This is the first article in a series – for the full series, check out the introduction – Journey of the Sword.
Every metal weapon or tool begins with the same humble origins at some point… bits of rocks. Someone went to the trouble of digging for those rocks or locating fallen stars (meteorites) that have hit the ground. Even if the blacksmith melted down old weapons or metal objects to create a new sword, those items were raw ore once upon a time.
Where did the ore come from? Who mined it from the ground? Who transported it from its origin to the folks who will melt (or smelt) it into something that can be actually made into weapons or tools?
And how do we use these humble origins to our advantage while gaming?
Most of our traditional metals will come from mining operations involving people doing the grunt work deep in the earth. In much of fantasy literature in the Tolkien tradition (and even in fairy tales with Snow White), it’s the dwarves that do the mining and metalwork. (There’s even a TV Trope for it – “Our Dwarves Are All the Same.“) But don’t think that the dwarves are all alone in the dark. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for all the races – humanoid or monstrous.
Mines themselves show up in many classic stories, including the The Lord of the Rings universe and King Solomon’s Mines with Allan Quatermain. They provide access to resources that can be used or traded for money or political power. Even today we’re exploring the options of mining asteroids in the next decade or two.
And in our campaigns, I can see plenty of reasons to include mines in history and backstory. Whether it’s people, monsters, or gods putting metals and other things in the ground, there’s always something buried somewhere.
However, unless it’s a “former occupation,” you’re not going to want to do a lot of mining during your campaigns. It requires labor, tools, and a love or at least tolerance of dark, confined spaces. As a player, I definitely wouldn’t want to be doing a series of Mining skill checks to see how much iron ore I managed to dig out that day. (That said, I could see that as part of a series of skill checks to complete a part of an adventure so long as it wasn’t overused.)
Instead, let’s look at three different areas that may be ripe for the picking adventure-wise – transportation, meteorites, and the mines themselves.
Once the raw ore is found, it must be transported to someone with a facility to turn it from rock into a usable raw material. How does it get from here to there?
- Caravans always risk being attacked if their cargo is worth something to someone. Guard duty, onerous as it may be, can be useful to move PCs from one location to another – whether the caravan is attacked or as a simple story transition with no combat at all.
- The PCs may be contracted to move a small amount of material to an expert for verification.
- Or if the PCs own some manner of transport (wagons, carts, etc.) they may be contracted to move an entire ore shipment themselves to a particular destination.
The Quest for Star Metal (Meteorites)
On our own planet we have meteor showers on a fairly regular basis. Some more spectacular than others. And occasionally some of those meteors make it to the ground. As any meteorite hunter will tell you, it’s a lot like finding a needle in a haystack if the haystack was a bunch of rocks and the needle a similar-looking rock. But imagine the money a party might be able to make tracking down rare sky metals for a talented blacksmith? Can you guess at how much that blacksmith could charge for such unique items?
Though it may seem at first a bit like a “FedEx” quest, with a little tweaking you can avoid that trap.
- Perhaps there is a prophecy involving a large meteor that crashes in the kingdom and “whomever possesses the sky metal will change the course of the coming evil…” The PCs may be on a mission of some importance to get to the meteor before other interested parties.
- Or maybe there is a wizard the PCs need help from who will only comply if you can retrieve (or steal) a falling star for her.
- Or maybe the party is ambitious enough to realize the market for meteorite rocks and travels around following major meteor showers to find a few to sell.
The mines themselves offer plenty of opportunities beyond simply going in with a pick and shovel to see what the PCs can find.
- Mines sometimes offer gateways to strange worlds, old and new.
- Mines (and miners) sometimes need protection.
- Miners sometimes uncover things buried for a reason.
- Miners or mine administrators sometimes have hidden agendas.
Like caves, mines sometimes enter underground areas that have been sealed off from the rest of the world for some time. Whether deliberate or through an act of nature, some of these forgotten worlds are devoid of life, while others may have flourished in unexpected ways. (For inspiration, look to writers like Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World), Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Land That Time Forgot), and H.P. Lovecraft (At the Mountains of Madness). Sometimes explorers seek knowledge and stumble into places they have no right to find.)
And sometimes an old mine can simply be used as a way to get from point A to point B. (“Mines of Moria” anyone?)
As a few examples:
- Miners unexpectedly break into the lair of a previously unknown species or a lost world thriving unseen beneath the surface. These may be peaceful creatures simply defending their home or something/someone seeking to expand their domain. The PCs must broker a peace, find a way to close the portal, or track down the creatures that escaped.
- Miners uncover a hidden complex dedicated to a dark god and his/her followers seek vengeance. The PCs must stop the cult and god before anyone else gets hurt.
- PCs must follow an explorer into the depths in an attempt to rescue them from certain doom or simply discover what happened to them.
- The PCs are told of an old abandoned mine that they could enter to avoid having to climb treacherous mountain passes to get where they’re going…
Mines sometimes need protection from marauders and bandits. Sometimes the miners need protection from monsters or creatures that have infested the mine. And if the mine doubles as a prison, there’s a need for protection inside the mine as well as outside to keep the convicts in line.
- Monsters infesting a mine preventing the miners from getting their job done. The PCs must clear them out and prevent them from getting in again.
- A villain has hidden deep in a mine to evade capture, perhaps going so far as to find a few hostages. The PCs must find and bring the villain to justice and get the hostages out safely.
- Miners have started disappearing and the PCs are hired to find them or stop more miners from meeting the same fate.
- A group of miners are trapped and in need of rescue.
- The PCs are arrested for a crime and sentenced to time working in a mine.
- The PCs are trapped in a mine along with… [monsters, miners, criminals]… and must escape.
- A miner has found the mother lode and asks for the PCs help to secure it (or reclaim it after being run out by bandits/outlaws/monsters).
- The PCs are hired to sabotage the mine of a competitor (either commercially or politically).
Like the options for gateways, sometimes people should just leave things alone. If something was buried, usually it was buried for a reason.
- An artifact was discovered while mining and the PCs must recover it for study by a local wizard.
- An artifact was discovered and has turned the miners into monsters. The monsters must be stopped or the artifact must be destroyed in an attempt to return the miners to normal.
- An artifact important to geologic stability was discovered and damaged or removed, causing widespread earthquakes and devastation on the surface. The artifact must be found and repaired or the world will tear itself apart.
- A monster was imprisoned in a rare form of ore and the miners cracked open the wall, releasing an evil being or creature. The PCs must defeat it or imprison it once again.
- A sleeping god is awakened by noise in the mine, starting a campaign of terror or the end of the world. The PCs must try to stop the god somehow…
Any time people (humanoid or monstrous) are involved, there are going to be agendas. Every sentient being has wants and needs. Sometimes those needs override common sense.
- The mine administrator knows of an artifact lost for years in the area and the mine simply acts as a cover for his real goal – finding it. Once the artifact is found, he’ll use it’s power to take over the world…
- A group of miners stumbles upon a vein of another ore (not the one the mine usually hauls out of the ground). They decide to keep it a secret and smuggle it out in bits and pieces for sale to the highest bidder. The administrator has heard rumors and wants to know what’s going on.
- A competing company has a saboteur within the mine damaging supports and tools to stop production. If things get bad enough, the owner of the sabotaged mine may be forced to sell to the competing company…
Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list of ideas for a mine, but it will hopefully be enough to get you thinking of ways to integrate mines into your own campaigns. Next time we’ll focus on smelting and some of the ways you can work that process into an adventure.
Follow Up: Have you used any mine-based adventures in your campaign? If so, what were they and how did they work?