Monday, June 1, 2009


Duergar are silly.

There is the germ of a good idea lurking in the Duergar soul, but they are in essence, concept, and execution silly.

It starts with their name. Duergar (pronounced "DWER-gar") hardly rolls off the tongue; that's not really their fault, though. Although the Duergar mythos seems more akin to the Norse "Dvergar" (dark dwarves), the particular D&D spelling is lifted straight from the Northumberland dwarf-men of English mythology.

The silliness continues in their concept. Dark Elves, their spiritual kin, have a strong hook - they're backwards elves. They live in caves instead of forests, they worship evil instead of good, and they have dark skin instead of fair. Everyone can get on board with the idea of things having an evil twin.

Duergar don't quite make the cut, though. As "backwards dwarves" go, they're sub-par. Their "evilness" largely amounts to living underground, being relentlessly mercenary, and having a fundamentally grumpy disposition. An untrained observer might find it tough distinguishing them from the good version.

It gets worse. Time and subsequent editions have not been kind to the dark dwarves.

D&D 3.5 established that Duergar were naturally psionic. Possibly it was hoped that "evil psychic dwarves" was more memorable than mere "evil dwarves". Among the inherent powers of these psychic dwarves was the ability to increase their size, becoming giant dwarves. (As Order of the Stick points out, an oxymoron.) Evil psychic dwarves have many excellent roles in literature, all of them played by Michael J Anderson, but the ability to "hulk out" defeats any aspirations the psionic Duergar had to pulling off "creepy" rather than "ludicrous".

4th Edition delivers another savage beating to Duergar self-respect. Says Thunderspire Labyrinth: "Duergar beards and hair conceal long, stiff spines that carry a burning venom. They can pluck and hurl these quills like daggers."

Apparently so ubiquitous is this quill-plucking that the Monster Manual 2 defines it as their racial trait. Dragonborn breathe fire, Eladrin teleport and Duergar throw their hair at people. This is in addition to their psionics, apparently - the Duergar Champion is still kitted out with his super-growth hormones, and will not hesitate to deploy a Large miniature base the second he gets bloodied.

These, then, are the theme enemy for the second of Thunderspire Labyrinth's mini-dungeons. As players get ready to explore the Horned Hold, they'll be looking forward to a whole mess of fighting against size-changing mind-reading hair-throwing little people. The stuff epics are made of.


Brian said...

I just stumbled upon your blog while doing a search for thoughts on Thunderspire Labyrinth, and I'm impressed by the level of detail and thoughtfulness you bring to your critiques.

It just so happens that the party I DM is likely heading to the Horned Hold in our next session. I trade off campaigns with another DM though and am going on vacation so it won't be until June 25th unfortunately. But in 3 weeks time... the quills will fly?

I have little experience with duergar from previous editions, so I have little constructive to say here other than yes... they do seem a bit silly. However, the two duergar in the Chamber of Eyes did evoke a mostly serious response of awesomeness from my players when they flung their beard parts. I expect it may get tiresome quickly, though.

Maelora said...

Actually, I'm pretty positive 1st edition Duergar, in the Monster Manual II, also had psionics and growth powers.

For me, duergar weren't irredemably silly until the Porcupine Beards in 4E.

But then I always thought derro did the 'dwarf's evil twin' thing better,

(And if you want to be pedantic, a lot of things about drow are silly too. It makes no sense that an underground race should have black skin. At least FR retconned this, saying they were originally a jungle-dwelling race...)

Maelora said...

Oh, by the way, Greg - thanks for your measured and insightful contributions to the WotC boards. A shame they are largely wasted on the fanboys and the '4E Avengers', who see any constructive criticism of their beloved religion as heresy. Take today as an example.

I'm beginning to see why 'Eleven Foot Pole' has the 'safe distance' disclaimer.

Kelly Davis said...

Quite frankly, the throwing of beardy porcupine quills suprised the hell out of me when it happened. I used my halfling's second change race power to avoid a nasty hit. I personally have no problem with these hate filled little (or big) guys.

The Stray said...

I've never had a reason to use duergar in any game I've run. I can use dwarves and make things morally ambiguous instead if I want to go the "evil dwarf" route. I always rather wondered what the point of the duergar was. And now they have porcupine beards. No.

Inyssius said...

... their art in the Monster Manual 2 is pretty good, I think. See the URL in my name again.

And the beard quills go back to 3.5, in which they belonged to the Durzagon--a half-duergar, half-devil sort of fiend. Apparently all duergar are devil-touched now, which I suppose makes sense since it's kind of a large part of their culture these days.

Greg Tannahill said...

I don't think I have a problem with one subset of Duergar throwing quills; it's just wierd that it's so ubiquitous that they ALL do it.

Re: the Wizards forums, I go there for a good argument. That's what forums are for. Sometimes I'm accidentally a jerk; mostly though it brings out my best writing.

One of these days I'm going to run a drow rebel, who, tired of the chaotic-good surface-dwelling scimitar-wielding ways of his entire race (apparently), travels to the Underdark to lead a lonely, noble existence murdering people and poisoning the crap out of foolish adventurers.

Maelora said...

Viconia deVir in Baldur's Gate is a pretty good riff on the 'Drizzt Clone' stereotype. She's a renegade drow who hates her people... but is still evil. Trying to romance Vicky with a good character is a deeply painful (if ultimately satisfying) process.

martryn said...

I forgot about the throwing of the beard quills. I guess they did mention thrown. I've been using the duegar as if they just bristled their beards or something and the spines flew out on their own. Makes more sense as a Minor Action that way. And it's hella effective and scary to have one move, quill, and then charge. My party now has a cleric who very much so respect the entire duegar race.

Greg Tannahill said...

Sadly the Horned Hold presents an environment that's exceptionally easy to tank, especially if your tank happens to be a teleporting Eladrin who can largely treat attacks of opporunity with impunity. As the one in our group is. Ranged attacks, to a large extent, are things that happen to otherparties.

Jerril said...

My players are about to march into Thunderspire, and I've been enjoying your series on this dungeon immensely.

I've been considering rewriting the Horned Hold to be populated with yes, some duergar, but mostly the last remnants of the original minotaurs (downleveled to fit in). Fiend-worshiping Minotaurs at the top of the local ecology, of course, to boss around the fiendish duergar.

I will be pronouncing them Dvergar. It's so much easier to say...

I'm also stealing the idea that they fire spikes automatically, without throwing them - and I'll probably retcon their description to be quill-y all over and with big digging claws. Might as well make them full-on porcupine dwarves...

CaptPoco said...

I think WoW did Dvergar pretty well. They meshed dwarves and dvergar together into one race that had good and evil clans. The Black Irons (the evil ones) had coal black or ash white skin and red beards. Or something like that.

Dvergar should be eliminated as a race, or melded into dwarves. If you have Dvergar (evil dwarves) as a race, you might as well have Pirates (evil humans) as a race.

Joe M. said...

I realize this is almost ten years late, but if you check out D&D 5e's Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, it gives great perspective to Duergar, and actually made me want to play one. (Also, they ditched the beard spikes)