How to Live Like a Dwarf, or, Dwarven Hold ‘Em

I’ve long been enamored with Patrick Stuart’s “a city without a name.” A few sessions into the Wall campaign, I realized that there were no dwarven PCs or NPCs in Wall, and I knew it was my chance to mix Stuart’s heavy metal, constantly fighting dwarf city into my own campaign.

It ended up being part that, part 30 Days of Night, with the dwarves building a circle of fortresses on the melting edges of the world’s Antarctic continent. During the 28-day darkness, sloth demons rise from the snow and ice, and only the dwarves keep them from corrupting the rest of the world.

As is maybe appropriate, the background stuff I developed for the dwarves resembled an iceberg: the players only discovered the tiniest bit, seeming generally uninterested in the snow and ice. I blame the Minnesota weather.

So I repurposed everything into a standalone story game, How to Live Like a Dwarf, or, Dwarven Hold ‘Em. It’s a game about keeping and discovering secrets while keeping demons at bay.

Here are the rules:

Dwarves live in a city in a mountain at the bottom of the world. This city is never named because no one is allowed to find it. Every day, they celebrate their skills and seek to discover the gifts the gods left them. These secret gifts give them great joy, so they like to keep and reveal their own secrets as well. Every night, they keep the demons of hell from escaping their prison at the center of the world.

A single game of The Secrets of Dwarves reflects one day-and-night cycle in their nameless city at the bottom of the world.

Goal: To end the game alive, with at least one of your secrets revealed and at least one secret still secret.

Art by Kevin Budnik.

Character Creation

Dwarves have built their society around seven Virtues:

GROOMING (beardcraft, accessorizing, bespoke, make-up, tattoos)
DRINKING (ale-guzzling, shots, keg stands, drinking games, leading rounds)
CRAFTING (stonecraft, jewelry, wood carving, sculpting)
STRENGTH (lifting, throwing, pulling, pushing, wrestling)
POETRY (family sagas, slam poetry, doggerel, song)
DIVINING (finding ore, finding water, casting runes, telling fortunes)
ROMANCE (mostly indescribable)


Assign your Virtues a number, 0-6. Each number can only be used once. A higher number indicates greater accomplishment and more likelihood of success.

The values assigned to Grooming, Drinking, and Crafting are public. The others can be hidden.

Create two secrets. One is potentially revealed by winning a contest related to a Virtue of your choosing. One is potentially revealed by losing a contest related to a Virtue of your choosing.

Lastly, choose a gender for your dwarf. This is kept secret; it is your most delightful secret and will be revealed only to the dwarves you marry. Possible genders are nearly limitless, but here are some options: agender, androgyne, bigender, boy, demiboy, demigirl, female, gem, genderfluid, gendersmash, girl, intergender, man, male, metal, nonbinary, pangender, polygender, woman, rock

Round One

Characters are celebrating the night’s victories and the day’s marriages. In round one, each player must challenge one other to a contest in a Virtue of their choice. The oldest player goes first. Play continues to their left.

Both players roll a die and add their skill number to the roll. The higher result wins. The characters receive appropriate tick marks in the “wins” and “losses” columns of their sheets. Any applicable secrets are revealed.

Example: Hrothgar High-Rock has the secret, “Pinkie finger of left hand is an immaculately constructed prosthetic,” and that secret is only revealed on a loss of a Crafting contest. Jillian the Hammer-Headed has the secret “Can sculpt lead like water” that is only revealed on a win in a Crafting contest.

Jillian challenges Hrothgar to a Crafting contest. They plan to make busts of each other. Jillian rolls a 5 and adds their 3 Crafting for a total of 8. Hrothgar rolls a 4 and adds their Crafting of 1 for a total of 5. Hrothgar loses, and both dwarves reveal a secret.

Round Two

Night falls. The demons are here. Each player, in turn, adopts the identity of one of the manifold beasts of hell, starting with the player who went last in round one. Demons need a realm of origin, terrifying features, and at least one name.

Each demon chooses one dwarf to challenge. The demon chooses which Virtue will decide the challenge, and it has a 6 in that Virtue. The dwarf may recite the tales of as many of their wins as they’d like, regaling the demon with how they were achieved. This wins are “bid” on the battle.
On a win, the dwarf gains a number of wins equal to the number they recited plus one as their listed deeds are amplified by besting a demon. Also, secrets may be revealed depending on their conditions.
If the dwarf loses, there are a number of potential consequences:

  • The wins they recited are converted to losses. They gain an additional loss as well.
  • If the dwarf has any unrevealed secrets, the demon may demand it reveal one if it so desires.
  • If the dwarf recited wins and they’ve already revealed both of their secrets, that dwarf is killed. However, it destroys the demon as well, overcoming it with the power of their deeds.
  • If the dwarf did not recite any wins and has already revealed both secrets, the dwarf is killed, and their body is tainted by their cowardice and inhabited by the demon. It will rise in 24 hours as an unholy thing.
  • A secret may be revealed if it matches the condition of the loss. This happens after the fight is concluded but before the dwarf dies, if applicable.

After all demon challenges are completed, the night is over.

Round Three

Living dwarves return home. They must bring any corrupted and possessed compatriots with. These dwarves are ritualistically slain, and the player of the slain dwarf must distribute their losses to the other dwarves, using each loss to cancel out one win.

Once this grisly duty is completed, dwarves with wins may propose marriage to any other dwarf. The two must discuss the terms of their contract, including property ownership, sexual allowances, and so on. If they come an agreement, they are bound forever. They reveal their genders to each other, each gaining an unrevealed secret (their spouse’s gender).

Once the marriages are finalized, the players may drink. Those characters with at least one of their secrets revealed and unrevealed are seen as successful within dwarven society.

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