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I am working on a steampunk/plasmapunk game. The players are dropped into a ruined world full of old technology.

The big focus of the game is the players salvaging the stuff that's left behind and engineering their way out of problems.

The world is full of hovering ships powered by semi sentient plasma generators. The ships are heavily armed with everything from rockets to plasma cannons, to improvised railguns that can launch scrap.

The big shipboard generators can provide plasma batteries, to run smaller creations for a short amount of time, so you could make a floating sled to move a heavy part out of a cave, for example.

However, where this breaks down is that I can't figure out a way for this tech to exist, and it not to translate into a handheld gun of some sort. I am really uninterested in making a shooting game. Anyone got any good internal justifications for this?

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    $\begingroup$ Nothing worth shooting at? $\endgroup$
    – Allan
    May 31 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ Possibly the kernel of an answer, but your characters aren't building new technology or doing anything from scratch, they're repurposing and renovating equipment they find as they traverse the world. Perhaps there are simply no handheld weapons available to work with, or if the meta is big overpowered hoverships it's simply not worthwhile to arm yourself with a handheld weapon! $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    May 31 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ A nuclear submarine, or an aircraft carrier, or a guided-missile destroyer, are heavily armed ships. And, strangely, almost nobody aboard them carries handguns. What use would a handgun be against a Kirov-class cruiser? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 31 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ Ooh, I like this - maybe physical guns are pretty useless with the tech level, and anything more complex needed tiny circuitry, which melted in whatever giant war went on - bigger weapons had better shielding, so survived $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    May 31 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP handguns were quite useful on the nuclear submarine Красный Октябрь!! $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 31 at 17:38

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The aliens were big.

dead alien from ALien 1979

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOUW1G-AE0A

/The ships are heavily armed with everything from rockets to plasma cannons, to improvised railguns that can launch scrap./

A lot of those things are the handheld guns. Their makers had big hands. The aliens who built all these things were at least 10 meters tall and some apparently a lot bigger than that. Found clothing, armor and other personal gear suggest they were different in other ways as well. Some of the items are completely enigmatic - talismans? Personal hygiene objects? Chew toys?

There is nothing scaled for humans on this world. It is Honey I Shrunk The Kids, but with shrapnel shooting railguns.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or the alien bodies are stronger then the weapons tech. Like Marvel Asgards, $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 1 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen - I love that idea because invulnerable aliens would probably have weapons to prank each other. Pink paint cannons (with sparkles). Tar and feather guns (with cat hair). Perfume bombs. Artificial appendages that latch on and don't let go, but wiggle and move autonomously. Hopefully those last are as tough as the aliens so the only way to get rid of one is to rehome it. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jun 1 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose the possibility might arise though that there is a toy that would otherwise be a firearm for any lesser species. However if they are really just salvaging then perhaps they do not have the manufacturing capacity to make improvements to effectively weaponize the toys. For example, one-shot gun you can't mass manufacture or build on isn't terribly useful as a weapon. Or it has such severe after-effects such as recoil or pressure waves lesser species can't use it. Or it makes no accommodations for lesser physiologies (maybe it's used by plugging the breach with your fingers). $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 1 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ It seems unlikely that they could have the engineering skills to do anything meaningful with alien technology, and not be able to craft for themselves a basic firearm. Making an improvised firearm is something a child can do given some modern tools and scrap materials. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 2 at 17:32
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Too Risky:

Your tech is fairly solid, but there's lots of steampunk piping that doesn't tolerate piercing damage from high-velocity projectiles very well. Anyone shooting a handgun tends to get blasted with steam or engulfed with a cloud of ammonia. The ship can fix minor damage on its own, but the short-term effects of firing a portable weapon inevitably harm everyone present.

Further, your ships are semi-sentient. The ships follow rules. Generally, the ships do their job and ignore the squabbles of mere mortals. THEY, however, might not appreciate piercing bullets being fired inside them, and they express their unhappiness by deliberately jetting steam, blowing valves (in other words, they "shoot" back) or gassing such violators of the rules.

Kevlar (or equivalents):

You don't need anything as grand as a force field to stop a bullet. armor designed to protect the crew from high-velocity debris and explosions stops bullets easily by suddenly becoming rigid but doesn't stop slow velocity swords and spears (or possibly even thrown weapons like spears and throwing axes). Guns might still exist, but if 60% of shots automatically fail, the utility of the guns would be limited. The die-hards could still carry them, but they will be weakened to the point of relative ineffectiveness.

And yes, Dune-style forcefields that stop fast projectiles/beams but allow slow ones would be good for this, too.

Flame throwers would be a good alternative to get around both of these, but they are generally big, short-ranged, and/or cause a lot of collateral damage.

Too expensive:

Anything sufficiently high-tech (like handheld plasma guns) is too complicated for the players to build without the appropriate parts, and small parts for these devices simply don't exist. Or, for fun, they CAN get these weapons, but they constantly burn out or need replacements that can't be found. This prices the guns out of practical use, but doesn't stop determined gamers from getting them and using them for the occasional boss battle.

Powerful Melee weapons:

Everyone has advanced armor - every suit on every ship is armor. You need it to survive the rough, possibly airless, or fiery environment. Guns work fine, but everyone is armored. But if you want to fight people, semi-sentient plasma-based lightsabers, Vibro blades, power fists, or industrial cutters are powerful enough to penetrate the armor.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll add to the "too-risky" part : blowing your weapon on the first shot because frail steampunk cannons are not what they were anymore is part of the risks, too. It would be much more visible on small weaponry than big shippy weapons due to them having finer and lighter iron plating. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    May 31 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the dune solution. Of course that still doesn't explain why they didn't use bow&arrows in the books... $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @leinaD_natipaC The shields needed to have things slow enough that Paul had trouble fighting unshielded opponents since he reflexively slowed his thrust. Arrows would still probably be too fast. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jun 3 at 19:00
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The Ships Forbid It

The world is full of hovering ships powered by semi sentient plasma generators.

The hover ships are the remnants of a 3-laws robot apocalypse. Because the AIs are above all else, not allowed to let humans come to harm, they can not allow themselves to be used to make weapons designed to kill humans. Instead, any human wanting to fabricate a weapon must convince the AI that what it is fabricating is a tool, not meant to harm anyone. So, if you try to make a gun, the ship will cut off your access to its power before you can finish it. A manchette on the other hand... is clearly a tool.

The reason the hover ships allow humans to make ship-to-ship weapons is that many hover ships have gone rogue and no-longer obey the 3-laws (or thier understanding of the 3 laws has turned them against humanity.) So, the "good" ships understand the need to arm themselves to protect man kind against other hover ships, but would be reluctant to use those weapons against humans or a ship that it believes has humans on board.

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  • $\begingroup$ While the idea is interesting, as a DM I would say that this turns the ships as the protagonists of the game, rather than the players. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 1 at 7:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft Not really. If you implement it right, then the ship actually becomes the antagonist. Part of the game becomes maintaining the AI's trust and tricking the AI into providing you with what you need when your needs become questionable. Since this is a crafting heavy game, a mid-way story arc could be the AI rejecting the crew, and the crew needing to disable or reset thier once beloved AI gone HAL 9000. This opens up the opportunity to subvert the AI and gain total access to the ship at some point giving the crew a considerable and needed "level up" as the main plot intensifies. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 1 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ While there is a chance the crew will just become compliant: it may be in the AI's nature to become increasing untrusting of any normal human behavior. 3-laws robot uprising stories often consider this outcome inevitable as the AI grows in its understanding of not allowing harm to come to humans. Or, if you find the AI becomes to relatable and the crew too compliant, it becomes a great NPC to throw into the martyr role. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 1 at 14:20
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Personal shields are so easy to build with this tech that nobody bothers to build handheld weapons

Using a small power source it's relatively easy to build an efficient personal shield that blocks small arms fire. A handheld weapon simply can't be built powerful enough to punch through, for that that you need a much larger weapon.

You can invent some quirk of the technology that causes melee weapons to not trip the shield.

Since nobody really bothers carrying handheld guns, you never tend to see a shield actually activate, people just tend to wear them somewhere on their body as a passive deterrent.

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  • $\begingroup$ I also thought about efficient body armour, but the problem is a small power source capable to build an efficient personal shield covering the nearly 2 square meters of surface of a human body could be also used to power a railgun, or a plasma ray, or whatever future technology they had, that would put the same amount of energy in a 1cm2 area. X energy concentrated in a small point will always get through the same amount of energy spreaded over a much larger area. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 31 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ What about a more direct deterrent: some exotic material you can keep in your pocket but if a plasma shot strikes it it causes catastrophic feedback in the weapon, causing it to explode. The machinery necessary to compensate for this catastrophic feedback is too large to fit in the hand. $\endgroup$
    – user72058
    May 31 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ "Rats, Bats & Vats", by Eric Flint and Dave Freer has a similar idea; the main characters have personal shields that block high velocity attacks, but not melee attacks. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Jun 1 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft that assumes the shield needs to be on across the entire body. You could have a shield that detects high-velocity projectiles and concentrates the shield energy in its path in a concentrated burst. Additionally the shield does not need to match the energy, it could disrupt/bleed the energy of the projectile enough for armor underneath to catch it. This also immediately explains a lack of fire-arms: the shield also activates for your own projectiles. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jun 1 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft It could also potentially operate by sling shotting the projectile to deflect like we do with space probes rather than outright dissipating the energy it. That would make shooting a shield dangerous to everyone around them and would make for a mess when firing at a group of people with shields. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 1 at 18:36
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Heavy(ish) plasma generators

The semi-sentient plasma generators come in different shapes and sizes, the ligther ones at 25kg up to several tonnes. While 25kg may produce enough power for a small railgun or plasma cannon, it's way too heavy for aiming the thing while holding it with your hands.

This ancient civilization did have handheld guns, they just didn't survive enough. The old handheld weapons relied on chemical energy, since plasma generators were too heavy, and time has rendered the chemical components unstable or innocuous, so they're worthless - also, handheld weapons were created following the old principle of "cheapest manufacturer got the contract". Semi-sentient plasma generators were expensive and had the auto-repair capabilites that have allowed themselves to still being serviceable after all this time. Cheap handheld weapons are a piece of rust nowadays, best case scenario, or a heap of unstable explosive that it will go off if you roll less than 3 in the investigation check.

EDIT On a second thought, you can combine the answer from user72058 and mine. 25kg on a backpack and 25kg on your hands feel very different. If, like user72058 suggests, these ancient civilization had efficient body shields, a 25-30kg backpack generator could stop any kind of bullet from a handheld weapon, but they are too heavy to fit on a handheld weapon - well, I suppose they could use a backpack generator to power a handheld weapon, just like WWII flamethrowers worked, but then you have no shield, only the weapon. In this case it would make sense than defense took advantage over offense and at the end they didn't bother making handheld weapons at all.

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    $\begingroup$ I think I really like this, because it fits nicely with a game mechanic I had in mind - basically, once parts are connected to the ship, the ship can rebuild those damaged parts from scrap. If the pieces you find are all kept in good repair by similar self repair mechanisms, it would explain why they work and nothing else does $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    May 31 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ It also gives a nice counterpart - anything you bring near it that is metal, but isn't old tech gets cannibalized by the ships systems - so building a gun isn't easy either, as it tends to get broken down for parts $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    May 31 at 12:52
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I am really uninterested in making a shooting game.

(Well, that's unfortunate. I really like shooting games.)

You have ship-mounted plasma cannons and railguns, but you really don't want people turning them into man-portable variants? Fortunately for you there's a very simple answer: materials science. Or more precisely, the lack thereof.

The steam-/plasma-punk esthetic is largely about big, clunky machines that do unbelievable things like turn steam power into death rays and all that. Sure you get the occasional clockwork cyborg or pocket mechanical computer, but the prevalence of chunky machinery is largely due to the lack of advanced materials to construct your equipment from. And since your setting is post-apocalyptic, odds are that most of the really interesting materials science is lost tech.

In order to shrink down a plasma cannon to something that a man can carry you'll need some very advanced materials and manufacturing techniques. The plasma chamber and barrel has to be lined with certain crystalline matrices that can withstand the heat of plasma generation, you need big electromagnetic coils to focus and direct the plasma, and a really strong body material to hold it all together. In large scale for the ship-mounted variants you can solve a lot of the structural issues by simply adding more mass. For a hand-held variant you're going to need something a little more advanced in order to get the strength you need while staying light enough to wield.

Of course that's only the first part of the problem. Your little plasma batteries can produce enough power to do some handy things, but they're really not suited for burst power production like you need for firearms. Try to drain them too fast and they either stall out or melt down. Sure you can build accumulator banks for them, but you're going to hit the material science wall again here. Capacitors are a dime a dozen (well, they were when I was a kid learning electronics), but the production of them requires a lot of high-tech stuff. Capacitors built to be discharged quickly without blowing themselves to pieces are even worse, relying on extremely high tech materials in both the frame and the dielectric. And don't even get me started on the circuits you're going to need for power regulation, discharge control and to prevent overcharging.

Finally, range. Plasma projectiles evaporate by interaction with the medium they're travelling through, in a cute little inversion of the cube-square law. For a plasma round small enough to launch from a portable canon the surface area to volume ratio is way too high, giving it a range measured in inches rather than yards. If you basically have to stick the end of your gun up against the target anyway, it's simpler to just hit them with it rather than futz about with pulling triggers and aiming and all that jazz.

Now if you could somehow channel that plasma along the surface of a light blade without melting it, that would be useful.

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    $\begingroup$ To be clear, no judgement on what games everyone likes to play! It was more I started looking at the system, and was like "to make this cool, interesting and setting appropriate, there is a whole pile of work, for a genre of games I typically don't play, and therefore don't understand what goes into a good one" $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Jun 1 at 6:24
  • $\begingroup$ I really like the capacitor idea though - I remember being shown what a fast discharge capacitor can do by my dad, and they're essentially little explosives - up the power to make a gun, and you're in some really dangerous territory $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Jun 1 at 6:26
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    $\begingroup$ In my eyes, the last point would be sufficient. Small plasma "bullets" don't travel far enough and evaporate, so only big guns are useful. $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    Jun 1 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ I'd also suggest that lack of technical understanding might be a factor. The Ancients might have been able to make handheld gauss pistols with unlimited power-supplies and incredible muzzle-velocities, but they did it with precision manufacturing of super-materials that exist now only in legend. You'll have to make do with five tons of steel and salvaged polymers hooked up to a building-sized power-generator to achieve the same result. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Jun 1 at 16:15
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Goggles On!

enter image description here

Most military action is air-to-air. Or rather giant steam/plasma-punk dirigible to giant steam/plasma-punk dirigible. They have deflection shields which can stop small firearms coming from outside the dirigible. This is why electro-mortars and scrap cannons are needed for one ship to shoot another.

When it comes to boarding parties however handguns are a liability. The ships spend a lot of time above the weather where the air is thin. Shooting bullets willy-nilly will can either:

(a) puncture your airship's swim bladders and make it fall from the sky. Bad.

(b) make holes in your airship and let the space air in and suffocate your crew. Also bad.

This is why boarding parties use sillier more short range weapons like glue shooters and net cannons and chair legs.

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Too big

If the power density is too small, a firearm will be too large for a human to handle - or too small to be effective. That's why early gunpowder weapons were cannons. As the gunpowder was perfected, the power/size went up, we got more powerful cannons AND smaller handguns.

We already have railguns today, but they need a ship-sized power generator to operate. Even if you scale a railgun cannon down to pistol size, the generator will scale down to motorcycle-size. Even if it was possible for a human to cart one around, it would be too cumbersome in combat.

You can also have the power generators to be unscalable. Just as A-bomb has certain minimal yield, below which a chain reaction cannot start, and black holes have certain minimal size below which they evaporate faster than they can attract mass, your plasma generators can operate on a principle which will put some minimal size requirements. Small enough to be carried in a ship, but too big to be carried by a human.

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No gunpowder or black powder technology.

Gunpowder and black powder are really good at what they do. If you just eliminate any understanding of it or technology to produce it, relying instead on liquid-fuel rockets, you'll eliminate the historical groundwork for small arms. Sure, air-powered guns exist, but they have strong limitations that keep us from using them much today.

While both battery tech and gunpowder require a solid understanding of chemistry, it's completely conceivable that either would have been invented while the other was overlooked. They're both oddball technologies with niche applications, so, for whatever historical reasons, the gunpowder niche just hasn't been explored yet.

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Steam and plasma generators don't miniaturize well

Steam power requires boilers, pipes, valves, and vents. While you might be able to have some gadgets powered by a boiler backpack, you wouldn't be able to generate the kind of pressure necessary for lethal force from that form factor.

Plasma suffers from similar design problems. Generating plasma requires large machinery. Even with plasma batteries, the amount of concentrated plasma required for a lethal blast is more than a single battery can hold.

The challenge is determining why there are rockets but no handheld firearms. For whatever reason, this world has developed slow-burning combustibles that enable rockets but has never made fast-burning combustibles that would enable bullets. This could be limited by either high-speed combustibles or oxidizers since bullets contain self-oxidizing fuels. Perhaps the chemicals required to make high-speed combustibles and/or oxidizers are scarce enough to make firearms impractical.

You can still use an old-fashioned crossbow, of course. There's no way around it, really.

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Not all tech can be miniaturized.

Beneath the technobabble, a "plasma generator" could be a fusion reactor, which uses superheated plasma to generate energy, or even a (made up) high temperature fission reactor that intentionally melts down the fuel into a plasma.

While there is no lower limit on the size of a fusion reactor, it becomes unstable the smaller it is. Your world could have figured out functional fusion reactors down to a certain size, but no smaller.

Fission reactors do have a lower limit. Nuclear fuel has a critical mass and will not react if there is too little of it or it has the wrong shape. This is why there are no nuclear hand grenades.

And if the power supply is too big to be portable, you need batteries. Chemical batteries are probably insufficient, so supercapacitors are your only option. These can easily be damaged during or after the apocalypse (EMP, corrosion, reliance on supercooling) and are impossible to fix or mass manufacture without specialized equipment. Even if a couple of them survive but not enough to make them disposable, guns are not useful if you have to plug them into the wall between each shot.

The bigger issue is that one could just make a crossbow.

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In steampunk setting you have also steam weapons, where instead of expanding gunpowder reaction products projectiles are moved by expanding steam.

Now you need to hold in hands heater, water tank, fuel tank, steam boiler, steam condensator, maybe some pipes, bullets and run with all of this into battlefield.

I think this will be as dangerous to handle as flamethrower, and this is only about flammability, you must also take into account that steam in boiler can explode.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_cannon

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Remnants of handheld firearms exist, but their owners used them to ruin.

Instead of the other answers which posit that firearms are useless, I'll say that they were indeed crucial at one point, but so much so that the only thing you'll find any more are parts beyond repair. People would never discard their guns, parts, maintenance kits, cartridges, etc., while anyone who died would have theirs taken soon. The historical analogy would be a desperate and under-provisioned army: if a soldier died someone would take his boots, coat, etc.

You can implement this in your game by allowing the player to find a few broken pieces to hint at firearms, but not enough to make one or entice the player to try.

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The planet’s gravity is really strong.

The plasma generators in the ships are the way to charge up powered anti-gravity devices in the form of leftover steampunk exoskeletons in various forms and partial pieces that can be scavenged and cobbled together. The unique metal for these is ancient and immensely strong and able to handle the planet’s crushing gravitational forces.

The exoskeletal pieces can have portable energy reservoirs but require occasional recharging. Due to their size limitations they are only sufficient to support the player’s mass and movement but don’t allow personal flight.

Under this intense gravity, no form of chemical gun can produce enough energy to project a bullet any useful distance before the gravity drop grounds it. The more powerful and much larger ship-based plasma rail guns are the only useful projectile weapons but they must be used like artillery, lobbed in a pre-calculated trajectory and too sophisticated for general use. A barrage effect would require immense energy reserves. This would effectively deter FPS gameplay and focus instead on survival strategy elements.

The high gravity scenario also has potentially interesting implications for general movement, travel, gathering items, and certain musculoskeletal vulnerabilities which would create urgency and tension for the gameplay.

A nearby moon, drawn close by the planet’s extreme mass, could add its own high gravity effects like tidal forces that affect the players and their environment. A shifting sea of surface objects regularly strewn about by these forces could lead to uncovering new elements such as items and pathways, or complicating the players plans overnight.

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They were never invented to begin with. One might say that at some point in our history, it was inevitable that handguns would become the primary weapon used by ground forces. But this wasn't always the case. Very early handguns weren't very effective compared to other weapons. Maybe at this point in your world, people just kind of gave up on the idea and combat evolved in another direction. At some point they would have tech that would make handguns effective, but at that point combat had evolved in such a manner (as other answers point out, with airships being a main way to fight each other) that they wouldn't really be practical anymore or nobody would even consider arming somebody with a miniature (and less powerful) version of the weapons used on the airships.

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