The Adventurers stood in the wreckage of the burnt-out peasant village. The survivors told the Adventurers the Halfling Barbarian raiders wielded magic swords. Real magic, the villagers insisted. The swords cut through fat, bloody victims like a scythe through dry straw. Sword met flesh and the sword kept going. No resistance.
It was terrifying, the peasants said. They murdered the local Cleric. They ransacked the Temple. They left nothing behind. And those swords…
The Fighter poked at a body. The cuts, she admitted, were clean. The blade passed right through.
Magic Swords – real, true magic swords – were the stuff of legend. Bar tale fodder. Adventurers found magic swords in distant treasure hordes and at the bottom of a dragon’s horde. So the bards claimed. And bards claimed all sorts of ridiculous things.
The sword was the Adventurer’s best friend. Her companion on the long roads. A ready tool when facing kobolds and highwaymen. Most swords the common peasant blacksmiths produced were serviceable but brittle. It would cut. It would stab. Yet, after a few months of bloody work, the Adventurer’s sword needed significant repairs. A fine sword, forged by a master blacksmith, would leave equivalent damage to a peasant body. And, an exceptional sword, the Fighter knew, one that didn’t rust, pit, or shatter, while causing mayhem, was magic.
The Fighter understood all about swords.
It was all about the weapon manufacturing. Little enough magic in this world. And the Fighter doubted all the weaponry magic in the world lay in the hands of Halfling Barbarians. Their Gods and Shamans weren’t that strong.
But, she could be wrong.
She went to find a magic sword.
The Halfling Barbarians
The term “barbarian” is a misnomer. Those who huddle within their manicured city walls use the word for “other.” Those outside are dirty Barbarians. We, in here are, clean, cultured and civilized. We have our culture. They have theirs. And theirs is weird, heathen, and dirty. Ours is good. Barbarian is a term for “not civilized.” The face of their oncoming potential conqueror outside of their precious civilization.
The Halfling Barbarians don’t care that murdered peasants call them barbarians.
These Halfling Barbarians are a sea and river peoples. A majority make their living through fishing. Some supplement with meager farming.
A few warriors survive through conquest and adventure. They search endlessly for better land for their people. That is how they found themselves at the peasant village. They burnt it down hoping to murder or scare away they peasants. They want to settle their own people on the black, loamy soil and claim it for their own.
The water makes the Halfling Barbarian warriors itinerate explorers – the ultimate Adventuring parties. Halfling Barbarians, called to the water, set sail in their boats and see how far they can go. Maybe they will live. Maybe they’ll fight something exciting. Maybe they will die. And maybe they’ll return with an amazing tale for the bards. Who knows?
As able sailors, they sail the rivers. The rivers take them further inland on an easy route east and south. When the weather is good, the trip is swift but dangerous. Creatures big and small, orks, kobolds, bears, hobgoblins live along the way and wait for Halflings to pull up to a cove and fish.
The river ends at strange cities full of stranger people.
The Halfling Barbarians come from far away. They have stuff. The strange cities full of stranger people also have stuff. Neither can get each other’s stuff locally. The two swap. The Halfling Barbarians float away, richer in rare items never seen in their homes.
The river voyage is as profitable as killing a dragon or raiding a peasant village on some coastline.
Trade missions are swifter, easier and safer on water than on land. On good days, with the current, boats travel faster than on foot or by horse. A boat can carry more cargo on a trip than a few halflings. Boats can scale up or scale down to fit the cargo where horse carts are limited to the amount of cargo a horse can pull. Boats only have one kind of terrain – water – while land voyage must deal with hills, mountains, deserts, steppes, and foreign, hostile towns. Through trade, cities on rivers or easy ports grow larger and richer than those landlocked.
While the people hiding in their walled cities might call the Halfling Barbarians “barbarians,” their civilizations are not poor in stuff.
The Southern City
The Fighter, following tales of magic swords, comes to the Halfling Barbarian settlements. She hopes to see one.
She heard the tales. The swords cut so fine not even blood stays on the blade. The swords never tarnish. Never break. Armed with magic swords, the Halfling Barbarians are unstoppable.
During her journey, the Fighter comes across many fake magic swords. Hucksters proffered them in the marketplaces built on the rumors of real magic swords. These weapons were filigreed and decorated with gold wire and stones. They were beautiful. They looked like what magic swords ought to look like. They belonged on a nobleman’s wall or on a knight’s side. They even kind of glowed in the right light.
The fake blades snapped off in her hand.
This is what she believes magic swords look like, but not what they are.
The Fighter picked up the trail. The Halfling Barbarian magic swords, the Fighter learned, are ugly things. Big, although light blades, designed for work. Simple grips. No gold wire. Lost in a sea of other serviceable blades. They’re designed for killing, not for display, as magic swords should.
The Halfling Barbarian village was a simple fishing village. No magic swords in sight. Yes, the village elder admitted with no small pride, great warriors of their tribes possess something akin to magic swords. Great swords. Wondrous swords. Swords beyond imaging. Mystical blacksmiths forge them.
But, only with the right materials. They use a mystical metal found in the deep south in lands. The village elder told the Fighter that, if she wanted one, she would need to procure the metal herself. They have none here. They don’t sell it. The metal is not down in some dungeon. It’s not with some forest elves (why would anyone in a forest have high quality metal?) It’s not in some dragon horde. It’s with the people who make it.
Go see them.
The Fighter would need to travel south along the river to the distant foreign cities. There’s a boat. Join the crew. Make yourself useful. Go south.
The southern trade route was a river thousands of miles long through the steppes. The Halfling Barbarians crewing the ship made this trip a dozen times or more. They heap their ships to near sinking with dried fish, pelts, and leather goods. They’ll return with their ship filled with spices, gold work, and rare metals.
The trip was dangerous. Whenever they stopped on shore, the vicious bow-wielding horse-riding ork tribes attacked them. Halfling Barbarians fended them off with the Fighter’s help.
The southern trade route’s river dumped the boat in an enormous lake. Then, on the other side of the lake, another river. This river took them further south, through hills and rapidly warming lands. And through those lands, to a new and different walled city perched over two joining rivers.
The Fighter, in her heavy metal armor and giant iron sword, stood out like a stranger in a strange land. Here, she was the awkward barbarian sweltering in the heat. She was the other. The foreigner come to attack their walls.
The magic was found in a simple marketplace stall. The bland, grey, round ingot shot through with a single hole in the center cost two dozen black rabbit pelts. The vendor had a whole pyramid of ingots.
It wasn’t not cheap. The Halfling Barbarians could trade for pounds of pepper instead two stalls down. The pepper would pay for an entire year of village fishing and arm all their warriors. She would later heavily owe the tribe in work.
In the Fighter’s hand, it looked like a lump of inert metal. This is it? Months of travel and fighting and adventure for this?
The ingot is magic, the seller insisted through a halfling translator. Desired. Highly sought after. It is not from this city. It comes along another trade route with the spices. A trade route that runs east, over a sea, and into dark lands. And in that sea is a jungle island. On that island, the savage people learned how to heat metals to unimaginable highs. That is the magic, the trader told her. The heat. The heat makes the metal “good.”
But is it truly Adamantium? The Fighter asked the trader. She was skeptical that heat equals magic. That made no sense.
It is what makes the swords good, the seller said, not confirming if the ingot is legendary metal or not. The trader offered to sell a map to the jungled island to see it made for herself. By what peoples, the trader did not know. They may be Deep Elves. They may be Dark Gnomes or Deep Dwarves. They may be black-hearted Orks. All the trader knows is the metal comes from the jungle people. She can go east. Find them. See the magic for herself.
The Fighter agreed to buy the ingot for the pelts. She also bought the map. Then, she asked about turning the ingot into a weapon.
Ah, see, the seller said, that ingot is not worked here. Not in this city. That is specialized and rare knowledge. At least, no one will work it for barbarians like her. The Fighter must take the ingot home to turn the ingot into a sword. Metal she can have. Take the metal. Sword she cannot.
The Fighter walked away with ingot in hand. And, later, she got into bar fights, had some parkour-filled adventures, found her way into the sewers to fight monsters, and quested a bit outside the city walls before climbing on the Halfling Barbarian boat to head home. That route was also filled with dangers, XP, and leveling up.
The Fighter had an ingot. It sat on the bottom of her bag like a constant reminder of a far-off foreign city.
A common peasant blacksmith cannot work the ingot. He doesn’t have the tools or the expertise. He will destroy the metal. Even the master blacksmiths, in pay to their liege lords, don’t have the tools. They’ve never worked with this substance. It’s completely foreign. How could they forge it into a sword?
The Halfling Barbarians tell the Fighter they know of one blacksmith. One man.
The Fighter must leave the Halfling Barbarians to travel alone into the forests. On a mountain top, in the thick of old-growth forests full of monsters and hostile elves, is a monastery. In this monastery is a monk. He came long ago from the southern desert cities to study the northern people and write. He is the greatest blacksmith in the North. He might be the greatest blacksmith to ever live. He has slowly trained and passed his secrets to his fellow monks through making magic swords for Halfling Barbarians. They bring him metal, and he forges them swords.
There, in the monastery, the ancient monk takes the ingot from the Fighter’s hands. No, it is not Adamantium, the monk tells the Fighter. Bards crafted the tales of Adamantium to con naïve Northern warriors to buy them drinks.
It is better than Adamantium, the monk tells the Fighter. This is crucible steel. It is real.
It will take a month to work.
And, the work is not free. In return, the Fighter must tell the monk tales from all her journeys so he can record them, from the wrecked peasant village, to the quest to find the Halfling Barbarians, to her trip south. She must convert to the monk’s faith. And, she must return to the desert cities, with this sword in hand, and press on to the far jungles to the East to find the source. By time she returns, the old monk may be dead. But his fellow monks will live on to learn the secret. If they have the secret, they can make the swords here, in the monastery, from local sources.
She agrees go to wrest the secret technology from a far off jungled island.
The sword looks boring to the untrained eye. It’s not coated in gold decorations. The blade does not drip with inscriptions. It is not a Lord’s sword. But, the blade does not lose its edge. It’s flexible instead of brittle. It’s strong. And it never, ever dulls.
Not even when the Fighter pulls together a party and travels to the far East to discover the secret of crucible steel.
Sufficient Technology is Magic
Following trade to find a mysterious, foreign technology is as an entire campaign seed.
Historically, common technology discovered in one part of the world flowed across trade lines and appeared at the other end as magical devices. Sufficiently high technology is no different from high levels of magic. Technology and scientific understanding is valuable, and trading for it can make the trader rich in trading in “magic.” Unbreakable crucible steel swords forged at 3000 degree heat with keen edges which never rust are clearly magical in a world where the local blacksmithing technology crafts swords from impure iron with low carbon content. But also incredibly rare.
This is about crucible steel, a technology discovered in Sri Lanka and available in the Middle East in 900AD. Vikings traded for it and brought the ingots home. They forged the ingots into real “magic” swords. The swords disappeared when the Vikings stopped trading with Byzantium and Damascus via the Volga in 1100AD.
A few campaign seed ideas:
- The quest for a rumored technology can take a party flowing back along the trade route (full of monsters, adventure and horror) to the source. The source is a foreign land with strange customs and easy ways to get into trouble.
- An enemy appears suddenly (like the Mongols) with strange technology and feels unbeatable. A group of Dwarves appearing in a Tolkein-esque world with 19th century steam-powered weaponry will wield great and horrible “magics” while they thrash around trying to find a good source of coal to power their devices.
- The party, Apocalypse World or Fallout-like, come out of post-apocalyptic hibernation in a medieval world wielding their modern guns and firearms. Sure, they’ll run out of bullets – and will need to find steel and that one great blacksmith to make them new ones – but while they have their boom sticks, they’re wizards, not soldiers.