Tabletop Thoughts: Playing Mountain Dwarves

Hello! Welcome to the first post in a new series where I pick apart the DnD 5e races. In each post, I’m going to choose a race and then dive into how you can start roleplaying a character of that race based on the written lore (either by sticking to the cultural norms as written or looking at interesting ways to subvert them). I’ll follow this up with a short guide on building an optimised and interesting player character using the chosen race.

For reference, when I’m talking about optimising a player character in these posts, I’m looking at ways to make the best use of racial abilities, and promote synergy rather than overlap between racial and class abilities (for instance, if your class and race both grant you medium armour, one of those abilities is wasted).

This is for more than just satisfaction: hopefully, it will lead to some fun, powerful, and more unusual builds! Races are created to be of roughly equal power and each ability counts towards that total. It’s similar with classes. If your class grants you an ability that is the same as or better than an ability granted by your race, or vice-versa, you’re losing out a little bit compared to picking another race or class.

Having said that, this is D&D. You can play any PC any way that takes your fancy! I’m not saying that this is the only way to play, but I hope I can convince you that the characters I present here might be fun to play, and that you’ll be inspired to steal some of my ideas. If any one of my thoughts triggers an “I never thought of that” moment, I’ll consider that a job well done 😊

OK, on to the nitty-gritty.

 

Being a Mountain Dwarf

What’s it like to be a mountain dwarf? Or a shield dwarf, depending on setting and region.

  • Mountain dwarves have a strong sense of honour.
  • Clan standing is incredibly important. Wars have literally been fought for clan honour.
  • The recognition of ancestors and ancestry is important.
  • To mountain dwarves, defending their underground stronghold is more important than any individual.
  • Mountain dwarf society is stable, resilient and slow to change. Dwarves tend to endure rather than adapt.
  • Dwarven society has a strong sense of legacy. Many dwarves will spend centuries honing a craft and creating works that will stand long after they have died.
  • Dwarven crafts are built to last.
  • They don’t like boats, generally.
  • They do like treasure, generally.

Mountain dwarves are the most common type of dwarf you’ll see in most campaign settings. They’re slightly taller than their hill dwarf cousins and have slightly lighter-coloured skin, coming from the colder northern climes. Still got huge beards, of course. And they weigh at least as much as a human, despite being shorter. They’re still, just about, a medium creature for rules purposes.

 

Roleplaying a Mountain Dwarf

What might this mean for PLAYING a typical mountain dwarf, then?

Well, let’s start with a traditional approach:

  • You’re straightforward and true to your word. Lying and manipulating those around you is at best cowardly and at worst dishonourable.
  • You’re loyal to your friends.
  • You’ll hold a grudge against those who wrong you or your clan. Forever.
  • You’re slow to trust. Having lived in a society that is mostly your extended family, the concept of sleeping and eating with those unknown to you is alien.
  • Tradition, society and legacy are important to you. Typically a mountain dwarf will be lawful.
  • Mountain dwarves tend to worship dwarven gods and tend towards good, often being in conflict with goblins, orcs and even chromatic dragons. Or Balrogs, I guess.

And how might some of these cultural tropes be subverted? Or what reasons might a dwarf have for forgoing the expected norms?

  • The honour system can be brutal. One clan member can bring down an entire clan, destroying their name and reputation for years to come. It is easy to see why an individual might decide to escape this system.
  • If you are considered to have been dishonourable and your clan disowns you, you are not legally allowed to even have a name in dwarven society. Being cast out and looked down upon for your entire life is a lot less tempting than trying to find another place in the world, outside of dwarven rules.
  • Dwarves don’t like to adapt to new ideas. Radical thinkers are unlikely to see their ideas considered, let alone acted upon, with any speed at all, which can be deeply frustrating.
  • Dwarves mistrust most arcane magics. Abjurations and rune-work are acceptable, but non-divine magic is generally considered a distant second to cold, hard, dwarven-forged steel. A magic user or sorcerer might find their talents better appreciated elsewhere.
  • Dwarven kingdoms are slow to allow access to their strongholds, though they do conduct trade. A dwarf looking to learn more about other races, or seeking to encourage closer co-operation, may find that the best place to do that is from outside the mountain walls (Dagna from Dragon Age, anyone?)

 

Mechanics of Mountain Dwarves

So, we’ve had a look at the roleplaying elements you could tap into to play a Mountain Dwarf. What about the mechanical elements?

Ability Scores

Let’s start with ability scores:

  • +2 Strength – Higher strength gives you two things: better melee damage (the hardest hitting single-hit melee weapons are strength-based); and the ability to climb or kick in doors (both Athletics or Strength checks by default, and common ones at that!)
  • +2 Constitution – Good for HP, which is good for everyone. Also handy for concentration checks and saving throws to resist the effects of poison.

Mountain dwarves are the only non-human race to have more than +3 total additions to their ability scores (races usually get a +2 modifier to one score and a +1 modifier to another) and that alone is a pretty strong positive. This is countered by the fact that strength and constitution are the two least versatile stats. They’re not BAD by any stretch – they just give you a bit less flexibility if you’re going for an optimised character. If you are going that way, these modifiers are a strong nudge towards choosing a melee-based character and not much else.

Racial Abilities

Now, what about racial abilities?

  • Poison Resistance/Advantage on Saves – Poison is a common damage type and most poison saves are constitution-based, so this synergises well with your +2 constitution. Nothing bad about this!
  • Dwarven Weapon & Armour Training – Free proficiency in the best strength-based one-handed weapons, and medium armour. You can get a lot of use from this if you’re playing a class with no armour proficiencies and minimal weapon skills. Most martial classes, like fighters, rogues, paladins, etc. already come with these proficiencies, though, so you’ll have some redundancy if you’re playing one of those.
  • Smith’s/Brewer’s/Mason’s Tools – Fun for flavour. It’s definitely worth checking out Xanathar’s Guide for suggestions on more practical uses for tools. However, how much use these are will be heavily dependent on DM and player creativity and flexibility.
  • Stonecunning – Good news: you can make your DM hate your character by forcing them to come up with an explanation of the origin of any stonework you point at! If you manage to squeeze much actual use out of this one, kudos!

All in all, not a bad mix. I think the dwarven weapon & armour training is most interesting here, because if you want to make the best use of this ability, you’d want to move away from a class that naturally complements the ability score bonuses above. Jumping from no armour to medium armour can be a big boon to the right class, but if your class starts with heavy armour already, it’s just irrelevant.

 

Building our Mountain Dwarf Character

OK, so we’ve had a quick rundown of what you get with a mountain dwarf. Now, let’s talk about optimisation! How can we build a character that makes the best use of all these abilities?

Ability Scores

Let’s start with what I’d do if I were using a Point-Buy ability score system (ability modifiers in brackets):

  • 16 (+3) Strength [14+2 Dwarf Bonus]
  • 14 (+2) Dexterity
  • 16 (+3) Constitution [14+2 Dwarf Bonus]
  • 10 (+0) Intelligence
  • 10 (+0) Wisdom
  • 10 (+0) Charisma

I’m always tempted to make the most of racial bonuses and in this case we have a strong argument for the 16/14/16 that I’ve started with. We play to the strengths of the race with the constitution and strength scores, and having 14 Dexterity (a +2 modifier) means that we can make full use of medium armour (which allows a maximum of +2 AC from Dexterity). It’s nice to have no negatives, but you could easily get a +1 to one of the other stats, if you’re happy to have a -1 somewhere. Personally, I would take 12 intelligence and 8 charisma if you’re doing this, as that works well for the build I’ve suggested below. Plus, it fits into the archetype of the slightly anti-social dwarf.

Class Selection

This guy is definitely a melee fighter. He’s got good strength, good dexterity and good HP, though he’s no genius. So, what class are we going to go with? Maybe a ranger or a fighter? Perhaps a strength-based grappling rogue who gets to wear medium armour?

I present to you, the mountain dwarf wizard!

You may now think that I’m mad, (especially with that +0 modifier to intelligence, the spellcasting stat for wizards), but hear me out:

  • Some spells need you to make attack rolls; some spells require an enemy to make a saving throw against your spell. Both of these spell types rely on your intelligence modifier, if you’re a wizard. BUT: there are lots of spells that enhance your or your allies’ abilities without requiring you to make any rolls. Essentially, it doesn’t matter if you have lower intelligence, so long as you avoid spells which need attack rolls or saves.
  • Wizards are ritual casters. The ritual caster ability allows you to cast ritual spells (marked as such in the Player’s Handbook) without preparing them in advance or using up spell slots, as long as you have 10 minutes in which to cast. So, you don’t need to worry too much that you can only prepare a couple of spells a day.
  • A mountain dwarf wizard build makes FULL use of dwarven weapon and armour training. Wizards, by default, can’t wear armour and can only use a couple of weapons. A mountain dwarf wizard can use the best one-handed weapons, and jump from no armour to medium armour. That means that as soon as you have 50gp for scale mail, you’ll have a base AC of 16. And you’re a wizard.
  • Using a warhammer or battleaxe (thanks to weapon training) allows you to use two hands to do melee attacks (using the versatile property), whilst still keeping one hand free for spellcasting!
  • You’ve got a +3 to constitution saves to help you maintain concentration on spells off the bat. And, although you’re squishy, you at least have 9hp to start with. That’s out the range of being one-hit by a kobold or goblin crit. Just. More than can be said for that Rogue who chose to go with 10 constitution, though.

Building our Mountain Dwarf Wizard

OK, assuming you’re still on board, how are we going to do this?

  • Take the Shield spell at level 1. This will be your bread and butter for a few levels. It’s a reaction, so poses no problem to action economy, and it is amazing. It will boost your AC up to 21, if you grab some scale armour. Remember, it lasts the whole ROUND, so until the start of your next turn, all attacks are made vs. the shield.
  • Take booming blade, or a similar, melee-based cantrip at level 1. These use your melee weapon attack roll! It’s free extra damage. Green flame blade lets you deal 5 damage to an adjacent enemy on top of the 1d10+3 damage from your mighty hammer!
  • At level 2, it’s time to take the abjuration speciality! All wizards get to pick their speciality at level 2 and this one will play into your strengths perfectly. The arcane ward ability gives you 2 temporary HP at level 2. Not bad off the bat; that puts you on 18hp at level 2 (you’ll be gaining 7hp a level, plus your ward improves by 1hp per level), which is only 4 less than if you were a fighter. More importantly, these temporary hitpoints recover when you cast an abjuration spell. INCLUDING RITUALS.
    • As if to complement this, Alarm is a level 1 abjuration ritual. Cast it between each fight for 10 minutes, and you can use it to make sure you’re not followed, or to guard a room, or lay a trap. Your ward regains 2hp each time you cast Alarm, and it doesn’t even cost a spell slot. And remember, the ward still hangs around at 0hp!
    • Since Shield is an abjuration spell, every time you cast it as a reaction, you also recover 2hp for your arcane ward mid battle, if needed.
    • You get access to Absorb Elements at level 1 too, so you will have the ability to reduce physical attacks through Shield, and reduce elemental damage with absorb elements. Both spells are abjurations! Absorb elements also increases the damage you do on your next melee attack, if you use it to reduce damage. You practically want that low level fire spell pointed at you.
  • Your arcane ward can be used to protect allies from level 6, making you a spectacularly useful tank character.
  • You get a familiar who can use the help action every turn to grant you advantage on melee attacks via… CELESTIAL OWL FLY-BY SWOOP ATTACK! (Owls get the fly-by feature, which means they do not provoke opportunity attacks whilst flying)
  • There is an argument for taking 12 intelligence and 8 charisma, as mentioned above, since you then get to prepare another spell and your arcane ward has 1hp more. You would get to prepare another spell, too. If your team has a high charisma character and you’re happy leaving the persuading to them (or want to lean into the grumpy dwarf trope), this could be a good tactical decision.

Things to Watch Out For!

But what are the downsides, I hear you ask? NONE! None at all!

OK, maybe not quite, if we’re being fair about it:

  • You’re bonus action-light. You need a free hand to cast somatic or material spells as written, so dual wielding is hard. You can take the dual-wielder and war caster feats to remove these drawbacks and wield two warhammers whilst throwing spells around, but that takes at least 8 levels, as you only get the chance to take feats every 4 levels AND taking feats is technically an optional rule.
  • Level 1 is still hard. You’re squishy and as written you can’t start with medium armour equipped. Your class determines your equipment and since wizards don’t come with the ability to wear armour, they don’t start with any. You can choose to roll for cash instead, but don’t forget to buy a spellbook! They cost 50gp and that comes out of your cash too. Check with your DM on starting equipment though, since I know lots of DMs are happy to allow small adjustments. You’ll burn through your spell slots to start with, too, though this will become less of a problem after one or two levels. Plus, you’re an effective melee fighter, so you will have more fallback than some wizards.
  • You are reaction-heavy. Shield, Absorb Elements, Opportunity attacks. They’re all tempting and all useful. This will become less of a problem when you get access to higher level abjurations like Stoneskin.
  • You have traded the ability to prepare lots of spells for melee damage. For the first few levels you will be reliant on preparing the same one or two spells every day (probably absorb elements and shield). You’ll want to offset this with cool ritual spells (like find familiar and alarm).
  • Alarm is the only abjuration ritual ☹ – sad times, but being able to recover 2 temporary hp over 10 minutes, for free, is never going to be bad. To be honest, if there was a 5th level abjuration ritual, you’d be able to regain 10 temporary hp every 10 minutes, and it could end up being silly.

Some Backstory, For Flavour

In my mind, this guy is an apprentice Clan Crafter. He has specialised in repairing dwarven weapons for several decades (maybe a century), renewing enchantments on them and keeping them in working order. He’s probably trained in smith’s tools, or maybe jeweller’s tools if he caters to more expensive tastes. Generally he’s well respected, and he is just starting to make a name for himself.

Why does he leave to adventure? That’s up to you! Any of these ideas might work:

  • He could be driven out by a jealous rival.
  • His master is killed and he seeks vengeance.
  • He wants to build up his knowledge of enchantments before he goes solo.

 

Did this post inspire you to want to play a mountain dwarf, but you’re not convinced that wizard is a good class fit? Then check out my new guild, class and weapon combo (designed with dwarves in mind), the Dwarven Plaguebearer, over at DM’s Guild! Also, if you download it or buy it (it’s pay-what-you-want, but you’ll still add to my downloads count even if you want to download it for free) it means I know people want more things and I’ll keep them coming 😊

This is my first post on a D&D 5e race, picked mostly at random. I’m going to be putting more of these posts up soon, so drop a comment below, or on Facebook or Twitter, if there is a particular race you want me to discuss!

 

Next up will probably be Rock Gnomes, because they look pretty boring to optimise and I want to try to make them more interesting 😊 – also, I may have a homebrew class in the works that I think could make them a bit more exciting if all else fails…

Though maybe I shouldn’t pick races based on what I think will be least interesting…

One Comment on “Tabletop Thoughts: Playing Mountain Dwarves

  1. Pingback: Tabletop Thoughts: Playing Rock Gnomes – Tabletop Tales

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