Cold iron and the Lords of Darkness

For quite a while I’ve been pretty confused by the term ‘cold iron’ that keeps cropping up in the old AD&D Monster Manual.  Unless there is an explanation squirreled away somewhere in the DMG, ‘cold iron’ is left unexplained. (The demon entry mentions ‘iron weapons’  — nothing about them being “cold iron” — oversight or intentional distinction?)

I assumed from the beginning that it must mean something other than ‘regular  off-the shelf weapons,’ for example, or else why not just say ‘normal weapons’ or ‘metal weapons,’ right?  So my best guess was always that ‘cold iron’ must mean an archaic, non-steel iron, with some impurities but not much carbon.  This would make them softer and more prone to bending and blunting than steel weapons, but a cold iron mace-head would be pretty much as good as a steel mace-head; it would be the bladed weapons that would really suffer from being made of regular iron.

For a while I tried to imagine ‘cold iron’ as some sort of iron that was worked without heating it, but I don’t think that is even possible with iron.  Maybe you can cold forge copper or bronze.  It couldn’t be cast iron either, which is usually alloyed to lower the melting point — so colder but less pure.  Still I picture iron weapons as looking black or grey like cast iron.

Anyway my point is that I recently picked up a battered but usable copy of Lords of darkness, an AD&D supplement that has “Forgotten realms” and “introduced by Ed Greenwood” on it, but which is fairly generic and could be used in any setting.  The book has a short explanation of various materials and tactics for fighting the undead, and a short passage on ‘cold iron’ which explains that this is special iron with no impurities.  There is a brief mention of the tendency of cold iron weapons to break easily, and while there are no mechanics offered for that, I’d say they might break on a natural one on an attack roll (I don’t otherwise use ‘fumbles’ in my current game).

(Checking Wikipedia for this post, I see it suggested that “cold iron” is just an archaism for “iron” since iron is usually cold to the touch.  Nothing special about it at all, just plain old iron.  I’d like to try out a setting where elves are susceptible to iron weapons too, since in folklore the fairy folk are fearful of it and several of Poul Anderson’s fantasy stories and novels use this idea a lot.  I’m not sure if that would work well in my current game but I’ve had events shake up how magic works before so there may be a way to make it happen.)

Anyway if you should stumble across this supplement, it is worth looking over.  The scenarios look all right (two are by Paul Jaquays!), although there is certain amount of railroading in one I read. There are also nice discussions of undead, including a number of alternatives to energy drain and the ghost’s 10 year aging effect. The proposed solutions to these perennial “problems” shed some light on the state of the game when it was published.

Some of the interesting tidbits are suggestions for the effects of various anti-undead folk remedies like knocking on wood (useless), mirrors (only good vs. vampires), and salt (useful against a lot of the undead).  There is even a chart listing how various means affect all the undead from the Monster Manual, Monster Manual II, and Fiend Folio!  The whole thing is pretty cool as a source book on using the undead.

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Published in: on July 14, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (17)  
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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good stuff. Im not a fan of the F Realms but short scenarios by Jaquays and Perrin (runequest) is tempting.

    Yeah I always thought of cold iron as iron and rightly or wrongly decided that the more primitive the technique (culture/civilisation) used to construct the sword the more effective against undead in vague way.

  2. Though my play-by-post campaign seems interminably delayed, the work I had been doing for my Ygg campaign was going to pick up on the traditional elven/fey repulsion by iron (carried over from a previous experiment in my home B/X game). While it is an element from folklore, I find that it works well with a couple of other elements out there: the adoption of “mithral” from Tolkien’s mithril and elves’ ability to wear armor and cast spells (must be that mithral doesn’t mess with magic the way iron does). In other words, a fun synergy between story and mechanics.

    Good stuff: I always wondered about cold iron.

    • Nice idea. I was imagining elves using bronze armor and looking a bit like Greaco-Roman, Etruscan, or Pheonician warriors, and maybe making mithril actually = an aluminum alloy (very light! hard as bronze!) which would still make it pretty good.

  3. In medieval settings, cold iron is usually a reference to a final worked iron weapon. It is usually an allusion to the anti-fae power of iron, in that fae are not damaged by any weapons effectively except those forged out of cold iron. It denotes the difference between natural (club, spear, etc) and unnatural weapons (mace, sword, etc). Fae are not bothered by natural weapons, as they are spirits of the “natural world”. Much like a werewolf ignores non-silver weapons, in order to hurt fae you must create an unnatural weapon.

    In post-Renaissance settings, it is more often a reference to a melee weapon (cold steel is usually used instead of cold iron). Hot steel/iron would be musket shot.

    • Never heard of the phrase ‘hot iron’/’hot steel’ … interesting.

      At the risk of sounding like Alexis, though, what in this post made you think I didn’t know that iron was regarded as effective against faeries? 🙂

      • Well, Alexis… I am going to write a post on my blog to reply to this. You inspired me. Stay tuned.

        • Cool!
          Actually I do recognize that you’re trying to explicate the reasons for cold iron’s efficacy…just couldn’t resist.

  4. I always thought “cold” iron meant “cold-forged” or “cold-worked” iron. I know a little about work hardening of metals, but not how it applies to iron exactly.

    Some metals can be strengthened and hardened by working them at ambient temperature. Cold forming techniques include squeezing, bending, drawing, and shearing. These will knock the crystal lattices of the metal out of alignment, making it harder but less supple.

    The crystal lattices can be realigned by melting and cooling the metal again. Once cooled it can be cold forged again by beating and twisting it into shape.

    My guess is that a smith striking the iron while it’s red hot will not cause this hardening. Cold forging an iron weapon is probably a big, time consuming, pain in the butt for the blacksmith. I’d guess these are special order only items, and cost a lot extra.

    I could be wrong.

    • So, in short…

      Cold iron in my games involved a blacksmith melting iron, then casting it into a blade shape. Then, after it cooled, he beat the hell out of it with his hammer until it felt like his arm was about to fall off, sharpened it, and sold the ugly, dent riddled thing to the PC’s for 5 to 10 times the price of a normal weapon.

      Then if the to-hit roll came up as a 1, the ugly beat up sword would snap in half. It held an edge really well though.

      • That’s a good take on it — a lot like silver weapons. Not so good as weapons generally but very good to have when you’re after certain foes.

      • As an engineer I had to take strength of material’s class, as a geotechnical engineer I don’t have to keep up with it but I am pretty sure this is how it works.

        Heating Iron opens it molecular lattice since heating things expands them. When iron is expanded and exposed to carbon, carbon molecules enter the lattice. Quickly cooling the metal locks the carbon in the lattice which greatly increases the iron strength. We call this steel. Working metal when it hot removes impurities (and carbon). Allow iron with carbon to slowly cool also lessens the amount. Heating cold steel removes the carbon too making it more irony.

        So the sword smith game is to heat up the iron and remove the impurities. Then reintroduce controlled impurities (carbon). Work it into a sword while its hot and keep reintroducing carbon. Get the balance or carbon right, the blade in the right shape and rapidly cool parts you want hard and strong and slow cool the parts that you want flexible. Because steel = strength and iron = ductility.
        Now the black smith that cools the steel/iron and beats the hell at it is doing 2 things, 1) causing fatigue to the steel and 2) reshaping the blade. If the blade is iron he reshaping more than if it was steel but either way he is doing nothing good to the metal.

        The difference between iron and steel is shades of gray. Historically making steel was done when we first started making iron tools (accidently!); however, it took centuries to be able to control the temperature to the point that we could make high quality steel consistently. Before then it was in the hands of smiths. They learned through centuries of trial and error. Some of their steel, for its function, was as good as anything available today, the same smith could make a poor quality item as well since maintaining heat and removing imperfections was a difficult task. This is all more science than most people want so I will stop.

        I think cold iron is just that iron, never got hot enough to remove all impurities or lock in carbon. Cold Iron swords = clubs, axes and spears (and maybe daggers) would be ok if you constantly sharpened them.

  5. I’ve heard of the cold working theory regarding “cold iron” before as well. I remember some other source bypassing the entire thing and claiming cold iron was ‘iron from outer space’.

    I mean stuff that fell as part of meteors, not from alien vistors, of course. 🙂

    • Neat idea — I can see having certain monsters vulnerable to meteoric iron — or only vulnerable to it — aliens for example.

  6. I hope everyone is aware of this excellent feature over at the KQ website: http://www.koboldquarterly.com/k/tag/real-steel

    • Thanks — I had not seen that. Some interesting stuff.

  7. If you want mechanics for cold iron weapons, they are in the d20 SRD. Most demons and fey have a damage reduction quality that looks like “DR5/Cold Iron”, which means that all weapon hits with non-cold iron weapons have their damage reduced by 5 points.

    I recently got my D&D 3.0 books back from being on perma-borrow at a friend’s house for about 10 years. I’ve been going through them and there really is a lot of well-thought-out stuff in them.

  8. I’m 99% sure that “cold iron weapon” refers to non-forged iron weapons: the the iron was simply cast and then cut/sheared/filed without being tempered. In short, not worked in a forge. I’m pretty sure this was common practice for unskilled people to get cheap sharp metal blades.


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