Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Riddle Of Steel

One thing I do enjoy in James Silk's retro-pulp Death Dealer books (aside from the Frazetta covers and the grim textual depictions of “axe work”) is the treatment of metals. The culture of his novels is ostensibly Bronze Age, but here and there some of the “bad” guys have developed steel, and their weapons and armor are shown to be uber-superior to the poor-ass barbarians.

I’ve seen this similar theme of “emerging technology usurping prior technology” in films like Pathfinder (Vikings!) and 10,000 BC, as well as literature. And I like it…by which I mean, I like it for something to add to a D&D campaign.

AD&D introduces the concept of “magic metals” in the DMG when it starts discussing how +4 weapons need to be made from mithril and +5 weapons need to be made from adamant. But interpolate the concept a bit…if one’s D&D campaign is set in a Bronze Age society, wouldn’t steel be the magical metal of the gods?

I’m not a metallurgist, but I know a bit about swords and such just ‘cause I’m a big nerd. And bronze weapons and armor were incredibly durable, stronger than natural “wrought iron” which was present in greater abundance than tin and copper (the two materials necessary for smelting bronze). The Iron Age which follows the Bronze isn’t about folks up and discovering iron; they had it already. It was instead about folks learning to smith at higher temperatures, so as to incorporate carbon into their iron, thus creating steel… a metal as light weight as bronze but many times more durable.

Here’s how I see it: a Bronze Age campaign is totally consistent with OS D&D play. For one thing it is both pulpier and Classical (in the ancient Greek sense of the term…Medusa? Pegasus? Cyclops?). For another it skirts the whole issue of “why is there no gunpowder?” (give it a few centuries, folks). Personally, I think a lot of the illustrations of characters in AD&D look more Bronze Age anyway (more loin cloths, less hose). Plus making steel a “magic” metal affords some cool opportunities for your game.

Like what? Well, like readily identifiable magic items, for one. Anyone can see that a shining steel blade is superior to its Bronze Age equivalent.

What else? Putting the old school alchemy back into the wizard’s handbook. If magic-user’s create magic weapons, then they’re going to be the ones with knowledge of metallurgy and smithing (after 9th level, of course).

Which also means? Dwarves once again become makers of magic arms and armor, even without the ability to use magic or cast spells. Wizards will be indenturing themselves out to dwarfholds (or at least going on quests) in order to learn the secrets of steel from the dwarves.

This is the way I’d work it: Bronze Age arms and armor are the default. These are readily identifiable by anyone. Arms and armor of shining steel are +1…also readily identifiable, and creatable only by a dwarf, elf, magic-user, or skilled blacksmith (a Normal Man) with the required training. Arms and armor of superior craftsmanship (identifiable by a fighter, dwarf, elf, or blacksmith) are +1 as well…combine the two and you have +2 equipment (steel of excellent manufacture).

So what then are +3 items? Well these are the obviously enchanted items. Stormbringer or Blackrazor (made with alien black metal and covered in glowing runes or starry constellations). The golden armor of Mordred from the film Excalibur. That kind of thing. Only dwarves of the greatest ability (i.e. 12th level in B/X) can manufacture items with true enchantments (for example, additional bonuses against giants), and mundane blacksmiths cannot manufacture them at all. These items of power may be obviously magical, but the identification of their powers will need to be accomplished in the “normal” (D&D) fashion.


  1. That's pretty much exactly the way I am handling non-metal vs metal armour and weapons in my Dark Sun / Castles & Crusades game.

  2. Cool! I never owned/played Dark Suns so I'm not sure of the specifics, but if nothing else, I think it's a nifty way for PCs to "self-identify" magic items.