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5 Tips for Playing Better Dwarves

A Pathfinder RPG Guide

By Neal LitherlandPublished 6 years ago Updated 3 years ago 6 min read

Dwarves have been one of the most common fantasy races in RPGs since the inception of these games. Short, broad, stoic, and bearded, this race of hard-working craftsman are perhaps the most similar to the archetypes presented in Tolkien's work.

However, if you want to step outside of the typical boxes dwarves get put into, you might find some of the following tips useful.

This is the second installment in a series that began with 5 Tips For Playing Better Elves. To see all the updates, go to the 5 Tips Master List on Improved Initiative.

Tip #1: Where Are You From?

They have mountains in the tropics, too, you know.

When you think of fantasy dwarves, what do you imagine? Windswept mountain passes, perhaps? Blocky, art deco cities built deep underground? Heavy steel armor and out-sized warhammers, maybe? Part of the reason that's what you picture is because we're used to seeing dwarves that are either similar to Middle Earth dwarves, or which are the spiritual kin of dwarves in Scandinavian legends. And there's nothing wrong with that, if that's what you want your character to be.

However, there is still the rest of the world to consider.

I talked about this a while back in Do Dwarves Surf? Tips For Diversifying Non-Human Fantasy Races, but a lot of the trappings we see for dwarves are associated with northern mountains and the associated climate and threats that go with them. The same is true for the things they craft, and the riches they value.

So what happens when you alter those elements? How do you maintain the cultural associations of the dwarves in a new environment?

For example, take your tropical dwarves. Thick wool and heavy armor may not be the order of the day, but there is still that desire to show craftsmanship, artistry, and practicality. So do these dwarves have lightweight chain or scale that can be swum in? Do they wear lighter clothes made from silk, but which are still as elegant and beautiful as what's worn by their northern cousins? Is gold considered a trinket in this place, while gems are the true currency? Is steel a rarity, while stone and crystal tools are fairly common?

There are a lot of possibilities to explore, and every environment will offer its own, unique twists on the core values of dwarves.

Incidentally, this idea eventually evolved in the Takatori; dwarves which are the children of primordial fire giants in my Sundara setting. If that intrigues you, consider picking up a copy of Species of Sundara: Dwarves for either Pathfinder Classic or Dungeons and Dragons 5E!

Tip #2: How Have Your In-Born Abilities Shaped You?

Not tired already? I thought you were tough.

Dwarves have certain, notable traits from the day they're born. The ability to see in total darkness, for instance, is something most surface-dwellers would consider amazing. Their inherent hardiness and resistance to toxins may mean they're able to eat or drink things that would sicken those with weaker constitutions (like a few of the more unusual items found in the collection 100 Fantasy Foods, for instance). And that's without considering the stranger talents dwarves may be born with, like the ability to scent valuable metals.

These things go beyond just being mechanically valuable; they are part and parcel for how your character interacts with the world. These traits might also affect the professions they choose or the skills they have. For example, a dwarf who knows his way around locks might make an ideal burglar, since he would never need a light to see by. Alternatively, a dwarf who can sniff out hidden gold might make an ideal customs officer or an appraiser who detects forgeries for private customers, or the crown. The inherent boost to Wisdom might make for someone whose will is just as insurmountable as their constitution, leading to a dogged bounty hunter, or a trail-toughened explorer.

Tip #3: What Are You Used To?

A thousand miles from anywhere... good.

Dwarves, more so than any race other than elves, are thought of as traditionalists. But to paraphrase, what is chaos for the fly is tradition for the spider.

So ask what is tradition for your particular dwarf? In which situations are they the spider, and which the fly?

Tradition, in this case, refers not to the broader spectrum of their clan or people, but their life experiences. What are they used to, and what do they expect from the world around them? And what things, when they change, will make them feel out-of-sorts, uncomfortable, or even downright angry?

As a for-instance, say that your dwarf comes from a settlement where the community is very tight-knit and welcoming. Everyone knows their neighbors, and everyone helps each other out. What problems could that mindset and experience cause if they find themselves trying to act the same way in a very insular, very private community? Alternatively, say that your dwarf was raised by a clan of tinkers, so they're used to being mobile and meeting a lot of new people. Do they get antsy if they're in one place for too long, eager to be back on the road to see someplace different?

This can apply to every aspect of the character's life. Everything from how you should act when showing romantic interest, to how you resolve conflict with another person, to how you show respect for someone are all opportunities to gain insight into their life, and what they see as "normal."

Tip #4: What Attitudes Do You Hold Toward Other People?

With eyes that have seen eternity, and hair of spun gold, I question every day whether I dream as I awaken.

We all know the usual dwarven stereotypes by now. They hate orcs and goblins of all kinds, they have blood feuds with giants, and they have what might, at best, be described as a complicated relationship with elves. But before you just take that as written, hold those things up and examine them properly. Do any of those things apply to your dwarf?

As a for-instance, say you have a desert-dwelling dwarf, and their hold has had a long-standing alliance with the Cho-Taur, a clan of nomadic orcs from deeper among the dunes. Or what if your mountain hold joined forces with a tribe of stone giants for mutual protection generations ago, leading to respect and deeper understanding between your peoples? Do your history and that of a nearby elven enclave intertwine, making each of your people repositories for the other's deeds over the centuries?

Ask who your dwarf has interacted with over the span of their lives, and what associations they have with these different types of people and creatures. And, if you really want to up the ante, ask which specific groups of these people your dwarf has met. If they feel differently about the white-cloaked Llanovan elves than they do about the shadow-dwelling House of Darmir, for instance, that can add a lot of depth, and lead to interesting stories about how your dwarf formed these judgments during their life.

Tip #5: What Have You Seen With Your Years?

Let me tell you, they don't grow this weed like they used to. I miss the Pennytrail pipe leaf.

Dwarves may not be quite as long-lived as elves, but they can still adventure with several generations of a human family or orc bloodline before finally hanging up their wandering boots. And just like elves, it's important to ask what your dwarf has seen during their years, and what they've been spending all their time doing.

To be clear, just because a dwarf has been around for a century or more, that doesn't mean they're far traveled, well-read, or deeply knowledgeable. What it might mean, though, is that they have completely mastered several trades, or that they intimately know a particular terrain. They might be the deadliest swordsman in the land or a student of arcane methods that races with shorter lifespans could never truly understand without taking drastic measures. On the other hand, dwarves who have spent their time moving around the world may remember huge cities when they were merely prosperous river towns. They might know weaving or smelting techniques that were lost in trade feuds, engineering methods destroyed in wars, or any of a dozen other things others consider relics of the past.

The older your dwarf is, the more it's possible they've done with those years.

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About the Creator

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.



Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary

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