Dwarves at War: Tactics of the Stout

by Mark A. Hart, Dragon #328

War stands among the most revealing facets of mortal existence. Conflict brings out the best and the worst of every race and reveals both its strengths and weaknesses. Each race develops its own methods for waging war to meet its goals, highlight its strengths, and compensate for its weaknesses. For example, orcs and goblins rely on their overwhelming numbers, halflings fight with trickery and guile, and elves use hit-and-run archery raids. For their part, dwarves wage war in their own distinctive style.

Understanding dwarven warfare requires working from general philosophies toward specific tactics. You must understand the three foundations underlying their philosophy of war and the principles that evolved from these philosophies. These principles are designed to accentuate dwarven strengths and overcome deficiencies. From these base ideals, dwarves developed tactics with a focus on small, specialized units as opposed to massed armies. Because dwarven tactics favor small units, they provide an excellent model for adventuring groups to adopt.

Dwarven Philosophy Of War

No intelligent, rational creature seeks war or relishes in carnage. Unfortunately, bloodthirsty monsters driven by conquest, such as orcs and goblins, seem to enjoy violence. Living in proximity to such monsters forces dwarven conclaves to perfect their war craft simply to survive. A three-part philosophy stands at the core of their style of warfare.

The Shorter the Battle, the Better: Because combat inflicts suffering on all sides, the first cornerstone of dwarven philosophy holds that the shorter the fight, the better for all involved. Dwarves possess tremendous patience, but even the most patient dwarf understands that no one profits from a prolonged conflict. This lesson teaches them to fight with decisive force and to commit every resource necessary to win.

Expend Firepower, Not Manpower: The second cornerstone declares that swords, bolts, and armor are easily replaced, whereas dead warriors are not. Dwarves possess limited numbers, a low birth rate, and often find themselves surrounded by countless enemies. The death of a few dwarves might devastate a clan that cannot replace them for decades. Meanwhile, savage humanoids and other monsters possess staggering numbers. These creatures often suffer terrific losses, yet recover within a few years due to high birth rates and fast maturation.

When dwarves fight, they emphasize firepower over manpower. "Better to expend a thousand arrows to kill one orc than lose a single brother" remains a popular saying among many clans. Dwarves emphasize discipline, superior training, and superior equipment to offset the disadvantages that small numbers present. As a result, dwarven units wear the toughest armor and wield the best weapons available to them.

Fight with Unified Purpose: The final cornerstone stresses the importance of unity. The bedrock of dwarven culture consists of duty, honor, loyalty, and the good of the clan over any one individual. Dwarven society emphasizes the community over the individual in several ways, including military service, willingness for self-sacrifice, and dedication to a cause.

Most dwarven societies expect military service from nearly every capable member of the community. As a result, dwarven player characters likely served in the military before their adventuring days. The term of military service varies, but ten years remains standard. Exclusions exist only for those who perform other critical duties, such as clerics and smiths.

Dwarves understand the necessity of self-sacrifice, especially during war. If their clan or kingdom goes to war, most dwarves volunteer to serve in the military or assist with homeland defense. Veterans maintain their combat skills even after retirement in case their people need help; these grizzled warriors form a valuable pool of experienced veterans critical in training new generations of warriors. Civilians dig trenches, construct defenses, tend to the wounded, and assist smiths in creating weapons and armor.

Such determination often surprises outsiders. Elves and humans, typically strong advocates for individuality, find it difficult to understand dwarven resolve and unity of purpose. One observer likened dwarven focus to a "gathering storm, filled with anticipation and potential, waiting to be unleashed like lightning."

Dwarven Combat Principles

Throughout centuries of conflict, the dwarven philosophy of war has led to several general combat principles, four of which are described here. Each provides insight about how dwarves fight and why.

Smaller is Better: Whenever possible, dwarves fight in small, specialized teams consisting of two to four soldiers rather than in massed armies. An army or large unit represents a tempting target for enemy spellcasters and massed missile volleys. Because dwarves often fight underground in cramped quarters, massed units become a liability. Smaller units possess superior mobility and versatility, and they pack a harder punch than their numbers might otherwise suggest. When the terrain if favorable for larger units, dwarves sometimes travel in squads of eleven to twenty, with a few commanders mixed among them. Such larger squads are still smaller than most enemy formations and often break down into smaller teams when needed.

Dwarves often fight in mixed bands of fighters, clerics, wizards, and rogues depending upon the specific mission. Eliminating an enemy leader requires fighters and rogues, while destroying a vital bridge crossing needs the spell power of clerics and wizards. Dwarven strike teams wear the best armor possible, wield masterwork or even magic weapons, and use cooperative tactics. In many ways, these dwarven units resemble adventuring parties.

Never Fight on the Enemy's Terms: This is a universal rule of warfare. Dwarves are masters at choosing when and where they fight. Dwarves never recklessly charge into battle without garnering every possible advantage first. For example, against surface dwellers, dwarves prefer to fight at night when their darkvision gives them an edge against the enemy.

At times, dwarves choose battlefields to counter an opponent's advantages, such as speed or mobility. Because dwarves move at a slower rate than most Medium creatures, they often position themselves so that difficult terrain separates them from the enemy. The dwarves then challenge the enemy to attack, while they prepare to fight on the defensive. If possible, dwarves litter the ground with pit traps, sharpened stakes, caltrops, camouflaged trenches, and pools of flammable oil. When the enemy charges, dwarven crossbowmen and archers wreak havoc with volleys of bolts and arrows. By the time the enemy enters melee, they find themselves wounded, disorganized, and demoralized.

Destroy the Strongest Enemy First: Dwarves know that if they eliminate or humiliate the strongest opponents first, they might win without a protracted battle. For example, if an orc company forms the backbone of a goblin raiding party, the dwarves attempt to bypass the goblins and concentrate on the orcs. Once the orcs die, the goblins likely flee. After all, if the most powerful unit falls, what chance do the weaker ones stand? Such a strategy conveys considerable risk. By attacking the toughest foe first, the dwarves might initially suffer higher casualties and risk expending too much blood and strength early in the fight.

Survive the Fight: In many battles, dwarves find themselves outnumbered by hordes of savage, undisciplined monsters. The wise dwarf paces himself for the entire fight. When he fights a swarm of weaker creatures, he favors a defensive battle. The dwarf might only land one blow for every four attacks his enemies make, but his strike hits hard and his armor turns many hits into mere grazing blows. Weak and inexperienced creatures find it tremendously difficult to wound an armored dwarf.

Unlike many lesser or barbaric races, dwarves also make sure to tend to their wounded. They often slow any retreat to make sure to gather the fallen for healing, proper burial, or even resurrection. Orcs and goblins know no such mercy for their fellows. Their dead and badly wounded litter the battlefield after a fight, left to rot by their callous kindred.

The Dwarven Art Of War in Action

What happens when dwarves put their philosophies and maxims to work? What specific tactics do dwarves use in warfare? The following tactics and techniques take advantage of dwarven strengths, such as resistance to poison and spells, or compensate for their weaknesses, such as a slower movement rate compared to other races.

Fight with a Plan: Dwarven strike teams spend considerable time working out different strategies to deal with various situations. Each team member knows his role, and knows everyone else's role as well. When the team encounters a necromancer and his undead minions, for example, some dwarves charge after the wizard, while others attack the undead. Dwarves emphasize group victory over individual heroism or achievement.

Armor is Good: Because dwarves suffer no movement penalty for wearing medium or heavy armor, non-spellcasters wear the best protection possible. Although most dwarves possess average Dexterity, even those more dexterous than average prefer heavy armor at the expense of a maximum Dexterity bonus. Among medium armors, a breastplate offers the best overall combination of maximum protection and Dexterity bonus, while incurring the minimum armor check penalty. Among the heavy armors, full plate provides the best combination. Many dwarves looking to maximize their protection turn to battle plate and mountain plate. See Armor for details on these armor types.

Wear a Shield: The shield serves as an essential piece of armor for dwarven warriors. A large shield provides a +2 bonus to Armor Class at the expense of a -2 armor check penalty. In most cases, dwarves favor carrying a shield over wielding a two-handed weapon. If necessary, a shield serves as a second weapon for shield bash attacks. For additional damage, dwarven shields often include a shield spike.

When possible, dwarven squads make use of tower shields. Although the tower shield's encumbrance inflicts a -2 attack penalty, it provides either a +4 armor bonus or total cover when necessary. The tower shield's cover proves especially valuable against ranged attacks, burst spells, and emanation spells. Against archers, dwarves hold up their tower shields for cover and charge. Once they reach the enemy, they drop their shields and engage in melee.

Fight Defensively: When a dwarf fights many enemies, he must pace himself and avoid taking damage for as long as possible. Against large numbers of weaker opponents, a skilled dwarf warrior often fights defensively. Although his attacks suffer a -4 penalty, the +2 AC bonus might make him nearly impervious to attack. A dwarf fighting defensively in full plate armor and with a large shield enjoys an Armor Class of 22; an average kobold or goblin must roll a natural 20 to successfully hit. Of note, the AC bonus from fighting defensively stacks with the bonus provided by the Combat Expertise feat.

Combat Expertise: Many dwarves favor the Combat Expertise feat. Once a character gains a total attack bonus of +5 or more, this feat proves especially useful against numerous weaker opponents with poor attack bonuses or a low Armor Class.

Remember Your Training: One of the first things a young dwarf learns is how to fight against orcs, goblinoids, and giants. Dwarven combat schools teach numerous techniques that give them a bonus when attacking orcs and goblinoids. This bonus is often used to offset the penalties incurred by extra use of the Combat Expertise and Power Attack feats. The same training also teaches dwarves how to avoid the awkward but devastating blows of giants. This bonus helps ensure that dwarves survive an encounter with these hulking brutes.

Lights Out: Against surface dwellers, dwarves prefer to fight in the dark. Dwarves possess darkvision to a range of 60 feet, which provides them a significant edge in total darkness against creatures with normal or low-light vision. In the dark, a creature without darkvision suffers a 50% miss chance, a -2 penalty to AC, loses its Dexterity bonus, moves at half speed, and cannot make attacks of opportunity.

Trapped Terrain: Traps and dangerous natural hazards abound in dungeons. With the stonecunning ability, dwarves often detect such hazards early. Whenever possible, dwarves put these hazards to work against the enemy. If dwarves discover an area with hidden pits or unsafe stone surfaces, they lure opponents into the vicinity. For example, a team of dwarves might bait a group of ogres across a floor littered with pits or through unstable tunnels intent upon bringing them down on their heads.

Dealing with Spells: Against spells and spell-like effects, dwarves gain a +2 bonus on their saving throws. Against spells with a Fortitude save, a dwarf fares even better due to his often high Constitution. Dwarves respect magic, but they often depend on their innate resistance to protect them while battling enemy spellcasters. When spells or spell-like effects appear on the battlefield, dwarves assign their toughest warriors to deal with the caster or creature responsible.

Trip Attacks: Because of inborn dwarven stability, the stout folk sometimes attempt to trip their opponents to gain the upper hand. Although the bonus from dwarven stability does not apply to a dwarf's attempt to trip an opponent, it does apply if the opponent attempts to trip the dwarf in return for an unsuccessful attempt.

Adventurers And Dwarven Tactics

Dwarven combat tactics offer many lessons to adventurers. Indeed, several similarities exist between an adventuring party and a dwarven strike team. For example, teams of dwarven warriors rarely have more than a dozen members. They work alone, often cut off from support and rescue should things go poorly. In addition, most team members wear heavy armor, fight with the best weapons available, and enjoy magical support. Given these similarities, wise adventurers study dwarven methods and learn the tactics involved. To that end, characters should consider the following three points when adapting dwarven tactics.

Know Your Vision: First, most characters lack darkvision. As previously described, creatures without the ability to see suffer severe penalties in the dark. When possible, a party without darkvision should do whatever necessary to eliminate darkness. The party should stock up on potions of darkvision, while the party's wizard (or ranger, if of sufficient level) should keep the spell darkvision handy along with plenty of other spells that generate light. If the party is capable of functioning in the dark, it might gain considerable benefit against its enemies.

Use Your Speed: Second, although dwarves move slower than other Medium creatures, characters of most other Medium races move 30 feet per round (or faster, in the case of the barbarian and the monk). In adapting dwarven tactics, faster movement provides an added benefit. Faster characters should wear light or no armor to retain their speed. Such characters provide tactical options that dwarves often lack. For example, a monk could bait enemies and lead them into an ambush with little fear of capture.

Get a Dwarf: Finally, sometimes it just takes a dwarf to do the job right. If the party includes a dwarf, it should take advantage of his strengths. For example, the dwarf might be best suited to deal with spellcasters or creatures using poison thanks to his improved saving throws. Lacking a dwarf, adventurers should find ways to replicate dwarven strengths. For instance, characters facing poison attacks should use antitoxin.

Think Like the Stout: Probably the best advice dwarves can offer is to follow their example. Make sure your AC is as high as possible, keep your allies on their feet, and make your enemies pay dearly for every foot of ground and every drop of blood.

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