Magic vs Technology – Weapons

Behind the Screen – Magic vs Technology – Weapons

Behind the Screen is an article series designed to give information to the Dungeon Masters/Game Master. So they can make an informed decision on what campaign they want to play next.

Dungeons and Dragons is a High Magic / Low Technology Fantasy RPG, meaning that it favors the wonders of magic over technology. So instead of an industrialized society working with steampunk inventions, you have archmages casting spells at sometimes world destruction levels. Shadowrun, on the other hand, is a High Technology / Medium Magic Science fiction RPG, favoring technologically advanced weapons, machines, and gear over magic.

This article will go over some of the comparisons of Technology and Magic for DMs who want to integrate other items into a campaign. As a DM we have to keep in mind the balance between the two item and how the game played is effected because of it. Technology is often underpowered for various reasons in RPGs because of the atmosphere of the game system, so introducing high technological items in a low tech world can cause almost as much damage as dropping a magical artifact in it.


Here are some of the terms I will be using, their abbreviations, and some examples.

  • Low Tech  (LT) –  Technology is at its most basic
    • Weapon
      • Rock, Bow, Sword
    • Armor
      • Leather Armor, Plate Mail
    • Transportation
      • Horse, Walking, Cart, basic Sea Vessels
  • Medium Tech (MT) – Pre Industrial Area Tech to Modern Technology
    • Weapon
      • Flintlock Pistol to Automatic Weapons
    • Armor
      • Body Armor
    • Transportation
      • Car, Air Plane, Advanced Sea Vessels, Early Space Flight
  • High Tech (HT) – Postmodern Tech saw in Science fiction
    • Weapon
      • Pulse Weapons, Antimatter Weapon
    • Armor
      • Personal Shielding Technology
    • Transportation
      • Advanced Land Transportation, Advanced Air Transportation, Advanced Space Transportation
  • Low Magic (LM) – Magic is almost non-existant except by the faithful
    • Cure Light Wounds
  • Medium Magic (MM) – Magic is Uncommon but can be obtained through vast studying or genetics
    • Fireball
  • High Magic (HM) – Magic is common, classes are taught almost everywhere to study it.
    • Teleport, Time Stop


Gary Gygax originally intended for the worlds made in the Dungeons and Dragons gaming system to have little access to modern weapons or even 17th-century weapons. From 3E on (and some reference material in 2E) Guns and advanced technology dealing with weapons (outside the Modern D20 System) have been kept safely in the DMG and only used in case of an emergency. Pathfinder broke these rules with the introduction of the Gunslinger Class and 5th Edition picked up from Pathfinder some of the ideas they had.

For comparisons, we will use the Long Bow (1d8 Piercing/ Range 150) Average 6 Damage for Ranged. We will be also using a 5th Level Caster for Fireball (3rd level spell) for Magic (8d6 Fire /Area: 20 FT/ 150 Feet) average damage 32.

Examples of Weapons:

  • LT –  Hands, Clubs, Bows
  • MT –  Early Fire Arms to Modern Fire Arms
  • HT –  Science Fiction Pulse Rifles and Beyond
  • LM – 1st to 3rd Level Spells
  • MM – 4th to 6th Level Spells
  • HM – 7th to Legendary Spells

What does this mean? 

Low technology weapons like the Long Bow and Long Sword were common throughout the low technology system. With a High magic introduction, they could be enhanced drastically. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Low Magic Meant that only priest could cast 1st level to 3rd Levels spells no matter what level they were but Antimatter Weapons where common.

The balanced is maintained by how easy each item is to obtained. Magic usually takes some sort of learning in most gaming systems.  Technology can be usually picked up and used by almost anyone. Guns are a prime example of this. Keeping in mind the higher the technology or magic level is, the more you have to learn about it to use it we can adjust guns as such per DMG page 268:

Early Fire Arms

  • Pistols (1d10 Piercing / Range 30) Loading [Average Damage 8]
  • Muskets (1d12 Piercing / Range 40) Loading, 2 Handed [Average Damage 9]

Checking on the loading note in the PHB page 147 “Because of the time required to load this weapon, you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it when you use an action, bonus action, or reaction to fire it, regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make.” 

Meaning that the Pistol and Musket get 1 shot to fire per 2 actions, this helps balance the equation in a low tech system. Making them not too overpowered to use. Pistols do 1d10 average damage 8 compared to our Long Bow of 6 meaning they can deal more 2 more damage on average than a longbow but have to fire every other round (Long Bow wins out here being able to fire at the #Attacks of the PC). Muskets do 1d12 average 9 damage,  which is 3 more damage on average but again they are still shot every other round.

Average Damage comparison for 3 Rounds against our base Technology weapons looks like this (assuming 1 attack per round and casting fireball only once) :

  • Pistol 16 vs Bow 18 (Bow Wins)
  • Musket 18 vs Bow 18 (Tie)
  • Pistol 16 vs Fireball 32 (Fireball Wins)
  • Musket 18 vs Fireball 32 (Fireball wins)

Modern Fire Arms

  • Automatic Pistol (2d6 Piercing / 50) Reload(15 Shots) [Average Damage 8]
  • Hunting Rifle (2d10 Piercing / 80)  Reload (5 Shots), 2 Handed [Average Damage 16]
  • Automatic Rifle (2d8 Piercing / 80) Reload (30 Shots), 2 Handed, Burst Fire [Average Damage 12]

This is where we start seeing a difference, with an ammo capacity that means the weapon can be fired every round without having to take the reload in to play. This brings the world of high magic a little closer to even with the technology level. Though at this point it could still be seen an unbalanced depending on how it is played.

Average Damage comparison for 3 Rounds against our base Technology weapons looks like this (assuming 1 attack per round and casting fireball only once) :

  • Automatic Pistol 24 vs Bow 18 (Automatic Pistol Wins)
  • Hunting Rifle 48 vs Bow 18 (Hunting Rifle Wins)
  • Automatic Rifle 36 vs Bow 18 (Automatic Rifle Wins)
  • Automatic Pistol 24 vs Fireball 32 (Fireball Wins)
  • Hunting Rifle 48 vs Fireball 32 (Hunting Rifle Wins)
  • Automatic Rifle 36 vs Fireball 32 (Automatic Rifle Wins)

Please note that if it was an Area of Effect check with the Fireball Hunting and Automatic Rifles would both Lose.

Science Fiction Weapons

  • Laser Pistol (3d6 Radiant / 40) Reload(50 Shots) [Average Damage 18]
  • Antimatter Rifle (6d8 Necrotic /120) Reload(2 Shots), 2 Handed [Average Damage 36]
  • Laser Rifle (3d8 Radiant/100) Reload(30 Shots), 2 Handed [Average Damage 18]

This is where we see the technology portion out weapon magic dramatically.  With advances in technology, the magic starts to be equal and we lose the fantasy aspect of our gaming system. I mean if I can do the same thing with technology and it is easier to learn, why do I want to study old books? Often times, depending on the campaign setting, there is a malfunction rate or misfire rate related to these weapons to help balance things out.

Average Damage comparison for 3 Rounds against our base Technology weapons looks like this (assuming 1 attack per round and casting fireball only once) :

  • Laser Pistol 54 vs Bow 18 (Laser Pistol Wins)
  • Antimatter Rifle 72 vs Bow 18 (Antimatter Rifle Wins)
  • Laser Rifle 54 vs Bow 18 (Laser Rifle Wins)
  • Laser Pistol 54 vs Fireball 32 (Laser Pistol Wins)
  • Antimatter Rifle 72 vs Fireball 32 (Antimatter Rifle Wins)
  • Laser Rifle 54 vs Fireball 32 (Laser Rifle Wins)

Bombs and Explosives

  • Bomb (3d6 Fire / Area: 5 Feet/ 60) [Average Damage 12]
  • 1 Stick Dynamite (3d6 Bludgeoning / Area: 5 feet/ 60) [Average Damage 12]
  • Fragmentation Grenade (5d6 Piercing/ Area: 20 Feet/ 60) [Average Damage 20]

Bombs and Explosives are often used with an area of effect that can outdo magic. These are the poor man’s fireball in a technology-based world. Please note that dynamite is per stick and each stick adds 1d6 Bludgeon Damage, so theoretically it could be a lot bigger than a fireball.

  • Bomb 12 vs Bow 18 (Bow Wins based on Damage, Bomb wins on Area Effected)
  • Dynamite 12 vs Bow 18 (Bow Wins based on Damage, Dynamite wins on Area Effected)
  • Grenade 20 vs Bow 18 (Grenade wins on both fronts)
  • Bomb 12 vs Fireball 32 (Fireball Wins on Both Fronts)
  • Dynamite 12 vs Fireball 32 (Fireball Wins on both Fronts)
  • Grenade 20 vs Fireball 32 (Fireball Wins on both Fronts)

Balancing Magic

To counterbalance the advances in technology, magic could be easier to use. Instead of studying for several years for a spell, all spells could be used but with a cost to health. Example: Fireball Cast by a 1st level Caster Could Do 3 HP (Fireball is a Level 3 spell) of damage to cast it instead of them having to wait until 5th Level to learn it and be able to cast it. Using this system, the cost for the magic to be balanced is health of the user and anyone could use it. With this way you could do away with spell slots and since the spells themselves would have a cost for usage.

Summoning it all up

When adding advanced technology weapons to the game, it is good to keep in mind that there needs a counterbalance between the damage output and the magic level. Small trip-ups like malfunction ratings for tech items and heavier costs for spells can balance it out also. When adding any item to the game, check and see if there is a similar counter tech/magic item and use it as a baseline.

I hope this article was helpful. Taking the base knowledge from this article we can apply to almost any gaming system, not just the Dungeons and Dragons Examples I have given.

As always if you have questions, suggestions, or concerns leave a comment below.

-Archon Del Noche

The Sauce:

  • Wizards RPG Team (2014) Player’s Handbook. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast LLC
  • Wizards RPG Team (2014) Dungeon Master’s Guide. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast LLC

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