The long-lived races of D&D have always raised questions in many as to why an 800-year-old Elf is somehow no more an expert than a 200-year-old Dwarf or 40-year-old Human. Why don’t Elves remember everything that’s ever happened? If they do, how do you account for that on a character sheet?
There’s a simple unifying explanation for all this in my opinion, and the way in which each race mitigates its effects is perhaps the most fundamental thing that defines their societies. I’m talking of course about the grand weakness that keeps us locked in time. I’m talking about memory.
Today we discuss Dwarves.
There is a human saying that it takes a lifetime to become a master. Well, a Dwarf that dies of old age has lived maybe 5 or 6 human lifetimes. What level of mastery might that bring them to?
The answer is: the exact same level as a human. The difference is a Dwarf has the opportunity to master more than one thing in a lifetime. A Dwarf can spend 60 years mastering smithing, then 60 mastering brewing, then 60 mastering magic if they so please. Indeed, a Dwarf’s lifespan is marked by the things they have mastered.
Indeed, the stereotype that all Dwarves are master craftsmen has some grounding in reality. No, they are not all simultaneously master smiths, but most if not all of them will at one point or another in their lifetimes reach a level of mastery in smithing.
But their memory of mastery is no more robust than that of a human.
Time Erodes All
A Dwarf in the process of mastering her 3rd craft will inevitably lose most of the memory of the prior crafts she has mastered. A mind can only hold so much.
Try doing a calculus problem you learned in school having not done one for 20 years and see how well it goes. Now try imagine doing it after 100 years. You used to know it flawlessly. You passed exams on this content. But now? It may as well have been that you never knew it to begin with. When you see the numbers and symbols all that remains is a vague recollection of once knowing what they meant.
“It’s been years since I tried my hand at a blade. It may take me some time for it to all come back to me.”
A Society Of Experts
Dwarves are patient. By their very nature they must be. One Dwarf may be a master of their craft with an older Dwarf under their tutelage who themselves is a former master of 3 crafts but only a journeyman in this particular one.
What place then does respect and honour hold? For humans a respect for all elders exists for they inevitably have more experience than a younger person, but for a Dwarf this may not be the case. Respect is instead given to masters rather than elders.
Indeed, a Dwarf physically matures at a similar pace to a human (being fully grown by around 18-20) and yet is still considered ‘Young’ until they are 50. This appears however to be a mistranslation. The term is being used to denote the level of respect a Dwarf has garnered, but because human language too closely associates ‘respect’ with seniority and age we have a limited understanding of what is truly meant by ‘young’ here.
A Dwarf approaching 50 is beginning to master their first craft. They are on the cusp of being a respected artisan. Unlike in human societies where one may be considered ‘an adult’ at a certain age, a Dwarf is considered ‘an adult’ when they first become worthy of respect.
Ultimately the reason folks consider Dwarven products to be of exceptional make is because at any given time all of their craftsman in a certain field are experts to a one. Yes, their swords are sharper, their armour more durable, their mechanisms more precise. One only plies their trade when they have attained mastery, and so all saleable Dwarven goods are by definition produced by masters.
How can this inform playing Dwarven adventurers? Well, with a keener understanding of how their age applies to their immediate experience a number of opportunities are opened up.
For a ‘young’ Dwarf the discipline tied to their adventuring class (combat, magic, music, etc) may be the first thing they have sought to attain mastery in. For a middle aged or older Dwarf it may be their third or fourth. Alternatively, a middle aged Dwarf may be returning to a previously-mastered skill out of necessity. A long-retired soldier forced back into service for the good of the realm who is, as they adventure, recalling and re-learning all the skill at arms they once possessed.
But this is only one aspect of how Dwarven cycles of mastery over a lifetime may inform our characters. Perhaps they are already nearly 150 but have yet to become master of anything. A rash, impatient Dwarf who never grew out of their flights of fancy. Exiled now from society until they can become worthy of respect, they gain skill as an adventurer until one day they return to their homeland now a master Wizard. They are worthy now of more than just respect. Indeed they are met with reverence as their ability exceeds that of Dwarven Wizards whose education has been curtailed by the limits of learning strictly within Dwarven society. Our character left an exile, and they return a hero, but in both instances they are unfit for the society of their people.
An Alternative Interpretation
All of this is only one way to answer the question of why a two-hundred-and-something-year-old Dwarf is no more capable than a 40-year-old human. To take a different explanation, Dwarves are by their nature patient, and this patience exhibits in taking far more time on something than a human might. Indeed this means outcomes are of exceptional quality, but at the cost of extreme spans of time.
It takes a lifetime to become a master, and this too is true of Dwarves.
The requirement to farm and herd to feed a populace does not go away. In fact it is quite the opposite, Dwarves are known for their legendary feasts and festivals where consumption is ramped up beyond the limits of a human stomach.
But it is this unavoidable requirement for agriculture that causes all Dwarven things to take time. One may think that all Dwarves are master craftsmen, but in truth all Dwarves are farmers. A farmer has limited free time, but over the course of 200 years of free time one can develop their side-trade into a skill they have attained mastery over. It is at this point a Dwarf may finally retire from the agrarian life and begin working as a craftsman.
Once again, all Dwarven goods are by their very nature manufactured exclusively by masters, though this time the mechanism of mastery is very different.
Respect and honour in these societies comes in a very different form. At the age of around 50 it is expected that one’s forebears will retire from their farms and begin their careers as master craftspeople. It therefore becomes the responsibility of the now ‘adult’ Dwarf to tend to the land until they too can begin their career in some 200 years’ time. A Dwarf who has taken over their family farm is worthy of respect now as the backbone of the Dwarven economy. This is a very different kind of respect to that experienced by master craftspeople and artisans. Neither is considered ‘above’ the other, but nor is their honour considered truly ‘equal’ to one another.
A Dwarf in their farming years can vote and hold office. They can start a family. They can shape the present and future of society.
A Dwarf in their crafting years loses these rights, but in their place they gain a titleage. They may earn names and renown, increasing the fame of both Dwarven products and Dwarvenkind itself. They become representatives of their people, even if not directly. Their work is what upholds the reputation of the Dwarven people, and is the core of what is often considered ‘Dwarven Culture’.
Any Dwarf may gain honour, but it is only the Dwarves of crafting age who may judge the honour of others.
Adventurers from these models of Dwarven societies are far more anomalous. Perhaps they have eschewed their agrarian duties, forfeiting their rights as a Dwarf and foregoing the ability to gain traditional respect. A Dwarf who has chosen this lifestyle may yet gain honour and renown, but they will never gain any of the forms of respect that allow them to participate in Dwarven society. One in effect becomes a Pariah, capable indeed of great things and may even one day be celebrated, but they will never be considered a product of Dwarven society.
These kinds of Dwarven adventurers are often the kind that have value systems entirely incompatible with those of their society. This relationship to their society may be friendly, neutral, wary or outright hostile. They may be unable to enter Dwarven cities, or be ignored by other Dwarvenfolk when they are encountered.
Alternatively, an older Dwarven adventurer from one such society may have instead chosen the life of adventure instead of the life of craftsmanship once they reach the age of retirement from farming. Instead of studying smithing on the side they have studied magic, and now they leave their home behind in search of challenge and glory. Unlike a younger Dwarf who has deserted a farm, these Dwarves retain all their rights as a Dwarf of crafting age. Indeed, their capacity to earn renown and heighten the reputation of Dwarvenkind is perhaps increased compared to their domestic peers. They are more active ambassadors for their people, performing more visible and impactful deeds. A Dwarf who crafts a legendary weapon only brings to his people a fraction of the fame of the Dwarf who wields it to slay a dangerous beast.
Products Of Memory
A Dwarf is limited in the same way a human is. More years does not equal heightened ability. A mind can only know so much.
Whether your Dwarves learn a half dozen trades in their lifetime or just a single one they and the society they come from will still be defined by the limitation of memory. A craftsman must actively ply their craft to remain proficient in it, and only a few short years will make even the most mastered skill fade.
Consider the factor of memory when making your Dwarven societies. How do longer-lived races deal with the fact that their mental acuity is not inherently greater than those of the shorter-lived races? The answer to that question will be the single most defining foundation of these societies in your worlds.
And consider further what this means for your Dwarven characters. Are they masters? Exiles? Pariahs? A Dwarf may be many things, but they are at their very core not all that different to humans.
This piece will be followed by several more discussing Elves, Gnomes and other long-lived races, as well as some of the shorter-lived races later down the line.
Thanks for reading!