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The idea of a metal-poor science-fiction/fantasy setting has fascinated me since I first encountered it in Dark Sun, and learning about Tekumel just deepened it. When it came to my own setting, I didn't want to do things the "easy way" and have metal be scarce; instead, metal is as plentiful as it is on earth, maybe even more plentiful! However, the people of the world, for whatever reason, can not make use of the metallic bounty.

My first attempt in explaining this was inaccessibility; however, that turned out not to be a good fit for the setting.

My second idea was unusability: metal is present in the world and accessible, but no one can use it. But a satisfactory explanation for what could actually do that eludes me.

The best one that I have been able to devise is:

There is a life form on the planet similar to the metal-/synthetic-material-eating bacteria on earth. These metal-phages live in and consume metal, but, either as a metabolic byproduct or a defensive mechanism, produce some type of containment that is both lethal to anything not them and, for all practical purposes impossible to remove...almost like radiation.

My question is... Without resorting to pure hand-waving, is there a way to render a planet's metal largely unusable to the people people living on it?

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    $\begingroup$ Look at the case with Aluminum: pleantiful, but not used until modern times because it can't be isolated. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 6 '16 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz That's a good point, but how could I apply that principle to common metals like iron or copper. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 6 '16 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ Research different minerals. Which ones provide low-tech access, which don't, and where do they come from. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 6 '16 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Thank you, you have just given me an excellent Idea, have the metal-phages only eat and contaminate the metal that people would need to make useful civilization advancing technology out of. Forcing people to develop along very different lines. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 6 '16 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ Following that idea, look up banded iron formations. What if, instead of being litter forming eventual strata, life evolved a use for that, at the same time as it started producing oxygen. And still today would consume the kind of iron mineral, and produce something not easily smelted with a wood fire. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 7 '16 at 2:24
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Look at this map

enter image description here

The Technological Development Of The People

The Africans are well aware of smelting and roasting processes.

The Asians and Arabians know all about gold and silver mining (pretty simple) but don't know about complex mining processes (for copper and iron).

The North Americans have a tech level comparable to Asians.

The South Americans even have iron foundries and roasters in place.

The Australians are a highly developed civilization otherwise but don't know a dime's worth of metallurgy.

The Problems In Exploiting Metallic Ores And Mines

Africa

People here had some small iron ores which they exploited to extinction. They made some nice axes and swords until the ores ran out. They went south in pursuit of this precious metal and found out that southern Africa has vast quantities of iron along with some strange, shiny substance. They set up large foundries and roasters but then something frightful started happening. The people involved in iron mining started contracting horrible diseases which led to a very painful death (cancer). Their children were born with grotesque and frightful abnormalities (genetic mutations). They soon started realizing even the fauna of the region was slightly different than the fauna of central and northern Africa. After a misadventure of 10 years and losing a lot of people, they quit the whole region in terrible fright and never returned there again. Now this region is known as "gods' cursed land" and there are a lot of myths and legends stating that gods cursed this place for one reason or the other.

Actually that region is very rich in uranium and radium and these ores are found side by side with iron ores. People working in these ores are hence exposed to lethal doses of radiation and develop cancers and other genetic mutations.

Asia

The Asians employ gold and silver in few of their household objects such as axes and knives, but making swords or other larger objects with these metals is impossible due to their extreme heaviness and high malleability. Folk poems and legends tell of a another golden colored, very (comparably) lightweight metal to the far northeast (copper), but that region is cut off due to extreme weather, mountain barriers, wolf packs, frozen lakes and lack of food resources. The Asians are primarily agriculture based people. After a few failed tries to reach that far off land, the Asians have quit the efforts altogether and mind their agriculture.

The Asians also know about the most precious metal on earth (iron) that is located to the far west. Besides the same weather problems (uncrossable mountains and extreme winds and cold), that region is home to hostile locals who consider the land beyond the mountains as sacred, where the souls of their dead forefathers live (there are yetis living beyond the mountains actually). They would never let anyone through their lands no matter what. Those locals have a couple of iron axes and some arrowheads, which are considered highly sacred and a legacy of their forefathers. These are passed down in generations to tribe chiefs.

Australia

The Australians are quite developed in agriculture and fishing, but don't know anything of metallurgy. They are aware of something called as copper in the western sides of their small continent, but that area has excessive ponds and swamps where mosquitoes abound and anyone trying to reach the ores, dies a painful death of raging fever (malaria and yellow fever). They have made several attempts to exploit those reserves, but all have failed terribly with more than 80% life losses. Now they have left those regions for good and wait for Asian traders who bring gold axes and knives in exchange for highly prized Australian fabrics and obsidian.

North America

The North Americans are also adept in gold and silver mining (pretty simple, huh?) like Asians. They use gold axes and gold tipped javelins for hunting and use gold tipped spears in combat. Other than that, metal has no part in their lives due to its heaviness. They know of a region far off to the east (Iceland) where there is a (comparably) lightweight and very sturdy metal which is considered the most precious in the world (iron). Some foreigners tried reaching that island but they all dies within few days. Still many foreigners arrive with gifts for local chiefs in order to pass from their lands and reach that tantalizing land of iron ores and the local chiefs happily allow them to pass. No person who ever goes to that island ever returns alive.

Unbeknownst to the North Americans and the foreigners, the Iceland island contains heavy quantities of perchlorate dust. It blows with the wind and tiny particles of it are breathed. Some of it also gets to the eyes of the people. The overall result is severe toxication resulting in a painful death.

South America

The South Americans know about huge iron reserves in the northern region of their continent and many attempts have been made to exploit those reserves. However, there are huge swamps and ponds where mosquitoes abound. The bite of these mosquitoes is known to cause extreme fever and a painful death (malaria and yellow fever). Besides mosquitoes, the rainforests are also full of leeches and ticks, both with venomous bites! And to top that, several trees themselves are highly poisonous. Even water dripping off some of them causes extreme rash and swellings (Manchineel Tree). And to top that, the area is home to pygmy tribes who are extremely violent and utilize the most deadly arrows and blow-darts in the whole world. The dreaded curare!

There are still attempts now and then by adventurous merchants now and then, but few return alive ... and those too, dishevelled and ghastly, in rags, after losing all their possessions and suffering famine and diseases.

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    $\begingroup$ "Actually that region is very rich in uranium and radium and these ores are found side by side with iron ores." Congratulations, You've started messing with geology on a deep level and have no idea of the consequences. Try reading up on the formation of uranium ores compared to the formation of iron ores, The two do not form under remotely similar circumstances. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Mar 6 '16 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ And ... maybe bacteria don't eat metal and exude lethal toxic wastes ... and living around the equator doesn't mean you cannot discover fire and ... where's the practicality in all that? $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Mar 6 '16 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ p.s. you can have iron and uranium ores near each other. Considering that iron ore formed in Africa and uranium ore formed in patagonia and the regions later overlapped due to tectonic plates movement. No? $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Mar 6 '16 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, Indian tribes in the eastern US, aka the mound builders, had lots of copper. Although I'm not sure about iron and bronze. It turns out the Great Lakes region is, or at least, was, very mineral rich. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Mar 6 '16 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ It happens that the map I have uploaded is a fictional map. And that iron deposits are found in huge quantities in every continent in easily mine-able location. If the world was really as I have presented in this map, the metal age would probably had occurred 3000 years later or so. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Mar 6 '16 at 15:00
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Consider a younger, less seismically active planet.

Due to the mechanics that cause the creation of oil and coal you're going to have very limited supplies of either, meaning that while you have the metals, your species is going to have a hard time both building the furnaces and achieving the temperatures required to refine and work them.

Any major attempt to do so will clear large swathes of forest, wood being the major fuel (and construction material) before coal was utilised. Once the forest is gone, that's the end of your industrial age.

Coal requires a planet to have had vegetation near water for some millions of years.
Oil requires ancient seas to have dried up, usually caused by tectonic movement.
[Sources at some point later when I can find some that aren't aimed at primary school kids]

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  • $\begingroup$ I only recently became aware of bog-iron and the role that life forms have in creating mineral deposits. The one slight problem with making the planet young and or less geologically active would be that I wanted the world to be very mountainous. That and other issues are why I began leaning towards the idea of metal being available but largely unusable. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 6 '16 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ I would say the other way around... a much older planet.... where the geological surface activity has stopped, the mountains have been ground down by ice ages and times... where sand has formed aplenty and covered the lands with thick layers of sand stone. Does not need to be the whole planet either, only where the people have settled. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Aug 22 '16 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKarnerfors, I chose a younger planet because that could mean that the fossil fuel deposits hadn't actually been created. Limited to only trees and low density fuels it would be much harder to work with the stronger metals. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 22 '16 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix Why bother with that when you can just avoid having to work with the metals at all because you cannot find them buried under sand and sandstone? $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Aug 22 '16 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKarnerfors, because I prefer to dangle the carrot just out of reach than to hide it completely $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 22 '16 at 10:37
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The Answer Depends on Why You're Asking

Whether for role-playing or fiction, a world building exercise must remember that plausibility alone means little. Just because a thing has an explanation, won’t necessarily make it satisfying to an audience (or players). Science and logic may have their rules, but storytelling has rules of its own. For example, storytelling hates irrelevancy and unnecessary details.

Your question seeks a way to make metals (things that players tend to find desirable, even necessary) available, yet somehow unavailable. This seems a role-playing equivalent of violating Chekhov’s gun.

Chekhov’s gun is the narrative principle that if a scene contains a loaded gun hanging on a wall, then the gun must go off later in the story. Otherwise why mention it?

What we’re talking about here is irrelevancy. Story’s are not fictional transcripts listing all things and every detail. Only things germane to the plot or characters are mentioned at all. Game worlds work the same way, describing only the things that are different (from the player’s real world) and that would effect game play. Extraneous details are dangerous precisely because players assume they must mean something. Later when the plot proves them irrelevant, players tend to obsess.

So I see three possibilities for an answer to your question based on WHY you seek to have, yet not provide metals.

Possibility 1 - You want to provide metals later.
Initially your players will find a world largely devoid of accessible metals. Those metal items they crave (swords, armor, guns) just aren’t there. But at some later point, you want to introduce them. If this is the case, the mysterious force that’s hiding your metals is DIRT.

Like our own real world, the valuable stuff is hidden below vast amounts of undesirable dirt and rocks. Every enormous cash of metals in our own history, was at some past point unfound. Everybody living in California in the 1800’s knew there was no gold in the Russian river. Then one day, someone found gold - Bam!, gold rush. In a story or game campaign, such an event would be a plot point.

Possibility 2 - You just don’t want metal.
If you don’t want metals then tell the players there aren't any. I could point out that this is perfectly logical. The non-fiction book, “Rare Earth” seeks to address the requirements for life by looking at Earth and our solar system as an example. One of the issues it covered is that the Sun is unusually rich in metals compared to other stars (which is why Earth is unusually rick in metals). Surely there are other systems atypically wanting in metals. No further explanation needed.

But this isn’t my point. The players may ask, but they don’t really care why there are no metals. They just need to know that metals are unavailable. Once they do, they’ll accept it as a reality of your world and move on.

Possibility 3 - You’re over thinking it.
Your goal is simply to create a world without certain things made of metal (swords, armor, guns). If that’s the case, there’s a simple answer - nobody’s invented metallurgy yet - or those particular things yet.

Or maybe you’re focusing too much on elaborate explanations for your world’s daily reality. As you said, “…I didn’t want to do things the “easy way” and have metal be scarce.” Why not? All fiction is a lie and the key to an effective lie is simplicity, not a web of interlinked elaborations begging for followup questions.

Or maybe the problem is thinking the explanations are what’s interesting to players - it isn’t - That’s YOUR interest as world-builder. What interests players are challenges and opportunities for their characters.

The world that player characters inhabit only needs to be understandable. If they smell an opportunity in the form of gold, iron, or copper then they’ll seek it. If you tell them there’s a reason they can’t, they’ll seek a work-around. Once they finally learn nothing will work, they’ll simply ask, “If we can't have the metal, why'd you say it was there?”

And they'd be right to ask. It's an irrelevancy. That's the Chekhov’s gun part.

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  • $\begingroup$ Its for my own piece of my mind, I'd rather not introduce elements into the setting unless they make since to me. And since real explanations may possibly exist for seemingly fantastical aspects of my world, I would prefer to those to hand-waving. The answer is number 2, I didn't want metal to be usable by the peoples of my world during the earlier periods in history. I have the tech development of the world sketched out and I had the people creating all manor of synthetic materials to compensate for their inability to use metal. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 7 '16 at 4:50
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Firstly, your idea of metal eating bacteria isn't a bad idea. There are theories (and perhaps evidence) that microbes eat through quartz dissolving and concentrating gold. There is plenty of energy available in metal (an oxidation reaction releases a significant amount of energy) so an engineered bacteria could do exactly what you suggested. However it cannot be a natural bacteria unless there is a symbiotic relationship between it and a metal creating plant to create its preferred food supply. Another restriction is the specialization of the bacteria to the metal element. This may mean several plants and bacteria would be required.

Most metals are locked in an oxide or fluoride, or dispersed in low quantities though out an ore deposit (eg nobel metals). If the story is about an alternative history, one could contemplate making the bond strength of metals stronger, making it difficult to find before a scientific age. However, our blood chemistry relies on iron oxidation, our bones on absorbed calcium, our muscles on magnesium, and our brains require readily available copper, aluminum, sodium and other metals. So changing fundamentals of chemistry isn't a good idea.

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  • $\begingroup$ Life dependency on metal is part of why I can't make metal scares. Correct me where I'm wrong. Most metal isn't found in metallic form it's found as a rock like substance that has to be smelted to remove the other elements leaving the metal behind. To use metal life-forms have to oxidize it and most metal in nature is unoxidized. Well there actually are vegetable-mineral hybrids in my world animal-metal ones to; how does that factor in? $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 6 '16 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ The metal ore deposit (whether oxide, fluoride, chloride etc) is in a lower energy state than a metallic state. That is why it requires smelting which adds energy through heat. (It's a little more complicated but the net result is two or more higher energy substances.) Plants can supply that energy via photosynthesis, so metal armored plants are fine. Look up what nettle thorns are made of. $\endgroup$ – matscienceman Mar 6 '16 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ I'm glad to gave gotten more right than wrong. I didn't know that pure metals were in a higher metal energy state than raw ore. Just that smelting burned away all the materials with a lower melting point than the metal that you wanted. [Inline Link](JDługosz )mentioned that what I needed to know was the metals that people use to make tools from,they were right. There are plants that produce pure metal, the metal-phages eat that and produce a contaminate that kills everything but them and the plants;this a defense against metal-vores. The toxicity keeps people from using metal. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 6 '16 at 23:51
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1) Your planet only has land in a fairly narrow ring around the equator. As a result, the temperatures encountered by the species is uniformly warm.

2) The species is herbivorous rather than omnivorous, and has extremely efficient digestion.

The result of 1 and 2 are that fire is not terribly useful, since it provides neither necessary warmth nor much added nutrition as a result of cooking. Consequently, without the widespread adoption of fire, the smelting of metal ores is never discovered. In addition, the cultural development of the species simply never latched on to the use of metal for purposes other than adornment. While this is easy to say, it's hard to justify, but it has a number of parallels in our history, specifically in the New World. The Incas, for instance, did excellent work in gold and silver, but never developed metal (native copper, bronze or brass) for use as weapons or tools, and it's not entirely clear why not.

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Your planet is naturally far more acidic than earth. There's continuous acid rain due to overabundance of sulphur and oxygen. Life has evolved differently from earth and is capable of surviving in this climate.

While the cave people ancestors of the modern sapients did learn to smelt tin and copper, they found these of little use, firstly because they were far too rare, and the resultant squabbles over ownership rights cost more than the mines were worth. Secondly, whatever metals were extracted, quickly tarnished/oxidised in the open, meaning that they couldn't be used for anything practical.

As a result, society has developed a distaste for metals in general, with a few exceptions, like gold, which is considered holy and used for small outdoor ornaments by the rich and power to display their wealth.

This has also led to counter sects, considered heretical, but usually ignored, by the mainstream, that hold metals to be an abomination which the gods seek to remove from the earth. Noble metals are seen as defiant to the divine will, thus symbolising evil.

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Your biology is simply different that ours. All of the metals are quite toxic.

As a result, people avoid metals because the pain, suffering and death resulting from handling metals pretty much discourages their use.

Although with careful handling, metal use would be possible, there is little incentive to overcome the fear of working with deadly poisons. For humans, beryllium is quite toxic, and as a result we rarely use it although it has some very useful applications.

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