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In the late nineties, I read a novel in which the protagonist wielded a modular energy rifle. I remember that only three modules could be inserted into the gun at a time, but that more existed, the functions of which I do not recall. The wielder had to "budget" the amount of energy in the gun, as it could not be recharged and some modules used more power than others.

Unfortunately, the most specific piece of identifying information I have is also a major plot point later in the book, so I'll spoiler it here:

Eventually, the protagonist comes to the idea of forcing one of the modules in backwards (not normally possible; I believe wire had to be wrapped around the gun to hold it in), allowing the gun to recharge by "absorbing" energy-wraith-like enemies.

  • Could this be a game novelization? It sounds a lot like Doom 3. – Organic Marble Aug 9 '15 at 21:59
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    @OrganicMarble — I'm certain it wasn't. I'm a gamer, too, and would've remembered if it were a novelization. I'm also pretty sure this was at least 5 years or so before Doom 3 was released. – Ben Blank Aug 9 '15 at 23:20
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This is Mind Games by Victor Appleton, from the 90's reboot of the classic Tom Swift series. ("Victor Appleton" is a collective pseudonym for a large group of ghostwriters; the actual author of this installment is supposedly Bruce Holland Rogers.)

Tom is putting the finishing touches on an astounding new device--a Total Reality Generator. A powerful computer interfaces with the human mind, electronically recreating the most dangerous true-to-life scenarios. But an untested program has been inserted into the system, and it's about to propel Tom into an uncharted fantasy world from which he may never return!

The program is based on Galaxy Masters, a role-playing game this is wildly popular at Tom's school. But as the images and icons touch his nerves and surge into his mind, the game turn frighteningly authentic. Suddenly he is drawn into battle with the most powerfully sinister forces of the imagination--locked in a life-and-death struggle with the master of evil, Dedstorm. (source)

IIRC, Tom plays as a "tinker" character whose primary tool/weapon is the gun you described. A power surge knocks him out and gives him temporary amnesia, causing him to forget that the world of Galaxy Masters isn't real.

Eventually, he escapes from the simulation, and uses the knowledge he gained while he was inside -- including the trick about putting one of the modules in backwards -- to help his team win the game back in the real world.

  • I know I read that series around the same time; I may well have forgotten that they're related. Now I just need to find a copy! – Ben Blank Aug 10 '15 at 2:21

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