Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meditating on Magic Swords

I just finished watching the most recent episode of Nova, entitled Secrets of the Viking Sword. It focuses on the science of medieval weapons, in particular the Ulfbehrt Sword wielded by pagan Vikings from about A.D. 800 to 1000.

Most weapons of that time were made of inferior steel with low carbon content and slag impurities that made them brittle and therefore prone to break in battle. This stemmed from the fact that European forges could not get hot enough for the slag to separate from the iron ore and the fact that metallurgists of the time relied on the ashes of the fire to add what little carbon the steel had.

Ulfberht Swords, however, were made of a high carbon steel with very little slag called crucible steel — an art form that would disappear from European metallurgy for several centuries after the last Ulfberht swords were made. Crucible steel made these swords both stronger and more flexible — qualities that made them devastating in the the close-quarter fighting of viking combat. Indeed, the show had a demonstration of how, compared to a roman-style sword, the Ulfberht design could cut through chain mail.

I, of course, watched this show not only through the lens of history and science, but of a fantasist who loves to use history and science to inform how I play FRPGs. I couldn’t help but think about how the vast majority of magic weapons in OD&D are swords. The process for making an Ulfberht blade is extremely time consuming and unforgiving. Thus, they were rare and often given names. In other words, the magic sword of OD&D is the analog of these viking blades.

Some of the steps involved in the making of the blade invite FRPG elaborations:

  • The carbon used to make steel from iron ore could come from bones — bones of ancestors, animals or (in a fantasy setting) monsters.
  • All Ulfberht Swords are etched with the symbols “+ULFBERH+T.” Intriguingly, the use of the cross seems to indicate some kind of power (an attempt at stealing the powers of their Christian adversaries?). Thus, here we have an origin for named and etched swords.
  • Once forged, the sword is hardened by dipping it into some form of liquid. This could be water, oil or even blood (again, of animals, humans or monsters).

The secret of creating crucible steel was most likely gained from the East, where they knew the secret of Damascus Steel, which differs only in the cooling process (which is much slower and results in its signature crystalline patterns). Thus, either the steel itself was imported via the Volga trade route or the secret of its creation was lost. This invokes the idea of mythical metals like mithril and adamantium.

All of this has me re-thinking the idea of magic weapons and weapon proficiencies in D&D. In context of a fantasy analog of medieval Europe, I could easily buy the argument that the only magic weapons available are swords. Crucible steel is not wasted on any other kind of weapon and therefore every other type of weapon is of inferior quality — non-magical.

In this scenario, I could also see the possibility of allowing every class to use any weapon with one major limitation — only fighters can wield those magical swords. This accomplishes several things at once:

  • The old saw about wizards using swords in source material is acknowledged.
  • There is a very serious tip of the hat to an historic reality.
  • It gives fighters a form of magic unique to their class — Magic-users = arcane; Cleric = divine; Fighter = sword.
  • Finally, it pays homage to the original rules set, where most magic weapons were swords.


  1. I love history inspired gaming. Reality inspired gaming, really, I guess. I very rarely have any kind of urge to play a pseudo-European flavor of D&D and have not done so since I was first introduced to the game at the age of 12 and played a Paladin (not because I wanted to, but because I rolled such ridiculously good stats that the DM and my friend, his younger brother, both insisted that I play a Paladin simply because I had the stats to do so). This post actually makes me sort of want to play a European influenced fantasy game again, and that is no mean feat!

  2. Thanks for the heads up on that Nova episode, now I'm off to the TV guide to see if it's replaying, and can I get it onto the DVR. Sounds fantastic.

    The in-game explanation for the prevalence of magic swords vs other magic items is pure gold, and a great correlation between the old rules and historical reality - I'm taking it! (Yoinked!)

  3. I saw the Nova episode. It was very interesting. As for only swords being magical, I guess the first thing that came to my mind was Grond, both the battering ram with spells of ruin, and the Mace after which it was named. I get the whole 'keep magic in the swords', but there does appear to be some level of justification for other weapons having some form of spells or enchantments that don't violate the realism of real earth references.

  4. It gives fighters a form of magic unique to their class — Magic-users = arcane; Cleric = divine; Fighter = sword

    Inspiring, once again - you've given me a new angle on my "Bastard's Blade Dark Age Christian" campaign.

    Which also begs the question of the thief class, which I know is not one of your favourites. But looking at your class --> magic association above, it's clear that the so-called "thief" class could simply represent the "non-committed" adventurer. Cleric devote themselves to a higher power; magic-users devote themselves to the arcane; fighters devote themselves to martial prowess. Thieves? They devote themselves simply to getting by. Thus, no associative magic skill and maybe justification of the low HD and low XP requirements.

    Instead of burgling ability, think of thief skills as survival mechanisms. The thief now becomes something like the half-way point between normal man and "real" character class.

    Thanks, Dave - this has really gotten my wheels turning.