Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Making Weapons in Fantasy Worlds More Interesting by Banning Them

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 8, 2015

DaVinci_CrossbowThe crossbow was once banned for use (“against Christians”) by Pope Innocent III. It was the “ultimate weapon.” The prevailing belief is that this was done because it took minimal training to use and could penetrate a knight’s armor at range. Since knights were the “main battle tanks” of the era, the idea that these expensive (and politically connected) warriors could be wiped out easily by a bunch of peasants fresh off the farm was pretty alarming to the noble classes from whose ranks they came. The crossbow was an equalizer on the battlefield, which is great for the people on the disadvantaged side of the equation, but not so much on the side that owned the land, wealth, and who made the rules. With the pope’s help to give it the force of not just law but a sin, they tried to stem the tide of technology. It didn’t “stick” for long, though.

In Japan, starting in the late 16th century, “Sword Hunts” were called to disarm the commoners. The nobility could still carry weapons, which gave them a natural advantage. It limited the potential for peasant uprisings, and equally important slowed the ability for rivals to raise up armies and do to the new rulers what the new rulers had done to the previous ones. The weapons restrictions stirred up a great deal of discontent, increased class stratification, and empowered criminal ronin. But it also led to the development of some pretty awesome martial arts weapons techniques using farming implements turned into deadly weapons.

Previously, Frederick Barbarossa and other rulers in Britain and Europe had occasionally banned advanced weapons (like swords) from the peasantry. This sounds like a bit of an overkill on the class stratification thing again… it’s not like peasants could often come close to affording a sword, or even a nice spear. Maybe this was the Holy Roman Emperor’s attempt to hog up the battlefield loot for himself and his boys? (I have no idea… taking a dead knight’s sword might have been uber-taboo …)

SilverGeorge Silver wrote a lengthy objection to the use of the rapier in his work, “Paradoxes of Defense” in the late 1500s. In this case, it wasn’t so much to protect the higher classes from the low-born so much as to protect his countrymen from what he believed was a dangerous weapon and fighting style that had no practical use on the battlefield or a real fight. His work didn’t have the force of law, of course, and it didn’t seem to change many opinions, but it stands as a fascinating historical look at the schools of thought in European martial arts. Granted, some rapiers were getting kind of ridiculous among the upper class at the time. They were a status symbol, sometimes absurdly long, like a really stupid spear. Cue jokes about compensation.

I don’t want to talk about modern weapon bans or restrictions, because that gets pretty politically charged. So I’ll stick with the medieval and renaissance eras. Taken from these examples, the real purpose behind the historical restrictions was to protect the ruling class (in these cultures, the warrior class) and and maintain the political status quo. As technology advanced and put more powerful weapons within the grasp of the non-warrior-class, undermining the advantages of expensive armor, weaponry, and lifelong training, said ruling class would often outlaw the weaponry. In the long run, technology is an equalizer, and those in a position of power are naturally inclined to fight against that. (It should be noted that in the short term, technology tends to have the opposite effect, as the advantages are unaffordable to all but the wealthy.)

So… pulling all that into a fantasy world representing approximately this same era… let’s talk about MAGIC WEAPONS!

If magic weapons are extremely rare… precious artifacts of dubious power… then nothing really changes. Most fantasy novels are like this. The occasional Sting or Glamdring isn’t going to change things too much.

Likewise, when magic is something only practiced by a rare few, especially with some kind of centralized authority that can be controlled or negotiated with – or at least kept tabs on – this might not change things too much.

But where magic items start becoming common – like many role-playing games or settings like The Forgotten Realms – magic ends up taking on a role similar to technology in the real world, and one could expect those in power would start breaking out the ol’ ban-hammer. When some farm-boy (like many origin stories) picks up a magical sword that, with minimal training, makes him the equal of a knight, people are going to have problems with that. Particularly the knights or the parents of the knights who spent a fortune on equipment and training and are part of a an established social order.

So magic weapons and armor get outlawed. Maybe this is part of a more sweeping practice of outlawing weapons and armor in general, although in fantasy worlds with predatory outlaws and monsters looming on the outskirts of every village, this might not be practical. But again, those in power don’t want an army of former farm-boys with magical weapons to rise up against them. They’d probably rather the knights under their (relative) control had the monopoly on magical enhancements.

Now, as a player in a game, this sounds super-boring.  But it’s actually the opposite. It adds drama to a setting. It’s not that the player’s can’t have cool magical gear… it’s that they can’t have them legally. When you create crimes, you create criminal activity. Weapons smuggling. Black-market armor dealers. Even the noble-hearted but low-born paladin might have to fight between obedience to the law of the land, which may or may not be for the “greater good,” and their higher purpose which demands they face evil with weapons imbued with greater than mere mortal craftsmanship. Spells that hide or disguise the magical aura (dweomer, to use a term Gary Gygax was fond of, aka dwimmer) might be extremely valuable. A spell like Magic Aura – which creates an artificial magical aura – could be very powerful when used against a rival at the right time.

In short, there’s tension and a slew of cool storytelling potential there.

Now, Silver’s case is another interesting one – an effort to preserve what he felt was a “best practice” for fighting against a fighting style that was a new social trend but of limited value in actual warfare.  This opens up a whole ‘nother can of words worth thinking about as either a writer, designer, or game-master.

Weapons can be “trendy,” and it may not have anything to do with their actual effectiveness. This can be on a military scale. Many scholars believe the adoption of firearms by the military was premature – it wasn’t until around the 1700s or 1800s that they actually became superior to a plain ol’ bow or crossbow. Whoever is in charge decides that this weapon is the “thing.”  But it can also be on a social level. The popularity of the fencing masters of France and Italy caused the swell of interest in the rapier. A hero like Xena or Robin Hood can increase general interest in their weapons of choice.

This could be a way to give a culture or a community some distinctiveness. Maybe it’s a trendy thing to use a flamberge, an expensive status symbol in a certain city. Maybe a mace of a particular design is considered the holy weapon of a particular deity, and people wield one as an outward symbol of devotion even if they aren’t particularly pious. Maybe after a local hero defeated Goliath with a sling, the sling became a weapon of choice within the community.

And maybe there’s a rivalry between fans of different kinds of weapons. Why not? Or between scale mail versus chain mail? Just think about how modern flame-wars can erupt between fans of Star Wars versus Star Trek, and transpose that to late 16th century arguments over weaponry featuring George Silver, and enjoy! Your readers or players will hopefully find it a lot more interesting!

Filed Under: General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Darius said,

    There are lots of fun ideas here.

    Something that came to mind as I was reading this is the idea of a person who is a natural born mage who can work magic intrinsically vs mages who have studied for years at some sort of university in order to work magic. Like training and equipment for a knight, it would be expensive, time consuming, and naturally tie you into the existing social/power structure. A natural born mage would represent a real threat to the establishment, and they might therefore be hunted down ruthlessly.

    I know I’ve seen settings where magic users are hunted, but I seems to remember that it’s always been because they were considered ‘heretics’ or ‘unclean’, not as a means of maintaining a monopoly on magic.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    You could have a stratification in there, too. You could have little “hedge wizards” who are the simple country healers, crop-improvers, and good-luck-charm-makers who benefit the peasants without giving them a power or martial advantage. After all, a good crop and healthy workers benefits both the peasant and the lord, right?

    But if you have guys who are decentralized working more powerful magic – “outlawed” magic… yeah, that’d be a big deal. Even if they weren’t currently plotting against the current power structure, they would be a wild card that a paranoid (is it paranoia if they really are out to get you?) ruler might decide to perform a preemptive strike against.

    That’d be a different definition of a “wild mage” – not one who uses magic wildly, but a mage from “out in the wild” who isn’t owe fealty to anyone.

  • Maklak said,

    I recommend book “A Distant Mirror Calamitous 14th Century”. It is long and somewhat difficult to read, but paints a picture of how life looked like in medieval France in a period that had 100-years war, black plague, brigandry (often by mercenaries released from a war and impoverished nobles) and papal schism. It also describes the mindset of a kinight: the purpouse of going to war is not to achieve some objective, but to get loot and do deeds of valour. They despised non-noble fighting men, regardless of their effectiveness; the clash of cavalery and personal glory was what mattered.

    Ironclaw RPG (with antropomorphic animals) makes some weapons “proscribed” (illegal). Bombs and the most powerful firearms are banned on the grounds that “Everyone has the right to defend themselves, but if you’re carrying some kinds of weapons, you’re just looking to make trouble”. There is also ban on some weapons on religious grounds, for example a signature weapon of a suppressed religion. And yeah, there are signature weapons, like “calendar swords” used by palladins.

    > Banning magic swords from peasants.
    Magic swords are expensive. In DnD a +1 weapon costs 1 kgp. An average worker earns 1 gp/day (or was it 1 sp/day?), a noble with a villige and keep makes around 5 kgp/year and a king makes around 5 Mgp/year. There is little point in banning magic weapons, simply because they’re so rare and expensive that only the wealthy can afford them. Even for the wealthy, equipping a sizeable force with magic arms and armour is very expensive and only offset by the fact that those items are extremally durable and change hands after battles, so you will have spares after a successful campaign. In any case, magic weapons aren’t that much more effective than normal ones and are more of a sign of status. On second thoughy, yeah, if wealthy peasnats and burgeoneis could be banned from having golden chains, eremine and other bling, they might as well be banned from having magic weapons. And if you are a militiaman and find a magic sword, you better give that to your lord and hope for 20-50 gp reward before someone takes it away from you.

    Since in an RPG you get a lot of equipment from murder ant theft, trendy weapons should be reflected in loot tables. In standard DnD it pays off to specialise in swords, since those are the most common magic weapons. This sort of thing also modifies other things. If the PCs are fighting against a group A which uses a particular weapon, but no one else wants to use it due to it’s association with group A (and even a possible ban), monetising loot becomes problematic. They can sell it to nobles at 20% value to be hanged upon walls, sell it at value of steel to be reforged into other stuff or have a smuggling deal with the enemy to trade their weapons for what they took from corpses on our side. This last option is potentially the most lucrative and fun.

    > It’s not that the player’s can’t have cool magical gear… it’s that they can’t have them legally
    Hahaha. Yeah, this adds potential for getting searched by road patrols, paying fees for carrying magic items at city gates and all kinds of annoying crap 🙂

    > Maybe a mace of a particular design is considered the holy weapon of a particular deity
    DnD already does this; each diety has a favoured weapon, but that mostly just matters for priests and palladins.

    > Sling
    A pretty good weapon, actually. Doesn’t have the accurracy of a bow, but a bullet hits harder than an arrow and in DnD you add your Strength bonus to sling damage, so it is a good, cheap and light sidearm for a warrior.

    > the real purpose behind the historical restrictions was
    > to protect the ruling class and and maintain the political status quo.
    Nothing has changed in modern times. Governments are more afraid of populace with guns than without them.

    For me a more interesting question is: Once you have resources of a small kingdom and a platoon of Iron Golems with a few cannon golems mixed in starts looking affordable, what kind of magitech wunderwaffen can you get your hands on? Or a reverse question: how do you fight against nation that has war-winning weapons and has mastered shock and awe.

    > because they were considered ‘heretics’ or ‘unclean’, not as a means of maintaining a monopoly on magic.
    But those are GREAT excuses for maintaining monopoly on magic. That lone wizard in an out of the way tower? He must be evil, otherwise he wouldn’t be an outcast. That unafiliated sorcerer? A danger to himself and others, as only a strict discipline and years of training enforced by organisation, not to mention occasional telepathic scans for heresy can keep a mage pure. Just recall the story of such-and-such who abused magic for fun and profit making people suffer until his demise at the hands of witch-hunters. Seriously, a lot of politics is about making yourself look good and your rivals look like socially acceptable, if dangerous, targets.

    I agree with “hedge wizards” comment. Level 1 and maybe 2 magic may be tolerable and in DnD there are Adepts (what fighter is to warrior, they can heal) and in some settings a lot of people know useful cantrips, like mending or prestidigitation or light.

  • Maklak said,

    To me a magic-rich setting raises questions as to why magic is so warfare and adventuring focused and not more everyday life-focused. These are examples of convenience magic items, I’d like to see.
    * Idiot box: a small chest activated by opening. It is a spell trap with spell “Hypnotic Pattern” and used for entertainment.
    * Preserving barrel: It has “Gentle Repose”, “Warm / cool” and prestidigitation as permament effects and is used to store food. Too expensive for things like military transports, but lasts forever and accept no substitute for transporting easily spoiling delicacies from far away places to sell at great profit for noble feasts. It can also be used to store a corpse for later resurection. There are bigger versions that preserve a room full of organic mater.
    * Auto-furnace: A big, heavy machine that can smelt ore without fuel. Affordable only by the biggest mines, but increases profit margin and lowers environmental impact to placate those annoying elves. I’d even see it as part of an escort quest for PCs, since it takes multiple wagons or a big ship to transport in parts.
    * Sending parachemnt: Made in pairs. Uses spell “Sending”. What you write on one of these, appears on the other. You can erase and reuse the parchemnts. Pricy, but great for instant communication by spies, merchant houses, etc.
    * Everburning oven – uses a small fire elemental rahter than fuel. An expensive, but clean and sustainable way to cook meals or heat a castle.
    * Decanters of endless water rigged into a fountain. Or used by firefighters.
    * A cauldron that produces cleri-food for 200+ people/day. Useful for conserving food during sieges or on expeditions.

    I guess I just like magitech, but why don’t RPGs use more magic items like these, but instead focus almost exclusively on weapons and adventuring gear. In DnD pretty much all we get are rules for making non-slotted magic items and traps, with cost based on spell level.