Firewands, Firearms, and Description through Absence

firewand_by_meluranI’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.

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9 comments

  1. The problem with firewands is that they try to replace guns _despite being guns themselves_. It seems… counterintuitive, especially since they approximate 16th-century designs.

    I’d have been much happier if firedust weapons were more like the precursors to recognizable guns, like fire lances. Actual fire lances would’ve been even better, of course.

    1. I suspect that the intention was to enable the branches of pulp fiction that border on sword & sorcery, such as sword & planet fiction, Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, or Moorcock’s Von Bek stories, while keeping the door firmly shut on modern firearms.

  2. I think the inclusion of firewands failed at the goal you described for a couple reasons.

    Mainly, their inclusion in Exalted always felt a little spiteful. I’m not saying that writers of earlier editions consciously did it to be spiteful, only that it came off that way, because these weapons were *so* bad and *so* noob-trappy. There are times when it feels like the writer of a game has included some option and knowingly made it sub-par purely because he, personally, dislikes it.

    Firewands in prior editions play like the writers went out of their way to make them cumbersome and obnoxious to use. After all, it doesn’t really seem like they’re meant to be weapons for the Exalted — but then, they have a (very bad, in 2e) MA devoted to them. It’s the kind of thing that makes gamers feel contrarian and curmudgeonly. After all, Exalted is a game where heroes swing around surfboard-sized golden swords — it’s weird you have to jump through so many hoops to get them to work.

    Since they’re so annoying, it makes people who want guns even more irritated at their presence, and campaign for firearms in the game even more. Which, as you said, undermines the themes of the game.

    Personally, the useless of firewands is annoying, because they’re also a cool and distinctive feature of Exalted. I hope 3e made them a little more feasible.

    1. If your baseline is “feasible,” then I think you’re going to be very happy with firewands in Ex3. The streamlining of weapon stats makes it harder to fall into a build trap just because of your choice of weapon, and firewands in particular have their own special benefits.

      (also Righteous Devil is in the core and I wrote it, so I gotta give it a plug)

  3. Other than modern firearms, what areas of modern technology do you feel warrant being shut down by the setting, personally?

    1. I don’t know that it’s necessary to do this with more than one setting element, as even one example implicitly indicates that the setting’s natural laws are different from our own, and gives the Storyteller something to point to on that score.

      Personally, there’s a lot of other things that I’d explicitly shoot down if they came up at my table, such as anything involving electricity (as opposed to lightning), as that quickly leads to a game of “Twilight Caste drags Creation kicking and screaming into the 21st century.” I’d also rule out anything tied to modern weapons technology, such as high explosives and radioactive elements. But I don’t think it’s necessary to spell such things out in the text.

      Note that there are areas of modern technology, such as indoor plumbing and (apparently!) gas lighting, that have a long historical pedigree and thus fit right into Creation by the book. Steam power was invented in ancient Greece but never put to practical use; I’d allow players to experiment with it, but poor metallurgy would keep it from being employed extensively.

  4. >Steam power was invented in ancient Greece but never put to practical use; I’d allow players to experiment with it, but poor metallurgy would keep it from being employed extensively.

    IIRC, the problem IRL was the lack of rubber to make fittings. They’d have had to use something significantly worse like lead instead, which would have made steam powered machinery impractical, since the fittings would break or wear down really easily, and then the steam would start leaking.

    Creation, on the other hand, has already discovered rubber, and it’s mass-produced on plantations by the Guild. Workable steam engines seem like something an enterprising Twilight could come up with.

  5. Also, on the subject of steam power, do steam cannons still exist in 3e? In 2e, a mortal savant had invented large-scale cannons, and IRL, there have been various groups that have built personal-scale steam weapons; the Mythbusters have built two different steam cannons; one that involves firing a projectile directly with steam pressure (their version didn’t quite work, but there have been other groups that have built similar cannons that do), and another design that used steam power to spin a wheel that flung a large number of projectiles like a machine gun.

    If they aren’t something that currently exists in the setting, are they something that *could* exist within its frame of reference, as something that could be invented by a particularly clever mortal, or by an Exalt with an appropriate Craft skill (Craft (Mechanisms) or something, probably)?

    What about something like an oxy/acetylene potato cannon? IIRC there’s been references to various sorts of fossil fuels existing in creation, so the components for them are there. They’re certainly less effective as weapons than actual firearms are, but if you loaded one with firedust grenades…

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