Most fantasy role-playing games stick close to Tolkien’s portrayal of elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs. While various FRPs have embellished elves, halflings, and orcs in one way or another, all dwarves are basically the same1.
Myth and literature provide a wider range of portrayals.
In Viking myth, from which Tolkien drew his version, four dwarves hold up the sky. They fell half-giants and demigods, build divine weapons like Mjolnir, and brew the Mead of Poetry. Original sources used the terms dwarfs (dvergar) and dark elves (svartalfar) interchangeably, and the lines between dwarfs, elves, trolls, and spirits of the dead are often blurred.
C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series had no elves, only dwarfs. In many cases Narnia’s dwarfs filled the same roles as Tolkien’s elves: keepers of ancient knowledge, legendary bowmen, guardians of nature.
Fairy tales like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Rumplestiltskin” cast dwarfs in various roles from kindly helpers to devilish tricksters.
A few FRPGs extend dwarves' roles to architects of civilization (Earthdawn), tech geniuses (Castle Falkenstein, Iron Kingdoms, Shadowrun), and space mercenaries (the Demiurg of Warhammer 40K). To keep them available as a player option, though, dwarves are more or less short mortals with resistances to certain things and adaptations to life underground.
If dwarves (and elves!) were mere “monsters”, what would they look like?
RuneQuest calls its elementals “gnomes”. Paracelsus used the term to refer to the “earth spirits” in his alchemical philosophy. L. Frank Baum added “Nomes” to his Oz series.
Let’s posit, then, that what humans call “dwarves” are intelligent, free-willed “gnomes” or earth elementals. In their native form they inhabit stone, through which they “swim”. However, by shaping loose earth and gravel they can assume the form of a small, grotesque caricature of a human being. With the right minerals they can approximate human coloration.
Surface-dwelling Dwarves might furtively help overwhelmed farmers with their chores. Those who prefer the depths, however, resent human intruders who would despoil their homes for shiny rocks. The Deep Dwarves start by trying to scare humans off with strange sounds and apparitions. In desperation the most powerful of them might wreck equipment, open sinkholes, or even collapse mines.
The Norsemen may have considered alfar (elves), dvergar (dwarfs), svartalfar (“black” elves), and dokkalfar (“dark” elves) as kindred beings. In modern terms, svartalfar are the same species as (ljot)alfar. English folktales include faerie who manifest as dwarf-like beings. (So do The Chronicles of Prydain, which is essentially Tolkien but Welsh.)
So let’s assume that dwarves are simply elves who live deep underground. (European folklore is full of “mine spirits”: kobolds, knockers, etc.)
Some powers they might have include:
- The ability to assume one of a few forms, notably a small grotesque humanoid. (Surface elves prefer handsome men, alluring maidens, or animals.)
- An ethereal form, maybe limited to moving through unhewm rock the way surface elves move through air.
- Faerie illusions and other tricks to scare off trespassers.
- Knowledge of gateways to a Faerie Underworld, where things really get weird.
Subjects who have taken the drug DMT have reported seeing “machine elves” in fractal or hyperdimensional space. Only slightly closer to our reality, the Mostali (dwarfs) of RuneQuest’s world of Glorantha are manufactured drones dedicated to repairing a “World Machine”. In Tunnels & Trolls’s Trollworld, the wizard Gristlegrim carved dwarves out of stone and then animated them; those dwarves carved and animated more dwarves, and so on. (The latest edition offers “Midgardian” dwarves as an option for players who don’t want to weigh 400 lbs.) The implied setting of Troika! assumes dwarves are not born but made, sometimes poorly.
“Manufactured” Dwarves may have the following properties:
- Natural armor and/or damage resistance due to their stony, metallic, or alchemical composition.
- A correspondingly higher weight and density, which explains why dwarves insist on over-engineering structures that have to bear their weight.
- Possibly a lack of internal organs, blood, or even centralized brains that could take “critical hits”.
- Other properties of constructs like not eating, breathing, or sleeping.
- An inability to heal without magical or alchemical assistance.
- Some kind of “programming”, e.g. serving their makers or performing a specific task, which may weaken as a Dwarf gets older and gains experience outside its hive.
In C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, “dwarfs” were the main quasi-human species. Vaguely defined nature spirits were the closest equivalent to elves. Dwarfs were “Sons of Earth”, in contrast to humans who were “Children of Adam”.2 At some point – I can’t cite a book or chapter – someone says that the more human a dwarf appears on the outside, the less human they are on the inside. (Which is kind of unfair.)
So, assuming that Dwarfs are the only “demi-human” species around, what characteristics would they have?
- Greater durability than humans, although nowhere near the same extent as Elemental or Machine elves.
- Potentially greater agility and speed commensurate with their proportional strength.
- A distinct lack of “underground” features like typical FRPG dwarves.
In essence, this sort of dwarf is essentially a short elf. While some humans might find them comical, their culture and civilization might pre-date humankind’s. Perhaps dwarves taught the first humans the arts of writing, agriculture, architecture, and government. Like Tolkien’s elves, these Dwarfs can be alternately merry and solemn, wise and foolish, transparent and inscrutable. They’re just not as pretty.3
One necessary question, though: how would they reproduce?
- They don’t; dwarves live forever unless killed, and their numbers will only decrease over time.
- Dwarfs simply emerge from the ground, perhaps in response to the death of another dwarf to keep their numbers constant.
- Dwarfs are hermaphroditic, despite their traditionally masculine appearance.
- Female dwarfs are nearly indistinguishable from male dwarfs, as Tolkien posited.
- Feminine-looking dwarfs do exist, as most D&D art depicts.
- Dwarfs are indeed exclusively male; they must take faerie (or human?) wives to propagate their species, as the dwarves in R. Talsorian’s Castle Falkenstein RPG do.
As mentioned above, in Norse mythology the dvergar and alfar had more power than humankind, albeit less than gods and giants. Their abilities might include:
- Immunity to aging, disease, and various ills mortal flesh is heir to.
- The ability to walk invisible and intangible among mortals.
- Access to their home realm of Svartalfheim/Nidhavellir, perhaps through specific locations in the mortal world.
- Mastery of metalsmithing and nearly every other craft, including runic magic.
- Phenomenal strength, in a few cases enough to hold up the sky.4
- Probably some other arbitrary abilities from Norse myth, such as dying curses.
These dvergar might resemble FRPG dwarfs: brusque, greedy, and often unscrupulous underground dwellers. Except they wouldn’t be mortal-level “monsters”. They’d be closer to demigods. Encountering a dverg (or two) would be the focus of an adventure, possibly a campaign.
WARNING: This link leads to a bottomless pit of tropes from which you will not escape. ↩︎
Let’s leave aside Lewis’s blatant Christian allegories for the moment. ↩︎
If a distinct species of elves exist in these Dwarfs' world, they could be insubstantial nature spirits, dryad-like beings, hostile primitives, or beautiful sociopaths. ↩︎
For “balance”, their phenomenal strength wouldn’t affect their bare-handed or weapon damage. Or maybe it would; I have an idea for using the “scale” rules of Everywhen, Open D6, and other systems to cap their weapon damage unless a Dwarf or other super-strong creature uses weapons scaled to their strength. A lesser weapon does lesser damage and probably breaks under the strain. Sadly, this footnote is too small to contain this idea. ↩︎