Black Powder
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"We can, with saltpeter and other substances, compose artificially a fire that can be launched over long distances… By only using a very small quantity of this material much light can be created accompanied by a horrible fracas. It is possible with it to destroy a town or an army … In order to produce this artificial lightning and thunder it is necessary to take saltpeter, sulfur, and Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet."
Epistola, "De Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae et de Nullitate Magiae" Roger Bacon

Basic Information

Black Powder, also known as gunpowder is an explosive made from a mixture of saltpeter1, sulphur2 and charcoal. Combined in the correct proportions3 the reagents will generate a respectable if rather low speed explosion on the application of flame. This seems to have been the world's first practicable explosive and likewise our first ballistic propellant - it is the powder part of powder and shot. Historically it has also been used in incendiaries of various kinds as an accelerant - black powder must be confined to explode properly, othewise it merely gives an energetic flame.

No-one is entirely sure where the secret was first discovered - some say India, others that Chinese alchemists were responsible. Certainly the earliest written records seem to come from China around the 9th Century AD whilst the Arabs seem to have had the use of it from some time between 1240 and 1280 and Bacon wrote the flavour text some time between 1248 and 1257. The Chinese used the substance primarily for rockets and incendiaries - the first cannon in history seem to have been used by the Mamluks in 1260, although there are ambiguous records which predate this.

Basic gunpowder - a simple mixture of the milled ingredients - functions adequately but is prone to seperate into its component parts in transit and storage and adsorbs water from the air. To correct this the corning processes was developed whereby the powder was wetted, pressed into blocks, dried and then (very carefully) ground into grains of a controlled size. This made the powder easier to handle and had the added advantage of controlling detonation speed - the larger the grain, the slower the burn.

Black powder survived into the second half of the 19th century at which point improvements in industrial chemistry coupled with the quest for smokeless propellants lead to it being relegated to the status of a historical curiosity in most fields.

Besides military applications, gunpowder was also used for blasting work in mining and for the assembly of fireworks (often with various metal salts added to colour the resulting explosions). It has also been used to sterilise wounds and season food (probably due to its high 'salt' content) and even in medical preparations (albeit mostly snake oil cures).

No one is sure what "Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet" means … logic suggests that charcoal should be involved somewhere given that it is the only ingredient not mentioned, but what this apparent nonsense has to do with that is not clear. The best suggestion is that it's the result of a coding error in the cypher Bacon was using to encrypt his notes which has mashed the text into meaninglessness.


Game and Story Use

  • In the early modern or pre-modern eras this is Hobson's choice when it comes to explosives.
  • Some players will insist on having your PCs invent this thinking it will be a game breaker. In some ways it may be easier to let them … and then mutilate their character as he tries to use it in a gun. Countless people have been killed and maimed getting the craft of gunsmithing to where it is now - if your player wishes his character to be the first one in your campaign world… so be it.
    • If you don't want PCs to invent gunpowder, on the other hand, it's perfectly reasonable for them not to be able to identify saltpeter and/or not to be able to locate pure enough sources of it to make a viable explosive … although impure sources could still yield a workable incendiary if you want fireworks. (pseudo)Medieval chemistry (such as it was) had no real means of telling similar inorganic salts apart … or, really, of comprehending why they differed. Contamination with potassium nitrite or sodium salts of either is hard to remove with contemporary techniques and very hard to identify, except for the fact that it stops the finished product being anything like as effective.
    • Poor supplies of saltpeter might well account for the Chinese tendency towards incendiaries and pyrotechnics - thus you can still have fireworks without being able to build cannon (something a lot of people might be disinclined to accept).
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