Gunpowder in fantasy RPGs

Over the years I have run several RPGs set in one variant or another of fantasy western background. The most vexing question I have found is whether to include gunpowder and the associated weapons in the mix.

The first game I ran when 15 (the notes of which are being recycled into Drakesdoom) featured blackpowder revolvers and other relatively high tech weapons. When I ran a similar game at University one of the character (the ‘Fish with no name’) was a gunfighter. When I played around with western feeling fantasy in the Cutthroat Creeks mosaic novel background (cutthroatcreeks.wordpress.com) I kept gunpowder out of the mix and in the first games of Drakesdoom gunpowder didn’t feature.

Gunpowder changes the feel of and background – guns are lethal and easy to learn to use, they are a great leveller in a society. Suddenly the lorded armoured knight (or powerful magic user) is not quite as invulnerable as they were before. With discipline and focus peasants can defend themselves. Even the physically weak have a better chance of defending themselves.

Bringing Ancienia, from those old notes by the teenage me, into the Drakesdoom has brought these matters to a head. In that background the Ancienian ‘Europeans’ had gunpowder – given their religion (Adrianism) limited their access to magic it made sense it explained how they were able to develop colonies in the face of the indigenous magic using societies.

I think the same reasons apply here. I also think that the democratic effect firearms have on society is another argument for their inclusion in Drakesdoom. Characters from the Black Alps or other territories on Drakesdoom’s continent of Discoverie will not have access to them so events in games podcasted so far, still stand.

However, they are going to be expensive if you want to buy them in the Midmark. The migrants who’ve brought them with them are not likely to let them go. Gunsmiths are in short supply, many tied to a particular immigrant village they are a member of, and even a slow firing matchlock will be pricey. They will be single shot (the occasional double barrelled weapons being super-expensive) and inaccurate (rifling also being super-expensive.) As an individual weapon they will be clumsy being truly effective when used by a community’s defenders in volley fire.

And in the end the idea of a character trying to fast draw a single shot pistol in a stand-off with an axe throwing Viking, bow drawing elf or magician in mid spell cast is too cool to lose.

Comments & thoughts welcome.


6 comments on “Gunpowder in fantasy RPGs

  1. hmm. i’d argue that guns have a “democratic” effect on society, as that largely depends on how controlled they are by the centre. Feudal Japan, for instance, did a decent job on restricting their introduction. that said they are a massive game-changer on the battlefield and for personal defense if they do start to spread, but could just bring chaos!

    • Argue with rather than that ? I see your point – however the hands off nature of the Midmark’s government means it won’t be like that in Drakesdoom.

      The ethnic groups with access to guns will probably want to keep them to themselves but that breeds conflict which is good for drama.

      May be PCs could be gunrunners in a scenario…

  2. I’m not that experienced in roleplaying games and when I have it was always as the nooby wizard doing something stupid or the slightly useless sorcerer barely doing damage so I’m approaching this largely from the point of being a writer and consumer of media.

    I dislike the overpowered and invulnerable. Superman bores me because there’s no threat. Yes, the world might go boom if he doesn’t do his job but I grew up reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy so that threat really doesn’t work for me. What I prefer are people like the Doctor, who essentially are powerless in a world that wants to kill them but survive on their wits, the friends they make or maybe this minor barely useful trick they can do. What makes that awesome is that over time you realize as the audience is that this only makes them more badass because they will always get out of danger relatively unscathed, so the more danger they get into, the better.

    As result of having the heroes be schmuck bait I think arming the ordinary people is a good idea. It heightens the risk and so the awesomeness when the heroes inevitably get away with it plus it means you can have an invader turn up and the heroes rally the townsfolk into an army without it seeming such an utterly stupid thing for the townsfolk to do.

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