Friday, August 30, 2019

The Complete Book of Dwarves

I'm going to have to try my best not to be overly backhanded in this post, because The Complete Book of Dwarves is really well done for what it is, but what it is is something that maybe didn't need to be done at all. It's hard to say. Time has such a funny way of playing tricks on your perceptions.

You know how dwarves keep popping up in fantasy fiction, and everyone seems to have their own take on them? Dragon Age has them engaged in complex political scheming. Terry Pratchett used them as a comic metaphor for the immigrant experience. The Elder Scrolls says they're an ancient, technologically advanced species that vanished mysteriously after they tried to industrialize God (or whatever is going on in that backstory - I never bothered to find out exactly). You get a sense that all of these different takes are playing off something, some common fantasy inspiration that they all nevertheless saw fit to dramatically change.

This book is that something. Probably not directly. I'm not saying the creators of The Elder Scrolls read The Complete Book of Dwarves, specifically. But they were reacting to an idea, some base grounding of fantasy dwarves that was undoubtedly compelling, but also flawed enough that they saw a need to tinker. And it is here, in this book, that those dwarves get their fullest and most complete write-up.

I hate to use the word "generic" when describing fantasy, because that's only a short way from conceding that certain fantasy tropes are "standard" (and oh, the fights I got into when D&D4 came out and people were insisting that tieflings were more "exotic" than gnomes), but to the degree that intellectual honesty requires me to admit that I understand what people mean when they say "standard fantasy," this book is generic as hell.

And here is where I have to tread carefully, because I don't want to imply that it's bad. It's just . . . something I don't need any more. Oh, I remember when I got my first copy of this book, back in middle school. I loved it. I took it with me everywhere. I was devastated when someone stole it from my backpack. I think if you're 12 or 13 years old, there's a lot you're seeing for the first time, and maybe there is a lot of human texture and nuance that you're not quite mature enough to expect. A book about short, taciturn, performatively macho hairy dudes is just taken at face value. You don't ask the obvious questions.

Dwarf men outnumber dwarf women by 2-to-1? That means that a gay dwarf bar called "The Underground" has a roughly 100% chance of existing, right? I mean, as a young, immature boy I definitely picked up on some weird psychosexual stuff going on with how dwarves were presented in a very gendered way, but I lacked the vocabulary to handle it gracefully (which is a shame, because then maybe it wouldn't have taken me until I was 33 years old to come to terms with my own sexuality).

Also, what's the difference, really, between a dwarf and a goblin? It's relevant here because dwarves' opinions on goblins are extremely ugly. Like "these filthy subhumans are invading our lands and threatening to breed us out of existence so we must exterminate them to the last child," level ugly. It's difficult for an enlightened, 21st-century reader to get a handle on. Dwarves refer to goblins with Nazi-style rhetoric, but it's okay because in D&D world, all those stereotypes are true? It's a very uncomfortable question that gets to the heart of the D&D experience, and I don't know how to answer it except to say that I've completely abandoned the idea of an "evil race" in my personal games (except, perhaps, for metaphysically evil creatures like demons and vampires) exactly because seeing it here, in its most unreflective purity, is an absolutely hair-raising experience.

I guess my criticism of this book boils down to the fact that it's doing that weird AD&D thing where it self-consciously tries to stick to "standard" fantasy even while it is in the process of creating it. D&D Basic (and presumably OD&D) was often unexpectedly and aggressively weird, and so much of AD&D seems like an attempt to scale that back. The aim appears to be to create a truly universal guide, that can be used by players, regardless of what the DM is doing with their campaign, and by DMs, regardless of what the players come into the campaign expecting. To create, in essence, the dwarfiest dwarves imaginable. The final effect, though, feels a lot like it's just chasing popularity

How else do you explain the presence of Dragonlance's gully dwarves? They were bad in the source material. They're bad here. Every time the writer remembers they're supposed to exist, they make whatever he was talking about worse. Seeing as how there's no conspicuous mention of Dragonlance as an AD&D product (not even an ad in the end pages), I've got to assume that they were catering to existing Dragonlance fans, rather than trying to promote a profitable IP.

If you can accept that this is an extremely conservative presentation of the subject matter that takes basically no risks, and that you're going to get a couple of misguided mechanics that are quintessentially AD&D (randomly generate dwarven strongholds by consulting more than a dozen different tables! a pointlessly detailed mining system! alignments, still!), then The Complete Book of Dwarves is well-written and attractively presented (one thing I keep meaning to talk about in these posts is how consistently great the art is in these books - there are full-page color pieces that any fantasy nerd would be proud to frame and hang up on a wall). But honestly, if you've seen, read, or played any media with dwarves in it made in the past 30 years, you won't be surprised by anything you read here.

UKSS Contribution: The time has finally come to reveal a decision I privately made a while back about what I was going to do about all these fantasy species that are basically just "short humans with a shtick." They're goblins. All of them. Dwarves, halflings, gnomes . . . even goblins. They're all just going to be different cultures of a single underground-dwelling race of earth-themed clever folk.

I've made a similar choice with elves, but I'll talk about that when I finally get around to their sourcebook. This is just a heads up. When you go through Ukss, looking for dwarves, check under "G" in the index (ha, like this will ever get an index).

With that in mind, what's my choice for The Complete Book of Dwarves? I really like the name "Deep Dwarves," but if I'm being 100% honest, it's kind of wasted here. This book's Deep Dwarves were an afterthought. There's none of the worldbuilding you'd expect from the premise of  "there's a race that is defined by living underground, and then, within that race, there's an offshoot that lives deeper underground than any of them." Here, they're just kind of like "okay, their bonuses and penalties will be more intense versions of the near-surface dwarves, but culturally, they're . . . neutral? Yeah, neutral. That's the ticket."

I have to resist the urge to project onto them the wonderful cultural depth of Terry Pratchett's deep dwarfs. The Complete Book of Dwarves Deep Dwarves are nowhere near that interesting.

So what I'm going to do is take from this book the concept of dwarves in general, but I'm going to call them "Deep Goblins." Hopefully that will be interesting enough, once I get the other goblin types in play.

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