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The riddle of steel (no Conan jokes)


Mr. R
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I am thinking of making steel actually a magical metal.  It is not something that can be made, but 

 

1) a product of Alchemy and is usually a precursor to magical weapons/armour/items of power

OR

2) a rare natural occouring metal located near iron deposits

OR

 

So any other ideas?  

Do you do something like this?  Or do you add a magical metal (Mithril/ Orichalcum)

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Since steel is already an alloy, I'd suggest making it a ground rule that, in your world, one of the components you need to make steel is some highly rare element, and knowledge of how to use it is closely guarded. Most people, even most smiths and armorers, don't even know the name of this ultra-rare ingredient, much less where to find it or how to use it.

 

That kind of leaves the door open for you.  Maybe this rare component is actually magical, and only alchemists or wizards can combine it with iron to make steel. Or maybe it's just a rarer element than iron is, and the knowledge is tightly held by only a few, which makes them as rich and powerful as if it were magical... 

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Just make it clear to your players that real-world attempts to make steel have been tried on this world over and over for centuries without any success.

 

So no, they aren't going to be able to "invent" a cheap steel alternative by the players reading the internet then their PC's miraculously having the same idea.

 

It'll save you a lot of arguments in the long run.

 

Also keep in mind, if you're making steel weapons/armor rare and difficult to obtain, you're making magicians who can do combat magic much more powerful in comparison.

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  Basic steel while an important creation is too simple and easy to create to be the magical substance you’re looking for but a specially refined version might fit the bill. 
   The real world’s Damascus Steel or Game of Thrones Valerian Steel could provide the mysterious, magical swords and armor for your campaign. 
  Just add a dash of secrecy about the exact formula and process and you’re on your way.

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I guess you could have something like True Steel, like the previously-mentioned Damascus Steel, which then has the stats in the equipment books and is very expensive, but most smiths can only make a kind of weak imitation of steel which is basically about as tough and strong as Bronze.

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55 minutes ago, archer said:

Just make it clear to your players that real-world attempts to make steel have been tried on this world over and over for centuries without any success.

 

So no, they aren't going to be able to "invent" a cheap steel alternative by the players reading the internet then their PC's miraculously having the same idea.

 

It'll save you a lot of arguments in the long run.

 

Also keep in mind, if you're making steel weapons/armor rare and difficult to obtain, you're making magicians who can do combat magic much more powerful in comparison.

I didn't think of that.  Thanks!

48 minutes ago, Tjack said:

  Basic steel while an important creation is too simple and easy to create to be the magical substance you’re looking for but a specially refined version might fit the bill. 
   The real world’s Damascus Steel or Game of Thrones Valerian Steel could provide the mysterious, magical swords and armor for your campaign. 
  Just add a dash of secrecy about the exact formula and process and you’re on your way.

 

 

I like that.  I just don't want it to be "Here's my mastercraft weapon!  Now enchant it!" stuff.  

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3 hours ago, Mr. R said:

I am thinking of making steel actually a magical metal.  

 

So any other ideas?  

Do you do something like this?  Or do you add a magical metal (Mithril/ Orichalcum)

So, yes, I have done things  like that in fantasy settings before.  In old-school AD&D, magic armor (and presumably weapons) were made of meteorite-alloy, Tolkienesque mithril (mithral post-law-suit), or adamantine steel (no Marvel lawsuit that I know  of, it's ancient Greek, afterall), and I ran with that back in the day, the one interesting variation I did was that adamantite was not a metal, but a rare earth (soft/frangible, like graphite, and grey-green) and it wasn't alloyed with iron to make adamantine steel, it was burned, like coal, to provide the heat necessary to make that supernaturally strong metal.  I also used Orichalcum, but it was more a sort of solidified magic you used to power spells or empower items, and Lunargent, which was just another name for mithril.  Much later I liked describing the "mithril" everyone was so hot for as having all the qualities of aluminum, included the riddle-like claim that it was "smelted from ice" (there's apparently an aluminum ore that's transparent and looks a bit like ice, including being virtually invisible in water - I read about that a long, long time ago, so IDK, IIRC.... hey google... OK, "Cryolite"... hm... that's interesting).

 

Making steel with iron-age techniques is no mean feat, so attributing it to magic, even if it is 'ordinary' steel - let alone something like pattern-welding 'Damascus' steel or the like - is perfectly reasonable, and, in a fantasy setting, it can be actual magic, too.   Like, steel is made by a few smiths here and there, but they have secret magical knowledge, or a supernatural bloodline, or the help of a spirit or deity.  If you were to, say, just spy on them and imitate the mundane tasks, it wouldn't work - maybe you wouldn't be able to work the metal, maybe you'd craft an item but it would just be iron, or have inferior qualities, like breaking readily.  

Or, 'steel' in your campaign could be something superior to medieval or modern steel, and the 'mundane' version would get you mundane, realistic, medieval steel, which wouldn't pass muster in your fantasy world.  Maybe they have a separate name for inferior attempts at non-magical steel like 'grey iron' or 'brittlesteel' or something?

 

(BTW, Apparently, steel was around for a long time, a byproduct of working iron, just little bits of it, very hard, but too brittle to be of use for much?  Any history-of-metallurgy enthusiasts an jump in any time....)

 

 

 

 

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Most scholars that I've read believe that the "adamant" which the Greeks referred to was diamond, which does make sense as it's the hardest substance known. For a past campaign with a Classical motif I ran with that, adding magical furnaces capable of volcanic-level heat and pressure, usually tapping into a live volcano, which could render diamonds soft like molten glass, so they could be merged into a larger mass, folded like steel to diminish fracture flaws, shaped to desire, even blown like glass. In this case it wasn't so much the rarity of the ingredient that was the limiting factor, as the difficulty in creating the forge.

 

For something a little less exotic, one of Hero Games' sci-fi books mentions a naturally occurring alloy of platinum, stronger than any steel alloy. Obviously platinum is relatively rare on Earth, and this alloy would be even rarer; but because platinum's melting point is very high for a metal, in a pre-industrial fantasy setting working it would also require magical or anachronistic tools and techniques.

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NOVA did episodes called, IIRC, "Secrets of the Viking Sword" and "Secrets of the Samurai Sword" othe Norse got it from, what was it, Iran?n the history and craft of steel and swordmaking. And yes, apparently crucible steel might as well hsave been alchemy or magic for all Dark Ages Europe knew. The Norse got it by trade from, what was it, Iran? And it was a bitch-kitty to work.

 

Not many swords survive from this period, but a few blades are inlaid with the word or name 'ULFBEHRT," with a cross plunked in the middle of the letters. The significance of this name is not known. Could be anything from the swordsmith's name to a SHAZAM-like acronym of power.

 

I'm sure you can find the episodes on line, with added commentary.

 

In the game Exalted, magic weapons and other items are produced by alloying iron with the magical materials Orichalcum, Moonsilver, Jade (in the game world it's magical), Starmetal, Soulsteel, or Adamant. Jade is the most common and most easily mined like any other mineral. The others are a bit more challenging. Like, Soulsteel ore comes from the Underworld of the dead, while Starmetal only falls from the sky as a shooting star when a god dies -- it's the congealed essence of the god.

 

It isn't much of a step to "magify" meteoric iron. For a long time, it was the onbly iron people had! A history of metallurgy I read for a writing assignment included a picture of an ancient brooch that consisted of a lump of meteoric iron set in gold as if it were a jewel. The Greek name for iron, "sideros," literally means "of the stars." Ditto the Sumerian name. So maybe for your campaign, the magical metal is meteoric iron rather than steel, and it's called "Siderite" or "Starmetal."

 

Since that bit of research, I finally saw Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which one of the characters gets a sword of meteoric iron. Not explicitly called out as magic, but it was a darn good sword.

 

In Indonesia, the best kris swords are made from meteoric iron, which adds to their magical reputation. Also, US President Jaqmes Madison was gifted with a pair of dueling pistols made of meteoric iron. If anyone's doing modern or historic fantasy, you might try doing something with President Madison's Space Pistols. Becaue you can't make up stuff this weird.

 

Dean Shomshak

 

 

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So what is your reason for making steel 'magical'?  Is it just for flavor or does it have an actual effect on the game mechanics? 

 

In my own games, good steel weapons are readily available and follow the standard weapon stats.  But they can also become dull if not maintained, or break if abused (or sometimes on a roll of 18 or when Unluck triggers).  Non-magical weapons made of mithril require much less maintenance and have a lower STR Min than a similar steel weapon.  They are rare and expensive of course.  Even more rare are adamantium weapons which are so exceedingly hard that they can hold an ultra-fine edge that makes the weapon effectively armor-piercing (they have normal STR Min though).  Mithril and adamantium weapons allow for a nice step between standard weapons and fully magical ones as far a loot for the PC's goes.

 

You might also want to consider how the availability of steel will affect armor choices.  Iron armor is going to have -1 PD/ED relative to steel armor for the same weight and so may be less desirable, which might shift people toward lighter armors with a lower defense.  It might also make more exotic armors more viable (e.g. horn armor would be -2 PD/ED relative to steel, but only be 70% of the weight).

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1 hour ago, Ockham's Spoon said:

So what is your reason for making steel 'magical'?  Is it just for flavor or does it have an actual effect on the game mechanics? 

 

In my own games, good steel weapons are readily available and follow the standard weapon stats.  But they can also become dull if not maintained, or break if abused (or sometimes on a roll of 18 or when Unluck triggers).  Non-magical weapons made of mithril require much less maintenance and have a lower STR Min than a similar steel weapon.  They are rare and expensive of course.  Even more rare are adamantium weapons which are so exceedingly hard that they can hold an ultra-fine edge that makes the weapon effectively armor-piercing (they have normal STR Min though).  Mithril and adamantium weapons allow for a nice step between standard weapons and fully magical ones as far a loot for the PC's goes.

 

You might also want to consider how the availability of steel will affect armor choices.  Iron armor is going to have -1 PD/ED relative to steel armor for the same weight and so may be less desirable, which might shift people toward lighter armors with a lower defense.  It might also make more exotic armors more viable (e.g. horn armor would be -2 PD/ED relative to steel, but only be 70% of the weight).

 

Something like this.  I don't want magical weapons to be those things where "there's the magic item store, where's our list again?" attitude.  I want some normal weapons that are so good as to be considered almost semi magical.  To me that will make those magical weapons/ items something special!

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Maybe in your world, almost all iron ores are low quality, low in carbon and silicon, and high in sulfur. So the basic knowledge exists to purity the ore and cast it, but only something approaching early steel exists, basically just iron that has been smoked and tempered.

Meanwhile, there are some weaponsmiths who possess almost magical secrets. They create something akin to Damascus steel or Japanese sword steel by carefully processing and forging the steel. In the real world, such technological disparities created legends that lasted centuries, until other places caught up. Outside of those masters, the only superior steel available is from meteorite iron.

 

Note that in the early Iron Age, whether a given weapon of bronze or steel was superior depended a lot on workmanship. What created a revolution in arms is how plentiful iron is, compared to copper and tin (which are additionally rarely found near each). In a world of poor iron and inferior steel, bronze weapons might exist of superior allows and workmanship which are also quite powerful compared to ordinary weapons. Bronze tends to be more ductile, but it's also dense, so making superior bronze weapons would be a matter of know-how.

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