Explosions, mundane and magical

You're operating under the assumption that this is a well-known process and doesn't require any experimental philosophy to make. So you're placing it as an already well understood technology.

If it requires experimental philosophy, then combining the ingredients to make the reagent will require a Finesse roll of 14 at a minimum. That's because complex matter's (mix of a bunch of things, not something like pure water) secondary quality minimum is 5, and this is for a Slight change. Greater change will quickly add one or more 5s to that. I don't consider 14 or more likely 19 or 24 or possibly even 29 to be low levels of Finesse.

Now, the great thing with Rego and Finesse is that you can have no need for large volumes. You can just cast the spell a bunch of times over a few minutes. So you don't need to add even more magnitudes there. But doing almost any reagent by Finesse is pretty tough.

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I wrote an article for Sub Rosa (I can't remember the issue number, sorry) about my research on explosions under the medieval paradigm. The early writers on gunpowder referred to its effects as "lightnings" or "thunders", so I started there, going a bit outside the period as needed. The explanation was that a wind is generated from the powder, which, like the wind trapped in clouds that results in lightning, provides the generans for an arrow or lead ball.

The source of this wind is the saltpetre in the gunpowder; the evidence being that a nitron-rich mixture will burst the barrel rather than propel a missile. The sulphur and charcoal provide fire atoms that grant separation and motion, thinning the air's resistance.

I concluded with some Alchemical Reagents for fireworks , flash powders, and black powder; and some details on gonnes.

I'd recommend: Lindsay, Jack (1974) Blast Power and Ballistics: Concepts of Force and Energy in the Ancient World. Frederick Muller Ltd, London



Exactly. You are going from our modern understanding on how to make gunpowder, looking back in time and saying "it wasn't that hard". To make what might be a poor comparison, that's not different from looking at our modern tools and saying rising a castle or a cathedral should be doable in only a few months.

Or, to make another one, it's like saying that:

  1. anyone can bake a cake as long as you give them the recipe and ingredients; and
  2. this can easily be scaled up to make an industry, since it requires low finesse and the ingredients are easy to obtain.

Neither of these are true for a cake in our modern time, and surely won't be true for gunpowder on the 13th century either.

I don't disagree with the steps you posit, ezzelino

but you disregard that actually following these "simple" steps requires enough knowledge (in game terms this is translated as a Philosophiae score) and a fit lab/workshop. You need to purify the ingredients, weight, and mix (don't forget that early sulfer, saltpeter and charcoal would have a much lower quality than today, even after purified). And "making sure they are dry and away from the fire" is not as easy as it seems, even in the modern day, as anyone that deals with ammunition on a day-to-day basis can tell you. And of course, all of these assume the recipe you have is actually accurate.

Maybe the better comprehensive article I found online was this one, about a bunch of guys from West Point who tried to reproduce and test medieval gunpowder recipes. You can also see their published paper. It's an interesting reading, and gives one point of view in how, from 1340 to 1440, gunpowder recipes were still being updated and reevaluated.

Nothing of this is to say you can't scale gunpowder production, and of course, it did scale up eventually. What I'm questioning here is how easy it actually was to scale up, and I fully reject that around 1250 anyone would have enough technical and technological knowledge to mass produce gunpowder in the way you seem to imply. Personally I wouldn't put it any early than 1400 without access to further, more detailed, historical evidence.

But it does become widespread eventually, and at that point, as I've already said, I don't think current rules are enough for us anymore. Not to model the production, anyway.

The actual stats of gunpowder can be modeled well enough. Early versions (1200~1350?) are unstable, with a lot of botch dice for each grenade/shot. Later versions, when we are already on a high production rate (1350~1500?) get progressively better and more stable. I still hold the values I proposed earlier, simply because they make sense.

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Not sure I agree.

You are adding a magnitude to make a reagent with an effect 10 times larger and saying that's the same as making 10 extra doses (each dose further subdivided by 10 as with greek fire in TSE). To present a counterpoint I could argue that instead this would just make the mixture weaker and fail to properly detonate.

Not saying that it can't work like you say... but it working like that probably requires the same type of innovation that makes it possible, under the rules proposed by TSE, to make 10 shots with 1 dose of greek fire. Which is well into the scope of the necessary innovations to actually ramp up gunpowder (or any other reagent, really) production.

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The big innovation that would be required and yet still make some degree of sense in game terms would be to allow for the assistant rules from city and guild to apply to alchemical labs as if they were workshops. Once you can do that relatively low skilled workers can still add to the production of very difficult materials.

It’s also in accord with a bunch of A&A stuff where a pile of smaller doses does what one bigger dose does by that scaling factor. If it doesn’t work this way, such as how you’re suggesting dilution, A&A needs errata.

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Not at all. I repeatedly said "once the formula is known". I completely agree that developing black powder is not going to be trivial at all. But once you know what to do (and by the late 13th century, the instructions were available in books) it's significantly easier to make black powder from good quality charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter than to make good quality charcoal. I mean it's easier "in reality": if game mechanics model that it's difficult, it's the mechanics that are in error.

Let me be very clear here. Suppose you know how to produce a good quality "dose" of black powder. 1Kg maybe? You know a formula (one thing that's apparent from the article you cite is that the formula need not even be that precise, if you err a little in the proportions it gets a little less effective, but still makes a big boom). You have all the ingredients in ample quantities, and you are working in a nice, dry place, like the ones used to produce mass produce pasta (yes, this is standard in 1220 - there are some places that produce many shiploads/year, and the process has many issues in common with black powder production: excellent drying, danger of explosions (from the flour), fine mixing etc.).

What stops you from making many tons of it in a single season? Concretely, what is the difficulty?

Now, I acknowledged the ingredients are a little trickier to produce, charcoal being the trickiest one. But those were mass produced since antiquity, so reality presents a clear argument that it can be done... because it was done.

Part of the question becomes what is meant by mass production. Having 100 kitchens lined up with ingredients being shipped in was probably more or less how period mass production of pasta worked rather than large machines and an assembly line that we think of today. Alechemy worked the same way, both in reality and in game- Greek fire was 'mass produced' with hundreds of labs working full time to produce it with an otherwise secret formula. With these rules you could 'mass produce' gunpowder, it would just be incredibly expensive and require a lot of highly trained individuals.
Also you are vastly overestimating the explosive power of flower. Grain and flower elevators do explode due t sparks given the appropriate ratio of mixed air and essentially flammable dust in a contained area. An open ar workshop such as a kitchen has zero risk of an explosion, even the risk of fire is minimal. By contrast even black powder gunpowder is self oxidizing, and will ignite in the absence of air.

Had some digging to do. This is actually ToME 134-135. I was not at all aware of the mechanics, and there are some really weird ones. An Int + Ignem form bonus check, for real? Maybe we should roll Int + Herbam or Animal form bonus and skip learning natural philosophae... And the notion of finely ground flour spontaneously exploding, yer being beyond the capacity of hermetic magic due to Finesse is weird too.

I looked - Issue #4 for those who are interested.

Edit: Well thought out article too.

Just looked at the ToME reference- was this stuff supposed to be magical flour? If not the description is litterally absurd, making flour somehow more dangerous than powdered magnesium.


Yes. And I'd say that they can be combined, simply adding an Ignem requisite (and thus a magnitude) to the first - though I may be wrong?
One problem I have is that they appear too low-level for game balance. I mean, they are the right level relative to the base effects, but the outcome is clearly deadlier than the "typical" damage spell of that magnitude. I would really dislike if the discovery of gunpowder made most Flambeau into black-powder-creation experts.
And there's another game-balance problem. A non-magical fire burning magical fuel bypasses magic resistance. It seems then that a non-magical flame (use Rego to move a non-magical candlelight instead of Creo) igniting a magical explosive would create a non-magical explosion, that cannot be magically resisted...
Part of the reason I opened this thread was to find some creative solution (rather than a heavy-handed one) to these problems.

Would you feel like giving actual numbers?

The first large machines were only introduced in the 1500s, but even in 1200 it was considerably more sophisticated than what one may imagine from "100 kitchens". For example, you had to dry the pasta - that's the real innovation (an arabic one) that turns a food that otherwise spoils in a few days at most into one that can keep for years. And for that, you used long rooms built so that the prevailing wind patterns would do the drying. And of course, you had to do the packaging, into barrels that had to be waterproof (or the pasta would spoil); so you needed a steady stream and quality control of those too. Etc.

But the big issue was this: a single worker during a season would not churn out pasta in 1 or 5 or 50 "doses", where a does can be a meal, I guess, for 1 person or maybe 10. No, the productivity per worker would be at least a ton/season, i.e. several thousand person-meals. This is my main issue with alchemy rules being used for black powder: great for the invention and perhaps refinement, but once you know how to do it, it does not take "the virtually unlimited wealth of an empire" (SE) to scale it up - and it should scale well beyond hand-crafted pasta, in fact, because you don't have to shape the individual pieces by hand.

Now, I've just read the article of Mark Shirley in Sub Rosa 4. Interesting, and thanks for pointing it out. And after an excellent explanation of the "Aristotelian physics" of why black powder should work in mythic Europe too, both as an explosive and as propellant for cannons (with an argument I do not quite buy about why muskets would not work), it does indeed point out that, if we assume black powder is an alchemical reagent (i.e. its production limited as per A&A rules) then Mythic Europe history will diverge from that of the real world.

Do people actually expect Mythic Europe to not diverge from the real world? By that I mean do people actually advance the setting technologically and socially close to history or keep things mostly unchanged (other than including some interesting events).

The thing is the setting does not follow the same laws of reality as the real world. Many advances in medicine and technology can never happen because of those differences. That means that many things which could be a problem actually can't work and even if they could possibly, the SG could decide that they don't work.

Magic, not just the kind practiced by Magi but even the common man (items of virtue, craft magic, folk magic) is actually real which serves as a deterrent to many inventions. If there is some magical means of doing something that people have access to, effort will not often be put into ways of doing it without magic that are less effective and take years or decades of very expensive work to achieve.

The Divine is real. It produces miracles and heals people. Angels can actually intercede in situations as they happen. Some diseases are divine in nature and completely incurable without divine intervention. The Church was already an extremely powerful entity in real life at the time and will be far more powerful with actual real divine "powers". The Infernal are also real and a direct enemy not just of the Divine but almost everyone.

The Fae are real, which means that the actual number of Pagans active at the time of ME will not be the negligible percentage it was in real life. That those following their faiths get some power and benefit from it will ensure this.

Monsters are real and can be found all over. While not normally talked about, monster hunters will be a thing. Both for pay by communities and to harvest the bodies for valuables. This also means travel, and in fact life in general, will be more dangerous than it was at the time in real life.

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Ouch, I was trying to dodge that bullet...

Based on real dust explosion, a confined, dust explosion damage will depend on the global volume, but basically could whip everything and any life within the enclosed space if there is the proper dust to volume ratio (maybe a Finesse roll ?). So if I had to give a figure, it would be +30, without any armor protection... And it will exactly fall within the problem you mentioned about bypassing Parma and game-balance.
When you read about the destruction brought by some dust explosion in sugar silo or sugar mill, it could flatten everything around, blowing walls, structures and of course, bodies... So I might even underestimate the +damage value.

An open explosion would be far less damaging, or more accurately should have a damage based on the distance from the ignition point: maybe +20 -2/pace distance ?
But it is IF we apply modern thermodynamic to a mythic hermetic magic. So this is where I wanted to limit my contribution: describing what modern science knows about the explosion process (and I omitted on purpose various form of explosion linked to highly pressurised fluids, like volcano explosion and cie.)

Black powder explosion would be even more devastating because it is a mix designed to explode...

If it would poke its nose in my Saga, I would consider black powder manufacturing to require a Alchemical reagant formula of high level, possibly even requiring purified ingredients, requiring themselves appropriate formula.

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Well, it depends on what you mean from "diverge". Of course, in some ways, as you noted, it's already different.

However, it seems to me Mythic Europe at what I might call the "macroscopic" level - i.e. in terms of society, kings, nations, etc. in 1220 is exactly as the real world. That's a great feature, because it guarantees a rich but consistent world tapestry. Now, of course, players might create localized divergences (e.g. getting their own man elected pope in 1227 as Gregory IX) but by and large history has followed the same course ... and I'd expect it to follow the same course, exactly because playing in a "world like our medieval own, but where legends are real" seems so much fun.

I do not expect this view to be universal, but I think it's sufficiently "widespread" that it's meaningful to try to answer the following question: How can we deal with black poweder, in terms of game mechanics, in such a way that a) Mythic Europe's history follows real-world history for another 200 years and b) the rest of the game is not disrupted?

Well, until the figure out how to mix black powder wet instead of dry, there will be a lot of alchemist named stumpy. That has a tendency to reduce enthusiasm for playing with explosives. Just like making Greek fire was probably hazardous for the newcomer, so is making gunpowder.

Obviously City and Guild has different production rules than art and acadame for craftsmen versus alchemists working with semi-miraculous substances. But if we want to do a rough comparison of a "dose" being defined in terms of what can be produced in a season then it is blatantly obvious that at minimum 270 meals would be a "dose" of pasta (90 days at three meals a day) where most professionals were already skilled enough to produce multiple doses per season.
Incidentally, one issue in making black powder is whether you have "meal" powder" or corned, so in fact the "shape" of the pieces is an issue, though it is clearly not done on an individual basis, and one of the most dangerous parts. It was not uncommon during early gunpowder production to lose about 1 workshop (lab) per month, along with the person working in it, during the shaping process. The buildings were designed with three walls and an open section usually facing a river so the building itself would not be destroyed when this inevitably happened. And yes, early on it did require vast resources to produce in bulk, though in fairness this was largely the cost of having to continuously replace the destroyed 'labs'.

No. Just no.
My family was in the grain silo business for decades before I was born, I have worked for years in modern, industrial flour mills, and your concepts of the explosive potential for foodstuffs is grossly exaggerated. Explosions are only a risk inside the elevators, dust in the air is negligible and at worst you might get some degree of flame if you were extremely careless. Explosions only occur in the actual elevators where the ratio of air and dust hits just the right ratio and a spark is introduced. It happens maybe once every two or three decades over a set of several hundred elevators. It does not happen in flour mills except when the flour or gain is being stored to attached silos.

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We are not talking about likelyhood of happening. Spells are designed to create the optimal setup for an explosion.

It happens that I too worked for a food company and I was their cereal expert, handling millions dollar budget. We never had accident, but accident happened in the past, and we were taking every measure not to have any explosion.
However, when they occurs, they are deadly. Just Google sugar explosion, or flour explosion, or mill explosion.