Worldbuilding

Six Ways Guns Change a Fantasy Setting

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We’re all looking for ways to make our fantasy setting stand out. One great way to do that is with an iron tube packed with explosives and a round ball of lead. I’m talking about guns, of course. Despite being a major force in human history, firearms rarely show up in our fantasy stories the way horses, castles, and steel do. Even when a fantasy setting specifically mirrors a time period when firearms were common, you rarely see so much as a flintlock. The Gentlemen Bastards series takes place in a fantasy version of Renaissance Venice, a time and place rife with firearms. And yet, in the books, we see not a one.

But be aware, guns do a lot more than make a loud boom. They’ll change your setting irrevocably, and that isn’t a bad thing. Settings that grow and change are better for it. Keep these things in mind when throwing muskets into your medieval fantasy setting.

1. Castles Become Purely Decorative

Before gunpowder, castles were the ultimate expression of power for a feudal lord. Tall stone walls kept enemies out and the lord’s wealth safe. Castles presented a conundrum to enemy armies. On the one hand, storming them was incredibly costly if not impossible. On the other hand, going around them meant leaving a well-armed enemy garrison at their backs. While siege engines did exist, catapults and trebuchets were inaccurate, hard to build, and difficult to transport.

Instead, most armies would try to starve a castle out. Well-stocked castles could hold out for years, often until reinforcements arrived or the enemy ran out of food themselves. But cannons changed that forever. Essentially long metal tubes, cannons were far easier to construct and move than pre-gunpowder artillery. They were also far more effective.

Tall stone walls proved no match for gunpowder-propelled shots. Suddenly, storming a castle wasn’t just feasible, it was downright easy. Even if the defenders had their own cannon, a castle’s massive walls were far larger targets than the scattered gun emplacements of an attacking army.

It didn’t take long before castles were little more than over-built homes for the nobility; their strategic value became a distant memory. New fortifications had shorter, thicker walls that were almost never made of stone.

How to Use This in Your Story

If your characters are nobles, they’ll need to deal with stubborn holdouts who insist the old ways are best. Despite the enemy’s shiny new cannon, the king is convinced his ancestral walls will hold. Naturally, they won’t.

Alternatively, your characters might be among the first to realize how useful cannons are. Perhaps their ragtag band of rebels is the only force in the country with access to gunpowder, making them a threat to the despotic queen despite their lack of numbers.

2. Plate Mail Rises, Then Declines

Shortly after cannons, your setting will see the rise of handheld firearms. At first these will just be scaled down versions of the original—literally hand cannons. Slowly, they’ll get more complicated, from matchlocks to wheel locks to flintlocks. While these weapons are inaccurate, and often dangerous to the user, they do have one obvious perk: they tear right through armor. Consequently, most soldiers stop wearing armor pretty quickly. Who wants to carry around boiled leather as a fashion statement?

The exception was plate mail–armor made up of overlapping metal plates. For quite some time, handheld firearms weren’t powerful enough to penetrate plate mail, except at extremely close range. Instead of falling out of style, plate mail became even more popular. Generals made every effort to equip their soldiers with plate. It was the only way to protect them from the devastation of gunpowder weapons.

Plate mail’s golden age did not last. More powerful guns meant the armor had to be thicker and heavier. As the flintlock musket came into common use, more powerful shots punched through even the thickest steel armor. Plate mail became an expensive relic, worn less and less as its protection waned.

How to Use This in Your Story

For one thing, you get to describe soldiers wearing plate mail and wielding matchlock muskets. This is the classic conquistador costume, though it rarely shows up in fiction. Most stories assume that guns haven’t been invented or that they’ve come to completely dominate the battlefield. Few look at the time in between.

Plot-wise, your story could focus around a band of firearm-equipped rebels struggling to invent a weapon powerful enough to overcome the plate armor of their enemies. The evil duke has all the money he needs to cover his soldiers in steel from head to toe. All the rebel leader has is her gunsmithing skill.

Or, you could flip the equation. Your characters witness the first time flintlocks are used against their country in battle. Their side is devastated. Their nation put beneath the boot of conquest. Their friends killed or maimed by weapons against which even the strongest armor is useless. What are they going to do about it?

3. Nobles Matter Less in War

Galician_slaughter_in_1846

For a long time, any army that took itself seriously needed a core of wealthy aristocrats. These second and third children of wealthy houses made war their business. In Europe, they were the heavily armored cavalry that broke the enemy’s formation with a mighty charge. In Japan, they were mounted samurai archers, trained to hit any target while at a full gallop.

Nobles were the only people who could afford the best tools of war. Maces, longbows, plate armor, horses–none of these paid for themselves. A peasant conscript was lucky to get a metal-tipped spear. Perhaps more importantly, nobles were the only ones with the leisure time to learn war. If peasants spent four hours a day practicing with swords, their crops would wither and they’d be ruined. Nobles had the luxury of long training sessions, and they used them to deadly effect.

But the gun changed everything. Since guns were relatively cheap to produce, entire armies could be equipped with these armor-destroying, cavalry-smashing death tubes. Being able to afford a sword and shield no longer carried much advantage. At the same time, guns were fairly easy to use. With a simple point and click interface, anyone could learn to shoot with a lot less training than what’s required for a sword or bow.

Before guns, monarchs needed support from their nobles to wage war. Powerful houses could oppose the war simply by keeping their scions from the fight. After guns, monarchs could wage war on whoever they damn well pleased. Local aristocrats lost influence, though this did not mean some kind of more egalitarian setup. It just meant that the central authority’s power was even less questioned than before.

How to Use This in Your Story

If your story focuses on a powerful noble house, they will certainly notice the effects of guns. Whereas before the king sought their implicit permission before marching to war, now he keeps only his own council. In fact, without the power of their knights, the house is in danger of crumbling. Before, they could keep rivals at bay through the threat of military force but not any longer.

The rise of musket-armed peasant armies is also the perfect recipe for an uprising of the common people. If the king spreads firearms and the skill to use them among the disenfranchised masses, this strategy might not work out as he hoped. History is full of uprisings, with some particularly striking examples in Edo Period Japan. While these uprisings were rarely successful, your characters might be the ones to tip the balance. Imagine the conflict brought to your setting when the queen is deposed and a people’s council set up in her place.

4. Swords Get Smaller and Lighter

While swords were rarely a soldier’s primary weapon on the battlefield,* in pre-firearm days, they still had to punch through an enemy’s armor to reach the delicious meat beneath. A sword wouldn’t be much use if it was stopped by a few interlocking rings of metal or a piece of boiled leather.

Then guns hit the field, and armor’s days were numbered. Soon, even the formerly untouchable plate mail was a thing of the past. But swords didn’t go away; they changed focus. As armor waned, swordsmiths were free to experiment. The changes were stark. Gone were the heavy medieval broadswords, designed to shear or stab through armor via brute force. Slender rapiers, small swords, and eventually the epee soon replaced them.

These new weapons focused on quick, stabbing attacks. Often they lost their cutting edges entirely. Against an unarmored human, it doesn’t take much force to drive a sharpened point through skin and muscle. Speed and precision came to the forefront, resulting in the lightning-quick back and forth of today’s fencing matches.

Guns didn’t make the sword go away. Academies in Europe trained young people to use the sword for deadly effect well into the 1800s and even the 1900s in scattered incidents. The role of the sword simply changed, from a weapon of nations to one of individuals. Even outside the duel, it was useful to have a melee weapon handy in case there wasn’t time to reload a flintlock pistol.

How to Use This in Your Story

Lighter swords inflict a different type of wound. The rapier and its descendants poke small holes in the body rather than breaking bones and cutting tendons. It’s entirely plausible that a trained duelist could take several hits and still fight. The blood loss would slowly catch up with them, perhaps tricking an overconfident character into fighting well past their limits. This is a realistic way for a character to fight on, even after they’ve been injured.

Using swords and guns together gives you even more options. Who doesn’t love a pirate with a pistol in one hand and cutlass in the other? This kind of combat gives you the chance to vary your description so readers don’t get bored. One paragraph your character is blazing away, and the next they’ve locked blades with a bloodthirsty opponent.

When swords and guns are both in play, characters must be skilled in two kinds of combat. Trouble arises when a character is overconfident about their shooting prowess, certain they’ll never need to close in for blade work. The reverse is also possible, with an old-fashioned duelist refusing to learn firearms and then paying for it when battle arrives.

5. Navies Become More Powerful

USS_Constitution_vs_Guerriere

Naval power has always been important to human civilization. Before mechanical engines, waterborne trade was by far the most important driver of commerce.* Whenever that much money is involved, military might is sure to follow, and countries have had navies almost as long as they’ve known how to build ships.

Navies were also vital for transporting troops. Moving large armies over land was time consuming and difficult. Sailing them over water was a lot easier, providing one had enough ships. But for all that, ships were little more than human delivery systems. Once the soldiers got where they were going, their ships weren’t much use. Naval combat consisted entirely of boarding the other ship to fight it out with blade and spear.

Then cannons entered the picture. It wasn’t long before someone had the bright idea to put these death-spitting metal tubes onto ships. The new men-of-war became floating artillery batteries, capable of incredible destruction. They could bombard port cities, destroy enemy ships at a distance, and provide artillery support for invading soldiers.

Because cannons were heavy, moving them around on land was difficult.* As always, ships proved better suited to the task. Warships boasted heavier guns than any mobile artillery on land. That’s still true today. You won’t see anything the size of an Iowa-class battleship’s main guns deployed on solid ground.

How to Use This in Your Story

If your characters are on a ship, they’ll notice the effects of cannons right quick. Old sailors might reminisce about the good old days, when you had to see the enemy’s face before killing them. Now it’s all about standing off and letting cannons do the work. If your characters own a ship of their own, they’ll be able to project great power. Of course, they’ll have to deal with other, bigger ships.

In a political story, characters will find their nation’s power measured largely by its navy. Even countries with small coastlines will build up massive fleets. Your story could be about a landlocked nation conquering its way to the sea so as to build a navy of its own.

6. Wars Get Larger and Deadlier

Hohenfriedeberg_-_Attack_of_Prussian_Infantry_-_1745

War is expensive: the cost of equipment, food, wages, etc. There’s also the cost in human hours. Every person in the army is someone not farming, making clothes, or repairing the sewer system, and that’s not even counting the ones who don’t come back.

Guns reduce the price of war in some ways and increase it in others. First, equipping a soldier with musket and ammunition is a lot cheaper than paying for all the accoutrements of a knight. Second, soldiers need far less time to train with guns than traditional weapons. Because the role of nobles has diminished, the central authority has far more power to recruit soldiers for war.

All of these factors combine to make post-firearms armies far larger than their medieval predecessors. Soldier counts jump from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. And that’s where war gets more expensive. Not only are guns incredibly deadly, but there are far more soldiers shooting at each other than ever before.

Loss of life in war shoots up after the firearm,* culminating in the infamously doomed charges of World War One. It’s said that generals are always prepared to fight the previous war, and the cost of that shortsightedness is much greater in the age of gunpowder. Wars jump from small, regional affairs to massive conflicts that span continents.

How to Use This in Your Story

If war is larger, your characters are more likely to be pulled into it. No matter who they are, the king may conscript them into service, giving each a hand cannon and ordering them to shoot some poor fools from the next kingdom over.

War has never been pleasant, but after the introduction of gunpowder, it truly becomes hell. Explosions reign all around your characters; great engines of conflict belch fire and destruction. Terry Pratchett gets it right in Men at Arms, when he describes how easy it is to kill with a gun, how impersonal. His characters are able to reach out and extinguish a life, like snuffing out a candle.

Your characters can face the same thoughts, especially if they come from a culture where swords and bows are the norm. On the other hand, if your setting is full of dangerous megafauna, the ability to quickly mobilize large forces could be very helpful. A fire-breathing dragon might be unbeatable to a small party of adventurers, but the local artillery battalion will fair better.


Guns provide dramatic opportunity and are tragically underused in the fantasy genre. Including them will make your story stand out, but you’ve got to understand the effect they have. You can’t just have one character in your medieval fantasy story using a rifle and call it a day. Knowing what effects firearms will have on your story is important, both for setting consistency and so you can shape the best possible story for your characters.

P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.

 

Comments

  1. Christina Ochs

    Thank you for this! I loved The Lies of Locke Lamora, but waited in vain for pistols to appear.

    I write fantasy in an alternate-17th-century-Europe setting, and being able to use guns in fight and battle scenes is one of my greatest joys. The fact that most hand-held firearms were reliably unreliable creates a lot of story possibilities. And it goes without saying that every possible character gets to wear-nay, is REQUIRED to wear- that awesome heavy plate armor. ?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Aw yeaaah. Knights with muskets are my favorite!

  2. Tyson Adams

    This is so true: “It’s said that generals are always prepared to fight the previous war…”

    Pretty much sums up our military expenditure on cool toys left over from the cold war.

    Sorry, less politics, more shooting. Thanks for the article, Oren, you’ve given me some good ideas for something I’ve had simmering.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey man, if you write a story about the military spending money on useless toys from the Cold War, I’d read the heck out of it, just saying.

      • Adam Reynolds

        Tom Clancy largely did this, those his books suffered from the dramatic problem that America was guaranteed to win, regardless of how much he(though his strawman liberal characters) tied their hands. He also seemed to base half of his novels on the stunning sucess of the US Military in the conventional fight of the First Gulf War, failing to notice that no one else was dumb enough to fight Americans in that fashion in the future. So that still fits that problem of trying to fight the last war.

        The slightly deeper problem that I have with his books is that he sets up the situation in such a fashion that the US is never morally ambiguous in any scenario. With a narrative based on the popular version of WW2, the US is always unjustifiably attacked and forced into the position of the heroic defender of global justice. The problem is that in WW2, the US was only attacked after declaring an economic war on Japan by cutting off their access to oil. Which was at least partially intentional, people at the highest levels in the US knew some sort of attack would occur, but they also knew that it would politically be the only way to force the American population into the war. Though hardly any one expected it to be Pearl Harbor in particular, with the primary target assumed to be the Philippines.

        More generally, the problem with any fictional depiction of reality in this fashion is that it must massively simplify the politics of the situation. Look at the recent Iran deal, which featured seven nations with various interests. A fictional version of a similar deal would likely have no more than three or four.

        My eventual strong dislike of Tom Clancy novels is one reason why I have thought of an idea for a type of speculative fiction that isn’t used very often. That of a not quite modern setting with entirely fictional politics. The only real examples of this that comes to mind are the Ace Combat game series and the anime Royal Space Force. The other part of the concept I was considering is having it serve as something of a prequel to a proper work of space opera style science fiction in that it is about building the necessary investments to allow that to occur.

        The fundamental weakness with that concept is that it just isn’t quite as escapist to feature fictional nations as it is to feature something like vampires(thinking of Night’s Black Agents vs Spycraft here).

  3. Jeff

    Something I always found interesting about mixing guns and fantasy is that writers tend to have a limited application of gun technology.

    If guns are introduced they are either matchlock/flintlocks or modern weaponry.

    Few get into the minutia of gun evolution. Such as Breech loaders (unless we’re wandering into Steampunk territory), or how there’s a massive difference in what a American Civil War Enfield rifled musket can do versus a Napoleonic Musket Model 1777.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    One interesting idea is how some of these trends can be reversed with technology to some degree. Some of these have already been reversed to some degree, while others could potentially be reversed with future technology.

    While thick walled and tall castles themselves would never likely come back, that style of warfare certainly could to some degree if defenses ever overpowered offense. While energy shields are the obvious manner in which this could be used, powerful and ubiquitous lasers that neutralize artillery and aircraft could potentially have a similar effect some time in the next century. This would also oddly lead to taller units again being deployed as well, to gain a height advantage for your own line of sight weapons. In a slightly less realistic fashion, Star Wars is an example of this idea as well. The fact that entire planets are shielded makes siege warfare common, at least until the Death Star comes along as the ultimate siege engine.

    While crude metallic armor in that fashion is unlikely to come back, more sophisticated solutions could lead to a case in which armor is again effective. We already see this to some degree in the present, in which modern body armor is more effective than at any point since knights truly disappeared. In a science fiction context it could be even more prevalent, especially with something like energy shields. Which is also a reason why elites could come back in some fashion.

    While the equivalent of nobles personally are not really prevalent in modern combat(largely because in the present they are focused on making money through capitalism rather than conquest), the idea of elites having value in combat does seem to be making something of a comeback. When the US invaded Afghanistan, almost the entire invasion was done by highly elite special operations units backed up with air support. In a science fiction context, this could be even more prevalent. Mass Effect and Halo are two franchises in which certain individuals are worth far more than average soldiers. While part of that is personal skill, at least as much of that is due to superior weapons and armor.

    Swords are probably the only idea on the list that isn’t likely to make a comeback in general. The fundamental advantage of a gun in that it allows control of territory is only increasing with time and technology. Even if swords became more deadly due to increases in armor that left a sword sized niche weakness, the advantages of a gun being able to control territory aren’t going anywhere. This has led to armies dispersing over time, which would again make swords far less effective overall. The only reasonable way to give swords a serious value would be cultural, where they are seen as status icons rather than as a proper weapon of war. You could have a context in which guns are all but banned in a certain environment(like a space station) and thus swords remain popular. But they would still never really be considered proper weapons of war. In a setting like that, other ranged weapons would likely proliferate over swords. Things like taser projectiles(even potentially lethal ones) or flamethrowers(if the boarding party has sealed suits and the defenders do not).

    The effectiveness of navies is something that is rather contentious in a modern context. While the US Navy currently rules the blue waters, with few looking to seriously challenge it there, it is extremely vulnerable in certain choke points, like the Taiwan Straight or Persian Gulf. Even the US Navy recognizes that aircraft are superior to warships, which is why they spend much of their budget on aircraft carriers. In a science fiction context, aquadic navies become space navies and so become even more effective as there is really no way to travel between worlds without space superiority.

    Though naval artillery has always had two fundamental weaknesses. The first is accuracy, in that it is much easier to have a stable land battery than a naval one. For this reason, despite their raw power, in WW2 battleships were often considered inferior to destroyers and cruisers when it came to giving naval gunfire support as the smaller ships could get in close and negate the accuracy disadvantage. With more modern weapons, this problem is going away, but as guided missiles replace guns, it worsens the second problem.

    The second problem is that of concealment. It will always be much easier to hide land batteries than it will be to hide warships. And this is something that is getting worse rather than better with technology. Modern guided missiles are rather easily hidden while warships are not. In space combat, as stealth is fundamentally impossible, this would be even worse. A planet could easily hide its defenses, a fleet could not. The only possible stealth in space would be a sort of false flag attack or something akin to Q-ships. It would be be about disguising purpose rather than presence, hiding its purpose and exact identity would be the main applications of stealth technology and electronic warfare. If FTL were possible, it would be the only thing that could reverse this as it could thus allows warships to outrun sensor pulses. The only other real alternative, which I have seen suggested as something that must be present in Star Wars, would be a technology that dumps energy in a way that is not easily detected. Something akin to a neutrino generator.

    The final factor is one that is already massively reversed. Modern warfare is in decline in a rather impressive trend downwards. There are two overlapping reasons why. The first is the escalating cost of weapons that are necessary to stay competitive. This includes the necessity of nuclear weapons, as conventional weapons just can’t stack up. The second issue is related to why #3 will never fully come back. Conquest is an inferior way to gain resources than simply buying them, especially as weapons continue escalating in cost.

    Realistic science fiction would largely continue the same trend. . Given the obscene amount of resources in a single solar system, there is essentially no reason to ever really fight over them. Doubly so if you are fighting over And even if you want to start a war you wouldn’t need a land army, you could simply resolve the battle with either nuclear weapons or asteroids. Or more likely, the threat of using them. Which would again lead to a political situation akin to the present in which the threat of destruction would result in things like small scale proxy wars and indirect attacks rather than full scale planetary invasions(as is largely seen in Star Trek and Mass Effect).

    This would again be a case in which FTL would have to be present for this to change(as we see in almost all space operas), or at least energy that was so cheap that it made the cost of an interplanetary invasion reasonable. But it would still have little benefit in the end. It would have to be a war fought for purely political or religious reasons rather than any real economic benefit. Which is, in fairness, what we see in most science fiction(and the reason that Jedi are the main faction in Star Wars).

  5. bobkat

    Fantasy s cenarios (scenarii?) can logically lead to a ny numbe r of wrinkles. It’s kind of like using castles in a traditional role-playing gam e like aD&D; why doesn’t a cleric use an earthquake spell or a magic-user Bigby’s Shattering Fist. My idea was to create certain NPC spells (not secret, simply worthless except cast on anything smaller than a castle wall) which made those spells impractical and pushed the besiegers back to catapults and ladders. A similar spell could exist for cannon; perhaps based on an idea (and I have *no* idea if this wa s historically true
    ) that traditional siege engine projectiles depend on sheer mass to damage walls while cannon are more dpednent on velocity. If that isn’t true, my idea weakens:-(.
    Another approach is like sued in the Harold Shea stories or the Greyhawk fantasy setting; gunpowder just doesn”t work, even if you make it. But perhaps some character types *can* use it; maybe alchemists, or a specific “musketeer class,” or toehrs. On the other hand, suppose that it’s goblins and kobolds who can use them. Unless dwarf magic resistance includes bullet resistance (which it easily could,) our bearded friends would soon become the hunted minority underground. And it would change the politics of evil; orcs and hobgoblin would feel less easy pushing around smaller goblins who can shoot back.

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