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5e D&D lists a number of mostly mundane items in the PHB on page 150. One of them is a "Mirror, steel" (5gp, 1/2lb). Initially I thought it to be a steel framed mirror, but I think this is actually meant to be a polished (to the point of a reflection) piece of steel.

My question is two-fold:

  • Is this a steel framed mirror or a single piece of polished steel?
  • What's the idea behind a steel mirror, instead of a glass mirror?

Is it that glass is more expensive and/or too fragile? But 5gp for just a piece of steel feels (relatively) expensive as well. I am aware of the possible idea that it might reflect vampires, but I feel like that may not be the RAI.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I know D&D isn't our historical past, but it's worth noting that glass-fronted mirrors, while the existed back to roman times, were not common prior to improvements in glass-making and silvering technology occurred during the renaissance. Polished metal mirrors were much more common during the middle ages. \$\endgroup\$ – Blckknght May 20 '20 at 20:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that historically decent glass mirrors appeared in Renaissance. Earlier it was either polished metal or very crude lead / glass mirrors that wasn't even close to being flat. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot May 20 '20 at 20:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Steel mirrors in particular are documented; this excerpt from Sabine Melchior-Bonnet's The Mirror: a History notes that they were one of several types described by the 13th-century scholar John Peckham, and that they were common household goods by the 16th century. (Yes, I'm citing an excerpt from a book I haven't read, but all the libraries are closed right now.) \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells May 20 '20 at 20:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ The entry for Mirror, steel in the PHB describes several possible uses. Are those examples falling short for you, or is your question more focused around "why a steel mirror rather than a glass-fronted one"? What sort of information would a "good" answer to your question contain? \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case May 20 '20 at 21:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ svenema, are you familiar with the story of Perseus and Medusa from ancient Greek mythology? \$\endgroup\$ – krb May 21 '20 at 7:18
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To answer your first question:
It's a one piece mirror of highly polished metal if it is adventuring equipment.
To answer your second question:

Because it was cheaper than a silver mirror, originally

One of the things the D&D 5e tried to do during development was "unify the editions" somewhat. If you reach back to Original Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, on the Men and Magic book's equipment list (page 14) we find:

Steel Mirror / 5 gp
Silver Mirror, small / 15 GP

In play, the steel mirror was more durable and less likely to break if you fell into a pit trap (a common enough occurrence). Depending upon whom your DM was, it may or may not have been "as good" as a silver mirror in reflecting things as you used one to look around corners (one needed to be wary of medusas, yes? Dungeons are a dangerous place!)

And it was more durable

Durability quantified:
The AD&D 1e DMG (p. 80) had this note for mirrors (Table: Saving Throws for Magical and Non Magical Items):

****Silvered glass. Treat silver mirror as "Metal, soft," steel as "Metal, hard."*

The "Metal, hard" item's save versus normal blow was a 2, but a mirror's was a 15.
The "Metal, hard" item's save versus a fall was a 2, but the mirror's was a 13
... and so on for a dozen other saves.

One of the biggest benefits of the steel mirror when originally outfitting your dungeon delving character was that it cost less, which allowed you to perhaps buy better armor for your character, a better bow, or maybe buy a few more flasks of oil. Everyone rolled the same 3d6 x 10 for starting gold. Having to pick your starting equipment was a case of shopping on a budget.

Each player notes his appropriate scores, obtains a similar roll of three dice to determine the number of Gold Pieces (Dice score x 10) he starts with, and then opts for a role. (Men and Magic, p. 10)

In mosts games that I played in that era, the two kinds of mirrors were functionally identical. The amount of verisimilitude engaged in at a given table will inform how a DM chooses to differentiate them functionally, if at all, in D&D 5e. So you could call this "tradition" and be close to correct.

Mechanically, D&D 5e doesn't demand a saving throw for every item in your pack if you fall into a pit trap - some of the older editions did. A DM could, if you are walking around with a mirror in your hand when you fall into a trap, call for some kind of check or save to see if you dropped it (Dexterity check?). The DM could also rule that the fall broke it - unless it is a steel mirror.

That - durability - is a likely reason that it's the default mirror in the Basic Rules Equipment Table: what is listed is (in the main) adventuring gear rather than items from a boutique catering to the rich nobility.

Why was that distinction made?

The game was allegedly set in some vague "feudal or medieval time" (thanks to Original D&D's connection to the Chainmail miniatures war game), but within Swords and Sorcery (and Fantasy) literary genres some Renaissance era norms and tropes are not uncommon to find (see Tim Powers The Drawing of the Dark as an example). There are also plenty of anachronisms in the stories that inform D&D's general setting: JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit featured Bilbo Baggins having a clock on his mantlepiece.

Glass-fronted (silvered) mirrors existed back to Roman times, but were not common. Polished metal mirrors were much more common during the middle ages. (Thanks @Blckknght)

Note that historically decent glass mirrors appeared in Renaissance. (Thanks @Mołot)

There is some more historical info here. (Thank you, @MarkWells)

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    \$\begingroup\$ If that's the case, why would anyone use the more expensive mirror in a campaign, if it only has drawbacks (not only is it more expensive, but it is also more brittle) ? In real life the silvered glass mirror has much better reflection quality, but that advantage seems useless in a D&D campaign, so why would anyone want to use it? \$\endgroup\$ – vsz May 21 '20 at 6:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ ....do vampires cast a reflection on silvered mirrors? \$\endgroup\$ – Nullman May 21 '20 at 9:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @vsz As with a lot of aspects that don't have explicit rules, this feels like something that's in the purview of a DM. The advantage of a silver mirror is better image quality; if that doesn't have any in-game effect then you're right there's little point in having one. But if a DM gives disadvantage on Perception checks through steel mirrors, silver mirrors have at least some benefit. I can also imagine a character with a silver mirror getting better reactions when trying to pass themselves off as noble/well-to-do etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrzej Doyle May 21 '20 at 9:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that you can still buy a steel mirror (example). It looks like most camping mirrors are metal or acrylic, so it seems that even now, when glass mirrors are relatively cheap, they are not preferred for adventuring. \$\endgroup\$ – BillThePlatypus May 21 '20 at 21:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BillThePlatypus In my flight gear we had a signalling mirror; hole in the middle to help us to aim at/signal SAR aircraft if we went down. About the size of my palm. I think it was a glass mirror with silvered/lead backing, but it may have been steel. I had to turn it in when I got out of the Navy. Wish I still had it. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 21 '20 at 21:48
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I'm fairly sure it's just a more robust type of mirror, one that won't break in the event of a fall, concussive blast etc. the gm could easily find a way to break your real mirror if they wanted to for some reason, but a steel mirror would need a more convoluted destruction.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Answers are generally expected to be supported by citing evidence (e.g. rules or designer statements); can you elaborate on your answer and support it with citations? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 21 '20 at 5:40

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