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The Black Powder Dilemma is something I have thought about extensively; perhaps even I bit more than I should have (I gave it a cool name and everything), and it all boiled down into a single terrifying word – escalation. At the heart of the problem there is a runaway hunger, inherent in the gamer mentality, which goes beyond mere strategy into a nightmare realm where creativity is fostered by a need for ultimate and unquestionable dominance. It takes one mistake, one underestimation of a commonality to bring to bear an untenable situation. That is the Black Powder Dilemma. Now, join me as I explain what it is I’m talking about.

It all started some months back when the Gunslinger was first introduced to the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game. The usual arguments commenced – whether the Gunslinger class was a broken class, whether the addition of guns to the game was outside the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons, whether certain class abilities made this particular character type more or less dangerous than its brethren. At the end there seemed to be a grudging consensus on the topic: no, the Gunslinger was not a broken class (though some of the builds discussed to that affect made it a difficult decision), yes, guns seemed to be outside the general spirit of the game (more for setting reasons than having any real aversion to guns being present), and no, the Gunslinger was no more or less dangerous than some of the other character classes. We all agreed that the Gunslinger was, all and all, acceptable, and then, without second thought, banned them from our various campaigns.

As a DM myself, I continued to ask what it was about the Gunslinger that ruffled my feathers. I didn’t think they were broken – far more interesting builds are down that particular path, and as far as setting was concerned, I feel that any game that allows multidimensional travel has plenty of room for guns to be present and accounted for. So, what the hell was my problem? What was it about the Gunslinger that placed it outside of my character creation standards? The answer came to me in the middle of writing another article, which has been temporarily abandoned for this topic. The problem, it turns out, isn’t guns, or setting, or anything vague and unmanageable. No, my problem with the Gunslinger was what they brought into the Pathfinder multiverse: black powder!

Now, many probably think I’m exaggerating. Surely black powder isn’t something so deadly dangerous that it warrants the gravity of such provocative language. For you naysayers out there, I’ve made a chart that some of you hardcore D&D fans will appreciate, while the rest will just have to wait for the explanation:

With information taken directly from the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game Core Rulebook and Advanced Player’s Guide this chart is based on the maximum damage output, sans feats or other modifying abilities (that’s right, maximum, as in the best possible result – no matter how statistically ridiculous), that your most powerful evocation spell can produce at any given level. Why the evocation school? Well, it’s the school that contains the most direct damage spells. These spells and their effects (especially the fireball spell) are analogous with the rules for how black powder functions in the game.

Now, a single dose of black powder costs 10 gold; however, the Gunslinger can make it at 10% of the cost, thanks to the Gunsmithing Feat (anyone can take this feat, but the Gunslinger gets it for free), effectively turning each dose into a 1 gold purchase. The rules state that you can make up to 1000 gold worth of black powder in a single day. It also states that 100 doses of black powder, if exposed to fire, electricity, or some other equivalent catalyst, will produce a 5d6 explosion of fire damage with a DC 15 Reflex save for half damage…do you see where I’m going with this? A Gunslinger, or any PC with the Gunsmithing Feat, in a single days work, with 100 gold, can produce 5d6 worth of black powder. If taken in the same vein as the graph above, the maximum damage output is 30. That means that at first level a Gunslinger can produce something equivalent to a 5th level Sorcerer/Wizard.

This, in and of itself, is not that impressive. While it’s possible to turn this ability to the advantage of the PCs, there are obstacles to overcome if they actually want to do this. Black powder, while lightweight, is still 5 lbs for every 100 doses and, most importantly, takes time to create – though it’s worth noting that given a 1000 gold and 10 days time a single PC can create 50d6 worth of damaging power, which equates to a possible 300 damage…that’s 36% more powerful than a 20th level Sorcerer/Wizards most powerful evocation spell.

But, these are just trivialities. Most DMs will keep their players busy enough that they’ll never have time to reach that kind of damage potential. So why the sinking feeling in my stomach? It was then I realized I was asking the wrong question. It wasn’t about how I was going to deal with Gunslingers having black powder; no, it was a different question, a question I wanted answered as soon as I looked at the problem from a PC perspective: if black powder is in the world…what else can I create? This led me to the question I should have been asking myself from the beginning as a DM: if black powder is present in the world, how does the world react to its presence?

The answer is somewhat problematic for the type of medieval/renaissance fantasy I want to run. You see, Dungeons and Dragons exists in its own time bubble, a place both removed and informed by the history of the world. Most campaigns, both home grown and otherwise, are often placed in a medieval setting, best reflected by the late middle ages where war, plague, and famine were commonplace. This setting lends itself well to a certain amount of heroism and a certain amount of mysticism, making it ideal for a complex role-playing experience. However, there is one key difference between the setting of D&D and the objective reality of the world we live in, that being, the D&D multiverse is based on the influence and continued existence of…wait for it…magic. That’s the true heart of the Black Powder Dilemma. It comes down to the conflict between magic and science.

Now, that may seem like a silly and overly intellectual conclusion, but allow me to explain by pointing to the two areas in which the Black Powder Dilemma arises:

  1. Power Dynamics – Basically, with the Pathfinder RPG, you need a reliable formula for determining the power capacity for your basic group of players. This allows the DM to actively create situations and encounters that are both level appropriate and entertaining for their players. Bringing advanced scientific knowledge into the world can quickly unbalance the amount of damage the PCs can accomplish. This problem, as I explained above, is easily circumvented by simply keeping your PCs busy.*
  2. Magic – Magic in D&D is the substitute for science. It replaces guns, explosives, certain non-reputable biological agents and many of the other interesting nuances of chemistry that find themselves useful in a combat or military fashion. Magic, unlike science, is far easier to regulate, because it is based on a set of rules that prevent access (in most cases) to power inappropriate for a character of a certain level.

The true problem, as I see it, is that black powder, and its creation, falls under the purview of science, which does not work in a regulative fashion. Science is collective, and easily passed on (that’s why your mom can use a microwave without needing to understand radio wave frequencies). Most scientific discoveries can be accessed with only a base understanding of the underlying properties. I think the creators behind the Gunslinger understood this, at least subconsciously, which is why you don’t need to make any type of roll when making black powder in the game, you just need the Gunsmithing Feat. Once something is discovered, it is accessible to a large portion of the general population.

So, with this in mind, I ask the DMs out there who may be reading this right now…how do you justify telling a player they can’t make something as simple as black powder when they possess an intelligence that is astronomically superior to just about anybody in the world? How do you stop them from wanting to create things even more destructive? Greek fire, nitroglycerin, dynamite, gelignite, all easily manufactured if you know what you are doing, and the weakest among them has at least twice the destructive power of black powder. In a word…escalation really is the problem.

In summation, it’s not black powder itself that’s the problem, it’s what its mere existence implies that’s the problem. -C over at Hack and Slash did a little piece called “On What You Dread to Hear.” It’s a list of quotes about things you never want to hear at the gaming table. Well, I think this should absolutely be one of them:

I want to make black powder.”

*Yeah, we’re aware of the OSR, and we believe, in fact, that Gygaxian Naturalism is a completely appropriate way to run your game. We’re talking about Pathfinder, here, and the assumptions it makes. (ed. by ECOA)