In most fantasy settings Dwarfs are brave trustworthy and honorable but a wee bit greedy and selfish. They are known for never breaking their oaths, and always making good on their promises and also for holding life-long grudges against those who wronged them. These are almost invariable racial trait for them. I honestly believe that this prevalent Dwarven archetype we see in most Fantasy works can be tracked back to the way J. R. R. Tolkien chose to portray Thorin in The Hobbit and Gimli in LotR. These two were sort of the prototypical Dwarfs: brave, honorable, greedy, proud to a fault. Most people forget that these were just two individuals, and that in The Hobbit Tolkien also described a dozen other Dwarved characters: among them rangers, tricksters, cowards and boffoons. The thing is no one ever remembers these guys because they were minor characters, and mostly treated as an aggregate group rather than singled out for individual recognition.
So while Elves also have some racial character traits (proud, stuck up, etc..) Dwarfs are stuck with a very rigid personality profile modeled after Thorin and Gimli. So lets play with this a bit. Lets try to embrace and or subvert these archetypes and see what we can do to shake up the genre a little bit.
Deep Dwelling Strangers
Most writers chalk up the trustworthiness and pride to Dwarven culture. But cultures vary, and I always get annoyed when race and culture gets mixed up. When you read a Fantasy story, a human from the frigid northern mountain chain may have completely different world-view and morality code from a human who grew up in a tropical jungle. But dwarfs tend to always the same everywhere – an inhabitant of the Iron Peaks at the Northen edge of the world is indistinguishable from a Red Mountain Dwarf who hails from the great deserts in the far South. Dwarven culture and personality archetypes seem to be invariant and that’s just silly.
But you can easily fix that by simply saying that it’s not nurture that makes it that way: it’s nature. That trustworthiness is actually a byproduct of their neurological wiring. Let’s break this down:
Dwarfs are builders, inventors and tinkerers. They have a great aptitude for architectural engineering – for them this is a matter of survival, seeing how they carve their cities out of rock, and tunnel deep underground. Imagine that that’s what their minds were designed for – they have built in adaptations for finding their way around underground mazes, building support structures to prevent cave-ins, creating underground waterways etc… They are built for unbridled creativity, unshakable focus and wide associative horizon because that’s what is needed for survival in their environment.
But above all, what they need to survive is teamwork. They need to communicate efficiently without errors and without subterfuge. When a smallest mistake in information transfer may mean a cave-in, or an explosion your brain becomes wired for accuracy. Dwarf brains are essentially fine tuned language processors. They speak their mind in the most literal sense: the parts of their mind responsible for logic and association are irreversibly intermingled with language centers. Thinking is indistinguishable from speaking to them – this is an evolutionary adaptation that was highly advantageous for them. If a member of a group decides to do something, he broadcasts it loudly to everyone else – this happens to prevent mining mistakes, and helps Dwarves to fight as cohesive units against deep dwelling monsters and goblins. Since they immediately vocalize everything – including their displeasure and unhappiness the Dwarven leaders can immediately take steps to improve morale.
This step is disconcerting to other races who view the non-stop grumbling and complaining and rude remarks as a lack of tact. This is however just how Dwarfs operate. The voice their opinions publicly so that there are nor surprises and no miscommunications within the group. Of course this tends to cause a lot of communication issues when dealing with outsiders who are unaccustomed to hearing inner workings of Dwarf minds. This is why Dwarfs rarely teach their tongue to outside races. They prefer to use trusted translators that can be relied upon to “filter” their conversation to conform to the other peoples customs and moderate the comments as not to offend.
The side effect of this neural makeup is that Dwarves can’t lie. Since they are really incapable of thinking without vocalizing at least parts of their thoughts they can’t really conceal or omit truth to mislead someone. They can’t say one thing or mean the other – their minds just don’t work like that. When they make a promise, they genuinely intend to keep it – or otherwise it would be impossible for them to vocalize it.
Of course it is not that they do not understand the concept of a lie. They are analytical enough to recognize falseness of a statement, and test for it. They can usually tell they are being lied to, or swindled over. It just creates cognitive dissonance that they are not comfortable with. They consider lying to be a trait of lesser races.
The other side effect of this neural makeup is that Dwarfs are typically unable to learn foreign languages. Because their speech is their thought, they have a very hard time figuring out how to speak another language. The Dwarves who do successfully learn a foreign tongue usually experience a sudden epiphany that unshackles their mind and breaks the thought-speech link. Their minds become more like human – and by Dwarven standards they become withdrawn, quiet and aloof.
Note that this idea works really well with the Social Network concept I developed in my Goblin post earlier. Dwarfs and Goblins have always had an adversarial relationship and in this case you can see parallels between their development. Both races evolved adaptations that help them survive in harsh, unforgiving environment of treacherous mountain ranges and monster infested depths. The main difference is that Goblins can only operate as a group, individual members of which are interchangeable and individually worthless. Dwarves on the other hand are expert craftsmen, so they put a lot of value on individual skill an experience. They found out a way to work just as cohesively as a group as Goblins but without actually loosing sense of individuality. In fact, their discipline, coordination and cooperation is much, much better because they almost never have miscommunications, and never have to second-guess their partners.
Archetypal Dwarf is a smith or a miner who lives inside some dank (but nicely finished and ornate) cave system within some mountain, and spends most of his free time looking for gold. How about we buck this trend and make our Dwarves truly different? Here is a novel idea: Savage Dwarves.
Imagine a fantasy world in which Dwarves are the new Elves. Or the new Orcs for that matter – if Orcs were disciplined, organized and well armed. They are the nomadic forest folk – expert hunters, trackers and brutal warriors. Their tribes traverse the fertile plains, forests and grasslands tracking their pray, gathering supplies and steam-rolling over any civilization that tries to dispute their right to the land.
Typically when you imagine a Dwarf you picture a short dude, decked out in ornate armor from head to toe. These guys are a little bit different, because they are mostly nomads. They don’t have access to a lot if iron and the only way they can get their hands on steel is by trade or by conquest. Therefore they use very little of it. Most of their clothing and armor is made out of leather and bulk of their tools and weapons is put together from wood and bone which are plentiful and easy to come by. Wealthy tribes that do a lot of trading (or a lot of looting) will often incorporate steel, iron and bronze into their daily lives. They might even have smiths who will repair and re-forge the items they find or purchase. But they are much more adept at curing leather and hardening bones. It is said that Dwarven leather is both lighter and more resistant than any man-made chain-mail. They are also expert thatchers and bow/crossbow makers and their arrows are said to always strike true and fly twice as far as those made by any other race.
Dwarven technology by far outmatches anything that Orcs or Goblins could ever even hope to achieve, but often they are at a disadvantage when fighting against civilizations that make heavy use of steel and iron. Most tribe chieftains know this and take steps to mitigate this the best they can. Some strive to keep their troops well armed, acquiring steel and iron either by trade or conquest. Others believe that as long as their soldiers are stronger and better prepared they can persevere against any enemy. As a result most Savage Dwarves (both make and female) of age, tend to keep themselves in peek physical condition. Unlike the archetypal Dwarves that tend to be on the heavy side, they stay lean and agile. To be a true warrior a Savage Dwarf must be able to run, jump, climb and have lighting fast reflexes. As you could expect their combat strategies differ from your usual mountain dwelling folk who prefer to turtle up with their shields. Savage Dwarves are expert skirmishers often preferring guerrilla ambush tactics. This tends to work very well for them because unlike elves (who are naturally squishy) or orcs (who tend to be disorganized) Savage Dwarves are both disciplined and extremely resilient.
Some tribes train boars and/or bears as their battle mounts with terrifying efficiency. Dwarven war-bear cavalry is still quite a rare sight but it has a reputation as an undefeatable force of sheer destruction. War dogs are also a common sight within their armies. These beasts were bread from the terrifying Wargs that can often be seen accompanying Orc warbands. Dwarves however broke and domesticated these beasts, breeding them for obedience and discipline. As a result war dogs do not have the evil cunning of their ancestors, but are slavishly obedient to their masters, often even shielding them from arrows with their own bodies.
Dwaeven empires have fallen. This is soft of a thing to do, isn’t it? It is very fashionable to make Dwarves the dwindling civilization that used to be great but now has fallen on hard times. A lot of this falls back on Tolkien and his choices as well. But let’s not dwell on where this trend came from. Instead let’s crank it up to eleven. Yes, eleven – because if you crank it up to ten, you get The Elder Scrolls universe in which Dwarves are all but extinct, and they have only left behind ruins of their underground cities and soulless clockwork automatons that still defend their secrets. So instead lets take this idea one step further.
Lets say that Dwarves as a race are extinct, but not entirely gone from this world. A number of them have discovered a way to achieve immortality, and subsequently survived the cataclysm that wiped out their race, but as a result they are no longer what they used to be.
Let’s talk about immortality for a minute – this is something all Fantasy races strive for. Elves get it as a racial freebie – they basically never age, and never really die. Most other races wish they could do that, and strive to find ways to preserve their youth and extend their lives. Men usually turn to magic to do this. Their sorcerers often make deals with unholy powers to preserve their youth, or bind their souls to things that are more permanent than their bodies becoming liches. Dwarves have never had much aptitude for magic so the sought immortality via technology.
When the deadly plague (which eventually wiped out their race) broke out, their finest engineers devised a way to transfer a Dwarf mind out of the flesh body into a clockwork powered bodies. These automatons were initially designed to be programmed via punched tape and used for heavy mining operations in deep caverns filled with poisonous gasses or containing lava pools.
Their great discovery was that Dwarven mind could be encoded in its entirety on seven punched tape spools. Unlike the magical methods of extending life, the Dwarven way was extremely simple and inexpensive. A dwarf would sit on a chair, put on a specially devised helmet that was wired to the mind probing machine, and it would map his or her mind onto tape within about an hour. These tapes could then be loaded to existing mining automatons which were impervious to the plague. Granted, this was not necessarily a full mind transfer – it was a mind copy. The original Dwarf whose mind was mapped would still exist, and still reside in his flesh. An automaton made using his tape was his exact copy, but in a sense a different person. So it was not a true immortality. It was however a perfect way for healers and attendants to take care of the sick without exposing themselves to the plague and for tradesmen and explorers to venture out to the world without spreading it.
Unfortunately, the plague turned out to be faster and more deadly than anyone could expect. Nearly all Dwarves either succumbed to it, and the remaining population was to small to repopulate. The last few generations struggled with birth defects caused by inbreeding and eventually perished leaving their cities to the immortal automatons created in their image.
Over the centuries the Dwarves have improved the design of their clockwork bodies. One of their best innovations was replacing paper tapes with mithril ones to prevent losing their memories via wear and tear. Unfortunately, mithril is virtually indestructible, unless heated up in a custom-made forge and cannot be punched while inside the automaton. Therefore most modern clockwork bodies have not seven, but ten tape slots. The original seven mithril tapes are the Dwarf’s soul – and his memories from the time before the plague. The remaining three slots are for new memories, that are usually recorded on paper tape. Of course paper is not very resilient, so it is not uncommon for old Dwarves to “forget” decades of their life, simply because one of their tapes got wet, ripped or was otherwise damaged. Fortunately it is very easy to re-spool and copy tapes using a hand cranked device most Dwarves carry with them at all times, along with spare tapes in hermetically sealed containers.
Clockwork Dwarves cannot reproduce in usual ways, but it is not uncommon for them to make a copy of their original tapes and install it in a new automaton. This produces a new individual with same personality and pre-plague memories. Individuals created this way tend to quickly diverge and become their own people based on new experiences and memories they collect.
Some Clockwork Dwarf communities believe that you can also create a completely new individual by using tapes contributed by two or more “parents”. This practice however is highly controversial, because it often produces unstable, confused individuals who exhibit erratic behavior and are prone to freezing up or getting themselves into endless repetition loops.
As usual, let me know what you think in the comments. Does any of these ideas strike your fancy? Have you even ran a campaign in which Dwarfs were unusual of different somehow? Are there settings out there that do the Dwarves differently?