Iconics (Part 2)

Last time I talked about why I think iconic characters in roleplaying games are an essential and sometimes underused design tool and introduced Delve’s iconic rogue (along with her faithful hound Tojo). This week, I will get into some other aspects of iconic design and introduce the Doomhammer sisters.

Brumtha and Doma showing a little teamwork against a hated giant.

Even as a young man, I didn’t know what to make of this passage. Not that I couldn’t imagine a dwarven woman with a beard, but just that it was a strange thing to say that seemed all tied up in a human (and specifically a 70s view) of beauty and attraction. One of the things that I really enjoyed about roleplaying game was the ability to lose yourself in worlds where the rules of everything were different, and this passage struck me as just peculiar. When I finally found my copy of Best of Dragon Vol. III, I was happy that Roger Moore seemed to have similar misgivings about the passage. Here is his excellent retort (page 5 of that work).

“In the DMG (page 16), there is a comment to the effect that dwarves are more “forward” in their behavior toward females without beards, since dwarven women tend to be bearded too. This author would like to suggest that this statement be disregarded. It was not clear whether dwarven females or females of other races are being referred to, and in any case, dwarves are not at all prone to mate with others outside their race. Those persons who have had the audacity to ask dwarves whether they like bearded or unbeared woman have usually been given stony stare – or, if the pollster is persistent and obnoxious enough, a first-had demonstration of the high quality of the dwarven-made battleaxe and the skill with which one can be wielded.”

I had a few goals when creating the Doomhammer sisters—Brumtha and Doma. First, I wanted to show off some aspects of dwarven abilities and culture in Delve. While just about every dwarf in fantasy these days seems to talk with a Scottish brogue, wears a tartan, or has some aspect of Scottish culture (the Pathfinder 2nd Edition clan dagger is, after all, just a reimagining of the sgian-dubh), I really wanted to go back to their Germanic/Nordic roots with a bit of a fantasy bent. Clannish, driven, crafters of all things stone and metal, dwarves have a deep connection to the Elemental Plane of Earth, which they call Stonheim. Children of Stonheim find their way through the tunnels they carve to various worlds searching for minerals and their enemies—the giants. There is some relation between dwarves and giants, but neither will admit to it.

This relationship is a nod to the melee combat advantages that dwarves have in first and second edition AD&D that was retooled as racial traits in third edition D&D and Pathfinder (with better—or at last more impactful—math). Both fourth edition D&D and Pathfinder 2nd edition take a different approach to dwarven animosity. As a core rules option, it’s scrubbed out of fourth and fifth edition D&D, while in P2 it’s relegated to a crappy ancestry feat that no one should seriously consider taking. And there are some excellent reasons for this (well, for scrubbing it out, not making substandard and clunky ancestry feats). The original mechanics were a bit scattershot, giving the impression that dwarves hate or were better at fighting a lot of different creatures (orcs, goblinoids, and giants). Given how little you got from the original mechanics, I think this was a way of making it more useful. This is a consistent problem with exception benefits of this type. You spend your precious build resources to take the thing, and then it only works some percentage of the time. It takes a skillful game designer to make those mechanics worth your while along with a gamemaster who can pick up on your choices as desires for individual storylines and goals. Typically these kinds of mechanics are absolutely horrid in an organized play environment.

Another reason to dump (or dispossess) these kinds of mechanics is our current sociopolitical struggles. I remember conversations in the development of fourth edition D&D and Pathfinder 2nd edition about wanting to turn down or get rid of so-called hatred mechanics. I have mixed feelings when it comes to this goal. I see the good intentions of doing so, and that countered with the problems of designing meaningful, focused effects for such rules makes me sympathetic toward that goal. At the same time, I tend to like stories that deal with human foibles, shades of gray, and unreliable (or imperfect) narration. I have a keen interest in making bad guys that straddle can both straddle the fence of morality and just fucking hop it from time to time. Most of the time, when I create a games session or an adventure, I’m not interested in crafting either a utopia or a dystopia, but something more malleable and visceral. I think more nuanced and exciting stories live in a space were perceived certainties sometimes yield to doubt.

I’m all for solving the problems of the real world but keeping my game worlds muddy. Your mileage may vary. In this day and age, that may not be the kind of escape you are looking for. But I happen to think muddy stories can avoid some of the more heinous tropes and create some really fantastic gameplay.

For this and some other reasons, when imagining the dwarves in Delve, I wanted to focus on the things that I think make dwarves enjoyable: they are clannish, they are driven, they are focused, stubborn, unforgiving, and can often seem like absolute dicks because of that jumble. But they can also be stalwart, honorable, and undaunted. They want to hammer the world into a better place based on their presumptions. And their presumptions aren’t for (nor do they have room for) everyone. They heroic gems with interesting flaws.

I wanted to focus on exciting strengths and flaws when creating the dwarf iconics. First, I went to a somewhat traditional route when choosing the class for each of these iconics. Brumtha is my badass fighting tank. Armed with an heirloom weapon (a 1st-level general talent) called the Doomhammer, according to her people, her sister, and Brumtha herself, she is destined to be the greatest dwarven warrior of her generation. Is that the absolute truth? Who knows? But that’s sure as hell what Brumtha and her sister believe and strive to achieve. Brumtha does this as bluntly as possible. She is the Doomhammer. She wields the Doomhammer. Every problem is something in need of pounding.

She is a powerful and straightforward character steeped in dwarven assumptions. This is useful not only to illuminate the most basic and visceral aspects of the dwarven being, but she’s also a great character to throw to players who want to wade into the action and never stop (typically the young and excited and those of a straightforward power gaming bent). She is probably the simplest of the iconics to play, and that’s on purpose. She’s a kind of gateway experience or a couple of particular player psychographics.

Her sister’s another animal entirely.

So, in Part 1, I talked about Ez and talked a bit about making newer, sometimes less invested (and often women) players play the cleric. While I was making a point about the awkward assumptions of a particular generation of players (my generation of players), some do like to play support characters. Doma is my iconic runepriest and is also my iconic support characters. By far, she can provide the most healing to the party, and while she is no slouch in combat, her potency lies in boosting her allies and hampering her foes. I also wanted to make such support focused and particularly dwarven. As Brumtha’s younger sister, her main concern that sibling’s destiny. While she can efficiently serve as support for all of her companions, it’s Brumtha who gains the lion’s share. There is no mechanic for this (in fact, her ability to use some of her spells on non-dwarves actually opens her up beyond familial focus); it’s all just part of the sister’s story. And it has been fun to see how players latch on to that relationship. It’s made for some really fun roleplaying.

That’s what I wanted. I wanted to see a closeness and teamwork that a group of random players usually avoid. Too often, adventurers are orphans without any close connections right of the bat to anyone else in the party. I’ve found there are some tactical reasons for this on the part of players. Many cynical and smart players play characters without blood ties to not give the gamemaster ways to “screw” with their character. That’s understandable, but I think it also has the tendency to hamstring advanced storytelling. Deep ties between characters create strong bonds of the story, both implicit in adventure design through the emergent story build among the players. While inside jokes and remember-when stories can often cover these bases with most groups, I think creating, nurturing, and giving the gamemaster to tug on such bonds generate more vital, more memorable stories in the long run. Making these two sisters gives me a chance—on a very small scale—to create some of this around the table during events with strangers. So far, they nor the players have disappointed.

Before I close out my little chat about the Doomhammers, I should tackle a topic I always get questions about.

Why does Brumtha have a beard?

I don’t always get the question in that form or even in the way of a question. Sometimes it’s, “oh, cool, this dwarf woman has a beard.” Those more versed in RPG history will either comment, “I like dwarven women with beards,” or “ugh, I really don’t like bearded dwarven women.”

The origin of bearded dwarves in D&D comes from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (first edition; page 16), with this strange passage.

(A small side note, even given Gygax’s insistence that Tolkien’s works were not a substantial influence on D&D, this is probably riffing on the description of dwarf woman given by Gimli in Appendix A of Return of the King.)

“Considering that their women tend to be bearded too, it is not surprising that some dwarves are somewhat forward in their behavior toward females not so adorned.”

Berronar, Mother of Safety, Truth, and Home from “The Gods of the Dwarves”

Even as a young man, I didn’t know what to make of this passage. Not that I couldn’t imagine a dwarven woman with a beard, but just that it was a strange thing to say that seemed all tied up in a human (and specifically a 70s view) of beauty and attraction. One of the things that I really enjoyed about roleplaying game was the ability to lose yourself in worlds where the rules of everything were different, and this passage struck me as just peculiar. When I finally found my copy of Best of Dragon Vol. III, I was happy that Roger Moore seemed to have similar misgivings about the passage. Here is his excellent retort (page 5 of that work).

“In the DMG (page 16), there is a comment to the effect that dwarves are more “forward” in their behavior toward females without beards, since dwarven women tend to be bearded too. This author would like to suggest that this statement be disregarded. It was not clear whether dwarven females or females of other races are being referred to, and in any case, dwarves are not at all prone to mate with others outside their race. Those persons who have had the audacity to ask dwarves whether they like bearded or unbeared woman have usually been given stony stare – or, if the pollster is persistent and obnoxious enough, a first-had demonstration of the high quality of the dwarven-made battleaxe and the skill with which one can be wielded.”

My young mind (as well as my older mind) found this pleasing and fun. Between that passage and the late Jim Holloway’s illustration of Berronar in the Gods of the Dwarves section of the same volume, I just really liked the idea of dwarven women sporting beards.

But with that said, why doesn’t her sister have a beard? Well, just because I really dig the idea of dwarven women having beards, that doesn’t mean everyone does. It only doesn’t hurt to have options. I have some story justifications to going along with the reason for the sister’s different facial stylings that are intrinsic to dwarf culture, but we will save those for another time.

3 Comments on “Iconics (Part 2)

  1. In general, I find today’s gamers want a diverse set of iconics, and that any preconceived notions from yesteryear of who plays what is likely to not apply. Particularly, that any gender will like one thing or another. I don’t think those preconceptions were ever accurate, because back then as game designers, the hobby wasn’t asking the right questions. Today, make diverse and compelling iconic characters that offer a variety of experiences, end of story.

    With regards to beards, I’ve always favored them on dwarven women for a simple reason: beards seem supremely important to dwarven culture. With humans or half-elves, there is no advantage to a beard, so it’s fine for only males to have them. With dwarves, we have pages of lore and even magic items underscoring the importance of a beard. Endless art shows off beards. A dwarven statue is recognizable because of the beard. And so on. It’s critically important to the culture. If that’s the case, then we either have all genders be a part of that… or we have half the population missing out on a big part of their culture. That’s why I would always go with female dwarves being able to grow a beard if they want it.

    The other alternative is to devote a lot of words to why not having a beard is important for dwarven women… and I don’t think those words would be interesting. Give everyone beards and you have a unique culture and much more equality.

    • I think you are right when it comes to the younger generation, to a point. I have learned from meeting countless invested players and fans that the “fan base” is not monolithic. Sometimes we would like it to be, especially when it seems to agree with our particular point of view, but in the end, since this is all fiction and art, it’s a matter of taste and exposure.

      That said, I’m happy to increase the exposure to bearded dwarven women. I think they are cool and have an interesting foothold in fantasy literature and the game.

      I also think they add something dynamic to dwarven culture. I outlined my thoughts on the subject on the Delve Patreon Discord server, and folks seemed to like it (with some grumbling about not liking bearded dwarf women). Still, I also think playing an outlier from a people’s cultural norms is a fun character to play (or read about…how many popular characters in fantasy rebel against their people’s assumptions and memes? That, in itself, is a form of diversity for characters.

      I’m not sure I agree with your last point. Strangely, because we all come to our fictions and fantasies steeped (often unconsciously) with the assumptions of our own life, the mere act of saying dwarven women have beards often begs explanation. When I was a kid and came across it in Tolkien and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, my still developing went, “huh? But cool.” And I instantly wanted to know more. Now, a decade shy of a half-century later, I don’t think younger folks are jolted by it as much, but that has more to do with the abundance of creative fantasy cultures depicted in our mass media. Such things were much more take and conservative in the 80s. Still, I have found that the image of Brumtha is still a bit shocking to many, and results in much puzzlement and discussion. It’s been fun and illuminating.

  2. Pingback: Iconics (Part 3) – Delve

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