Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dwarves Don't Worship Beer

I get it. It's cute, they're funny little pseudo-vikings, waddling around being drunk and stubborn and murdering orcs. I get it.

I just happen to think it's kind of stupid.

I recently purchased the above Reaper Bones figure and in the package, as in the photo above, it was impossible to tell that emblazoned on his shield is a tiny little picture of a foaming beer stein.

Which is fine. This is extremely common across manufacturers, and would not have deterred me from buying the figure. But it did get me thinking. Why on earth (or one of its suitably elaborated, imaginary surrogates) would a dwarf decorate his shield with a mug of beer? Shields should be emblazoned with ferocious things, or heraldic things, or things that embody the spirit of the dwarf-at-war.

Which led me to conclude that the whole beer iconography with dwarves is just one of several conventions for (lazily) representing dwarf 'culture.' (Q: "What makes dwarves different, you know, as a race?" A: "They really, really like beer." Q: "But how do we clearly represent this rather obscure fact of their imaginary culture?" A: "I know! We'll put it on their shields!")

But that's another thing... really liking beer isn't a trait that sufficiently establishes a cultural identity. Particularly not when you are trying, as all fantasy settings these days seem inevitably to do, to make an imaginary race. Many cultures widely appreciate beer, but this does not define them. Culture is too abstract for that. So to say that an entire race can be defined by its love of beer is just silly.* 

It is NOT EVEN like saying all humans love drinking Soda, which definitely isn't true but might seem true to an outside observer, on a first glance, before they could get down to cases.

It IS like saying that all humans love drinking soda BECAUSE THEY ARE HUMANS. A-and that's where the whole idea starts to get really creepy. And so do all the others. Dwarves being slow, or stubborn, or bearing all starts to sound uncomfortably like certain modes of racial stereotyping--which may be fine if you are trying to model that kind of thing in your game as an element of the story (this is big in RPG games, I'm told), but is less fine if you find that you are the one perpetrating stereotypes without thinking.

The kicker here is that dwarves are simply more compelling when they aren't conceived as a race anyway. Same with elves, and orcs, and whatever. Because what our monsters really represent (at least in my conception) is an utterly alien and incomprehensible force that nonetheless resides in the human psyche. Or rather, the very idea of monsters exists as an attempt to understand that force. The advantage to fantasy is that those monsters become literal in the game.

This makes sense to me. Because then the story of the game is not human vs. monster, or good vs. evil, but rather human vs. the most troubling aspects about himself. That story sounds more compelling.

So I sculpted right over that beer emblem. I decided that this guy has a magical shield which tells him secrets in blank pentameter. The sculpting was rough, but I wasn't in the mood for anything elaborate.

I also decided that there are no dwarves in the warbands I create, or on the Wyrdwold in general. Instead, there are Hunchymen.

Hunchymen was a term originally applied to those peasants who were forced to work in the drear and dangerous northern mining collonies of the Magnifex. The miners soon become stooped and mangled in the dwimmerdark--for they did not know what they were mining, and it was often deadly. When the peasants, after a few scant years of labor, could no longer work, they were forced out of the colonies to seek out vagrant and beggarly existences.

The term is now used by those in the grubby townships of the Wyrdwold to describe those who choose to dwell on the open land. These include, most commonly, veterans of the many wars of the Magnifex who, as meager compensation for their ruined lives, have been granted allotments of stony and twisted ground on which to stead; but also hermits and outcasts, roving banditry and peddlars, and less defineable, more troubling creatures which stir only at night. Hunchyman in this context is used to communicate that the individual is a stranger, is potentially dangerous, and is quite possibly mad.

Hunchyman is also used very loosely in the townships as a general derogatory term for the poor, the lowly, the dirty, or the openly lecherous. It's use in this context generally conotes that the hunchyperson is not wanted and not welcome.

To let me know what you think, go ahead and build yourself a shield and then paint upon it an emblem that you think best represents the gist of your thoughts. Or just put a comment in the comments box.

*Don't get me wrong, I love beer. But how do dwarves even grow grains up in the mountains? Environmentally, one would think that grapes would do better. It is at least conceivable that some dwarves prefer wine.


  1. Hum, funny thing. I guess it's not a question of worship, they don't "worship" boars, axes and stone either, it's just the principle of coats of arms. Rich medieval families didn't worship dolphins, lions or anything, it's just these are sypbols to represent the family. A dwarf carrying a beer mug on his shield is just showing he comes from a family of brewers of something. A dwarf with a boar on the shield just shows he is from a family of hunters or that an ancestor of his killed a giant boar or something.

    Well at least it's the way I see to make it less silly. ^^

  2. It's a good point you raise. Lazy fluff is a hobby-wide standard these days.

  3. Cool, I appreciate the backstory of the hunchymen. I dig the fluff!

  4. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the first time I ever encountered the beer on the shield thing was Bugman's brewery. I seem to recall a scenario where they were defending the beer in much the same way that they defend gold in other scenarios. I think that if other manufacturers put the beer stein on they are channeling this. And yes it's lazy. Personally my lazy convention for dwarves is to include some kind of Anvil and/or hammer.

  5. That's a very good point. The Bugman's Brewery scenario is actually a pretty fun usage of beer because it takes away the even more embedded portrayal of dwarven avarice. I hadn't thought of that.

    I guess when I wrote this, my head was in a place of creating a setting for scenarios and how troubling the idea of races can be in that context. (Because so much of fantasy scenario design essentially depicts race war.) Whether it should or not, this makes me a little uncomfortable. (I mean, regular war isn't all that great either). I guess the root problem that I'm getting toward now is properly motivating my scenarios. But the example of Bugman's Brewery is a nice counter to that line of brings us back to the tongue in cheeck, gonzo approach to scenario design. Maybe I should just loosen up and get some sleep...

    1. Fantasy is fraught with racism. Dwarves and Elves were pals but now hate each other. Everybody hates Orcs and Goblins. The Numenoreans (or whoever your golden age uber mensch are) subjugate everyone. When we play we need to look at our actions within the construct of the greater world. I remember my parents being horrified by my depiction of what was essentially orc genocide in the Bone March. But role playing a mass murderer doesn't make me one. In the context of Greyhawk I was reclaiming a human kingdom from an orc infestation, and of course personally profiting while doing so.

    2. Indeed. The important thing, I think, is that we carefully consider how we design our settings and scenarios. Fantasy is fraught with racism, but sometimes it seems like it is handled in a facile way (for instance, portraying orcs as infestations does avoid the sticky problem of motivating and depicting a more complicated struggle with a fringe culture).

      It doesn't bother me so much that these subjects are taken up, it just bothers me that these days they are the default position. It is far too easy to assume, without bothering to think, that this is what fantasy has to be. (it isn't, obviously)

      Yet practically every game, from (modern day) Warhammer to Song of Blades and Heroes, seems to take it for granted that their players only want to play race v. race battles. (As opposed to early editions of Warhammer, in which you could build an army of any number of creatures... alignment was the only consideration.)

      Which is cool. They are our games after all, regardless of what the rules say. We can do what we want.

      Thanks again for your comment, Sean. It really helps me to flesh out my ideas when I can guage peoples responses!