Friday, May 7, 2010

In Defense of Dwarves


Pretty much every dwarf ever is this guy.

Confession time. Dwarves are far and away my favorite demi-human race. Their industriousness, their pragmatism, their vitality, their sturdiness, and their acceptance of technology in fantasy settings appeals to me on a visceral level. Given the choice, I'll always play a dwarf character in any setting, save for maybe Shadowrun. Shadowrun's about the only game where I simply can't abide demi-humans, but that's not what we're talking about here. What we are talking about is A: how much I love dwarves, B: why they're awesome, and C: why so many gamers seem to miss the point.
The answers to the first two questions are easy, so we'll deal with them first. A: A lot and B: Totally awesome. There, with that out of the way, we'll tackle the third and, frankly, trickier question. Okay gamers and gentle readers, lets talk. Seems there's a lot of powerful stereotypes about dwarves that we simply cannot dispel. Unfortunately, since there's no NAADP (National Association for the Advancement of Dwarven People), it's up to us to dispel these gross misconceptions. Now, this is a pretty tall order. Why? Well, because a lot of gamers, and game designers/publishers, are lazy and unimaginative. 

There, I said it. We are, on the whole, content to just accept the tropes set down for us by the first generation of elder-gamers and by the authors who inspired them. Now, there are strong exceptions to this. Iron Kingdoms has a great twist on dwarves, and, well...Did you know that Iron Kingdoms has a great twist on dwarves? It's true! Aside from them, well, I'm drawing a blank. Any other settings out there not feature dwarves who have retreated to their mountain fastnessees after an apocalyptic war with Elves tens-of-millions of years in the dim past? Please, enlighten me. "But, but...that's what dwarves do!" Do they? Do they really? That kind of thinking leads to our first stereotype, which is:

Every Dwarf is Gimli: 
Oh, noes! I can hear it now, "Gasp! How dare he say I miss the point! I've cosplayed Gimli over one-hundred times! I have eaten (more) Ramen (than usual) to afford the genuine replica Gimli movie axes from the back of the U.S. Cavalry catalogs to hang over my DVD collection! I've contributed numerous critiques and corrections to the Dwarf Wiki! I've even written love letters to (Jewel Saite/Summer Glau/Gerry Ryan/Scarlet Johansson/Milla Jovovich/et al) in ancient Khuzdul! I most certainly do get it!" Neckbeards will quiver in indignation, and a thousand thousand cheeto stained fingers will bend to their keyboards in righteous fury.

We have been stuck with Tolkien dwarves in every goddamned RPG and derivative, nine-thousand page, masturbatory fantasy novel by Roger McMaster Hickman-Weis for over sixty years now. All respect to Professor Tolkien and all, but It's getting old. Really old. Seriously, kids. Lord of the Rings is sixty years old now! Can't we have some sort of evolution away from the axe-swinging, beer-swilling, beard-wearing, mine-living, northern-European ruffian? Of course, none of this was helped in the slightest by Jonathan Rhys-Davies' simpering, boorish, comic-relief portrayal of Gimli in Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies which, in all fairness, wasn't entirely his fault. Those movies came out and every gamer worth his Crown Royal dice bag, me included, said fuck yes! That's how a dwarf should be played. You know what? We were wrong. Dead wrong. Gimli is a good start, sort of the ur-dwarf that all fantasy dwarves seem to have descended from. We need more though. More variety and some forward thinking when it comes to who and what dwarves are. If that happened, maybe we could get rid of:

Every Dwarf a Scotsman: Every dwarf that isn't Gimli, and many that are, are apparently just very short Scotsmen with drinking problems and anger management issues. Seriously? What the hell is with us, and when I say us I mean gamers and fantasy nerds in general, and the Scots? You know what, gamers? I'm going to drop some knowledge on you right here. Despite what Mel Gibson would have us believe, Scotsmen weren't the only hard-charging badasses to ever swing a sword. You know who else kicked a lot of ass back in the day? The Germans. And the Poles. And the Russians and the Turks and the Prussians and the French and probably a whole bunch of other people I'm forgetting. Hell, the old, old origins of dwarves before the likes of Tolkien and company got hold of them come from North Germanic Paganism, i.e. the bloody Vikings! I'm sick and tired of seeing dwarves portrayed as the fantasy analog of football hooligans who wear chainmail instead of Falkirk jerseys and throw axes instead of cups full of Boddingtons. So, do yourselves a favor gamers. Put away your utilikilt and your blu-ray of Braveheart and maybe, you know, come up with something other than a short dude in a kilt with a long beard for a character concept.

I Mine In My Mine and What's Mine is Mine: Okay, this one I get. It plays into what I love about dwarves, you know, being the best craftsmen and miners and stonemasons in the world. I guess I don't really have beef with this, it's just a little pat. You know, there are dwarf farmers and shepherds and scholars and priests and all manner of other dwarves who work their short little asses off to support the aforementioned beer swilling, axe-throwing churls. You know what I want to hear for once? A story about, say, a bunch of dwarven civil engineers rebuilding an ancient dwarven city. Or, well, anything except another rehashing of Gimli son of Gloin.

Dwarven Women Have Beards: They don't. Get over it.

Dwarves can't (ride horses/swim/use magic/stand elves/go a day without starting a bar fight, etc.): Oh really? Why not? Who says, your old red box D&D? Think about it. Dwarves can't be a single social and cultural unit in the same way that all Russians or Englishmen can't. Sure, they have certain cultural touchstones and racial memories, along with their long traditions, but surely not every dwarf thinks the same way on every given subject. Dragon Lance did a decent job with this, especially in the Dwarven Nations Trilogy (which you all should either have read already or need to immediately read. They're the best DL books hands down) where they showed all sorts of cultural differences between kinds of dwarves. These differences can be brought about by migration, isolation, or simply living in a different valley. Whatever the case, never assume that one dwarf is much the same as another. 

Whew, glad that's over. I guess I've gone on about this long enough. I'm sure I've missed a whole bunch of things to talk about regarding dwarves and their portrayal, but thems the breaks. Honestly it all comes down to personal preference. I prefer level-headed, pragmatic, mildly sardonic, law-abiding dwarves who are clannish, enjoy the comforts of home and hearth, are professionals at whatever they turn their hands to, and are as varied as any other race of people. If you want a dwarven society made up of drunken Gimli clones who sound like an enraged Sean Connery all. the damn. time. knock yourself out. Just, I don't know, have a look outside of your narrow fantasy worldview sometime and get a little perspective. You very well may like what you see. 

19 comments:

Sewicked said...

In one of our old D&D campaigns, one player had a dwarf PC. A monk dwarf PC. He loved his mines, his underground, mountains fastness, and his beer; but he used his hands and feet, not an axe or a hammer. That one touch brought him out of dwarf stereotype.

Although when our party met the lakedwelling; as in on a floating platform on a lake; he kept shuddering and muttering about unnatural dwarves. He was somewhat consoled when he learned that one of their wells brought forth beer.

Zorak said...

Who are you to tell us whether dwarven women have beards?

The dwarves in Joel Rosenberg's _The Guardians of the Flame_ series live underground, and some of them are berserkers, but they're culturally fairly chill, and definitely not in a cold war with the Elves.

Jason Marker said...

@Zorak - The final arbiter in all matters of taste, that's who. How many times do I have to tell you guys that?

-Mark said...

More seriously, though, Jason, what is a dwarf, then? You've described what you don't think a dwarf has to be, and that's great, but you've not really given anything positive except for "look at Iron Heroes"... and give me mental images of a Jewel Saite/Summer Glau/Jeri Ryan (l2s, noob)/Scarlet Johansson/Milla Jovovich pile-up.

1) No, every dwarf isn't Gimli. There's Nareen, from Rosenberg's "Guardians of the Flame" (as mentioned above, all of his dwarves are a rather interesting take on them). But if Gimli isn't a starting point, what do we have that defines dwarfishness?

2) Every dwarf isn't a Scotsman. Hard to argue with that stereotype. It's pretty well everywhere, especially in popular culture.

3) Dwarven miners. I get to this at the end.

4) Dwarven Women do have beards. If you disbelieve me, I'll post another song.

5) Dwarves can't.... well, some of them do, and some don't. I'll argue with the "don't swim" thing, though; there's biology and verisimilitude on that one. While well-padded individuals like myself don't have this problem, muscle is a lot denser than fat, and dwarves, on average, wind up weighing about what a human does. While they've usually got some liquid grain storage on them, they've seldom got the height-to-fat ratio that makes humans floatable. For a dwarf, you're looking at constantly fighting buoyancy to swim.

I think part of what it comes down to is that dwarves quite frequently don't have reasons for the way they are. Why do dwarves drink? The usual answer is "'cause they do." Why do dwarves mine? "'Cause they do?" It's not until you sit down and come up with a set of reasons... historical, anthropologic, and sociologic... that you get a reasonable set of dwarves. If you have to fall back on "'cause they're dwarves", you get stereotypes. If you look at who the dwarves are, then you have to go beyond the stereotype to develop them. But the problem is that dwarves are seldom main characters... they're seldom the ones getting character development. They're bit parts, and thus wind up stereotypes. When you get in-depth with dwarves, you get good dwarves... just like when you get in-depth with elves, you get good elves, and when you get in-depth with minotaurs, you get good minotaurs.

Jason Richards said...

Did Mark just post a "black guys can't swim" argument and then do a search and replace? Really?

-Mark said...

Uh, no. I've never heard that one in relation to black guys, and even if you used that logic, you're still dealing with 250#/6' tall v. 250#/4' tall.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna give Jason M. a HELL YEA here.

I've fought fantasy stereotyping since high school, be it All Dwarves Are Gimli, All Elves Are Legolas, or All Paladins Are Lawful Stupid. I usually get hassled for my trouble. "What? A Dwarfen crossbowman sharpshooter with a "hot shot kid" mentality? My brain can not accept!"

My "favorite" stereotype is "All Dwarves use Battleaxes". Okay, folks, trivia time! How many of Tolkien's main character dwarves used an axe? ONE. Gimli. (well, maybe there were more in Simarillion, I can't remember) Thorin and company all used *swords*, Thorin an elvin longsword "Orcrist the goblin cleaver". (Yea, I'm a total geek. Eat it.) But anyway, give your Dwarf a longsword and people scream blasphemy.

-Jack...

A.L. said...

Not to be a dick Mark, but I'm going to trump your physics with "magic works in those worlds, so physics is already broken" on the dwarves swimming thing. ;)

Honestly though I agree with this post. There is a lot more to do than just Tolkien style dwarves. In a game I am currently running, based solely on a comment about how Elves are always in the woods and Dwarves are always in the mountains I shook it up. I put the Elves in the mountains, they're still "elves" in a lot of ways (long lives, musically inclined, perfectionists, etc) but they live in mountains and that has changed part of their lives. The dwarves for their part have moved out onto the ocean, and live on marvels of technology and enchantment called the Floating cities. They have a caste system for how they live, and do a great job working as middle men in trade. While still being dwarves with the craftsmanship, and the fighting (caravans need guards after all).

The results have been rather spectacular I'd think. The dwarf player particularly loves the "I'm not from the mountains" bit of things, and it led to the Elf player making an Elven Woodsman specifically because it would be 'weird' in a world with the Elves in the mountains.

(For those wondering, a tribe of humans live in the forests, in cities similar to the Merry Men's tree village in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)

The point I'm making is that moving them can work. There is no necessary structure you have to use. You can keep some of the norms (short, stout, strong, hearty) and still change things around them to keep them fresh.

Jason Marker said...

Know who else had awesome dwarves? Dark Sun! Sadly, I'm apparently the only person ever to like that setting.

If we're talking fantasy books in general, Pratchett's Discworld dwarves always crack me up. He uses the standard stereotypes to skewer the hell out of those very same stereotypes, and his most developed dwarven character is an alchemist and the Discworld equivalent of a CIS detective/forensic investigator. She's a lightweight drinker, can't stand mining, and is more a danger to herself than others with an axe in her hand. How's that for turning everything on its head? If you want a good dwarf-centric story in Pratchett read "The Fifth Elephant".

-Mark said...

Yeah, A.L., the "magic works so physics is broken" is the worst argument I've heard. Objects fall, so gravity isn't broken. Ships float, so buoyancy isn't broken. Dwarves are, in most cases, considered to be fairly natural biological creatures, which means that, in the absence of explicit magical effects, I tend to expect them to follow fairly normal science... including reasonable buoyancy.

And Dark Sun dwarves are awesome, but I tend to think of most Dark Sun races as being the normal D&D races with one of their traits turned into a psychosis. Halflings prefer to stay at home and eat... so they've become xenophobic cannibals. Elves tend to be aloof from other races... so they're paranoid and clannish, "testing" everyone until they're sure about them. Everyone tends to forget about gnomes, so they're all dead. And dwarves like work, so they become obsessive workers who become undead if they fail to complete their task.

And I'm disappointed. Apparently, "Baby Got Beard" did not get printed over here.

A.L. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.L. said...

Ok, that is written horribly. So going to try and re-explain it here.

Every phenomenon you listed as an argument for using real world physics can also be explained with Aristotle's physics based on the 5 elements (Wind, Water, Fire, Earth, Ether). Which basically said that everything had a natural place in the world, and would do what it could to go back to its natural place.

This explains things falling, because things with as much earth in them as most objects naturally want to be below air. So when you drop off a place, the earth in you would want to be below the air and would pull you down.

It can generally, with a bit of thought, explain things just as well in a fantasy universe as normal physics. Usually with less thought required because of all the math involved in our science as well.

That being said, my main argument is that in the worlds you run your argument can be totally valid. Your worlds can have density and buoyancy exist and work like normal. That is fine. However saying that all worlds use the same rules, when so much is already completely different (Dragons, magic, elves, dwarves) is an equally invalid argument as you claim mine of "magic, so not physics" is.

Which basically means, some worlds will have dwarves sink because of buoyancy issues. However, that does not have to be the case, which is what the original author was pointing out. You are making a fantasy world, that means you can rewrite the rules. So why don't more people do that instead of staying married to a 60 year old standard?

Again, I apologize for the double post. But I really don't feel I was speaking clear English before.

-Mark said...

Because, as I said, it comes back to verisimilitude. Some game worlds go by on completely redefining physics; Ars Magica works in that way, with the physics of the middle ages being the physics of the game. However, most game worlds do not, and while you CAN redefine the physics of the world to work in an Aristotelian manner, and even come up with a reason why Aristotelian physics don't dictate that dense dwarves will sink, the question comes back to "Is it worth it to do so"? What do you GAIN from dwarves who swim? What's the gain from redefining physics in this way, for what you want to accomplish, and is it worth the loss in instant understandability to the people you're writing for?

When talking about dwarf culture, you can gain a lot. Looking at the dwarves, consider how they work and making a few changes to their lifestyle gives you a leg up in the idea that these dwarves are different. When people have to check, not their understanding of dwarves, but their understanding of basic world-use issues, it becomes more of an issue. "If dwarves float, what about armadillos?"

Rewriting physics is, IMO, a fairly low-yield proposition. Unless you're shooting for something very specific (like Discworld or Mythic Europe), it's usually a losing proposition. If your sole reason for doing it is "So my dwarves will be different"... then maybe you need another reason

A.L. said...

You say most game worlds do not rewrite physics. But I've seen very few game systems actually say physics works like in the real world. Now granted you can make an argument that since it is not said, you can assume otherwise. But there is still evidence that that can't always be taken for granted. Especially when other things don't add up, because core factors that would impact it are different. yes, I am going back to magic working so physics doesn't work. but the fact of the matter is, if Magic works, most things we have in our world don't necessarily have to exist. In fact, some core fundamental things need to be different, otherwise magic would work in our world.

I also disagree with you on the "if dwarves float, then understanding is lost". A humanoid race can swim, you neither lose nor gain anything from this aside from a specific race swimming. Can an armadillo float? I don't know, I'll come to that one when a player asks me it for the world. I don't see where most people, unless they were specifically looking to argue something would ask that.

So really, I don't see how "btw, dwarves can swim" changes your world use issues. Especially when we are accepting that something as big as a Dragon can fly with wings of that size, and breathe fire. That a race of people, can live for a thousand years, see in the dark, and don't have to sleep like normal people while still being biologically compatible with your average human being can exist, and the offspring is still fertile.

There are dozens if not hundreds of things that are non-magical in Fantasy worlds that are significantly different from our world that is simply being accepted. (Once again, the existence of dwarves in general is a significant difference). So why draw the line at buoyancy when you are allowing it to slide at genetics and almost every other part?

World use can survive just fine without complicating things with science like buoyancy.

Though, I suppose I'll ask you a question for this, breaking away from the "fictional fluff" of a world to the mechanics of a game. A dwarf is roughly what, 5'4 and probably weighs about 250-300 pounds of presumably mostly muscle. They can't swim because of buoyancy. However, in that same game, I can make a 5'4 300 pound of raw muscle human who can swim. What is the difference? One is human, one is a dwarf. Otherwise they're about the same. By your argument, the world should have a rule for density stopping the swimming of all people beyond a density of X. Only, they don't, because doing so would over complicate everything. Being arbitrary is perfectly fine, however what do you lose by being arbitrary 5 steps to the left instead of 5 steps to the right?

A.L. said...

Oh, btw. I did some checking. Armadillos can swim.

https://www.msu.edu/~nixonjos/armadillo/facts.html

valtlord said...

I agree with you almost entirely.
I think that the racial stereotypes of dwarves and elves have gotten ridiculous. I especially hate the prevalence of dwarves with scottish accents. I have seen a few interesting dwarf ideas, including a dwarf who designed ladies formal wear (out of the hides of particular nasty monsters, but that's neither here nor there). I think that abandoning ALL of the standard patterns for dwarves makes a character that most players won't accept, but that adding one or two simple quirks (a dwarf who abstains from alcohol, a dwarf who shaves all his facial hair, a dwarf who speaks in an effete British accent) makes the character stand out enough to not be 'just another dwarf.'

But on the issue of dwarf women and beards, I always thought it was similar to human men and beards: they can grow them, but some choose not to. Like human women, some dwarf men prefer them and some do not. But that's just my opinion.

-Mark said...

Personally, I find 5'4" to be tall for a dwarf; I would probably say that a similarly proportioned human, however, would have the same trouble swimming.

Clay said...

Well said!
I've been having rather a lot of fun with a dwarven character I've just begun playing. The background is D&D-derived like so many other things, with most of the usual assumptions about Dwarves (except that their culture is a bit more isolationist and traditionalist than the usual default, akin to Mennonites in some ways). However, rather than the standard axe-wielding warrior, he's a scholar, specializing in the history of architecture, whose only "weapon" is a traditional Dwarven surveying staff. Rather than getting drunk and picking fights, his usual response to most situations (including, in some cases, pitched battles) is to start sketching the cornices and giving lectures on the layout of courtyards.
He's a fun change from the standard Generic Dwarf, and also, for once, a character who has an actual, legitimate reason to go wandering around in the monster-infested underground ruins so beloved of traditional adventurers - he's surveying them for his next book.

Zac in CA said...

I kind of like the stereotype, provided the writing is good and each element is made clearly essential to the whole.

Tolkien's dwarves have a really harsh language, so a rough accent makes sense. And yet, they don't get rowdy-drunk. They fight like the Dickens, yeah, but most Tolkien characters are a little stiff in general.

That's all I got.