A Demon Haunted World: The Problem of Gunpowder

In trying to have magical adventures in the modern day one must find a way to explain why heroes don’t use guns. After all, if facing a demon would you rather have a sword or an AK-47? Some games handle this by making magical creatures have what amounts to tank armor for skin. An interesting, if not completely convincing idea outside of certain settings.

Of course, the easiest method is to claim magical creatures are invulnerable to modern weapons. To my mind, and many others, that is a cop out.

That said, if I want A Demon Haunted World to be modern sword and sorcery adventures I need a way to limit guns, flamethrowers, and artillery, among other things. To do this I’m going to look at modern weaponry a little differently. What if the wasn’t from the bullet or the flame but from the source: a strange mixture that propels the sling stone instead of a sling or a strange mixture that burns instead of lamp oil?

Well, in the S&S world, especially in the context of Old School fantasy gaming we have a word for strange mixtures that can harm you: potions. We also have a way to escape harm from potions: saving throws. Why not allow creatures of myth and magic (including my Blooded race of humans) a saving throw against potions when attacked with modern (gunpowder and later) weapons, flame, and explosives. A successful save resists the potions effects and converts the damage into the equivalent muscle powered weapon: sling stones, natural fire, and so on. Or perhaps a save allows no damage. Tougher (more magical) creatures might get a plus on this save to reflect their distance from the modern world.

2 thoughts on “A Demon Haunted World: The Problem of Gunpowder

  1. Interesting post, Herb. Somehow I got your site linked in my Feed Demon list of rpg blogs. Glad I checked it out. And great links in your blogroll, too. I like your taste in game blogs.

    I share your interest in moderating if and how modern weapons can harm arcane creatures. The potion notion (haha) is a thoughtful concept, but I think it stretches the logical relationship a bit much between “strange mixtures that can harm you” and physical damage dealt by modern weapons.

    I prefer a metaphysical approach, because I can extrapolate endless game rule variations from a basic set of 'how things work' parameters. Case in point: taking your example into my game world, the reason that swords and hand weapons are effective is essentially because they are more grounded in natural energy. Forged metal, hewn wood in haft, and so on: the material plane's natural world – and the potentially magical vehicle of cold iron or cold steel – are “natural enemies” to arcane creatures from Elsewhere. The metaphysical assumption is that those weapons are powerful because they are based on this model: one human working with intention with the forces of elements to create a weapon with purpose.

    The further we get from that model – the more processed, refined, machined, mass-produced the weaponry is – the less effect it will have on the demon or other arcane creature. In effect, the mass production techniques of modern technology diminish the bond between weapon, elements, energy and purpose.

    In the end we both favor a saving throw as arbiter of damage (or chance of damage), but because of my aforestated logic I end up someplace different than you. I don't use a potion save (which I use strictly for their originally intended purpose: drink strange vial, see what happens). Instead, I would use a save against a naturally occuring attribute, in this case, Constitution (or Vitality, or equivalent thereof).

    The underlying assumption is that the demon (or whatever)'s natural toughness could just 'shrug off' contemporary weapons. Save made, no effect at all. However – save failed, and some amount of damage occurs. Maybe the demon got hit just right, or might have a vulnerability to weapon X, or just this batch of bullets (perhaps hand-loaded instead of machine-produced, hence imbued with more Intention than the commonplace rounds?) – and so on.

    But Constitution can't save the demon from hack-and-chop time when there's, say, a sword involved.

    A final note: I often play with a system that includes a Luck statistic. This is relevant to atacks as well and offers other ways to adjudicate attacks (again depending on your game system or the GM's willingness to customize a crunchy bit for this unusual circumstance.) Anyway, adding in a Luck ST could be used to also 'shrug off' modern weapon damage, or mitigate damage taken in some way.

    There, a bit more crunch than I want to get into in a comment, but hopefully additional food for thought.

    – Teramis

  2. The only trouble there is explaining the creature's defenses. Sometimes natural toughness just doesn't explain an effect. Maybe one further addendum:

    A physically small, but supernaturally potent creature is likely also have defensive magics going for it. Say, a certain dominance of the spiritual over the physical that allows it to, say, halt bullets in mid-air, part fire and explosions and walk through them, or strip away tank armor as though it was paper using only their hands.

    However, since certain elements – hand-cast silver bullets, a hand-forged blade, holy objects, mystic runes, arrows lovingly sharpened by hand from living wood, or whatever – are imbued with that spiritual significance by the personal touch of the craftsman that made them. This spiritual essence grants those objects a spiritual dimension of their own, which renders them immune to the creature's usual defenses against the physical. It means that such a creature could not be defeated by mere guns and armies, but only by specially-forged artifacts and strong-willed heroes.

    To handle this, you might use a saves vs spell, perhaps, for defensive magics, vs wands for gunfire, vs breath weapon to withstand explosions and flame, petrification to wade through acid or magma, and vs death to shrug off having a building dropped on them.

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