Renaissance Unfair

December 8th, 2008

My previous post covered my take on early firearms in fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons.  Like a lot of other writing I see on the subject, though, it considered the idea mainly from the perspective of a party of characters in a “typical” campaign who acquire firearms from another setting.

In keeping with this month’s RPG Blog Carnival, though, let’s consider another case:  the party of characters in a typical campaign as that campaign’s game-world transitions from the late middle ages to the Renaissance.  In other words, suppose guns have been introduced to the world — and now they’re becoming more widespread.  What happens?

Well, first, a bit of a caveat:  I’m looking at this from the standpoint of a campaign set in a Mythic Western Europe game-world.  There are lots of ways the world could go, but even more so when you start to consider other cultures.  Keeping to the vaguely-Tolkienesque helps maintain a focus here.  I may talk about some of the alternatives in a later post.

Guns aren’t responsible for the Renaissance, either.  There are a lot of factors that came together — a flowering of science, literature, and so on.  But it so happens that warfare underwent a shift at the time, too, and guns were a big part of that.

Guns Don’t Kill Knights…

…Soldiers armed with guns kill knights.  Or so popular legend would have it.  But that’s not entirely true.

In the real world, there was an arms race of sorts between weapons and armor:  plate armor had fully developed by around 1400.  By around 1500, matchlocks began to see use, along with stronger crossbows — both weapons whose projectiles could penetrate plate.  In response, plate armor became heavier (and warhorses were bred larger, to bear the additional weight); better metalurgical processes were also developed, so that the armor was made out of better steel.  For a time, this was sufficient — the combination of better, thicker steel and the low velocity of bullets fired by early firearms meant that a breastplate could stop a bullet, and in some cases a chestplate was “proven” by being shot after its crafting.

Guns didn’t put an end to plate armor.  They just spurred the development of better plate armor.

Plate did disappear, though.  Mainly, it was expensive.  Only the privileged class could afford it — the same class that made up the ranks of knights, unsurprisingly.  Also, it was somewhat unwieldy; on horseback, this wasn’t too much of an issue, but on foot, it became a consideration.  Coupled with its cost, this meant that infantry had to start to make do with lighter, less well-crafted armor — a breastplate and helmet were common.

Even into the 1700s, officers would wear armor.  It allowed them to survey the battlefield while protecting them against musket fire, since they made tempting targets.

The rifled barrel changed things.  Rifling increased the penetrating power of the bullet enough that it tipped the balance; the cost of full plate armor was no longer worth the protection it provided.  Full armor faded from use, though a metal breastplate was still worn by many heavy cavalry units even into the 20th century.

One of the greatest powers of the gun, though, was not its destruction potential, but the fact that that potential could be acquired fairly easily.  A knight in full plate might be relatively impervious to a musket at medium range — but it takes years of training to create a knight, and much less time to drill a musketman.  Not only that, but a knight (and his horse) are expensive, while a gun became relatively cheap.  Archers, too, took a good deal of time to train — so muskets supplanted bows.

Which leads to the next point… magic.

Guns Kill Wizards

Well, not “kill” per se.  Wizards are a powerful lot, and they probably have their means of defending against projectiles, whether fired from a bow or a gun.  But the development of firearms probably spells a decline in the number of wizards all the same, and for much the same reason:  the default assumption is that a wizard studies for years to master his spells.  A great wizard can speak a word and blast his enemy with a lightning bolt.

Or, instead of studying for years, he could pick up a gun, practice for a few months, and blast his enemy with lead.

Magic is (usually) more subtle than a gun.  Magic is, almost always, more flexible.  But gunpowder does largely eliminate the need for many “blast spells.”  A gun can do it more easily and more cheaply.

This means that some would-be wizards — the ones who would apprentice to become “war wizards” and the like — are likely to take up the gun instead, becoming marksmen.  It means that many of those wizards who remain would focus on spheres other than straightforward combat.  The gun will not replace diviners, necromancers, or enchanters.  But the practice of direct, unsubtle blasting magic — what previous editions called Invocation/Evocation — is likely to be a dying art.  Its practitioners might be looked upon in a manner similar to the modern-day journalist or author who employs a manual typewriter — a curiosity, to some; a throwback, bound to obsolete methods, to others; a romantic ideal, to still others.  As firearms become more ubiquitous, more reliable, and more powerful, the battle mage becomes more a thing of the past.

Next:  Guns vs. Dragons

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Related posts:

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  3. Renaissance Mentality
  4. War and How to Wage It
  5. Character Development: Hot Potato

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3 Comments

  1. WDS, Dec. 8, 2008, 3:18 pm:

    I think once you introduce firearms, even primitive matchlocks, into your D&D fantasy world, it changes the whole dynamics. Assuming firearms can be produced & are able to be acquired & purchased (even if they’re expensive) PCs & NPC armies will try to obtain them. Even primitive firearms can greatly increase a party’s or an army’s firepower against its enemies, esp. its magical or monstrous enemies.

    I think that’s fine if you want your fantasy setting to be in setting similar to 15th or 16th century Europe but it does change the feel & dynamics of the campaign if your campaigns up to now were based more on 10th century
    Europe.

    New weapons technology can change the whole world, for better or worse. So I would caution any DM to think carefully before introducing firearms into their fantasy RPG world. Having said that, though, I think playing in a world like 15th century Europe, in terms of technology, would be interesting.

  2. Donny_the_DM, Dec. 9, 2008, 4:27 pm:

    I used to do hobby armor and weaponsmithing, back in the day :)

    Let me tell you, you are spot on. Add to the mix;
    1.) The cost in time and materials to craft a single set of full plate vs. the cost to build a matchlock or even wheellock and you begin to see that ugly economics angle creeping in.
    2.) I can’t agree enough with the weight issue. The specific battle reference escapes me at the moment, but somtime in the early 1600′s there was a large field battle nvolving an entire company of “knights” or heavy cavalry. They were de-horsed by blunted longbow arrows (40″ long by 1″ diameter averaging 10-15 lbs each.) The peasantry then descended on the helpless turtles and dismembered them with hand axes.

    The world was changing. It’s still happening, look at the move away from large field battles to proxy insurgencies and such.

    Great article!

    Donny_the_DM´s last blog post: A little late, but a little fixed as well.

  3. The Recusion King, Feb. 2, 2009, 10:01 am:

    Similar to wands and other magic devices, guns can only be used so many times… they have charges. These charges are called ammunition.

    So you can control firearms in your RPG’s by controlling the munition supply. Even if the players start loading improvised bullets into their primitive firearms, you can still deal with it by controlling the supply of gunpowder… guns and magic can coexist.

    The Recusion King´s last blog post: Difficulties with miniatures and dungeons

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