On the Topic of Dwarves

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[1]. 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[2], 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.[3]

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.


  1. 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.  ↩
  2. 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.  ↩
  3. 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”  ↩

9 thoughts on “On the Topic of Dwarves

  1. Rob Donoghue Post author

    Dwarven Language reinforces this split but also keeps it internal to the culture. There are two different ways to say or write many words, like “city”, and intonation and emphasis determines whether it means upper or lower (or, in dwarven terms, real and fake). To an outsider, this can seem like a simple matter of accents, as the lower intonations are often perceived as “high class”, but in reality it’s one more tool used to reinforce the status of the upper city as lesser.

    Outsiders almost always learn “upper” dwarven, and while they may attempt to mimic an upper class accent, if they don’t actually understand the cultural significance of they’re intonation, it will almost certainly come across as false (at best) or mocking (at worst). Many dwarves, particularly those born outside the Deep City, never quite grasp the nuances of the lower tongue.

    Reply
  2. Rob Donoghue Post author

    Dwarven lifespan and Fertility rate are both fairly open ended questions. The very nature of the issue makes it difficult to study, but it seems that the energies of the deeps have a explicit biolgical effect on the dwarves, who live there, rendering them longer lived. It may also make them more fertile, but that is harder to measure. There is no documented case of a deep city having difficulty restoring its population after a great loss (such as a war or plague) but there are precious few records of these things, and there was a secondary population (the upper Dwarves) to draw on.

    It is also whispered that the deep dwarves are rather more different in more ways than culture. The magics that preserve and empower them also bring them closer to the Earth, making them hardier, reducing their need for food and water and so on. There is no real evidence to support this, though the existence of Azer suggests that it’s possible that it is a ture elemental affinity to earth (which has been somehow corrupted to fire in the Azer’s case). But Azer are crazy, and most dwarves deny any relationship, so there’s not a lot to be found there.

    An additional upshot of this is that Dwarves born on the surface are a rarity. Most of the population comes from below (a fact that has some other interesting implications, as the new arrivals have a lot of social and fiscal capital, but little position) so the birth of a child is a rare thing, one given a great deal of weight, both good and bad. Some view them as corrupted, born outside the depths, while others (usually their families) view them as blessed, untouched by whatever taint caused them to be cast out.

    This makes for an interesting childhood, and it is perhaps unsurprising that these children tend to either excel (in or out of the city) or burn out.

    Reply
  3. Rob Donoghue Post author

    There are few things in this world that can compare with a dwarven music hall.

    Dwarven music, *great* dwarven music (which, of course, means Lower dwarven music) is designed to be used underground. it is all low registers and deep percussion as the body of the work, with higher notes serving in percussion’s stead of providing more emphasis than sophistication. Dwarven music is designed to account for its own echo and resonance within a space, to be heard two or more times. The greatest Dwarven performers can layer their own echos seven deep, though there is but once concert hall in the upper world capable of supporting such a performance, and no known musicians capable of giving it. Underground, the space for such sound is magnificent, and has a religious quality to it. The lower city very nearly *thrums* with music.

    The music of the surface is a pale reflection of this at best. The concert halls are magnificent testimonies to dwarven engineering in that they at least come close, clsoe enough that they are one of the touchstones of dwarven culture, for a great piece of dwarven music is the closest that most of them will ever get to home. To other cultures, it seems over loud and overwrought, but the concert halls are the one place where there is no shame for a dwarf to cry like a child.

    This breeds in a disdain for the musical cultures of the surface that can be interpreted by some as artlessness, but it is sorrow. To a dwarf, a sound is something that *lives*. It leaves the singer or instrument on a journey, traveling and changing. Reducing that to mere notes is the equivalent of paint by numbers.

    But for all that, they cannot live without music, and while it may be lesser, it is better than nothing. Dwarves have a well known fondness for deep percussion which shows up everywhere. Other traditional dwarven instruments can be found in the deeper woodwinds and brass families, but those see little use on a daily basis – they are concert instruments, and need to at least be played indoors or they are simply wretched.

    The musical tradition that has emerged on the surface which has little basis in the lower city revolves around stringed instruments, usually plucked and often sophisticated in their construction. Whatever the details, it is an instrument capable of producing more than one note at a time, individually or in chords. Dwarves call this style of music “chasing”, for the performer sends each note chasing after the last, in the spirit of the living music. Traditionalists decry this style of music as tainted and likely to lead to other moral lapses (and reduce the chance of being allowed back) but for the kids, this is their music, and it’s not going anywhere.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I should note there is no way to convey what classical dwarven music sounds like, though if you have ever had a timpani rattle your sternum, you have felt hints of it.

      Dwarven street music, on the other hand, sounds like bluegrass – banjos, fiddles and guitars and lots of fast picking. They sound like Goat Rodeo.

      Reply
      1. Jess

        I imagine that Japanese taiko music would be an excellent sources of inspiration as well for Dwarven music as well, as the primary instrument is drums of various size, with other, higher-noted instruments interspersed for accent.
        This is amazing, by the way. I’ve always loved dwarves in settings and felt they often get shorted any real information on the finer nuances of their culture (which elves seem to get much more often). This makes my heart happy in ways that few things have. Thank you.

        Reply
  4. Rob Donoghue Post author

    Dwarves have a reputation as fierce warriors, though it is somewhat unearned. Dwarven cities are rarely located anywhere of strategically important to the surface world, but they do have to deal with any number of tyrants and raiders looking to pillage the imagined treasures of the dwarves, and that has a history of going poorly for the attackers. While some of this can be attributed to dwarven martial tradition (there are a lot of unpleasant things to deal with in the deeps) a lot more can be attributed to the quality of their defences – dwarven walls are built to last.

    Reply
  5. Pat Gamblin

    Loving this writeup. It’s reminding me of the dwarves of Discworld, with their Low King, something I was considering borrowing for the game I’m running right now, since it involves dwarves pretty heavily.

    Also liking the music part. I can imagine the feeling of this deep vibration felt in the bones as a party descends into the lower city section, a constant reminder of the power and weight of stone around them.

    Reply
  6. Jason Pitre

    Um, is blacksmithing actually a auditory performance art in the depths? Any high-dwarf can forge an axe, but when a master smith of the low city creates one, he creates light and music.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Jason Pitre Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.