Substitutes for metal

Hello there!

I’m curious, what sort of materials do you Dark Sun DMs out there use as substitute for metal in Athas? Especially for general items, dungeon paraphernalia, etc.

The campaign books cover the substitutes used in Weapons and Armour quite in depth, but I often wonder about other types of items that are normally made from metal. For instance, a metal grate blocking a passage, cell bars, and other stuff that is supposed to be “unbreakable” for regular folk (or at least very resistant.)

I’ve seen pictures, games and such depicting bone/wood bars for cells and cages. And maybe a pair of manacles could be made from bone and giant hair? But I always thought it to be weird, the idea that in a world filled with people with 20+ Strength (by 2e standards, quite superhuman) including Muls and Half-Giants, that just bone, wood and such would suffice.

Another example… say the party is exploring an ancient dungeon, it’d be a hard sell to say that some spike traps made from just wood and bone would have survived 300+ years intact.

On a side note, it seems a lot of stuff is made from giant hair in Athas… that’s a lot of giants you need to shave to supply civilization!

So… other than the stuff used in weapons and armour… do you folks use some specific materials that could be resistant enough but readily available as a substitute for metal? Also if there’s mention of such materials in some official book I’d also appreciate you guys pointing me in the right direction!


This is a fabulous observation and question.

My answer: If the ruins are ancient and it is not integral to the plot, I make spots where metal used to be, but is now a pile of rust or missing entirely. Cell bars, and the like, are generally mekillot bone, which is supposedly very hard. I suppose stone could be shaped as thick bars as well. Wood, bone, and stone manacles and hinges are not out of the question. Romans produced concrete, so that is a possibility as well.
I don’t believe it’s ever officially mentioned when metal disappeared from Athas, so it’s up to you to determine how ancient it was commonly used. Also, copper is more common than iron. If an adventure calls for metal and it is necessary to be metal, it may be copper, bronze, or some other metal that is not as useful as iron. Those metals would be worth less, if the players loot them. And/or make the metal inlayed into another material. The base material would be strengthed without providing too much loot potential.


Interesting remarks there.
The roman concrete idea is especially interesting.

Some form of hard bone had crossed my mind, although I hadn’t thought of mekillots specifically. I wonder if declaring it as hard as steel or iron would be credible enough, though… I keep thinking that in a world filled with Muls, Half-Giants, and even Humans having as much as 20 Strength, you’d need some really tough materials for some purposes, such as doors, gates, cages, etc. Especially considering how slavery is so common in Athas.

Now bronze… do you know if it’s described somewhere in the books in more detail? I suppose it could be considered more common than iron, but probably not that much… otherwise people in Athas would likely make their weapons out of bronze instead of bone and wood.

And finally, I’ve read a little bit about Agafari wood in one of the books, supposedly being very hard. But I haven’t found out how hard it is. As in… tremendously hard to rival steel? Or just regular wood but somewhat stronger.

Bronze is not described in datail is any of the dark sun books. As a weapon, I gave it no attack or damage adjustment, but it still has a chance to break.

I recall reading about agafari being incredibly strong as well, but I believe that is compared to stone and bone axes. It’s probably on par with english oak or mesquite.

Drake Ivory - comparable to steel
Stone - twice as thick gets you comparable HP and close to the same hardness.
Bone - three times as thick gets you the same HP. For hardness I have a house rule that hardness rises by 1 point for each size category (minimum 6 for medium sized or less). That makes huge creatures such as Cha’thrang bone have a hardness of stone, colossal such as the Draji Korinth the same hardness as steel and gargantuan creatures such as Mekillot in the middle for hardness. Weapons/tools are unaffected by this change due to the way the bone must be cut to make to workable as a weapon.

Tin? For some reason I recall the doors of Kalak’s palace or gladiator arena or something having a tin layer on them in the first book of the Prism Pentad. I will have to see if I can find it.

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Chapter 9 of the Verdant Passage has a few paragraphs describing the tin being used and how smith melt ingots and beat it into sheets.

Though not prevalent in the books, I still see metal being used for some weapons but not on the scale you typically see it being used. Since it is rare and the technology seems to not be wide spread.

I can see short pieces of lesser metals being incorporated into weapons. Though they may dull faster they can be sharpened to an edge better that other materials.

I think the ideas for the others mentioned above are all good and thematic for DS. I will also add Crystals. Because crystals are magic. :grinning: with all the psionics and crystals used I could see powerful psionicists with a dungeon use crystal.


One key bit to remember is strength scores in Dark Sun do not use the warrior’s exceptional strength table, so Strength 20 PCs are comparable to many strength 18 warriors in other AD&D campaigns (to a degree, this is an oversimplification). That being said you are right that folks in Dark Sun are on average stronger and tougher than folks in other Crystal Spheres/Worlds. However this difference is by about 2 points, which while considerable isn’t enough to invalidate ropes as a form of restraint.

If slavers need to restrain someone especially strong or tough they can just use more rope or giant hair. As for wooden bars, this depends entirely on the kind of wood. Afghari wood from Gulg is a good example of high quality tough wood that can serve well as a tough alternative to metal. Using earth clerics to reshape stone into objects to substitute for metal also seems like a good alternative in specific cases, though this can vary depending on where you are, such as the city states. I personally depict the city states as being neutral with clerics, but others do not and for valid reasons. Also as others mentioned, while metal may be rare it is fair to depict copper and bronze as being less rare than iron. Hell in my campaign I gave Balik a decent supply of bronze that is used to provide weapons and armor to elite hoplites that are about as wealthy as knights in other settings.

Finally there is my personal favorite alternative to metal, monster parts. We see armor made from kank chitin or braxat plates and it is no great leap of logic to think different monsters would have bone of different strength and flexibility. Hides, shells, bones, etc from various strange critters can serve as fantastic materials. Just keep in mind that some would be far more accessible than others and to treat the value/rarity of such materials accordingly, the kank armor vs braxat armor is a perfect example.

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That’s a curious interpretation about the Strength values… I always thought of Athasian folks as just being plain stronger (and also better in the other attributes) than in other worlds. The books would lead one to think so, at least. They state somewhere that the people who managed to survive in Athas simply became stronger, tougher and generally better at everything due to “survival of the fittest” and such. Is this mentioned anywhere in the books, that 20 in Dark Sun should be the equivalent of a 18? 2nd edition also didn’t have exceptional strength beyond 18, once you were past 18 it was all the same for everyone, in theory…

It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that although the difference in the maximum Score rolled is 2 points for each attribute, the averages in Athas seem a lot higher. When you look at NPC blocks in Dark Sun supplements and adventures you frequently see lots of values in the 15-19 range even for humans, whilst in most other settings they’re closer to the 10-11 averages. (Also, any point beyond 18 Strength in 2e was supposed to be a big increase, since the absolute maximum was 25.)

Anyway, musings about attribute values aside… great suggestions everyone!

Concerning bronze and copper, I suppose they could be considered more common than Iron. But as Star-Sage mentioned, I’d still put them as expensive and limited stuff, the sort you’d use for weapons and armour for elite warriors, not for everyday use such as making doors and grates (specially considering the amount of metal you’d spend on these things could possibly make several weapons.) If those metals were common enough for that, people would likely just make almost all weapons of them instead of cruder things like bone and wood.

It’s curious how the relative absence of metal in Athas is probably the biggest change from other worlds. Even though it’s not the most obvious at first (we usually only think of its impact on weapons and armour), it’s the change that more often leaves you wondering “how would they do that, then?”

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Sorry for the horrifically late reply, but that’s nothing new on the Arena.

To answer your question about strength scores in Athas, you are right that folks in general are just plain stronger on average (though the bend bars percentage just jumps from 2% to 4% for average strength dudes). However once you reach 18 things get a bit weird. Now in all fariness if you’re using the original boxed set you are 100% right and ability scores translate over from the core book to Dark Sun the exact same. In the expanded campaign setting book however they do revise the strength and constitution tables respectively.

Basically the exceptional strength attribute table that Warriors got exclusively no longer exists. Instead the strength scores from that exceptional strength table was converted to represent strength scores above 18 in Dark Sun. There were 5 different degrees of exceptional strength a warrior could get if he had strength 18 and the 4 highest of those were used to represent strengths 19-22 in Dark Sun.

In fact this means the strength scores of 23-25 from ADND 2e’s core book aren’t even listed in Dark Sun’s expanded campaign setting. Now if you’re like me you’ll probably find this a bit annoying. However if you see the listed ability scores as simply what player character races are capable of obtaining naturally then it becomes a lot more reasonable and balanced. I added in the other 3 higher strength scores and simply restrict them to magic items and monsters… not that Dark Sun monsters need to be made more dangerous…

As for constitution they made higher consitution get bonus health more easily and bumped up the regeneration benefit so only consitution 20 characters can get it. This change imo was handled a lot better tbh, but I do understand why they felt they had to revise strength. I just wish there was a smoother way they could’ve done it so humans could still get that sweet, sweet 18/00 strength. I’m considering making house rules to give warriors an exceptional strength table back, but first I need to finish my 2e revised psionics project. I’ll give you guys a link when/if I finish either.

I believe the revised book allows warriors to roll and additional d4 for “exceptional” strength. So, a human warrior could have an insane 24 strength. I’ll double check the book and get a page number.

In the original ability scores were 5-20 with a racial adjustment of up to +4 with a max of 24 for PCs.
Revised you had a range of 3 to 24 with racial adjustments as well and had a DS specific Str and Con chart that went to 25 because the exceptional strength range had been eliminated due to all Athasian characters being able to reach the exceptional range (same with Con). I haven’t played 2ed in a long time, but took a quick glance through the books and didn’t see anything extra about warriors getting an extra roll.

What a great question.

In general, I’ve often used wood, bone, and stone as the main materials, though sometimes if the situation calls for it I’ve used bamboo, wickerwork, or even plain old hemp rope. If you need a grate with a silly high DC to lift, lead works in Dark Sun, in my opinion. I’ve also operated under the assumption that metal (iron) is rare, but not quite so rare as it is made to seem. There is a big difference between poor quality ore, or poorly recycled iron bits, being forged into functional weapons or armor and that same poor quality iron being used as a big, blocky deadbolt to secure a cell door. Penalize the hardness of poor quality iron and/or lower the DC on a check to break it/spot it is poor quality/pick the loose mechanism/etc.

Another part of it is thinking out of the box. If someone is a gladiator and actually good at it, they get food, water, adoring fans… You probably couldn’t keep them out of their cells. If someone is a prisoner, putting a guard with a bone javelin ready to harpoon them if they push through weak materials gives another thing to work around. A good 'ol fashioned hole in the ground a la “It puts the lotion in the basket…” is a great way to actually imprison PCs on Athas… It eliminates the STR component and you can fairly make a climb check difficult in sand or along a smooth brick/stone surface. A half giant might be corralled outside of the walls of a city or compound and told just to stay put… If there is no oasis nearby, and the half giant has no water, he effectively can’t escape unless he can magic up 3x what a normal human would need, at least. Kreen can be imprisoned by the fumes from ranike pith, if memory serves… They won’t cross through the smoke. It is Athasian bug repellent. As far as traps go, if it is ancient ruins where components would have logically rotted away, maybe the triggering mechanism still works and accidentally causes part of the ceiling to cave in rather than an arrow shooting out of a hole in the wall.

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I found a couple of interesting links for weapons made from different animals including human bone. Maybe they can provide some inspiration for weapons and other general items.

I see bone and things like chitin being used a lot. I like the idea of bone weapons that came from nasty enemies like a Sword made of a dune reape’s arm.


That shark tooth sword is a great example of a bone sword. The entire thing doesn’t have to be bone, only the cutting edge. Good find.

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Page 23 of The Age of Heroes. Warrior classes add 1d4 to their strength, but cannot go higher than 24 strength.

In a 2e Dragon magazine article, there are spells to make materials be like bone, stone, or iron, with names like boneiron. It works on anything, but the PCs would use it on weapons. Could be you bring your weapon to an elemental temple, pay, and get it back enchanted.

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Specific to weapons, I would think the type of weapon you were creating would determine the optimal material for it’s construction.
For weapons that do bludgeoning damage, I would think stone or ceramic would be the most common material, with hafts of bone if we assume wood is also scarce.
For weapons that do piercing damage, I would guess bones or spines or horns would work best.
For slashing damage, if we stick to more mundane materials, it seems like the best we could do would be very short blades, made perhaps of shell or stone, or larger weapons with a more ‘saw-like’ blade.
For weapons that include a flexible component (e.g. a flail or a garrote) I’m guessing rope of plant fiber or hair would substitute for the metal chain.


Does anyone have a list of more exotic materials that might exist only on Athas? Things I’d like to see:

  1. A list of the most commonly used bones for specific weapons (and the creatures they come from)
  2. A list of the most commonly used hide, shell or chitin and the specific piece of armor it’s used for
  3. Materials created by natural processes that only exist on Athas, like volcanic glass that has been fused with silt from the Sea of Silt or that crystalline material that Thri-Kreen extrude
  4. Exotic materials created by design, for instance a psion with molecular manipulation fusing giant hair with granite to form a material that is harder than iron, holds an edge like obsidian but can flex without shattering when struck

And would these vary according to City State?


Thanks for the great thread! :slight_smile:

Personally, 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.

I tampered with some house rules for different materials on Athas, actually. Would you guys be interested to see it?

In my games, bone was the staple of the Athas craftsmanship. It was used for everything and anything, all over the Tablelands. The people of Athas have long since cross-bred various animal sub-races for bones with suitable qualities, used for specific tools and products.

It created a whole industry of animal breeders, butchers, bone-workers, craftsmen and artisans who depend on each other for work. Animal breeders raise beasts for specific tools, butchers extract the bones intact, while bone-workers turn raw bone into craftable material. Finally, the craftsmen and artisans make specific items.

Most of bone weapons and tools came from these ‘industrially’ bred races. The specific races are closely guarded trade secrets, as a good bone type can spell a fortune. Of course, bones from certain magical beasts and aberrations would make excellent exotic materials… If you can find a craftsman who knows how to work with them.

I imagine the same goes for chitin and leather. If my players asked me what animal their breastplate came from, I’d reply that the craftsmen would have to kill them if they knew :wink:

Some form of hard bone had crossed my mind, although I hadn’t thought of mekillots specifically. I wonder if declaring it as hard as steel or iron would be credible enough, though…

Absolutely. The biggest problem with bone isn’t hardness, but rather how difficult it’s to work with. Steel can be heated to make it malleable, worked into the right shape, then cooled down. With bone, you can’t really do that… Which means that working with steel-hard bone would be like chiselling steel.

Of course, I imagine the Athasian bone-makers have ways to go around it. They probably use various acids and substances to make bones more malleable, then different ones to harden it once the craftsmen are done. Still, my rule of thumb is that steel-strong bone can only be used for very raw products. Mellikot bone steel-hard prison cage bars: Absolutely. A mellikot bone steel-hard longsword: Not a chance.

I just had a discussion about bronze with @Rhal-othan in this thread :slight_smile: To summarise, bronze relies on raw materials that are much more rare than iron. It is a superior metal than iron (not to be mistaken with steel), though, and much easier to work with.

What makes bronze really interesting is that it’s recyclable. You can take a bronze item, smelt it, then cast it into something new. While I think new bronze is not produced on Athas, old bronze items can be used as raw materials… Which can’t be said of iron and steel.

I’m a big fan of desert glass, which is something like obsidian created from meteor impacts. I use it as a substitute of cold iron.

To continue with my bone industry idea: Some animal breeders in my games spike the diet of their beasts with… Specific materials. It’s not healthy for the animals in the least, but produces bones with extra properties. Yes, Athas is hell for domesticated animals.

I imagine so. Glug has its Afghari wood, Urik depends a lot on obsidian weapons (which are another interesting story). In my games, bone craftsmen from different cities all have their trade secrets. Even the nomad tribes probably have some unique kinds of bone, leather, scale or chitin.

While we’re talking about it, I have another question: What do you all think of rules for breaking weapons? I was always a bit on the fence about it. On one hand, breaking your PC’s trademark sword feels really petty; on the other hand, it makes the rules for brawling and improvised weapons more relevant. What do you think?