Thursday, May 24, 2012

Warhammer Chaos Dwarves: My Take

I’ve heard the hue and cry- the sound of wailing as if thousands of tiny lead souls cried out at once and then were discontinued. I’ve seen the passing of the Squats, the Ratlings, the Fimir, the Zoats. I’ve seen others redone and folded into various lines- the Genestealers and Tyranids evolving horribly. Of these Games Workshop races, I miss Chaos Dwarves the most. I never played them except in Man O’ War. While I liked them, Warhammer Fantasy Battle didn’t grab me. I like fantasy skirmish rules; the unit system looked goofy to me. But the Chaos Dwarves could have pulled me in- except that the local CD player in our circle was really obnoxious. The thought of allying or having to ask him for advice grated. So I only looked at the packages and admired the designs.

Of course, I’m talking about the later Chaos Dwarves, as they appeared WHFB 4th. Originally they appeared as gruesome distortions, like any other chaos-infected race. But 4th edition gave us a new take on Chaos Dwarves presented with Babylonian and Assyrian design elements. They had awesome braided dark beards, scale armor, and most impressively cool cylindrical helmets and hats. I loved their look- different from the over-the-top craziness of most chaos forces. Instead they had tight and strict design elements, as if they’d turned their corruption towards a drive and passion for control. Chaos Dwarves also had cool war-machines and an awesome flying Taurus model. Their Man O’War fleets were equally spectacular and dangerous to play. Instead of that risk feeling like stupidity, it felt like these Dwarves pushed themselves past their limits. The line as a whole offered a nice parallel to the steampunk elements of the conventional dwarves. Today Forge World has a new line of Chaos Dwarves, cashing in on the nostalgia. But those models do away with much the classic look. They eliminated the helms, dialed back the Assyrian vibe, and generally went for a more realistic look. It disappoints me.

Of course I’m always thinking about how to introduce (i.e. steal) elements for my RPG campaigns. For years I had Dwarves in my campaign world, but I never really explored them. Players skipped their homeland. At the time, I’d already adapted some of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG stories into the setting, hacking Middenheim, the Empire, Bogenhafen, Kislev and other places. I’d run pretty much the entire Enemy Within campaign as an arc in one campaign, plus other stand-alone modules like Lichemaster. When I sat down to map the people and structures of the Dwarves I had two major sources. I wanted to draw elements from WHFRP’s Dwarf Wars, a module in the Doomstones campaign and from the Mystaran Gazetteer Dwarves of Rockhome

Mostly I borrowed names and places, plus a few other concepts. However I still couldn’t figure a place for the Chaos Dwarves. The idea of a civil war based on disputes over legitimate succession and theocratic issues stuck with me. Dwarf Wars suggests some of this and I spun more- building a network of clans and families with different agendas. I came up with a clan aligned with the Forge Priests but offering an alternate and secret faith. I developed a set of Hamlet/Shakespearean stories about turmoil within the ruling clan. I even created a Dwarven secret police, the Zilgildhum, who kept order. I drew maps and assembled a detailed structure for the Dwarven holdings and their relationships.

And then I blew the Dwarves up.

Actually it was a tidal wave, sweeping inland and flooding all of the underground holdings. In its wake another wave, this time of undead, finished the job. All of the Dwarven Holds fell and the survivors fled in all directions, though few in number. I managed to get a few sessions out of these Dwarves before I destroyed them, but not nearly what I wanted.

A few years and a couple of campaigns later I’d moved the setting forward, adding in more steampunk and early modern elements. I’d done a couple of time jumps so I had room to play with history and revising the world. I had a human nomadic nation which had never been particularly interesting. It duplicated cultures elsewhere and made little sense, especially among more advanced neighbors. I reworked this place as “The Kingdom of Math.” The story went that when the Dwarves fled their homeland, one clan had reached this nomad nation. They struck a deal with the natives. The Dwarves would be given a home, and in exchange they would apply their skills and practices to “uplifting” the people. 

It would be a grand social experiment- one part industrial revolution and one part psychohistory (from Foundation) using steam-driven calculation engines. When the PCs met citizens from the Kingdom of Math, almost two hundred had passed in that process. The players faced some of the most astute and enlightened people on the continent. Tests and examinations advanced citizens in rank and selected the career path that best suited them. The players met a diplomat, an assassin, and a mad scientist crime lord- all of who had been assigned that role and trained for it. The players also learned about the Dwarves of Math, even meeting one. That Dwarf was quiet, reluctant to speak with outsiders. All of the Dwarves of Math dressed identically- long black coats, great stovepipe hats and dark beards braided in an Assyrian style…

Since that introduction into the campaign world, those Dwarves of Math have remained in the background now for several years of play. They present themselves as benevolent and have made the Kingdom of Math one of the most advanced nations on the continent. The Dwarves keep to themselves, living in a single city complex which they travel out from to organize their projects. But there have been hints of something darker going on. They keep their own counsel and add unusual designs and elements to the grand constructs for the humans. Foreign Dwarves regard the Dwarves of Math with repulsion and often make a gesture of warding when speaking of them. This last year in the campaign, the players learned something of the secret of the Dwarves of Math, my version of the Chaos Dwarves.

Dwarves for me represent a kind of focus on tasks. They value technique and system over craft and creativity. So even darker Dwarves possess dedication and long term planning. And they do plan for the long game. You see the Dwarves of Math have seen things- have had visions off the coming darkness. They know of the eldritch horrors returning, waiting both at the furthest reaches of the celestial spheres and in the black and rotten heart of this world. Math Dwarves know that when they come, there will be no fighting them. Their darkness will sweep across the land and everything good and holy will be drained by them- because these Horrors feed on that. And the Math Dwarves plan to feed those Elder Gods well. Their goal is to create a utopia on earth, a place of balance, happiness and peace…because that will make the Ancient One’s dinner that much sweeter when they return. And they will spare their servants, the Dwarves of Math, my take on the Chaos Dwarves, for having made the world a better and more delicious place for them.

The Dwarves of Math will do anything for that utopia, anything for that better world. Anything.

Illustration of Dwarf of Math Headmaster Gravast Direlond created by Gene Ha.