I was talking about halflings and concrete and it lead to this rattling around in my head.
The locations of dwarven cities rarely make sense on human maps, but on dwarven maps their positions tell the same story as human cities growing up around harbors and river forks. A dwarven city is carved out from stone, underground, in a location which is stable and strong, but also rich in the minerals and magics that Dwarves use to sustain themselves. Dwarven cities are vast, ordered metrolpolises where every space has been meticulously carved out an accounted for, and has its uses planned and detailed for the next hundred years. This precise balance allows for them to be virtually self-sustaining, requiring negligible contact with the surface. And that’s how they like it. Mostly.
The rub is that when most other folks think of dwarven cities, they have a very different image, one of a more traditional city, with magnificent stonework ruled by gruff, orderly folk. What most outsiders do not realize is that the city they see is, to the dwarves, the slums of the city below. It is where the outcasts and placeless are sent, to scratch out an existence, building their hovels (by deep dwarven standards) from the stone pulled out during the construction of the real city. The upper city will often take on the trappings of nobility of its surroundings, establishing a king and a court, but these are not dwarven titles, and they carry carry authority, but little respect. Even in the slums, order is an aspirational value for most Dwarves, so they buy into this model of rulership as an improvement over the alternative.
Despite this division, nothing truly exists in a vacuum. While there is usually only a single connection between the deep city and the upper city, some trade goes through it. The trade is solely between dwarves, and wrapped in ritual and rules, and it is all under the auspices that only “true” dwarven goods may change hands this way. In reality, it often turns out that the the upper dwarves provide a patina of legitimacy to goods from other nations by reworking them to be suitably “dwarfish”. As such, the most powerful of the lower dwarves enjoy luxuries forbidden to their citizens under the auspices of legitimate exchange, and the leaders of the Upper city keep a hold on the wealth that comes up from the lower city.
While it is a rare thing, a dwarf of great talent or virtue may earn a place in the Lower City, rejoining the “true” dwarves. This is a great honor, the golden ticket, and almost every dwarf (especially those who remember the Lower City fondly) dreams that someday they will make the cut, if only in death.
It a dream that inspires a lot of compliance among the populace, because a family’s status is part of the calculation, so the young dwarf who stains the family name is a real problem. The fact that this golden ticket is in the hands of the same folks propping up their power through their channel to the Lower City only helps reinforce this need to support the Status Quo, which has a lot to do with the dwarven reputation for being dour sticklers for the rules. A dwarf who isn’t a stickler will be socially punished by friends and family for fear of harming their chances, so most comply, though there are always a handful who leave.
These arrangements are sometimes problematic, and there have been schisms and disasters, these cities are largely very stable, lasting centuries at a time. However, every Dwarven city has an expiration date – at some point the lower city will simply be done. Resources will be tapped out, the reason for its existence with be gone. The currents of the earth may change. Assuming the expiration is not a violent one, the dwarves set out to find new steadings, places that may become cities someday. Much of this work is done underground, but upper dwarves may be called upon to scout the land above the steading to judge its readiness. In time, a steading will grow, and the populace of the lower city will migrate, abandoning the old city, and sealing off its connection to the upper world (often collapsing large parts of the city behind them).
This creates an interesting situation for the occupants of the old upper city. Losing the connection to the lower city is a blow to the dwarves living there. Practically, the loss of the support of the lower city weakens the leadership of the dwarves. Spiritually, it is a blow to the morale of most of the dwarves in the city, as there is no longer that lower city to aspire to. Politically, it means that a lot of the leverage that the leadership held has just slipped away.
At this point, things can go a couple different ways.
The first is civil war. This is exceedingly rare. Of the three documented occaisions of this, two ended in mutual destruction and the third resulted in the founding of the “wild” dwarven nation to the northeast.
The second and slightly more common is reclamation. Sometimes the dwarves of the upper city seek to claim the lower city for themselves. When this happens, it often takes on the characteristics of a crusade. To date, this has never been confirmed to go well. Usually it ends badly for the reclaimers – sometimes dramatically, but usually simply due to logistics. The Lower City was evacuated for a reason, and it simply can no longer support a populace. Of course, some reclamations have never been heard from again, so it’s possible they turned out well.
The last and most common outcome is the fading. The Dwarves remains, but their numbers dwindle with each generation. Usually, they go from being the dominant group in a city to being one among many, to being hardly there at all. Some of the empire’s greatest cities started out as Dwarven cities, though there is no record of those origins today (at least among humans). These are the dwarves most often encountered by other folk, and they are much of the basis for the idea that Dwarves are a race in decline.
Dwarven heroes come in many types, but they often have a strong relationship to their origin city, though the nature of that relationship may vary. Some have left the stifling order of it, others have been kicked out, still others seek to make a name for themselves in hopes of earning a place in the lower city.
- the lower city is usually the source of water for the upper city as well (directly or indirectly), usually via wells or other plumbing. The lower dwarves view most exiles as unfortunate necessities, not a death sentence, so they have no reason to be cruel. ↩
- Many upper cities have substantial undergrounds, but they stop well before the lower city begins. That said, there is no real reason for outsiders to be aware of this distinction, and dwarves do not make it in languages other than their own. it is not truly a secret, but the nature of the division is not widely known. ↩
- Burial in the Lower City is also a great honor in the upper city, though it might be less so if they were aware of the fact that the Lower City simply views it as “recycling” ↩