Point/Counter-Point: Dwarves

I’m going to do a new thing, where I talk about why something is awesome, and then immediately talk about why it is terrible. When I talk about why something is awesome, I’m going to focus on why/how it could/should be awesome. When I talk about why it is terrible I’m going to focus on why, in practice, it often isn’t. I’m going to start with the standard PC races from Dungeons and Dragons, and I’m going to do them alphabetically. And so, without further adieu…

Why I Love Dwarves:

Dwarves are hearty, salt-of-the-earth type folk. They are the embodiment of honor, integrity, hard work, doing your homework before going out to play, eating all of your vegetables, and sticking up for your kid sister. You can have a lot of fun playing dwarves; they can be wise, brash, generous, greedy, disciplined, barbaric, even-tempered, or quick to anger. They generally seem pragmatic without being cynical. Dwarven gods kick ass. Dwarven weapons are awesome too; anyone who says that the idea of throwing big-ass hammers around or splitting skulls with giant axes doesn’t sound cool is a liar, and you shouldn’t leave them in your house alone because they will probably rifle through your drawers and steal your loose change and spare batteries. If you want to play a character who does whatever he does well, and takes pride in that fact, you should play a dwarf. Also: dwarves can see in the dark, which is pretty cool.

Why I Hate Dwarves:

People tend to latch on to a couple of dwarven stereotypes and then really cut loose with the melodrama. My least favorite of these is the tired “dwarves hate elves” cliche. This thing tends to rear its head right from the beginning of a game session where someone rolls up a dwarf and someone else rolls up an elf. This is often a two-way street, and these players decide their characters don’t like each other just “because.” Role-playing and personality development take a backseat to just sticking in a banal idea that you picked up from somewhere else. Congratulations: you rolled up a level one racist. I’m not saying you have to be Drizzt Do’Urden and Bruenor Battlehammer, but you shouldn’t start out by saying “I ain’t sharin a room with no tree-huggin elves!” just because “that’s how dwarves are.”

The other, equally popular and equally annoying one is the over-the-top alcoholic. These players make a point of letting you know that they are drinking at every opportunity. They feel like they should be able to drink constantly, act drunk, and suffer no mechanical consequences, because they think dwarves can drink a few gallons of hard liquor over the course of a day and still pass a field sobriety test.

These are the two big ones that really annoy me, but there are several other ways you can overplay certain aspects of being a dwarf while underplaying ignoring completely some other ways to make your particular dwarf interesting and unique.

There are a lot of ways you can play a dwarf, and you can even include a bit of alcoholism and racism if that makes sense for the character you envision. Just make sure you’re playing a character and not a caricature.


Please don’t take this as me saying “I know how to play such-and-such and other people don’t.” I’m just thinking back on my years of gaming and ranting about some recurring themes I’ve witnessed over the years. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t guilty, especially in my formative role-playing years, of doing everything I just bitched about.

10 thoughts on “Point/Counter-Point: Dwarves

  1. I was really hoping the counterpoint would open with “Travis, you ignorant slut.”
    Anyway I definitely have the same mixed feelings about dwarves in D&D. I do find it a little silly that they are 4′ tall and usually the strongest/most fightery demihuman…it just kind of seems strange. I have found them to be the most popular race for munchkin/powergamers in every edition other than 1e (where elves were the choice, sigh), and try not to hold it against them, but they are pretty much tricked out for dungeons in every regard and their one (ahem) shortcoming is that they are a little slower than the unarmored characters…as if anyone’s dwarf is ever unarmored anyway. Also if I hear anyone play a dwarf with a scottish accent, they are in for it.
    But who can read The Hobbit, Norse myths, Felix & Gotrek, etc. and not love dwarves?

    1. Mike, you ignorant slut:

      We didn’t use this term back then, but Dwarves were and still are the quintessential “tanks” of the Dungeons and Dragons game. I can’t fault a player too much for playing to the strengths of a given race/class combo, but I grew tired of seeing the same cardboard personalities over and over again, with the idea of role-playing a given race taking a backseat to the mechanical advantages that race gave (and yes, I agree that a Scottish accent makes this all the more unbearable). At my table, elves were the worst offenders when it came to this sort of thing on up into 2nd Edition, but I’ll deal with those pointy-eared bastards in my next Point/Counter-Point.

      1. Hah! Come to think of it 2e was way too good for elves too. So really I guess I found dwarves munchkiny in 3e+ (somewhat so in B/X too, they definitely got the best deal among demis). Looking forward to this series and like the other guy said, esp. interested in your views on halforcs.

  2. It’s true, dwarves are the quintessential dungeon delvers. Let’s not forget their ability to know cardinal directions and sense elevation changes underground. I’m playing a dwarf cleric in a homebrew PF game because I love dwarves and I love clerics and dwarf clerics kick ass. He’s also a follower of Cayden but is the least likely to be drinking at any point.

    He wears a silly musketeer hat and fights with rapier and buckler; somewhere between Gimli and Errol Flynn.

    To be fair any time someone plays an elf at our table there’s inappropriate banter about tree-hugging and androgyny from anyone who isn’t an elf.

    1. Dwarves certainly have a lot going for them when it comes to being underground, and they don’t have much of a downside since, as Mike pointed out, their lower movement is rarely a factor. Also, charisma is a pretty easy stat to ditch off on for that Constitution bonus. It looks like you have put quite a bit of original thought into your character, which is always nice to see. I feel like there should be more swashbuckling dwarves around gaming tables! Some general ribbing about elves or whatever is to be expected around any table. When it’s melodramatic, in character, and bogs things down for no real reason it bothers me. A little bit of friction between races that have a history of animosity is fine, but I tend to get annoyed when it’s a constant sticking point based on principal rather than any sort of in game influence.

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