Thursday, 23 March 2017

Cold Iron: Forgery and Reality

European folklore often paints fey creatures as allergic to iron. This supports the idea that people with Bronze or Stone age technology, defeated by iron-using peoples, passed into the victors' mythology as faeries and other weird beings. The first and finest expression of this belief in gaming comes from Runequest, where technology is Bronze Age, meteorite iron is rare and near-magical, and elves and trolls can't stand it.

As with so many other issues, Runequest had the elegant solution and D&D ham-fisted it. In a medieval, iron-using society, there's nothing special about the metal itself. Thus the peculiarity, in the AD&D Monster Manual, of seeing iron as the bane of demons and other evil creatures. And the backpedaling, in a couple of entries, to insist that only "cold iron" bans a ghast or harms a quasit.

Adding injury to St. Dunstan's insult.
As I understood this back in the day, "iron" must mean something different from steel. Most likely, the carbon involved in forging weapons in the medieval-Renaissance world somehow disrupted the mojo of iron, so you would have to special-order a mace head of the same stuff as your cauldron or door handle. And, it would be reasonably balancing to say that non-carbon iron couldn't make up a useful blade, because it would be too soft or brittle.

"Cold iron" is near-meaningless, more a poetic epithet than a technical term. Iron can't be extracted from ore without heat, and "cold forging" is a modern industrial term which assumes you can die-stamp a sheet of rolled iron (which passed through heat in the smelting and rolling processes). One obvious way to get iron "cold" is to chip it off a meteorite, but with what tools exactly?

Over the years, the D&D rules got cleaned up to the point where only this "cold iron" can harm some immune monsters, and the 3rd edition SRD lists it as a special material: "This iron, mined deep underground, known for its effectiveness against fey creatures, is forged at a lower temperature to preserve its delicate properties ."

Well, but there's something too game-y balance-y about this solution, full of vague and passive rules-speak. "Stuff that harms the Weird is super expensive because it comes from a Place of Rareness." It makes sense but lacks resonance. The same goes for meteorite iron. I suppose if only dwarves or lost human races had the technology to whittle blades from meteorites that would sound a bit cooler. But ...

Why not have iron (as opposed to steel) just show up the ability of non-carbon-forged tools and household implements to resist the supernatural? After all, the silver that devils and werewolves fear is dirt-common in the D&D world. Silver pieces are crappy coins that make slightly more expensive sling bullets than lead. A party in my campaign once bought a silver teapot, filled it with sand, and swung it as a flail against the equivalent of wights. So why not have desperate halfling housewives fending off a quasit with a skillet? Or adventurers chucking their iron door spikes at ghasts? 

As a bonus, if elves can't stand iron spikes, it throws a little game balance into elven PC's who (at least in AD&D) are far superior to poor old humans.

10 comments:

  1. This evokes the idea that the Wilderness (where fey, demons, etc. live) has been on the fringes of Civilization long enough that the need for iron weapons has been forgotten in favor of the more technological steel. Thus, mining the wisdom of old-wives tales when it comes to these forgotten threats can produce some very interesting world building material.

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    1. Indeed, the general idea that there are mundane means in your power that defeat evil, if you only know (garlic for vampires, etc.) The only difficulty in gaming is having players discover them in the course of play, instead of from reading the game books or having played before.

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  2. Wow, I just wrote something much along these lines a few days ago! A bit more long-winded, and covering more than just iron, but... check it out if you're bored!

    http://arsmagisterii.blogspot.com/2017/03/silver-and-steel.html

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    1. Great geo-mythology and rules! Thanks for sharing!

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    2. "Geo-mythology," eh? Haha, I like that!

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  4. Aha, but can those same door spikes penetrate the bronze cuirass or oaken breastplate of a given elven warrior?

    (Of course, if our elves are bronzeworkers, this conjures up not only the Celts - see the Waterloo Helmet or the Battersea Shield - but also the entertaining prospect of elves armed after the Homeric heroes of Troy, Sparta and Mycenae!)


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    1. Yep, an extra level to their game!

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  5. I like the idea, in a steel-using society, that plain iron weapons are extra effective against the fey, but that they have to be custom-ordered, and perhaps are somewhat brittle.

    I was just reading the Wormskin zine, and I believe they use exactly the approach you recommend.

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  6. From some quick Wikipedia research I did a while back, cold iron was terrestrial iron, and meteoric iron was hot iron. Terrestrial iron/cold iron was more effective against creatures not of this earch, i.e. demons, aliens, and other planes of existence. At least that's my take away from reading Conan stories.

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