Continuing the journey of the sword, we follow the ore from the ground to… the furnace. It can’t be used in its current form, trapped within dirt, stone, and other impurities. So it must be converted into a form that the blacksmith can then melt into various designs to produce the tools and weapons we’re looking for. (For the article on mining check here. And to see how this series began, check here.)
It takes special equipment for this conversion and a special process known as smelting, which extracts usable metal from its ore. It also takes special materials known as reducing agents to get rid of all the other elements and leave only the metal behind. Coke (a concentrated form of coal) or charcoal are commonly used to heat the ore to extreme temperatures to burn away the impurities and a flux (commonly limestone) is used to help remove them as a more liquid slag.
Through this process, we have a combination of qualities to explore in gaming: the furnace and the buildings around it, the process used by the metallurgist supervising the operation, the various tools and materials needed, and the people involved – from the blacksmith or metallurgist monitoring things to the workers moving materials, operating the bellows, the owners of the operation, and others who need processed ore for their own reasons.
So how do we use this messy, dangerous combination to our advantage while gaming?
First of all, most players will likely not want to directly take part in the smelting process directly unless it’s part of a PC’s background. Like the most recent Conan the Barbarian movie, young Conan watched his father take part in the “Riddle of Steel,” forging a weapon, I can definitely see something similar being in the background for some characters. But unless the PCs have been chained up and are forced to operate the bellows or shovel ore, coke, or limestone into the furnace at different times, this isn’t going to be the most exciting task before them.
And, just like with mining, I can see smelting furnaces as key resources that governments or individuals will seek to control as a part of the cycle of arming a military. Plenty of political maneuvering in managing the supply chain on any side of a conflict.
But that leaves plenty of different types of plots to explore in-game. Let’s look at in four different areas: The Place, The Process, The Pieces, and The People…
(I want to thank the reddit.com/r/rpg community for helping come up with some of these plots. When I asked for suggestions, quite a few folks stepped up to offer ideas!)
The furnace is at the heart of the smelting process. Without it, the tools and materials are useless. So ensuring that the furnace is of a good design and kept in good working order is key to keeping production moving.
- The PCs have to help build or repair a furnace to gain the support of a local village or town. Not only is their physical labor needed, but they must help find and purchase building materials, tools, and recruit labor to the cause.
- An ancient crucible exists in the myths and legends of the local area. It has been lost to time, but is the only way to smelt sky metal from a meteorite destined to become the sword that kills a horror stalking the land. The PCs must track it down against all odds or all is lost…
- A local blast furnace has become a hot commodity for the local government. To ramp up weapon production for the army they will need to invade (or protect against) their neighbor, they are claiming all furnaces as government property. The PCs are paid to protect a furnace from the government or destroy it if necessary.
- A furnace operation has fallen on bad times and has asked the PCs to track down a priest/priestess of a known god of smiths to bless the site to regain its favor.
- A furnace has been cursed by efreeti or fire elementals to sabotage all metal produced. The PCs are brought in to investigate, negotiate with the saboteurs, or discover who or what is behind the efforts.
Like any pre-industrial process, smelting requires a great deal of raw materials as well as manual labor. Discovering the right combination of reducing agents, furnace design, and tricks for purifying raw ore into workable steel is a lifelong pursuit for many.
- A local operation (or nation/organization) seeks details of a rival’s smelting process. Why is their steel stronger? What do they do differently? Infiltrate and bring back the secrets of their success.
- A local operation seeks ways to make his furnace burn hotter and is looking into magical means to achieve this. The PCs are hired to negotiate with wizards, elementals, or efreeti to strike a deal to this end.
Just like with the mining side of this equation, finding the right materials and tools to do the job is paramount to success.
- The PCs are hired to transport raw ore to a smelting facility and processed ore (osmonds, ingots) to the blacksmith who will be doing the forging work.
- The PCs are hired to track down a rare coke or flux for a particular project. It is only available in a remote place and is dangerous to retrieve.
- The PCs are hired to find rare ore or star metal for a particular project.
- The local furnace has suffered a recent rash of tool thefts. The PCs are hired to track down and retrieve the tools and stop the thieves from coming back for more.
- The PCs are hired to steal superior equipment from the Duergar for a particular project.
- Corrupt ore is being shipped from a particular mine. Figure out why it’s corrupt and stop it at its source.
- A local operation started using new tools and found the results to be tainted. The PCs are brought in to investigate where they came from and see if they can find a way to remove the “taint”.
And none of the process can happen without people at every step of the way… Well, unless you can create golems or undead to do it for you…
- The PCs have hired a local blacksmith to help fix or forge weapons or armor for them.
In return, the PCs must help around the furnace on the bellows, shoveling ore, coke, or flux since the blacksmith’s staff was fired or found murdered.
- Someone has been killing off the local blacksmiths one by one. Find out who it is and stop them before they strike again.
- The PCs are asked to negotiate with a reclusive land baron for mineral rights on his property.
- The PCs are asked to locate an ancient retired blacksmith who knows the secret to smelting star metals.
- A local smith asks the PCs to work as bodyguards/escorts to get them to each of five different blacksmiths to teach different techniques.
- A local blast furnace is suffering worker problems. Employees seek better treatment from the smith. The workers hatch a plot to take over the furnace. Local nobles hatch a plot to kill the workers and the smith and take over the operation themselves…
Again, this is definitely not an exhaustive list of options, but should offer some ideas of possible avenues to explore. Next time we’ll talk about taking the processed metal and turning into an actual weapon!
- The Rise and Fall of Medieval Iron Technology – http://www.engr.psu.edu/MTAH/articles/rise_fall_medieval_technology.htm
- Medieval Iron and Steel — Simplified – http://www.the-orb.net/encyclop/culture/scitech/iron_steel.html
- Smelting Ore into Useful Metal – http://www.modernparapsychology.com/Gamer/Moloch/Smelt.html
- Essential Humanities: Iron Smelting – http://www.essential-humanities.net/supplementary-art-articles/iron-smelting/
- Documentary film about reconstructing an experimental iron furnace – (part 1) http://youtu.be/gHZznZngbaY, (part 2) http://youtu.be/l8AtgArVZfI
- Blast furnace (Wikipedia) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blast_furnace
- Smelting (Wikipedia) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smelting