—Saruman, The Fellowship of the Ring
While the Mines of Moria might fall outside the scope of our tabletop, in today’s From the Archives article, we’re nonetheless going to take a deep delve into the realm of the dwarves of Midgard, specifically those in the Iron Crags. And hopefully what we wake up therein won’t see our end come in shadow and flame.
To begin our expedition, we’ll look at the very nice, six-and-a-half-page write-up of the “Free Cantons of the Iron Crags” in the Midgard Worldbook, always a good place to start. This will introduce us to the seven major cantons of Bundhausen, Grisal, Gunnacks, Kubourg, Hammerfell, Tijino, and Wintersheim as well as the minor cantons of Bareicks, Juralt, Nordmansch, St. Mishau, Templeforge, and Vursalis. In this essential tome, we’ll also discover the lost halls of Krongard, Sargau, Villershall, and Volund’s Beard as well as the famous Golden Citadel of Friundor (about which more later). And we’ll even learn about Liadmura, the Eagle Court, the lost kingdom of the elves that once ruled these lands. Merely invoking that time is enough to cause a dwarf to attack however, so do be careful.
These pages, though brief, are dense in their offerings and can be quickly mined for wondrous nuggets of dwarven lore. For instance, did you know that the Black Fortress is the training ground of Grisal’s paladins of Khors and that it is a bulwark against Dornig and Krakovar? Or that the dwarves of the canton of Kubourg don’t live underground and mine at all but rather live outside in a valley where they herd cows and sheep? Why yes, they are the cheesemakers and leatherworkers of the Iron Crags, and they have also cornered the market on the supply of hops for all the canton breweries. And that’s an important fact to be sure.
Dwarves and dragons don’t traditionally get along, but Wintersheim’s halls are guarded by a white dragon named Hrothvengr. He’s revered by the dwarves there, but he’s not the brightest wyrm in the lands, convinced his pile of copper coins is a priceless treasure. You have a problem with that? Take it up at the annual Dwarfmoot, held in the standing stones of Locchistal, which lies under the glacier of Mount Locchis. But remember lost Liadmura? The ground here is littered with elven arrowheads, and high atop the mountain, a small Eagle Shrine to Valeresh still stands, the immediate area kept magically warm. That’s too high an altitude for dwarves to worry about, surely? And then there’s Templeforge, home of the dwarven airships… airships you say? Why yes. They might only build a new one once every twenty years, but build them they do. It’s also where the lift gas that keeps the ships afloat is mined. So you know, it’s important nothing ever happens to close that mine down, wouldn’t you say?
We’ve uncovered a lot of gems for sure, but dwarves never stop at just scratching the surface. So now let’s borrow a rare jewel from the vaults. The Dwarves of the Iron Crags was a Pathfinder Roleplaying Game supplement released in 2009. The 62-page softcover/PDF has 15 pages on the cantons as well as information on the Illuminated Brotherhood, the wandering Kariv, dwarven magic, and a bestiary. A lot of the latter pages have been covered/translated into 5th edition already, but we can sift through those initial 15 pages for some priceless gold. For starters, there’s a map of the cantons that gives us a closer view of that specific region than we have elsewhere, and then there’s some history of the dwarves’ migration from the north. We also learn that to qualify as a proper canton a settlement must have existed for 100 years, contain both free and cloistered dwarves, and its halls must include a set of forges or smelters, a brewery, a set of clan homes, and at least one temple or shrine. Furthermore, the dwarves of the Iron Crags still look to the remaining Northlands halls with reverence, the dwarves of Stannasgard, Tannasgard, and Wolfheim seen as purer in their dwarfhood than their southern cousins. Meanwhile, the dwarves of Zobeck are viewed as wayward by the devout dwarves of both the Iron Crags and the Northlands, “Children of the city and the Goddess Rava,” hardly dwarvish at all. There’s also a discussion about how no single dwarf was ever able to establish themself as the King of the Dwarves here, unlike their northern cousins, and how the cantons evolved a democratic system of governing themselves, ironically built on the back of slaves acquired in raiding the surrounding kingdoms.
One of our most delightful finds is the Pillars of the Law, which spells out the most common decrees for all the cantons. Married dwarves have the right to speech, can call a vote, enjoy the freedom to travel, have a right to property, and the right to challenge free dwarves to single combat. Free dwarves, on the other hand, have the right to property and the right to vote on going to war, and can join a mercenary company and share in its spoils, but they can only challenge other free dwarves to combat and can only leave the canton with permission. Slaves even have limited rights—namely to call out a master who fails to feed them or to accuse a dwarf that has murdered another slave. The slavery is usually for a period of ten years, working the mines, and the threat of slavery is a strong deterrent against neighboring kingdoms raiding the Iron Crags for its gold.
Another wondrous narrative vein in The Dwarves of the Iron Crags is the section on courtship, marriage, and children. A dwarf courting a cloistered woman is expected to visit nine times, bringing a rigidly prescribed set of gifts each occasion, and must propose marriage by the ninth visit or the courtship is off. Meanwhile, if a dwarf is marrying a woman of another canton, they must bring the “bride price”—a measure of their wealth and esteem for their bride. Often a wagon or wagons traveling the “groom’s road” is a tempting target for bandits. (Note to GMs and Kobold designers: guarding a bride price on its journey or recovering a stolen one would be a fun job for adventurers wishing to ingratiate themselves into the cantons.)
And did you know that in St. Mischau, glacier burial is most common among the well-off dwarven women? Their bodies are entombed in ice, perfectly preserved against time, though the men of St. Mischau generally prefer cremation. Usually, their ashes are scattered, but on rare occasions, they are infused into the metal of a “soul blade.” Soul blades are fascinating! At the start of any combat, the welder can turn themself over to the spirit in the blade, gaining a +2 bonus on attack and damage rolls—(remember, that’s in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game mechanics)—but they lose the ability to choose their targets or determine when combat ends. Once per month, the bearer of a soul blade may speak with the spirit of the ancestor in the weapon, though there is a risk of a disgruntled blade attempting to possess its wielder and go on a rampage. (Can we get this for 5E please?)
Now let’s not be too greedy. There are other treasures aplenty in The Dwarves of the Iron Crags, but we’ll leave them for your own spelunking efforts.
Meanwhile, why don’t we go back and talk about the Golden Citadel of Friundor? The Midgard Worldbook tells us that Friundor canton fell apart when its gold ran out. Then a second gold rush brought both humans and dwarves, but “derro and devils set miners against one another, and the halls are again abandoned.” These events actually play out in the 2015 release Halls of the Mountain-King, again for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. That single paragraph expands into four pages of background information, itself crammed with a novel’s worth of history and lore. Herein we learn, among other things, that the ancient dwarves had their own gearforged, a survivor of which, named Rabscuttle, might have even served as inspiration when Zobeck “invented” their gearforged in more recent years. Also there is an airship dock in the Warehouse district of Zobeck (who knew?), owned and operated by the Splitrock Company. (If any GMs out there want to send their players on a trip into the clouds, this is a good launching place.) The adventure sees cultists of Mammon fighting against members of the Illuminated Brotherhood and involves a corrupted ore called orichalcum (here a mix of gold and mithral) and even involves a gold dragon tasked with protecting the corrupted ore but now at least partially tainted by its influence. There’s so much here to pick through, either as lore for new tales or for courageous GMs looking to do a 5E conversion, though I personally would like to see a new trip to the currently abandoned citadel and learn what has been happening since these events concluded in the ensuing ten years.
Finally, some 5th edition help in polishing all these wonderful ancient gems—Warlock #12, “Dwarves,” adds some new elements to our undertaking. “Dwarves at War” by Head Kobold Wolfgang Baur gives us some updated news from the last Dwarfmoot as well as some dwarven battle magic and new magic items and an event table for happenings at the aforementioned moot should your players attend. “Dwarven Devices: Firearms and Airships” by Ashley Warren informs us of maker’s marks on dwarven inventions, discusses firearms and bombs, and details the history, types, and crew of a dwarven airship. The new stoneless background is for dwarves who spend their life in the skies as is the airship acolyte background for acolytes of Volund who practice their devotion in the clouds. “For Canton and Glory: The Ironcrag Way of War,” by Ben McFarland and Robert Fairbanks, gives us a 5E version of soulbound steel with very different mechanics from the aforementioned Pathfinder soul blades (different enough to maybe be a different thing entirely, I’d say). Backgrounds here include the soldier variant Ironcrag mercenary and the urchin variant former ten-year thrall, but my lord, what is the martial archetype variant Ironcrag badger rider? The war-badger mount is amazing! Every self-respecting dwarf is going to want one of those!
So there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this delve into all things dwarven. And we’ve made it back intact. Wait! Oh gods, look, is that a balrog?
Lou Anders is the author of the novel Once Upon a Unicorn, as well as the Thrones & Bones trilogy of fantasy adventure novels (Frostborn, Nightborn, and Skyborn), and the novel Star Wars: Pirate’s Price. He has also done role playing game design for Kobold Press, River Horse, and 3D Printed Tabletop. In 2016, he was named a Thurber House Writer-in-Residence and spent a month in Columbus, Ohio teaching, writing, and living in a haunted house. A prolific speaker, Anders regularly makes school visits and attends literary festivals and writing conventions around the country. When not writing, he enjoys playing role playing games, 3D printing, and watching movies. He lives with his wife, children, and two golden doodles in Birmingham, Alabama. You can visit Anders online at louanders.com, on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @Louanders.