Monday, October 3, 2011

In the Blood


The element iron has a special status: it carries oxygen on our blood; it’s the most abundant element in the earth’s crust; and it has the most stable atomic nuclei. More to the point for fantasy gaming: "cold iron" is said to ward off or harm fairies, ghosts, and/or witches.

In the novel Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington, magical attitude is inversely related to iron in the blood. A necromancer explains it this way:

“Iron, as I’ve told you, is one of the only symbols that represents what it truly is, here and on the so-called Platonic level of reality...Because it is true material and not just a symbol of something else, iron restricts our ability to alter the world, be it talking to spirits or commanding symbols or however you put it.”

Not only does this nicely tie some of the real properties of iron with its folklore properties, but it would have some interesting implications in fantasy games. Prohibitions against metal armor and the working of magic make sense in this light. Even more interestingly, it might it explain why D&D mages tend to be physically sort of weak--they need to be somewhat less robust in order to work magic well. Maybe higher Constitution scores actually impairs magic, or impairs the “level” a mage can advance too? That might also example the traditional dwarven poor magic aptitude: they’re hardy, creatures of the earth (where iron’s abundant).

20 comments:

The Angry Lurker said...

That's a good description of the elements and it's other uses.

Zenopus Archives said...

Very interesting. In the MM, ghasts are dealt double damage by cold iron. Perhaps because they lack blood?

Iron fences were used around cemeteries to keep the dead spirits in.

Some discussion of cold iron here at DF.

Porky said...

There's something to think about - one thing I'd never considered before is the effect of magnetic fields on blood.

Trey said...

@Angry Lurker - Thanks.

@Zenopus - Thanks for the link.

@Porky - Good point. From the scientific prospective blood is only weakly diamagnetic so not a lot, I'd guess. From the magical/pseudo-scientific prospective? I'd imagine all sorts of things.

Needles said...

The Blood & Iron is the life! Very inspiring Trey & awesome entry. Gave me my demonic/forcefield table!

Simon J. Hogwood said...

There's some similar ideas to this in Tim Power's novel On Stranger Tides - particularly in that magic is more common in the less civilized parts of the New World (and nearly extinct in Europe). This is directly attributed to the lack of iron usage. Also, one of the signs of really advanced magic-user is bleached gums - caused, of course, by the magician's iron deficiency.

Trey said...

@Needles - Glad to be of help. :)

@Simon - Ah, yeah! I had forgotten about On Stranger Tides. Though there, iron in the blood is magical, as I recall--so the sorcerer's get anemic because they're using so much for magic.

richard said...

physicists like to talk about how electromagnetism is so wildly stronger than gravity - the disparity is so enormous that some folks think it must be meaningful.

Thought-provoking post as usual. What does elf blood contain instead of iron?

Bard said...

I never thought of that before -- it's always cool when one little idea seems to tie so many things together to nicely.

Trey said...

@Richard - Indeed. Maybe elf blood is copper-based like horseshoe crabs--and Vulcans. ;)

@Bard - Yeah, I dig that as well. Serendipity. :)

Risus Monkey said...

What an interesting notion! And along the same lines as elves having copper-based blood, dwarves would have even more iron than humans (thus the CON bonus). It all fits so nicely.

Trey said...

@Risus - I does, doesn't it?

richard said...

hmmm, copper; the only coinage metal reactive enough to serve biological functions. The first metal introduced into the late stone age. The metal Thoth brought to the Pharaohs... (while iron is the metal of the Greeks and Romans, demotic writing and all that). The skin of the Statue of Liberty (while Native American ironworkers built the monuments of Capital on the next island over). I think I see a Powersian outline developing.

Dariel Quiogue said...

Nice! You've not only explained the generally lower Con score of mages, you've also explained why Elric of Melnibone is so sorcerously talented. :)

What's the implication though? If you adopt this line of thought for houseruling D&D, would mages be allowed bronze armor at no penalty?

NetherWerks said...

Dariel Q beat me to the question I was about to ask--this is a great science-meets-folklore insight and provides some absolutely wonderful implications and such, but what if a spell-caster eschewed iron for bronze or copper or other metals?

Also, that variant approach from Powers whereby spell-casters 'used up' the iron in their blood from casting spells sounds like a nice approach for certain types. Perhaps the word 'nice' isn't exactly appropriate, but it does have a lurid sort of allure...

Trey said...

@Richard - I like the way your mind works. :)

@Daniel - That's a good question. I would say they could go for bronze armor (which would be heavy, relatively). Some magical material like orichalcum would be ideal...

@Netherwerks - Evil sorcerors with bronze daggers does have a certain appeal. And you're right, with the Powers model "blood sacrifice" takes on a whole new connotation!

Sub-Radar-Mike said...

Where would humanity be without iron? Well we probably wouldn't have skyscrapers, that's for sure.

richard said...

bronze daggers

brass is the alloy nobody sees coming. Maybe it's associated with cheap souvenirs or barometers or something, but it can be a veritable alchemical cornucopia of magically important metals.

Trey said...

@Richard - Very true. Not to mention those Djinn with a whole city made of it!

richard said...

more uses for iron.