Riddle Of Steel
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"Crom is strong! If I die, I have to go before him, and he will ask me, 'What is the riddle of steel?' If I don't know it, he will cast me out of Valhalla and laugh at me."

Conan the Barbarian

Basic Information

The Riddle of Steel is1] a piece of mysticism associated with the nature of steel and sometimes shown as being able to make a man better at wielding it once it is understood. This idea was probably popularised in Western Culture by the 1982 John Milus film Conan the Barbarian, in which it is a key part of the hero's religion. Given the character of the sword as the archetypal warrior's weapon, and the almost unarguable superiority of steel for swordsmithing, it makes sense for the riddle to be mainly applied to swords2. For those who want to use the riddle of steel as a theme in their own games, there follows a series of suggestions as to what it might be:

  • The iron ore thinks it is senselessly tortured in the furnace - the steel blade remembers and knows better: A Japanese proverb much cited on dojo walls, implying that hard, painful training transforms a Man into something far greater and that it is possible to trascend your own limitations if you are prepared to work for it.
  • The steel is not as strong as the flesh that wields it: Essentially the answer given by the film: that it is the skill and dedication of the warrior that makes him great, regardless of the weapon he uses.
  • How can a thing be both hard and flexible?: Based on the observation that low carbon steel won't take and hold an edge, but high carbon steel is brittle and shatters easily; ideally a blade should have the best of both and the worst of neither - a reminder to the warrior not to always use the same approach.
  • As steel sharpens steel, so one man sharpens another: PRV27:17 - only by practise against other people can you ever really learn to fight. No amount of drill or meditation will ever make you a great swordsman.
  • Charcoal crumbles; iron dents. How can steel do neither?: Combining multiple styles can do things that neither can do alone - an instruction to broaden one's horizons when possible.

…any or all of those could turn out to be the "true" answer.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Seeking the riddle of steel may well be a character's life's work - and learning the answer may not be as simple as looking it up on a wiki - after all, knowing any of the above won't make you a better swordsman unless you do something with that knowledge.
    • In the same way, being able to forge reliable steel in a repeatable manner is a significant technological breakthrough - even if you don't know that that is what you have done. In an iron-age community, a man who can make steel is a valuable asset and worth the patronage and protection of a king or other magnate able to afford top quality weapons.
  • Of course, knowing the answer to the riddle in character may do something right away - especially if steel is fairly esoteric stuff in the setting. Perhaps to an iron-age warrior who is used to metals having only a single character, the idea that you can combine strength and flexibility without becoming useless - indeed the idea that being able to give way might actually make you "stronger" - could be a true revalation3.
  • Perhaps an esoteric understanding of how the metal of your armour works might be of benefit as well somehow.
    • Without the shell, the blade falls to the ground; without the blade, the shell can do nothing, anyone? Or cloth for hammers, rings for spikes, plates for blades?
    • Other bits of steel might have their own lessons. That the unshod horse is useful does not make the horseshoe useless, maybe?
    • And maybe the Riddle of Steel can be updated to use other materials for other professions. Does your scribe worry that Thoth will ask him for the Riddle of Ink? Maybe your inventor is seeking the Riddle of the Transistor.
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