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Whence D&D-style Dwarves?

CountMRVHS

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Just (finally) got around to watching the first installment in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. It got me thinking about Dwarves.

I go back and forth on these guys. When I'm world-building for a campaign or some fictional enterprise of my own, I am very strict about allowing non-humans in. Elves or Elf-clones are sometimes ok, but I will always try to twist them into something a bit different. Dwarves are right out. Why? Maybe including them seems just a bit too "traditional fantasy". There doesn't seem to be a ton of variety in how Dwarves are presented, even in different fantasy settings, whereas Elves will often get a different treatment.

But the Dwarves in The Hobbit film seemed... pretty damn cool! Part of it, I think, was simply that they didn't go overboard with the stockyness. If you've got a 3e PHB, check out Tordek - the proportions are rather exaggerated, and I just can't imagine playing a PC like that. PJ's Dwarves, though, are proportioned like most humans, just shorter - something that Tolkien I believe had in mind. And they're badass fighters - you take these guys seriously. Well, most of the time. They also guzzle beer and have belching contests.

That got me thinking about where some of these ideas about Dwarves came from. Apart from physical proportions, there are some other features that don't obviously come descended from Tolkien - notably the coarseness with which they are often portrayed.

So where do some of these Dwarven stereotypes come from, if not Tolkien? I guess I assumed D&D-style Dwarves were basically a copy-paste from Middle-earth, but apparently it's not as simple as that. Dwarves-as-rude, Dwarves-as-hopelessly-dour, Dwarves-as-beer-swillers, Dwarves-as-having-Scottish-accents(!), Dwarves-as-comic-relief - these are innovations, not easily found in Tolkien.

It occurs to me that Dwarves can be presented in a very different light, and one of the things I like about The Hobbit is seeing them taken seriously, at center stage, with real potential for heroism and deep mythology.

If you look back at Norse myth (where Tolkien got a lot of inspiration), Dwarves are made out of the blood and bones of giants, the enemies of mankind. Despite being basically on the giants' side in the cosmic order, many Dwarves (or Dwarfs, I guess) appear to be helping the gods and men, or at least forging the most epic weapons and gear. There is some great potential there, but even Tolkien didn't IMO really do too much with Dwarves in his worldbuilding. That left other writers and designers to fill in a void, and I'd argue that they haven't done a great deal of justice to the idea of Dwarves as a supernatural folk. I mean, if you look at Norse myth, there's no real reason Elves should have come out miles ahead in the awesomeness department - immortal, inhumanly beautiful, wise, fast, smart, strong - while Dwarves too often get to be the short fat drunken sidekick.

Where am I going with this? Who knows. Just curious about your thoughts on Dwarves, where they came from in the D&D cosmos (if there is such a thing), whether you like them as such, and especially if there are any house rules you make to make these guys live up to their potential. I'm working on some ideas of my own, maybe I'll post them if they ever get to a point of coherence.
 

Merth

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Dwarves have changed a lot since they were first featured in D&D. They were a lot more like Tolkien's work back then - small, hardy miners. But then they got taken up by fantasy pop culture, and became the strong, dumb, comical, coarse Scots of 3.X and the Tolkien films. The evolution of D&D itself played a part, where dwarves needed to be more strongly distinguished form Halflings and Gnomes. And Peter Jackson was making a Hollywood action movie, which pretty much require a comic tough guy.

Personally, I'd like a return to a more traditionally nordic spin on Dwarves - small, greedy smiths of the underworld. But then D&D would need to come up with a dumb course tough-guy race to fill a niche. On the same lines - when did Elves become a tall race, instead of small sylvan creatures? Same thing - they evolved to fill a game niche (lanky arrogant types) rather than reflect mythic sources. It's all about the interplay of D&D and pop culture.
 

CountMRVHS

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Actually, Tolkien's Elves were tall - taller than humans. Tolkien himself was rebelling against the Victorian (and no doubt slightly earlier) fairy tales that had Elves so small they could live under toadstools and the like. I believe in medieval lore, Elves were tall as well. So I don't know why D&D Elves are shorter than humans.

I've never read any Poul Anderson stuff myself... probably should.

I suppose you need to 'humanize' these non-human races in order for them to feel playable as PCs. (Though it's interesting what Pathfinder did with Gnomes - IIRC, they're sort of soulless borderline psychopaths!) Still, that Old Norse concept has a lot of coolness factor to it, which IMO the 'traditional' Dwarves lack. So I was glad to see them gain some coolness in The Hobbit- never mind that it completely runs counter to the way they were presented in the book!
 

YojimboC

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I've never read any Poul Anderson stuff myself... probably should.
Yes, you should. I recommend starting with The Broken Sword, but only because I haven't read Three Hearts and Three Lions yet (tho I'm told it has D&D trolls and a D&D paladin in it).

I hate (HATE) the Scottish thing. It's present in the Peter Jackson movies, and it's unfortunate. I've never understood Scottish dwarves. They're a Germanic myth, and Tolkien used Jewish people as inspiration for his dwarves. You'd think a Central or Eastern European accent would be the way to go. Why Scottish?

Speaking of Jews, look up the Khazars for inspiration in how to run some kickass dwarves. The Khazars used to beat up Vikings for fun. That's hard-fucking-core, man.
 

thedroid

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They're Scottish in the movie because they could easily cast Scottish actors to play them, and they could use their own accents. Hiring non-native-English speakers with Eastern European or Germanic accents would have been a lot harder, and making everyone do a foreign accent would have been a pain.
 

That Other Guy

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They're Scottish in the movie because they could easily cast Scottish actors to play them, and they could use their own accents. Hiring non-native-English speakers with Eastern European or Germanic accents would have been a lot harder, and making everyone do a foreign accent would have been a pain.
John Rhys-Davies isn't Scottish. He's Welsh.
 

Erik Sieurin

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There were Scottish-speaking dwarves in Warcraft II, which came out in 1995, six years before Rhys-Davies gave Gimli a Scottish accent.
 

CountMRVHS

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Speaking of Jews, look up the Khazars for inspiration in how to run some kickass dwarves. The Khazars used to beat up Vikings for fun. That's hard-fucking-core, man.
Huh, I never would have thought of that - knew the Khazars converted to Judaism, knew they were sorta West-Central Asian (NE of the Black Sea)... nothing beyond that. Any good sources on Khazar info?
 

UnknownCorrespondent

Grumpy Old Man
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There were Scottish-speaking dwarves in Warcraft II, which came out in 1995, six years before Rhys-Davies gave Gimli a Scottish accent.
And Bruenor Battlehammer had one in The Crystal Shard, published in '88. I don't remember if Flint Fireforge (first publication '84) did or not. I don't remember anyone I played with in college ('80-'85) using one for their dwarves.

I try to avoid Scottish dwarves now because it's so cliched. When I play one, I use a Fargo / Upper Peninsula hybrid accent ("Yah, you betcha"), since that is influenced by the Scandinavian languages. Historically, though, there was a strong Scndinavian presence in Scotland and northern England (part of which was called the Danelaw). If you equate Dwarven culture to Scandinavian, then it makes sense that those who have lived long among humans might have a similar accent, although it's not the only possible one.
 
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