[WARNING: Mildly strong language ahead. If it offends you, don’t keep reading. You have been warned.]
I love dwarves. On the rare occasions I get to be a player, I’ll choose human 90% of the time, but when I get a wild hair and want to go non-human, dwarf is often my first choice. They’re hardcore, stern, combat-oriented, tough as nails… lots of the things a good Soldier should like. And really, I can’t help but love the image of the hard-drinking, hard-fighting dwarven warrior going into battle juuuuust a wee bit tipsy from the night before. But as of right now, they represent a bit of a quandary for me. They’re just too iconically Tolkien for me. All the things that I really like about them are all the things that I like about Gimli from the LotR movies. Now, keep in mind that I LOVE those movies (especially the extended versions). I’m the kind of geek who was at the midnight showing of the premieres and when Return of the King came out went to see the first 2 movies in IMAX back to back culminating in the release or RotK at midnight on opening night. I like them a LOT.
In my setting of Brittanis, however, I have made a concerted effort to remove the obvious, overt Tolkien-esque setting elements. At some point,  I did it for orcs, halflings, and magic in general– 4E already handled the super-uber-better-at-everything-than-you elves. Splitting them into two  separate, playable, core races that aren’t subraces of each other was a stroke of utter brilliance. If I ever figure out which WotC designer came up with it, I just might hug him.
But I digress.
Then I come to dwarves, and… there’s Gimli. While I love him, and he certainly has his place in other settings, he sticks out as a very proud nail of Tolkien-osity. I like him, a lot. But I need to either get rid of him, or figure out why he’s in Brittanis and what that means. I need to fit him into the whole cloth of my setting instead of leaving him alone, mooing on the sidelines like a bearded, armored sacred cow. So I start thinking.
I have a really exceptional pdf from a company that, sadly, no longer exists. It’s called Hard Boiled Ideas: Cultures by One Bad Egg Press and it is easily one of the best 4E products put out to date, in my not-so-humble opinion. It does two things exceptionally well. Really, any product that does these two things well will get the The Action Point Seal of Approval.
- Give GMs real, solid tools to use in their games
- Present those tools in a user-friendly format that turns theory into application
That’s really my requirements. And as far as those two bullet points are concerned, HBI:Cultures is among the best. It’s a damn shame they stopped putting stuff out.
The concept is simple– any RPG game culture (or race, per core D&D terms) can be broken down into simple pieces that can then be played with to create alternative versions of the base culture. The pdf even has a nifty worksheet to help the GM put this into effect. When I broke out HBI:C and re-read the text, it was in that moment I decided that I still wanted Gimli in my world. Keeping the archetypal dwarves around would be a kind of touchstone–a point of familiarity in a world that might be off-putting for some newer players or those still bound by the paradigms of a more traditional D&D setting.
The decision to keep Gimli gives me three distinct benefits:
- I can use the “standard” dwarves as a foil for the setting elements that are different from core 4E or more Tolkien-ized fantasy. This provides a kind of contrast and comparison without blatantly pointing out the fact that I am actually showing off the differences in campaign settings. By putting a Gimli in an encounter that includes other elements that I have changed, it underscores the changes I’ve made without making it the focus of the encounter. As I have said many times and will continue to say– encounters with different layers of interaction are good. Making your players think on multiple levels is good. Making them do it when they don’t even realize they’re doing it is GREAT.
- If I am using HBI:C and I am also keeping my buddy Gimli, that means that I’m taking the stereotype that Gimli represents and adding something else to the setting that will obviously be a contrast to the archetypal dwarf. Thus, there will be another way to contrast the fact that the stereotype dwarf exists in the world, because there will be that new setting element, based off of the core dwarf, to show off.
- I get to keep Gimli in my world. It’s a purely selfish kind of motivation, but I’d be less than honest if I didn’t acknowledge that was a factor.
I’m going to bring you along my creation process for my new dwarves using the worksheet in HBI:C. I didn’t go by the book, really, till some of my design choices had already been made, but it was good for me to go back and dig a little deeper into the ideas I had conceptualized. Again– layers.
First thing first: I’m deliberately choosing from the get-go do ditch the “enslaved by giants” theme for my archetypal dwarves. The concept of such a tough, hardy race being enslaved by ANYbody kinda fascinates me, but leaving it in the past seems like it takes away from the drama potential. So I make the choice that the dwarven race is, right this very minute, enslaved. The immediate questions this bring up are obvious: who has enslaved them? And why? And, for all that is good and holy, HOW?
The answers hit me almost as fast as I ask the questions:
- Who has enslaved them? As I said before, I really like dwarves as a concept. The thing that made me pooh-pooh the enslavement idea from the beginning was that I didn’t like the notion of another outside race making my dwarves their bitch. But then I went and decided that the dwarves were, in fact, enslaved. So that really only left one option: the dwarves were enslaving THEMSELVES. And since I’m creating what amounts to a subrace of dwarves, it makes sense that this subrace is the culprit for the enslavement.
I think it’s important to note that at this point I make the decision to change the nomenclature in my head regarding these new dwarves I’m creating. I make the active choice to not think of them as a sub-race, but instead think of them as an alternate race. And because of that, brain percolates a bit: what if these new dwarves have the same idea about themselves? What if they are at one point considered a lesser, sub-race of dwarf for some reason and that is the part of the motivation that makes them enslave their standard cousins? I like this idea a lot and scribble it down.
It’s also at this point that I begin thinking about names. Names have a lot of power, especially when they are used right. I get remarkably lucky at this point. The map I made for Brittanis way back in 2006 has had the dwarven nation mapped out and labeled in what seemed at the time to be a particularly boring way. I called it “Ironhall” and I recall that at the time it was intended to be a place-filler until I came up with something better. Obviously, I never did, but that’s okay. Such a simple, iconic name might be boring for an archetypal dwarven realm, but when applied to my new Slaver Dwarves, it fits perfectly well. They suddenly become known as Iron Dwarves, and it can influence every aspect of their culture: black iron slave collars, unpolished armor and weapons and architecture– basically a complete inversion of all the standard dwarven visual cues. Completely unintentional, but sometimes its those wonderful coincidences that turn out best.
My brain continues down the name path and the fact that my archetypal dwarves are enslaved becomes their primary racial personality trait. But all the fun things that make the archetypal dwarves so…well, archetypal wouldn’t be possible while enslaved. That has implications of its own– if the Classic Dwarves aren’t actually enslaved, then who is? Again, the answer comes right along the heels of the question, and a name and personality comes with it: Free Dwarves. The population groups that PC dwarves come from are not actually enslaved, even though the majority of the Classic Dwarf population is. PC dwarves come from the refugees of the enslavement and their descendants. This also gives good reason for why the Free Dwarves are so archetypal– they believe their culture is in danger of extinction and are fighting hard to not lose their racial identity as they struggle against the harsh life of the dispossessed.
- How have they been enslaved? This question took me farther than I thought it would, and the results are incredible as far as I’m concerned. There’s an entire heroic-to-epic campaign nestled in this answer. I went the same route as the previous question when I approached the “how” issue. I don’t believe that any dwarf would ever submit to slavery. I’m fairly certain that their own notoriously stubborn pride would make them just about the worst slaves ever. And whoever enslaved them would likely know that, so some kind of workaround would have to be developed in order to enslave the archetypal dwarf nation wholesale. So what happened?
The first point that HBI:C suggests you as a GM look at when creating alternate races is the ability scores of the race. 4E dwarves have a +2 to Constitution and a +2 to Wisdom. I know I want the Iron Dwarves to be as stubborn and tough as their Free dwarf counterparts. The idea of wussy dwarves just isn’t appealing to me. So the +2 Con stays. But the +2 Wis intrigues me. It’s a mental attribute, and I decide that I want to play with that and swap it only for one of the other mental attributes. I know I’m creating bad-guy dwarves, and the idea of outgoing, personable dwarves isn’t something I want to run with, so that leaves Intelligence. As an experiment, I brainstorm what classes an Iron Dwarf would be good at by comparing attribute bonuses. What classes key off of Intelligence or Constitution and how could that be used to enslave a nation?
- Iron Dwarf Wizard— a cool idea that plays off of the Classic Dwarf concept of not focusing on arcane magic and mind-magic could easily be the explanation for enslavement, especially when combined with the dwarven knack for magic item creation.
- Iron Dwarf Artificer: This follows the pattern for Iron Dwarf Wizards, and I like that there is more than one class that can support this paradigm.
- Iron Dwarf Swordmage: See above. This is looking kinda cool by this point, and the idea of arcane slave collars is an image that cements in my brain.
It’s about this time that my eyes slip across an entry in the Compendium that leaps past all the other ideas and becomes just as iron-clad as these new dwarves I’m creating. The Psionic power source.
- Iron Dwarf Psion: Intelligence as primary stat, and more than that the flavor of it is perfect. A telepath can bypass all the things that make a dwarf such a difficult slave and literally re-wire his thoughts to be more amenable to slavery, even to the point of utterly breaking the mind of those who resist too much. It also negates the traditional dwarven defenses of heavy armor and heavy weapons. Plate mail doesn’t matter when the enemy is in your mind!
- Iron Dwarf Battlemind: Primary stat Constitution makes dwarves particularly good at this class, and reinforces the psionic theme. These guys become the bruisers of the Iron Dwarf regime, just as heavily armed as their Free Dwarf Defender counterparts, but they use psionics just like the Psions do.
- Iron Dwarf Ardent: Constitution as secondary stat gives them an edge as well. Classic Dwarves are portrayed as very emotional, and the Ardent use emotion as weapons. This locks the theme into place.
I suddenly hear Christopher Lee in my head: “They delved too greedily, and too deep.” While this is a Tolkien-ism, I’m going to use it for my own ends. What if they delved way, WAY too deep? As in, into the Underdark type deep? The PHB3 states that psionics could possibly be the world’s way of defending against the Far Realm threat… but sometimes the body’s defense against infection becomes part of the problem. One of my favorite Far Realm monsters has always been the aboleth, and this kind of corruption seems right up their alley.
I see this scenario: a couple of generations ago, dwarves from clan X were destitute, their clan fallen on hard times so they took the mines everybody else said were played out and pushed past the point where everybody else said was safe to go. When they broke into an ancient slumbering aboleth enclave, they didn’t stand a chance. Their own inherent greed and desperation against the aboleth’s mind-altering powers wasn’t even a contest. The fish-creatures enslaved Clan X and remade them into the perfect servants. Altered in mind but not body, they infiltrated the Classic Dwarf colonies and bred, producing more of their psionic kin for several generations. The aboleth were patient in the extreme and could wait long dwarven generations to build their army in secret. These “different” dwarves were noticed and shunned because they didn’t share the same proclivities to the gods as Classic Dwarves (Int bonus instead of Wis) and were eventually treated as second-class citizens and heavily oppressed. When the Iron Dwarves chose to strike, their sleeper army was ready to move in an instant, unified by their psionic bonds. By this time several generations had passed and the Iron Dwarves who had contacted the aboleths directly were gone; only their influence remained.
The coup was bloody and brutal, with many dwarves’ minds simply destroyed by the powerful psions and ardents of Clan X. The royal family of Classic dwarves was obliterated and replaced by an amazingly powerful psion dictator and his secret thought police (psions backed up by ardents and battlemind thugs). The society is focused on control over all things: control of their slaves whose minds they reshape into whatever they wish (using psionic, not arcane, control collars); control over their territories with ultra-restrictive laws even for the Iron Dwarf population; and control over themselves resulting in an emotionless, repressed society reminiscent of the Vulcans without any of the nobility associated with the Vulcan pursuit of logic. Totalitarian to the point of even monitoring the thoughts of the Iron Dwarf population.
The Iron Dwarf population is still small relatively but their psionic power gives them an edge; much in the same way that mind flayers use psionically-enslaved troops in a traditional setting, the Iron Dwarves use their slaves in battle as shock troops and cannon fodder before moving in with their psionically-enhanced, ultra-disciplined warriors who move and act as one in a very literal sense.
So in the end I really did end up with the Psionic Nazi Slaver Dwarves. They are an awesome, super-evil nemesis nation that I can use in a lot of different ways, and there is an entire campaign focused around them that is percolating in my mind that will likely be another post in an of itself. I’m really pleased with the way this turned out and I’m looking forward to using them in my game soon.
 I’ll detail the reasons behind it and effects on the games I run… but that’s another article.
 No, NOT three because drow never have been and never will be playable in any game I ever run. Ever.
 In case you hadn’t noticed, I am a huge fan of bullet-point lists. You should see my GM notes– they look like polka dots have attacked my adventure notebook.