Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dwarves are Horrible

Now I've always hated Dwarves.  They are my least favorite fantasy race, I'm not sure why.  Even reading the hobbit I didn't like the Dwarves much.  I like them less now with the strange hybrid of Warhammer Fantasy, LOTR movie and Warcraft that makes them utterly uninteresting gruff stumpy goons one dimensionally interested in Brew (though rarely actual drunkenness or beer), fighting, mining, axes, prickly senses of honor and beards.  The Scotts' accents only make them worse because they are always played for laughs.

Yet many adore dwarves, stereotype and all.  I don't want to speculate why.  The point is I am reexamining the little creeps and doing my best not to change them into horrible mole people, or robots, earth elementals or living statutes.  Below is my conception of Dwarves for Anomalous Subsurface Environment, attempting to follow the majority of Dwarf tropes in standard fantasy: avarice, booze obsession, beards and clannishness.

It is perhaps worth noting that Elves are also horrible - likely more horrible...

One of Callot's Dwarves 1592–1635

Dwarves of the Home Warrens
North of the plains, beginning in the low hills and winding high into the bitter brown stone peaks beyond are the home warrens of the the Dwarves.  It is commonly known that Dwarves are a clannish lot, obsessed with wealth and fixated on the production of alcohol and high quality metal work.  They are often cruel to outsiders, or at least entirely lacking in charity and obsessed with honor, family and revenge.  The situation only get more confusing as one interacts with the dwarven emigrant communities of human lands.  Below are excerpts from the lectures of Azimuth Red 721 Alpha, Scientist and leader of a recently returned expedition to the regions of the Dwarven Home Warrens.

What are the Home Warrens?
Dwarven society is one of stasis, hopelessness and endless tiny humiliations.  The homeland of these strange subhumans reflect the grim facts of dwarven life.  Like Elves and Halflings, dwarves are a manufactured race, likely a hybrid between humans and something else.  Whatever alien masters created dwarves, they created them for a particular type of obedience, and most likely a particular type of warfare.   The Home Warrens reflect this origin - a seemingly endless labyrinth of utilitarian passages made from whatever is at hand with whatever technology the dwarves can master: ceramicrete, vitirified stone, reinforced concrete, carved rock or brick and mortar.  Unlike underground elven fortresses, dwarven warrens are almost without decoration, and are designed so that the majority of dwarves will not and cannot never leave them.   The warrens are constantly being built, downwards, and outwards, with many sections long abandoned based on the whims and internal conflicts of the dwarven creditor nobility.

To visitors dwarven warrens are confusing and monotonous, gallery after identical gallery, connected by cramped passages.  When in use some distinction between distillery, workshop, storage rooms and living quarters can be observed, but once abandoned all that remains is cold stone without signage or evidence of original purpose.  The only differences from monotonous plan are found in the homes of the creditor class of dwarven nobles, who live in luxury surrounded by wealth and decoration (much of it imported from above ground) and the fortress areas of the warrens, where traps and ingenious defenses break up the sameness of the warrens with pits, bulwarks, mazes and redoubts.

Why are Dwarves Obsessed with Wealth?
Dwarves are known for their avarice and greed, accumulating wealth through any means fair or foul.  They are tireless toilers, wretched thieves and murderous plunderers.  This is the result of the single overwhelming factor of dwarven existence - dwarves are a society of creditors and debtors.  Almost every dwarf, except their "nobility", is born into crushing debt inherited from their family and clan and every dwarf struggles to repay this debt their entire lives as it is central to their concept of right and wrong. Few dwarves ever succeed as these debts regularly amount to millions of Gold Pieces, are the collective debt of an entire extended family of hundreds of dwarves, and are constantly increasing through usurious interest and new debts accrued by distant relatives. The distinction between debtors and creditors is what keeps dwarven society running along its ugly, cutthroat course with individual debtor dwarves making any act of kindness or aid a debt.  Dwarven parents regularly record "birth debt" and "childhood feeding and care" in the credit records of their children, with these debts almost immediately transferred to the parents' creditors.

For the average dwarf this means that life is a constant struggle for wealth, to pay the nobility some amount of principle and better the family.  Dwarven families will never get out of their debts, but regular payments ensure that the families have some control over their destinies, trapped in debt peonage, rather than debt bondage.  This system creates the almost religious belief among dwarves in their "credit", which is an amalgamation of social status, resources, moral standing and even personal spiritual worth.

Being trapped in this hopeless cycle of poverty and moral failing causes certain other characteristics of the dwarven psychology.  The legendary dwarven temper is likely a function of deep seated alienation, a large portion of hopelessness and a fair dose of nihilistic self destructiveness.  Personal vendetta and violence are also one of the few areas where a debtor dwarf can express himself, rage against perceived slights by equals or underlings (including all non-dwarven peoples) require neither the permission of or resistence to the norms of dwarven life.  Additionally, the ability to beat a less valuable member of the dwarven community or an outsider within an inch of his life is one of the few transactions outside of the cycle of debt, toil and repayment that an individual dwarf can take pride in.  Likewise dwarves are fond of games, most often crude and violent entertainments of the sort that other civilizations refer to as bloodsport.  Thus the average dwarf is formed by his or her environment into a depressed, avaricious creature, who's concept of a fair dealing is that of a con artist, with an innate lust after excess and a great appetite for violence and feud.

Another of Callot's
Dwarves are Warriors?
General Scientific consensus is that dwarves are an artificial race, a hybrid between humans and something else, most likely goblinoid. Whatever created dwarves modified their biological imperatives and mental structures more than it did their physical forms.  Dwarven psychology is not explicitly military (as is that of elves) but it is extremely hierarchical.  To put it simply, dwarves are created to obey orders from those they recognize as superiors.  They are not biologically coded to enjoy combat, or with a great degree of aggressiveness, but their natural strength and density make them dangerous fighters and they will obey warlike orders as easily as they obey all others.

These tendencies towards obedience are what allow the dominance of dwarven debt-holders within the home warrens and the rule of despotic labor bosses amongst dwarves in human societies. dwarves naturally seek to follow orders, and will make no complaint about a superior who sells their labor or  orders them to perform unpleasant or difficult tasks.  Adventuring dwarves, as either outcasts or dwarven creditors are outside of the strict hierarchy of dwarven society, but the majority of dwarves are beholden to their superiors.

It has been theorized by others that dwarves represent an attempt to create a species of combat engineers, in the same way that elves may form a species of demi-humans specifically adapted to act as commandos, cavalry or raiders.  The author is unsure about this theory, but it would explain both their physical structure and seemingly unquenchable love of tunneling and building.

Dwarves and their Beards?
Dwarves have beards, this is well known, but it is not a universal trait.  Dwarven aristocrats shave themselves clean, and the beard for a dwarf is a mark of debt.  The time it takes to shave a beard is time the dwarf could be working to pay back what he and his kin owe. Dwarves who are in good standing with their creditors (usually a matter of distant relation or regular sycophantic display) will sport neat or trimmed beards, but no dwarf except the .5% of dwarven creditors will ever be seen without facial hair.  The majority of dwarves never shave or trim, as they lack the credit or favor to do so without offending their creditors. Similarly the average dwarf abstains from ostentation, has no appreciation for art (though some for craft), but hold a secret lust for these things as symbols and trappings of the upper classes.

Why do Dwarves Drink so Much Alcohol?
It is quite simple, dwarven physiology is designed to derive nutrition from alcohol.  A dwarf can, and most do, live on strong spirits alone.  They are not drunk, though a certain torpor overtakes a dwarf who drinks his full, much like the satiety of a man after a huge meal.  This isn't to say that dwarves cannot eat solid or non-aloholic food, though debtor dwarves are rarely given this luxury and the consumption of solid food quickly turns a brawny dwarf into a mass of blubber.  The average dwarf will eat solid food once in his life, when he is given a piece of candy (imported at considerable expense) by his clan's creditor in chief on the day (Age 9) that he takes up a tool (bought on credit) and first struggles into the depths to begin a lifetime of toil.  Food, even feasts, may also be granted to individual dwarves who do great favors for their masters, though usually an additional jot of booze, or a higher proof (and hence more nutritious), higher quality (more palatable) ration of drink is all that's necessary to spur a dwarf to displays of fawning loyalty to her creditors. 

In the Home Warrens the heart of any dwarf hold are the enormous distilleries, where almost every bit of organic material that dwarven hunters return from the depth, every bit of lichen or mold farmed and even the majority of the dwarven dead are converted into a variety of alcoholic beverages that fuel the endless labors of the clan.

Concluding Notes
Dwarves are not to be trusted, their slavish loyalty to the few hereditary overlords within the warrens makes dwarves unpredictable and the characteristics they value: hard dealing, absurd loyalty, verbal trickery, feuding, pointless violence and bad faith business transactions make them very hard to trade or ally with.  Even if the dwarven overlords can be reached, the majority of them are as short sighted and greedy as the average dwarf, seeming value only in the amount of wealth possessed or debt owed to them.  Any appearence of honor or diginity that dwarves display is the product of a nihilistic alien thought process that conflates endless toil against impossible odds with value and thinks of fearful obedience as friendship, while subconsciously desiring bloody and violent release.

These general problems are compounded by the nature of the dwarves often sent into human lands.  Dwarves deemed likely to increase debt are either sold out of their clans to surface traders or literally sent forth by their clans to die, with the vague hope that they will stumble across a source of unimaginable wealth. These cast off are often insane by dwarven standards, or otherwise unfit for dwarven society.  The other source of dwarves on the surface are the younger scions of creditor nobility, also sent out more or less to die, so that the wealth of their patrimony is not diluted during the long lives of their parents.  These dwarven nobles are even less suited for life amongst humans as they bring with them from the depths an incredible sense of entitlement and privilege that rarely allows them to view others through anything other than a sociopathic lens.

When exposed to the relative freedom of human society, where solid food is the norm, the alcohol weak, work days no more than 14 hours, people trusting or occasionally charitable and the majority of social interactions without the leaden stamp of strict hierarchy even the most upstanding of dwarves has been known to break.  Dwarves become even surlier, seeing kindness as weakness, they ape the callous manner of the creditor class, dress in garish clothes with excessive ornament, and most over indulge in solid food to the point of slovenly obesity.


  1. This is one of the few fantasy game descriptions that I have read that have depth in same manner as allegorical works and these propably are closer to norse mythology dwarves that inspired Tolkiens dwarves that became the D&D dwarves everybody is familiar with now.

  2. Good work, this is great fun and it has that problem-solving skill weaving stereotype in with unique flavor. Well done!

  3. Wow Id rate this among the best couple of post tolkien dwarves ever and you manage to pay them some homage despite you dislike of them. Gloranthan one of my other faves. Ive taken mine from more creepy fairytale sources and they are more often living under stoves in barns and tree stumps and folk dont know difference from trolls sometimes. My new post-apoc prog-rock dnd world going for william hope hodgingson night land dwarves, Shaver's Derro and HG Well's Morlocks. Freaking cannibal horrors or the underworld, mutated, resentful, surly. And they eat elves.

    1. Yeah my elves are militarized human eaters whop raise people as meat animals and ride human derived ogres - or they are "carefree" wanderers with brightly painted wagons who steal babies (mostly as snacks).

  4. I found that I began to take to dwarves when I returned to the norse myths.

    The only part I don't like: "To visitors dwarven warrens are confusing and monotonous, gallery after identical gallery, connected by cramped passages."

    That seems like it might lead to boring dungeons, which would be tragic, given that dwarf dwellings are such good excuses for dungeons.

    Idea connected to the debt: it is by paying off those debts that dwarves gain XP (something else would be probably needed to make the system not all stick, but I like that as the basis for GP = XP for dwarves).

    Have you read The Shadow People by Margaret St. Clair?

    1. Haven't read that book. My idea for dwarf warren dungeons are as point crawls between the areas that have been modified by invaders or were interesting (opulent tombs of dwarven nobles, defensive works, other strange spots) - it's an attempt to cram an underdark option in.

      Dwarves could pay off debt or adventuring dwarves could simply be outcasts, dazzled by a life outside the warrens, planning on growing opulent and fat.

  5. Nice fresh approach to dwarves. I've never been a fan of dwarves either, and I've rarely seen anyone actually play one. I'm not sure anyone would want to play a dwarf outlined as above but definitely a great NPC race.

  6. Man, dwarves really are horrible! Nice work.

  7. Excellent work! Gives depth and angles while retaining a high degree of recognisability, which is where I feel many go too far off the deep end when imagining common critters. A rare feat when it comes to dwarves.