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A DM’s Guide To Dwarves

by Jae

Dwarves are one of the 9 basic race types for DnD. They’re a staple of fantasy and role playing, being as synonymous with high fantasy as Elves. But what makes a Dwarf a Dwarf? Whether you’re running Dwarven NPCs, managing Dwarf player characters, or setting up Dwarven civilizations, understanding the core aspects of Dwarves will help you run a better game. Let’s delve deeply into Dwarves!

What is a Dwarf?

Dwarves are short and stocky humanoids. While they are very similar in appearance to humans, their smaller stature and more muscular build set them apart physically. While they are short, they’re not super short by the standards of DnD races. Dwarves actually range between 4ft and 5ft tall! They’re medium creatures still, not small, and typically weigh 150lbs. Broad and compact, in terms of game rules they gain an additional 2 Constitution as a racial bonus and are heartier than many other races, with an HP boost that comes from a higher Con score.

Dwarves are also long lived. They can live to be 350 years old on average and are the third longest lived race of the basic 9, being beaten out by Gnomes and Elves. This long life should be noted by any DM, as it plays a big part in how societies and cultures form around any race. As we’ll see in a moment, the life span of a creature can also change its attitude about what a long time is and this can play into racial dynamics.

Dwarven Society

Dwarves as a race tend towards clans, kingdoms, family and tradition. If we look into pop culture’s portrayal of Dwarves we can see them carving out deep mountain homes, building up wealth, and telling tales of the greatness of their group or clan. Dwarves in DnD keep to a lot of the same reference points and we find Dwarves as a tight knit society that values treasure and craftsmanship while hating goblins and orcs as a primal core to them being Dwarves.

As opposed to the shorter lived races, Dwarven society tents towards long term massive projects. A Dwarven clan might live in a mountain home, but it will be ornately cared for and carved into a massive and impressive fortress. With the expansive life of a Dwarf and a close clan structure, any dwarf has a better chance of taking the necessary time to hone a skill or craft to master levels. This pairs nicely with their affinity for precious metals, jewels, and fine stonework that makes their homes even more impressive.

Another facet of Dwarven society is the invocation of ancestors. Ancestry is important to any race or society that uses clans as a base unit of structure. Your bloodline determines your clan and the great works of your ancestors are well remembered with a long life span. A young Dwarf might hear firsthand accounts of the first Dwarves in a fortress striking the earth and claiming a mountain for their own. Tales of their ancestors fighting off goblins and driving orcs from their caves may be only one or two generations removed and can be often talked about with a legendary clarity, enshrining Dwarven values into their heritage.

Dwarven Disposition

Dwarves are typically viewed or role played as surly curmudgeons. This is no accident. The PHB details that dwarves do not form friendships easily with others outside of their clans and are naturally weary of “short term” acquaintances. While the passage of time is a matter of perspective, it certainly can take a long time to win over the heart of a Dwarven companion. Coupled with this natural tendency to be grumpy, a Dwarf might also be seen as miserly, seeking an inordinate accumulation of wealth.

Interestingly, despite a grumpy or greedy nature, Dwarves are sought out for groups because they are also known for being incredibly loyal. Honor plays a big part in Dwarven psychology and drives them to commit to their word and follow through on things they set out to do.

Dwarven Adventurers

What drives a Dwarf to go on a journey? It could be many things. If you’re helping your players answer this question, it can be very open ended. But from the typical lore, they may be seeking treasure, glory, honor, vengeance, or perhaps they’re just following legends. Dwarves are one of the few basic playable races that offer a plethora of reasons to adventure as a core feature of their race. It’s certainly much more concrete than Elves or Humans.

Some good examples or reasons for a Dwarf to adventure:

  • Seeking to rid the land of Orcish infestations
  • Reclaiming a once lost mountain home from a dragon
  • Seeking a lost clan artifact
  • Establishing a new mine to bring wealth back to their home
  • Proving their worth to their clan to take a position of honor
  • Restoring their name after being cast out of their clan
  • Avenging a fallen family member
  • Retracing the steps of their ancestors on a sacred pilgrimage
  • Being hired to maintain armor and weapons on an expedition

As you can see, these are just a few very easy to create backgrounds for any Dwarf. Each of these easily fits with what we know about Dwarven society and supports the lore we have.

Subversion of Dwarven Archetypes

While there are a lot of good dwarf-y reasons to adventure, some Dwarves can and should be rebels. It’s very possible for their high-pressure clan structure to drive a few Dwarves to break the mold and seek to define themselves not by their clan, but instead by their own action. This simple subversion of rebelling against a strict clan structure can easily allow for fun story dynamics in your group and may even bring about plot points for Dwarven interactions later in the game.

While it is good to get an idea about cultures and societies in your game, it is also important to explore characters as individuals and not pigeon hole them based on their race. This is one of the biggest strengths of DnD and can give you and your players a fun way to explore some fantasy tropes and how they may affect your world and your story telling.

Dwarves by the Numbers

In DnD, Dwarves are a strong choice for new players; their Constitution increase makes them hearty and durable for combat and they are one of the more trope-heavy races when it comes to role playing. As a DM they make very strong NPC choices for similar reasons.

Dwarves get a variety of other bonuses as well. They have Darkvision, are poison resistant, gain extra tool, armor, and weapon proficiencies, and even have a race specific trait of Stonecunning – gaining proficiency in any Intelligence check on stonework. For all of this, their biggest drawback is a slight reduction in movement speed (25ft instead of 30ft), but even that is made up for in by taking no movement penalty for wearing heavy armor.

Through and through, Dwarf is a great choice for designing characters and NPCs with few drawbacks and great bonuses.

Dwarves in a Nutshell

While Dwarves might seem boring and trope-filled to some, these tropes and strong defining characteristics can be exactly what make them fun and useful in any DnD campaign. Understanding what makes a Dwarf tick and how their culture operates opens up a mental framework for you to reliably turn to in your game. By their very nature a Dwarven life drives adventure and high fantasy story telling. Now that you know the basics about Dwarves, go forth: Strike the earth!

Happy DMing!

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