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Howling Tower: Black Powder—Friend or Foe?

Howling Tower: Black Powder—Friend or Foe?

Musketeer by Jacob de Gheyn - Wapenhandelingen van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiesen (1608)In this golden age when we have dozens of well-designed, polished FRPGs to choose from, gamer arguments tend to be about whether game A is “better” in some indefinable fashion than games B through Z. There was a time long ago when only a handful of FRPGs existed, and most roleplayers had tried all of them to one extent or another. Then, arguments tended to be about what you did or didn’t allow in your campaign. One of the most contentious campaign elements was gunpowder. If two gamers collided in a hallway, you could count on a “you got gunpowder in my magic/you got magic in my gunpowder” fight breaking out.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that gamers are more open-minded about thematic elements now than they used to be. Maybe it’s because modern approaches to game design are better at handling things like gunpowder; maybe it’s because after almost forty years, people are willing to push the envelope more; maybe it’s because genre mashups in general are popular now.

The question of whether to allow gunpowder in your campaign is still valid. Gunpowder’s presence or absence has a big effect on the tone of the setting.

One approach to firearms treats them as alchemy or some similar branch of magic. Firearms and magic wands exist in harmony. If that’s your preference, then firearms are easy to mix into the campaign. For example, firearms are integral to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The Old World wouldn’t be the same without them. Pathfinder offers the gunslinger, which the GM can easily drop in or keep out of Golarion to taste.

There’s another approach that bears considering. It has a big impact on the world, because it casts firearms as symbols of a conflict between two competing world orders: the arcane mystery of magic opposed by the machinery of science. What would such a campaign look like?

Here are ideas that can be baked into a campaign built around the idea of gunpowder as the harbinger of things to come. Not all of them are necessary; they can be mixed and matched as desired. Many of them can be used equally well in campaigns where gunpowder and magic aren’t in conflict. I have a strong historical bent, so many of these ideas are inspired by the early days of gunpowder use in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Gunpowder is complex and mysterious. Gunpowder’s ingredients might be well known, but the formula for mixing them is closely held by a handful of secretive guilds. The same goes for the secrets of metallurgy involved in making guns. The more complex gunpowder is to manufacture and use, the more specialized (and secretive) its makers and users will be. In a world with a long history of magic, the newcomer gunpowder might actually be the more mysterious and more feared of the two.

The ingredients are hard to obtain. Charcoal is easy to come by, though some types of wood are better than others when making charcoal for gunpowder. The best sources for sulfur and nitrates, however, might be far away, in areas controlled by unfriendly humanoids or prowled by monsters, or under watch by forces that are opposed to the spread of gunpowder.

Firearms are powerful but can’t stand alone. I’m definitely going to reveal my bias here. Firearms should be thought of as similar to encounter powers in D&D 4E. Once a gun is discharged, you’re not going to reload it in the midst of a skirmish. If you want to stand in the back row and shoot over and over, a bow is the tool for you. That handgun in your belt will stop one weak enemy in its tracks or severely wound one powerful foe, but then you’re going to drop it or stuff it back into your sash and draw your sword. Or, you might wade in with blades and keep the handgun in reserve to get yourself out of a tight spot.

Firearms have effects beyond wounding. Arrows, bolts, javelins, and daggers can put holes in your enemies. Gunpowder weapons can do more. The noise and smoke frighten animals and even intelligent creatures that aren’t accustomed to them. Press your pistol right against your enemy and there’s a good chance the discharge will burn him and set his clothes on fire, too. The concussion from an explosion can stun nearby targets or knock them down. Set out a pot of low-grade gunpowder and it will pump out clouds of blinding smoke when it burns.

Firearms can be scaled up. The weapon that’s likely to see the most use by adventurers is the handgun, but there are plenty of others to choose from: long guns with range that rivals that of the best bows; two-man guns that hit amazingly hard; heavy guns that work best when mounted on fortification walls, or when used against them, such as to pound a wizard’s tower into rubble.

What type of campaign is best for this type of gunpowder? My favorite concept is a downfall-of-magic scenario, in which the world is ruled by a cadre of powerful, jealous wizards, largely for their own benefit. The downtrodden masses have a new weapon in their arsenal—serpentine, the burning powder. With it, they might have the power to bring down the corrupt structure of the ruling wizards and usher the world into a new age of science and reason.

One final note: if you allow gunpowder in your games, it’s best to keep a tight rein on the PCs’ inventiveness lest they quickly invent machine guns and cluster bombs.

About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!

13 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Black Powder—Friend or Foe?”

  1. Great article, Steve! I have dealt with this issue recently while running a new Greyhawk campaign. To run a high seas-pirate game it almost feels empty without a bit of cannons in it, despite being contrary to the setting. So far, using many of the same points you have they have not broken nor taken over the game, only accentuated it.

  2. I also like the one shot big bang sort of firearm. I used to love the Arcanis setting back in the days of 3.5. Firearms were a big part of the setting but still controlled by being only legal for some races and basically limited to flintlock one or two shot varieties. It was therefore a big deal to pull out your double barreled flintlock and blast away as you knew you were not going to be shooting again that combat. It made for some dramatic moments especially at low to mid level.

  3. I love technology mixed with magic. It’s what makes the Privateer Press Iron Kingdoms setting so appealing. Steam-tech, guns, swords AND magic, all in one place. Thanks for writing this!

  4. Personally, I sometimes used black powder weapons in my games, but only rarely, mostly as extra flavor. Still, your article jumpstarted some of my thought processes, and you definetly gave me some ideas.

  5. Great post, thank you!

    I’ve never had gunpowder in any of my game worlds. I’m not strongly opposed to it, it’s simply not something I’ve gotten around to doing yet. Though, as a Pathfinder GM, I doubt I’ll ever allow the gunslinger class. I’d rather firearms be rare and mysterious than so commonplace as to be a class feature.

    I know next to nothing about the historical origins of firearms, but I would imagine that cannons would be a great deal easier to develop than handguns. Just on the general principal that it’s easier to engineer something when you don’t need to worry about making it hand-held. I’ve always imagined that my players might someday need to storm a castle or raid a ship which was armed with cannons.

  6. I allow gunpowder in my games and incorporate it on a limited scale in the world setting. In order to restrain PC inventiveness, I allow them to make an Inspiration roll any time they are working with a mechanism of some sort (if they wish). The difficulty of the roll is dependent on what they (the player) wish for their character to develop a theory about. This is the only way for their character to create new technology that doesn’t exist. The less related to the mechanism at hand, the higher the difficulty.

    This way, players can’t have their characters create things that they wouldn’t have any frame of reference for from their past experiences. The Inspiration roll is typically made with Intelligence, though I have allowed Wisdom on occasion.

  7. When you make the “one shot” guns, you need to make them significant enough to be useful. If you have to spend feats, and money, plus extra actions to switch weapons in combat, then it will need to be pretty significant. Of course with a level based game, what is significant goes up as the players level and it can be hard to explain why a gun gets better.

    Then you need to deal with the person who ends up having an efficient quiver with six muskets and a handy haversack full of pistols.

  8. The combination of magic and gunpowder, as in the efficient quiver situation, causes more issues than the collision of magic and gunpowder. That’s one reason why I like to keep them in opposition if possible. The Savage World of Solomon Kane from Pinnacle is a good example of putting these ideas to work. Perhaps I should have mentioned it in the essay.

  9. Warhammer fantasy, as was mentioned has guns as an integral part of the setting. Another game that had them as a vital part of the setting (in fact the development of black powder weapons was the crux of the game) was MageKnight, very much a Magic vs. Technology game. On the one hand you had the Magic-driven Atlantean Empire with it’s golems, techno-magi, and assorted warriors and spell slingers. Opposing them you had the Black Powder rebels who used gunpowder and steam driven technology developed by the magic resistant dwarves to break out from under the yoke of Atlantis. There were other factions as well with varying degrees of magical skill that would weigh in on either (or neither) side of the major conflict. MageKnight has since serves as a major inspiration for my personal campaign in which both magic and tech are at odds, and I have thus far had no issues (the only oddity I’ve even had was a player modifying a cannon to fire ballista bolts with an attached grapple chain to create a ‘Ship-poon’ for bording actions).

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