marsden_online: RPG log icon for this character (Arthur)
So I was lying awake at 5am this morning and my muse decided to get stuck into the fact that most fantasy races have the same sexual binary as humans, despite in a world with magic and elementals and active gods and so forth the options are far broader. This will probably be one of a short series.

This is written with a lot of D&Disms but the principles should hold elsewhere.

Moradin forged the first dwarves from elemental earth and stone and imbued them with the spark of life. Dwarven reproduction is analogous to this process.

Much is made in some worlds of the apparent rarity of dwarven females. In truth dwarves have either one or zero sexes depending on how you count it*. A dwarf is capable of performing the ceremony of reproduction alone if necessary, but the toll it takes is so great that the burden is usually shared between two or more individuals.
* some non-dwarven sages argue that the number is equal to the total dwarven population at any given time. Amoung the dwarves themselves the concept has little meaning and they can get quite ... upset if pressed to discuss it with outsiders.

When a dwarf or group of dwarves decide they wish to reproduce each carves an amount of flesh from their own body to serve as "raw material" for the new dwarf. The amount is not great but the process is physically and spiritually debilitating, leaving a single dwarf on the verge of death [0 hp]*. Involving multiple dwarves reduces the cost to each proportionally. This sacrifice cannot be healed through magical means and full heath must be regained through rest and natural healing.
* I considered having it be a fixed HP cost, enough to render a low-level commoner near-death or dying. While this would explain why dwarves wait years to reproduce (gaining a few levels) it also made it trivial for higher-level characters, so I'm saving that for the horde races.

This "raw material" is placed in a specially crafted container (referred to as an egg by other races although it is far more complicated) and incubated at a high temperature for a period of time - usually at least a year - which the blessings of Moradin are cast into them. (This last is optional but results in stronger, healthier babes and also makes sure someone is present when the newborn draws breath). Over this time the material within gradually combines with the container and takes on the form of a dwarven babe, which at some point ceases to be unliving and draws it's first breath as the spark of life ignites within. At this point it will quickly perish in the heat if not removed.

Deep mining dwarves use pools of lava as nurseries, dwarves who live closer to the surface construct forge-like ovens and fuel them with precious charcoal.

It is possible for one dwarf to take the raw materials into themselves and act as a living container and incubator. In this case the process takes much longer (years if not decades) and the physical process is similar to human reproduction.

As each dwarf literally grows from pieces of their ancestrals dwarves are very aware of and respectful towards their ancestors and take family (clan) very seriously, including debts of honour incurred to/by and past offences committed against/by their predecessors. Dwarven family trees can get very complicated very quickly.
I'd set the maximum number of parents involved at 10, with the normal range being 2-4.

An "egg" which is not incubated or which ceases to be incubated before the spark of life enters it remains inert until incubation is resumed (this must be done with great care lest it shatter.) Dwarven adventurers actively seek out the nurseries of lost dwarven settlements or any other place where a desperate dwarf or dwarves may have as their final act performed a modified ceremony of reproduction, imbuing the babe-to-be not only with their bodies but also their memories of what has come to pass.

Further thoughts

Initially I thought that there would be a standard form and materials for the "eggs", crafted and blessed by the priesthood. That may well be the case in large towns or cities but in smaller settlements I can see that there would perhaps be one person skilled in the crafting, or how to craft a basic shell would be common reproductive knowledge among dwarves and they would be created from the best available earthen materials (in extremis including the bodies of dead dwarves).

How much does shell material matter? My personal preference is not all that much but like any medical care a better quality shell would improve the chances of a healthy child and would be perceived to improve the chances of a gifted one. It could have a cosmetic effect - eg skin and heir colour. Or it could have a distinct mechanical affect - changing which stats get bonus/penalty at character creation for example (defining a dwarf's subrace) or opening up access to particular level-1-only feats and subsequent trees.

At the extreme you could have a very strict caste-based dwarven society where families work / save for decades to earn the right / afford to have a child born into the shell of a "better" caste.

Corrupted "eggs" - most species in fantasy settings which lay actual eggs can have them corrupted somehow. This would be a good origin for the Duergar but the opportunities for infusing something "else" with an incubating babe are endless.

These dwarves aren't "flesh and blood" as we think of it - I'd give them the [Earth] subtype (meaning they could be turned/rebuked by clerics with an appropriate domain). As they get older they likely slow down and harden, until they just stop moving altogether and the spark of life departs. It could be very difficult for a non-dwarf (or even a non-specialist dwarf) to tell when this point has been reached. Most dwarves who survive to die of old age would probably take up residence in their tombs some time before the final breath.

I'd represent this ageing as a trade off in base movement against an improvement in Constitution and natural armour. +2 CON and +2 Natural Armour for -2 DEX and -5' base move sounds about right. I'd also make a feat (which could be taken multiple times) available to dwarven characters replicating this but at a cost of -2 DEX and -10' of base move. An ageing dwarven barbarian or monk with a few instances of this feat could be a nasty surprise to a group of adventurers entering what they believe is an abandoned tomb.

In most settings these dwarves would almost universally be your sturdy "male" dwarf with a beard like steel wool. However individual appearance (retaining beard etc) is ultimately up to the individual dwarf and dwarven bodies can even be moulded by use of a stone-shape spell, although the process is physically traumatic for the subject.
Interesting! I really enjoy takes on fantasy races that move beyond the standard Tolkien model while also focusing on real life rather than just outward appearance, elaborate history, and combat abilities. It's way more evocative and easier for me to use a race when I understand how there basic needs and biology function, as that's the stuff that really drives how their society functions.

Question - what does this do to relationships amongst dwarves? Does physical intimacy exist? Are there long term bonds of intimacy beyond close friendship?

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