Previously I spoke briefly about the basics of the races of D&D. Now, I wanted to do something special with my setting; I wanted to keep the races familiar, but with a twist. Something to make them stand out, but not wanting it to feel arbitrarily tacked on in an attempt to shoehorn interestingness into them.
The dwarves presented an interesting challenge, as they are such a stalwart fantasy race, with such an established image, and this whole stigma attached to them of being obsessed with beards, axes, gold and beer; it's arguable that many games have existed where an axe-wielding dwarven warrior who is immensely proud of his facial hair and almost constantly drunk has been the centre of attention at the table. Now, I'm not saying I don't like the idea of the dwarven warrior with his axe; it's one of those iconic images (harking back to Gimli from The Lord of the Rings), but it doesn't have to define the race. I'm not against them having a cultural relationship with beer or gold, but again; do they need to define the race? I think what I'm railing against so much is the "race of hats" ideology that crops up in sci-fi and fantasy so often. Again, referencing Eberron, they included this idea that the "Dragonmarked House Kundarak", the Dwarven Dragonmarked house, was in charge of banks and loans and finances (and associated security) within the continent of Khorvaire. I like this idea that dwarves are involved in accounting, and it may be something I incorporate.
So, what do I think are important aspects of the dwarven race, considering the abilities they're given in D&D? First and foremost; they're granted an increased Constitution (the value by which their health, hardiness and physical fortitude are measured) but a decreased Charisma (the value by which their interpersonal skills and force of personality are measured), suggesting physical toughness, but a guarded, brusque or blunt manner. Despite being smaller than humans and as such, slower, they're not slowed by heavier armour or loads, and they are given "darkvision" the ability to see in black and white in dark environments, which ties into the concept of them living underground, and as such, I see this as possibly the most important aspect of the dwarven race. They live underground, but why? There are ancient eldritch horrors and cruel humanoid races in the depths of Fold... Perhaps they evolved to where they are from an earlier lifeform? In connection to my world's creation story (more on this later), dwarves are derived from giants; specifically bred to be smaller without sacrificing too much strength, to venture into the deepest caverns to mine ore for the giants, which brings me to the next point; they have this affinity for working stone and metal, even the ability to detect unusual stone workings (such as hidden stone doors, stone-based traps etc.) and can even determine how deep underground they are as easily as a human can tell which way 'up' is. I went about thinking 'How do they do this? What kind of biological advantage would provide this kind of "sixth sense"?' This lead me to thinking about about fish, who have sensory receptors that detect electrical fields of other creatures in the water, and the barbels (the fleshy whiskers) on some species of bottom-feeding fish, such as catfish and the plecostomus species, and how these sometimes appear as a moustache and/or beard on these creatures. Plus I'd been watching a lot of Farscape at the time... And as such, my dwarves lost the iconic beard and gained barbels (tipped with some hairs), which grant them the ability to notice subtle changes in electromagnetic fields, even granting their own minor magnetic field (which can explain their racial bonus to resisting certain spell effects). And there we have it, we have the appearance of my dwarves. Though, this is still in its R&D stages, and being refined as a visual.
Now, culture, where to take this? The "planet of hats" preconception for dwarves is one of a race of loutish, blunt, beer-swilling, bearded brawlers with a severe hatred of goblins. Now, the D&D 3.5e sourcebook "Races of Stone", goes into some detail concerning dwarven culture and psychology, but I know not every D&D player will either own or have read this fully. Suffice to say, the entries regarding the dwarves have inspired some thoughts. First, I want to focus on their underground life, and how this would affect a society. First and foremost; clothing, without access to flax for linen, cotton plants and probably sheep fleeces, they're very limited in terms of materials. Races of Stone posits the use of underground roots and similar plants, probably leading to hardy but rough and uncomfortable articles, and also the use of fungi to make a kind of silk, which I find a little far-fetched (even for fantasy), however, I've no doubt that underground there is a plentiful supply of cocoon-spinning grubs from which silk could be derived, as well as the cured or tanned hides of various beings, such as reptiles and moles. Clothing would ostensibly be practical and hard-wearing, as an underground lifestyle would lead to a neglect of finery (dark, possibly damp conditions, potential hazards that would damage such items), probably sticking to muted earth tones, and colours that matched the type of stone they live near.
Second, I want to touch on the 'boozing' aspect of dwarven culture; I'm not saying that I don't agree with the idea of them being fond of drinking regularly, but it shouldn't be the defining characteristic. Also, where does an underground race get malted barley and hops from? As such, I turned to a throwaway gag from Dragon Age: Origins, made when Oghren the dwarf berserker you meet tells you about how much he loves surfacer beer, marveling at beer made from wheat, commenting on how beer in Orzammar (a grand dwarven city) is made from fungus. Beers, wines and spirits made from fungi, molds and subterranean plants all the way, and in a culture that drinks to celebrate another day ending, which leads to my next idea.
The dwarves are a race of dichotomies; they're immensely serious and prideful workers but as soon as the working day is over they like to unwind in large social groups, with communal bathhouses. They're also incredibly withdrawn around strangers or outsiders, but share openly with close family and friends, making them strangely gregarious and sociable, but they are oddly guarded about themselves as a result of their lack of personal privacy. And, either because of these close familial bonds, or the bonds resulted from this, the dwarves place a lot of honour on veneration of your ancestral line, and the 'collective' ancestral concept of the Forge Father, a deified figure connected to their love of crafting and the protection of the home; telling of the dwarves' lack of any traditional kind of god, even before Godfall. Dwarven homes are often, but not always, a married or bonded couple working in tandem, with one living as a breadwinner and the other as 'homekeeper', but this isn't exclusively a male-female divide. The breadwinner will often be working in the forges or mines, or as a warrior or sage, while the homekeeper obviously maintains the home (seen as an honourable deed owing to the cultural emphasis on family) but is also in charge of finances. No household has two breadwinners, for that is the highest taboo. Dwarven education is often undertaken by the homekeeper, but is also publically provided by the clergy in their communities, as well as some scholars and genealogists (frequently Bards and Archivists), and sometimes even Wizards and Druids.
Dwarven weapon selections are unusual given their underground lives. The favoured weapons of warriors are various kinds of axe, though spears are sometimes preferred. Axes are typically seen as tools for chopping wood, and require space to swing, so would be unsuitable in confined tunnels, which is where spears can be more useful. That said, the caverns beneath the surface are often vast and spacious, and one weapon overcomes this; the urgrosh, a combined axe and spear. Hammers are seen as a little more sensible, being favoured by their Clerics and priests, something of a metaphor in their positions as teachers, as hammers are tools frequently used by carvers, sculptors and smiths.
In dwarven society, life is regimented into 'classes'. I will admit now, I have taken a lot of inspiration from Dragon Age for this, as while the dwarves in this were visually very dull (short humans with big noses), their culture fascinated me. In Dragon Age, the dwarves are born into their caste (Noble, Merchant, Warrior, Smith, Scholar, Casteless and Surfacer) and their children share their caste. If a Warrior were to marry a Noble and produce a child, the child would share the caste of the parent with the same sex (Noble mother, Noble daughter, etc). I wanted something similar, but different for my dwarves. There's a caste system, in that certain jobs and professions are regarded more highly than others. There is no caste that is seen as being 'scum' or worthless; everyone has a place within society.
The dwarves weren't actually seen by humans until a century or two into the Age of Mortals, and not until some exploration into the subterranean caverns of the world unearthed giant statues with an abstract and highly geometric interpretation of bearded, stout humanoids. Further expeditions revealed vistas and cities designed in a similar fashion, from the very stone itself, before eventually the first contact was made. Initial reports listed dwarves as being bearded, hence numerous jokes regarding facial hair as opposed to their actual barbels. Now, they are frequently found on the surface, usually as industrial workers, traveling merchants, mercenaries or 'guards-for-hire' or representatives of dwarven trade families.