This article was written by Jesse C Cohoon, I spotted it on the RoleplayingTips newsletter & thought it’d be really useful for someone roleplaying in a fantasy setting, so wanted to republish it here. If you get time though, definitely check out Jesse’s other articles at fantasyroleplayingplanes.blogspot.com.
Dwarves in popular culture are often depicted as being dour, bearded, short, and squat creatures who excel in mining gems and precious metals from the earth, have a great fondness of drink, are expert miners, and excel at smithing.
But a more thorough look at these creatures might show them to be a bit more complex than first thought. Here are several ideas to help flesh out your campaign setting with interesting dwarves.
1. Powrie (Bloody Cap dwarves):
Classic Mythology: amazingly fast and deadly dwarves who wield iron pikes and murder travelers who wander into their homes. Powrie dye their caps with victims’ blood, hence their name.
It’s said they must find a victim regularly, for if their cap dries out, they die. Redcaps are fast in spite of the heavy iron pikes they wield and the iron-shod boots they wear. Outrunning a redcap is supposedly impossible.
R. A. Salvatore’s Demon Wars saga: an aggressive and proud warrior race living on an archipelago. They use blood magic to maintain their physical prowess.
They’re also a nasty lot that enjoy raiding. They are famous for their “barrelboats.” Most other races hate and fear them – a reputation they’re more than happy to encourage.
2. “Deal-making” dwarves show up in times of need, offering a service in exchange for a horrible price, such as marrying them, giving away their first born child, giving away all their wealth, or some other horrid deal.
Some of these dwarves also bring horrible pronouncements of bad luck with them if their end of the deal isn’t held up. Rumpelstiltskin is just such a dwarf.
3. Dwemer (Skyrim Dwarves) were an ancient, “Lost Race” who had an advanced race and civilization, in many respects far ahead of the other races and civilizations of their time, developing technology, engineering, crafting methods, metalwork, stonework, architecture, city-planning, science, mathematics, magic, and the academic arts.
Those that studied these crafts would have been elevated to the highest, most respected, and most prestigious of positions in Dwemer society and their cities showed how important these ventures were, being marvels of these studies.
Few written works have described the appearance, personality, or achievements of individual Dwemer. Most knowledge of them regards the race as a whole. Despite being called “dwarves” by giants, the Dwemer are actually of average human height.
4. Derro are a strange and sadistic race. They are clever, stealthy, and murderously insane, said to have been created by some crazed deity in ages past, mysterious fay, or by genetic experimentation by the Illithid.
Derro travel in groups to ambush unwary travelers, taking captives as slaves using poison, crippling weapons, and natural spell casting to further their aims.
Individuals devote themselves to strange quests, such as collecting certain types of gemstones for a magical device, slaying as many members of a particular race as possible, or are assigned specific missions by powerful derro savants.
5. Gully dwarves (Dragonlance) are a potbellied, stupid race whose skin is often covered with scars, boils, sores, and filth.
Hair color ranges from dirty blond to dull black. Gully dwarves have watery blue, dull green, or hazel eyes. They speak a pidgin tongue known as gullytalk, a constantly shifting language that borrows words from whatever main language is nearby.
They eke out a meager existence mainly in refuse heaps, sewers, and other places most civilized races would not care to touch, foraging for their sustenance.
They may seem cowardly, running from most any danger, but corner them and you will be in for a surprise.
6. Arctic dwarves are short, squat, and hardy.
Most of them barely reach three feet tall. They have blocky bodies, pinched faces, stubby legs, bright blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, and white-blue skin. They wear polar bear fur tunics.
They are generally open and friendly, and can be quite sociable with neighboring races, with the exception with their mortal enemies: the frost giants.
Unlike other dwarves, they don’t mine or excel in crafts, instead devoting themselves to hunting, raising children, and leisure. Though they are curious about the outside world, they have little inclination to go and explore it.
7. Gold dwarves are a charismatic, if highly materialistic race who believe the resources of the natural world exist only to serve the purpose of conscious beings that enjoy fashioning minerals of the earth into things of usefulness and beauty including their finely, often enchanted crafted weapons and armor.
They often employ weapons that can also be used as tools, such as axes, picks, or hammers.
They are a proud race confident in their future after millennia of stability. Because of this they have earned a somewhat deserved reputation for xenophobia and supremacism, believing themselves to be the greatest of all races and themselves to be the greatest of all dwarves.
8. Shield dwarves are a cynical and gruff people, taking a long time to trust and even longer to forgive.
They are as fine craftsmen as other dwarves, but their craft tends to be weapons of war including axes, urgroshes, spears, swords, and mauls as well as heavy armors.
Their attitudes are divided between the Hidden and the Wanderers. The Hidden believe in isolation, fortifying their mountain homes, and continuing their ancient ways. Wanderers have been adventurous, seeking their fortunes on the surface world among other races.
9. Urdunnir are a lost race, known only by legend as Stonefriends, who look much like mountain dwarves with light gray skin, silver eyes and well-groomed light gray to dark gray beards. They wear a tight-fitting one-piece flexible garment composed of stone and metal.
These dwarves move through stone as easily as others move through air, and will often use their ability to take their enemies into the stone, leaving them there. If the person is completely encased in stone, they die.
Urdunnir also have a unique ability to shape metal with their bare hands. Weapons or armor struck by an Urdunnir can be rendered useless in this way.
They have a clan-based society, with each clan specializing in finding and shaping a certain substance. Known clans include Marble, Gold, and Ruby.
10. Wild dwarves are nomadic, illiterate, communal forest dwellers who see the world in terms of hunter and prey.
They have an ever-changing pack mentality, caring only about securing their next meal and surviving the dangers of the natural world. Material wealth and goods mean very little, with weapons being the only objects to which they evince any real attachment.
The only wild dwarves encountered outside their forests are loners who have either been captured and enslaved or who have chosen exile. Many exiles eventually find their niche alongside rangers, hunters, or druids, although a few join packs of lycanthropes and other sentient beasts.
11. Duergar are a cruel and malevolent race who have the ability to see in the deepest darkness. They are also immune to many mind powers, have a general resistance to fire and poisons, and are good at detecting hidden objects. Some even have powers to enlarge and turn invisible.
But these abilities come at a cost. They’re especially vulnerable to sunlight. They are also a merciless, sneaky, crafty people, who excel at setting up ambushes or moving out of sight. They take great pleasure in inflicting pain on others.
Unlike other dwarves, duergar have no prejudices against arcane magic. Smiths who specialize in enchanted items and wizards are well respected.
12. Dream dwarves are an inquisitive lot, seeking to supplement the information and wisdom they gain from the earth dream with personal experience. They believe the hills slumber beneath them.
Wise, reserved, and cautious, they understand nature in a way at once similar to but wholly alien to the understanding of druids and shamans of other races. They share a sort of collective subconscious with the world around them, a powerful phenomenon they call the earth dream.
13. Seacliff dwarfs (Kalamar) are tough, resilient individuals who are only taken out of the action by death, not injury.
Due to their life near and oftentimes on the sea, all seacliff dwarves are excellent swimmers.
In their minds, there is no substitute or exception to an honorable victory in hand-to-hand combat. Others refer to them as salt beards. They typically are shipwrights, sailors, or fishermen, as well as expert armorers, weapon smiths, and engineers. Their services are highly sought after and paid for by many captains.
14. Badland dwarves (Kalamar) are a hardy, but declining folk skilled at surviving in the desert wastes. Only a few now survive and this has made the survivors very cautious.
They are inheritors of a long history of struggle and turmoil. Their need to keep self-preservation part of daily discussion makes many think Badland dwarves are cruel.
Some have gone insane from watching their brethren wither right before their eyes. Originally they came to the badlands to mine mithril and brightstones. Now they use their mastery of stone to locate water and dig wells, which has granted them great wealth and political power.
15. Chromatic dwarves have three main sub-races. With eons of racial interaction and desolation of norms and values, they left the underground, abandoned their crafts, and let their forges grow cold. Unlike other dwarves, they are less serious and favor freedom over valor.
They often have a firm personal code, and tend to have less patience for matters that require discretion and preparation.
Azurn (Combat-oriented) are musclebound beardless aquatic dwarves with webbed hands and feet. They have black eyes, bluish gray sharklike skin, and thick black tendrils of hair.
They are somewhat savage and unsophisticated, and impulsive and mistrustful of most other races. This often manifests in open hostility, especially when they find themselves opposed.
Azurn are fiercely loyal to their friends, and have tribe-wide large and hedonistic feasts.
Rutilan (Magic-oriented) are a charismatic, proud, beautiful, well-groomed. They have shiny crimson skin, often ornamented by black tattoos. They wear refined clothing and spend a large amount on their appearance.
Their culture developed in volcanic and deserts areas, so they make excellent evokers, especially centered on fire magic.
Rutilans are a proud race who enjoy intelligent conversation perhaps almost as much as a good fight, and are often seen as fair and sometimes generous.
Veridin (Stealth-oriented) are a glib, dexterous, and deceitful race of gaunt dwarves having bark-like hair, blue-green skin, and unkempt, rugged facial features that help them to blend in with the marshes, forests, and jungles where they live.
They prefer swift and agile guerilla attacks. Due to their environment they have become immune to poisons. Their blood has actually become quite poisonous, an effect they quite expertly put to use.
If you have any creative ideas or wisdom you’d like to empart that would help others to roleplay (like this article), please send it to u so we can republish. We’ll link to your game (which might help you get new members).
Top image by Armandeo64 on DeviantArt (link).