At an early stage of my world development, I was keen to have gunpowder weapons in use, but not dominate in battles. I still wanted archers and cavalry, but also some cannon and gun. How could it be possible to reconcile this mix? There seemed to be a couple of ways to approach this. The first was to base the technology level on the early days of gunpowder use in Europe (15th/16th century) – where guns were in place, but inaccurate and complicated to use. The other approach was to limit the availability of gunpowder – so they were effective, but relatively rare and exotic.
I wanted to explore the scarcity option first – and asked this question on the Worldbuilding Subreddit to pick the brains of more experienced world builders than me.
My idea was that one of the components of gunpowder – sulphur or saltpeter (I figured charcoal would be in abundant supply everywhere) was limited to being available in the small kingdom of Trond, who controlled the supply and thus limited the use of the black powder weapons. The overwhelming response seemed to be that it would be hard to explain scarcity of any of these materials effectively, as they are so common in ‘the real world’.
Alternative options were to substitute an alternative substance rather than ‘gunpowder’ – and explain the scarcity of that (it is fantasy after all). I did consider that approach originally. However, going down that route could involve trying to explain just how it is so combustible – and trying to make it clear it’s not gunpowder – it’s this ‘other’ thing. As I want Alkainos to have firm footings in real world history – that might be extending the fantasy elements in a place I didn’t really want to (if that makes sense).
The other point raised was to question the cost effectiveness of it. So it’s available, it’s just not used widely because of ‘X’…. (for some valid reason to be decided – magic, environmental, political or some such).
After deliberating over it for an afternoon – it’s kind of helped me decide where approximately on the real history timeline I want to loosely base my world (for now at least – I don’t want to nail myself to any specifics just yet).
So current thinking is Alkainos is roughly at a similar level to early 16th Europe at the time the current adventures will be set. It is fantasy though, so a I won’t be too historically accurate – a lot of it will be exploded and magnified in many ways (grander cities, bigger armies, bigger villains, etc). From the black powder perspective though – it means that guns do exist. Arquebuses and recently, muskets as handguns for example. However, they are complicated to use and wildly inaccurate beyond anything other than short range. Gunpowder, weapons and shot are only made by skilled artisans – so although they are not rare, supply is limited. In the event of a war, the logistics of supply would still be a real issue.
Not all soldiers and kingdoms approve. Balcia, for example – ever the pragmatist and forward looking, is a big advocate of the weapons (to supplement their traditional armies). Aquistria, on the other hand, looks down on their use, preferring skilled archers and cavalry. As yet they do not provide any real balance shifting advantage on the battlefield due their reliability, complexity and inaccuracy. The only real advantage of firearms is that they can be given to relatively unskilled soldiers.
On the seas, Balcia has again pioneered the use of cannon, and is developing ships where they can be used in ship to ship combat for the first time (other nations have only really used them as anti-personnel devices). The Balcian ships have traded manoeuvrability for firepower, but the designs are evolving.
I think there is still scope for a kingdom such as Trond to perhaps provide expertise in the casting and development of weapons and powder. Availability of these superior weapons is limited and very expensive. They have actively pursued a strategy to tempt the best engineers and craftsmen to work for them over the years and that is starting to reap rewards as their technical advances are eyed by the larger kingdoms.