Saturday, 15 June 2013


Dwarves are an interesting race in AD&D. On the one hand, they're the race that derives the least from folklore on paper (except half-orcs, I guess, but I've never seen anyone actually play a half-orc) but in a way they have marched away from The Lord of the Rings and manage to not feel like a lift from Tolkien during play, at least in my experience. They have managed to become just a "role-playing race", independent from any particular origin. In the process they have diced with becoming dangerously generic but never quite tipped over the edge.

I think part of what saved them is the fact that there are dwarves in folklore. Probably the best known (to me, at least) being Albrecht from the legend of the Rinegold and the Ring of Power - which obviously lay under Tolkien's work. So, unlike Hobbits halflings, there was somewhere else to mine for background material and inspiration. Indeed, even JRRT seems to have translated "real world" dwarves into his setting in the form of the "petty-dwarves" of the Silmarillion, who bear no real resemblance to the more typical Gimli/Thorin types that inspired the AD&D race.

"I never even met Tolkien!"
It's worth pointing out, perhaps, that dwarves are unique among the playable fantasy races in actually being real in some sense. The vast majority of folktales of "dwarves" are obviously based on mediaeval views about very short people, and reflect the typical accepting, tolerant, and cosmopolitan outlook of that period. It's noticeable, for example, that legends about dwarves rarely feature large numbers of them mixing with "normal" people - they are loners, because real dwarves were unusual and if a mediaeval peasant ever saw any, it was probably just a single man or woman surviving as best they could in a world where their very bodies were seen as a mark of sin. Groups of dwarves are always depicted as being in wild places or deep underground where, in fact, most people would never be.

Snow White
As Matthew has said on Silver Blade Adventures, the main motivation for adding dwarves to the Chainmail rules was to allow re-creation of stuff like The Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit. But for me, that battle was the least interesting part of the book - almost completely irrelevant to the main story of Bilbo's travels, it's as if Saving Private Ryan had included a section about  the bombing of Nagasaki. What The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings really gave D&D was a vision of a party of characters on an adventure where they encountered other characters of various non-human races. But, even if that's what JRRT gave D&D in general, he gave our group nothing at all directly, at least initially.

Too much "snow white"
It's funny looking back on it how little we as a group took inspiration in our play from Tolkien - in fact I doubt that any of my original group had even read his work before we started play and when the BBC Radio version came out in '81 it was too late to really make a mark on long-established play styles.

The class restrictions in AD&D - fighter, thief, or assassin - always struck me as a bit odd and I only remember one dwarven thief. A dwarven assassin seemed, and seems, to me as a strange combination as a dwarven monk. In actual play this meant that dwarves were always fighters. So mostly it was the "angry Glaswegian" version that triumphed over the "tragic race" picture in LotR and dwarves were popular choice in AD&D play.

In the original D&D's little brown books, the dwarves' advantages were slight and the race rarely played although there were many NPCs, particularly on trips to Thunderhold in CSIO but the PHB presented dwarves in a much more expansive way, including several great illustrations by Trampier, including page 108 (the magic mouth) which is one of the best of all AD&D's artworks. And, since being a fighter is an easy option for newcomers, dwarven fighters were common enough that one even managed to make it to the level cap at 9th level! Through various magical quests, the limit was gradually and with great difficulty lifted a level at a time until he reached 12th level, at which point our campaign ended.

I suspect that the director hasn't actually read The Hobbit
Unearth Arcana's solution of generally increasing level limits by 2 for single-classed characters seemed a little strained to me, in that I could not imagine a dwarf ever being multi-classed - the idea that dwarves were only fighters had become self-reinforcing by the early 80's - and, anyway, it took so long to reach the level limits that I thought it reasonable for the player to have the resources to sort that out themselves.

So, dwarves sit in a strange place for me. They're the go-to race for fighter characters and they have interesting mechanical advantages in AD&D, and suffer very little from the Tolkien effect in play, but they've become perhaps a little too generic and these days I'd quite like to play a dwarven cleric or even druid and explore that relationship with the other dwarves than just another "Is that tha best ya kin do, pal?" fighter. But then, I've never played a dwarf at all, other than NPCs!

1 comment:

  1. Heh. My first introduction to adventure games was Hero Quest, and since somebody else picked the barbarian I chose the next best thing, which is to say the dwarf. When we shifted to Advanced Hero Quest and then War Hammer, I became the game master, so naturally Rasnod the Dwarf ended up as lord of a dwarf hold somewhere. I ended up with a lot of dead characters in Dungeons & Dragons, mainly halflings, but of the dwarves one I thoughtfully named "Brick" comes easily to mind (constitution 19 or something, as I recall); he was last seen in Ravenloft.

    As you know, dwarf clerics have been more popular in the World of Silver Blade campaigns, but in our World of Greyhawk games there have been a few dwarf fighter types, complete with Scottish accents, of course. Having played a human fighter (twice), magician, cleric and thief in previous play-by-post games, I elected to go with dwarf for the current B/X one. Even though I initially tried to stay away from the worst archetypal behaviour, he still ended up a plate armoured and axe wielding sort. :D

    It is a good point about dwarves being their "own thing", as even though popular perception is heavily influenced by Middle Earth (in my opinion), it is clear that other media has sort of coalesced around a shared archetype that is more descended from Tolkien than Tolkien.