Behind the Mask: Fictional guns are lame

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|09.15.11

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Behind the Mask: Fictional guns are lame
Champions Online screenshot
Out of all my issues with modern roleplaying, the inaccurate portrayal of firearms is very near and dear to my heart. Champions Online is a pretty big offender in this regard. One of the most important things that we forget to realize about games in modern settings is that in the real world, guns are tremendously destructive.

Although this is more of a general roleplaying issue and not limited to CO, I feel it's worth touching on. Is it so weird to wonder why superpowered groups like VIPER or UNTIL use energy blasters instead of firearms? Hit the jump and we'll talk about why the U-KTF blaster rifles don't hold a candle to things that exist in the real world.

Champions Online screenshotElectricity and money

The largest dilemma with energy weapons is that the amount of electricity needed to fire a beam or blast of energy with the same destructive force as a handgun bullet is very large. In fact, it's about as much electricity as your entire house uses in two months. This is for a single blast or beam of energy. In order to fuel a gun like this for multiple shots, automatic fire, or more damage (like an assault rifle), you'd need much, much more power.

This kind of technology is far beyond the level of the modern world or even many futuristic settings. If we were to employ these kinds of weapons on an infantry level, the electrical energy used to power cities would have to be less expensive than the extremely cheap components used to make bullets. A typical bullet costs between 5 and 50 cents to manufacture. Imagine if the electricity used to power your home cost only 50 cents. Or imagine if the amount of gunpowder and metal used in making a bullet cost over a hundred dollars. Either one of these scenarios is outside our comprehension; one implies a massive energy surplus, while the other suggests that we are so starved on material resources that metal and other mineral resources are incredibly valuable.

It doesn't take more than a casual glance at Champions Online to say that neither is the case. The impoverished Westside citizens don't look like they're paying almost nothing on their utility bills, for instance. Futuristic settings like the Firefly universe also suggest that electrical energy is pretty valuable and hard to come by for border planets. Accordingly in Firefly, border communities tend to use conventional firearms while wealthier communities employ energy weapons in their police force.

The other problem with energy weapons is storing all that electricity. I can't say it's impossible because I can't predict the future. However the idea of a hand-held capacitor storing more electricity than my house uses in a month (I have five roommates, too!) is pretty ludicrous for a modern game.

Individual superheroes with powered armor avoid this rule by invoking the magic gene. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the magic gene is CO's way of justifying mutant powers or ultra-high technology. Still, the magic gene is limited to individuals; their super-tech cannot be duplicated because it is imbued with its creator's magical powers when it is constructed. Mass-produced energy weapons bypass that somehow.

Champions Online screenshot
Kinetic energy vs. thermal

Another very real problem for energy weapons is that they do not produce kinetic energy. Someday in the far future, this might be an advantage; less recoil means more destructive force can be delivered to the enemy. The energy issues make this unlikely, of course, but there's another problem to be surpassed: thermal shielding.

Energy weapons deliver heat to their targets rather than smashing through them. Modern science has developed a lot of ways to deal with heat. Kevlar and polycarbonate plate can absorb and dissipate many times more heat energy -- greater than 20 times more -- than they can kinetic energy. In order to penetrate even modern body armor, a laser or plasma gun would have to produce much, much more energy than a bullet. It's simply much easier to stop heat than it is to stop a bullet.

This is assuming, of course, that armor technology remains completely static. Capacitors that are millions of times better than our current batteries are completely space-age science fiction. The idea of super-cheap electrical power (via nuclear fusion) is probably 50 years away. Body armor that reflects heat is doable with science we already know, and carbon nanotubes are an already existing technology that will dramatically increase our advances in various structural sciences. Personal tactical armor is among the uses currently being researched.

It's much more likely that guns will evolve toward using Newtonian physics, discharging kinetic energy rearward, or absorbing recoil using moving parts inside the weapon so that larger amounts of powder and larger projectiles can be fired. If we develop free electricity and supercapacitors (megacapacitors?), it would make more sense to use the electrical energy to impart kinetic energy on a bullet through magnets. There are very serious recoil issues to deal with for that kind of gun, but it is more likely that science will attempt to overcome the recoil in a railgun using physics rather than trying to build ray guns.

Champions Online screenshotThe hero effect

Lastly, there's the issue of superheroes. Champions Online is a superhero game, after all, and there are plenty of heroes that have all sorts of resistances. Being "bulletproof" is certainly one of those things, and any organization, hero or villain, needs to overcome this very real problem.

The question is: Just how bulletproof are superheroes? Certainly we know that heroes can have skin with the strength of steel, but a 30-06 rifle bullet can punch through a couple of inches of face-hardened steel. For military rounds, 7.62x54mmR and 7.62x51mm NATO also have similar penetrating power and aren't too hard to handle. These types of bullets might not seriously hurt an invincible superhero, but they're likely to give him a bit of pause until backup arrives.

Anti-materiel rifles are another option and likely to be available to a VIPER or UNTIL unit on the squad or platoon level. .50 BMG can punch through 22 millimeters of face-hardened steel, and a .50 caliber rifle and ammunition is legal to own in the United States (in all states except California). If that isn't enough, Raufoss Multipurpose ammunition can punch through over 50 millimeters of steel and carries a high explosive and incendiary effect; it's reasonable to assume that high-tech organizations like VIPER may even have created special versions of this round that employ highly toxic poisons rather than incendiary components. Because the round has a tungsten carbide penetrator, it can likely penetrate even super-tough heroes to wound them, at which time the lethal toxins could do their work.

Sometimes, .50 BMG isn't enough though. In the world of superheroes, it's reasonable that something bigger might be needed. Fortunately, 20mm anti-materiel rifles exist. These rifles aren't made for killing people; they're made to shoot through armored vehicles, like armored cars, tanks, or parked aircraft. In a super-powered world, they most likely make a good answer to bulletproof heroes. The amount of energy -- both explosive and kinetic -- delivered to the target of a 20mm round is tremendous. These rounds can shoot through the armor of most WWII tanks, and it's only spaced composite armor (including explosive reactive armor) that keeps them from being effective against modern tanks. Even a brick superhero would have trouble with a gun like that.

It's really unfortunate that even though the technology is there (real guns are scary!), fiction writers have to create new implausible garbage instead of extrapolating on real science that already exists.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
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