Making Characters Weird: Dwarves

Iron Hills Dwarf by JLazerusEB 
is licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

What's Included Below:
 

  • Playing a Dwarf
  • A Table of "Weird" Character Traits for Dwarves
  • A 1D20 Table of "Weird" Crafts for Dwarves
  • Alternate Dwarven Character Traits (for B/X or Old School Essentials, but applicable to BECMI, 1E, and OD&D)
This presents the fourth entry in my series on "making characters weird." As long-time blog supporter and artist extraordinaire Kelvin Green commented on my last entry (for Thieves/Rogues): 

"...they imply a fascinating campaign setting that sits in a nice place between stock fantasy and full on Kirbyesque gonzo." 

That's exactly the kind of tone I'm going for - small, unexpected and odd changes that fit within a standard fantasy setting but make it seem more strange and magical. The changes are designed to inspire you and create opportunities for players and referees to work together to create new ideas for the world, but are also appropriate for all ages and do not include the gross or ick-factors that have become common with more modern so-called "weird fantasy." 

This largely system neutral series is going to cover the four standard classes (Fighters, Clerics, Thieves/Rogues, and Magic-Users/Wizards) and the three main non-human races (Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings), which also just so happen to map to the seven classes available in the 1981 Moldvay Basic "B/X" D&D game. As such, occasionally I'm including some light mechanical changes in a B/X style, but as I showed in the last entry for Thieves/Rogues, those changes can very easily be adapted to 3E, 4E, and/or 5E.  

These weird traits are intended to provide flavor, role-playing hooks, and world-building opportunities in lieu of mechanical benefits or changes, which again, make them suitable, and hopefully appealing, for most any fantasy RPG. 

PLAYING A DWARF

In my current campaign that I'm running for my daughter, I've begun thinking about dwarves a little differently. I don't want to make them too different from the standard dwarf archetypes, because that's an easily identifiable trope to provide context for new players. But, in the spirit of collaborating with players to give them the opportunity to add world-building details to the setting, I'm asking players who want to be dwarves to think about these things that dwarf self-identify with: 

  1. Your title. Dwarves often adopt a grandiose-sounding title, such as Goblin-Bane, Head-Smasher, or Void-Bringer. Other dwarves try to be more subtle and will often adopt a somewhat self-deprecating title, such as "the Sullen" or "Fatherless." The names must always be given to the dwarf by a group of peers based on deeds performed or the dwarf's personality. Dwarves who create their own titles and go around telling others what to call them are the worst examples of their kind. Nobody wants to hang out with them. 
  2. Warrior or Crafter? While there are other professions dwarves can take, these are the two most common and a typical dwarf will identify as either one or the other. A crafter dwarf might be considered an artist, engineer, or smith, but is a dwarf that prefers making things instead of killing things. 
  3. Family and Ancient Enemies. Classically, most dwarves are organized into clans with strong familial ties and an even stronger hatred of an ancient enemy. Does your dwarf belong to such a clan, or are you an outcast without a clan? What enemy does your clan despise, and why? Goblins and orcs are typical choices, but other non-traditional choices, such as undead, lycanthropes, dinosaurs, or even humans, can create some interesting role-playing and world-building opportunities. You'll need to work with the referee to figure out how and why your clan came into conflict with these non-traditional enemies. 

WEIRD DWARF TRAITS TABLE

As a reminder, when I use the word "void" in my weird traits, I'm using it generically to represent whatever the referee and campaign needs it to represent. Maybe it's Chaos. Perhaps it's Sentient Space, the Warp, the Beyond, or another Plane of the Multiverse. Don't get caught up on the name "void" - use it however you want. 

Additionally, for this table, these traits could be applied to a single dwarf character (who could be a curiosity, like a dwarf with an affinity for magic), or in some cases, they could be applied to a whole clan or an off-shoot group, or even the entire dwarven race

For more dwarf variants, see:

 

Roll

Weird Trait

1

God Wrestler: You once fought and bested a Dwarven god in a wrestling contest. No, you won’t tell people which one. But it really happened. True story.

2

Servants of Elder Gods: You’re the only one who knows the truth: dwarves were once servants to horrible elder things that live under the earth. There are still dwarves down there in perpetual servitude. They must be freed.

3

Unique Birth: Dwarves aren’t born; they’re made. It’s something they keep secret. 

4

Gem Collector: Dwarves collect gems and jewels because they… (Roll 1d6):

 

1: Can be shaped into a dwarf child and brought to life.

2: Can be used to tell the future.

3: Tell the secret history of the dwarves.

4: Are weapons (but only in the hands of dwarves).

5: Are what’s left of the dwarven pantheon.

6: Can be used to cast dwarven magic, except those secrets have been lost.

5

Goblin Fear: Unlike most Dwarves, you fear goblins. You always carry a small glass vial of “sunlight” with you, because you heard goblins are afraid of sunlight. You gathered the sunlight by letting a bottle sit outside for a day and then putting a cap on it.

6

Hatred of Outdoors: You hate being outdoors and in wide open spaces. You suffer a -1 penalty to saving throws when outside but gain a +1 bonus when underground.

7

Underground Hatred: In contrast to almost all dwarves everywhere, you hate being underground. Something happened when you were younger, or you belong to a clan that’s never lived underground, or you just plain hate it (maybe because it’s dark, cold, and damp). Whatever the reason, you suffer a -1 penalty to your saving throws while underground or indoors but gain +1 to saving throws when above ground and outdoors.

8

Halfling Ignorance: Halflings don’t exist. You’ve never seen one. However, you have seen a disturbing number of human children masquerading as adventurers. You’re afraid they’re going to get hurt. It’s up to you to look after them.

9

Magic Affinity: Unlike most dwarves, you have an affinity for magic. You can cast arcane spells from scrolls starting at 8th level. There is a 10% chance of error: the spell does not function as expected and creates an unexpected or negative effect. You use the Cleric saving throw progression.

10

Magic Absorption: You use your natural resistance to magic to absorb magical power from magic items. While holding the item, make a saving throw versus spells. The referee may impose a penalty depending on the power of the item. With a successful save, you can suppress one magical quality or one “+” from the item for 1 hour. Cannot detect construction tricks or room traps.

11

Void Warrior: You (or your clan, or the entire dwarven race) come from the far reaches of space or some other ancient plane, such as the Unending Fortress of Cinders & Ash. You are stranded on your current planet.

12

Construction Voices: When you detect construction tricks, it’s from speaking with the architecture. It’s a special language only dwarves can learn. The accent of the architecture changes based on age, type (stone versus metal, etc.).

13

Gold Addiction: You are compelled to acquire gold and suffer from a type of fever if you go more than a day without acquiring some. When suffering the fever, make a save vs paralysis. On a failure, you suffer a -1 penalty to all rolls until you acquire some more gold.

14

Armor Skin: Rather than wear armor, your people undergo a ritual involving intricate and magical tattoos that replicate the effects of armor. The cost of the ritual is the same as the cost of the armor +10% and turns your skin thick and hard and adds to your encumbrance (see Time, Weight and Movement in Core Rules). The armor skin cannot be removed, making swimming impossible, and imposes a -2 CHA penalty.

15

Wire Beard: Your beard is strong, like organic wire, and can be crafted into an unbreakable rope.

16

Earth Speak: When you listen at doors, instead of hearing the noises on the other side, the earth itself describes what it hears. The earth is cantankerous but if you succeed on a 9+ on the Monster Reaction Roll table (see Encounters in Core Rules), your listen check increases to 3-in-6. Conversely, if you get a 5 or lower on your check, your listen check decreases to 1-in-6.

17

Dwarven Magic: Dwarves are actually very strong magic-users. They just prefer fighting much better. Beware the dwarf magic-user you do encounter.

18

Magic Crafters: All magic weapons and armor in the world were crafted by dwarves in antiquity. Most people don’t know this. If the secret got out, dwarves would be hunted down, captured, and put into servitude to make more.

19

Cave Portal: The cavern where you were born houses a portal to another dimension. You’re not allowed to talk about it.

20

Cave Bird: After an accident in which your kinsfolk were killed by poisonous cave gases, you always travel with an exotic bird in a cage to detect any anomalous odors. The bird hates this because it knows you’re willing to sacrifice its safety to save yourself. It’s faked its own death a few times in an attempt to escape.

 

WEIRD DWARVEN CRAFTS

These don't have to be relegated only to dwarves, but having a different set of crafts dwarves are known for is a way to help differentiate them from other races who might only participate in standard crafts like blacksmithing or woodworking. 

Crafting Rules: Most old-school games don't have crafting rules, which is for the better as most of those games also don't have skills, and the games are about adventuring, not staying home and building stuff. In that case, it's up to the referee to decide how these crafts can be used (or if they can be used by players at all; they might be kept just for NPCs), and how much time and gold are involved. A rule of thumb is that materials should cost at least half the sale cost of the item being crafted, and one month of time per every 100gp in value. 

If you want more detailed crafting rules for a B/X style old-school game, a good place to start is "The Craft Skill" at the blog "Blood, Death, Satan & Metal." These rules-light craft rules are based on an "X-in-6" roll and compatible with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, which is also very compatible with B/X D&D. 

What Does This Stuff Do? You'll notice in the table below that I mention different crafting materials or professions, such as "Void-stone" or "Runic Hoarfrost," but don't define them or what they do. This is completely by design; whatever you think "Runic Hoarfrost" does, it's undoubtedly going to be much more creative and, more importantly, much more relevant to your campaign world than whatever I told you it does. I also think it's fine not to define it. You can simply say, "The dwarves of the Lost Hills are known for their skill working with illogical geometrical architecture." Show them a picture of Relativity by M.C. Escher if you need to. But you probably don't need to do any more than that. The mantra of  my "weird traits" is "Flavor, not Mechanics." 

Some of these push the boundaries (or jump right over them) of a standard medieval stock fantasy world, such as explosives and armored exoskeletons. If that's too modern or doesn't fit your world, just skip them or replace them with other non-traditional crafts more relevant to your world. 

 

Roll

Weird Dwarven Crafts

1

Extraterrestrial metals

2

Illogical geometric architecture

3

Eldritch portals

4

Time-displaced objects

5

Technology (medieval or anachronistic)

6

Gun powder / explosives

7

Armored exoskeletons

8

Aeronautical devices (hot-air balloons, etc.)

9

Dragon-hide

10

Shadows

11

Void-stone

12

Exotic elixirs

13

Alchemical items

14

Runic hoarfrost

15

Bizarre monster parts (basilisks, black puddings, purple worms, etc.)

16

Thunder and lightning

17

Ectoplasm (from spirits, undead, etc.)

18

Solar rays

19

Lunar dust

20

Spectral silver

 

ALTERNATIVE DWARVEN SKILLS (FOR B/X D&D)

In a standard B/X D&D or Old School Essentials game, all dwarves have four main "skills:"

  • Detect Construction Tricks
  • Detect Room Traps
  • Infravision
  • Listening at Doors
With the exception of Infravision, the other three skills all work on a "2-in-6" roll. 

Below is a list of some alternate skills you might want to use to swap out for one or more of the above skills (on a one-for-one basis). While designed for Moldvay B/X D&D and Old School Essentials, these should also work with only slight modifications for OD&D, 1E, and BECMI as well. 

To use these alternate dwarf skills:
  • Swap out an existing dwarf skill for one of the new skills on the table below (these aren't additive, so you need to lose something in order to use them)
  • Chance for Success shows what you need to roll for the skill to work properly
  • Details indicates that you can accomplish with a successful roll, and in some cases what the consequences for failure are
  • Special shows notes for the referee based on specific circumstances 

 

New Skill

Chance of Success

Details

Special

Gem Appraisal

2-in-6

You correctly estimate the value of gems and jewels. If you fail your check, your estimate is off by 50% to 150%, always to your detriment.

The referee may assign a penalty for rare or exotic gems & jewels.

Underground Stealth

2-in-6

In caves, you can hide in shadows or behind other forms of cover. (Requires you to be motionless).

 

Cave Tracking

+1-in-6 every two levels:
1-in-6 1st – 2nd levels
2-in-6 3rd – 4th levels
3-in-6 5th – 6th levels
4-in-6 7th – 8th levels
5-in 6 9th level +

You can follow tracks in natural caves underground.

The referee may increase or penalize the chance of success based on the circumstances (age of the tracks, number of tracks, etc.).

Mountain Sense

1-in-6

You follow trails and landmarks to avoid becoming lost.

There is usually a 2-in-6 chance for getting lost in the mountains. See Hazards and Challenges and Wilderness Adventures in Core Rules

Spelunking

1-in-6

You can forage for edible food and potable water in an underground environment with a 1-in-6 chance, as if foraging in the wild.

See Wilderness Adventuring in Core Rules.

 

Let me know what you think of all these ideas for Weird Dwarf Traits in the comments below, as well as contributing your own ideas for traits, crafts, or new dwarf skills. 


Hanging: Home office (laptop) and living room couch (notebook)
Drinking: Black coffee (Italian Roast)
Listening: "A Whiter Shade of Pale - Live at Fillmore West, 3/7/1971" by King Curtis, from the album "Live at the Fillmore West"

Comments

  1. I very much like the society-level split between crafters and warriors. It immediately gives me ideas abut the whole of society being influenced by that division. Different parts of town, different churches, even.

    I would consider expanding the warrior side to something broader. There was a chap on TV here called Fred Dibnah, who made a career out of demolishing things on TV, and he is clearly a dwarf. I imagine the other half of society to be something like that, Destructors, or Deconstructionists, with warriors as a subset of that half.

    (I'm also reminded of that probably apocryphal story of Mussolini keeping employment down by having teams going around the country building walls, and another group going around demolishing the walls.)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, as always, for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it!

      One of the people who commented on my post on FB took it a step further by dividing dwarves into three groups: warriors, crafters, and merchants. I can see that working as well with your ideas above of the divisions in society based on the different aspects.

      Your idea on "demolishing things" is really fun - it makes me think of blending the two dwarf cultures (warriors & crafters) to make a combat-engineer type.

      I've never heard that story about Mussolini, and while it's probably *is* apocryphal, it seems entirely plausible! While the Public Works Administration here in the states didn't do both building and destroying, it did do a lot of building that probably wasn't really necessary except for the sake of creating jobs.

      Cheers!

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