Thursday, 19 September 2019

BEHOLD, THE UNDERMINER!

There's a challenge on the OSR discord to make new Dwarves. Now, I already changed how dwarves were in my original campaign setting. They were a race of sapient ape-people, more like Norse dwarves, named dwarves because of their dwarflike proportions. Size actually varies wildly. To take a break from having dwarves and humans being racist bastards like they are in most fantasy, I just made them comrades since the dawn of time. 

While changing a lot, it's not particularly interesting. That's fine for my home games- I want people to know what dwarves are when they look at the race list, after all. Save the weirdness for sasquatches and slugmen, and all that.

I think this take on dwarves is more in line with the spirit of the contest:


Every now and again, a person disappears. The ground beneath them is always torn up, but no other trace of them can be found. Just about any time people are hired to find out what happened, they come back empty handed. Some people say this is coincidence. Dragons, subterranean worm monsters and other monsters are responsible, surely.

This isn't true, and it's not fair either. True, dragons tend to make literal fortunes after being terrible to people weaker than them, but in this situation they're victims, same as us. People disappearing isn't the work of dragons. Dragons occasionally disappear under the same circumstances, and they blame us too. But if they were still here, they would all tell us that it wasn't any of us- it was the work of the dwarves, and this knowledge is what was their undoing.

Dwarves live underground for most of their lives, and so people don't really get that good a look at them. There's a lot that's speculated, but people generally accept that dwarves are shot human-looking guys with big beards and a thirst for alcohol.

That's what they want you to think. Well, the alcohol bit is real. But the rest is merely an illusion. Dwarves being terrible at magic and having absolutely no aptitude for it is exactly what they want you to think. In truth, the race of Dwarves long predates the races of men, elves and whatever else you have in your setting. They know magic, they wrote magic.

Why else would they be inherently magic resistant?

Dwarves really look like mole people, and they live under the ground. They have long since removed the need for physical labour in their society- why work, when you can have golems and elementals do it for you? While elves were making fire, dwarves discovered incantations to bind fire elementals to their will.

Of course, everything going fine in the only safe part of the underdark quickly led to boredom. Stories told of a land on the surface, and while too lazy to leave their caverns, many dwarves desired to see this overworld. Several diviners in their number prepared new clairvoyance spells, and ran them through hunks of crystal to see the brave new world with their own eyes.

Now, the highest in their society live in deep caverns, reverse skyscrapers. They observe the world through the finest quality crystal balls and subtly manipulate the world above through powerful enchantment magic. Nothing escapes the eyes of the Court of the Bat.

Dwarves have been guiding the development of the races above the earth for millennia, using enchantment magic and agents posted to the surface to ensure things go exactly the right way.

For that particular dwarf's vision, anyway.

They are not some incredibly organised force of evil. In fact, recent generations of dwarves (these past few centuries) have led the influencing of the surface world to get off the rails a bit. Discord brews in every dwarven building. Every dwarf has a vision for the surface world, and few correlate. One dwarf might wish to cause a war, while others prevent it. The resulting chaos means that while things are always seen by one of the dwarves below, it's not always going to be responded to or even remembered ten minutes later. Hell, the dwarf watching the PC do something might even approve.

The dwarves are also faced with a new problem: adaptation. The ancient invocations used to influence the minds of the mortals above are not as effective as they were two millennia ago. Dwarves constantly casting these spells every minute of every day for this length of time will do that. The spells don't always work anymore, and the dwarves are losing their grip on the surface world.

And as they can't micromanage the surface world as effectively any more, they can no longer be sure they silenced everyone who finds out the truth about the dwarves. Someone is going to find out. The secret is going to get out.

And there is going to be hell to pay when that happens.


Using This in a Game
In the above interpretation, the Dwarves are a decadent race, too proud to admit that their obsession with the surface world is causing them to live on borrowed time. They have neglected their own world in favour of manipulating the one above. Dwarven cities are mostly abandoned, but kept in excellent shape by the golems and elementals that work their jobs every day as usual.

Dwarves have also mostly forgotten the spells that their ancestors wrote. While most dwarves are still extremely high-level casters, spells outside of the Enchantment, Divination & Conjuration schools will be much less common among them. They are huge on spells that can hide things, make things appear different, plant suggestions in the heads of targets and modify memories. If a spell can theoretically be used to further the masquerade, chances are the Dwarves know it.

While most of the dwarves obsess over the surface world, a growing number simply don't care. Realising that their ancestors' obsession was just that, a movement to cease all interference with the surface world is gaining a following. These dwarves work on being as brilliant as their distant ancestors were, inventing new spells, finding a purpose in life that isn't messing up another person's, just to see what happens.
This group will almost certainly be what player-character dwarves belong to. Mechanically, PC dwarves use the same rules for whatever dwarves normally do in your D&D of choice, with a few notable exceptions: 
  • In games with race and class separate (like my game), if Dwarves couldn't already, they can be in magic-using classes. 
  • In games with race-as-class, the Dwarf PCs have at least limited spell ability, or may instead choose to apply the most important dwarf racial traits to a Wizard class instead, with a few drawbacks to roughly balance it out.  
  • Either way, Dwarves have an additional ability- ten minutes of uninterrupted ritual casting can put on a very convincing illusion of the kind of dwarf people believe they really look like, for about 24 hours or so. This isn't so much a racial ability, as a ritual that every dwarf child is taught at an extremely early age. Depending on your setting, it might be especially important to keep these illusions up, else you may be burned at the stake. 

My Thoughts
I'm glad I could finally think of something for one of these GLOG challenges!

I originally intended this to be "aliens but abducting you underground instead of upwards", and then I had a few epiphanies about dwarves' magic resistance and how they could plausibly have invented the crystal ball. I'm sure I'm not the first to think about these. In the end it's become a bit like an illuminati that has really lost sight of its original goals.

The obsession with observing the surface gives me a reason to have a decadent race of overlords, but I feel like it could also be a hamfisted screens = bad message, and I'm not convinced I like it. I'll probably tweak this a lot more before I get close to using it.