Wednesday, June 5, 2013

[Article] Dwarves

A notably prominent demi-human race in Dungeons & Dragons, dwarves no doubt owe their popularity to the success and mythology of Middle Earth. Whilst well known from legend, medieval literature and folk tales, not to mention modern works of fantasy, it is dwarves as they are depicted in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings that dominates the collective imagination. Indeed, the purpose of their first introduction in the Fantasy Supplement was to allow the medieval miniatures war gamer to "refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien" using Chain Mail. Given this context, it is interesting to note that dwarves are classed as "heavy foot" in attack and "light foot" in defence, since this compares unfavourably to elves, orcs and men (assuming Viking or Norman type infantry). Even the advantage they enjoy in Dungeons & Dragons against trolls, ogres, and giants is of little matter in Chain Mail, as though they take half the ordinary number of hits from such monsters, they only inflict half themselves in return. Combined with a relatively slow movement speed and commensurately high point cost, dwarves make for a poor choice of troop type, unless fighting underground or otherwise in darkness.

By contrast, dwarves were presented as equal or superior to orcs in the original edition of the Dungeons & Dragons adventure game. Additionally, they were shifted from being exclusively lawfully aligned to also potentially neutral, like elves. When the five point alignment structure was introduced in Strategic Review #6, though, dwarves became mainly lawful with good tendencies. Holmes interpreted this as meaning that a quarter of dwarves would be aligned with lawful good and the remainder neutral. For their part, B/X and BECMI retained the earlier ambivalence, whereas the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual took a more straightforward approach, classifying dwarves as lawful good, possibly so as to contrast them with the chaotic good elves. Perhaps this is also why a subrace of "mountain dwarves" with 1+1 hit dice appears as a note in the same work, further reinforcing the mirror like juxtaposition of the two best known demi-human races. Somewhat related may be the reference in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p. 104) to the apparently chaotic nature of orcs, which could suggest that at an early juncture their alignment was opposed to that of the lawful evil goblins or hobgoblins, creating a tetrarchy of juxtaposed races.

With regard to class choices and level advancement, dwarves, like gnomes and halflings, fall short of elves, to embrace the pun. Lack of magical ability serves to differentiate them, but also creates a problem for their independent manufacture of magical arms and armour. The Dungeon Master’s Guide indicates that very old dwarves who have reached maximum level advancement have the necessary magic and spells to create such items, providing that they are also possessed of great intelligence and wisdom. No more detailed explanation is provided for how this might be possible, but it is worth noting that there is technically no prohibition on dwarf sages having magical ability. One solution is to simply remove the class and level restrictions for demi-humans altogether, but there is something rather incongruous about dwarf magicians and halfling paladins. Indeed, it is entirely purposeful that, for example, halflings make for neither powerful wizards nor great warriors, and surpass none as thieves or as clerics. Perhaps the ability of high-level thieves to use spell scrolls is the most viable solution to the puzzle, since all demi-humans enjoy unlimited advancement in that class and so potentially equal access to such magic.

Notably, the physical appearance of dwarves is consistent across all editions from the Greyhawk supplement onward, which is to say their colouration is grey to brown, they stand around four feet tall, and they weigh about one-hundred and fifty pounds. There is a shift between the original and advanced game, in that they go from having skin that is a ruddy tan, brown or grey to having tan or light brown skin and hair that is brown, grey or black. Additionally, mountain dwarves are indicated in the Monster Manual to be fairer and taller, at around four and a half feet, and the Complete Book of Dwarves introduces sundered dwarves, who are fairer and taller again, reaching up to five feet in height. It can be troublesome to adjudicate the restrictions size imposes on characters; first edition prohibits characters under five feet from using the long bow and B/X extends this to the two-handed sword, but it is second edition that imposes the most stringent limitations, preventing small-sized characters from using large-sized weapons, requiring medium-sized weapons to be wielded with two hands, and lowering their base movement to 6", rather than the 9" Gygax suggested. Little wonder, then, that Sage Advice advocated treating dwarves as being medium-sized!

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there were no dwarf player characters in the original Silver Blade campaign, and they have only been an occasional choice subsequently. Quite why is unclear, but it may be an example of gnomes serving as a conceptual substitute, since in no case were there gnome and dwarf player characters in the same campaign. Of course, the players themselves typically already had experience of other fantasy adventure games, such as War Hammer, if not Dungeons & Dragons itself, and so it may simply be that the novelty of demi-humans had worn off for them. So far, the two most successful dwarf player characters have both been cleric types, one managing to establish a string of religious strongholds along a stretch of the dust march. Naturally, since the dwarf cleric and fighter/cleric were originally only non-player character options, these were player characters generated using post Unearthed Arcana rules. In the World of Silver Blade, dwarves are primarily found in the northlands where they have a major realm beneath the mountain ranges that divide the Great Kingdom of Calthornia from the demon haunted desert of ash. Nevertheless, there exist relatively isolated, but much valued, communities of dwarves elsewhere.

Often additional content for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is generated by subdividing existing material, resulting in greater specificity and detail. For instance, and as a case in point, the Complete Book of Dwarves identifies hill, mountain, deep, gully, sundered, and grey as subraces. In the World of Silver Blade, however, these are all consolidated into "dwarf" for game rule purposes. Several changes to the default have been made, mainly with a view towards greater generalisation and simplicity. Perhaps the most contentious of these is increasing the average height of dwarves to around five feet so as to ensure they can be credibly classified as medium-sized. Additionally, their saving throw adjustment against magic and poison has been detached from constitution, their combat benefits against the "giant class" subsumed in a general fighting ability bonus, and their detection abilities revised. Moreover, the non-magical nature of dwarves has been deemphasised in view of the fact that gnomes and halflings enjoy the same resistances. These modifications recommended themselves during campaign play and may not be suitable for others outside that context, but they are made available here as a matter of potential interest: Silver Blade Dwarves.