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I'd like to run an adventure where the party needs to improvise and find some sources of iron when they're in and around a small village. Cold iron plays a role in a lot of games as the bane of fey and sometimes other supernatural creatures, and I'm going by the wikipedia article definition where "cold iron" really just means "iron". I have no real sense of how common such weapons would actually be, or where someone might find iron in an emergency. Plus, I want the focus to be on improvisation, not running down to the shop and buying a "cold iron greatsword".

I don't really have much of a background in knowing what metals are commonly used, and when iron would be used versus steel or other metals. Without having a sense of which common items might be made out of iron, it will be difficult to carry out my plan.

What types of items made out of iron would probably exist in a typical fantasy village (say, < 1000 people)? Setting equivalent probably wouldn't be far off the technological level of, say, your average Forgotten Realms village.

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@Sterno For a question like this, I'd recommend focusing on the system/setting you're playing (D&D 3.5?), and simply state that you want to make iron equivalent to cold iron. A lot of settings have special cold irons, and setting usually has something to say about the technology level. –  AceCalhoon Apr 11 '12 at 13:46
@AceCalhoon Setting will be of my own creation. As for system, I haven't decided between Hackmaster or one of the OSR systems (such as OSRIC). I'm not very interested in "<specific rule/setting> book says <X>". I'm interested in "these sorts of things would probably be made of iron in your generic fantasy village". It is possible that I'm setting up an overly broad question here since "generic fantasy village" is not well defined, yet in practice in RPGs, I've found that regardless of system or even DM, the gamer collective usually thinks of fantasy villages as having some generic traits. –  Sterno Apr 11 '12 at 13:53
Also, there is a distinction to be made between cold forged iron and normal iron, pig iron, and steel. Is that what you are looking for? Also, what rough period of tech are we talking about? Dark ages, middle, enlightenment, high-fantasy pesudo-enlightenment? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 11 '12 at 13:59
@BrianBallsun-Stanton This began with me liking the way the Dresden Files books play with the idea of iron hurting fey, and the way Harry sometimes has to improvise. I believe they also use the "iron, period, hurts fey" idea, as opposed to some mythical "cold iron". I really want to set up that same sort of scenario in a fantasy game, which led to this question. I hope my latest update of the question makes it clearer what I'm after. –  Sterno Apr 11 '12 at 14:03
Bear in mind that metallic iron really sucks. It corrodes way too easily, its melting point is much higher than most other common metals, making it difficult to forge, and it's not as strong as its rivals. Iron is actually a step backwards from bronze in almost every way. The reason we went from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age was not progress; it's because a materials scarcity made bronze more difficult to obtain than iron. If your fantasy world didn't have the same thing happen, and they haven't discovered good ways to produce good steel, no one would probably want to use iron. –  Mason Wheeler Apr 12 '12 at 0:24

5 Answers 5

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It will depend on the technology level of the world as well as the logistical connectivity of the village to the rest of the world, if the villagers don't travel or have access to good ore then they're not going to have as many tools unless merchants brave the far reaches of the unprofitable areas of the kingdom/empire/etc.

As technological levels increase then steel will become increasingly prevalent over iron as a tool (replacing other metals as well as wood); a brief history of steel/iron refinement is here

For a generic fantasy world I'd have that the more backward and out-of-the-way the village the more likely they are to use iron (or possibly even wood or bronze for certain applications).

Typical items are going to be hammers, nails, scythes, saws, horseshoes, tongs, chisels, knives, hooks and plows.

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Great answer. As a side note, many poorer farming villages may have no horses or only a couple of plow horses, and those might not have horseshoes. –  TimothyAWiseman Apr 11 '12 at 14:54
@TimothyAWiseman - Good point, maybe even oxen or donkeys, horses are expensive things to keep! –  Rob Apr 11 '12 at 16:11

Farming tools and even then they use as much wood as possible. Odds are the only weapon and armor smiths are with the local lord, and thus metal objects (that aren't used by knights/vassals/militia) would be limited as much as possible. As far as Steel vs. Iron, steel is iron and carbon, and varying levels of carbon (as well as the heating and cooling methods) make the varying types of steel. Other metals tend to be reserved for the local nobility because they are likely precious metals used in jewelry although lower grade stuff like bronze or copper might make it into tools as a cheap substitute.

So if your players want iron weapons they need to go up the metaphorical food chain unless they are monks or rebellious farmers and don't mind using a pitchfork, a scythe, or a large bread knife.

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Just think of what kinds of items would be metal, and which of those need to be of a harder metal. A backwoods village is more likely to have a smaller supply of the more sought after material, so it would likely be used in the most critical of places.

Examples of metal objects might include: lamps/lanterns, axes, scythes, rakes, shovels, gardening tools, pots/pans, food utensils or butcher's implements, leatherworking implements, shearing tools, spits, horse shoes, barrel straps, various blacksmith metal stock and of course the rare sword or bit of unused armor in some farmers attic from a long past war from far away or somesuch. ;)

As for which of those items might be made of iron, that would be up to you in determining how widely used iron is.

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Go to the sourcebook: the article Economy of England in the Middle Ages on Wikipedia.

At least the knife of most ploughs in settled areas. In newly settled areas or "forest" as in "desert waste" communities expect cheap wooden scratch ploughs. Expect more iron on land owned and managed by devotional communities, as opposed to land owned and managed by absentee wizard, noble or "noble-hierophant" owners.

Finally, given that the game can't accurately simulate a fantasy medieval past, because the source material isn't simulatable, make it up based on what you think is dramatically more interesting.

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That's a great wiki article. One bone to pick though... I really hate seeing make it up in the answer. The entire purpose of my question is determine how I should go about making it up! –  Sterno Apr 18 '12 at 12:45
Given that the issue is a resource scarcity one, driving drama, pick an appropriate poverty level for the intended dramatic effect. Is your world a 15th century pseudo-Elizabethan one? Then if you want a low iron community make it a band of landless men living in a forest. Is your world an 8th century pseudo-Dark ages one? Then if you want a high iron community set it in a working monestary farm. –  Samuel Russell May 2 '12 at 5:10

If you are going to use the "cold iron" vs "iron" distinction, make the cold iron similar to silver weapons in D&D - more expensive, prone to nicks/dents/snapping more than forged iron or steel, and a big pain in upkeep - oiling to prevent rust, repairing regularly, etc.

In general, most "metal" objects in town would be forged iron (or copper or bronze, etc.), as it has more durability and strength. Only specific items dedicated as useful against fey would be cold iron - possibly an applique that might be attached to door handles, screens over glass windows or bars over other types of windows, or small things to be used in the event of an emergency fey incursion.

Cold iron may be common in the economy, but it is used sparingly as a ceremonial dagger or small hammer. It's not "useful" in the everyday sense, so it is relegated to ceremony and last-ditch defense.

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