Though bearing a resemblance to gunpowder, being a coarse dark grey powder that exploded when exposed to fire or heat, smokepowder differed by being magical in nature. This rendered the substance vulnerable to anti-magic spells, dead-magic zones, and similar enchantments. Also like gunpowder, it burned rapidly and was rendered unusable when exposed to water, though it was not explosive.
Smokepowder was typically sold and carried within either small wooden powderkegs or in powder horns. Those who used the substance on a frequent basis found that their fingers or gloves were left stained by it.
The exact formula for creating smokepowder was a secret closely guarded by the Church of Gond, what they referred to as a "temple secret." They would never make the substance in front of outsiders or discuss its making with them. That being said, quite a few people outside of the clergy had figured out the ingredients. Including a handful of alchemists, priests, and wizards.
Some believed the formula involved the mixture of two inert substances. Some claimed the ashes left behind by a killed tome guardian could be used in the process. And the alchemist Surero claimed to use a combination of 75% sulfur, 10% saltpeter and 15% charcoal mixed together in sacks to create the substance.[note 1] At least one of the formula's known ingredients was magical in nature and circumvented Gond's prohibition on explosives.
Beyond the formula itself, the process of making smokepowder was difficult and fraught with danger, often ending in an unplanned explosion. This was because only those in the Church of Gond knew the precise proportions for the ingredients and how to mix them in order to make functional smokepowder. For those outside the clergy, determining these measurements and mixtures was a matter of (often dangerous) experimentation.
Gondsmen had their own special tricks for making the powder, which they often expedited with spells. The first was a way of getting three dry ingredients to bond and another was ensuring the final mixture stayed bonded.
- The prevalence of smokepowder was far greater in Wildspace than it was on planets, being a particularly good seller for the merchants known as the Arcane.
- On Oerth smokepowder was an inert substance, not functioning until it was taken off the planet. Though clerics of the Oerthian god of science, Murlynd, were capable of making smokepowder function by concentrating on it with their divine magic.
Smokepowder had existed on Toril for hundreds of years, being used in Kara-Tur to make rockets and magical firecrackers, but it never saw extensive research or development into its use. This was until the Time of Troubles, when Gond in his mortal avatar form washed up on the shore of Lantan. In return for the people there sheltering him, in 1358 DR he revealed the secrets of smokepowder to the Lantanese, including how to make reasonably safe and accurate firearms that utilized the substance.
In the mid-14th century DR, the city-state of Innarlith on the Lake of Steam made use of smokepowder in order excavate the trench for a canal that was dug between the Lake of Steam and the Nagaflow.
Around 1372 DR, the city of Telflamm was considered a gateway for smokepowder and other eastern goods into the rest of Faerûn. Around this time firearms were available throughout Faerûn and many rulers viewed the Church of Gond with ire for having introduced them to the continent, seeing the weapons as a threat to their authority. It wasn't long before rulers began putting stricter regulations in place for the substance.
Around this time, following the Lantanna pirate Gimlet Watersprecht's creation of a portal between Lantan and the Pirate Isles, there was a frightening rise in the number of smokepower and smokepowder weapons among pirates in the Inner Sea. This posed a great concern to the kingdom of Cormyr's then-princess and regent, Alusair Obarskyr.
Cormyr relaxed its laws on smokepowder during this period, allowing for the importation or creation of the substance so long as one had a license from the Crown. However, these licenses came with a fee of 500 gold pieces and a variety of conditions. For example, most often the importer wasn't permitted to take the substance into Arabel or further south than Waymoot. Their licensing fee paid for two War Wizards and two members of the Purple Dragons to watch over the substance.
In addition to the license, those importing smokepowder to Cormyr were required to give a detailed report to a War Wizard or their second-in-command that explained their reasons for importing it, where and how it would be stored in the meantime, and when it would be used, among other other things. Approval was generally more lenient for those who cited a desire to conquer the Stonelands. Furthermore, any attempts to sell, gift, or hide smokepowder would result in a confiscation order that would be carried out by dozens of ruthless War Wizards and Purple Dragons.
In the 1480 DR, smokepowder was still largely a banned substance in Waterdeep. The people who had official access to it were guardsmen. To a limited degree members of the Watchful Order also had access for the purposes of experimentation, though such experiments had to be observed and supervised by officials. Around this same time, the substance could be covertly bought in small quantities at the black markets of Luskan and Westgate, though one was liable to attract the attention of spies.
Across the Realms, many had misconceptions regarding the safety and effectiveness of this substance. It was most often viewed as being unreliable and some form of dangerous or corruptive magic. Smokepowder had a similar reputation among inhabitants of the Demiplane of Dread, especially the Vistani.
Notable Users of Smokepowder
- The Red Wizards of Thay were known to have developed large siege guns, known as bombards, that operated on smokepowder. However, these were largely inaccurate and each shot consumed over a hundred charges.
- In the land of Kara-Tur, there were known to be small rockets that were fueled by smokepowder.
- By 1372 DR, the use of smokepowder was known to be quite common among rock gnomes.
- The armed forces of Colletro, Sumbria, and other city-states of the Blade Kingdoms used smokepowder to arm the highly controversial arquebus and handgun troops by 1217 DR. At one point the same year, a nest of rats found a way into the smokepowder stash in the Palace of Sumbria. The hungry pests gorged on the substance, which let to an infestation of strangely annoying explosive rats that regularly created commotion in the palace.
- Lorenzo Utrelli Da Lomarta, the prince of Lomarta of the Blade Kingdoms crafted gold pouch decoys, filled with smokepowder. Once a pickpocket grabbed the wallet, its long fuse was lit and eventually reached the smokepowder, causing an explosion.
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- It should be noted though that Ed Greenwood stated in one tweet that smokepowder had completely different ingredients from gunpowder.
In 2017, Ed Greenwood stated in a tweet that the reason gunpowder didn't work on Toril was because executives at TSR, Inc. didn't want firearms in the setting. He also stated that Jeff Grubb later conceived of smokepowder, specifically for use with the giff. In 2020, Ed further elaborated in a tweet that the idea of smokepowder was borrowed from jewelers’ rouge, a fictional gunpowder-equivalent in the Chronicles of Amber novel series (which like the Forgotten Realms, is a setting where actual gunpowder is inert), with the permission of Roger Zelazny.
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