Meditation on World Building Part 3: Metal is Scarce

Merchants are a class!? Wow!

Happy New Year and welcome to another installment of my Meditations on Worldbuilding series highlighting one of my favorite campaign worlds published by the world’s most popular role-playing game! That campaign world is Dark Sun. As I have stated on this blog as well as on my podcast, I believe worldbuilding requires a mechanical component or real world game mechanic correlate in order to bring that world to life for the players. In order for that world to “feel” real, there needs to be more than just narrative. There should be a game mechanic, derived from the world itself, that will force players to make real world choices about their character. Dark Sun is an excellent example of this philosophy put into action. Thus, the focus of my meditation.

I started this meditation with the World is a Desert which focused on terrain, travel, encumbrance, food and cannibalism. Then I started talking about The World is Savage, which was a post that began talking about combat. Technically, I’m not done with “The World is Savage” as I have been mulling over what to do about combat. There are two posts already on this and I am nowhere near complete. It is a complicated subject. I might just scrap what I’ve already done and start over. The reason being is that there are OSR games out there that are doing some really interesting things with combat. I would go so far as to say these games are innovative in their approach. From what I’ve seen these games just might suit my needs in terms of lethal and fast-paced combat. I need to do some research. So, I shall put a pause on “The World is Savage” and move on to something a bit more straightforward…at least in theory anyway!

This topic is a part of Dark Sun that I’ve consistently enjoyed: Metal is scarce. This adds so much flavor to any campaign that uses Dark Sun as a backdrop.  Finding an ancient metal sword is like finding a magic item. The breakability of non-metal weapons makes combat more challenging and dangerous. “Metal is Scarce” further solidifies Dark Sun’s reputation as a game focused on desperate survival and your players will certainly feel it.

Back in the ol’ Second Edition days, there were three categories of weapons: Wood, Stone/obsidian, Bone. Each conferred a penalty to hit and a penalty to damage. I did a wee bit o’ research into primitive cultures and their weapons. I discovered that stone weapons were used rather quickly in human societal development. Stone tools were made from chipped stone (cryptocrystalline materials) such as chert or flint, radiolarite, chalcedony, obsidian, basalt, and quartzite. Why did obsidian get singled out in Dark Sun? Two reasons: (1) there was a city-state that mined it and used it as an export; but (2) apparently obsidian will fracture down to a single atom, giving it a cutting edge five hundred times sharper than steel. However, obsidian weapons are still very delicate and breakable.

I also discovered that a cubic inch of bone can, in principle, bear a load of 19,000 lbs. (8,626 kg) or more- roughly the weight of five standard pickup trucks—making it about four times as strong as concrete!?

I think this topic can easily spinout of control and become too burdensome. Do we have different rules for bone clubs versus wooden clubs? Do we create a new list of weapons unique to the world much like the original Dark Sun? How detailed do we make this without deviating too significantly from my desire to keep this as simple as possible? With the original rules, I did not see any exceptions made for certain weapons like a club. Why would a club made from a big piece of wood suffer penalties? Also, do you need a penalty for a wooden arrow? Certainly, a sharpened piece of flint at the end of the arrow would be sharper than a piece of wood.  Is a club made from the femur of a giant creature more potent than a piece of wood? Do we need to get that detailed? At the end of the day a decision needs to be made for the sake of “the game.” This may have been the reasoning behind the decision made in the Dark Sun rulebook. Just pick something and go with it.

MaterialCostHit probabilityRarity
Metal100%Very Rare
Bone30%-1Uncommon
Stone50%-2Common
Wood10%-3Common

Given what I’ve “researched” (ahem) I am actually going to focus on hit probabilities rather than damage reduction. I own a bokken (wooden training katana—no, I don’t know how to use it). Getting hit with that is going to hurt…a lot. I think the real issue with these weapons is whether they can pierce a target’s armor to do damage to the body. Reducing damage is going to simply prolong combat which I don’t want. Therefore, the weapon’s material is about hit probability and not about doing damage.

I am going to include a rarity chart. It is probably a bit superfluous but I think it is important to know that running around with a bone weapon means someone killed the thing used to make it. Monsters aren’t going to be easy to kill. Thus, bone weapons are not going to be readily available. You will only readily find them in the city states.

The cost column is how to calculate the value based on the material. Thus, a wooden longsword (normal weapon) from LotFP’s Skills & Magic (which is the base ruleset I’m using) will only cost you the Athasian equivalent of 2sp. For purposes of full disclosure, I am ripping that right from the old Dark Sun ruleset. I see no reason to deviate.

Weapon breakage: Non-metal weapons risk breakage upon rolling maximum damage. There is a 1 in 20 chance the weapon breaks and becomes useless. When there is a critical hit, regardless of damage or effect, weapon breakage is still rolled. The critical hit effect is still applied.

Improvised weapon: This was a skill in second edition AD&D. Essentially, if your weapon broke, you could roll a skill to find a weapon that did some damage. Rather than a separate skill to find an improvised weapon, I am going to subsume this into the Search skill that will be modified by intelligence. Upon a successful roll, the PC finds a large rock or bone or something that does d3 points of damage.

I did want to add the Atlatl as an item to purchase. It is essentially a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in javelin and spears thrown at opponents. It is typically made from wood. Using the atlatl will add +1 damage to spears or javelins when thrown. Their effective range will be increased by 25%. Purchasing will cost 1 silver piece.

Piecemeal Armor: This is also a really cool feature of the original Dark Sun game. Rather than walking around with a full suit of armor, a PC scavenged what they could find. You might have a shoulder pauldron and maybe a shield. It was awesome. The original rules provided an exhaustive list of how each armor type may be broken down. I am not going to do that. I don’t think it is necessary. I think a simple bonus to armor class for each piece of armor is sufficient.

During a 5E campaign I ran a few years ago, I allowed a PC to sacrifice a piece of armor to avoid a critical hit. I am going to continue to use this. It is a cool option that further intensifies combat.

As far as full armor is concerned, I am going to limit it to only few of  the lighter armors, such as leather and hide. These armors can be added to with shin guards or pauldrons, but once a PC’s base armor class is at 15 or higher, the PC will require double the amount of water for the day to stave off the effects of dehydration.

Armor typeArmor classEncumbrance
Leather armor12Normal slot
Hide14Normal slot
Breastplate+3Normal slot
Shoulder pauldron+0½ slot
Shin guard+0½ slot
Two shoulder pauldrons+11 slot
Two shin guards+11 slot
Helmet+0No slot

For all other equipment, I’m just going to via Referee fiat declare that all non-metal items will be 1% of the cost listed; whereas metal items will remain the same value in silver pieces. There. Nice and simple.

The currency in Dark Sun was also a bit different. The currency used centered on the ceramic piece and the bit. The 10 bits made 1 ceramic piece. 100 ceramic pieces made a gold piece. As I am using LotFP as the base ruleset, I will be using the silver standard. Therefore, 10 ceramic pieces will yield a silver piece. Therefore, a wooden longsword will cost you 20 ceramic pieces or 200 bits.

To add to all of this, however, is the fact that water is in high demand. I think the original game missed an opportunity here, especially after I read Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. In Veins there is a currency called “lumen” which is based on 1 hour of light. Why? Because light is a valuable commodity underneath the earth. Why not do the same for water in Dark Sun?

In Dark Sun, 1 gallon of water was equal to 2 bits—that is an awfully low figure from my perspective. Perhaps the original game designers were concerned about making the game too challenging. For me, 1 gallon of water is going to be equal to 1 ceramic piece which is, essentially, 5 times the value from the original game. Water will be just as valuable as currency and it is an easy calculation to use when a PC engages in bartering and haggling.

I have never been satisfied with bartering and haggling systems presented in the games that allegedly featured them. Bartering and haggling is a very subjective exchange. A weaponsmith may not want the 30-lbs of grain you offered in exchange for the weapon he’s been working on, or maybe he does? I am of the opinion no rule system will effectively capture bartering and haggling. Thus, I propose the following as it will be consistent with LotFP’s skill system.

Bartering/Haggling Skill: Roll a d6 and add your skill level plus charisma bonus and compare it to the opponent’s skill check. If you are successful, you reduce (or increase) the value of the item haggled over by 5% per pip over the opponent’s roll. Introducing this skill will provide an easy method of addressing this. Essentially, merchant NPC will note that the item costs ‘X’ amount in ceramic (or silver). The player can then try to talk him down. Alternatively, a PC can try to sell an item. A prospective NPC buyer will offer an amount and the PC can haggle to increase its value. Introducing this skill also allows the LotFP specialists to function as the merchant class, which is an even easier solution to a problem that we will address when it is time to start putting together the classes later on down the road.

Okay…that’s it for now. Next time, I swear…I’ll finish up the combat section!

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