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Blackpowder Role-Playing

Copyright © Nicholas HM Caldwell 2003

This is the grand era of the swashbuckler where musket and rapier have replaced broadsword and longbow as the weapons of choice.

In the early period of the 15th and 16th centuries, we have the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus and other explorers and the buccaneering spirit of the Elizabethan Age. In the middle period of the 17th centuries, we have D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers countering the plots of Cardinal Richelieu, England convulsed by the struggle between Royalists and Parliamentarians, and the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean. In the late period of the 18th century, we have the secret societies of Enlightenment Europe, the American and French Revolutions, and the world wars of Napoleon.

Medieval fantasy can easily become the prisoner of its own cliches with the setting becoming permanently moulded into a feudal pattern. The range of the gunpowder age reveals the diversity of societies, settings, and campaigns. So if we break out of the medieval mould with a whiff of grapeshot, what brave new world awaits us?

The social order is evolving as the arrival of "new money" gradually erodes the feudal hierarchy. Merchants, professionals, and top craftsmen form a middle class, between the landowning aristocracies and the rural masses tied to their farms. The wealthiest commoners buy or marry their way into the aristocracy, shifting the nexus of power from owning land to mercantile interests. In many monarchies, the sovereigns ally themselves with the rising middle classes to reduce or exclude the nobility from power. The aristocrats of the Sun King (Louis XIV of France) enjoy luxury at the court in Versailles while the King's ministers rule. For player-characters, this means a wholly new and more fragile balance of power in society as well as greater upward social mobility. As the era progresses, even the most commonly born have the opportunity to rise to royal heights (consider the careers of some of Napoleon's Marshals), and some nations such as the United States create full democracies.

For (pseudo)historical campaigns set on (an alternate) Earth, the world opens up with the great voyages of discovery and the scramble to build new empires. By the Napoleonic era, all the major landmasses excluding Antarctica had been reached by Europeans and the eighteenth century wars from the Seven Years' War (a.k.a. the French and Indian War in North America) onward were global conflicts. The potential campaign canvas is much wider than the squabbling realms of the Old World - with a willing GM and adventurous PCs, travel can bring whole new dimensions to the game.

New discoveries and new patterns of thought will challenge cherished traditions and orthodoxies. The black-powder era has the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation as established churches schism and differences in faith fuel decades of warfare. Later are the political revolutions of 1776 and 1789 when the world is turned upside down. For player-characters, religious and political conservatism and radicalism can become new motivations for adventure and new issues to consider in group dynamics.

Thanks to the printing press, such controversies can no longer be contained within an intellectual or social elite, just as the press helps to preserve and disseminate knowledge more widely As literacy and semi-literacy becomes more prevalent, we have the creation of the so-called Fourth Estate (the journalists). Pamphleteers, journalists, and writers play their part in the propaganda wars of the American and French Revolutions (and become suitable careers for PCs to boot).

In a game, of course, knowledge is dangerous, particularly historical knowledge. History buff players can make GMs' lives miserable by simply knowing more about a given era that the GM and being unable to resist using that knowledge. Players with a more scientific bent may accidentally or deliberately attempt to hasten technological progress. The campaign might begin innocently enough with muzzle-loading arquebuses but end with breech-loading steam-powered machine guns. While I have huge respect for the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, having a PC with a similar character and the drive of a player to transform sketches into reality can lead to campaigns dominated by technological McGuffins. GMs have to be aware of this tendency in both players and themselves, reining in technological advances with strict application of whatever the RPG system in use has for creation and construction rules and a willingness to apply in-game conservative forces to oppose progress. Religious persecution is always useful here!

Warfare and personal combat change significantly in this era. Gone are the heavily armored knights on horseback; instead there are lightly armored cavalry and infantry, equipped with early firearms and swords. Troops can be trained more speedily and cheaply - whereas to train a longbowman, one should start with his grandfather. While the disadvantages of gunpowder firearms such as unreliability and long reloading times are usually well-modeled in RPGs, the damage potential of these weapons is haphazardly simulated in many RPGs and the ease of training is frequently negated by imposing special requirements or costs to learn the weapons. The ability to concentrate dozens of musketeers into a small space for massed firepower and easier control does not figure into the small-scale combats of most RPG campaigns.

In a game setting where gunpowder and combat magic are both present, the GM should also consider what impact battle magic will have on firearms users. If low-level mages can lob fireballs at barrels of gunpowder or tightly packed infantry squares, either magical defenses must be developed or tactics involving firearms will develop in methods more reminiscent of the 19th and 20th century than the post-medieval age. This is much less of a problem in games where magic is more ritualistic or experimental in nature. Of course in such games where healing magic is likely to be rare or nonexistent, a single wound from a musket ball could incapacitate or kill a character, so GMs must tone down the role of combat in their games, apply rules which give PCs a cinematic edge in battle, or be prepared for substantial character turnover. But that is a topic for another article!

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