword arm, a gunslinger should be more than just a trigger finger.
So take a moment and ask who your character actually is. What do they want? Why are they here? What makes them unique?
Whether your gunslinger has an obsession with solving mysteries, they enjoy horse racing, or they get completely caught up in the thrill of the hunt, all of these are details you can add to them. Are they looking to pay off an old debt to a friend? To make a name for themselves? Are they seeking revenge, or do they just have an insatiable wanderlust to see the next town, the next city, the next wonder the world has to offer? Do they enjoy playing chess over cards? Are they an academic or a philosopher?
Flesh out who your character is beyond the caliber of the weapon they're carrying. You'll always make a better impression that way.
Tip #4: Follow The Culture of a Setting
If a setting and system supports firearms, then they are canon to the world (pun very much intended). However, all too often we hear the word "gunslinger" and we immediately start thinking about Tom Micks, Clint Eastwood, and all those other classics from the Western genre.
Stop. Take a deep breath. Now look at the world, nation, and region your character is actually from. What is the culture from this place? Who have they met, and what have they seen growing up in this world? Use that as your base, and then add in guns. At the end of the day it will feel a lot more authentic than if you take a trope from a Western, and try to push it into the setting where it doesn't fit.
After all, firearms didn't appear through a rift in time and space to wind up in your character's hands (in most settings, anyway), and picking up a gun doesn't immediately give your character certain personality traits, linguistic habits, or other tics that don't fit the setting.
Also, for bonus points, you can create the unique culture around guns and gun fighters for your game if you want to (and the GM gives you their blessing). From terms like "sword bait" applying to firearms that don't have enough range to keep a gunslinger safe from melee-focused foes, to "slaggers" to refer to cheaply-made guns that melt when overheated (doubling as a term of contempt for bandits and brigands who often use such weapons), to a "true sparker" for a weapon whose hammer is enchanted with a cantrip so it always sparks the powder when the trigger is pulled, there's all sorts of flavor you can include here.
Tip #5: Go Wild, It's Fantasy!
Too often we, as players, draw lines in the sand that only exist in our minds, rather than in our setting or in the rules. The best way to break out of stereotypes with a gunslinger is to embrace the weirdness of the possibilities of a fantasy setting, and go absolutely bonkers with your options (while keeping in mind that you still need to fit the possibilities of the setting, and the mechanics of the rules).
If you want to be a tiefling pistolero who smells like brimstone with eyes that burn like hot coals, go nuts with it! A half-orc werewolf hunter with a silver-edged musket ax? Sure! A halfling marksman who proves that size really doesn't matter with the accuracy of their fire? Why not!?
Set your imagination free, and paint with all the colors the game provides you to make something that's really one of a kind! Because if you really get weird with it, your guns might end up being the least strange thing about your character when all is said and done.