Dragonlance, Gully Dwarves, and Race

Reading any RPG where, during character creation, a player selects her “race” is going to be fraught as a (white) American. There’s just no way around it. I like to think that this is a benign part of how we play pretend, a relic like hit points and initiative, but a lot of our RPGs do represent a kind of racial essentialism that has been the bedrock of horrifying ideologies in the real world. The idea that your race gives you a bonus to some attributes, a penalty to others, particular abilities that others lack and so on is, and should be, culturally anathema.

This coming Friday I’ll run the next session of my Dragonlance campaign, Age of Despair. It is a re-hash of the classic DL series of Dragonlance modules from back in the day, with changes of course, but basically hewing to the same storyline. As I’ve written before, I have trouble with some aspects of Krynn as a setting, apart from the geographic issues. The biggest problem I see is that there are at least three whole races who are there for comic relief, and at least two races that are described as worse off than other humanoids in every way. The three comic relief races are the kender, gully dwarves, and tinker gnomes. The two races that are worse off in every way are the gully dwarves and the goblins.

The main characters don’t interact with goblins very much in the original Chronicles storylines, but they do have a lot of interaction with gully dwarves. Goblins are sword-fodder, as they are in most fantasy settings, which is regrettable. Even in Middle-Earth, the grandfather setting for goblins as sword-fodder, we get insights into their culture and personality. We get multiple songs in The Hobbit from goblins, who are cruel and petty but at least kind of interesting. At the eaves of Fangorn or in the tower of Cirith Ungol we get some insight into how goblins and orcs interact with each other. These glimpses give us an image of a ‘race’ that serves as bad guys, but is still based on Tolkien’s experiences during the First World War. He said the he met many ‘orcs’ on both sides of that conflict. This doesn’t excuse the creation of a race that exists just to be killed by heroes, but there is more nuance there than in most derivative fantasy that followed.

Running the DL modules and following the broad Chronicles storyline, gully dwarves actually play a significant role. Goblins disappear almost immediately after the first little combat encounter on the road to Solace, but gully dwarves show up in Xak Tsaroth, and in the slave caravan to Pax Tharkas, and in the Hammer of Kharas storyline and so on. They are a prominent feature of Krynn, and as a whole have a bigger part to play than kender and tinker gnomes combined.

And gully dwarves are just awful. They are a whole race that is, to an individual, stupid, shallow, filthy, and utterly lacking in ambition. It is the case that they are beaten down by other races, but they are in and of themselves entirely lacking any redeeming qualities. They aren’t merely simple, they’re awful in every way. And not only are they sword-fodder, they are just kind of thrown away, as in Xak Tsaroth for example. No-one even notices that they plummet to their deaths when the lard-pot chain mechanism collapses.

What it comes down to is that I just don’t want to portray gully dwarves at all. I tried reworking them, so that they are oppressed like house elves, but it would be too distracting because the obvious recourse would be for the PCs to ally with them and foment revolution. Which would be cool, but a detour brought on by a dumb aspect of the setting.

Right now I’ve switched them out for goblins. In Solace, this means just switching out Setsun the gully dwarf with Sestun the goblin. In Krynn, goblins are already established as put-upon, no only by bigger goblins but by pretty much everyone else too. But at least they aren’t portrayed as intrinsically filthy and stupid. We can at least imagine a clever goblin, or a successful goblin, or a dangerous goblin, etc. I also like that, if I keep this switcheroo, the PCs will be forced to join forces with goblins at a couple points in the story, which is mildly subversive.

As for the gully dwarves – I’ve always found Krynn’s mountain dwarves to be some cold hearted bastards, so maybe a gully dwarf is a dwarf whose clan identity is stripped away and who is forced to do all of the menial work of Thorbardin. I’m also reading David Graeber’s Debt, so they could be debt peons perhaps. Or maybe they won’t exist at all. I haven’t mentioned them or established them yet, and it might be preferable to just excise them from the setting. I still haven’t thought of anything positive they contribute.

Happy MLK Day.

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