Monday, July 29, 2013

Of Elves and Iron

I'm working on a new adventure, and it concerns the early history of the world of Ore, where the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign takes place. In it, I explore the early attempts by elves to colonize Ore, their struggles against the Old Ones and their reptiloid kindred, and (most importantly for this post), their ongoing battle against the effects of iron on the elvish metabolism.

The Effects of Iron on Elven Characters

The Dungeon Crawl Classics take on this issue goes like this:
Elves are extremely sensitive to the touch of iron. Direct contact over prolonged periods causes a burning sensation, and exposure at close distances makes them uncomfortable. An elf may not wear iron armor or bear the touch of iron weapons for extended periods. Prolonged contact with iron causes 1 hp of damage per day of direct contact. (DCC Core Rules, p. 57)
At first glance this seems like something that could be annoying to the elven character, but not actively dangerous. Iron is a bit like poison ivy. It's nasty stuff, and it can cause a person some pain, but it's really not that bad. Mechanically, the in-game effects are about nil, unless you do to equivalent of stuffing your pants with iron nails (or poison ivy for that matter). It's not likely that an elven character is going to put him or herself into a position where iron contact is constant, so my guess is that the intention is to make it more likely that elven characters have to quest for non-ferrous armor and weapons, don't just get to pick up the armor they find, and more or less find self-protection via increase to armor class a bit harder than, say, a wizard. That's all well and good, but it lacks a certain something. I'd like to address that lack in this post.

Heavy Metal Poisoning in Real Life

No, for your information, I'm not talking about that terrible song by Styx. Seriously, that song sucked and was weird and preachy and totally sucked. I'm not gonna link it. Did I mention how much it sucked? Because it did. Anyway...

Medscape Reference suggests that, "The toxicity of heavy metals depends on a number of factors. Specific symptomatology varies according to the metal in question, the total dose absorbed, and whether the exposure was acute or chronic" (Adal, A., et al., 2013).

A quick read-through of a FAQs document on heavy metal poisoning written by the Oregon Public Health Division Office of Environmental Public Health lists symptoms. They include some of the following:

Muscle and Joint Pain

However, more specific information about the various metals suggests we could add these effects to the list:

Diseases of the organs, brittle bones, permanent nervous system damage, manifesting as, "mental retardation, brain damage, cerebral palsy, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak," or other acute and chronic effects like, "abdominal pain, convulsions, hypertension, kidney dysfunction, loss of appetite, fatigue, and sleeplessness... hallucinations, headache, numbness, arthritis, and vertigo" (

Clearly, if elves have to deal with this kind of shit, iron exposure is an ongoing nightmare for the lot of them, and would force them to avoid or to find adaptations for situations that would result in iron exposure. With that context, let's consider what the elves of Ore would have to deal with and how they might adapt.

Iron Exposure: Acute and Chronic

In most cases, since we're talking about a fantasy RPG, "acute iron exposure" would result from getting various pieces of cutlery shoved into one's body, or being cleaved with an axe or polearm, or being shot with a bow/crossbow arrow/bolt with an iron or steel head. The vector for infection is a sudden, massive increase in the level of exposure. 

While some of the fantasy literature about elves and the fae in general suggests that iron weapons are deadly to them, DCCRPG doesn't model that mechanically. Getting your Elf taken out with a one-hit from a glancing dagger strike probably would result in a pretty shitty game for the elven character. So, they don't model that. If I were to do something to account for what acute exposure might do, I think perhaps a damage bonus is warranted. Elves hit with weapons of iron or steel take 1 HP more damage than non-elves. Alternately, they might have to pass a Fort save versus poison to avoid damage (make it DC 5, maybe). So, acute iron exposure is dealt with pretty easily. However, my real concern is chronic exposure and its effects. 

As some of the symptoms above suggest, chronic exposure affects the mind and body in some painful, dangerous, and frightening ways. Add to this the fact that elves use magic, and you have an interesting recipe for delusional, psychotic magic users. So, yeah, fun stuff. I imagine that chronic effects of iron on elves would include everything from lost Stamina, to additional corruption tables for elven characters, to magical casting penalties for iron-infected characters, among other things. I'm not exactly sure how this would play out in mechanical terms, but I'd tend toward a table of results that would crop up when the Elf in question has been too long among Men, too long on Ore. How would we model this?

Modeling the Effects of Iron Infection

The easiest way to model progressive iron infection would be to link it to experience. Just as characters often get perquisites for going up in level (e.g., increased hit dice, high deed die, etc.), the elven character might also have an "iron effects" chart, by level. So, as the Elf gets more powerful in game terms, he or she would also be dealing with the slow degradation of body and mind, and the corruption of his or her magic. This is a simple and elegant answer, and it could actually make playing an elven character more interesting. As it stands, the Elf in DCC is not that much different than any other race. Yes, they have the racial abilities, certainly, but actually playing an Elf doesn't require much difference in how the character approaches the game. If it were inevitable that an Elf would be affected by iron over time, and that those effects would be consequential, it opens up a whole different way of running that character. It also would result in research, quests, equipment, an so forth designed specifically to deal with those effects. 

Simply, if iron exposure could totally fuck you up, then you'd be pretty concerned with how to avoid it in the first place, or to ameliorate the effects once it happens.

It's Tough Out Here for an Elf

So, what do elves have to do to adjust to life on Ore? A few things spring to mind, but I'm sure there are plenty of others.

  • Elves tend to congregate together in enclaves where iron exposure can be limited. This results in neighborhoods built from particular materials, development of a variety of rituals and procedures for cleansing, dressing, eating, and other everyday activities that will seem weird to non-elves.
  • Elves tend to be quite vigilant towards potential vectors of infection. They find ways to seal themselves and their homes off from those vectors.
  • Elves also tend to be quite vigilant toward other elves, and alert for their manifestation of the symptoms of iron poisoning. An infected Elf is dangerous in a purely practical sense, but he or she is also part of what makes the other people of Ore afraid of the elven race. They have a reputation for madness and for sudden, catastrophic violence.
  • There is a whole area of arcane study concerned with iron exposure and its effects on spell casting. Iron makes magic work differently. The elves of Ore have had to make changes to their approaches. This also serves to make the elves of Elfland treat them differently, further alienating them. They aren't natural to the world of Ore, but they also are different from "real" elves. They exist somewhere in between the two worlds, lending to their sense of outsider status, to their feelings of alienation. It also makes them appreciate their expatriate brethren even more, and to be incredibly protective of each other.
  • There is a whole area of healing/medicine concerned with iron exposure and its effects on elven biology. This area of study is guarded from outsiders, and elves have been known to assassinate any non-Elf who tries to pry into these mysteries.
  • There is a thriving industry in quackery, holistic approaches to healing from iron exposure, and other quasi-medical scams. Because iron is so dangerous, and infection so inevitable, some elves will believe nearly anything in order to cope with their fears, even if the cures offered are ineffective or even worse than iron infection itself.
  • Elven artisans are becoming more and more concerned with, and adept at, crafting devices to limit their exposure to iron (e.g., filter masks, special garments, etc.). This tends to make them look even more otherworldly, and sets them apart from the other races even further. Given the history of the elves as I've written it before, this means that they are even further excluded, and that others' views of them as dangerous outsiders is exacerbated.
  • Non-elves know that infected elves are potentially dangerous. The more powerful the Elf, the more likely he or she is to be a problem. As a result, there is strong anti-Elf sentiment in some quarters, and even some political impetus to exclude elves from Ur-Hadad entirely.
  • Elves often return to Elfland in order to seek respite from the effects of iron infection, and to attempt healing of some sort. Some never return. They elves don't talk about this to outsiders. Elves who talk about it to outsiders usually disappear without trace.

In any case, when iron infection becomes a constant fear, the elven culture is forced to make a variety of adaptations to account for it. This constant concern manifests itself in weird ways, resulting in an elven culture that is very different from the cultures of the other fantasy races. To extend a point I made in my prior post about the elves of Ore, we also have groups of elves who become corrupted by iron, by acute exposure or by birth defect. These mutants are additional complications for elven culture. I suggested that orcs, for one example, actually are elves who have been mutated by iron, driven mad, and made dangerous. I can see how that constant threat would affect elves' approaches to reproduction, create a constant concern about "purity," would increase elven secrecy about the nature of these problems, and so forth. Again, this would tend to make elves even more insular and suspicious of outsiders. It would also, of course, result in making them seem weirder and less trustworthy to the outsiders they spurn. This cycle would certainly result in strong intercultural tensions between elves and the other races. This fact, on top of the prior Imperial history of the elves of Ore, would create a lot of potential problems, conflicts, and so forth with men, dwarves, halflings, etc., and the potential for prejudice, violence, and even civil/race wars based on these differences. 

I'm a little scared about where all of this thinking might lead, but am nonetheless fascinated by how much richer would be the world in which such complications occur. I these elves a lot more than vanilla elves, but I worry about what it means for the world of Ore. If, for example, the Grand Vizier were to foment anti-elven hatred, to require that elves be registered with the state, to liven only in designated elven compounds, etc., all of a sudden we're in the kind of dangerous territory that humans have been in before. It never ends well, but it does make for an incredibly interesting story. 

Still, when the fantasy races are conceived through lens of prior human thinking about Race as a concept, then you find yourself confronting all sorts of real life horror, up to and including genocide. Thinking about racial issues as they apply to Appendix N fiction (and the RPGs that follow from it) really concerns me, as I've said before, but I worry more about NOT thinking enough about it. It's become a bit of a focus lately, simply because I'm working on an adventure that forces me to confront what might happen if the elves really were different, and what might result because of that difference.


Adal, A., et al. (2013). Heavy metal toxicity. Medscape Reference

Oregon Public Health Division Office of Environmental Public Health. (2011). Heavy metals and your health: Frequently asked questions about testing, treatment and prevention. Oregon Health Authority