Cold Iron
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Gold is for the mistress — silver for the maid —
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade."
"Good!" said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
"But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all."

(from) Cold Iron Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

The exact nature of cold iron is "somewhat debatable" … we know that it upsets, repels and quite probably harms The Fair Folk (and occasionally The Devil1), but there seems to be a significant lack of clarity as to what it actually is. "Certain RPGs" treat cold iron as some kind of phlebotinum - a mystical allotrope of the regular metal (sort of like "thunderbolt iron") with special powers, whilst other sources insist that it's normal iron but worked in a specific way.

European (and certainly English) folklore would seem to disagree. In most traditional sources everyday iron objects such as horseshoes and nails are shown to have power against the supernatural (for example horseshoes as a form of ward and nails often protecting against misdirection) - and these are items which are definitely not made of special materials or worked by secret methods. In general cold iron is just iron.

For those that insist on cold iron being something special, consider the idea of making it native iron, cold hammered into shape rather than smelted and cast from ore (as, for example, in the pre-Columbian eskimo tradition). This was often meteoric iron (and thus "star metal" or "thunderbolt iron") as well and therefore doubly special.

Mythopoetically, iron may represent industrialisation and the ability of man to tame the wild - with its ability to serve as the faerie's bane a symbol of this triumph over the old and feral. This might argue for the inclusion of steel in the category as well, but this may be a bridge too far. These legends may also deal with the elimination of the indigenous occupants of the British Isles by invading iron age tribes such as the Celts - a memory of lurkers and ambushers, fond of hurling stone and soft metal weapons from hiding, but with no answer to cold iron in an open fight.

Of course, in some cultures, rather than representing mundanity, iron is seen as mystical and requiring great craft and wisdom to work (this is particularly common in sub-saharan African traditions), making it potentially supernatural in its own right. In Europe, this role often goes to steel.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • The phlebotinum approach is probably a result of that old bugbear "game balance" … how will a GM make the fae into a serious threat if common or garden weapons burn great holes in them? The answer: if your fae are involved in a standup fight, you're playing them wrong (unless they're something like red caps … and iron is less of a problem for them). The fair folk were ever about charm, illusion and deceit - not toe to toe slugging. If they must fight, expect the PCs to be struck down with plagues and curses and elf-shot hurled by unseen foes, not mixed up in melee.
  • Iron vs. devils is a little more vexed - and likely results from supernatural category blurring in the folk tradition. If in doubt, cut it and replace it with silver, saving iron for the fae.
  • Pick an explanation that fits with your campaign - if playing from the African tradition, the power (and indeed the god) of iron are probably best emphasised, if Western European iron is more likely to represent the triumph of reason and science over emotion and superstition and the banality that comes with it. Meteoric iron, by contrast, is other-worldly stuff (as well as being damned rare) and might serve best against things based on the natural world and harmed by something so alien. All three positions should lead to very different mechanics.
    • Explanations other than those in the main article might lead to their own mechanics as well:
      • Iron replaced bronze as the dominant metal, not because it was stronger (it wasn't), but because it was cheap enough to equip an army while still strong enough that that army could overcome bronze-equipped warriors. This would associate iron with numbers overcoming lone champions, and might grant a bonus against solitary monsters.
      • The reason iron was cheaper than bronze is that bronze was an alloy of components that did not occur together naturally. Opposing the idea of iron as a metal of large groups, it might be associated with isolation and independence, and have an ability to disrupt buffs placed by others.
      • Iron signals the death of a star, as it is more expensive to fuse than the energy obtained from it. This might make it a poison to anything associated with stars or nuclear processes.
      • As in the flavor text, iron might represent brute force and its ability to smash through the deceptions of the fae. Or as in the full poem, it might represent Christianity and Christianization, the powers of the old world banished by iron out of Calvary.
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