I’ve seen some worried grumbling from players concerned that Exalted Third Edition’s focus on Bronze Age sword & sorcery thematics will shut down elements of play they desire. This gives the impression that the books will contain sections explicitly forbidding players from inventing gunpowder, devising technology-flavored magical items, building assembly lines for enchanted devices, or other related setting elements. But that’s not how it’s done! Often, the best way to define setting elements is through silence.
For a specific example, let’s look at the presentation of firedust weaponry in Exalted. Firewands—single-shot weapons hurling short gouts of flame—are vaguely akin to muskets in style, but lack the overwhelming effect on military tactics. But they’re not just there for flavor.
The world of Exalted doesn’t allow for gunpowder weaponry. This is because massed rifle formations and the like both deny the thematic importance of individual warrior-heroes in the setting, and invalidate the Bronze Age aesthetic of Creation’s warfare. Thus, the game assumes that gunpowder is not available, and presents no mechanics for firearms, artillery, bombs, and the like.
This also presumes that your PC won’t be the first person ever to invent gunpowder. Let’s set aside the immersion-breaking exceptionalism of such an act in a setting where thousands of other genius savants have experimented with alchemy over the centuries without making the same discovery, as that’s not the real issue. Rather, it completely changes the nature of the game if we presume that natural law in the setting is identical to that of the real world with a layer of magic slathered on top, allowing a PC savant to discover and deploy all the things—gunpowder, C4, weaponized anthrax, plutonium—and use them to steamroll the setting.
Failing to address this in the text can be problematic. Obviously, if your whole gaming group really wants to play out Lest Darkness Fall, more power to you, and an overly didactic sidebar explicitly forbidding your group from doing so is pointless at best and harmful at worst. But if the issue isn’t raised at all, groups divided on the matter need to hash out the details on their own, and can find themselves unexpectedly drifting into an undesirable play experience.
Exalted deftly handles the matter through the introduction of firedust weaponry. By their presence, they point to the absence of firearms without ever using the word “gunpowder.” In filling the aesthetic role of firearms and a similar (albeit significantly more limited) mechanical role, they make it clear that the setting doesn’t use real-world firearms without forcing that fact on the reader. And as an added bonus, they provide a baseline for firearm mechanics for groups who want to hack such things into the rules for their game.
As to what the absence of gunpowder means more broadly for the application of real-world natural laws to fantasy settings, that’s a matter for another blog post.