Last time I wrote about mechanics in pursuit of theme for Croatoan, I discussed the colonizers’ firearms. Recently Wizards of the Coast published their 5th edition “Dungeon Master’s Guide,” which includes (among many awesome things) optional rules for guns. The rules for “muskets” resemble my rules for arquebuses on some points, so I feel validated. Also, the book details rules for exploding powder kegs and gunpowder bombs, which I will be eager to incorporate into my game. Hooray explosions!
This design journal is about what I call the “Steel” setting mechanic for Croatoan. (Inspired largely by Dark Sun; thanks Jesse!) In short, the colonizers have steel, and the colonized don’t. The PCs come from cultures that are, at most, Bronze Age, where iron is rare and lower-quality materials such as bronze, copper, bone, and obsidian are the standard.
In the really real world, iron gradually overtook bronze as the material of choice for weapons, armor, and tools. Bronze and iron overlapped in the sense that ancient societies that developed ironwork still had a transitional period where bronze and iron both saw use. Early sources of iron included meteors, and iron sand from certain bogs. The quality of iron artifacts tracked humans’ ability to create better and hotter forges, which permitted the alloying techniques that led to steel (an iron-carbon alloy). Asian-European cultures developed forging techniques far in advance of the rest of the world, which in turn contributed to Western industrialization and military power.
Why make a custom rule for item materials, at all? Colonization drives the core conflict in Croatoan, and material power allows for colonization. For colonization to work as a credible threat, the colonizers need wealth and technology greater than that of the PCs and their cultures. Since D&D is a fantasy game, this disparity could be represented through magic; maybe the colonizers simply have more magic items than everyone else in the world. But, as with the rules for guns, part of the fun and color of Croatoan comes from the colonizers reflecting real world imperialists in relatable ways. The material divide makes the colonizer culture feel distinct, and gives the PCs something to covet. Steel, and how to make it, might even become a plot point as the PCs seek out ways to take colonizer technology and bring it to their people. In short, Steel contributes to the themes I want to convey.
In game, item material quality can be turned into a mechanic by dividing weapon and armor materials into three groups: low-quality (bronze, obsidian, wood, bone, etc.), standard-quality (iron), and high-quality (steel).
Starting weapons are low-quality, and suffer a -1 to attack rolls. Furthermore, on an attack roll resulting in a natural 1, the weapon has a chance of breaking: roll the weapon’s damage die, and on a minimum roll the weapon breaks. This roll does not represent damage, but reflects that larger, higher-die weapons are less likely to break. Nets, whips, and slings are exempt from the low-quality rule, because they incorporate no metal, normally. Clubs, greatclubs, and quarterstaves are not exempt, because they should be metal-shod to be of standard quality. Bows and crossbows are also not governed by the weapon quality rule, however their respective ammunitions are: low-quality arrows or bolts suffer -1 to attack rolls and have a chance to break as above.
Starting armor is likewise low-quality, suffering a -1 to AC. Hide and Leather armor do not incorporate metal and so are exempt. Shields are also exempt because they can be fashioned out of lower-quality materials and are just as effective, in D&D at least.
Standard-quality weapons and armor are made of wrought iron. In my game, I made iron items double the standard cost given in the D&D rules, though it might make as much sense to triple or quadruple the price, or add a flat 50gp to the base cost. These items have the typical statistics with no penalty or bonus, and do not suffer a chance to break.
The colonizers have high-quality steel weapons and armor. Weapons made of steel have a +1 to attack rolls, and armor has a +1 to AC. These inherent material bonuses do not stack with magical bonuses, similar to the “Masterwork” rules of previous editions of D&D. The colonizers might part with steel items for barter, at very high costs, or the PCs might simply steal them. On the open market they are worth hundreds of gold pieces, though might be considerably cheaper in the colonizers’ homeland across the sea.
What are the consequences of the Steel mechanics? In D&D, some character classes rely more heavily on weapon attack rolls than others, and some classes rely on armor more than others. All classes that use weapons and armor are disadvantaged at least a little bit, and the classes that rely on them more have a greater relative disadvantage. To offset relative disadvantage, I allowed a house rule whereby any class with proficiency in Heavy Armor could exchange it for either the Monk or Barbarian version of the Unarmored Defense feature. To offset the PCs’ material disadvantages generally, I gave every PC a bonus feat at first level.
In practice, my players really liked the customizability of having a free feat to play with. Some of them strove for iron weapons as quickly as they could, so as not to suffer the low-quality weapon penalty. One player built his fighter with a high Dexterity and Constitution, then took the Barbarian’s Unarmored Defense option instead of proficiency in heavy armor. By using these character options along with a shield, he had a very high AC at the beginning of the game. (His AC was not insurmountably high, however, as he was incapacitated by enemy crossbow bolts in his first combat. The d20 is a fickle mistress!)
Ideally, the Steel rules enforce an economy of scarcity for good weapons and armor, and provide another advantage to the colonizers. Granted, in the real world the difference was probably more stark: I vaguely recall a demonstration where a replica Aztec macuahuitl and a replica Spanish steel broadsword were clashed together, and the macuahuitl shattered. Steel tools and weapons gives the PCs something to steal, or could form the basis of a quest to discover the “Riddle of Steel.”