Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Trying For Dwarves-Sake

I like dwarves. I hate dwarves. I want dwarves in my game. I want all fantasy dwarves I've seen in the last 25 years to burn in their campaign setting's lowest ring of hell.

What exactly is going on here?

When it comes to fantasy mythology there are dwarves and then there are dwarves. I'm inclined to draw a historical delineation across whatever year it was that J.R.R. Tolkien published his Lord of the Rings trilogy. After The Hobbit. Maybe even after The Fellowship of the Ring. Gimli the dwarf, while most assuredly the main culprit responsible for the dwarves downfall from fanciful fairy tale creature to hardened badass warrior wasn't all that bad prior to the Battle of the Hornburg ("Helm's Deep") where his portrayal goes from dwarf companion to "orc-slaying-axe-machine." Where he shows that a dwarf is some kind of melee titan of destruction.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh,

Okay, just please stop for a second. Lots of folks hate on Tolkien's "vanilla-flavored fantasy" and its influence on D&D. People have been trying to re-skin D&D dwarves in all sorts of ways for years. Gygax's dwarves (see his Gord fiction) have been reviled in some circles, but at least they're deemed to be somewhat different. As an archetype, the D&D dwarf usually ends up looking something like the dwarves in DragonLance...well, they did prior to 3rd edition and the advent of their ascendance as fighters par excellence.

Let's set aside the game for a moment. As a a child, I loved fairy tales. As an adult, I still do...though I'm hard-pressed to find the same sort of magical worlds I did when I was younger (I don't know if this is because of my adult outlook, the lack of decent fairy tale literature at my disposal, or some combination of the two). Fairy tale dwarves...whether they're little miners found in Snow White, sinister wish-granting types like Rumpelstiltskin, or Unseelie faerie-folk...are cool. Even if I set aside my normal shtick of dwarves as inhuman aliens, giving them human-ish traits and personalities (for the purpose of taking up the role of "adventurer"), I like the idea of these little guys with beards that possess their own brand of "earthy" magic. Certainly, all fairy tale dwarves seem to have a "thing" for gold (a relationship with it and ability to produce it, if not the outright avarice depicted in many tales). And "treasure-seeking" has always been the heartbeat the propelled adventurers into the wonder and mysteries of the fantasy RPG.

Well, originally, anyway.

Thorin Oakenshield of Tolkien's The Hobbit is one such adventurer. Yes, he's got human traits...a little arrogance (a sense of self-importance), desires for wealth and revenge, a loyalty to his people and kin, etc. But he's still just a little dwarf. Not a great hero nor a great warrior, though an experienced one. He manages to bash a troll in the face with a log, but he doesn't go armed until after finding an elven sword (and later, after putting on the still-remaing armor of his people lying in Erebor). He has to be told by Gandalf to turn, draw sword, and do battle with the goblins during the dwarves' flight below the Misty Mountains, and it is only the treasure-inspired avarice (and madness) of the dragon hoard that compels him to gird for war against the humans and elves that lay siege to his mountain.

And this is an experienced that fought against the goblins of Moria. The rest of the dwarves in his company are far less fight-worthy, simply fleeing from one opponent after another (as they can), until cornered and compelled to make a stand. These are not warriors. They are not useless, mind you, and they show great courage in facing the perils and travails of their venture (not to mention skill and cunning at times and an ability to loyally stick together even through hardship that might drive them apart). But warriors-born? No.

And this is reflected in the original version of D&D. Men & Magic (volume 1 of the little brown books) allows characters to play dwarves who advance as fighting men with a maximum level of six. 6th level ain't much of a step up from hobbits (er...halflings) or elves, both of whom are limited to 4th level fighting ability. A 4th level fighter uses the exact same save tables as a 6th level fighter; if using the variant combat system presented in OD&D (as opposed to the Chainmail combat system), they have the exact same attack chance (which, incidentally, is the same as a 4th-6th level fighter in B/X). The only advantage a dwarf receives from their two extra levels is an extra 2D6 worth of HPs (plus bonuses if the dwarf has a high CON score). This is nothing compared to the human warriors who can reach the breakpoint of 7th level with its +3 bonus to attacks, +2 to all saves (except dragon breath, which is +3), and an extra D6+1 hit points. And, of course, human fighters have no restriction on levels and can reach those even loftier breakpoints at 10th, 13th, and 16th levels.

Greyhawk (Supplement I) extended dwarves abilities considerably by allowing them to advance to 7th and 8th levels (with a STR score of 17 or 18), as well as allowing dwarves to roll D8s for hit dice. However, the latter isn't that fantastic a bonus...ALL fighting men (including Hobbits and Elves) receive D8s for hit dice in Greyhawk; there was no cursory restriction placed on them for their species as occurred in the later Basic volumes. In many ways, I see Greyhawk as a response to the (perhaps unforeseen) popularity of the game...people were playing a lot of D&D and working their characters characters into the stratosphere, level-wise. These level extensions (along with the unlimited leveling of the Greyhawk-introduced thief class) allowed demihuman PCs to "keep up with the Joneses." A concept (the dwarf) that had been conceptualized in a particular way was slowly morphing into something else.

Consider the dwarf soldier of Chainmail's fantasy armies. The dwarf figure is very much of Thorin's ilk: a 2 point figure, it attacks as Heavy Foot, but only defends as Light Foot. Against giant-sized humanoids (specifically trolls/ogres and giants) they only count half the number of kills (they are twice as hard for the big guys to catch). The only other advantage they have is an ability to function equally well in night and day, and they are drawn to immediately charge/attack goblins, regardless of orders. They are also slower than normal heavy foot (who also cost 2 points to field). Oh...and their morale is no greater than normal heavy footmen.

Yes, they hit hard with their two-handed mauls and axes, but these are not thick-skinned, iron-boned juggernauts; they break easier than men (except when their size gives them an advantage; i.e. versus the "big guys"). They are not "heroic," possessing none of the elves' ability to affect fantasy monsters when armed with magic swords. They're just little fantasy soldiers...though well-modeled by Tolkien standards (if you're just looking at The Battle of Five Armies).

Holmes Basic doesn't address dwarves past level three, but it does "nerf" elves and halflings by reducing their HD to D6s for no given reason. My assumption is that this is a simplification based on the ubiquity of multi-classed fighter-thieves (halflings) and fighter-mages (elves) making "D6" an average of the D8+D4 that these class combos carry. But that's just speculation. Thing is, it ends up having the effect of making dwarves look hardy in comparison to their fellow demihumans...equal to the superior human fighting-man...which wasn't the case before.

[hmm...okay, just perused my Holmes and I do see reasons given for the HP reduction: elves because of their class-mix, but halflings due to their "small size;" though this is in spite of the halfling having the same CON requirements of a dwarf and the same saving throw bonuses. To me, that says "equal stamina" and simply allow the extra levels allow the dwarf fighter to outpace the halfer...but that's just me]

"Our build might be the same, but I get an extra two hit points thanks to my nose and beard, you fool!"

AD&D comes next and here we just see the logical progression of power increase six years into play: dwarves now have a "natural" level restriction of 7 (not six) and can reach as high as 9 (not 8) with an 18 strength. Considering fighter breakpoints for attacks/saves went from every three levels to every two levels in AD&D, this is a considerable improvement in fighting ability for our little fairy tale miners. Unearthed Arcana (1985) took this farther with the inclusion of "mountain dwarves:" a superior brand of dwarf with superior fighting ability based on...well, who cares.

[actually, "mountain dwarves" as a concept of superior dwarfness was introduced in the 1977 Monster Manual. Released prior to the AD&D PHB, it presumably works off the earlier (OD&D) books, as it states that mountain dwarves are superior and can work up to 9th level with an 18 STR. In other words, it appears the dwarves of the PHB are "mountain dwarves" while the dwarves of the LBBs are the inferior "hill dwarves." Unfortunately, this appears to be contradicted in the AD&D text, first by the PHB (who states PC dwarves may equally be either of the hills or the mountains) and then by the already mentioned new rules in the Unearthed Arcana]

Next we come to B/X which gives dwarves the ability to advance to level 12, flying in the face of all that's gone before. I can only assume this is an early attempt at "game balance," as a 12th level dwarf is remarkably similar to a 14th level human fighter (the maximum printed level in the B/X books). Maximum hit points are only one point off from the human fighter at level 14, and a slightly lesser attack ability is balanced by superior saves and additional special abilities. Where the idea of a 12th level fighting dwarf came from is totally beyond my ken...this is double Gygax's original 6th level limit. Crazy.

Tordek. I hate this asshole.
But not as crazy as the 21st century dwarf. Since the advent of D20, dwarves have become the archetypal fighter of latter edition D&D (including Pathfinder). A CON bonus that adds to staying power (particularly since HP bonuses from CON don't "cap" as they do in earlier editions), at the cost of dump-stat CHA? Sure they lose the bonus feat of the human fighter, but their darkvision ability, racial saving throw bonuses (equivalent to feat save bonuses), stackable dodge bonuses, heavy armor movement, exotic weapons, and racial attack bonuses makes them first choice for a badass fighter. Whereas Thorin and Company lamented the fact that they hadn't brought along a "hero" to slay the dragon, any such dragon slayer hired in D20 would have a high percentage of being from the line of Durin.

[since when did humans get upstaged in the arena of bloody warfare? I mean, isn't that humankind's claim to fame...killing folks? We used to be bigger, stronger, and better than it than any other species in the D&D game we've been relegated to the role of "utilitarian dude." Oh, get a bonus a skill point every level and can treat any class as "favored," but you run in 3rd place behind dwarves and half-orces when it comes to fighting prowess]

20th level dwarf fighters. Bite me.

And yet, this is now the expectation. "I want to play a dwarf" is the phrase heard by the player who wants a tough as nails, badass fighter. Even in B/X play, where a dwarf's level is capped (at 12!) it's not an unusual request, because it's so rare for campaign play these days to progress beyond the point where the demihumans lose viability. It's not impossible, mind you...just unlikely. Folks these days have a lot more to distract them from the table-top gaming experience than they did in the old days.

So what's the point of this post? Is it that I hate this expectation? That I want to somehow derail it (or kick its teeth in) so people don't have it? That ain't very likely to happen. Do I want to go back to a time when dwarves were stilted at 6th level and were barely mechanically different from hobbits? If I wanted that, I could just play OD&D (or Swords & Wizardry...I own copies of both).

No. I guess I just want to say that dwarves...fairy tale, fantasy dwarves, an archetype that I love...have been completely ruined for me. They simply don't fit into any RPG that I want to play, no matter how interestingly they might be re-skinned. They just don't fit for me, not in any version of the game (D&D) that I'm interested in running/playing. The Lord of the Rings isn't a sandbox world of adventure. The Hobbit isn't much of one either. Both are good reads (the latter more so, for my money), but they aren't suitable to the type of gaming I have in mind. Maybe if dwarves took over the niche currently reserved for the B/X halfling (i.e. re-skin the "halfling" class as a bearded little dwarf)? Maybe. Then again, didn't I already re-skin halflings to get a wood elf class? Maybe I need to have one "catch-all" demihuman class with options to build the weird little fey of your choice...elf, hobbit, dwarf, whatever. But my most recent fantasy projects haven't had settings of the fairy tale why bother?

*sigh* I need to go to bed. I've got a loooong three days ahead of me.

"What? You expected a resolution to this mess?"


  1. I also like the faery-tale or folklore dwarf. The kind who try to trick travellers into walking off cliffs, the kind who turn into toads or turn to stone in daylight. Mean, magical dwarfs with backwards-facing feet or other deformities.

    I don;t hate the tolkien/warhammer dwarf as much you, sometimes I like them and players using them often bring a lot of fun to a game... but I would like to see the folkloric dwarf more.

    I folklore as the basis of the dwarf culture in my homebrew campaign. Besides the traits I decribed above I also made them fey, made them more inclined to magic than to melee and I made them loners (in British Isles folklore they are in the class of 'solitary' faeries rather then 'trooping faeries') - one thing that does bug me about now-standard dwarf is their hive-like social structure (the game Dwarf Fortress seems almost like satire ion this regard, playing up their similarity to eusocial insects).

    1. Oh one thing I forgot - in D20 the faery-tale dwarf archetype seems to have been filled by the gnome race. But the tone is just way off for me. If I were to take a stronger approach I might remove the dwarf rules and reskin gnomes as their replacement.

    2. @ Dan:

      Oooo...sorry if I wasn't clear. I certainly don't HATE Tolkien dwarves. I hate what has been done with them (their evolution/development over the years) especially in gaming.

      Back when I was doing my Goblin Wars campaign I used a "fairy folk" basis for ALL the demihumans, and it worked rather well (and I'd probably use something similar again)...but "fairy tale D&D" is not exactly my interest at the moment.

      I agree with your assessment of gnomes (and the two species are near interchangeable in Chainmail, save that the gnomish antipathy is for kobolds rather than goblins). However, gnomes have some negative connotation/stigma associated with 'em in American culture.

    3. I really don't care for the "racist alcoholic scottish viking-miners" myself. They are just all exactly the same and nobody really has any ideas how to do anything remotely new with them.
      I always go with gnomes instead, who really just need the Kender-sillyness purged from them and then you got a much more interesting kind race that fills the same role as dwarves.

  2. You might like what has been done with "Dwarves" (better known as Dwemer) in The Elder Scrolls series, if you haven't given it a look. (as a starting point)

    I've used a similar approach to my dwarves in my AD&D game. Rather than make them (or any of the races) a standard trope, I've tried to turn them on their ears.

    1. @ MIchael:

      Ha! That IS an interesting take on the species...sort of a combination of the Norse dokkalfar and svartalfar into a single species.

      Still doesn't make for a great adventurer-type, though.

  3. Tolkien's dwarves certainly evolved. Remember that they cast spells to guard the troll's treasure in the Hobbit.

  4. I don't use dwarves, or any of the demihuman races as written, in my HMS Apollyon games, but have replaced dwarves with melee monsters (albino fire worshipping 8' giants) - and yet no players have bothered to look for them to 'unlock' the race for play.

    That aside, your analysis of the D&D dwarf is interesting in that it points to the larger shift of D&D into a more combat oriented game. The other influences in the past 10-15 years is undoubtedly video games and Warhammer, both of which emphosize dwarves as warrior types.

    My personal impulse if say running a 5e fantasy game would be to house rule in race as class, get rid of the name 'dwarf' to allow players to characterize their short tough guys without beerbeardscot baggae and just go with the rules. Maybe the bsstards are "hole-people", "earth sprites" or "hill trolls". Interesting to see where a player goes with something like that. Let the player decide if their dewd has a mole face, is made of stone etc.

    I played a dwarf in a campaign that was lightly reskinned Finch modues with a sort of Warring States gloss - he was a redcap made of gnarled root and dirt, whose main goal was keeping his cap red and burying gold in the ground. Starting from a 'basic fantasy village' this gave the world the presence of 1HD nature spirits roaming about.

    1. @ GusL:

      Your ideas are great (as usual). What's a Finch module?