On lethal damage and scary weapons

In the current version of Bulletproof Blues, there is no difference between the damage inflicted by a sword and the damage inflicted by a baseball bat. There is a simple reason for this. Aside from a handful of specially designed weapons, like rubber bullets and tasers, any real world weapon is lethal — and even tasers and rubber bullets can cause death or crippling injury.

However, in the comics that Bulletproof Blues seeks to emulate, there is a big difference: a character who carries guns and/or swords is not regarded in the same way as a character who carries a hammer or a ball-and-chain, even though, in the real world, these weapons would all be equally lethal. A character with guns is a killer. Guns are scary. Swords are scary.

Thinking about this, and how we might apply this distinction in the next version of Bulletproof Blues (which is a long way off), it occurred to me that there is a real-world equivalent for this phenomenon: the “assault weapon”. The term “assault weapon” was popularized in the late 1980s by an anti-firearm lobbying group seeking greater restrictions on civilian firearm ownership. This effort was successful, at least for a while. The U.S. Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 restricted ownership of “assault weapons” in the United States from 1994 to 2004. However, the distinction between an “assault weapon” and an ordinary rifle was a cosmetic one. This rifle…


… and this “assault weapon”…


… are functionally the same. They are, for most practical (rather than cosmetic) purposes, interchangeable. The difference is not in the weapons themselves, but in our perception of them. “Assault weapons” are scary looking… much like guns and swords in a superhero comic.

So what we are thinking about is a new power enhancement: Scary. “Scary” powers are not any more effective or lethal than other powers, but bystanders perceive them to be more lethal, and more dangerous… and the people who use such powers are perceived as more bloodthirsty, and more willing to take a life.

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “On lethal damage and scary weapons

  1. In terms of lethal damage, we took a similar path in Cold Steel Wardens. Even a punch is capable of sending someone to the hospital–a broken jaw is, after all, a life-threatening injury. If not treated, it can maim or kill. Dealing non-lethal damage in CSW is particularly difficult under the best of circumstances and, with most weapons, is outright impossible.

    So, between the two weapons you show: one of them is a bolt action rifle, typically capable of carrying less than 10 shells even in a box magazine. The second is a default semi-automatic, often with automatic capability, which often holds over 25-30 shells in a magazine.
    Yes, while the caliber of those weapons may be similar–in fact, a hunting rifle’s caliber is usually larger than most military and police weaponry–there is a distinct and functional difference between them. The bottom weapon fires faster, holds more ammunition, and is used by military and police forces for exactly those reasons. Similarly, a pump action hunting shotgun may use the same shells as a pump action riot shotgun, but the latter has qualities that make it more useful in a combat situation: it holds more shells, it fires faster, and typically has a shorter stock and barrel for ease of portability.

    Within the context of a game, though I’m not sure that the ‘scary’ appellation is necessary from a mechanical standpoint. If someone were to threaten me with a hunting rifle, I’m sure I’d be just as scared as if that someone had a Kalashnikov. Mind you, I speak as someone who grew up as a hunter and target shooter in one of the 25 counties in the US with the highest gun ownership. Guns provide fear from their destructive capability, not necessarily their appearance: it doesn’t matter whether the mugger is brandishing a .45 revolver or a Glock 9mm in my face; he’s still going to shoot me if I don’t hand over my wallet.

  2. Actually, the rifle in the upper photo is a Ruger Mini 14. It is a semiautomatic rifle with a magazine. It fires the same ammunition as the rifle in the lower photo, has a similar rate of fire, and also uses magazines to hold the ammunition.

    You may have the education to know that “scary” weapons are no more or less lethal, but it’s clear that for the population at large, the difference is profound enough to pass legislation against the “scary” weapons.

    • Okay; that’s information I didn’t have. From what it appeared, based on the picture, it looked a bolt-action rifle, which does not have a fire rate anywhere to close to that of an M16 or a Kalashnikov.

      I wonder, honestly, how much of the public perception comes down to the fact that one is wood–something natural, arboreal–and the other is black metal. Appearances, indeed…

  3. I even think there’s some distinction with melee weapons; in particular, I suspect enough people have a degree of low level belonephobia that they’ll react more strongly to someone coming at them with a small knife than a baseball bat, even though the latter is likely the more dangerous of the two.

    This _is_ complicated no-end by the fact the degree to which weapons and attacks are treated as potentially lethal is, to understate, extremely varied in the sourceworks. In a way, something like CSW has it easier, since the Iron Age sensibilities make it easy to just treat everything as lethal.

    But in a more conventional superhero game, you have to address the issue that energy blasts that can open up a wall rarely seem to cause lethal injury to supers who aren’t avowedly superhumanly tough; the general tendency for heroes in adventure fiction to “only get grazed” is much, much more pronounced.

  4. I support the idea of some kind of power enhancement to differentiate the “more lethal” powers from the others since Bulletproof Blues is supposed to be a , quote, “setting dark(ish)” superhero roleplaying game, unquote.

    However, I don’t get why this enhancement should be called “Scary” since in effect, they are making everyone react as they would while facing imminent danger (which is probably the case, by the way). Maybe some would be scared, but maybe others wouldn’t and would feel an adrenaline rush for instance…

    So, I’d rather use some word more neutral than “Scary”. Maybe “Lethal” ? “Mortal” ? Or something like that if you get the idea. Well, maybe I’m nit-picking but what matters is that I like the general idea, hey!

    Side note: really sorry for the delays, I got off-track with proofreading Bulletproof Blues’ translation, but I’m really trying to complete that one ASAP.

  5. The thing is, they aren’t any more lethal. The difference is purely one of perception. But that difference in perception is a genuine phenomenon in mainstream superhero comics.

  6. Definitely. That’s how I understood it in the first place : they aren’t more lethal but they are more scary to people who are afraid of dying. And that’s this sentence : “to people who are afraid of dying” (and thus probably not to the undead, to robots, spirits, etc… ), which made me look for a different adjective.

    In that case “Lethal”/”Mortal” or such don’t refer to damage, they would refer to the human fear of dying. Of course, there may be a better adjective for that one if you can think of one, not that I’m offering a closed list. English isn’t my first language afterall.

    Down to the basics to illustrate the idea : imagine a character defined as a completely mechanical construct without IA. He/it should be able to analyse a situation like a computer (that’s what he/it would be afterall) and thus, that character wouldn’t really be subject to fear and would perceive any weapon as just a weapon. Maybe even to the point of naivete, ignoring some completely unknown alien looking huge gun, because his programming reacts to that familiar but threatening (to him) baseball bat ?…

    Using this example, the alien looking gun and the baseball bat may inflict the same damage, while the gun may be Scary, but, since this won’t affect the target in this case because he/it is basically a robot, it feels more appropriate to me to use more neutral word. I’m offering Lethal/Mortal, but if you feel these are inappropriate, maybe simply use something general like “Special” or “Aggravated” and explain in the description, well, exactly what you just said: why such weapons/guns/swords are scary… but this has to be roleplayed.

  7. I would add that those “Scary” damages are mostly due to culture. If you come from a different world, a different planet, a different setting, country, etc… what’s “Scary” to a 20 years old US resident may not be scary to someone living in the Congo and used to using machetes, for instance…

    Maybe “Impressive” is more fitting ? With a note explaining how it should be adapted to the specific damage as usual. 🙂

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