Looking for a fresh take on dwarves that’s still mostly compatible with standard dungeon fantasy RPG adventures and rulesets? Look no further.
All dwarves have bright, colorful multifaceted eyes that shine in the dark, and stony skin ranging in color from gray to tan to granite. Hair is generally black, gray, or white, but sometimes it does have subtle touches of red or brown. (Eye, skin, and hair color vary from clan to clan, but tend to be similar within the same region.) There are three types of dwarf: Queen Mother, stud, and worker.
Each dwarf clan has a single female, the Queen Mother. The Queen Mother is enormously fat, with a humanoid upper body and a lower body like a giant slug. With each passing year, she grows larger. Her voluminous beard is often in excess of 15 feet long, adorned in jewelry, and constantly groomed by her attendants. (In contrast, the top of her head is usually shaved bald.) Her arms are quite weak and she is incapable of moving around on her own, but she is blessed with divine magic from the greater dwarven gods. The Queen Mother herself is worshiped by the clan as a minor deity. (However, she is not generally capable of granting divine power. Dwarven clerics get their power from the greater dwarven gods.) In dwarf culture, an insult against one’s own Queen Mother is unforgivable, and any dwarf who hears is obligated to hunt down and kill the offender by any means necessary. When very drunk and among members of their own clan, dwarves enjoy circulating witty insults about the Queen Mothers of other clans, calling them ugly, old, stupid, or skinny. On rare occasion, two wasted dwarves (or groups of dwarves) from rival clans will engage in back-and-forth Queen Mother-bashing, escalating in harshness till the inevitable fight to the death.
From clan to clan, the demeanor of the Queen Mother varies considerably. Some are critical and patronizing, while others are warm and matronly and try very hard to remember the names of all their many children.
The Queen Mother is attended by a harem of male dwarves (called studs), usually between six and two dozen at a time. A stud has three roles: servant, advisor, and mate. Studs are almost human height, and completely hairless head to chin to toe. Once married to a Queen Mother they are tattooed across the face with her emblem. Married studs are rarely seen outside the Queen Mother’s chambers, and almost never speak directly to worker dwarves or outsiders. Their considerable influence comes exclusively through their ability to sway the Queen Mother’s opinions. As such they tend to be both ambitious and sycophantic, competing with each other for the Queen Mother’s affection and the power that comes with it. (There are exceptions, however, especially among older studs who have grown tired of politics.) Studs are exceedingly vain, clothing themselves in the finest linens and jewelry they can obtain.
The vast majority of dwarves are workers. Except for their stone-colored skin and shining multifaceted eyes they resemble standard Tolkien-esque dwarves: short, stocky, and bearded. From a reproductive standpoint workers are effectively sexless, but in the broader world they usually identify as male, due to their beards and deep voices.
Once a year, the Queen Mother lays a clutch of translucent, gem-like eggs, each about the size of a golf ball. These are attended by the Nurses’ Guild, kept under perfect incubation conditions. (Otherwise the eggs tend to go sterile, though some claim it is possible to keep a dwarf egg dormant and viable indefinitely. Stolen or found dwarf eggs are often kept in the treasure hoards of other races, much to the disgust and insult of dwarves.) After a few weeks the eggs hatch into eyeless maggot-like larvae. During this stage they consume rocks, minerals, gems, and ale; and must have access to these in the right proportions to stay healthy. When they’ve grown to around the size of a large sack of grain, they form a rock-hard cocoon. A few months later, nurses break open the cocoons with pickaxes and chisels, freeing fully-bearded dwarf children. (It is theorized that before metal tools existed, nurses would roll the cocoons off cliffs, leading to a much higher infant mortality rate. Some curmudgeonly dwarves advocate doing this today, to filter out the wimps.) The children spend a few years in school before each is presented to the Queen Mother to be assigned to a guild (in which he normally works the rest of his life).
Each guild is headed by one or more priests who are also exceptionally skilled in the guild’s trade. Most guilds focus on mining or craftsmanship and work primarily within the clanhome, but the work of some guilds branches out into neighboring human or halfling settlements. Others (e.g. Explorers’ Guilds) travel extensively, scouting, trading, and forming diplomatic relations on behalf of the clan. All this, as well as the details of how labor is divided into guilds, varies considerably from clan to clan. Some are nearly merged with nearby non-dwarf settlements, while many are reclusive and secretive, preferring to remain isolated from the non-dwarven world. It is not unheard-of for a thriving, millennia-old subterranean dwarven civilization to be discovered within just a few miles of a human settlement, much to the surprise of the humans and annoyance of the dwarves.
All worker dwarves contribute to the clan’s defense in times of crisis. In addition, most clans have one or more guilds of full-time warriors, tacticians, or guardians. The Queen Mother is protected by her studs as well as a complement of shield-bearing battlepriests. Dwarves avoid getting entangled in regional conflicts, and never use war to claim new territory. They fight only to defend their own.
Among the workers in a clan all property is communal, though for practical purposes they do keep a few personal items, especially weapons. Though dwarves are famously greedy, they are greedy on behalf of their clan, not for individual gain. A clan’s treasure is spread among many small, well-hidden vaults scattered throughout the clanhome. Any given worker might know the location of only one or two. Even most studs don’t know of all of them. Some vaults may be forgotten by a clan entirely.
A new dwarf’s type/gender is only identifiable when it emerges from its cocoon. A newly-emerged stud is given the best formal education possible, then sent out with a party of diplomats to be married off to a another clan’s Queen Mother, thus forming or renewing an alliance. (Queen Mothers of powerful, well-established clans can be quite choosy, so the group may need to travel for some time before making a match.) When a stud is accepted into the Queen Mother’s harem, her emblem is tattooed across his face, and the other diplomats return to their home clan. A newly-emerged Queen (not yet called Mother) is taken with a specially-chosen band of workers to start a new daughter clan. New clans often fail, either because the fragile young Queen dies in transit, or because they cannot secure a new home fast enough to ward off attackers. Workers attend the Queen until at least one stud is married in. (Generally she will accept the first suitor that arrives, unless the new clan is unusually well-situated or has many suitors to choose from.)
From time to time (the interval varies considerably, from a few years to centuries), a replacement Queen is born. As soon as the clutch containing the to-be Queen is laid, the gods revoke their divine power from the current Queen Mother. The moment the worker dwarves learn of this, they take up arms and begin shouting in unison, violently driving all studs out of the clanhome forever and discarding the still-living ex-Queen Mother (who they now view as an empty, useless husk) somewhere just outside the clanhome, anywhere that’s convenient and more or less sanitary. On very rare occasions banished studs manage to make successful new lives for themselves in the greater world, but more often they live as beggars until they soon die. Many commit suicide when they realize the Queen Mother has lost divine favor. The abandoned ex-Queen Mother, immobile and defenseless, is usually eaten by scavengers. The clan then eagerly awaits the growth of the new Queen (who will not be identifiable until she emerges from the cocoon), and in the meantime puts out word to other clans that they will be seeking suitors. The new Queen is considered a reincarnation of the old, though she does not possess the old Queen Mother’s memories or mannerisms. Any dwarves born of a former Queen Mother (or the Queen Mother of a parent clan) are considered Elders.
Queen Mothers are expected to perform miracles daily (e.g. healing the sick) to prove that they still possess the divine favor. Rarely, ex-Queen Mothers and their harems conspire to remain in power by performing false miracles, perhaps with the assistance of magic items or human sorcerers disguised as studs. (Dwarves themselves are not capable of arcane magic.) However, a Queen Mother lacking divine favor will bear many sickly or disfigured offspring.
If an active Queen Mother dies and leaves living eggs or larvae, one of these will be blessed by the greater dwarven gods and become the new Queen Mother. If an active Queen Mother dies leaving no eggs or larvae, or if all eggs and larvae are destroyed before a new Queen Mother emerges, the clan cannot survive. (In any case, her studs are still driven out and her corpse dumped any old place.) With no Queen Mother and no hope for the clan’s future, some workers choose to live out their natural lives in the clanhome, while others become free dwarves (see below).
When dwarves emerge from their cocoons they lose the ability to consume whole rocks, and instead eat a diet consisting mostly of meat, mushrooms, and dairy (all of which they raise within their underground clanhomes). They do, however, sprinkle their food with grit, mostly for the flavor. (Some claim it aids in digestion.) They are especially fond of anything fermented or pickled. In time dwarves can adjust to a more typically human or halfling diet, but elf cuisine at best gives them debilitating nausea and diarrhea. Of course, all dwarves must drink copious amounts of ale to stay healthy. (A Queen Mother consumes two to three kegs a day.)
In addition to their superior craftsmanship and love of all that glitters, dwarves are known far and wide for their elaborate and mesmerizing mass folk dances.
On rare occasion a worker incurs the wrath of the Queen Mother and manages to escape the clanhome with his life. Or for some other reason, a dwarf has no clan. These are known as "free dwarves", and generally make their homes on the outer fringes of human civilization. Free dwarves (like all dwarves) are valued for their exquisite craftsmanship, but since they are considered aberrational by dwarf culture on the whole their unchecked presence in human settlements can strain relations with nearby allied dwarf clans. Thus they try not to be too successful in business, lest they attract unwanted attention. Often they sell their wares on the black market.
Dwarves as Player Characters
Many possibilities exist to explain how and why a dwarf would join a band of adventurers. Perhaps he belongs to an Adventurers’ Guild or the like and is still working for his clan’s benefit. Perhaps he was banished (justly or unjustly), and the adventuring party is becoming his new family. Perhaps his Queen Mother and most of the rest of his clan were exterminated, and he has ever since carried the dormant egg of a new Queen. Perhaps he was hatched and raised by a reclusive human wizard, entirely outside of dwarf culture. Perhaps he’s a stud who was driven out while still young, and managed to become an apprentice to a generous master, gaining skills appropriate to an adventurer. Perhaps he’s a stud with some physical defect who has traveled far and wide, rejected by Queen after Queen.
Though dwarves are categorically incapable of wielding arcane magic, an exception could certainly be made for a player character. Perhaps this particular dwarf was somehow touched by magic as a larva or child? In any case, such a character would attract attention over even the subtlest prestidigitations, quickly gaining fame anywhere he went.
These ideas could work in almost any game, but would fit Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Dungeon Crawl Classics especially well. By changing the name of the species along with a few other identifying characteristics (e.g. the beards), you could incorporate them into an existing setting alongside normal dwarves. It would also be cool to see these insectoid dwarves colonizing other planets in a science fantasy setting—something like Spelljammer, maybe.
Use this whole cloth, or steal ideas liberally! If you use anything from this post, I’d love to hear about it! Or, tell me what’s unique about your dwarves!