This is the first half of a two-part guest article by Phil McGregor. To anyone who doesn’t know who he is, check the brief bio at the bottom of the article! The second part will appear on Thursday.

Wood or Iron?

One of the reasons I got into roleplaying games way back in the mid 1970’s (D&D 1e, original first printing!) was because I was already interested in historical boardgames (Avalon Hill, “Panzerblitz” and “Strategy & Tactics Magazine” – and that was because I had a major interest in History going way back to Primary School. Eventually, I went to University and did a double major in History and ended up a professional Historian of sorts (I teach High School History, Years 7-12, Australian, World/Modern and Ancient).

With such interests, personal and professional, it’s probably no wonder that I have always been interested in the way in which various roleplaying games have presented the inevitable historical elements – and even the most generic inevitably do, even if only by building on our societal (and often wrong) historical “knowledge” and also on the pseudo-historical assumptions of earlier roleplaying games, all the way back to that very first edition of “Dungeons and Dragons”. And, yes, there are, even in generic FRP games, historical assumptions.

Some of those we take for granted, as part of the overall fantasy milieu, include things such as the western European (largely English, but with French and German additions and other odds and sods) Feudal System, and all that that involves (Knighthood, Chivalry and more) as well as organised religion often based on Christian (or their middle/near eastern predecessors and relatives) hierarchical models – yes, even the supposedly Pagan ones!

To most people, this a perfectly acceptable “shorthand” for understanding the game background… even if, for those who know anything more than “popular knowledge” about ancient and medieval history, it is rarely accurate and mostly makes little or no sense. Not just the “Why do they have a noble named after a Roman military Rank (Count or Duke) in a world where there was never a Rome?” level, but also the “Why do they have a system designed to meet specific political, economic and geophysical conditions as they existed in Western Europe from about 800 AD through to the 1600’s applying to a world where none of those preconditions ever existed?”

But that’s the “Big Picture” – and it would take a lot of space here, or a lot of reading on your part, to come to grips with what the problems with these issues actually are… which is probably more than most casual gamers care to do (If you are interested, there is a suggested reading list appended at the end).

And, of course, there will be a lot of you who will feel “so what, it’s only a game”! Which is true enough – except for one thing I have noticed over the last 36+ years… the longer a gamer is involved in the hobby, and the longer a campaign (whatever rules or background it runs under), the more the participants become interested in the nuts and bolts… and the consistency of the whole thing. This is where the problems start to arise, as the foundation assumptions for most of the hobby’s assumed background – well, not to put too fine a point on it – don’t make much sense and lack any believability once you start looking at them with such an eye.

So, let’s get down to a couple of issues with pretty much all FRP games, certainly those that are largely based on Western European assumptions, get badly wrong, in a way that most long, even medium term, gamers will soon be scratching their heads over…

An inversion of reality

Going right back to the grandaddy of them all, the base assumption of D&D and pretty much all of its direct and indirect successors is that wood costs more than iron.

“Come again?”, you’re all saying, “I can’t remember wood or iron prices anywhere?” Well, think about the things made with wood and iron. Weapons. Light beginning to dawn somewhat?

In almost all western european influenced FRP games weapon costs are based on a mix of lethality (or perceived lethality, as the two aren’t always the same on a reading of history) and whether they are ranged weapons or not – and not their actual cost of manufacture!

So, for example, in Pathfinder (basically D&D 3.6), a Longsword (4 pounds of iron) costs 15gp and a Longbow (3 pounds of wood) costs 75gp. Think about it.

In any world even vaguely resembling reality, is it likely that ordinary wood will cost over six times as much per pound as ordinary iron?

Some of you might be saying, right around now, “But, But, It must use special wood!” And that’s right, it does. But, see, most of ancient and medieval Europe was covered with these things called, well, trees… from which you get wood. Even the somewhat special wood that bows are made from (and it doesn’t make all that much difference, bows made from ordinary wood were almost as good as bows made from the somewhat more select stuff).

Or, maybe, you’re saying, “But it must involve lots of labour intensive effort!”

Not really. We’re talking Longbows, which are what is called a Self Bow – a bow made from a single piece of wood. Sure, it has to be specially made by a moderately skilled craftsman – but it’s not a Composite Bow, which, even though it requires a lot more work, is still not as expensive to make as a sword.

That’s the reason that Bows were mostly the weapons of peasants and yeomen – they were cheap.

Swords? Anything made of iron? Or steel? Different kettle of fish. Entirely.


It is estimated that the iron production of the whole Roman Empire, at its height, was around 20,000 tons per year. With the collapse of the Empire, Iron production in Europe plummeted as well – not to reach that 20kton figure again until around the 17th century… depending on how you count such things, around 1000 years! Why?

Sure, the collapse of the Western Empire led to immediate and massive economic dislocation – the western economy basically collapsed beyond almost subsistence level for quite a while. That was part of it.

The other part was that the Romans had basically mined out all of the known large deposits – down to the water table – and were at the stage where they were using slave powered water wheels to dewater lower shafts. This was simply uneconomical for the smaller successor states, and probably was uneconomical even for the Romans at the end as well. To get at the lower deposits required the invention of the steam engine – another 1200 years or so off.

That’s part of it. There simply wasn’t a lot of iron around to begin with, while there was a lot of wood. Economic forces work the same in an FRP world as they do in real life – or, at least, they do if you don’t want whiney players to start constant questioning of things! So, on that basis alone, iron is going to cost more than wood.

But there’s more. The technology of refining iron ore into iron was, well, marginal. The temperatures reachable in forges wasn’t enough to cause the iron to melt, so you ended up with a “bloom” of mixed iron and slag… and it took many, many, many, many man hours to heat and hammer and heat and hammer and heat and hammer the thing until you had worked out all the slag and were left with a slug of iron that you could then do something with.

Then, to form the armour or weapon or utensil desired took as much effort on top of all the above.

For example, we know that a suit of armour made for the Black Prince in Spain in the 14th century took around 2000 man hours to make… allowing for Sundays and Holy Days, that’s a good nine months.

Swords didn’t take as long as that, of course.

By now you can see the truth of my original point – there is no way in any FRP world even vaguely resembling reality that a chunk of wood is going to cost more than a chunk of iron!

So, why is it so? Well, there are some historical reasons and some game reasons.

A Noble Weapon

The historical reasons are quite simple. The barbarian tribes that largely destroyed and occupied the Western Empire were metal poor cultures, even compared to the Romans. Any metal was precious. Most warriors were equipped with spears – mostly wood, of course – and only the very most wealthy nobles and their retainers could hope to have a sword. The Romans largely, and largely effectively, embargoed a trade in weapons with these tribes and used gift swords as prestigious bribes to keep their fractious nobility, well, fractious … so they couldn’t combine and cause the Empire grief.

Swords were connected with prestige. They were a noble weapon. Even if the sad reality was (as the barbarians found out all too often, like the French at Crecy and Agincourt much later) that missile weapons could slaughter those sword wielding nobles way before they could get anywhere near their enemies…

Still, a Sword was a Noble’s weapon – and, in some places and at some times the powers that be attempted (largely futilely) to enforce sumptuary laws which, amongst other things, were supposed to limit the type of weapon that someone could own based on their social class rather than whether they could actually afford it or not. And, of course, as a result, a lot of pseudo-religious claptrap about the “noble” nature of swords and sword wielders (the Noble ones, at least) grew up over time… to be swallowed hook, line and sinker by FRP game designers ;-)

A Legacy Of Balance

The game reasons are also quite simple. The original designers of D&D based their rules on Chainmail, a set of miniatures wargaming rules – and miniatures wargaming works by trying to balance the effectiveness of the forces on both sides in a way that simply never happens in real life battles… mainly so that the skill (or otherwise) of the participants is the deciding factor in any battle rather than overwhelming force.

Prices of weapons in the original D&D were, therefore, taken from that sort of understanding. Missile weapons, in reality (think Crecy and Agincourt, for example, for blindingly obvious examples – but there are many others that also follow a similar pattern, but are less well known and do it less obviously), can provide a crushing level of superiority to the side that has the most or who use the ones they have the most effectively.

To the designer’s way of thinking, that had to hold over to D&D – so there had to be the same balance mechanism to ensure Fighters had some balancing mechanism between melee and missile.

Also, the ranges of most missile spells/miracles (and spells/miracles in general) is way less than the effective range of most Bows, and, indeed, a lot of other missile weapons – so if Mages and Clerics were to be survivable, well, there had to be that balance mechanism again.

Contemplating Correction

Are these reasons good enough? Indeed, are they even needed?

Well, to the way of thinking of the original designers, evidently so. And, as noted, pretty much everyone else has followed… often, I suspect, unthinkingly and with no understanding of what the issues are.

However, that doesn’t mean that it is necessary to continue to do so.

The obvious solution is to allow Mages/Clerics and the like access to spells that offer similar ranges to the missile weapons in the game – and, if that isn’t the case with the system in question already, make them actually have to target the spell successfully rather than merely casting it. That levels the playing field on one level.

The other thing is historical. Most archers, the ones in effective armies who deployed them effectively, fought as groups – they did not fire at individual targets amongst the enemy for the most part, they fired as a group against a mass of the enemy. That’s how they were largely trained. Individual marksmanship was not a priority.

Which is not to say that Archers were incapable of hitting individual targets – they were – but that they were generally not all that good at hitting them at ranges that were more than, say, the typical Mage could cast his Fireball spell at and hit something.

So, on the whole, the best solution would be to mirror the real world. Either increase the spell range to be more equal to the existing, too high, range for reasonably successful missile attacks – or reduce the range of missile weapons to be more in line with the typical spell range.

So, finally, you’ll be able to field Longswords that cost 75gp, for example, and Longbows that cost 15gp (or, more than likely, a lot less than 15gp!).

(Oh, by the way, this “game balance” issue with weapon pricing doesn’t just apply to Bows and Swords. There are a lot of weapons that are priced for this reason in FRPGs. If you look at them with a more properly jaundiced eye, now that you have an idea of what you are looking for, then you can probably take a good stab at figuring out which ones they might be.)

To Be Continued…

Suggested Reading

To get an overview of life in the Middle Ages:

Life in a Medieval Village, Life in a Medieval Castle, and Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Francis Gies are, though dated and very much centered on England, a good start.

Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon

Civilisation & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century by Fernand Braudel in three volumes (!) is more than you’ll probably ever want to know about, well, Civilisation and Capitalism!

Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon

More focussed, and more easily digested, are (shameless commercial plug) the following, from Phalanx Games Design (me)

Farm, Forge and Steam: A Nuts and Bolts Guide to Civilisations by Phil McGregor which provides some of the underpinnings – the limits, if you will – that applied (and have to apply) to civilisations at various levels of technological development). Written specifically with GMs as worldbuilders in mind. Click on the link or cover illustration below to visit the product page at RPGNow.

Orbis Mundi: An Annotated guide to Aspects of the Medieval World by Phil McGregor which contains a more focussed examination of the real Middle Ages, at least for the British Isles and, to a lesser extent, France. Includes something approaching a realistic(ish) and detailed price list where you won’t find 75 gp Bows! Click on the link or cover illustration below to visit the product page at RPGNow.

Displaced: Lost in Time and Space and Displaced: Survival and Rebirth by Phil McGregor which, though focussed on one-way time or dimensional travel, has all sorts of useful nuts and bolts things about how things work that easily and valuably supplement FF&S and Orbis Mundi. Click on the link or cover illustration below to visit the product page at RPGNow.

Click to purchase from RPGNow Click to purchase from RPGNow Click to purchase from RPGNow

About The Author

Phil McGregor is a moderately well known (if you’re old enough!) writer of Role Playing Game material who started wargaming in the early 1970’s, moved on to the very first edition (White Box) of Dungeons and Dragons when it came out in 1975 and was hooked!

Being in the right place at the right time, he managed to get a co-author gig with Ed Simbalist and Mark Ratner writing Space Opera (1980) as well as a couple of supplements/adventures for it, and for Chivalry & Sorcery while being published by Fantasy Games Unlimited.

Along the way he wrote the very first Rigger Black Book for FASA’s Shadowrun (1st Edition) and, in recent years, has published a number of RPG books on RPGNow under his own Phalanx Games Design imprint, including Farm, Forge and Steam, Road to Armageddon (for BTRC’s EABA), Orbis Mundi, Displaced and Audace ad Gloriam (2d6 based Exploration/Survival Gear Catalog for SF RPGs).

In real life he is a History teacher (Years 7-12) of over 30 years experience, currently teaching in a High School in the Northern Suburbs of Sydney, is semi–active in union politics for the NSW Teachers Federation, plays RPGs most Saturdays and Computer Games (mostly wargames) many other nights.

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