In my setting, I have reasonably traditional Dwarves and Elves. The Dwarves magic allows them to control metals, earth, and other non living constructs. The Elves can control non sentient living things like plants and animals. In the past, during a Dwarf-Elf war the dwarves turned the elves metal armor and weapons against them.

Now the elves refuse to use any metals at all. What options do they have for armor and weapons that can rival dwarven steel? I would like answers for each of the following criteria based on the elven beliefs and magical abilities to get the most useful armor and weapons:

  1. Use only natural, living components with no modifications but magic to keep the plants or trees alive.
  2. Use animal components such as horns, tusks, teeth, spider silk, or skin in addition to the plants above.
  3. Use basic magical manipulation to change the chemical and physical structure of plant and animal based substances to produce a new one, such as carbon fiber.

Bonus question: my elves also don't like fire. Bioluminescence can replace light from fire, but what process could generate enough heat for the elves to survive the cold that doesn't threaten to consume whole forests? (Another bad experience in a previous war.)

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    $\begingroup$ Re surviving the cold, perhaps the elves are adapted to cold weather? Like my (short-haired) dog, who'll happily run in the snow for hours on backcountry ski trips, and jump into ice-rimmed ponds to chase ducks. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 27, 2015 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ If they can use plant and animal products, then shouldn't cotton, wool, and fur do the job of keeping them warm? $\endgroup$
    – KSmarts
    Feb 27, 2015 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ @KSmarts Even with fur coats, humans want fire and other ways to keep warm. $\endgroup$
    – Vulcronos
    Feb 27, 2015 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention cook dinner! $\endgroup$
    – Sobrique
    Feb 27, 2015 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Sobrique Are you implying that elves eat meat? Or have any need to cook? ;) $\endgroup$
    – Vulcronos
    Feb 27, 2015 at 23:29

12 Answers 12


I'd much rather fight by controlling nature. Nature's a bitch, man.

Defending Healing armor. Active defense.

There are lots of options for armoring using natural materials. Leather, chiton, or fibers. A mix of the three can provide fairly excellent protection against certain attacks. If they use living armor it can even heal or provide active defence. Yes, that elf's armor just swatted a blade aside and that one just inflated a gas bag to absorb a hammer blow.

Attacking Disease. Poison. Toxic fungus spore gas. Swarms of bees. Mice infiltrators.

The greatest benefit is what the Elves have to attack with. Namely, disease. Biological warfare doesn't care how heavy dwarven armor is. They can use toxic mushroom spore grenades. It's almost unfair. A swarm of bees should be able to find openings in the armor. Herds of mice to chew straps. Metal-eating bacteria.

Basically, nature is trying to kill all of us anyway, put an intelligent will behind that force and it's something to be reckoned with. Elves win. Game over.

Staying warm

At the party afterward they can stay warm by standing around large pile of metal being eaten by bacteria. The oxidation occurring is an exothermic reaction; it puts off heat. But not much in reality, they'll be better off building large compost piles (they can get up to 135°-160°F).

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    $\begingroup$ Oh no! Not the bees! Not the bees! Aaaaggghhh! $\endgroup$
    – KSmarts
    Feb 27, 2015 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ poor @KSmarts.. he forgot to use his control of metal to give himself a second skin, way better than traditional armor- not many holes to get poked through. Slab of glass to place to front of the face so we can see. Turns out our new "skin" really helps against disease and poison too - The only weakness is the darn metal-eating bacteria (those are just unfair), oh... and air holes.. gotta close those sometimes and hold your breath! $\endgroup$ Feb 27, 2015 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble the metal-eating bacteria gets canceled out by well-made steel. These bacteria can only "eat" stuff that is (somewhat) prone to corrosion. But the dwarfs are masters of metallurgy, so after a lost battle or two they would smelt their armor to be immmune as well $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 20, 2019 at 12:59

For both armor and for weapons, metals are a fantastic choice. They offer hardness and ductility that are hard to obtain in other materials. There are, however, a few other choices worth looking at.



Leather armor, sometimes reinforced by boiling it in water or oil, makes an effective armor. It's less effective than steel, but also cheaper.


Wood is stiff and clunky, but was used by the ancient Siberians to build armor out of. Specifically, wooden pauldrons were used in addition to suits of lamellar armor made from boiled seal skin.


Armor can also be made from sheets of paper laquered together. This was used by the ancient Chinese as a form of armor, and was quite effective. It's cheaper to make than steel armor, but breaks down over time. It's had some minor implementation in the modern day, as well.



Ceramic is harder than steel. However, it's also quite brittle. It makes for some extremely sharp knives and tools, but swords, for the most part, are made to survive hard knocks. There is, however, an exception to that general rule that is quite common in fantasy settings: the katana. The Japanese didn't develop smithing to the same degree as the Europeans, so they relied on the process of folding somewhat weaker steel in order to produce a sharp blade. This produced a blade that was stiff and excellent for cutting, but would shatter if used incorrectly. Because of this, a level of mastery was needed with a katana before it could be used for war.

Ceramic offers some similar properties to the steel used in katanas. It's incredibly hard, but also brittle. Your elves could use blades with ceramic edges in a similar way that the katana was used. The focus would be on a single, powerful killing blow, with little to no sword to sword contact or parrying, which would chip or shatter the blade. Properly struck, such a blow would allow a ceramic blade to slice through metal armor more easily than a steel sword.

Long ceramic blades would be tough to make, and even tougher to make strong, so it's likely that either something more like an ax would be used, or else that a sword blade would be made from multiple, overlapping ceramic blades.

Wood, bone, and carbon fiber

Wood, bone, and carbon fiber could be used to make weapons, but don't hold an edge well. They do, however, have the advantage of resiliency over something like ceramics. They bend without breaking, making them better for something like a handle or the shaft of a spear. For a sword, carbon fiber could be used for everything but the edge, which could be made of a stronger material like a ceramic.

Other natural materials

On Earth, other natural materials with the hardness and strength to be excellent weapons, easily on par with steel, do exist. Unfortunately, they don't come in large quantities, generally found in tiny structures like the teeth of limpets, which are made from a composite stronger than anything we've ever made in a lab.

The claws or teeth of dragons, in your world, could be made of such a material. If they were, the elves could use this as their main material for weapons, making elven blades rare, but the sharpest and strongest in the world.

  • $\begingroup$ Fantastic thoughts on ceramics $\endgroup$
    – Taejang
    Jan 31, 2018 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ Except ceramic would be covered by Dwarven magic $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 31, 2018 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ the real beauty of the limpet teeth composite is the the strength scales with it, that is it does not get weaker if you make it bigger, unlike most other ultra-strong materials. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 31, 2018 at 6:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne are you sure? Why would it (quick wikipedia glance [in German] tells me its basically just any "nonmetallic stuff" with some extra properties) $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 20, 2019 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ #Thorne Why would ceramics be covered by Dwarven magic? If it's because they contain metallic elements then so would rocks, bones and blood. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2020 at 11:59

First of all, they should avoid any close encounters. No stone or wooden weapon and armour can stand against a dude in a full plate armour. Indeed, that is why full plate armours were invented in the first place.

But your setting is perfect for hit-and-run tactics. Elven army approaches enemy like ghost, uses surprise to their advantage and disappears before dwarves realize what happened. In this case, any armour is for elves more of a liability than advantage, because it slows them down and makes it harder to sneak up on the enemy.

Traditional elven bows and arrows are perfect for this tactic. They are silent and easy to carry. You can use bones or special wood for arrowheads, as long as you wait with your attack until the enemy takes off his armour. And if he doesn't take it of for a long time (like a couple of days) it will take a toll his body anyway and do the job for you.

Now as for mounts, I suggest unicorns, because... why not? But normal horses will do as well. They were already used for guerrilla warfare in our world:



You can throw in some ink-spitting, fog-creating, poison-dart attributes to the mounts, to make them more useful in ranged combat.

If they control plants, they can also use toxic spores as a weapon of mass destruction.

And as for bonus question, how about hot springs? No fire involved.

It's not a new idea as well:

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  • $\begingroup$ Hot springs aren't exactly practical to take with you if you're off exploring or roving around. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2020 at 12:01

Quite a few options. For instance, Mongol-style composite bows. The elven archers would of course have to be good enough to hit vision slits or gaps in the dwarven armor, but that skill level kinda goes with being an elf, doesn't it?

For close combat, see the Aztec Macuahuitl https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macuahuitl Then there's the quarterstaff (and Asian variations): get your armored dwarf on the ground, and he's toast. You might also look at the Roman retiarius https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retiarius

Then there are also various area-effect weapons, such as catapults throwing stone balls.


One material you should consider is glass. Glass is very strong, easy to work, and quite magikable. While brittle in comparison to steel, it too can be heat-treated to make it stronger and more flexible. Glass is impervious to corrosion, can be made from very common materials (mostly just sand with a few additives), and can be worked into a viciously sharp edge.

This was what was used in Treason, by Orson Scott Card. In the book, there is a planet named Treason which has no natural deposits of iron or other hard metals, on which the galactic civilization marooned a group of rebel intellectuals trying to overthrow them a few hundred years ago. The only way they could get iron is to sell things off the planet. Because iron is so scarce, most weapons and tools are instead made out of glass.

Armor could also, in theory, be made out of glass, but since their armor would be intended to resist the heavy bludgeoning weapons typical of most sorts of dwarves, it would be more likely that they would use some type of laminated wood and horn. More important than the surface armor, though, is the type of padding under it, which usually is made from wool, leather, or whatever other material is typically used.

  • $\begingroup$ Except glass would be covered by Dwarven magic $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 31, 2018 at 5:08

Only magic is going to allow you to put a tooth on a stick through steel armor. Once you are hand-waving magic makes it so, do whatever you want.

Leather or layers of cloth can make good armor - not as good as steel for most applications, but suitable enough to have been popular historically. A thick coat of layers of silk cloth laminated or quilted together would be fantastic protection.

You will be unable to find anything living which could possibly rival steel for making weapons. You could possibly use a massive tooth on a long pole as a sort of warhammer - some species have pretty strong tooth enamel (the hardest substance anything grows). This could knock a dwarf down, but is still unlikely to harm the dwarf inside and would still be quite prone to breaking against the steel plate.

Individual dwarfs could be brought down with bludgeons and then thin bone/antler knives used to find the gaps in the armor (there are always eye slits even if joints are well protected by mail). Unfortunately a dwarf in plate is going to be proof against anything an elf can wield - a small group of dwarfs could be overwhelmed, but no grand melee is going to go well for the elves.

As far as keeping warm in the winter, that is easy - good clothing.

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    $\begingroup$ Once you are hand-waving magic makes it so, do whatever you want. That's one way to do magic. It brings along with it a limitation: you can't use magic that does "whatever you want" to resolve narrative conflict, or readers will think you're "cheating." On the other hand, you can have magic with strong, clearly-defined rules that the reader can understand, and as long as you stay within those rules, you can use it for problem resolution without the audience finding the use of magic unsatisfying. $\endgroup$ Feb 27, 2015 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ Re "tooth on a stick", I hadn't noticed lead being all that hard. And these days, body armor is made from kevlar and ceramics, not steel. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 27, 2015 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I presume you are bringing up lead as bullets (for which mass is more important than hardness) - firearms are generally not implied by the setting description of 'traditional dwarves and elves', which usually means medieval rather than modern, and they rely upon metal for the barrels - this is off limits for the elves. Kevlar is the layers of fabric armor just using modern synthetics, and as far as ceramic armor, not only is clay from the earth and thus dwarven, it wouldn't survive melee combat. $\endgroup$ Feb 27, 2015 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi I think his point is that the weapon doesn't necessarily need to be harder than the armor to be able to pierce it, like lead balls penetrating steel armor. $\endgroup$
    – KSmarts
    Feb 27, 2015 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @KSmarts: Yes, that was exactly the point (no pun intended) I was trying to make. For ceramics, I was thinking more along the lines of shell - complex 'nanoengineered' composites created by living creatures. And to forestall "from the earth" objections, bone is similar, so if the dwarves could control shell armor, they should also be able to control the elves' bones. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 28, 2015 at 6:01

Use magic to manipulate living (or former) living objects by transformation of Carbon Allotropes. Carbon is the building-block of most known life, and its allotropes can have incredibly properties.

A very simple example would be diamond-edged swords, knives, and arrowheads. You don't want to make an entire weapon out of diamond - it would be incredibly brittle and would break easily - but you can use diamond to enhance the edge and cutting power. So yes, that wooden sword suddenly can cut through armor, and bows

Pure Lonsdaleite, while not something we can form (or that occurs in nature), is even harder than diamond and could be used in it's place for even better weaponry.

Carbon Nanotubes have a ridiculous strength for their weight, and could be used to create razor-thin wires or bolas that would cut enemies up instead of just tripping them. They likely could also be used to create incredibly strong bow strings, or for structural building.

I'm sure there are other possibilities as well, although it depends on what kind of non-magic tech level you want.

Note: I don't expect that magical elves would necessarily use the science jargon above, but they're not dumb and might have stumbled on many of these options by accident while experimenting with life magic.

  • $\begingroup$ Since this is the only comment that really picked up on OPs point 3: "they can make any modern plastic etc", I'll solve your armor problem: Modern protective gear adapted for medieval weapons. A simple kevlar vest with ceramic plates in it will beat ANY medieval (aka fantasy) armor by MILES (in terms of protection, flexibility AND weight). $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 20, 2019 at 13:05

I'm not sure how much or what kind of magic your elves have, so I will try to keep magic use to a minimum. I will assume that they can make plants and animals grow more than they do on Earth, so that the best materials won't be exceedingly rare.

For armor, leather has already been mentioned. That is because it makes a good armor. It is both tough and flexible, and it is made from animal skin processed with plant and animal products. If it gets wet, it can become harder and stiffer, making boiled leather especially useful for armor. The leather-like material rawhide is even harder, but is can also be brittle.

Wood is not the best option if you stick to common woods like oak or maple. However, there are rare woods that are more than three times harder than hickory, the hardest "common" wood, such as this Australian bull-oak. Woods like this could stand up to steel, at least for a little while. Many different types are commonly called "ironwood".

As for weapons, you could look at "primitive" cultures where metal was not readily available, like in the Americas, Africa, or Oceana. Many weapons from these areas took the form of clubs, like the Zulu knobkierie, the Māori patu, or the Aztec macana. Clubs are still useful weapons against plate armor—in medieval Europe, many units used maces, hammers, or similar weapons against armored foes. If made using the same hardwoods mentioned above, the elves could be quite effective. Also, note that many of these club-like weapons had cutting edges, even if they weren't sharp enough to be considered blades. Fangs or horns could also be added for penetrating power, like the Aztecs used obsidian.

Depending on the degree of physical manipulation that the elves can perform, they could use the carbon present in all living things to create diamonds or carbon nanotubes. Using nanofibers to reinforce their armor and having diamond-edged weapons would probably let them outdo the dwarves.

As for keeping warm during winter, using wool and fur for clothing would help a lot. As for their homes and cities, there is a simple solution: thermogenic plants. If you have plants that generate heat, why do you need fire?


The biggest downside of an 'all natural' approach is hardness and sharpness. Few things occurring naturally will be as hard as a decent steel, nor do many things take a sharp edge. Flint and obsidian for example (although you omit them from your original post) become extremely important for that reason - they're sharp.

I would suggest that what you'll have is a skirmishers vs. heavy shock troops sort of battle. An archer simply cannot go toe to toe with a knight - they'll lose. And plate armour will fairly reliably stop arrows.

But I don't think it'd take much scaling up in your fantasy world to make bows that will pierce armour. The 'classic' English longbow was up to a draw weight of 180lb. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_longbow

But with modern techniques - you get compound bows, which provide a multiplicative effect. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_bow

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to allow your elven archers some really quite horrific poundages on their bows.

Similarly - crossbows. You can gain some seriously large mechanical advantage on crossbows/arbalests. The downside of crossbows though is that metal tends to be a key factor - I don't think you'd be able to make an all-wood crossbow with the 900lb draw like this one:


But maybe you could use similar techniques as you would with a longbow. Inevitably you'l end up with a longer arm, but ... well, ballista or scorpions were primarily non-metal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballista

The other enemy of the armoured warrior is the pole arm. Bills were the starting point - little more than a farming tool. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billhook But with a 6ft pole, fighting in formation - the armour advantage reduces, because you've got the ability to poke them in lots of places at once, and hook, trip and stab. Armour is good, but when you're on the floor, finding a 'vital spot' and finishing you off becomes MUCH easier.

So I think even without the addition of magic into the mix, you've go two races that'll be at a bit of a stalemate. Armoured dwarves will be nearly invincible in close combat, but hampered by terrain, ranged attacks and general mobility. (Mobility in plate is a lot better than you think, but if you assume equal levels of fitness - the guy who isn't carrying the weight is going to be able to do more).

You don't diminsh that too much if you allow early firearms (muskets, flintlocks etc.). They're damaging, but their range and accuracy is poor.

And then you get Elves who are able to take good advantage of rough terrain and ranged attack. Fighting mobile, with bows that are potentially very dangerous if you allow the modern style compound bows with proper sharp flint/obsidian arrow heads. They're wearing light armour and are generally a lot more mobile and able to make use of cover.

Thus the stalemate - in the rough ground (forests) elves win. In the open ground, dwarves win. And so they'd be foolish to fight off their favoured ground.

That's before you add magic to the mix - which I think logically would have to be aimed at playing to strengths. Fast plant growth to create the rough ground that the Elves can exploit.


The weapons/armor question seems well answered, so I'm looking at the "stay warm" question.

First, if the elves have affinity for natural magics and can wear living armor, why can't they just wear furry clothing that is alive- and generating heat? They would have the equivalent to heated coats without the drawback of heavy batteries or short-lived chemical reactions.

Second, depending on how widespread magic is among your elves, they can simply enchant themselves to be cold resistant. This could take many forms, from simply saying they cast a spell and aren't bothered by the cold, to something more akin to eastern monks controlling their internal body temperature (except with magic).


A spider silk resin composite armour would give Dwarven steel a run for it's money

Scientists are currently developing spider silk armour for soldiers.

The real key is the difference in fighting styles. The Dwarfs would be better armoured and geared up for mostly hand to hand combat but the elves would be archers and highly maneuverable.

The dwarves would most like win, not due to weapons but the fact they can set the whole forest on fire and burn the elves out.


Natural Weapons and Asymmetric Warfare


The spring tree noose trap has been used for centuries to trap small game. If an elf can control the natural fiber, then he can put the noose around a neck instead of a leg. The first defense is for the Dwarf to wear armor for the neck, aka gorget. The next level is to have two spring traps, one for each leg of the dwarf and pull him apart. Armor isn't designed to prevent this. It could be, but it may make the armor so stiff and heavy than the dwarf is immobile.


If the elves can control plants magically, then the crossbow becomes an awesome weapon. The crossbow limbs could change stiffness on command. In relaxed state the bow would have a draw strength of 50 pounds for quick loading. Once cocked the elf puts his magic into the crossbow to have a draw strength of 500 pounds and fires.


I believe that it was used to make many booby traps in Vietnam. It is rather hard and can dull an edge.


How long can a dwarf army fight when their rations spoil? If the elves are masters of natural things, then convince the bees and wild game to leave the realms of the dwarves. Next have the domesticated animals stop producing milk and offspring. Crop failures, potato blight, corm smut, etc...

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis

Yes, the zombie fungus that takes over the minds of ants. A little elf magic and you have fungal induced zombie dwarves.


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