Island Dwarves - Creative Make-Up for Sunday Morning Heroes

The Patreon Preview of TDDC Extras #40 is up; if you're a supporter, ask your questions there!

But in the meantime, did you catch my last Creative "Make-Up" video?

SCRIPT (Raw transcript):

So for this week's creative exercise, I went back to basics a little, and looked at designing a dwarven city - not for the world of Tales From My D&D Campaign, but like a lot of the places in that world, I want it to have familiar elements that fit in well with the oldschool, Tolkeinesque feel most D&D players are used to, but with enough of new or unusual elements - or in this case, elements from other viewer suggestions - to make it a little more interesting. So if some of you listen in, you may find your idea. I'm not drawing the map, or choosing the population size, number of clans and guilds, because this is all an excercise in brainstorming, and in designing an RPG setting to make sure there is plenty of potential for exciting conflict.

Baiyin A'chala is an old Dwarfhome; a mountain tunneled into for mining, then expanded from a worker's barracks to a small town, until many long dwarven generations later, it has grown into a full city and fortress, with families, farming, industry - its own art, history, and politics. In this case, it's not just a mountain - it's effectively an island, as Mount A'chala was separated from the mainland by Loch Dubhan - a quarter-mile of water. Now by island, I don't mean there's like a beach, or flat land - it's really just a mountain projecting up from below the water-level, with a chain of tiny barrier isles - mostly just weather-worn rocks - out to either side.

Old mined-out tunnels are re-purposed as living space, but also as mushroom and lichen farms to help feed the population. The water also helps provide for the city with fishing, though they never built a serious harbor, so their surface trade has remained fairly limited. The old rule of a Dwarfhold still stands; build nothing outside the mountain that can't be abandoned the moment the alarm is sounded. In practice, some of the fishers have built themselves floating shacks by their light docks to live closer to their trade, as the times have been relatively peaceful, but the rule is still - dwarves won't defend any external structures. If enemies fall upon the Mountain, you must get inside. That's why you won't find more than a hermit-or-two willing to camp out on the tiny rock isles.

In Baiyin A'chala's prime, they delved a tunnel beneath the shallow Loch, connecting them with the underdark, and thus to many other subterranean places, including other, distant Dwarfhomes and some of the more reasonable races that lived in the depths of the earth. For over a century they were able to trade with other dwarves via the Underway - it was always dangerous, requiring heavily armed caravans, as the darkness holds many strange creatures, both monsters and violent humanoids. But there came a day when an army of Derro assaulted the city from beneath, trying to breach the heavy metal gates and other layered defenses. The Derro are like pale, sadistic shadows of dwarves, and they fought with deadly abandon (and weakening poisons), but the defenders were stalward, led by Undercaptain Balgair, and though they quickly lost the first Gate to the surprise attack, they rallied and held fast at the Second Gate against many waves of attackers - even against the pair of carrion crawlers unleashed by the Derro. But one of Balgair's scouts reported back that the tunnel was still filled with the pupilless white eyes of the dwarves' mad cousins, and far worse, he had spotted the taller colwed form of a Spider-priest; a Drow.

Balgair realized that if the dark elves were behind this, there was no winning; it meant the Derro had been tricked and were merely being used to probe and wear down the Dwarfhome's defenses. Whether they won or lost, a Drow Legion would surely come next, and to stand against such enemies, one would have to be as mad as the Derro themselves. And so Balgair ordered his men to fall back to the Last Gate, and to destroy the columns, for there was only one tunnel into Baiyin A'chala, and its final defense was the Loch itself. With the gate sealed, the dwarves smashed the columns, allowing the mass of stone and water above them to collapse the Underway, crushing the attackers in a calamitous flood of seawater and rubble that none survived, and forever branding the Undercaptain: Balgair the Sunderer.

Some called Balgair a hero, but to many he had destroyed the future of the Dwarfhold by cutting them off from the world, and to this day there are some who hold a grudge, or at the very least a disdain for The Sunderer and his descendents. They would argue that seeing one Drow was hardly enough evidence on which to irreversably bring down the Loch, but to debate it was pointless; it was done.

Not long after, the Council passed an Edict banning any delving down to the level of the Underway or below, to avoid opening new routes to the Underdark or exposing the mountain to new dangers from the depths, but it did not take long for the Mining Guild (and all metalworking craftsdwarves) to balk at this limitation, for they knew there were richer veins of ore deeper down. And within a generation, they began to question how much more mining could be done at all within the confines of the heavily tunneled stone of Mount A'chala.


When it comes to Dwarven politics, each dwarf is born into a clan, which is your extended family, and effectively a political unit. Most dwarves are also part of a guild, based on their profession - like a combination union and marketing board. - Smiths, Miners, Stonecarvers, Alchemists etc. There are marriages both inside clans, and between them, so families and lineage are still tracked carefully within a clan, but if you ask a dwarf who they are, they'll more likely mention their clan and guild before getting into their biological family.

The ruling council - known as the Greybeards - is composed of two representatives from each clan, and one from each Official guild. A council vote is required to make a guild Official (adding their seat to the Council); by tradition, a guild becomes official at 100 members, but a smaller guild can also be given official status if they perform a great service for the city, as have the Alchemists and the Mages' guild. The Priests are not a guild, but they have their own special representative as well.

As a GM, if you don't want to run a political game, the Council is just a bunch of authority figures, suitable for questgiving, villainous scheming - being rescued or kidnapped or assassinated. But it you want it, the council allows for all kinds of politics:

  • If somebody wants to get something done (or stop something from being done), they have to find out which council members are undecided, and which ones could be convinced to change their votes; convinced, bribed or threatened.
  • There are always conflicts between guilds, looking for advantages over one-another. Some guilds might feel like their areas overlap, and may want to merge, but they can only do so if both sides agree, and a lot of pressure of various forms may be required - especially since the combined group may be a lot stronger in other ways, but would go from two seats down to one on the Council.
  • The Council can strip a guild's Official status, removing their seat, but the threshold for the vote is 2/3, rather than the usual 51%. Politically, the traditionalists, especially from the larger guilds, would never strip the vote from a guild that meets the minimum size. But the smaller guilds, like the Alchemists, could be vulnerable to some kind of political machinations - especially if they were blamed for some disaster or outrage.
  • Smaller clans have the same two council votes as the larger ones, and they have still have their great halls and their vaults; their own resources. So while larger clans obviously have more power and wealth, there is a natural incentive - call it market forces. At a certain point, a shrinking clan becomes small enough that what it does have is concentrated into fewer hands, such that marrying into it becomes a good value proposition. That doesn't mean they all balance out to be equal, by any means, but a clan that is dwindling tends to bounce back closer to the average within a generation or two.

Remember, people (and the occasional wagonload of goods) can still get to and from the city by boat; the lack of harbor just prevents them from using larger vessels - you can easily send a party of non-dwarf Player Characters there. So if you were using Baiyin A'chala, or a similar Dwarven city in your game, what sorts of things might be going on?

  • There's always a movement by the Mining Guild, usually supported by other major guilds to revoke the Edict that prevents them from mining straight down below the mountain. "The old connection to the Underdark was through the mainland", they argue, "if we remain in the roots of this mountain, the chances of reconnecting are minimal." After all, centuries have passed since the trouble, plus the supply of new ore is becoming tighter and tighter - something has to give.
    • But there are still some who hold up Balgair the Sunderer as a hero for cutting off the underdark, and many many more who fear that if you delve deep enough, its inevitable that you would reconnect the city to the Derro, or the Drow... or worse.
  • Others (usually in opposition to the miners above), say they should finally build a permanent harbour, suitable for heavy ferries, or even oceangoing vessels. Big ferries (and the facilities needed to load and unload them, and to defend the docks) would let them multiply their overland trade, and blue sea vessels would open up whole new avenues for trade - both new wealth and a great deal more food variety is out there for the taking.
    • But, a lot of traditionalists are against changing the very ancient Dwarven rule against major construction outside the mountain, and more importantly, the comitment to defend something outside, in the open - where they lose the tremendous defensive advantage of enclosed spaces with hundreds of years worth of intense fortifications. They point to the attack just a few decades back from a ship of Gnoll pirates, who killed 2 fishermen, but took heavy casualties and fled the island with their tails between their legs without setting a single foot within the tunnels of the city. With the proposed harbor, either far more lives would have been lost fighting outside the mountain, or the Gnolls would have run off with every crate of cargo and stolen or burned every ship at the docks.

Both of the above expansion plans make great political struggles, either for active involvement by the players, or more likely in the background, leading to many smaller-scale and more direct interpersonal and interfactional problems and disputes for the PCs to get involved - to debate or to smash. Ultimately, if you had a campaign focused on this city, you probably want one or both of these changes to happen, to enable oversea or underground invasions or exploration.


With the harbor (maybe even before it's finished), I would aim to send out some heroes to explore the nearby coast and islands for possible trade routes before considering any invasion (which would seem to justify the councerns of the anti-harbour dwarves).

Similarly, if they decide to dig deeper and more greedily, I'd be inclined to start with more insidious threats before big direct challenges. They breach a series of caverns or ancient lava tubes, and somebody needs to explore them to find out if they are self-contained, or if they lead into other new areas which might connect to the greater Underdark. Whether or not they've breached the Underdark, they may find a few big nasty thing(s) to fight, but in the city weird things start happening... in the form of individual, sneaky monsters creeping into the city, acting more like a serial killer that has to be tracked down and captured.

What else is going on? Whether the deep mining prohibition is lifted, or whether the problem is just the lack of space left within the mountain itself, an anti-mining movement may form. They are strictly non-violent; but they get together, pick a spot where mining is happening, and they barge in and force out the miners, barricade themselves in, and then go to work on the stone, what they call "Facing" it - smoothing it, carving reliefs, engraving patterns - crafting the tunnel itself into a work of art so that when the owners (via superior numbers, possibly threats and thugs, possibly with barristers and having the activists jailed) when the miners force them out, they have to either tunnel around the area, or deface it. And defacing works of art will enrage a certain percentage of the population who may otherwise be more sympathetic to the mine owners.

  • Do the activists hire the PCs to make a distraction in one mining tunnel so they can take over another? Or do the miners hire the PCs as mercenaries and "outsiders" to protect their business? OR does all this happen without player involvement, but the tension leads to other nastyness; does overmining collapse a residential area? Was it sabotage by a more extremist wing of the activists, or a 3rd party like a tunneling monster? Does one side send thugs against the other, kidnap a leader? All great options.

This has gone on pretty long, but some more shortform plot ideas:

  • A number of dwarves are behaving very oddly; it turns out they've been experiencing some kind of hallucinations.
    • It turns out the common thread is which farm - which tunnel - they've been getting lichen or mushrooms from. Turns out the farmers had bought some foreign plants.
      • They could have gotten some Myconid seeds by mistake, and a small colony of the fungus-people hypnotized the farmers to ignore them. You could smash them... but it may even be possible to negotiate? ...Somehow?
      • OR were they sold tainted Lichen intentionally by an outside force? Who's responsible, are they inside or outside the mountain? Track them down and find out!
  • There have been reports of a rash of pickpockets in the arcade (the old arched part of the market, though the market has expanded over time, and shops have popped up in all sorts of places).
    • Some witnesses claimed to have seen dwarven children fleeing the crime, but not one has been caught or even identified
    • It turns out they are actually small, crude-looking, temporary flesh golems (but in clothes they could be mistaken for children), who last just long enough to steal something, then run off and dissolve through a sewer grate, leaving the loot to be picked up by a servant of their creator
      • Are they being created by a rogue alchemist? Or a priest of some weird religion? Or some spellcaster or monster that has snuck into the city (possibly disguised as a dwarf)
      • What are they after? Just money to try to fund a proper golem? Or are they after something specific... keys to something valuable, or spell components for voodoo... or evidence of some conspiracy or crime (would that make the golem-maker a good-guy?)
  • Bottled up in this mountain, with less and less minable space (particularly where there is likely to be ore), most of the Mining Guild is falling on hard times... but one clan or company is making a fortune. Where are they getting the ore?
    • The obvious assumption would be they are breaking the Edict, mining down too low, but there's no evidence of this; they have hardly any claims in the lower levels.
    • It turns out they are getting new ore from an extradimensional source!
      • Did they find (or through some dangerous ritual) create a portal to another plane which they are mining? What new dangers are they exposing the entire city to in the process? Alien creatures? Or could the ore itself be dangerous?
      • Did they make a deal with a Devil? Or some other being? Or a devil pretending to be some other being, like a Djinn? At what cost?

I hope that gives some ideas, particularly to those of you suggesting ideas about dwarves.

I want to thank all my generous Patreon Patrons for helping me keep making videos of all sorts, particularly Gandurk, Pericles, Syldari, Lord Eibon and Tyrano McG and Zombi - the members of The Organization.

Make sure to make suggest your own weird or interesting ideas in the comments or on twitter @TalesDDC; and don't get too overly specific, because you never know what you'll get. Brainstorm away, whether for RPGs or for any fiction. Of course, if you want to see a lot of my crazy RPG ideas in action, check out the epic illustrated Tales From My D&D Campaign!


D&D Dungeonmaster and Storyteller

Long, long ago, I created Another Gaming Comic, the world's ugliest webcomic. After about a 10 year run the writer's block piled up and I couldn't continue it. I don't want to call it dead - there was more to tell - but I also don't have time to go back and getting it going again would be hard.

I also created text-based D&D Excerpts, from some campaigns where I was a player (the first one was INSANE and hilarious). But by the third "season" of D&D Excerpts, that was a game where I was the GM, which meant I had GM notes, and it really changed the flavor. 

Then, I experimented with doing those same excerpts on youtube, and Tales From My D&D Campaign was born...