Do you use gunpowder or not?

It seems that the default setting for most fantasy campaigns is “no gunpowder”. Certainly amongst the older crowd (such as myself), that is something that was ingrained into us at an early age, when we read these words in the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide:

Unless you desire to have gunpowder muddying the waters in your fantasy world, it is strongly urged that BOOT HILL firearms be confined to specific areas, and when gunpowder is brought into the fantasy world it becomes inert junk — ergo, no clever alchemist can duplicate it. Likewise, dynamite and similar explosives become inert.

Certainly I didn’t want to “muddy the waters” of my early campaigns, and dutifully kept guns out of the picture for many years. Gygax reiterated the sentiment in later years as well.

But I have to wonder if that’s really a necessity (or even a good thing), since gunpowder was such an integral part of warfare in the Middle Ages in Europe. The Chinese had gunpowder weapons in the 11th century (or possibly earlier), and the Moors were using cannon against the Christians in Spain in the 13th century. The English had cannon by the 14th, and by the later years of the century they were mounted on wheels and could be (relatively) easily moved from battle to battle.

“Hand cannons” (I love that name) came relatively soon thereafter, but Europe didn’t see the first things that would be identifiable as modern-looking guns until the development of the arquebus in the 15th century. Still within the upper range of the “quasi-medieval” time period that most fantasy RPGs seem to embrace.

Personally, I am stricken with an image of dwarven armies with sections of handgonners, and I don’t think having arquebusiers unbalances a game any more than squares of pikemen or lines of halberdiers.

I put the question to the floor. Have you ever included gunpowder and handgonnes in your fantasy RPG? With what sort of success (or failure)?

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

23 thoughts on “Do you use gunpowder or not?

  1. For me, it's a simple matter of not liking to mix science with magic.

    Living in a world based upon science, I don't turn to it for my escapism.

    No gunpowder in my Gaming World.

  2. Gunpowder was part of The fantasy Trip by default, but I don't remember us using it. I think it was because none of the characters could afford it, though.

    I think the real problem with gunpowder is that it starts arguments about how effective it should be rules-wise.

  3. I did consider it when I started our current game; but I ended up choosing to keep it sword and bow-focused. This did pay dividends when they chose to follow the doors to other worlds, and faced off against opponents with “magic weapons” (9mm handguns) in San Francisco.

    I think they’re still carrying one around. It usually doesn’t work. I’m not sure if they’ve figured out that when the flashlight works, then the handgun will work as well.

  4. Gunpowder, to my understanding, basically negates armor, which is a problem in a Medieval-ish game.

    Given the length of time to reload an ancient firearm and their inaccuracy and untrustworthiness, perhaps a firearm could be treated like a magic item.

    You have to prep it, roll to see if it activates, then the target gets a saving throw. Higher level warriors can reload quicker and have a better chance of successful firing.

  5. As a rule, no. Gunpowder just never "felt" right in D&D to me and my campaign. Later on I've grown a bit softer to the idea and will be working on exceptions for devoted followers of Murlynd. It's a concept I'm still trying to flesh out…

    PS – the gun powder rules for Pathfinder do seem well balanced for that system if you are interested in looking to other sources.

  6. I could see permitting hand-cannons in ACKS, with d10 damage (compared to a heavy crossbow's d8), rate of fire 1, -1 to initiative due to reloading and general awkwardness, and range comparable to a crossbow. I would tend to handwave the natural innacuracy of the device balancing out its effectiveness in piercing armor, for no net attack modifiers.

    And honestly, since Domains at War has rules for petards and the hoisting thereof, such a weapon might not be amiss.

  7. When we started out, we took Gary's admonition to heart, but then along came Dragon #60 (and later, Dragon #70), and some of us really wanted to try them out. Since then it's been a matter of worldbuilding as to whether or not to have them. I tend to avoid guns, but then I tend toward Iron Age settings. Plus, they never included the weapon vs. AC tables for those, and I tended to use that rule (if I were to use them today, I'd include a bonus chart that made all armor types better than AC10 equal to AC9, with magic bonuses improving AC as normal, and maybe an extra bonus point of AC for shields).

    Fantasy Wargaming has handguns (since it covers up to the late 15th century), and so do a few other games (TFT was noted above, RQ3 had them in Land of Ninja, and so forth), and we used them in those as needed.

    I'm intrigued by the idea of a caplock-based firearms technology in a fantasy world, but I think that setting is going to see some work by me in traditional fiction first (not least so I can see how it will be different than Stephen King's Mid-World). In fact, that's my goal for NaNoWriMo this year.

  8. Actually, gunpowder does not entirely negate armour, though it will make it at least much heavier (or no heavier but of very high quality, well tempered steel, and thus fantastically expensive). Some armour was heavy enough to withstand pointblank pistol fire – one account from either the ECW or 30 Yrs War had a cuirassier firing his wheellock directly into an enemy's helmet, and not even stunning the latter. It was probably a very thick and heavy helmet, though.

    I have no serious issue with using gunpowder – it is technically default even for OD&D, as some stats are given both in Chainmail and Greyhawk. As long as one realizes that a gun's punching power does not necessarily mean more killing power (i.e. "damage") you should do all right.

    Note that allowing reliable repeating weapons, such as revolvers, effectively renders medieval style weapons useless.

  9. First off, I don't generally include gunpowder. But the things you use gunpowder for, you can get away with using crossbows, catapults, and Fireballs. So no great loss.

    Second, gunpowder doesn't make armor useless. The earliest black powder firearms were inaccurate, slow, and weak compared to a trained archer. But gun technology improved faster than armor tech, so that gradually by the 17th century armor phased out. We used metal cuirasses and helmets as late as WW2, which at medium range could withstand SMG fire. The main problem is that as guns get better, the armor you need to remain safe becomes heavier, until it's too expensive and too much a liability.

    Keep guns to muzzle-loading, single-shot, ball and powder guns and you're perfectly fine.

    Chainmail rules for firearms suggest an arquebusier kills any normal man he hits, which means it always deals the equivalent of 6 HP of damage. You could also say roll twice and keep the better damage, or even d6+3 perhaps. Guns don't need to be more deadly than getting stabbed with a sword.

    However, I think the problem I normally have with gunpowder is that players inevitably stockpile it to use as an explosive. Mythbusters' tests with black powder suggest its explosive potential is pretty limited unless it's in a keg, and even then it's not going to blow a hole in a castle wall. You're better off firing a cannon at the castle! But try telling your hopeful, bright-eyed players that.

    Also, what happens when an M-U, disappointed with the performance of the party's single-shot black powder guns, uses magic to improve the metallurgy and propellant, and enchants the gun to fire from a pouch much like a bow would auto-load from an enchanted quiver?

    Like ninjas, it seems like if you include guns in D&D the game becomes about guns.

  10. I have early gunpowder weapons (matchlocks) in my game. However gunpowder is an alchemical product and currently only made in a far-away country, making it rare and expensive.

  11. My world is perpetually on the edge of wide spread use of gunpowder. There are pockets of it in use, but it is not widespread.

    The general feeling in my world that gunpowder is dangerous and unpredictable.

  12. Sometimes I've allowed it, sometimes not. It really comes down to if you like it or not, any other justification for or against guns is mostly bunk. Many of the technical arguments against guns in fantasy are easily countered by comparing them to things like strength bows, magic missile, fireball, etc.

    Guns are expensive, temperamental, require training, use ammo, are loud, heavy, susceptible to things like water, rust, and dirt to mention just a few of the real world considerations of gun usage. Often times when people cry over the unfair advantage of including guns they are forgetting a lot of the realities of what guns are and what is required of both the gun and the user in order for them to function as they should.

  13. To the comments re: the ineffectualness of medieval weaponry against modern guns, I posit the following:

    * Guns are loud. Swords and bows are silent.
    * Guns require expensive and difficult to produce ammo. Arrows and bolts are comparatively much cheaper and easier to acquire.

    Sure, a sharpshooter with a long range, high-end snipers rifle can take out a target from over a mile away. So too can a Wizard with a line of sight spell and a spyglass… and the spell the Wizard uses might be meteor swarm! 😀

  14. I don't, although I left the door open to it if I want to do so later.

    The only issue I have with it is that the interact of magic and firearms makes for potentially very big unforseen consequences. Magic and firearms can easily multiply each other's effects. Teleporting grenades into enemy fortresses alone would change warfare and gameplay, no matter what else you had going on.

  15. With magical fire so common, stockpiling gunpowder just seems like a bad idea in most D&Dish worlds. That being said, no gunpowder in my current fantasy world but if someone wanted to try inventing some, go ahead, it surely will not provoke the draconic overlords.

  16. I've played a lot in a gun-rich OSR D&D environment: the HMS Apollyon.
    Muzzle-loaders were pretty easy to come by on the Apollyon, but anything semi-automatic or nicer was an expensive relic. They fit in the setting well, and were generally in parity with the other options for doing violence, although guns were nastier in the hand of untrained opponents vs. bows or thrown weapons. Biggest problem I saw is the DM needs to remember to roll that random encounter check after guns are used!

  17. " It's when the players start setting it off by the keg (and they always do, sooner or later)."

    I think you misspelled dungeonmasters or am I the only one who's ever set a party on fire, when they happen to like oil a bit too much?

    I've used them in a multiverse campaign, but only in certain worlds, a bit like Roger Zelazny did in his Amber books, making them really scheme to use a special weapon.

  18. "For me, it's a simple matter of not liking to mix science with magic… No gunpowder in my Gaming World."

    So, is gravity excluded from your fantasy world as well?

    I mean, well-realized, I could be in support of that. But we have to remember that ALL of reality is based on science. We can selectively reject whatever bits of reality we want in our games, but we cannot claim to "exclude science" because that's, well, almost everything.

  19. One of the elements of the Arcanis setting that I love is the use of firearms among the ruling caste (and ONLY among the ruling caste – at least in civilized areas).

    It's still basically magic, and in a d20 setting it fits in nicely with the Alchemy skill.

    In Dark Dungeons there's a quick set of firearms rules for BECMI style play, and instead of gunpowder they use "red powder".

    Basically I like the use of "magical" gunpowder in some of my fantasy settings & games.

  20. I've always wanted to bring in gunpowder to my fantasy games, but I've never found the right rules. I want the gunpowder to be powerful, but rare, difficult, expensive, and not something that players will use on a routine basis, but still being very effective in the right circumstance. It's a tricky needle to thread.

    Personally, I think gunpowder would be great as a lost magic. If the ancient empire had gunpowder and lots of it, it would go a long way towards explaining and justifying all these abandoned fortresses built under the earth.

  21. In a campaign based on H Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan (loosely), we had both and 'magic' too. Pistols used 1gp of powder, Haukbuts 3gp and muskets 5gp. Personal powder charges were kept in wooden tubes attached to cross body belts, refilled at night. The powder had to be re-prepped every day, more often if rainy. They were a pain, but worth it.

    Cannon powder had to be mixed before loading to prevent clumping and used inferior powder. Long barrels and heavy trains, they were not mobile.

    Magic was not D&D, more like GURPS with spell components being tracked. The core system was fencing ala Three Musketeers

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