I'm working on a high-fantasy setting with the ANSI standard complement of fantasy races. I'm using a map of Earth, since all the geological work has been done for me. Here, the dwarves led a bronze-age civilization in the eastern part of North America, which had been destroyed by natural disaster. They fled literally into the Appalachians, and have pushed back out slowly, expanding with trade over generations and extensively colonizing the Plateau and Valley-and-Ridge provinces of the Appalachian range. The site of Pittsburgh in particular has become the gateway to dwarven lands, with a large fortress dominating the river confluence there, right at the site of the historical Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne, with dwarves and other races living above- and below-ground in the surrounding area.

Pittsburgh is about 35 mi (60 km) from the nearest mountain ridge (near Mount Pleasant), and 70-80 mi (110-130 km) from the nearest big one (near Berlin or Altoona). While tunneling east would make for a shorter trip, water travel was almost always more efficient in medieval times, and one of the rivers that the fortress would control, the Monongahela, flows south into the same mountain ridges via a tributary (near Morgantown, WV for the first; and near Kingwood, WV for the second).

The Question

What would make the dwarves prefer to tunnel to their heartland in the mountain halls, rather than float to it, assuming that these older, "interior" mountain halls themselves are already connected by tunnels?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, JAF. Maybe this came off differently than you intended, but it seems your dwarves have already connected their sites by subterranean tunnels and you want to know if your dwarves should connect their sites by subterranean tunnels. So is this a, "I've done X, but is that the best option?" question? (Note: we do enjoy these questions.) $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Aug 23 '17 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the feedback, @Frostfyre! I've updated my question: basically, fantasy-Pittsburgh is a trade hub between the dwarves in the mountain halls (the most-developed, oldest dwarven settlements, which are connected by these tunnels) and the other races to the north and west. Though I'd certainly welcome a "but is that the best option" answer! $\endgroup$ – JAF Aug 23 '17 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ You could have the best of both worlds and have a river in a tunnel. $\endgroup$ – Josh King Aug 23 '17 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to close-voters: The problem cannot be fixed if the OP is not made aware of it. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Aug 23 '17 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ Without more data on dwarven culture this is a matter of personal opinion. In Tolkien's legendarium, dwarven mines were also dwarven cities, so a tunnel to the mountains would have sense if they were also building towns along the way or using the tunnels in any other sense besides connecting two points. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Aug 24 '17 at 7:24

Consider the dwarf perspective.

from http://www.personalitypage.com/high-level.html

ESTJ - The Guardian

Practical, traditional, and organized. Likely to be athletic. Not interested in theory or abstraction unless they see the practical application. Have clear visions of the way things should be. Loyal and hard-working. Like to be in charge. Exceptionally capable in organizing and running activities. "Good citizens" who value security and peaceful living.

From the perspective of a dwarf: tunnels are where they should be, because they were put there. They do not change from day to day, and what little changes occur can quickly be fixed. Things that should not be in the tunnels are not allowed in the tunnels. Tunnels are reliable.

Rivers, on the other hand are not even for travel. They are for nothing. They are never the same twice - full of random things floating along and sunken under the water that your boat can hit. It might be too shallow to pass one day and have a sudden current the next. It is windy or rainy, or terribly sunny, or frozen - even all of those in the same day. Rivers epitomize unreliability and chaos. Also, the ropes that you need for tying yourself to the boat are cumbersome and get tangled, but are absolutely necessary because if you fall in the water and your friends cannot haul you out, you will surely die. Dwarves do not swim.

  • $\begingroup$ Looking at the wiki page for the tributary I mentioned, the "epitome of chaos" moniker seems to fit very well, since it includes Category IV and V rapids before a boat would even get to the bigger mountain range I talked about! Yet another point in favor of the tunnel! $\endgroup$ – JAF Aug 23 '17 at 19:58

The following does not account for culture. Dwarves like the underground and may care little about the advantages of surface transport. Nevertheless, all other things being equal:



  1. They're cheap. All you need is a barge and you don't need to feed horses or maintain the river (other than docks).

  2. They may move faster than a horse-drawn carriage.

  3. Barges can haul much more than horse-drawn carriages.


  1. You can only go where the river takes you.

  2. You can't easily defend the river.

  3. You are at the mercy of weather.




  1. You control the tunnel, they're easier to defend.

  2. You can tunnel anywhere you like.

  3. You are unaffected by weather (depending on the quality of your tunneling).


  1. Tunnels need air. This is an issue usually ignored in fantasy novels, but without air, tunnels become saturated with CO/CO2 and methane (thanks to the horses, but it also occurs naturally) quite quickly. ...And Radon! Don't forget the Radon, Y'all!

  2. If a cart breaks down traffic in the tunnel slows or stops until its repaired.

  3. Tunnels are expensive to build and maintain. Horses are expensive to maintain. Cost, cost, cost.

  4. Carts hold very little compared to barges.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clear, well-constructed answer, @JBH ! To the Cons list for the river, I would add that it's not entirely maintenance-free if you're trying to go upstream, in which case you'll either need an onboard propulsion system such as rowers, or a towpath for your team of horses to walk on. I think that might be another point in favor of tunneling, myself! $\endgroup$ – JAF Aug 23 '17 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point! You'll have a good story! $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 23 '17 at 20:22


River travel is rather limited. Limited to the space of the available meanings for transportation across said Rivers. So if masses of people have to be moved, a tunnel would enable more of them to do so at the same time. Ships, or whatever else can be used for river travel, also force people to wait for them, to travel in groups and to have a person with you, who is able to control them. A tunnel doesn't.


You have dwarves. Dwarves have always lived inside of tunnel and cave systems. (At least in all the stories I've heard/seen/read about them so far). They probably just feel more comfortable with traveling through tunnels. So let them.


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