Monday, 2 March 2009

Gunpowder, Technology, War Machines

For those of us who don't necessarily want to play high fantasy and/or sword & sorcery games all the time, D&D's general lack of black powder weapons can be frustrating and jarring. Many of the weapons which AD&D adventurers can use (the guisarme, the lucerne hammer, the bardiche) came into being at around the same time that black powder arms were becoming more common on the battlefields of Europe; it seems odd that esoteric polearms should be given such preference over the humble hand cannon. Admittedly a hand cannon isn't the perfect weapon when you're doing what D&D adventurers usually get up to, but it seems a heck of a lot more useful in those circumstances than field plate, an awl-pike, or a fauchard. I suppose the D&D creators (and most players) just don't or didn't think that guns 'fit' with the tone they were aiming for. (I know that 2nd edition lists arquebuses in its equipment pages, but that's all there is.)

The Warhammer creators had no such compunctions, and Warhammer fantasy battle is full of weird and wonderful black powder devices, from ordinary arquebuses to cannons, rocket launchers, and flame-throwers. I like this. Although Warhammer is a fantasy setting you get the feeling that technology develops in at least some sort of haphazard way - unlike in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms, where it seemed to reach a certain level and just stopped. For thousands of years.

Of course, this feeds into the old classicist/romanticist, or banalifying systematiser/mysterious dreamer debate. It's perfectly fine for there not to be cannons in The Lord of the Rings or the Corum stories, because those aren't meant to be in any way an accurate reflection of reality. But if you like a heavier dose of realism in your fantasy pie, their absence smacks of grandfathering rather than anything else.

One of the reasons I love D&D is that I think it can be all things to all people. Some people will tell you that games should be narrowly focused towards certain 'goals', but I've never subscribed to that view. What makes a game good is a good DM and good players doing what they want to do with whatever system they've chosen (though some systems are undoubtedly worse than others). The D&D designers always seemed to have this philosophy, at least up to and including 3rd edition. So to me it seems a little odd for the core rules to implicitly dictate that black powder weapons don't really fit with the D&D vision of what fantasy should be. I sometimes want to play a bloke with a massive matchlock gun which takes ages to load but which can knock an ogre's head off at twenty paces. It would be nice if D&D allowed me to do that without having to come up with my own rules.

The corollary of this is: what kind of guns, cannons and other war machines would kobolds, mind flayers, derro or the other creatures of D&D come up with? The various races of Warhammer have eccentric devices which suit their 'national' character: Chaos Dwarfs have huge cannons which cause the very earth to quake; the empire has steam-driven tank-like contraptions with mini-cannons; the armies of Chaos have fire-belching machines inhabited by the souls of the damned, who are always likely to be driven insane and start attacking their comrades. Once you start thinking about the introduction of firearms into D&D a whole new world opens up. Githzerai arqubusiers, thri-kreen pistoliers, ogres carting around battered hand cannons - the possibilities are fascinating.


  1. I don't mind blackpowder weapons in my fantasy the way they where in WFRP 1st Ed: rare, expensive as hell and volatile.

    The whole artilery cabose from WFB just strikes me as silly, but of course, YMMV.

    The way I see it, the problem having firearms becoming so common in a fantasy setting that you get things such as orc pistoleros and hobgoblin musketeers is that it assumes industrial-level manufacture capabilities of gunpowder armaments by humanity (since humanoids aren't known for their proficiency in alchemy and weapon reserach).

    Along the line something has got to give and whole races will get wiped out even without the need for fantasy adventurers who will become obsolete.

    Orc invasion? Let them try and break trough the trained lines of riflemen.

    Evil wizard in tower? Break out Mons Meg and let him deal with 20" cannon balls traveling towards his ass faster than the speed of sound.

    Evil goblin tribe in mountain? Just blow the entrance to their cave with gunpowder barrels and let the bastards starve.

    Elves getting bitchy again? Firworks and warm summers do wonders.

    And so on...

  2. That's what I used to love about Red Steel, Spelljammer and the HR series book on the 16th century; no craven fear of lovely, lovely explosives.

    I know EGG himself was against gunpowder weapons in his games (although not sci-fi weapons), but there's just something delightful about the whole swashbuckling swords-and-pistols thing.

    Sure, it won't fit all taste. Conan or Elric with a six-shooter is just aesthetically wrong. But there are times when nothing hits the mark quite like Mr Boomstick.

    PS: Goblins slinging around large black bombs with BOMB written on them. Anyone who does not see the appeal has no soul :p

  3. Ok perhaps I was too hasty in my coments. Your BOMB-goblins are begining to convert me :)

  4. I'm thinking the reverse... foul orcs in their deep dark smithies have discovered the black powder and are trying to figure it out. It could fit much in the way our 1940s/50s aliens had the mysterious death rays.

    Something unusual, something to be a good campaign hook, but nothing that would permanently move a campaign unless you wanted to move it in that direction.

  5. FWIW Chainmail includes rules for arquebuses and cannon, but that's because it was primarily a historical wargame. I suspect Gary's opposition to the presence of firearms in D&D was rooted in the fiction that inspired the game. I can't recall a single pulp fantasy that includes such things, so his sense of the "feel" of D&D is unequivocally without them.

  6. One of the reasons I love D&D is that I think it can be all things to all people.

    Damn straight.

  7. Edsan: Well, if you don't want to allow orcs or hobgoblins the capacity for manufacturing firearms, you can just have them stealing the technology off humans, dwarves and the like as the Native Americans did. Most peoples colonised by Europeans were killed off by disease; since this isn't really a problem for orcs (probably it would work the other way round!) it's easy to imagine them getting hold of human black powder and working out how to fashion guns in enough numbers to exist indefinitely They must have done that with swords, spears, etc. anyway.

    Chris: Yeah, I love a bit of swashbuckling. But it doesn't even have to be that; I'd be satisfied having black powder weapons which were relatively rare, but at least around.

    Chgowiz: That would be cool. There are rumours that the orcs of Blahblahland have discovered a secret weapon...and only YOU can stop them!

    James: That's undoubtedly the reason; I suppose it leads to the inevitable question: why were there no black powder weapons in pulp fantasy books? Is it because there is something anti-heroic and democratic about the arquebus, which can lay Conan low even in the hands of the weakest of plebs?

  8. That would be cool. There are rumours that the orcs of Blahblahland have discovered a secret weapon...and only YOU can stop them!

    Or imagine the surprise when they first run into (humanoid) who point tubes at them which belch fire and steel? The way my sandbox is set up, that might just happen. I'm going to have to chew on this awhile, especially since some of my players might be reading. *g*

  9. I thought the one moment of gunpowder use in the Lord of the Rings movies was quite delightful, and just exactly how I would have imagined Orcs to use gunpowder, had I ever tried. Just as well they don't, really.

  10. "ogres carting around battered hand cannons"

    It's perhaps a bit well dressed for some interpretations of 'Ogre', but this may just be the miniature for that:

  11. which can lay Conan low even in the hands of the weakest of plebs?
    Hell, so can a well-placed dagger, but nobody would think of leaving that out of Sword and Sorcery material.

  12. Chgowiz: Yeah, I'm pretty much screwed when it comes to using that idea, because I think all my players read my blog...

    Faustusnotes: I actually didn't like that bit all that much; I know Tolkien mentioned something about exploding stuff in The Two Towers, but it seemed a little jarring in the film for some reason.

    Botrytis: Love it!

    Rachel: Yeah, but it takes skill and training to throw a dagger - more than it does for an arquebus anyway.

  13. @noism: I have the same thing with players reading my blog - but then, misdirection may work. >:D

  14. I like firearms and mechanical devices in D&D, but I don't like the humourous treatment they usually get (eg gnomes). My last campaign, Aura Storm - - had ornithopters, arquebus', steam engines, and other mechanical contrivances in the hands of bronze-age gnolls, and it worked quite well.

    Of course, I may have been rebelling against the "thou shalt not mix genres, and thou shalt be historically accurate" purists I started gaming with, 20+ years ago, who objected to even such minor 'anachronisms' as flying ships with great vehemence.

    Tunnels & Trolls has rules for Gunnes in the back of the book.

    On the other hand, I read the first book of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series last night and dragon-mounted riflemen feel so wrong I won't be reading the rest of the series.

  15. Mothman's: You can definitely overdo humourous contraptions etc. I think Warhammer usually stays on the right side of the line... I'm with you on the Novik books. I think she's quite a talented writer, but that world just doesn't sit right with me at all and like you I gave up after the first book.

  16. I love love LOVE the D20 Modern: Past book. It covers 3 distinct periods: the Age of Exploration (let's say 1500 to 1850), the Industrial Revolution (1850 to 1915) and what is termed the "Pulp Era" (1915 to 1945). So you can rediscover America, do pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes, Old West, and then re-fight WWII. I just finished GM'ing a terrifically fun Pulp Era game. Although there was no magic, there were undead, lycanthropes, sea monsters, highly experimental laser weapons, etc.

    Next up I'm going to drop D&D style magic into 1800 or so. Magic and Muskets, here we come!

    Seriously though: If you're looking to mesh D&D 3.5E with black powder arms (or any other early- or middle-modern technology, 1500-1945 or so) just get a copy of D20 Past. It's the best, most useful thing published by WotC in a long time.

  17. J: Thanks for the recommendation. I'll see if I can track it down. Though it must be said I'm not a great one for d20 (too complicated for my frazzled brain...).

  18. I love firearms in D&D. I've always used them in my campaigns, though they are often rare. I tend to use an alchemy based smokepowder rather than a traditional gunpowder though.

    One thing about firearms ans subterranean races. using a firearm in an enclosed space is dangerous and unhealthy. Especially with low-grade blckpowder. The fumes would be nasty and the noise literally deafening. Firearms are best suited to the surface world.

    Though the image of gun-toting Dwarves is wonderful. Or sniping Elves for that matter...

  19. I'm back: Gearing up for my Muskets & Magic D20 Past game. It's gonna be a blast and start off with a campaign in an alternate 1804. The PCs are sent by President Jefferson to fight the Barbary Pirates. 'Cept, y'see, the Barbary Pirates in this world are minotaurs and the Pasha of Tripoli is an illithid. Should be a blast (particularly with muskets).