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I want to have a world with dwarves who were gifted a magic language from their creator god (different one than the one who made humans) that they can use to inscribe magic onto weapons and other forged items, but unless they have some reason for staying cooped up in their territory they'd likely be the more dominant species and thus I want them to be isolationist, but I don't know what their motivation would be.

As a note, I haven't yet decided exactly how powerful magic weapons would be (they aren't anything like weapons of mass destruction though) and I'm open to magicky answers as well as more realistic ones.

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    $\begingroup$ "chief I'm not doubting you but can't we enchant this weapon with a spell so only a worthy soul can lift it instead of guarding the entire time?" "Bleep... why don't you tell me earlier you bleep..." $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Feb 28 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ Are dwarves even known to have expanionist tendencies? They aren't humans. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Feb 29 at 1:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Informer being isolationist (or pacifist) isn't "better", however. It's just different. It only becomes "better" after we impose our moral values, and even then, not necessarily (e.g. in our world, most people believe some wars are worth fighting, even if they all say they are pro-peace). $\endgroup$
    – Allure
    Commented Feb 29 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ This is literally Ming China from real life history. The most scientifically and militarily advanced nation in the world at the time, that had all of its needs fulfilled internally and saw no need to expand its territory by conquest, especially when there was enough internal trouble to go around. Its wars were primarily punitive in nature. $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Commented Feb 29 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ That's what happens when you're isolationist! Your awesome weapons and tactics of yesteryear become no match for new ways of warfare. You don't need the dwarves to be right to stay isolationist, or be isolationist forever - just within the scope of your story. $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Commented Feb 29 at 16:41

17 Answers 17

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The dwarves don't want to risk their big advantage.

So far as the dwarves know, they are the only ones who have the secret of forging magic weapons and armor. But once they're forged... they're just swords, axes, helmets, chainmail. Anyone can pick them up and use them. A dwarf with a magic weapon against an enemy without one is a winning battle. A dwarf with a magic weapon against an enemy with a magic weapon... maybe isn't.

War is a messy business, and occupation even moreso. No weapon is perfect, and if the dwarves go to war there are certain to be casualties and even the occasional defeat, with battlefields left open for anyone to scavenge. Even if they win, they must then occupy the lands they conquered in order to extract any value from them, and that means constant risk. Troops can be ambushed, equipment stolen, bases raided in the night. All of these are avenues by which magic weapons walk out of dwarven hands and into the hands of outsiders.

So, the dwarves are very careful to keep these weapons close. Fighting on their home turf, where they can be certain the terrain and population favor them, they are much less vulnerable to losing their weapons and, ultimately, their advantage over their rivals.

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    $\begingroup$ This makes sense-- the gear is both a pragmatic tool for survival and literally a divine mandate, both of which argue for a strong desire to keep it out of the hands of others. This argues for further isolationist behaviors like strict restrictions on trade and immigration in either direction to prevent theft or rogue dwarf smiths pursuing selfish gain. Probably some fairly undiplomatic responses in the event that they learn of a stray piece in the wrong hands, too. 1/2 $\endgroup$
    – Jay McEh
    Commented Feb 28 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ It would also encourage a domestic policy that limits the size of its own nation. A distant colony or even a contiguous empire spread too thin to ensure total central control risks splinter groups that might start doing things the wrong way, permitting gear in hands that endanger all dwarves-- either out of misguided philosophy or trying to entice allies in a conflict against the central authority. Small is safe. 2/2 $\endgroup$
    – Jay McEh
    Commented Feb 28 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ Another risk is that humans are good at reverse engineering things. If the secret magic language were deciphered (or even if the runes were just copied) it would be catastrophic. $\endgroup$
    – abestrange
    Commented Feb 28 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ Could also lead to interesting nuances of equipment, e.g. sword chains, lack of archery due to losing magic arrows, etc etc. Could make for some interesting constraints! $\endgroup$
    – shearn89
    Commented Feb 29 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ This could well be what shearn89 was referring to with "sword chains", but an interesting idea could be that they attach their melee weapons to their plate armour by means of a chain or metal rope to significantly hinder enemy efforts to loot dead bodies. Their enemy now has to carry the whole body away or work at the latches to their armour, rather than just picking up a sword. $\endgroup$
    – M S
    Commented Mar 1 at 2:46
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This is a pretty common question which is most often answered 1 of 3 ways:

Option #1: They have long reproductive cycles

Humans live short lives, and when they have children, they have them back to back, just a few years apart until they've pushed out 3-10 new humans in just a few years. Given enough resources, two humans today can turn into 1000 humans just a century from now; so, it's no wonder they are so willing to throw away a few lives here and there on thier constant wars.

Goblins are even worse. They have whole litters at a time spreading like feral pigs.

But Dwarves are a very long lived race with a very low rate of reproduction. Instead of having all these babies back-to-back and raising them together, a dwarf has 1 baby and raises it all the way to adulthood before becoming fertile again; so, 2 dwarves today might max out at just 8 after 100 years.

This means that even though dwarves are individually masters of the battlefield, they cannot afford the replacement cost of casualties when fighting wars as often as humans and goblins do. So if the dwarves did go to war with the humans, they could win battle after battle, generation after generation, but thier population would be in constant decline until they eventually run out of manpower.

The dwarves know this about themselves. So, while they are prepared to win any war, they will often choose peace at any cost.

Option #2: They are mystically or physically bound to live underground

Modern fantasy dwarves owe thier origins to Norse Mythology where they were portrayed as spirits of the Earth living in thier underground world of Nidavellir. They were not so much little people, but fundamental spirits of nature able to take on a passably humanoid form. In this sense, they would be more like an Earth Elemental, with all of thier power, desires, and sense of belonging being tied to the underground world. In this case, asking why Dwarves don't conquer the surface world is like asking why Nixies or Dryads don't conquer the desert. Coming to the surface literally takes them out of thier element, making it an unwanted, uncomfortable, and probably weakening experience for them.

Or... if you want to take a more naturalistic approach to dwarves, they could just be highly sensitive to sunlight or the constant temperature changes you see in the surface world such that they are biologically maladapted to live here.

Option #3: Because they are small

They are called dwarves because they are small. Even when you factor in all the "tough for thier size" characteristics of a dwarf, humans are litteral giants next to them. Our long legs make us faster, our long arms give us a huge advantage in reach and mechanical advantage. We can draw a bow far enough to make effective use of archery, and we can ride horses which give us cavalry.

So yes, dwarves have powerful magic armor and weapons, but that does not make them militaristically superior, it's just barely enough to offset how physically inferior they would be to a human army if they did not have those things.

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    $\begingroup$ #1 has important bonus of providing answers for why they don't need to spread out and conquer. Overpopulation is a major factor pushing people to go to new places. Of course today it mostly means growing suburbs and building blocks of flats instead of military expansion, but the need itself is very much present. With way slower growth, and especially with possibility to expand underground in 3 dimensions, the pressure to expand may be negligible. $\endgroup$
    – Frax
    Commented Mar 2 at 14:56
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Maybe they have a superior military because of their isolationism.

For whatever reason, they want to stay in the territory they have and be left alone, but they are afraid that their neighbors will refuse to leave them alone. So they have built a powerful army and developed magic weapons and stuff, but it's all geared to fight defensive wars. They never start anything but they make damn sure everyone who comes near their territory knows they can and will defend themselves if they have to.

A defense force is quite different from an army of conquest in terms of training, force structure, logistics, etc. The answer to "why doesn't the existence of the army breed territorial ambition" is that the army isn't capable of conquest and everyone knows that.

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    $\begingroup$ A good real-world example is where Australia purchased the Leopard MBT in the 1970s but deliberately avoided purchasing landing ships / aircraft that would allow them to be rapidly deployed outside of Australia. This made them a strategically defensive weapon - "don't attack us and we can't attack you". This concept could be applied to the magic weapons, if their effectiveness is proportional to their proximity to some immovable magical power source, in addition to be reflected in force structure and non-magical logistics. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 29 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Switzerland had a similar approach in early/mid 20th century. Rifle training for everyone, hilly terrain and strong buildings in many places. They didn't have the ability to attack, but attacking Switzerland would have been very difficult. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1 at 17:09
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Frame challenge:

I don’t think there has to be a reason.

Reading your question I had deja vu, because I imagined exactly that scenario recently with dwarves and all. And never did I think I needed to justify it. They are more advanced, they have a good life, they don’t care about other races. It was self evident for me, so it might also be for your readers.

I guess if I break it down, the reason would be they are more advanced not only militarily but in general. Technologically and magically. So life’s just nicer, and they can easily trade for everything they would want from less developed parts of the world.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the answer. I think it's so easy to get caught up in the Western expansionistic and imperialistic view of the last few hundred years to realize that fantasy races just wouldn't think that way. Dwarves and elves have such a different worldview that I don't think it needs to be justified, unless it's plot relevant. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1 at 15:33
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Having the best weapons doesn't mean your invincible. Hard to beat yes, not impossible to beat! Plus some other stuff.

Firstly other species have been given different forms of 'magic' by their own Gods. If there are Elves in your setting they might not be able to forge a better axe but their healers might be the best in known world and they can move and blend into nature like ghosts compared to a slow, noisy army of armor clad Dwarves. If there are humans their Gods may have given them endurance and cunning, a gift for innovation and adaption and a determination to win and survive at all costs. Also fecundity as Nosajimiki pointed out Dwarves don't reproduce quickly. Humans are like rabbits in comparison.

So yes Dwarves will have a huge advantage in a stand up fight. But that advantage is a matter of degree and Dwarves will still be killed readily enough by a (comparatively) poorly forged blade or arrow. And who says it has to be a stand up, toe to toe fight anyway, certainly not the humans the sneaky bastards!

Secondly need. The lands and kingdom they occupy provides sufficient resources to meet their most of their needs plus a valuable surplus for trade. Yes, that might change at some time in the future but it hasn't yet.

Thirdly Geography. For historical reasons the Dwarven Kingdom originated and grew in part of the world that was easily defensible e.g. under or within high mountain ranges, on a peninsula with few good lines of approach from the sea and relatively narrow passes from the landward side. That kind of thing. Expansion out from that area is possible of course but the terrain beyond the kingdom does not so readily lend itself to easy defense. This means colonies established beyond the current borders would for the most part require a chain of castles or forts to protect them with large standing garrisons that would also need to patrol the roads and border paths leading between towns as well as back to the homeland.

Fourth Cost. Given the above the expense of expanding outwards is generally speaking seen as not being worth the price, at least for now when there's no specific pressure on the Kingdom to do so.

Fifth Culture. The Kingdom exists on the lands given to them by their god and for the most part they have a strong bond with that land. It's their heart and home. This doesn't mean Dwarves don't travel or live elsewhere in the outside world. It just means that a majority of the population feel no great need to do so.

Lastly Diplomacy. Wars have been fought at various times and places with the other races and probably will be again but the leaders of the Kingdom recognized a long time ago that it was usually preferable (and much cheaper) to just forge relationships bound by oaths rather than to forge armies and then lose chunks of them even if they are only small chunks. So as a rule of thumb? Diplomatic relations with the Kingdom's immediate neighbors are for the most part peaceable (usually). Trade flows, envoys come and go, there are border squabbles occasionally and if a major war breaks out somewhere else? Unless it directly effects us, who cares?

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They Live Underground

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Everyone knows that Dwarfs hate the sunlight. That's why they live in underground cities tunneled into a mountain range. Unfortunately for Mr. Dwarf, the lands surrounding the mountain range have a high water table. Any tunnels they dig will be full of water in no time. That means they cannot expand into those lands without coming above the surface. This is a big no-no for Mr. Dwarf.

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Because that's where the gold is

Really, that should be it. But I am one of the pedantic [expletive]s who enforce the "no comment-as-an-answer" rule, so I will elaborate.

Have you ever seen people harvesting gold in a plantation? No, because gold doesn't grow in trees, right?

You know those nerds that get triggered when you pick a rock from the ground and call it a stone? (rather than having healthy triggers such as when people confuse Star Wars with Star Hike). Well according to the geology geeks, most of the gold in real life should be between three to fifteen kilometers deep (between two and nine miles). We are about to reach the 4 km mark for gold, but with a lot of difficulty.

But when the Dwarvish forefathers found out where all the gold is, they said: "Curse the king, let us make our own kingdom underground! With 24/7 taverns, and hookers! In fact, forget about the kingdom and the hookers!"

The Dwarven miners then made gold mining much more efficient by fully embracing the home-office philosophy, i.e.: they live where they work. And the deeper they go, the wealthier they become.

A famous Dwarf bard called Four Pieces of Eight had a song about this, which went:

Me flow, me show brought me the gold
That bought me all me magic things
Me chamber, me cart, me garb, me gems
See, duergar, I have risen and yet I remain the same (What? What? Aye!)

All that gold affords them dwarves all the alcohol they need for a balanced diet. It is also how they pay for all their military might and keep a very strong and healthy economy.

On top (or below?) of that, living underground has meteorological perks. They don't need to worry about seasonal blues nor shoveling snow, and since they don't eat crops they don't have a problem when there are droughts or floods.

Last but not least, humans and elves hate going to the underground, not only because of the dwarves' lack of charisma. This means that the average dwarf doesn't have to wake up at seven AM on a holiday to open the door and answer whether they have a minute to hear the word of Talos.

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    $\begingroup$ And now, for another famous Dwarven song: "Gold, gold, gold gold gold, gold-gold gold gold gold! (gold gold)." $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 29 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ I would rather give "Diggy diggy hole" as an example of a dwarf-like song ((as it actually exists)). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 2 at 19:33
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Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel puts forward the example of China, which had a large head-start in technology and shipbuilding, failing to colonize the rest of the world; whereas Europe, technologically behind the curve for a thousand years, did so instead.

Why? Precisely because China had unified, stable, and long-lasting political structure. This resulted in one dynasty putting out an edict that deep-sea-traveling ships, which had been invented and were starting to be used for long-haul trade, had to be scrapped and banned in the future. And this edict was actually obeyed for centuries.

In contrast, Europe being broken up into a host of relatively petty kingdoms allowed for a competition in policies, and someone like Columbus could shop around to multiple princes until he found one that would fund his voyages. There was no central authority to ban the idea. And once treasures and slaves were brought back to one country, there was a rush from other countries to not be left behind.

So it could be that the well-known law-abiding and conservative nature of the dwarves, their willingness to loyally obey one leader, compounded by their long lives (so longer terms holding the throne) would make a level of consistent insularity possible, which to outside (medieval European) eyes would appear unthinkably alien.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to add, that for a long time europe had such a central authority: the church. But in the age of conquest they supported the idea to carry the holy word into unknown lands rather than oppose it $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Commented Mar 1 at 7:41
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Because they're extremelly sensitive to human pathogens.

Dwarves live underground, exposed to a whole different set of microbes during all of their lives. Most of human pathogens never find their way into dwarven colonies, so they never build immunity to them - despite their incredible physical prowess, dwarves can be hit bad by something that for humans would be harmless - colds can be lethal to them.

So, they keep themselves apart. Of course, they don't necessarily know how germs work, but they do know that hanging out around humans is almost a guarantee to get you very sick very fast, so they avoid it.

Magical weapons do no good when you can be killed by a sneeze.

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Discriminatory Dwarves; Hawt Humans

The Dwarven patriarchs (or matriarchs, or whatever you want your ruling class to be) forbids fraternizing with outsiders, because they fear the "watering down" of dwarven blood. The half-dwarf (actually usually about one-and-a-half-dwarf) offspring of dwarves and other races have their stout and muscular limbs replaced by wimpy noodles, are always banging their heads in the tunnels, and are generally ostracised as the result of perversion.

This ruling of course has a bunch of fallout, such as some of the more transgressive dwarves finding the "forbidden races" hot exactly because they're forbidden.

And as always in such matters, the members of the ruling class who most vehemently insist that it's an evil perversion, are also those most likely to be caught tangled in bed with their human and elven servants.

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You say the magic was bestowed upon the dwarves by their god(s), but, that could also be the net that binds them.

They need to stay on their island to cast their magic, an inscribed weapon will work well overseas, as it's already enchanted, but, you couldn't create more until you were safely back home from your travels.

May be it's something special about their temples on the island - or one temple deep in a mine, where such magic can be performed, alongside an ancient artifact gifted by the gods.

This adds a weight to the weapon, a prominence, a travelling dwarf must pick their battles as to not risk damage or forfeiture of their blade, as a replacement is a long journey away.

So what's to gain from leaving their island? Food is a plenty, resources are rich, the main instigators of wars and colonialism. So only a handful of dwarves keen to see the wider world make the effort, the natural suspicion and intrigue of their magical devices would make such travelling fraught, and therefore put off all but those with the strongest wanderlust.

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Different vector of expansion

Without the technology to build skyscrapers the surface dwelling races are bound to expand their territory horizontally if they wish to aquire new space to populate or new ressources.
Dwarfs on the other hand expand their territory mainly vertically.
A new generation need affordable housing? Just dig a new level below.
The new generation needs more food? Just dig another level to plant the underground crops there.
The coal mine is depleted? Dig deeper until you find a new source.

And the best part about that: there is no other kingdom in the way of expansion to fight. Just earth and rock to dig. And the occasional balrog ofcourse.

Still the dwarfs would need a strong standing army. With all the gold and steel and other valuable ressources they would be a good target for raids from those pecksy surface dwellers, so they need to defend themselves.

However there are legends about one kingdom succeeding such a raid and stealing a magic weapon and multiple tons of gold in the process. The castle that is the origin of such stories is a ruin, half sunken into the ground due to a collapsing sinkhole, or was it the dwarfs that came for revenge? And of the people of that kingdom nobody is alive anymore. Or at least the survivors and their heirs keep silent and never talk about the magical weapon in their chest...

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They are fighting a different enemy.

Perhaps they dug too deep, and now they have an incursion of demonic forces into their territory. Or perhaps they angered the gods by dabbling in forbidden magic. Or perhaps they are engaged in a civil war.

Anyway, they now have other problems than expanding. Even if they have that threat under control, starting another war for expansionist purposes would spread their forces too thin.

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They have massive agoraphobia. Everytime they look out windows or gods beware at the sky on the street, thanks to telescope eyes, they realize the shape of the universe and get afraid they fall off the earth into the sky, away into the universe forever.

They have a myth about stars, they are minerslanterns, who lost contact to the earth, falling away forever. Thus they always look down, or even blind themselves temporarily if they have to "god beware" go on a adventure above ground.

They even have a myth about the moon, that it was a mountain "who came loose", drifting away, cause somebody dug through the pillars of the earth, before an earth quake. And all the magic couldn't save them.

They fear elves, who love the void above there heads.

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  • $\begingroup$ You insult the dwarves by suggesting that any dwarf would fear an elf. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Feb 29 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely no reason to be afraid of a file format $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Commented Mar 1 at 6:54
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In addition to being technologically advanced, they are also sociologically advanced. Advanced enough that they understand that other people have rights too.

Sure, they could go and take land or wealth from their neighbours, but doing so would make them into robbers.

No self-respecting dwarf want to be a robber.

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Their creator god doesn't allow it.

Their god gave them magic, but only for peaceful purposes and self-defense. If they would use their magic weapons for offense, then their god would take their magic powers away.

This would also explain why nobody else in the setting has magic weapons. The Dwarfen God won't allow heathens to use the power of magic against the faithful.

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Just look at the USA today and in recent centuries, there are several reasons:

  • Even with magic weapons, war could be costly in human lives. Especially in front of guerrilla, and in a medieval setting guerrillas are not rare
  • Even with magic weapons, war is financially costly. The dwarves have enough magic weapons and soldiers to defend themselves, but not enough to fight multiples countries or occupy a country for a long time
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