07 September 2013
GGF #1: Gunpowder Is Naughty
We’re heavily influenced by first perceptions, and the greatest influence on fantasy fandom for generations now has been Lord of the Rings, which depicts a bucolic agrarian paradise threatened by dystopian industrial enemies. Written by a man whose upbringing and early years were in the grim industrial cities of Birmingham and Leeds, the trope -- from his pen -- was unsurprising. How this trope turned into a granite-hard prejudice against gunpowder (and against anything smacking of technology more advanced than simple machines generally) in fantasy RPG settings is another matter.
In particular, they’re crappy historians. People get these shibboleths about How Things Were Back When imbedded in their consciousness, and they will never, ever, ever shake them. (There’s a scientific term for this: "confirmation bias.") My first wife is a recognized quilt historian, something I pushed her into because of her frustration that idiots she ran into in the Society for Creative Anachronism kept telling her that quilts weren't period. Now in an era where clothes were so expensive you made a point of disposing of yours in your will, it'd take a moron to imagine that people just threw cloth away, at any point in history after textiles were invented -- and what you do with otherwise unusable fabric scraps is quilt them, a practice which has been documented going back several millennia. Alas, those mooks were firmly rooted in the paradigm that quilts were invented by 19th century pioneer housewives industriously churning out Log Cabin patterns, and defended their POV to the death.
It's the same thing here. We know that cannon were first used in Europe in the 1200s, and we know that they were ubiquitous by around 1350, the time handguns started to come into vogue. We know that well into the era of arquebuses, they were very inaccurate, temperamental and took longer to reload than many fantasy combats last. We know that longbows were far superior weapons to arquebuses -- the adage about needing to start with the archer’s grandfather in order to train him properly seldom pertaining to a RPG’s skill system -- and not many gamers whine about wizards casting powerful spells which blow the bejeezus out of foes at range.
But in the same way those SCAdians -- who fancy themselves as having an informed handle on history -- work nonetheless under their own unfounded delusions, gamers seem to equate arquebuses and muskets with the speed, accuracy and stopping power of modern firearms, and well, machine guns and assault rifles aren’t capital-H Heroic, doncha know.
The funny thing is that you not only can’t blame JRRT any more, you haven’t been able to blame him for decades. From Roger Zelazny to Jerry Pournelle to Brian Daley to Joel Rosenberg, the guns-in-fantasy concept has been around for a long while. (Heck, Dave Hargrave and Steve Jackson put them into their fantasy systems back in the 1970s.) Can we stop making the sign of the cross at it, please?