- Athas never had much metal from the get go
- It was all mined out during the Green Age and corroded so long ago that now it lies across the landscape as red-orange dust
- A magic tower ate my iron
This should probably go into Dark Sun Heresy thread, but I believe ‘Athas lacks metal’ actually means ‘Athas lacks mining industry’. It’s not that the ore veins are absent from the crust, it’s more that the civilisation lost the means of mining it. The Green Age has depleted the easily obtainable metal; then, the Purification Wars led to a civilisation collapse that destroyed the mining lore.
Which brings me to an even greater heresy: The reason for the lack of metal on Athas is… Lack of metal on Athas. The Green Age civilisations have depleted all the easily obtainable sources. To get more ore, the Athasians would have to dig deep underground… Which requires metal tools and resources they don’t have. So, in a way, it’s a chicken-or-egg problem. Also, the problem would not limited just to metals. Any mineral that can’t be obtained by strip-mining is pretty much unobtainable (hint: metallurgy and coal!)
As for the already mined metal, I agree most steel has long since corroded. To make things worse, smelting steel to use it as a raw material isn’t a very good idea, so the old products can’t be ‘recycled’. I don’t think metal itself is so rare - just that majority of it is useless scrap. I can see Athasians use various ancient metal trinkets as good luck charms, etc. Finding useful metal - either as a raw resource or an item - is another story.
Great response! The reason for the lack of metal implements can have significant impact on one’s setting I would think.
I always wondered whether, even if they had a good source of iron ore, would they have the skills, tools and resources needed to forge it?
For example, does the fact that they have no coal (or other significant fuel source) mean that even if they mined the iron ore they wouldn’t be able to heat it to a high enough temperature to forge it into tools or weapons?
In my game, I make sure to differentiate the types of metal. Too often in Dark Sun books, it says metal, when it means iron. Also, I doubt the ability to make steel still exists on Athas, so when the books often say steel, it probably means iron as well. I believe other metals would be easier to acquire than iron, such as tin, copper, and zinc. So, bronze weapons are slightly more common than iron and copper more common than bronze. Of course, they are both incredibly expensive for the common man. Steel is extremely rare, as they would have been hold overs from the green age.
I don’t think they would, no. Athas blacksmiths just don’t get enough chance to practice. Metal is too rare to waste it on learning, experimenting and mastering your skills. Every single ounce of iron must be put to a good use. This would make the DS metallurgy very… Conservative. There are just a few things you can do with metal, and you stick to them. Anything creative is a waste of resources.
To make things worse, all Tableland iron comes from the same source. The properties of ore vary from one mine to another, so working with metal from another mine would require adjusting. However, Tablelands metallurgy is essentially a craft of working with Tyr ore. Even if another mine was opened, the iron would not behave the same as the Tyr iron… And I’m not sure Athas smiths would know how to adapt.
To put a nail in the coffin: I suspect the Tyr mines were not exploited because the quality of iron there is very low. In other words, Athas smiths might be taught a conservative way of working with low quality material. If they were given superior iron, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t know what to do with it - and certainly not how to bring its full potential out of it.
This very much. I made some house rules for different materials
that I’m hesitant to share here and I had the same thoughts. The ‘true steel’ is only found on Green Age artefacts, while Tyr alloy is more of wrought iron.
I considered bronze weapons, too. After a bit of research, I came to the opposite conclusion: Obtaining all the materials needed to produce bronze is much more difficult. Zinc and tin, in particular, are extremely rare and expensive. This is why bronze age civilisations fell: They were dependent on tin trade that often spanned across the entire continent.
On a brighter side, though: Copper alloys are resistant to corrosion and almost infinitely recyclable. Old bronze items can be smelted and cast again into anything, as long as you have the right mold. While not all bronze is equal in strength, you can make any weapon from any other weapon (as long as the weight matches, of course). Also, bronze would be stronger than Tyr iron and hold a sharper edge, though it could bend or chip easily.
Doesn’t that bring a whole new meaning to ‘I found a peasant’s pouch full of copper coins’?
Hopefully this isn’t too much of a tangent, but why did the original box set eliminate copper coinage while keeping silver and gold (and platinum?)?
Does it mean a lack of copper? or just that copper had too much practical value to be ‘wasted’ on coinage? or should it be the opposite? that iron is so valuable that iron ingots should replace coinage of metals that had only decorative value (such as silver and gold)?
I think you’ve got it right, it’s probably practical - any old copper coins get smelted and made into something useful. Gold and silver is pretty useless outside of the decorative value (at least at Athasian technology level), so it’d make more convenient coins.
I like the idea of iron bars as a quasi-currency of sorts. Wasn’t one iron bar worth 1 gold piece? In the absence of actual gold coins, it could make for a neat substitute. Also, it’s a nice piece of flavour: Common folk saying ‘one iron bar’ instead of ‘one gold piece’ in their conversations.
I believe a pound of iron is 1gp in Dune Trader. It would most likely be a small strip, not a bar. A pound of iron would be a little over a cup in volume. A bar might be 10 pounds.
I agree that copper is too useful to be used as currency. Most people on Athas barter anyway.
Edit: I made a mistake with a decimal point. Oops.
Hm, if a spoon of iron was that heavy, no iron tool would be usable. That’s about enough ore to make a single arrow tip, for comparison. A steel short sword weighs 2 pounds in PHB; steel would be 96+% iron. This is definitely a lot of spoons in volume.
Iron bars might be of any weight the craftsmen want, in fact. The only limit is practicality: Too small bars might not be suitable to create anything, while too big would be impossible to work with. Nothing would stop them from producing one pound bars and using them as a quasi-one-gold-piece. That’d be enough iron to make many small tools - and then, you can scale it up.
A pound of iron would be almost 3 tablespoons or 3.5 cubic inches, so an ingot that was two inches wide, half an inch thick and 3.5 inches long, if I did my math right.
One of the reasons iron as a currency interests me is that it was used as such in ancient Sparta (note though that they were trying to discourage commerce).
Ah, sorry, we’ve got a bit of misunderstanding here Metal ingots are typical for metals that can be smelted and cast, like gold and copper alloys. It makes sense to store it in bars, which are more compact and easier to transport. After all, shape of the metal doesn’t really matter when you’re going to melt it down anyway. You might as well make it convenient.
Iron, on the other hand, can’t be cast - it has to be wrought. That’s why it’s stored in bars, which are more like metal rods. You can heat them up, then bend and hammer them into the right shape without breaking the metal. Connecting separate bits of iron requires welding, which… I’m not sure Athasian smiths are capable of. Not very well, at least.
That’s what makes iron bars interesting: They’re rods of just enough metal for a weapon or tool of a given size. A one pound iron bar would be enough to make a dagger or other Tiny-sized object; a two pound bar is enough for a Medium object, a four pound for a Large object, and so on. It not only gives them a ‘fixed’ value, but makes it clear what you can you make out of one.
Thanks for the lesson in metallurgy!
At risk of a tangent, why exactly was iron so popular as a material for making weapons? I’m guessing at some of the things a weapon maker might consider:
You’re spot-on with a lot of things here, at least according to what I read Bronze was expensive and difficult to manufacture, since it’s an alloy of two metals. Iron only requires one ore plus coal / carbon, so it’s cheaper and easier to manufacture. Using iron let you spam weapons and tools at much higher rate, so to speak.
Interestingly, I read bronze was a superior metal to iron and early steel. It was more durable and held a sharper edge (I heard they used brass razors way into Middle Ages). It’s still inferior to true steel, of course, but that kind of steel was developed pretty late. The biggest drawback of bronze weapons was that it bent and deformed easily - but even then, you could simply smelt a bent sword and cast it back into the right shape.
Also, thanks for the link - I’ve had some thoughts on Athas materials myself, so it’d be great to compare notes
@redking SeruZmaj gave some really good answers in your thread. I agree with a lot of what they say: There probably are rich veins out there, they’re just out of reach. Also, a lot of knowledge was lost. Entire races have been purged, and even those that were not have lost much. Also, I think a lot of mines were abandoned. Wasn’t the Tyr mine discovered several centuries after Kalak settled down?
I also wonder if the small size of the setting has anything to do with it. I once read the whole explored area is the size of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. That’s just a tiny slice of the planet. Is metal absent on Athas, or just in the known part of it?
Perhaps there still are rich ore veins, but they’re just too far away? Maybe the Tablelands and surrounding areas were always poor in ores? Prospecting for metal in faraway lands is certainly impractical, considering how tough it is to travel from one city to another on a road. It might still be out there, just… Out of reach?
If the iron is all mined out and mixed with the earth as ‘rust powder’ then one might be able to reclaim the iron if one could generate sufficient heat. I’m not aware of any fuel source on Athas that might fit the bill.
One alternative to Tyr’s feeble iron mine might be that they have some ancient relic that could generate enough heat to produce a small amount of iron on a daily basis; a ‘dragon furnace’ or solar oven of some sort. Put in a few shovelfuls of earth and by evening you have a bucket full of iron and glass.
Extracting iron from iron ore is more difficult than extracting copper from copper ores, due to their melting points. 2700F for wrought iron and 1983F for copper.
In addition, smelting iron is much more difficult than smelting copper and tin. Copper and tin can be poured into molds. Iron requires high heat and hot-working.
Iron is superior to bronze in weapons and tools. Hardness is increased and they retain an edge for a longer period of time. It may be easier to repair a bronze blade, but it’s even easy to not have to repair anything at all.
I enjoy iron being difficult and expensive. When the players get an iron weapon, it’s like finding a magic item in another setting.
In my game, I gave copper weapons a -1 to damage and it still has to roll for breakage. Bronze weapons have no penalties, but must still roll for breakage.
I never liked the rules for ‘inferior’ materials. ‘Inferior’ is a relative term; on Athas, these materials are the standards. It’s metal weapons and tools that are superior to them - hence, I believe they should be boosted up, while the ‘inferior’ weapons should be the unmodified rulebook equipment.
Why not make your copper weapons +1, bronze or iron weapons +2 and steel weapons +3? or some such.
Oh, no doubt of that. Bronze is also much easier to work with, since you can simply cast it. The only real disadvantage of bronze is that it’s an alloy of copper and tin, and the latter is both rare and expensive. You basically need to keep two separate mining industries, which often don’t even coincide in the same region.
*Steel Wrought iron was actually a brittle, low quality material, ill-suited for weapons. Refining it into steel that’d beat bronze in all respects would take several centuries still. Which is why, again, I like the distinction between the ‘true steel’ (Green Era weapons and tools) and mere wrought iron made from Tyr ore.
Hol’ up! My assumption of Athasian technology levels does not accord with yours. You see Athas as being in the Bronze, Classical or Conan style Hyperborean Age. I see Athasian technology as approximately being at the earth equivalent of 1600 AD, but the lack of resources suppresses the output of technology into society in general. A wealthy nobleman or templar may have a telescope for example, but the technology will never become widespread.
Athas as I see it has come as far as it can technologically. Things have been invented but cannot be put into large scale production because of lack of metal.
My view of Athas is mostly shaped by illiteracy. Athas laws literally suppress the storage of knowledge. The only authorised use of writing is bureaucracy and statesmanship. Scholars do not exist as a profession or a caste. The lack of stored knowledge is an obstacle this civilisation can’t hope to overcome.
In case of metallurgy, the lack of practice is a death kneel. The Athasian smiths might know some ancient rhymes that describe the Green Age metallurgy, but they have no way to understand what they mean.
This doesn’t mean they don’t have any sophisticated technology, though. I just believe it’s whollly adapted to the Athas conditions. A telescope wouldn’t be a problem since it can be constructed from readily available materials. Advanced metallurgy, on the other hand, would be purely theoretical - and that level just can’t exist without writing.