Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dwarves and magic


The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
                    --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit


Dwarves in most old school versions of D&D are described as being highly resistant to magic and having no aptitude for it themselves.  OD&D dwarves are always fighting men.  B/X and BECMI have dwarf race-classes that don't allow for magic-use.  First edition AD&D says, "Because of their very nature, dwarves are non-magical and do not ever use magic spells" and then contradicts that statement with a note that dwarf clerics exist as an NPC class only and may attain level 8.

Literature and folklore, of course, have not always portrayed dwarves as non-magical beings.  Even Tolkien, whose dwarves are arguably the archetype for D&D dwarves, seems to imply otherwise, as illustrated in the quote above.

Second edition AD&D made cleric an option for dwarf player-characters, and the Dwarves of Rockhome Gazetteer added a BECMI dwarf-cleric class.  The BECMI dwarf-cleric was essentially the same as its human counterpart, but with dwarf saving throws, axes and hammers instead of blunt weapons, and minus the ability to turn undead.  The Gazetteer also provides rules for dwarves to craft magical weapons and armor, as befits their reputation of master smiths.  I think some later editions of D&D have even opened the magic-user/wizard class to the dwarf race, but once again, that's no more than saying you're basically the same as a human magic-user, but you're short and live underground.

I'd like something that feels a little different from human and elf spell-casting, something that makes playing a dwarven spell-user a special experience.

But what should dwarven magic look like?  What should it do?  How do dwarves invoke magical power?

My first thought is that their magic should be limited to the things traditionally associated with dwarves -- elemental earth (stone, metal, gems) and elemental fire (the forge.)  They shouldn't be able to, say, charm people or turn invisible or polymorph themselves into animals, but they absolutely should be able to shape stone or make it transparent, heat or cool metal, mend or break metal or stone objects, and so on.

I'd probably make dwarves only able to affect earth or fire materials directly.  For instance, a dwarf spellcaster could cast resist fire on a suit of plate or mail armor, and it would protect the wearer, but he couldn't cast it directly on an ally, nor on a suit of leather armor or wizard's robes.

How does a dwarf go about casting spells?  Tolkien's line gives me some ideas.  Rhythmic, sonorous chants are one possibility, or perhaps one element, of dwarven spellcasting.  Hammers falling like ringing bells is the other.  Perhaps a dwarf needs a hammer with which to strike the item he wishes to enchant.  This wouldn't just be a symbolic or ceremonial striking, but striking in a precise way and a precise number of blows to create whatever magical resonance is desired.  This might make many spells take longer than a round to cast, and pretty much eliminates the possibility of ranged effects, and I'm comfortable with that.

All of this probably entails creating a new spell list, possibly utilizing existing spells from various editions and completely new ones.  I think I'll soon be combing through spell lists and pondering unique new effects to compose such a list.

5 comments :

  1. Check out Liaisons Dangereuses issue 76 for more ideas. You can find it linked here: http://blog.retroroleplaying.com/2009/09/1976-od-articles-by-gary-gygax-and-len.html

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    1. Thanks. It's hard to read, but I think I got the gist of it. More stuff to ponder.

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  2. I'd probably differentiate a bit more mechanically and make all dwarf magic crafting and enchantment based. During downtime, dwarves put spells into items which could either be consumable for weaker spells or be more durable.

    It would require some care to balance the power with other class abilities and to keep it within the purview of the particular character but I think it would be possible.

    I think the Dragon Age video game does this so it might be worth looking at those game mechanics for ideas.

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    1. I like that. Dwarves bind enchantments to items through the use of a forge or smithy. It's almost an artificer-type ability.

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