I am writing a book where the world is split into multiple kingdoms, with each kingdom using a similar magic system to the rest, but using different powers. IE one can control the elements, another does telepathy, another mostly powers associated with the dead, etc.

Is there are any way, assuming the world has progressed via a combination of industry coupled with magic, for guns to not really be a common weapon in war? Or I suppose more specifically, what circumstances - ie cultural reasons, lack of specific resources being available, etc - might have led to the traditional close-quarters army vs army combat remaining prevalent despite the technological advancement?

Crossbows and siege machines such as trebuchets are fine. And of course, if you have suggestions for how armies might be able to defend themselves against magic to allow for such large-scale ground warfare, I'm all ears!

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 31 '18 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Might consider reading Weber and Evans' Hell's Gate series, where a technological society and a magic society end up going to war with each other. I believe the laws the universe operates by slowly change from one universe to the other, to the point where magic doesn't really work in the tech peoples' universe, while gunpowder doesn't work very well in the magic society's universe. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 31 '18 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ Just a short non-answer, or maybe an add-on to one of the answers below: how about providing an environment of extreme humidity, to make any experiments just sort of fizzle instead of revealing the chemicals' true potential? $\endgroup$
    – KlaymenDK
    Aug 1 '18 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ This is my first fantasy world so I worry that I'll encounter far too many unforeseen consequences if I start changing the environment TOO much. Maybe eventually! $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Aug 1 '18 at 16:01

31 Answers 31


This question is similar to Can a technological world exist that does not have the means to invent guns or explosives?, and I recommend you read that question and its answers. But, after thinking about it some more, there is a great enough perspective difference to justify a separate question.

Nobody knows exactly how or why black powder was invented. But let's consider a natural human trait...

Mud pies

We like mixing things together. We like mixing things to get cool smells, cool colors, cool acids, cool poisons, (occasionally cool remedies), you know... cool things. Humans have been making mud pies since they were old enough to sit up since the dawn of recorded history. And probably a lot earlier than that.

BTW, I love the word "ignorance." Usually, it means "something not understood or the fact of something not understood." But it can also mean "The state of something being ignored." Let's roll with that definition.

Ignorance #1

Let's ignore random chance. Saltpetre, sulfur, and charcoal are actually fairly common elements and simple random chance could have explained its discovery. One day some poor janitor smoking a fag was sweeping up at the local pub when the town's natural surface deposits of saltpetre and sulfur happened to mix with some of the charcoal from the fire and HOLY MOSES WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR EYEBROWS??!!!!

Let's ignore that possibility. So say we all....

Ignorance #2

Nobody builds mud pies like alchemists. That's because you can get gold from the right kind of mud pie.1 Now, everybody knows that getting gold from mud pies isn't the only thing alchemists are into. They're also into living forever, looking young, making people fall in love without the baggage witchcraft has, and getting government funding. They're always mixing all kinds of things. But, you know... GOLD It simply demands attention... And sulfur is yellow... just like gold! and before you grind it up saltpetre is white and shiney... just like gold! and charcoal has the essence of fire, which is needed to smelt... just like gold! And MY ROBES! SOMEBODY POUR WATER ON MY ROBES!

So, let's ignore the alchemists. So say we all....

Ignorance #3

Apothecaries absolutely turn their noses up at mud pies! They're professionals. Mud pies are for children! They carefully pestle only the highest quality herbs and minerals for the very best snake oilmedicine! They don't use sulfur simply because it's yellow! They use it because the odor is scientifically proven to keep demons, sprites, and trolls away from your children! They've burned thousands of pounds of the stuff in children's rooms and see? Not a demon, sprite, or troll in sight. The stuff works! But the unsightly smell is a bummer and the color doesn't always match with the room decor so we'll have the janitor mix a few other things of little consequence (because they've never proven to keep demons, sprites, and trolls away!) so that Mrs. McPherson down the street can enjoy her roses and it won't clash with her bolsters I WAS JUST INSIDE SECONDS AGO! NO! I DON'T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED! WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN ONLY FIND HIS FAG?

So let's ignore apothecaries. So say we all....

Ignorance #4

It's the pesky chemists that are the real problem. Oh, yeah. They're still making mud pies... but it's absolutely amazing what those mud pies can do! They use tubes and liquids and flasks and beakers and tongs and ARE YOU ALL RIGHT? COOL? WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT WAS COOL? YOU HAVE GLASS IN YOUR FACE!

It's a little harder to ignore the chemists....

The problem is that technology is the result of a mountain of historical research, problem solving, engineering, mystic arts, and plain fididdling around....

The only really effective way to justify no gun powder in your society is to remove or make very rare and very spread apart the basic chemical components that make gunpowder. But that has consequences, because those chemicals were important for other developments that you would also not have.

  • Saltpetre is used to thicken soups and stews and to soften food like beans and meat. (Source)

  • Sulfur is used as a fungicide (for humans and plants) and to make Sufuric Acid, "which is perhaps the most important chemical manufactured by western civilisations." (Source)

  • Charcoal is used to absorb gases, toxins, poisons, and to write letters to your granma back in the good old days. Worse, it's EVERYWHERE. Just look for lightening or the idiot who dropped his fag on the side of the road.

So, there are ramifications to removing or reducing access to the chemicals and it's a tough nut to swallow that everyone stopped making mud pies. What does that leave?

  1. Not everyone had black powder at the same time. Had it not been invented in China somewhere around the 10th century, it probably (probably) wouldn't have emerged for centuries more. It isn't that obvious. It is an incredible stretch that it wasn't discovered before the Industrial Revolution,2 but it's not beyond the realm of impossible. Therefore, you could simply stretch your pointed finger toward your wordprocessor and declare, "Make it so!"

  2. An absolutely religious proscription against combustion that wasn't overcome until science better ruled the day. (This one's harder to choke down than #1....)

  3. The Illuminati is very real and very concerned about keeping the secret of gunpowder for themselves, they have a world-wide reach and have gone literally out of their way to subvert, oppress, and snuff out3 any hint of its development or use. (Personally, I find this one more believable than #1 or #2....)

  4. ....

There isn't a #4, you have one bigger problem

You don't want guns. Not just black powder, but no guns. That means no explosives of any kind, of any form. No nitroglycerin, no TNT, no ammonium nitrate, no HNO3... It begs the question, what did ancient man think when they saw volcanic eruptions and gysers? Regrettably, "I sure wish I could do that to Bob... he needs the biggest beat down and the local wizard is so expensive...." is pretty high on the list of what they were thinking.

So, in the end, the answer I must give is, "it's impossible."

1And all this time people thought it was lead we were trying to change into gold! HAH! Fooled you! It's been mud pies the whole time!

2Magic users and the industrial revolution... Oh yeah! STEAMPUNK!

3I'm sorry, I couldn't help myself....

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 1 '18 at 15:51

Lack of naturally occurring surface deposits of saltpetre would certainly help stall the whole process. Gun powder doesn't really burn without saltpetre which is water soluble and so only occurs on the surface in very arid areas, it just doesn't precipitate out under moderate to heavy rainfall. While there are many ways to refine and produce saltpetre you need to know you need it first to go looking for those alternative sources and methods; without already having gun powder you don't have an incentive to do that research. Also without gun powder as a stepping off point a lot of alchemy and chemistry directed at alternative explosives and propellants would also have no starting point.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 31 '18 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, anywhere that you get a manure pile that has water seeping in from underneath and evaporating out the top (like almost every stable ever built) you'll get some amount of saltpetre crystallizing out on the top, because it's the first thing to dissolve in the water as it comes in, and the last thing to drop out of suspension as the water evaporates. Black powder on ships even had to be turned end-for-end periodically or all the saltpetre would rise to the top of the barrel from the constant damp/dry cycles. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Jul 31 '18 at 21:08

Social evolution: The magic users always went for the people sticking out on a battlefield ( something about ease o concentration, yada yada) - thus any weapons technology had to be rolled out to most of the army, or else the few bearers of the prototypes were steamrolled. Weapons were thus only improved very incrementally, and disruptive technologies like guns never took hold. Now, with the advent of industrial production, certain principles already well known, though never used in war, may be on the brink of aus usefullness in the martial arena.

  • $\begingroup$ That's a great idea as well! That guns would make someone stick out too much and as such only spell doom for the wielder, so it's mass production or no production at all. Thank you! $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 30 '18 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ You could even make the sulphur or salpetre in the gun a specific focus for magic with things like crossbows being far more 'camouflaged' due to being built of more common materials. $\endgroup$
    – Borgh
    Jul 31 '18 at 7:26

"not yet invented" and "not really be a common weapon in war" are completely different concepts.

If an Industrial Revolution has happened, gunpowder will have been discovered. The advancements in chemistry needed for the IR mean that gunpowder will have been discovered.

But... just as Japan of the Edo Period is alleged to have banned guns when they kicked out the Europeans, your societies could culturally decide that guns are dishonorable.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, that could be a good idea. So you'd essentially have cultures that supplant their lack of guns with other, equally effective methods of combat. But that seems like it would eliminate armies smashing against one another unless I make defensive spells extremely powerful. $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 30 '18 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ "But that seems like it would eliminate armies smashing against one another." Eh? Armies smashed against one another for millennia before guns were invented. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 30 '18 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I meant to say that by now, would there not be magic-equivalent replacements to guns that would make the whole smashing thing much less viable? $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 30 '18 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ I must be dense or something, but I don't understand why you think people need guns or magic-equivalents for armies to smash into each other. Rome, Greece, China, the Aztecs/Maya/Inca, Celts, etc, all engaged in massed melee battles long before guns were invented. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 30 '18 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ The Japanese of the Edo Period were alleged to have banned firearms from around 1600 to 1850. That's when bushido (the samurai warrior code) was developed and then refined. The Church tried to ban firearms, but that didn't work... :) But since you're writing a fantasy story, you can make it happen. For example, maybe All World Council of Magicians decides that they'll magically castrate anyone who brings a firearm onto the field of battle... $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 30 '18 at 20:56

One of the best ways to remove something from common use is to reduce its utility. Plate armor and city walls didn't go away because the human race ran out of the materials to make them, they went away because they became ineffective against modern weapons.

Stargate SG1 dedicated most of an episode to explain why a bullet might be less effective than a bow and arrow under certain circumstances, and I imagine that a similar explanation or variant might be applied to your problem. The Stargate explanation was an energy shield capable of blocking projectiles with greater than a certain amount of kinetic energy.

A variant might be a type of magic that everyone has access to that is capable of blocking projectiles above a certain kinetic energy or below a certain mass. The TV show reasons that some sort of cutoff is necessary, otherwise you basically wouldn't be able to interact with the world at all (you wouldn't be able to walk past a branch on a tree).

The key point is that the damage of arrows is not as highly dependent on kinetic energy as bullets. Some sort of simple body armor might be sufficient to protect from low energy bullets if "magic" can handle the high kinetic energy ones.

This wouldn't remove firearms from your world completely. Rifles would still be effective for hunting. But for the sake of battles, arrows and something akin to a muzzle loader might actually be more effective in this world. Also, by making the rifle less useful, you reduce the incentive to improve rifle technology. Therefore, you might have crossbows that are 50-100 years ahead while rifles are 50-100 years behind. You'd have to have some practical upper limit on the "magic shield" to make sure it's not going to stop something crazy like a cannon.

  • $\begingroup$ Oooohhh... Ooooohhhh! This is a pretty good answer! By the way: Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Jul 30 '18 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ Problem: Guns are just devices that use a chemical store of energy (as opposed to crossbows with their spring-storage, trebuchets with their gravitatational storage, etc.) it so happens that chmical storage is the best deal in terms of energy/volume (apart from nuclear methods), and thus it is easy to store the energy for many shots in a human-portable way. How fast the projectile is going after a shot is left to the manufacturer of the device. A crossbow-type weapon could be made to fire bullets at supersonic speeds. Blackpowder guns can boule. Advantage of 'many shots in a pouch' remains. $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Jul 31 '18 at 4:48
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Dune also had its noblemen wearing a kind of force-field that would stop fast-moving projectiles but not slow-moving weapons. That explained all the knife-fighting in that story. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Jul 31 '18 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ I like this idea a lot, actually - what about trade? Do you think it's realistic that 2-3 kingdoms trade all of the major defensive technologies needed to create a kinetic shield of this sort? $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 31 '18 at 18:05

Perhaps your magic system could benefit from a small region of "basic" magic. For example, most magicians can use their magic powers (regardless of what kingdom they are from) for small parlor tricks or little conveniences, like lighting a candle... Or the Black powder you are loading into your canon.

So someone invented Black powder. First use of Black powder was basically a weaponized fireworks rocket. This went well until someone realized that those things could "accidentally" be lit by a mage. Storing the stuff is also a liability, so any research into it quickly died out. Black powder would mostly be used as a surprise weapon for radical changes in the battlefield. Canons would't be able to store powder in caches and would be bothersone to load. Small-arms are a risk if they are on to you, but give it to only a few people and they could still be effective but rare.

Perhaps spicen it up: mages can protect from such basic magics, making mages one of the primary choices for wearing firearms or operating things like canons, but the amount of available mages limits the amount of firearms you can safely use.

  • $\begingroup$ Small-arms guns started out as scaled down versions of cannon. It seems to me that if cannon became a bad idea as per this answer, there would be no incentive to improve the metallurgy technologies. Hence, hand-held cannon that wouldn't literally blow up in the user's face would not have been invented when they were. No hand cannon, no path to modern guns. $\endgroup$ Jul 31 '18 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @CodeswithHammer I know. But humans are humans, and it wouldn't be surprising if some people would miniaturize canons so the amount of black powder that can be targeted is reduced, and have a few people run around with them. Especially in combat where no mages would be present this would be excellent. Otherwise it's suicide. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jul 31 '18 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ This is similar to the idea in the Recluse series by L.E. Modesitt - guns and explosives exist but chaos magicians can make them fail spectacularly. Some people risk using guns/explosives if they are desperate or consider the likelihood of chaos magician intervention low. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '18 at 10:37

You cannot avoid explosives unless you change the natural laws. It's your world, so you can do this. Personally, I keep the natural laws that we know, because changing one thing can cause major unforeseen problems that readers will be glad to point out to you.

If you keep the natural laws of our world black power will be reinvented endlessly. It uses carbon, sulfur, and saltpeter. The first two are very easy to find, and the last can be found in compost heaps. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. The big problem is to get the concept of explosives. Once someone has that, enough research will find out what they can do.

But really, you don't care about explosives, you really care about guns. There have been many answers that can explain why there are no guns.

I have another.

Guns are rather complex machines, especially the early guns. And in the early stages, they aren't all that common. Now imagine what various types of magic can do to guns.

Let's go for the violent things one can do to guns. All of these attacks ignite the powder either inside the gun or in storage.

  1. Fire is a common elemental spell. bang
  2. Lightning is a common weather spell. bang

Personally, I would prefer a spell that just raises the heat of the rifle, causing the bang without all the extra energy for the special effects.

Less violent attacks can make a gun useless.

Massive rain or water or even raising the humidity to Florida's summer average will cause the powder to become difficult to ignite.

Changing the shapes of the parts of the guns would ruin primitive guns, and probably do a job on modern ones.

Causing bad luck to happen to them (a curse or hex?) could ruin their day.

And those are just the types of spells I thought of as I was writing.

Primitive guns are very complex. The early guns were built without standardized sizes which meant that repair required somebody with some expertise.

Canon could be even more vulnerable to magical attacks because of the larger amount of powder used in these.

One comment, because you brought it up in your question. I have a strong dislike of most books with different magic systems in each kingdom. To me it usually means the writer is a lazy world-builder, because these writers haven't looked at the real world closely enough. It also means that, as I see it, the writer has paid more attention to fiction than history.

One of the few exceptions to this, in my mind, was the "Pelman the Powershaper" trilogy (a really excellent read). At the end, and only at the end the reason for the split in the magic was explained.

  • $\begingroup$ (+1) I think that's the best answer so far. Somebody mentioned Hernán Cortés in another answer, but actually the conquistadores conquered America with horses and steel; gunpowder had almost no use because of the fragility, lack of accuracy and logistic problems those very primitive arms had - Cortés is the only one who used gunpowder to something other than showing-off, because he armed some gunboats in the siege of Tenochtitlan. In a world with magic users is highly plausible than primitive firearms weren't perceived as useful enough and no further development ensued. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Jul 31 '18 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the detailed response! In this world, human beings historically could tap into any Realm, though different beings had affinity for different Realms. Now they are more split into 6 'variants' of humanity. Certain historical events are what caused this split, as well as cultural reasons, such as how it is accepted that if someone can tap into more than one Realm, they are likely too unpredictable in their hypothetical power and too dangerous to let live. This is part of the plot. $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 31 '18 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ But how does it help the plot for this to occur? Are their six gods that each power the mages of the six lands? Are the kingdoms to strong that their laws force their mages into a certain mold? Frankly, kings usually are more pragmatic, especially in war time. Unless there is a real plot reason for this, and it is necessary, I strongly recommend perhaps having a core of "land-type" mages and many who aren't as strict about it. Do not learn about magic solely from "The Last Airbender." $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Jul 31 '18 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ There are six beings, yes, where each god-like being controls each Realm. There is a sort of 'these are my chosen people' part to it. I'm still developing it of course, so we'll see how that goes, but there are higher powers at play. I'd be lying if The Last Airbender wasn't an inspiration behind this, though. Good catch. $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 31 '18 at 15:45

I've asked this same question myself many times, mostly in different conditions since "my world" seems to be a little different than yours. But I will give you my piece on this matter.

Let's start with:

Is there are any way, assuming the world has progressed via a combination of industry coupled with magic, for guns to not really be a common weapon in war?

I'm assuming firearms do exist in your world but they aren't really common.

Combat "Inneficient" Kingdoms

In a scenario where the kingdoms are divided by specific powers, it would be only logical to assume that the concept of magic you're using is either bound to bloodline or specific studies not avaiable to everyone (in a worldwide perspective). This means that a given person can only learn telepathy, for example, if he's a member of the correct family or if he belongs to a kingdom that has deeply researched this branch of magic.

Unless you consider that most of these individuals (or at least a significant part of them) are overpowered (i.e: able to turn several people into marionettes) telepathy doesn't seem to be the type of magic that would be very efficient in actual warfare. Of course it all depends on your creativity. You could always say that the telepath kingdom can read every move of their opponents, making them formidable foes. But would they really be this good against an opponent capable of manipulating fire, ice or gravity?

In this line of thinking, it would only be natural that, for these people, an alternative solution could arise in the form of firearms.

Then we have this:

[...] more specifically, what circumstances - ie cultural reasons, lack of specific resources being available, etc - might have led to the traditional close-quarters army vs army combat remaining prevalent despite the technological advancement?

Lack of Resources

You kind of gave yourself a good answer here. You can just say that powder is really rare in your world - and thus, only a few kingdoms have the resources and the technology to produce it. This would limit firearms to big cannons instead of individual muskets to footmen.

The Mighty Generals

Another feasible explanation could surface if we come back to the overpowered people hypothesis.

The Lionheart Kingdom is populated with mages that can talk to animals. In war, every single soldier has an companion that has his back during combat. So a given soldier might run along a wolf or even a bear. This might not seem so powerful at first glance. But if you imagine a Lionheart general that fights alongside a huge direwolf, a dinosaur-like animal (assuming your world has a wild fauna) or even a magic-immune giant golem! That would certainly strike fear into the minds of their enemies.

This could apply to every kingdom. The pyromancer generals of the Firebrand Kingdom can cast a rain of flames upon their foes while the necromancer Lieutenants from the Tombstone nation can add the fallen in battle to their ranks amidst the combat.

The point is: If you have generals that can do such incredible things with magic, why use firearms?

Guns are useless against magic

This could be an extension of the Mighty Generals section. Would guns really be that effective against and enemy that can summon a thick ice wall around your cannons or under them, to mess up aim? What if your enemies can make their bodies as hard as steel?

Note that I'm not even using overpowered feats and they're already very effective against guns. The point is that magic is very wide, so there are multiple stuff that wizards can come up with to make firearms virtually useless or to drastically reduce their effectiveness. That being said, why should a kingdom ever invest in such a primitive form of warfare?

However, this hypothesis has a catch. If you choose to say that gunpowder is weak against magic for this reason, it makes this statement incoherent:

Crossbows and siege machines such as trebuchets are fine.

If mages can counter cannons, why would trebuchets work?

In my opinion, the exception here would be archery. Assuming there's no "wood Magneto" in your universe, a cloud of arrows would be highly efficient in battle.

That was what I could think of in the first matter. As for this:

[...] suggestions for how armies might be able to defend themselves against magic to allow for such large-scale ground warfare [...]

I can think of some stuff regarding that too.

Common Magic

For this, you would have to break the statement that magic is bound by blood/region - or, at least, that that is not true to some extent. This means that even though the shamans from the kingdom of Etherea specialize in contacting spirits, they could also have knowlegde in a more "basic" form of magic. This basic form could be crude magical power - "energy", if you need to label it - which, in turn, could be used to do basic stuff like projectiles or barriers.

So the shamans main skill would be to summon spirit avatars to aid them in battle, but if facing the terrible rain of flames from the Firebrand army, they could cast shields of energy to protect their troops.

Magical Immunity/Suppression

You could always create some sort of charm, element, metal or whatever to make the wearer either invulnerable or highly resistant to magic. This is no innovative solution and if you want a quick demonstration, check the Snowdrop Flower from Stardust. Soldiers could use this suff in their vests while the very walls of cities could be imbued with such magic-resistent alloy or compound.

I like the idea of a flower (or some organic stuff) because you could always give a multitude of forms to this. Maybe the weapons of the soldiers are bathed in a toxin that suppresses magic or certain countries detain the method to build smoke bombs that have the same effect.

Hope this could be of any help. Maybe let me take a look after you're finished your book?

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks so much for this help! I've been considering the 'basic common spells' sort of deal as well. Specifically, things like basic wards and protective barriers, but I'd need to explain it somehow. $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 31 '18 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ What exactly do you mean by "need to explain it somehow"? You want to explain how magic works? $\endgroup$
    – Magus
    Aug 1 '18 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ Less how magic works but more the actual (admittedly somewhat vague) rules for such defensive powers and how far you can go to ward yourself from artillery and ranged weaponry. As well as chinks in the armor, so to speak. $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Aug 1 '18 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting point. There's a lot you can use here - runes, alchemical signs, rituals (see this question I asked a while ago), the very element of magical immunity/suppresion I stated in this answer... $\endgroup$
    – Magus
    Aug 1 '18 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ I think that, before you even ask how does it work, you should state what they can do. If you say magic barriers are cool, they are. It's your tale. But what do they cost? How hard is it for a mage (or mages) to hold it for the full length of a battle? This is where you have to be precise. $\endgroup$
    – Magus
    Aug 1 '18 at 16:41

There are different reasons for guns to never be invented. As Ash said, you can just make it so gunpowder was never discovered (the simplest way). Though eliminating gunpowder doesn't necessarily make guns an impossibility it could be an easy way to go.

But why stick to the simple? You can make use of the context of your universe. Each kingdom dominates a different branch of magic right? Maybe guns are indeed a thing, but a strong cultural feel of what makes each kingdom themselves drives the governments to avoid mundane technologies and focus on improving the school of magic that represents them and it's use on the battlefield. Maybe there isn't a need for guns because their power means nothing before the great might of wizardry and it's military applications. The military development of your world could have shifted towards the use of magic way before industrialization, making it so people don't even consider using technologies that don't involve magic.

This in-context use also applies to the weapons you mentioned. Is a crossbow too slow to recharge or plainly weak? Maybe there's a way to power them with elemental magic. Siege machines don't even have a use if you can use telepathic powers to make the enemy open their door for you.

And finally, for the defending against other kingdoms factor: The elemental kingdom could opt for the classic, like instant rock walls and such; people could defend their minds from the control of the telepathy kingdom with some kind of magical or semi-magical apparatus; I don't even have to mention how good the dead-related kingdom would be in a battlefield full of corpses if their able to necromance.

It goes like that, find useful and creative solutions by applying the context of your world.

Note: All of this may or may not work to some extent depending on how strong of a magic use you want to give to your world. Is magic super powerful or is it limited in some way?

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    $\begingroup$ Essentially, the general idea is that magic is drawn from other Realms beyond the planet, and the more one draws on another Realm the more strain is put on their body and the stronger the barrier between the planet and that Realm grows - ie diminishing returns the more you cast. And thank you for all of your suggestions and ideas! I'll be sure to take all you've said into account. $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 30 '18 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ I forgot something @doplin Think about the cold war, the whole espionage thing. Think how awesome would be having spies from different kingdoms with different powers infiltrate to gather the blueprints of an elementally-infused laser or the "make-this-dead-party alive again with necromancy" disco ball. $\endgroup$ Jul 30 '18 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Oh yeah, I was already considering that - after all, who doesn't want an element-powered lightning cannon? $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 30 '18 at 21:14

Many answers have been of the "Gunpowder was never discovered" variety, and that is probably the correct way to go.

We know that in our timeline, even very smart peoples like the Ancient Greeks and Romans never discovered gunpowder, despite discovering things ranging from "Greek Fire", simple heat engines, analogue computers to a form of Concrete which is still strong over 2000 years after being cast. Clearly they were pretty smart people, but for whatever reason they never discovered gunpowder.

Consider as well, when Hernan Cortez was driven from the Aztec capital the first time, he scoured the surrounding countryside for allies, but also dug for sulphur from a nearby volcano, made charcoal and collected salpetre. All these elements existed in the environment the Aztecs had been living in for their entire existence, but only the Conquistadors were able to actually harvest them and combine them into fresh stocks of gunpowder to recharge their stocks and use firepower to defeat the Aztec Empire.

Only the Chinese seem to have discovered gunpowder, and it might not take much to have diverted them from experimentation for gunpowder to mixing different materials (evidently they were looking for some sort of elixir for health and life). So gunpowder looks like it was a very unlikely accident, and postulating that it never was invented might actually be a simple and easy to explain event in your universe.


Global Magical Conspiracy

Ruthless extermination of guns/explosives by wizards.

Wizards want a monopoly on power - and the easiest way to do that is to never let anyone else get the power in the first place. Every time gunpowder is invented/discovered, wizards descend upon the area and kill all the witnesses.

This doesn't even necessarily require a single wizards guild or the like: as long as the vast majority of wizards in the world agree that suppressing this kind of technology is a good thing - and in their own best interest - they'll make it happen.

Note that wizards might use gunpowder themselves, of course: they're above that pesky sort of law...


Loaded guns and explosives can go boom.

Here you have your army of trained gunmen, grenadiers, cannons all loaded up and set their sights on the lonely magician in the field.
Safeties are switched off.
The magician raises his hand and snips with his fingers.
Suddenly all bullets explode within their clips and guns, all grenades explode in their pouches and hands and all cannons and ammunition explodes at the same time.
Clouds envelop the battlefield, cries of agony are heard as the wind blows the clouds away.
A shimmering shield is seen around the magician that slowly dissipates as the magician turns around and walks away.

If you don't have the strongest weapon or a weapon that's very easily countered, people will not heavily invest in developing it for warfare. It will most likely be developed more for hunting or the defending against muggers/home invasions.

On battlefields it's useless since a single mage can incapacitate your ammunition wearing troops and the troops surrounding them and those caught in bullet paths since it only takes a little bit of focus to heat up a small amount of ammunition and it's so easy to get chain reactions with gun powder (see this firework disaster that leveled half a city)

For armies it's not worth the risk. A trebuchet flings a large stone. Even if you can muster up a gust of wind, you need such a powerful directed force, it's basically impossible to conjure up in time for every single stone flung into the sky and it will most likely still hit people. Arrows are small, plentiful and hard to ignite or stop if they are shot in a wave it's too much and too small. They can be made from iron which makes it even harder to set quiver contents on fire.


OK, My $0.02:

First: Gunpowder isn't just "Charcoal, Saltpetre, and Sulphur." Yes, those are the ingredients, but the ratios between the ingredients are really critical, and there are some interesting production methods that need to be applied in order to make what we think of as real Gunpowder.

Second, gunpowder itself doesn't explode, it just burn quickly without the need for outside air. without seriously restricting the expansion of the produced gasses, no explosive or propulsive effects will be observed. Alchemists might understand the principles and uses of gunpowder, but in all probability in a magic system, the presence of "Flashing Powder" would probably be the mark of the charlatan. Think of any suggestion of using it in weapons as akin to approaching a general about the combat application of Silly String(tm) (Not that silly string doesn't have combat uses...) Or basing a weapons system on pyramid power.

If we look historically at the period where what we think of as "guns" took over from the Bow-type ranged weapons, we find that there was a period where the gun was a curiosity, rather than an accepted weapon. The reason that guns finally took over was not due to technologies or logistics, but user training. If you start with a raw recruit, with no weapons experience, a musketeer can be trained in a couple of months, while a skilled archer needs a couple of years of intensive training. It's a subtle point, but it's what provided the tipping event in our "guns-vs-bows" debate. If there were other factors involved, that argument could have easily tipped the other way.

Taking this, assume that your magic is Uncommon, rather than Rare. A village shaman or even a military-trained Archomancer could easily provide some enchantments to arrows (increased range, target seeking, improved damage, or magical explosive, just to name a few) that could easily make up for a lower level of training in the archers corps, and would provide a significant, and ready made multiplier to the bow side of the question. This makes guns, while the principle would be understood, a distant second choice on the battlefield.

As to explosives, I don't think that you can restrict those without seriously restricting any industrial capability, or even magical capability. An explosion is a sudden release of energy. Any energy. You're going to have to assume that any rational magical system would have come up with this, even if only by accident. Once the principle is discovered, there's no putting that genie back into its bottle. Under those assumptions, cannons and artillery are almost a given, they just might not be gunpowder-based.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '18 at 15:13

I recall a solution in a story by Mary Gentel. Modern weapons transferred by dimension spell fails because to many ways to curse / hex hi-tec stuff. (until counter wards were made, but I digress)

So, something like this: Complicated stuff relying on high accuracy is too simple to cast a hex on and tend to fail as magic world warps reality and parts start binding / not matching. Basically simple things like Arquebus may work, but fancy machined stuff start failing either deliberately by curse or on it's own from world magic slowly messing up technology and tolerances as quantum probability distortion of magic makes stuff randomly change size +/-0.1 mm or so.

Pick your level of distortion / malfunction to suit your desired outcome: anything fancier than a forked stick fails, to anything fancier than a wrist-watch fails.

This can also be used to cover electricity, and perhaps explain the whole anti-magic cold iron / magnetism thing. Magic destroys tek - but perhaps magic drained by doing it, so Tek a destructible counter to magic.

  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting. So essentially, the problem with improving technology with magic is that the more complex the object you are trying to imbue / the more complex the magic being used for the improvement, the more likely a chance for a chaotic outcome? IE As magic and item complexity increases, so does associated magical entropy? $\endgroup$
    – doplin
    Jul 30 '18 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to get scientific about it, pretty much :-) $\endgroup$ Jul 30 '18 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ Come to think of it, this implies Tek IS possible - if properly warded. So now we have Magic-Steam-Punk. :-D $\endgroup$ Jul 30 '18 at 22:42

Most pre-industrial peoples did not discover gunpowder. The more people are focused on surviving the less time they have to devote to discovery and invention. Even today some societies have yet to discover or invent firearms, likely because of either lack of raw materials or because of their subsistence lifestyle. If you have to work all day to survive you are unlikely to be doing much chemistry or metal working.

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So to your question, lack of need, lack of raw resources, and lack of time could all contribute to not developing firearms.

Since magic can do anything that's just one more reason to not need firearms. Magic can do it for you depending on what magic you introduce into your story.


Logistics, Usage and Research

  • Seeing as how magic is a thing in the world, then at most the peasants that can't use magic would only serve as canon fodder. It'd be more effective to simply give them a basic spear (and maybe a shield) to use during war, since they would most likely die before even getting to shoot something. Plus, training would be too costly (producing bullets, producing guns, maintaining them compared to making spears and maintaining them) considering said mortality rates.

  • I'm not too sure about the laws your magic follow, but you mentioned the elements, telepathy and raising the dead. Against such magic, guns (especially the old ones) would simply be ineffective. Rain or any sort of large water based attack would make the gunpowder useless, fire would make it explode (thus easily destroying storage areas), telepathy would simply cancel it out ala Matrix and shooting dead people won't really do much to stop them unless you hit the vitals, which brings us to the next point.

  • Guns are unwieldy. Gun prototypes had a lot of problems, one of which is aim. The peasants, assuming they survive somehow, won't be able to hit anything effectively. Seeing this, the people in charge won't exactly have a good opinion of them which brings us to the next point.

  • Without a sound reason to develop them, guns would stay in their prototype stage, which further contributes to their uselessness on a battlefield.


I'm not sure that this has been covered yet, but guns require not just explosives but also really excellently smithed containers to withstand the explosive force.

The development of better and better cannons coincided with better smelting and smithing techniques to build tubes that wouldn't rupture and kill the cannon crew - all you'd have to do is create a world without good iron or steel, and suddenly gunpowder inventions stay as fancy fireworks, and all attempts at weaponising them end in the deaths of everyone within the blast radius.

  • $\begingroup$ Not all attempts: they might not be weaponised for artillery, but engineers can use gunpowder placed in tunnels and set off by long fuses to undermine defensive positions without needing ironwork. $\endgroup$ Jul 31 '18 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, a good point. The question specifically asks how we might have a world where guns aren't used in warfare, so I think this answer still covers the question, but you're correct in that gunpowder might still be weaponised in different formats. $\endgroup$
    – timje
    Aug 1 '18 at 15:36

Silent Killers

How about Stealth? The need to not make a big noise is greater than the need to hurl projectiles over a long distance, especially if you live in a dense rain forest or jungle, perhaps?

Their early ancestors founded their kingdom in a dense jungle, near to a source of great magical power, where hulking predators would hone in on sounds and disturbances to compensate for the lack of visibility in the dense undergrowth.

A society such as this would hone their own stealthy hunting techniques and come to revere the silent hunters among their people, and even once the greater threats in their native environment are thinned out or have moved on, the benefits of their ninja-like skills would easily outweigh the apparent benefits of charging around making all kinds of a din while hoping for the same result

The art of silence becomes their doctrine of war, when another humanoid species comes looking for trouble, their silence allows them to better understand their enemy's movements, and to thin out a dispersed force without alerting the whole army.

Taking this approach means that you could still allow for explosive traps to be set, as these would serve as perimeter alarms and diversions whilst not drawing attention to the location of their own forces.

As for flavour and technology, take your pick: Blow-darts and bows, camouflage and concealment spells, using the darkness to their advantage, they have also advanced their understanding of sound-proofing to help keep underground cities safe.

In person their spoken language is likely more simplistic than their use of sign/body language, and is spoken in a very hushed tone at all times.


Perhaps the simplest given the hygroscopic nature of saltpeter and charcoal: 100+% humidity (ie frequent condensation), and/or nearly nonstop rain. It wouldn't prevent their function if it can be stored in airtight cartridges, but it might well prevent the discovery in the first place.


Some possibilities:

Guns exist, but possessing one means being marked for immediate death, by social convention as well as law.

Some kind of entity or phenomenon prevents their use:

e.g.1. Explosion mites, magical, ethereal beings, are drawn through the astral plane by explosions and consume them as they begin, making all explosives inert.

e.g.2. a region or nation-wide protection spell, sustained by some powerful artifact or magic user, prevents their working.


World Specific Side Effects Leading To Uncontrolled Explosions

Suppose that your world has air with a higher percentage of oxygen (also good for megafauna size) and also has low levels of natural gas or hydrocarbon mists that locals have respiratory systems are adapted to filtering these contaminants, but which sometimes form more concentrated clumps of almost invisible hydrocarbon fog. Similarly, rivers and lakes often have a thin oily sheen of hydrocarbons on them.

In a carefully tended gas lamp or a structured industrial facility, this generates a brief flare off now and then, and the right kind of siphon can extract clean water from below the surface. But, on a battle field, a gun would not infrequently set of a large, indiscriminate explosion centered around the ignition point of the firearm and severely burning to firearm operator. It would be like using a flame thrower against opponents near ruptured gasoline tank. Probably not your first choice of weapon.

Even if an uncontrolled explosion happens only one time in twenty or one time in fifty when a gun is fired, the risk would strongly discourage anyone from practicing with firearms enough to get very accurate with them and would make it impracticable as a reliable standard weapon for soldiers and law enforcement.

Guns might have niche uses for special forces who wear asbestos suits while using them, or for pistols used on a one time basis by assassins willing to become martyrs, if necessary, but this would not be workable for the average soldiers or cops or bandits or rebels.


Anybody can kill someone with a gun, that's why they exist, to allow untrained peasants to kill each other. If you think guns have more reasons to exist than that you're sorely mistaken. All war proves then is you have no respect for life.

Combat as an art form.

There's something that only decades of training, mental fortitude and physical fitness can provide: honour, respect, and the tangible proof of some superiority. Conflicts can be resolved with guns, sure, but what better represents the superiority of your mage estate than a duel of magic? Put two champions in the arena, a sword in one hand, a scroll in the other, and let the best one win.

And remember, respect is everything

Enter a different society, where respect and honour means something. A defeat in the arena means two things: either you submit to a superior estate, or said estate obliterate yours. As an honourable leader, you care more about the continued well being of your people than you care about your mortal coil. There is no shame in defeat in the arena, but that also doesn't exclude you from leaving this world with your head high, on your own, with the assurance that with you gone the new overlords will afford your estate its continued existence, dignity, and even power and status.

War, and what it's good for.

The more powerful estates might be called nations, they might infeudate hundreds of families, guilds or cities. When nations interests are in conflict, they might either talk it out like civilised people, or they might want to throwdown the honourable way. But instead of a one-on-one, it might just be a small army of champions, each representing lords and chieftains under your guidance.

There are two eventualities. First is that people stop warring. Clear wins lead to massive shifting of allegiances, and at that point it should become clear who would win a conflict. Violence would only be necessary when two entites of equal power conflict. This would lead to small victories, and in turn the continuation of the conflict. You'd find war doesn't resolve much in the end.

The other possibility is that the higher the stakes, the less leaders would be willing to leave it to honour and fairness. In the end, gritty destructive war was unavoidable, and guns are only an expression of that.


"it's magic" is the go-to answer for such questions. And in this case, probably correct.

If magic can do everything gunpowder and explosives can without having to carry guns or explosives with you, let alone produce them, why bother with guns and explosives?


Inventions are driven by need. Gunpowder weapons were developed as a mean to be more powerful than previous weapons. But if powerful magic already exists, maybe the need for powerful weapons serving the same purpose was already fulfilled.

Just see what happens in societies which are quick adopting one technology : as larger parts of the economy circles around that technology there is less incentive to invent better stuff that does the same thing. Partially because those invested in the early technology would lag behind the new technology (and possibly be replaced if it turns out to be too good). Those people then have an incentive to undermine efforts to fund new alternative technologies.

Embarrassingly obvious examples are power generation. We all know Tesla vs Edison direct vs alternating current and also in modern days some embarrasingly obvious attempts at discrediting modern technology.

Say that magic has been around for centuries or longer by the time we discover salpeter. All the institutions of magic will start hiring shills and lobbyists to discredit it. Make it seem unsafe, look blackpowder can explode and cause accidents, it pollutes the environment, it is only good for warfare, we would not be able to regulate it, it is godless or heathen or "unscientific" ( meanwhile magic is probably well established and connected to some religion / established science / other dogma ).

If they succeed with those efforts then magic will not have to compete with this silly new chemistry quacksalvery. Perfect for everyone invested in the magic business! Nothing new to threaten our income and power.


The WorldWar books by Harry Turtledove has as one of its core conceits that Faster Than Light travel is actually incredibly simple and most species invent it with the technological capability of the industrial revolution.
Humanity are unique for having somehow missed it and kept innovating in other areas instead.

Similarly, your fantasy world simply hasn't hit on the idea to put an explosive in a tube and fire a projectile with it.

I mean, that's a crazy idea right? Who'd want to hold a bomb in their hand and try and aim the explosion!?

All you need is a few early catastrophes, just plain bad rolls of the dice with the early experiments to put people completely off the idea before it starts.

You could have grenades and bombs of all sorts, but nobody is crazy enough to want to hold one when it goes off. Not after the well reported time that Crazy Eddy blew his own arms off with an exploding Hand-Gonne.

The invention of a workable cannon and gun is bound to happen sooner or later, but it simply hasn't happened yet at the time your story is set.


Strong magical Armor

Since you want for close quarter combat to be the norm on battlefields, all forms of mass-produced long-distance weapons have to be ineffective. If you only nerv gunpowder the industrial revolution would probably find other means of mass producing long-distance-death-machines. It could be steam, torsion-weapons, other chemical combustions.

The easiest way is probably spells which make armor extremely effective. If your armor can withstand almost any hit, the only way to kill your opponent is to attack the weak-spots (usually joints), which is easiest done in close combat - most likely by immobilizing your enemy and then killing them carefully.

The countries could still have different ways of magical armor - some may weave a spell into chain-mail, others may wear magical amulets others may have means to produce lightweigth extremely durable metal plate very cheaply. If you can protect the torso of every infantry-man in your army against bullets, most ranged weapons will be ineffective as a mass-weapon. But you can still have trained snipers, which can shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy - but they will be small regiments in a huge army.


I actually always found it quite logical that guns are not prevalent in a high magic world.

Note that this does not need to include gunpowder, since this is relatively easy to fabricate. But guns needed centuries of evolution to become the reliable weapons we know today.

It strongly depends on the prevalence of magic in your world. Is a competent magic user a one-in-a-million thing? Then consider warfare evolution as mostly normal. But if every village has a moderately competent mage, and cities have dozens of them, they will play a major role in combat, and they will make the improvement of guns largely uninteresting.

Note that this will also have an effect on the rest of the warfare. Muskets were mostly introduced because of their armor-piercing capability. But why do you need armor-piercing if any knight stupid enough to wear a metal armor would easily be barbecued by the lightning-wielding mage?

And what do you need cannons for if the same can be reached with a fireball? Depending on the might of the mages, even castles may be useless when the fire can rain down directly from the sky.

So it depends on your world, but in a world with high presence of magic, I would rather need an explanation for the existence of guns than for their absence on the battlefield.


It could be that guns simply weren't invented in your story. They weren't invented in our world until the 14th century either.

Even then they weren't comparable to modern guns. Even centuries later they were fairly inaccurate (that didn't change until the 18th century), it took a long time to reload and they stood out on a battlefield (loud and there was a lot of smoke). Compared to magic which is arbitrarily easy to learn and can outcompete them in whatever you want. (If you still want some guns - they require no training, you can preload them and they can be mass produced (while magic might or might not be available to everyone - a mage might even carry a flintlock pistol as a large resort when he runs out of mana)).

Since guns aren't useful for warfare due to magic, they're only useful for hunting. Even there they're less useful than magic (if it's that widely used) and not much more useful than a bow (perhaps even less because they're inaccurate, which is perhaps why I the earliest references I could find to hunting with guns were from the 16th century.)

So (early) guns have no real place in a world with magic and since they wouldn't be used much, no one would improve them into what we have today which has a lot more killing power.

A different more magical approach:

All living things have mana. And that mana naturally forms a protective barrier against objects without mana. So a bullet wouldn't even be able to harm a flower.

Of course, swords and other weapons channel the users mana, so they're still able to do their job. The wood of metal tipped arrows provides their mana (either directly or they act as a battery). Rocks (e.g. Landslide) contain the mana of the earth.

So guns - or rather bullets - are pretty useless. Maybe with some more development, they could be useful - e.g. a wooden core as a way to generate or store their own mana. Maybe the way this works isn't very well known because after all - almost everything has mana. Or it's not as straightforward as I suggested and due to the relative complexity of a gun, it's not easy to channel the users mana through the gun into the bullet.


Your magic makes gunpowder extremely unstable, as in C. S. Friedman's "Coldfire Trilogy".


In that series, a space transport from Earth crash lands on an alien planet it is wanting to colonize. Unfortunately, there are unknown (at the time of landfall) that there are natural phenomenon causing what humans call magic.

This "magic" is directly affected by human thought, so any strong thoughts can easily be translated into being. Unfortunately, the strongest feelings human tend to have is fear, such as nightmares. Nightmares escalate until the humans are basically afraid of everything, including their own weapons backfiring, which they do.

Fast forward hundreds of years (or so), the current time frame of the series relates how guns (and gunpowder) is not used, because simple fear prevents it. Some people still try to use it, but generally only end up blowing themselves up.

Except for Gerald Tarrant, one of the MCs of the book. The reader learns his past and how he has come to master the power of gunpowder that so few others can even think about.

Your story also uses magic, so you can use something similar about how magic makes gunpowder unstable. It can be something along the lines of nitroglycerin. It was extremely unstable for shipping until Alfred Nobel figured out how to stabilize it.

Since gunpowder is reactive to magic, it's going to take more than just some sawdust to make it stable, though.


Just remove sulfur from your world. Without sulfur no standard gunpowder would be able to be created. You would have to worry about more advanced explosives but not gunpowder and not guns. They would have air powered rifles and spring loaded weapons but not guns in the normal sense.
You would have to replace life on your planet with another variety that does not use sulfur though. http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/16/sulfur


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