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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Orthos's Observations: Dwarves

So yeah, Dwarves.

Dwarves always seem to be one of the greatest challenges of worldbuilding. The image of the stereotypical dwarf - short, stocky, bearded, Scottish, underground-dwelling, miners and craftsmen, armed with an axe if he’s fighting or a pick if he’s not (or sometimes if he is, depending on setting), fond of drinking, fond of fighting, fond of working, strenuously lawful, somewhat xenophobic, and staunch enemy of elves, orcs, goblins, and giants - is immensely, incredibly pervasive. To a one, I cannot think of more than a single exception to this characterization in every single campaign setting I’ve read about or played in. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Golarion… all the Dwarves are the same. You could quite literally pull one out of one setting and drop them in another, and they’d fit in near-perfectly, or at least to the point where nobody would notice the difference. The one exception I’ve seen is Eberron - having never played it, I’m just going by hearsay here, but from what I’ve heard and read Eberron Dwarves are basically the racial stereotype of the Greedy Jewish Businessman. They’re running all the major businesses, running society a little behind the scenes, and profiting grandiosely off everyone else because there’s no way you can do any respectable amount of business without dealing with them. And since that’s apparently a racist depiction, let’s not delve too deeply into that. Like I said, I don’t know much about Eberron anyway.

So. You basically come down to three core concepts that Dwarfdom is tied up into in nearly every setting: they mine, they drink, and they fight. And nearly every single depiction of them uses these. Drift away from them, and their fans will complain you’ve changed them too much; change them enough to satisfy the people who don’t like Dwarves in the first place, and you have something that’s so different from the “standard” Dwarf that it might as well not be a Dwarf at all, both fans and detractors will say.

Normally, I wouldn’t give two beans what the Dwarf dislikers have to say about them in this particular context. Most people who don’t like Dwarves tend to be Elf fans, and I personally do not much care for Elves, so maybe that’s why I’m a Dwarf fan, more than anything intrinsic to the race itself. I do find them interesting, even at their most stereotypical, and I find them just plain fun. So why change them at all? I already enjoy them as-is, most people who would play one already enjoy them as-is, and despite the complaint that they’re very samey from setting to setting, there’s clearly success in keeping them the way everyone expects them to be. Why change it if it works?

I’ll admit, the reason’s a little flimsy, and very personally biased. It’s because there’s another race in Finiens that fits into the underground-dwelling, mining-and-craftsmanship niche - the Kobolds. And I really like Kobolds. They’re one of my favorite “monster races”, they’re the eternal underdog, I love their racial connection to Dragons, and I just plain think they’re cool. But put them as a major, “core” race in the same setting where you have underground-dwelling, mining-and-craftsmanship Dwarves, and you end up with two races whose racial niche is to do the same thing.

In standard D&D/Pathfinder/etc., it works out because Kobolds are not a core race. They’re a monstrous species, usually Evil-aligned, not usually a PC race, and if there IS a PC Kobold they’re somehow, one way or another, an exception to the rule. (They’re also typically low-level cannon fodder, but as any of us can probably tell you, they can be more than that. Huzzah for Tucker’s Kobolds and for the “advances by character level” tagline.) So Kobolds and Dwarves can hold the same niche because it’s implied they’re competitors, with the Dwarves on the good/PC side and the Kobolds on the evil/NPC side.

That’s not the case in Finiens. Kobolds are not a “usually Evil” race (Finiens Kobolds are typically Lawful Neutral, as I’ll explain when I get to the detailed elaboration on Kobolds) and they’re one of the core races of the setting, extremely widespread - even more so than Humans - and highly respected by nearly all countries and cultures for their craftsmanship. That’s the niche I wanted for them, and it was fairly imperative that I find a way to not have to share that with the Dwarves.

But that’s only one out of three. Dwarves are miners/crafters, drinkers, and fighters. Remove just the one and you still have the majority of what a stereotypical Dwarf is. So what other culture or archetype regularly gets drunk and starts fights?

Well, how about pirates?

Once that clicked, everything else came naturally. The Dwarves as a (possible) slave race in the Age of Ancient Magic was just logical - Finiens Halflings share the Human subtype, and are in many ways a subrace of Humanity, but Dwarves are strongly different from both; since they share a homeland, it seems that it would be inevitable that the other two races would gang up on the lone Dwarves, and their physiques and statistics make them excellent laborers. And when everything came crashing down, it was the Dwarves who had spent the last who-knows-how-many years working, serving, creating, building, and otherwise learning the skills they’d need to become the leaders of the resulting exodus. Combined with their longevity, it seemed inevitable - without the system to hold them in slavery, they were free to lead the charge into the unexplored world, and once they’d tasted that freedom, there was no turning back.

As a result, another Dwarven stereotype - their strong ties to Lawful alignments, rarely moving, and obsessive care for family and home - were either removed or put slightly off-kilter. Dwarves in Finiens are usually Chaotic, befitting of a freedom-loving anti-authoritarian society just on a eons-long high of escape from slavery, but they hold to a lot of Lawful traits. Family is still held in great esteem, but it’s taken less literally. Now Family is practically synonymous with Crew, regardless of actual connections of blood - and in some cases, even Race. Loyalty is less tied to personal or clan honor, and more to the hierarchy of a ship and the respect due a Captain. Dwarves travel all over the place, but at the same time they are strongly tied to their homes - it’s just that now that their home is a ship, they can take it with them wherever they go, rather than being bound to a single physical location.

And besides, pirates are cool! Can you think of any other setting that has a race whose culture and history are built around being ocean-bound? The only things that come to mind are actual underwater settings like Alluria Publishing’s Cerulean Seas. So many adventures take place almost exclusively on land, generally deep in the land’s interior, with only rare campaigns whose entire plot revolves around oceans - things like Paizo’s Savage Tide and Skulls and Shackles, or Nick Logue’s Razor Coast - ever break that mold. So I suppose I can see why it’s rare - in a lot of ways it’s impractical. It’d be tough to have a race like Finiens’s Dwarves and justify why they’d ever spend enough time on land to participate in a full-length campaign.

In this case however, I think cool factor and the opportunity to take Dwarves, one of my favorite core races, in a completely new direction without changing them to the point of being unrecognizable outweighs that restriction. You might not see a huge amount of PC Dwarves in Finiens campaigns, but the ones where they’re fitting, I’m fairly certain they’ll stand out. I’ll be able to get back to you in more detail on that when I actually run Savage Tide (again) in a couple of years.

And also:
And if you get that reference, consider yourself about 100% more awesome.

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