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We all dream of piles of gold coins, ornate gem-encrusted scepters, and powerful magic items when we play our favorite fantasy games.  Think about it.  It’s iconic.  You’ve braved the myriad traps of the evil cultists, fought the summoned demonic servitors of the twisted denizens of the hide-out, and eventually faced down their high priest.  And for your rewards you find… a holy sword, dedicated to the foremost deity of light and good, kept here to prevent it from being used against the cult and it’s abyssal patron.

But wouldn’t it be even better if that sword wasn’t just ensorcelled steel?  Or even the now hum-drum fantasy metals of mithril and adamantite?  What if they picked the blade up to find it was some kind of odd green metal, just as heavy as steel, but capable of withstanding the caustic nature of the negative energies that infuse the undead?  Of course it would, and it would keep your players off balance.

Even classic mythology there is talk of metals that have fallen into obscurity, such as the orichalcum of Plato’s Atlantis.  Or what of even plain old cold-forged iron, which is iron that is shaped at room temperature, allowing only one chance at making the item.  In folklore, it was of importance use against fey creatures and witches, said to be a ground against the powers of magic.

Too often we abandon some of our more creative impulses in the name of expediency when it comes to our games, and we all suffer for it.  We play games that are an outlet for our creativity, not just our chance to chuck dice and kill things, then take their stuff.

And so, let’s talk about Fantasy Metallurgy.

Part the First: Base Metals.

Base metals are, for our purpose, those metals that are found in raw form in nature.  They are not alloyed with other metals or compounds to make complex metals, and have basic fantastic qualities in and of themselves.  I will list some of the base metals I like to use first.

Adamantite:  This base metal is made, in my campaigns, by naturally occurring veins of iron that form near the coal deposits that, with time, heat and pressure, form diamonds.  Over ages of this heat and pressure, the iron, coal and proto-diamonds naturally combine to form a new compound: adamantite.  (So you all know, the root adamant actually means “indestructible”, and you can see the root of diamond in it)  Intensely strong, it is used to make the greatest of weapons, armor and items, and has properties that lend themselves to encourage protective and abjuration magics.

Iron: Considered a magically inert metal, it is only when it is combined with lime and coal that it becomes able to work alongside magic in any way.  The base metal for many other alloys, iron is easily adapted to many purposes, and is largely considered to be a lucky metal, due to its proliferation in most all lands.

Meteoritic Iron: Not the iron mined by most men and dwarves, meteoritic iron is taken from fallen stars that make it to the surface of the world, seen as a gift from the gods for a specific purpose.  Meteoritic iron is known for its disposition towards both radiant and necrotic powers, coming as it does directly from the realms of the gods, both dark and light.  Notoriously difficult to work with, many of the great suits of armor and legendary weapons may be made from meteoritic iron.

Copper: This metal is about as useful for arms and armor making, without alchemical assistance, as lead.  However, it is useful for things like amulets, luck-charms and magical devices intended to conduct energies of all kinds.  When coupled with simple quartz crystals, it can make wands of amazing efficacy when used for offensive purposes.

Gold: Just like copper, gold is fairly useless when it comes to weapons and armor.  It is a great ornamental metal, used to make swords look pretty.  It can be made into the occult metal orichalcum when alloyed properly, and the correct rituals are performed.  Gold is, however, of use in items destined for use as channels of radiant energy, and for purification through fire.

Silver: Silver is a bit harder, but still primarily an ornamental metal.  Its attunement is towards the moon, and this can be seen in how it affects lycanthropes, with their ties to the lunar body.  Silver can be used to make the alloys moonsilver and brightsteel.  Its affinities include purification in general, as well as an ideal metal for use in items meant to channel emotions.

These are Base Metals in my game.  There are more; this is just a taste.  But right now I want to take some time to talk about coming up with base metals in your game.  Because, like our last discussion about monetary systems in your game, this is about YOUR innovations, not just mine.

When you come up with base metals, the first thing you have to decide is what affinities they are going to have.  I say just affinities, because we aren’t going to go into details yet about strengths and weaknesses.  This is the point at which you decide what kind of things your metal should be used for, and will be associated with.  So take a couple minutes and really think.  I mean it, think of one or two affinities you want your base metal to have.

Got it yet?  Okay, a couple more minutes then.

Time’s up.  Let’s see here… okay, you want a metal with an affinity for cold-based magic… cone of cold, frost rays, that kind of thing; and useful against creatures of fire.  Interesting concept.  Now our next step is to think up one positive quality and one negative quality the metal possesses.  Remember, we are making a base metal, so it should be fairly uncomplicated.  Take a couple minutes.

Alright, here is what I came up with: must be cold-forged only; very light.  What this means, this cold-forged, is that whatever we make from it is never heated and cooled, so it doesn’t have a temper like good forged steel does.  But, it is light, very light, making it easier to carry.  So what we have is a metal that is a bit of a pain to forge and shape properly, is light to carry, and works well against creatures of fire and when channeling magic of a cold nature.  Good so far.

Now you have to determine its rarity.  You see, metals with magical properties aren’t something you should be able to go down to the corner smithy and just pick up.  It’s the kind of thing you undertake a minor quest for, to some remote area.  You may even have to do some schmoozing and proving yourself in order to get your request even heard.

So what are you going to name your metal?  Well, I’ll leave that up to you.  I do suggest for base metals though, you look through the Oxford English Dictionary for some good roots.  Look up words like Cold, Frost, Ice and Snow, and check out their root words.  I know I would name this metal Gelidium.  Look it up.

Part the Second: Complex Metals, or Alloys

Complex metals, or alloys, are metals made by combining various metallic compounds, as well as other materials, into a final form that either incorporates qualities of the base metals and materials used to make it, or has new qualities related to none of its basic compounds.

Here are some complex metals I like to use in my games:

Steel:  That’s right, for all intents and purposes, steel is a complex metal.  You have to combine iron, coal and lime in the right concentrations in order to make steel properly.  On top of it, about the only quality it inherits from its father metal, iron, is its magnetic qualities.  Steel is the standard metal used in weapons and armor, and accepts magical energies readily.

The various “Colored” golds:  There is actually a list of the “colors” of gold that you can get by alloying gold with other metals, from zinc to iron to copper, in various concentrations.  They are actually used to this day in our world, the real one, in jewelry.  White gold, red gold, green gold, blue gold… even purple gold exists.  And each one should have its own general proclivities.  One thing I have decided is that blue gold, a compound of iron and gold, is of use to a specific faith in my campaign world, when making their holy symbols.

Orichalcum: The famous metal of a lost civilization, it is said to be made by using gold, copper, garnet gemstones, and the lifeblood of the earth, and best done when the sun is full in the sky.  Orichalcum is the metal prized by those who fight the undead, and denizens of the unholy realms.  Its spiritual purity as a metal is unknown elsewhere, and its heavy weight makes it unusable by all but the mightiest of heroes.  It is said that even a dagger of orichalcum weighs almost three times what one made of steel does.

Brightsteel:  An allow made from steel and silver, and purified by the light of the full moon on a clear night, brightsteel is sought out by those that run the wilds, and fear those horrid creatures that have made their way to our world from the Realms of Madness.  In my campaign world, brightsteel is used almost exclusively to make weapons that will be of extra use against aberrations, those creatures that come from the Realm of Madness, the far realm of gibbering horrors.

So… when you make complex metals, you have to have a little more formulaic thought.  What are the components?  How much of each needs to go into a batch?  Are there non-metallic compounds that need to be added as well?  Certain conditions that must be met?  Hell, is it something that most mortals can even attempt?

The other thing you have to think of is what qualities they are going to have.    In the brightsteel example above, the qualities of steel (good temper) and silver (emotional purity) come together to make a metal that is of great use against those that seek to corrupt and dominate the world, and turn it into another realm of madness.  Most complex metals will either have a mixing of concepts like that, or will go the exact opposite way, and become a compound that has qualities all its own.

Part the Third: Nonmetal materials

There is something else I want to talk about here, and that is the use of non-metallic materials in pursuit of items that are usually associated with metal, like armor, weapons, etc.  Why must every sword be forged of metal?  What if it was grown in the heart of the fey kingdoms of the Summerlands, from the heart of a majestic ironoak tree?  What if the dwarves of the lost thanedom of Urthaert have come to shape the crystals of the earth, hardening them with alchemy until they hold the temper of the finest steel?

To get really fantastic, get away from using metals so much.  There are many other materials you can use for your items, from fantastic woods, to crystal, to even rare forms of stone.  Get creative, get out there and really stretch your mental faculties.  Let your imagination go.  Just remember to keep some balance.

Oh, and look up some gemstone qualities when you make your items.  If your players come to understand that sapphires, in your world, are of best use in article preventing possession by evil spirits, they will be more likely to prep for their adventures in the place called the Desert of Lost Souls in more interesting ways.  If you want to use some real life examples of folklore-ish qualities of items from the real world, I suggest the Cunningham’s series of Encyclopedias.  Scott Cunningham was a genius who really did his homework and research on these things.  Well worth the buy.

What do you think?

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One Comment

  1. i think i need to do more of this in my next campaign.


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