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D&D 5E Dwarves Could Use A Rethink

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Hey! Don’t get me wrong, Dwarves are cool. But…they’re at risk of getting a bit stale in D&D.

what if we went back to origins and rethought what a Dwarf can be?

For instance, and mind this ain’t a scholarly source because this ain’t an academic discussion, this article goes into just how ambiguous stories about dwarves are in Norse myth. Dwarves in Norse Mythology

Now I’ve done a decent amount of research on this topic over the years, myself, and yeah, Ivaldi is never said to fear the sun, nor the Bricings, nor Gandalfr, nor Alberich IIRC, nor the 4 who hold up the sky, etc, and none of them are described as short, either.

So perhaps a line of dwarves, Dvalin’s kin, fear the sun, while others simply live underground, and still others live in the forest.

What do Norse dwarves have in common?

Well, they’re very magical, for one.

For another they are excellent craftsfolk.

They seem to tend not to like outsiders much to me, and they are almost certainly related to elves. Too many of thier names have variants of alfar in them to be otherwise.

Okay, so this sounds more like gnomes than dwarves in a lot of ways, but let’s roll with it. How can we make more magical dwarfs while keeping them dwarfy?

Anyone here knowledgeable about dwarves from other cultures, or have some really interesting tales on them?
 

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BookTenTiger

He / Him
I do not have a lot of knowledge about dwarves from real world mythology, but I have been playing in a long-term campaign with three to five dwarf characters and a dwarf BBEG.

To me, the most defining features of dwarves are not their beards, their mountains, their crafts, or their mining... it's tradition.

Dwarves (again, to me) are tradition personified. Whether that tradition is magical, mineral, or martial, I think dwarves are still dwarves as long as the emphasis on tradition is there.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Hm.

Want a rethink of dwarves? Go check out Tad Williams' "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" series, which starts in The Dragonbone Chair. It is a rewrite of Lord of teh Rings, with more modern sensibilities. The dwarves don't actually play a large role in the work, but the rethinks of dwarves and halflings are quite interesting.
 

Reynard

Legend
Hey! Don’t get me wrong, Dwarves are cool. But…they’re at risk of getting a bit stale in D&D.

what if we went back to origins and rethought what a Dwarf can be?

For instance, and mind this ain’t a scholarly source because this ain’t an academic discussion, this article goes into just how ambiguous stories about dwarves are in Norse myth. Dwarves in Norse Mythology

Now I’ve done a decent amount of research on this topic over the years, myself, and yeah, Ivaldi is never said to fear the sun, nor the Bricings, nor Gandalfr, nor Alberich IIRC, nor the 4 who hold up the sky, etc, and none of them are described as short, either.

So perhaps a line of dwarves, Dvalin’s kin, fear the sun, while others simply live underground, and still others live in the forest.

What do Norse dwarves have in common?

Well, they’re very magical, for one.

For another they are excellent craftsfolk.

They seem to tend not to like outsiders much to me, and they are almost certainly related to elves. Too many of thier names have variants of alfar in them to be otherwise.

Okay, so this sounds more like gnomes than dwarves in a lot of ways, but let’s roll with it. How can we make more magical dwarfs while keeping them dwarfy?

Anyone here knowledgeable about dwarves from other cultures, or have some really interesting tales on them?
D&D is lousy with Norse inspired dwarves. It's just that they are divided up into a handful of other creatures, such as duergar and deep gnomes.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
That article may not be a scholarly source, but it is pretty closely aligned with scholarly thinking on the matter of dwarves - they are almost certainly the same beings referred to as svartalfar by Snori Sturluson (and seemingly only by Snori Sturluson). And they were probably not short. The scholar I consulted with for my reenactment work referred to the idea of short dwarves derisively as “Tolkien Stuff,” and when I asked him what I should say if asked what they did look like, he had a long think and then hesitantly said “like… dead people?” which makes sense to me, given that they live underground, which is also where hel is. And it jibes with the general ancient world conflation of hidden folk and ghosts. Maybe that’s the angle to take - tie them to the shadowdark.
 


Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
That article may not be a scholarly source, but it is pretty closely aligned with scholarly thinking on the matter of dwarves - they are almost certainly the same beings referred to as svartalfar by Snori Sturluson (and seemingly only by Snori Sturluson). And they were probably not short. The scholar I consulted with for my reenactment work referred to the idea of short dwarves derisively as “Tolkien Stuff,” and when I asked him what I should say if asked what they did look like, he had a long think and then hesitantly said “like… dead people?” which makes sense to me, given that they live underground, which is also where hel is. And it jibes with the general ancient world conflation of hidden folk and ghosts. Maybe that’s the angle to take - tie them to the shadowdark.

It'd mean ditching the term "dwarves," but even if you kept everything else about them and just make them "not short," to me that would be hugely refreshing. Though I do love the idea of having them be tied to death, the underworld, etc.

I'm too lazy/stupid to come up with an actually replacement name right now, but hell, even if they were just called Duergar by default that could work. (Yeah yeah, then something would have to be done with existing Duergar for D&D folks, but call them trolls or whatever...it's not like they were all that interesting to begin with)
 

Dwarves in Symbaroum are interesting and go back in some ways to their original Norse mythological origins.

I'm going to copy someone else's summary because I'm lazy

Dwarves are ...weird and I'm here for it. They emerged as worms from the body of the World Serpent and were shaped by Symbaroum's Sorcerors into a labour force. Their birth tied them to the fate of the world, and could never be truly controlled, and developed an extreme sense of community and complex coded speech that is basically cockney rhyming slang mixed with a book of proverbs, and never wrote anything in case their Symbar masters would read it. They moved to a fortress city in the mountains, and most of the dwarves in human communities are ex-nobles who were kicked out after a bloody rebellion. They get the perks of Perfect Memory (which means nothing in rpgs) and Earthbound, which means they take physical damage instead of Corruption, because they don't have a soul in the usual sense. Their semi-magic language also lets them take a Curse ability as if it wasn't magical.

Also, no beards.

dwarf.png
 


doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
That article may not be a scholarly source, but it is pretty closely aligned with scholarly thinking on the matter of dwarves - they are almost certainly the same beings referred to as svartalfar by Snori Sturluson (and seemingly only by Snori Sturluson). And they were probably not short. The scholar I consulted with for my reenactment work referred to the idea of short dwarves derisively as “Tolkien Stuff,” and when I asked him what I should say if asked what they did look like, he had a long think and then hesitantly said “like… dead people?” which makes sense to me, given that they live underground, which is also where hel is. And it jibes with the general ancient world conflation of hidden folk and ghosts. Maybe that’s the angle to take - tie them to the shadowdark.
Yeah I mostly point out that it isn’t scholarly because it doesn’t show its sources, and I don’t wanna be nit picked when the exact details aren’t the point. I mean there is a guy on these forums who blocked me because I pointed out the academically uncontroversial fact that Norse stories of dwarves vary pretty widely, and we certainly don’t need to feel beholden to Alviss or Dvalin specifically when presenting a Norse dwarf.

But yeah, from this and several other replies, I think maybe take the Duergar and some elements of the deep gnomes, and work out a sunless creature of deep earth magic, with innate genius or insight in craft, and some magic that feels right like maybe a stone camouflage ability and the magical ability to create hidden encampments when underground or surrounded by stonework.
 


Laurefindel

Legend
Well, problem with dwarves is that they are short and not sexy. So let’s make them tall and beautiful. And graceful too, none of that clumsy robust frame! Let’s switch their +2 Con with +2 Dex and up their speed to 30ft, at least. The beard must go too. Yuk! These dwarves are beardless.

but they’re tough, so let’s make them immune to sleep. And while we’re at it, let’s make them sleep only 4 hours, playing music and reminiscing stuff all the while. Yeah, that’s be cool! And resistance to poison is lame, so better make them resistant to something else, like charms and stuff.

darkvision is cool, so keep that. Same with cultural weapons, but axes are out of fashion. Better make them swords. Also, the “proficient in history” thing is way too situational. Pick a better skill. Like perception. Perception is a good skill! So let’s see…

Tall and sexy
No beard
+2 dex
30 feet speed
Immune to sleep, resistant to charms
Need to “kinda sleep” only 4 hours
Darkvision
Proficient with sword and perception skill

there, perfect! Now you just need to flesh them out with subraces and you’re good to go!
 

I can't find the article now, but I remember reading a designer complain about how dwarves are terribly adapted to underground living: beards would get dirty, the eyes and ears are too small, they should have longer arms, etc... they re-drew a well-adapted (in their mind) dwarf and it was basically just a goblin.

I think way too many fantasy setting include dwarves because they're expected.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
Dwarves in Symbaroum are interesting and go back in some ways to their original Norse mythological origins.

I was thinking of calling out Symbaroum's dwarves, who are plenty cool, but they're one of the few things in that excellent setting that feels a little undercooked to me. Like they were so busy trying to make them not-your-father's-dwarves that they kind of made them not all that defined? No beards, not portly, not hoarders, got it...but also they kinda have a Drax-like inability to understand nuance, and they're insular and distrusting? So that's sort of a lot about what they aren't, but I'm not super clear on what they are.

Plus, the fact that iirc they weren't mentioned in the original book, and then got sort of dropped in later made them seem even more disconnected to me.

But I'm complaining too much, since I feel like they're a great start. Just not fully there (for me).
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
I do not have a lot of knowledge about dwarves from real world mythology, but I have been playing in a long-term campaign with three to five dwarf characters and a dwarf BBEG.

To me, the most defining features of dwarves are not their beards, their mountains, their crafts, or their mining... it's tradition.

Dwarves (again, to me) are tradition personified. Whether that tradition is magical, mineral, or martial, I think dwarves are still dwarves as long as the emphasis on tradition is there.

Stealing/riffing on something @Charlaquin mentioned upthread but if they're more directly connected to ancestor spirits that'd be a great way to zero in on the tradition element. So not just yapping about this or that ancestor, but speaking to them, channeling them, other spooky death stuff, all of that would be very cool to me (and in keeping with being creepy mountain folk).
 

Grantypants

Explorer
I can't find the article now, but I remember reading a designer complain about how dwarves are terribly adapted to underground living: beards would get dirty, the eyes and ears are too small, they should have longer arms, etc... they re-drew a well-adapted (in their mind) dwarf and it was basically just a goblin.

I think way too many fantasy setting include dwarves because they're expected.
I also read something once that I can't place now, but it recast dwarf beards as essentially whiskers. Dwarves could rely on their whiskers in part to move around safely underground, and gained some kind of bonus to detecting things when they couldn't otherwise see.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Hey! Don’t get me wrong, Dwarves are cool. But…they’re at risk of getting a bit stale in D&D.

what if we went back to origins and rethought what a Dwarf can be?

For instance, and mind this ain’t a scholarly source because this ain’t an academic discussion, this article goes into just how ambiguous stories about dwarves are in Norse myth. Dwarves in Norse Mythology

Now I’ve done a decent amount of research on this topic over the years, myself, and yeah, Ivaldi is never said to fear the sun, nor the Bricings, nor Gandalfr, nor Alberich IIRC, nor the 4 who hold up the sky, etc, and none of them are described as short, either.

So perhaps a line of dwarves, Dvalin’s kin, fear the sun, while others simply live underground, and still others live in the forest.

What do Norse dwarves have in common?

Well, they’re very magical, for one.

For another they are excellent craftsfolk.

They seem to tend not to like outsiders much to me, and they are almost certainly related to elves. Too many of thier names have variants of alfar in them to be otherwise.

Okay, so this sounds more like gnomes than dwarves in a lot of ways, but let’s roll with it. How can we make more magical dwarfs while keeping them dwarfy?

Anyone here knowledgeable about dwarves from other cultures, or have some really interesting tales on them?
3e made Norse Dwarves. They were called Midgard Dwarves. I'd love to see a 5e version of them.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I believe that perhaps Troika! should be consulted. In this game, dwarves aren't born. They are made - mastering craftmanship is crucial for a dwarf, so that he make build another dwarf.

A possible character is a poorly made dwarf - one with no craftmanship whatsoever. The other dwarves are horrified by it.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
dwezgaz is a proto-Germanic evil spirit that caused madness and is linked to the English word Dizzy.

Dwergr (dwarf) and Svartalfr (black elf) both live in Svartalfheim but are not necessarily the same creature.

Dwarfs have beards, are skilled craftsmen, affect the mind (cause confusion, maze?) and can heal too. They’re not necessarily short, there are giant dwarfs and Dvärgens Dotter (dwarfs daughter) is a beautiful seductive temptress
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Stealing/riffing on something @Charlaquin mentioned upthread but if they're more directly connected to ancestor spirits that'd be a great way to zero in on the tradition element. So not just yapping about this or that ancestor, but speaking to them, channeling them, other spooky death stuff, all of that would be very cool to me (and in keeping with being creepy mountain folk).
Yeah! I posited a while back that maybe Dwarves have genetic memory, going all the way back to their progenitors (plural) who crafted the first dwarves. On some level, they recall the birth of the world, when the alfar were truly wild and the Aesir and Vanir had not yet made war, when no one new the runes and the cosmos was fire, ice, and that which could form between them in the yawning void.

In practical terms, this is why they're good at craft and war and such, they remember the lessons learnt by their ancestors. They also don't think of themselves as much as individuals as other races do, instead seeing themselves as parts of their family in the same way your hand is part of your body.

They're born of the bones of the earth, given conscious will by their gods, and so they can become one with stone (feat to gain stoneskin and meld into stone?), and are at home underground and in stonework in a way others aren't (can hide even when lightly obscured while underground or hiding amongst rock or stone debris or stonework). They can craft uncannily fast (some ribbon about crafting times), and maybe gain some minor magics automatically, along with a couple artisan's tools and weapon proficiencies that the player can choose. In a different system I'd have part of making a dwarf be building the basic info about your clan/family, and having that determine some stuff about you.
 

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