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It came up in Dresden Files, but is not limited to that game, you can find the term in DnD as well. I would like to know what it means.

If you look for Cold Iron on Wikipedia, you only get iron: "Cold iron is a poetic and archaic term for iron."
This would imply everything made mostly from Fe is cold iron. Clearly, this is not the case, in every game Cold Iron is something special, the every day sword is not made out of it.

The Dresden Files rulebook is not very specific about it:

something that anyone could reasonably get access to, but usually doesn’t carry on them (like cold iron) page 185.

What is cold iron?
How do I create cold iron?
How do I get cold iron?

To make the question easier to understand, compare Cold Iron to Holy Water. You know how it is different from usual Water, you know how you get it or create it.

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Please don't answer in comments. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 11 at 12:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 23 down vote accepted

“Cold iron” historically is just a poetic way of saying “iron.” Worked iron (including steel) is traditionally something that the fairy folk shy away from, and many fantasy works have embraced this—but each does it their own way.

The Dresden Files universe is a very practical and down-to-earth place when it comes to magical reagents. In a world where magic is about faith and effort, where ritual is just a convenient way to focus one's will, you don't have to do anything in particular to make iron nasty for the fey. Iron and fairies just don't mix: pretty much any iron/steel will make the fey folk unhappy. (By contrast D&D 3.5 says cold iron is special stuff, defined both by where it’s mined and how it’s forged. We could speculate about whether that's more due to flavour or balance, but I digress.)

The very presence of iron in any form is uncomfortable for Dresden Files fey, and bringing steel into a fey demesne is profane, but most people don’t casually carry enough iron to be a convenient weapon against the fey. Wounds inflicted on fairies by iron weapons—including nails, boxcutters, and steel-jacketed bullets—are slow to heal, and are spiritual as well as physical. You could also try hitting one with your car, or using a staple gun--neither of which are designed for precision violence.

If this seems imbalanced, well. It is. DFRPG is more narratively balanced than it is mechanically. Since fey find iron so offensive, they go on the offensive when confronted with it. Possessing an iron weapon has major drawbacks in a fey-heavy campaign, because it makes you a target for suspicion and possibly pre-emptive elimination. But--remember that your average handgun bullets don't have steel jackets.

…the fairies are very glad we’re using so much more plastic these days.

(There is also a real-world forging technique called “cold forging.” It means the metal wasn’t heated as much as many techniques call for, and the resulting piece has different qualities of hardness than a hot-forged piece. This is irrelevant to DFRPG’s definition of cold iron, though other settings sometimes mean this when they talk about “cold iron.”)

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"You could also try hitting one with your car, or using a staple gun" -- since you're listing fun examples, I recall a scene, I think from a Mercedes Lackey book, involving a desk fan and a handful of iron filings as a kind of anti-fairy flamethrower. –  Steve Jessop Jun 12 at 8:06
    
Perfect answer. Worth noting that it is common in some fantasy to use "cold iron" to refer to iron from a meteorite. The Iron Druid Chronicles uses it this way, for instance. –  TimothyAWiseman Jul 2 at 21:02

Based on the events of Summer Knight cold iron is, in fact, just iron. Dresden

kills Aurora with hundreds of pixies wielding common hobby knives with plastic casings. The book specifically mentions how the cold iron of the knife blades makes the relatively minor cuts deadly to the Summer Lady.

Referencing your quote, how much steel do you have on you right now? Sure, some people still carry a Leatherman or a pocket knife but most don't in the US these days. However, how easy is it to get one? In Summer Knight Dresden specifically mentions needing to

stop at Walmart prior to the climatic battle but not what he needs,

which is saved for the big reveal at the Stone Table.

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A lot of what people carry that may have once been steel is now aluminum or some other similar metal, when it's not plastic. –  Bobson Jun 11 at 17:26
    
e.g the obvious guess: my keys don't stick to a magnet, and so presumably have negligible iron content. –  Steve Jessop Jun 12 at 8:08
    
@SteveJessop Yep, modern key blanks are usually nickel-plate brass or similar. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 12 at 15:34

In some treatments, Cold Iron is iron that has never been worked with fire; this means that it has either been magically extracted or that it's meteoric iron. A few take it to mean Iron that's poured - IE, cast iron. (Cast iron as a weapon is generally poor.)

In traditional folklore, it's just iron, or iron that isn't still hot from the forge.

Note that iron weapons (as opposed to steel) are more brittle.

In most systems, it excludes steel - not in the Dresden Files setting, as is evidenced in Storm Knight (with the pixies), as the common box cutter blade is usually cheap steel.

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This has always been my understanding of "cold iron" as a generic term - raw iron, not steel. Given that most RPGs have a setting where steel has replaced iron, raw iron items and weapons are actually fairly uncommon. –  Matt Thrower Jun 12 at 8:16
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@MattThrower It really does depend on the setting (and sometimes, on the research quality of the writer). After all, "steel" is just our name for a certain type of iron, with cast and wrought iron being names of other kinds of iron. None of those are pure elemental iron, with is exceeding rare as a crafting output. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 12 at 14:53
    
@SevenSidedDie Yes: other answers made it clear that for this particular setting (which I know nothing about) "cold iron" includes steel. I was merely supporting this answer as a common semantic understanding, useful for more generic settings. –  Matt Thrower Jun 12 at 15:19
    
@MattThrower Ah! While I'm also agreeing with this answer's point that it's setting-dependent and for the "it's just iron" part. Let us carry on with our agreeing, then. :) –  SevenSidedDie Jun 12 at 15:32
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@aramis Yep. Above that the alloy is called cast iron (also not pure iron). Wrought iron is an alloy of iron, carbon, and slag. Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. They're all equally "iron". Or, more to the point, equally not iron in the pure sense, yet two are still called "iron". Ironically, steel is the closest to pure iron of all the useful alloys, having the least percentage of alloying material. The words and the physics don't line up... although, since we are talking faeries here, perhaps the semantics are actually more important than the metallurgy! –  SevenSidedDie Jun 13 at 4:12

In the Dresden Files books, Cold Iron is just Iron, and things made mostly of Iron count as Cold Iron.

Steel is an alloy made out of Iron and Carbon. So I did some research as to how much of steel is actually iron and I found that the carbon content of steel is between 0.002% and 2.1% by weight. Essentially, anything that is made out of steel is somewhere around 98%-99% iron and in my opinion counts as Cold Iron for game purposes. This is why the "Cold Iron" catch is +2 or +3 (depending on the amount of powers connected to the Catch), because "Cold Iron" is pretty plentiful. Basically just about any sword or knife made from methods as far back as archaic blacksmithing up to and including modern manufacturing will count for satisfying the Cold Iron Catch.

I suppose you could run into an issue with Stainless Steel as it contains 10% chromium, but I'd personally rule that Stainless Steel which is around 88% iron would still work for satisfying the Catch.

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