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Some dwarf lore, particularly the video game Dwarf Fortress, depicts dwarves not just as aggressively alcoholic, but as a species that functions better when drunk than when sober. That they need alcohol to get through the working day the same way a human might need caffeine.

Now, the easy way out here is to just depict dwarves as acting drunk when sober and sober when drunk, but to me that seems rather boring, and I have an alternate concept I'd like to explore: what if dwarves, without the aid of alcohol in their system, acted too sober? What if the alcohol was used to stave off something equally but oppositely debilitating about their normal brain chemistry, something that alcohol brought them down from?

If having alcohol in a dwarf's system allows them to function like a sober human, then what parts of their "excessively sober" brain chemistry could they be using the alcohol to deal with?

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    $\begingroup$ how do dwarves bodies work? Without that info, I am afraid we cannot answer $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Oct 21, 2022 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Really? I'm asking how their bodies (more specifically their brains) could work to facilitate this reaction to alcohol. What should I change about the question? $\endgroup$ Oct 21, 2022 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ What is it that makes alcohol necessary for them to work well? For example, for us we know that we need glucose in our blood to stay active, so with not enough glucose we run out of fuel with all the consequences. If you don't define that, the best guess we can do is answering based on human physiology, which is not dwarvish. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Oct 21, 2022 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: We can assume human-like but with less claustrophobia (and more agoraphobia). The OP is asking "if drunk is too hot, and sobor is comfortable, what is cold?" $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2022 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin I genuinely don't know what to tell you. English is my native tongue. $\endgroup$ Oct 24, 2022 at 10:57

7 Answers 7

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Depressants

Firstly, alcohol is a depressant. The chemical interaction with the brain basically slows down parts of it, which in humans, impairs things like reflexes, motor function, perceptive functions, etc. It also releases some psychological functions, such as the behavioral moderation that is common in sociological interactions. With less moderation, individuals tend to be more open in interactions, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

When considering these aspects of alcohol, there is definitely a character scenario for which alcohol would be helpful, and I think we can look to the very thing that Dwarves are known to be best at for guidance.

Perfectionism

Dwarves in every medium and story are master craftsmen. There are a couple of aspects that are key to crafting: repetition and a detailed eye. For basic material work and preparation, repeating systems that are meticulously tested are key. Alloying metals is a science that requires many tens or hundreds of hours to perfect, and then must be done the same way to maximize consistency in results. There are many other tasks that require the same level of perfect repetition to craft incredible works, especially larger ones, such as massive gates and structural metal work.

When it comes to making intricate items, a craftsman must have an uncompromising vision and eye for detail. Similarly for weapons, a single small defect can cause a weapon or armor to fail under stress when it matters most. Dwarven weapons and items are generally known to be near perfect examples of material work.

These factors lend themselves to an entire fantasy group that is given to perfectionism and potentially, as a cause of said perfectionism, general anxiety.

Anxiety

Perfectionism can be driven by a tendency to fear the worst from “underperforming.” Indeed, in my earlier comment on weapons and armor, I mention how minor defects in those things can cause failure at bad times. However, the entire species seems to tend to be surly and grumpy. In growing up with parents and family members that are perfectionists and grumpy, it would make sense that individuals would adapt to become anxious and perfectionist as well due to being exposed to negative consequences for failure during the learning phases of life. Experiences that cause that sort of perfectionism and general anxiety for failure could certainly make for excellent crafters; however, those experiences could also lead to crippling anxiety-driven behaviors, such as avoiding contact with others, choice fatigue and paralysis, and adrenal fatigue.

Side Effects of Anxiety

Of the many side effects of extreme anxiety, fear to make and maintain relationships is especially detrimental for a society. Without the drive and desire to be and work with other members of the society, it would eventually collapse. Cultural isolation leads to infrastructure degradation, supply problems, and other connected mental health issues. For reference, see the isolation caused by the response to the COVID pandemic. This sort of scenario goes a long way to explaining the dwarves general sense of isolation and grumpiness, and especially around other cultures, since Dwarves as a society might see any potential inability to be perfect as a stressor, and external cultural relations tend to be more tense than internal ones.

On a more individual level, choice fatigue and paralysis occur when every decision is burdened with anxiety and makes making future decisions harder and eventually impossible. Individuals experiencing decision paralysis will seize up when asked or forced to decide on something. The will either not respond or present apathy (“I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me.”). This can lead to all sorts of personal and social issues, such as poor time management, avoidant behavior, and the inability to make functional, rational decisions.

Adrenal fatigue arises when an individual is constantly “on edge” to the point that their body’s endocrine system can’t produce enough hormones for normal function without sparking the “fight or flight” response. The physiological consequence of this tends to be an apparent lack of motivation to engage in basic life tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and productive work. If a whole society falls to this, then it would be catastrophic for the long-term outlook of the group.

A society facing an extreme version of this anxiety-based perfectionism would seek any method for reducing mental stress, and one particularly available substance immediately comes to mind.

Solution: Alcohol

Drinking alcohol on a moderate level in humans (1 to 2 standard drinks per day) has been know to decrease adrenal response, encourage social interaction in a positive way, and promote more sound sleep. In Dwarves, who tend to have a higher mass despite being shorter, this moderate drinking level would be higher, more akin to what we are familiar with in media. In short, if Dwarf culture drives all of them to have a crippling general anxiety disorder, then alcohol would be the self-medication that is cheap and readily available to all, and thus promoted within the culture and imbibed frequently.

Answer: Excessively Sober

Now, to actually answer your question an "excessively sober" Dwarf based on the above causes would likely display a few key characterizes:

  • Generally avoidant of others, seeking isolation and safety at almost any cost.
  • Nervous and anxious behavior that is dysfunctional in the immediate sense, it keeps them from holding conversation and focusing on tasks that are immediately important due to a general since of anxiety and fear
  • Mood instability driven by noticing any perceived imperfection, i.e. if they notice that someone hasn't put something away properly or made some similarly small mistake, the Dwarf might immediately engage in anger displays
  • And/Or people-pleasing behavior, seeking to ensure others are happy and satisfied with their work and presence, for fear of angering the other individual through imperfection or failure.
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    $\begingroup$ This is what I was going to write. Wow, you must be almost as smart as me ;-). Though I would have written Crippling Anxiety on the first line of my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Oct 21, 2022 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ This gives me a mental image of them isolating themselves when working on big projects and then getting so shamelessly drunk once they're done that they barely remember how they accomplished what they did, or even what they accomplished at all. They're just showing off stuff they made while only having maybe 40% of an idea what it even is. $\endgroup$ Oct 21, 2022 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ Actually alcohol is a "dirty drug", meaning it hits many receptors. Benzodiazepines could be considered as selective version of alcohol, that's why they are used in medicine and kind of more predicable and safe. So, alcohol works both as stimulant and depressant - things like dose or age can trigger paradoxical reaction (also common to benzos) which speeds you up. Check out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… and next sections for details/sources. $\endgroup$
    – Krzysiu
    Oct 22, 2022 at 3:35
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    $\begingroup$ Your description of somebody who’s “excessively sober” is eerily similar to a currently sober alcoholic who (ab-)uses alcohol to stave off social anxiety and existential dread. Although in this case that may work out. $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2022 at 2:56
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    $\begingroup$ One doesn't necessarily even need crippling Anxiety in sober dwarfes: They still do stuff, but don't get much done. You just wanted a butterknife to be produced, but no, half a year later you get delivered an absolute masterwork (and a corresponding price tag attached). While working and producing stuff, the sober dwarf's forge is worthless for society. Sure, a couple of dwarfes can be sober, but if there are too many sober dwarfes, nothing get's done $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 24, 2022 at 9:20
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Someone already had this idea -- it's called knurd and was invented by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld universe. It's basically described as feeling stripped of any comfortable illusions one might have had before and seeing the world as bad as it is.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, so without alcohol dwarves become Vulcans. $\endgroup$
    – brichins
    Oct 23, 2022 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ Saw this Q on HotTopic and came to add this reference in. Glad to see I wasn't the first to make the association. (and Welcome!) $\endgroup$
    – Brondahl
    Oct 23, 2022 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Brondahl same here... $\endgroup$
    – arne
    Oct 24, 2022 at 6:06
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If they are like humans, they would suffer alcohol withdrawal.

Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal

Despite the variability in the type and severity of symptoms that a person can experience, the clinical syndrome of AW has been well defined. Its symptoms generally appear within hours of stopping or even just lowering alcohol intake and, thus, BAC. The most common symptoms include tremor, craving for alcohol, insomnia, vivid dreams, anxiety, hypervigilance,2 agitation, irritability, loss of appetite (i.e., anorexia), nausea, vomiting, headache, and sweating. Even without treatment, most of these manifestations will usually resolve several hours to several days after their appearance.

The most severe manifestations of AW include hallucinosis, seizures, and DT’s (see also the figure on pp. 63, from Victor and Adams’ classic paper).

Hallucinosis, which may occur within 1 or 2 days of decreasing or abstaining from alcohol intake, is a complication distinct from DT’s. Patients with alcohol hallucinosis see, hear, or feel things that are not there even though they are fully conscious and aware of their surroundings

Alcohol withdrawal is what really happens when people who drink a lot suddenly stop, but to me it seems pretty grim for a fantasy with dwarves and leprechauns and stuff. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal.

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To expand on Arne's answer, imagine the effects on society if people could easily see through any politician's promises, see the falseness of a boss's promise to take care of them, or see the real future for anything they make. Societies offer promises so that people work together. People make things of beauty with the hope that it lasts for a while. Yet, the reality is that politicians can't deliver on their promises. The boss doesn't give the raise you need. Swords that were crafted in beauty are left to rust on the battlefield. Everything wears out, erodes, or rusts.

Think of the effect of accurately seeing the future of everything you do.

What's the use of working so hard when everything we hope for doesn't happen? The Tibetan sand mandala and the way that it is built for the moment and destroyed is an expression of how everything is impermanent. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sand_mandala

Another thought is that alcohol has a calming effect on their bodies and without it, they are so hyper that a child on stimulants could be considered mild. That would make them unable to have a society unless they were "drunk".

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One relevant fact is that there are a lot of humans who need alcohol in order to get by: namely, people with physiological alcohol dependence. For the sake of convenience, I'm going to call physiological alcohol dependence "alcoholism" (even though the word "alcoholism" can also mean a psychological dependence on alcohol, or a habit of drinking too much alcohol, or a combination of these).

When humans drink a lot of alcohol, they eventually develop alcoholism. Once they do, they suffer from symptoms of varying severity if they stop drinking (or even if they drink "too little"). As mentioned in Willk's answer, these symptoms can include anxiety, headaches, seizures, and even death.

So, in your case, I think the most important difference between humans and dwarves is that dwarves automatically have alcoholism. Whereas humans develop alcoholism by drinking a lot, dwarves are born with it (or they develop it at a very young age). Humans who stop drinking eventually become cured of their alcoholism, but dwarves who stop drinking never overcome it, just as humans who stop consuming vitamin C never overcome their need for it.

You get to choose how severe a dwarf's withdrawal symptoms are if they stop drinking. At one extreme, dwarves who stop drinking invariably die. Somewhere in the middle, dwarves who stop drinking suffer severe symptoms at first, and the symptoms gradually become mild, but never go away. And at the opposite extreme, dwarves can become teetotalers pretty easily, but the vast majority of them consider it to be a pointless effort.

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Lubricant

But not of the social variety. Some lubricants use alcohol as a component. The bodies of Dwarves don't break down the alcohol. They have evolved (or were created by their god, as per the setting) to redirect the alcohol to their joints. It keeps them limber, literally. A Dwarf who does not drink enough has symptoms similar to extreme arthritis. If they go long enough without alcohol, they might even become unable to move.

Disinfectant

Similar to the above, Dwarves bodies do not break down alcohol, or at least not quickly. Instead, they keep it in their blood. It helps them fight off various bacteria and viruses. This is part of the reason Dwarves are known to be such a healthy race. Of course, the downside to this is that a 'sober' Dwarf is much more vulnerable to illness.

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This is totaly whimsical but you could imagine that dwarfs benefit from :

Epilepsy

Mining is hard work. Sometime you find something (gold...) but most of the time it is mostly repetive stone breaking. But dwarfs have a secret. They are geneticaly subjects to a certain type of epilepsy seizure : clonic seizures, which are caracterized by repetitives compulsives mouvements, especially their arms. These seizures are greats to mine without even thinking about it. To be abble to easily trigger it, they have to lower their seizure threshold. Alcohool is a very good solution for that and therefore dwarfs are always drunk. When they want to trigger the seizure a small "mushroom" is then all they need and here we go for a mining session...

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