If elves in Aquarian Dawn are a little different, dwarves are a lot different. Maybe even more different than the titular Aquarians themselves. If you'd like to learn more about my Aquarian Dawn campaign, check out my Tunnels & Trolls Hack / Cheatsheet / Impressions (featured on Ynas Midgard's Excellence from the Blogosphere (March-April)), or my campaign scenario.
I ended up writing a lot more for this than the elves, now I feel like I need to do a redux on the elves now 0.o!
I realize that these seem so different from "traditional" fantasy dwarves that you might wonder why I call them dwarves at all. I'm not saying they're perfect by any means, but I promise you the decisions I made aren't totally random, and there are various bits of authorial intent and subtext for why they are the way they are, although I would encourage you to theorize about it for yourself (and share) rather than ask me. I am a firm believer that reader response is just as important if not more so than authorial intent, so tell me what you think!
The dwarves were once not so different from humans. Some believe the dwarves once were humans (although this is highly contested). They were an ancient people, a practical people, who understood systems, but only insomuch as understanding the system led to prosperity. They became smiths, engineers, and eventually merchants and financiers. But they never quite saw the big picture of the world. They were terrible at politics and interpersonal relations; always so focused on the practical, and no matter how much they prospered, when the butterflies King Oberon and Queen Titania fought and flapped their wings and chaos ensued, they found themselves at the mercy of elves, or humans, or fey, or whichever other creature came to prominence in a given era.
Eventually, miraculously, they changed. They were a practical people, a harsh people. As the High Age receded, the elves were all but gone, and the humans were destroying themselves, but the dwarves would survive, even if it meant finally changing. They dragged themselves out of their caves, many of them anyway, and climbed the tallest mountains, and wandered the tundras and deserts, and all the other harsh places humans couldn't survive. They reached a meditative symbiosis, in these tough places, their bodies adapting to their environments, their minds changing as a reaction to their new forms, and they learned, finally, to think about their place in the cosmos.
The dwarves of today are not, can not, be well understood by humans, although communication is still possible. The dwarves belief system is based on the Cosmic Reticulum, a world tree, a deterministic theory of the universe that can be explained as a system, like a series of interacting fractal models, and they seek to understand it. Their pantheon is the trinity of the Fairy King Oberon, Fairy Queen Titania, and the Formless Sleeper Tsathoggua. The myths surrounding this trinity reflect interpersonal relationships, often gender identity, sexuality, and familial structure, with the Fairy King usually representing Masculinity and Binary Sexuality (heterosexual vs. homosexual), Titania representing Femininity and Pan-sexuality, and the black ichor of Tsathoggua representing natural/biological functions, reproduction, adaptation, identity, and lucidity. They are a tool for understanding system dynamics in general, and how to recognize dysfunction. They are gods to be pitied as much as praised. They are like the nodes in a graph network, and it is the edges, the relations between those nodes, that truly matter. From a human perspective, one might argue that this reticular cosmos is just another manifestation of the practical, grounded thinking of the dwarves, on a metaphysical scale. Perhaps they have changed less than one might think.
There are primarily two kinds of dwarves that players may encounter in a campaign set in Howlston. These descriptions are for "baseline" dwarves of their kind, but their biology varies significantly on an individualistic level, as each dwarf's biology varies significantly as they adapt to their environment, like a lesser version of espers.
The Mountain Dwarves have uncannily round bodies, like an inflated lung, with pale skin and umber fur or hair. They have three fingers and toes on each hand and foot, a visor-like protrusion and membrane covering their large round eyes, and a mouth and nose like a saiga antelope, which they use to filter the air (or extract oxygen from water or from thin environments), moderate temperature, and communicate through nasally howls. Despite their uncanny appearance, their skeletons look very humanoid, just warped and compressed within an inhuman body.
The Duergar (sometimes referred to as Cave Dwarves or Gray Dwarves) never quite gave up the subterranean. They are an off-shoot of the mountain dwarves, but have chosen to live inside the mountains. They are pale, virtually translucent, with no eyes or mostly vestigial red eyes. The black ichor, the devil water that courses through the veins of all dwarves visible as it courses through their veins, giving them the appearance of the Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua who they praise and pity. Except for their humanoid skeletons, they are loose in form, moving more like frogs or octopi, and have no qualms with breaking bones to fit through tight spaces. Their noses are upturned, appearing mutilated like the face of a bat. Their arms have a membrane like a wyvern, for swimming, but can also be adapted for flight or gliding. The rare duergar to adapt to the world of light often become colorful; their translucent skin becoming opalescent and their wings developing colors and patterns like a butterfly.
It is difficult for dwarves to communicate with other humanoids. They do not think of or describe time linearly, but more like one would describe the spatial dimensions. They tend not to have strong self-identities or other-identities, instead focusing on the relations between individuals, or clusters of individuals as a symbolic unit within the larger system of the universe. Their consciousness is dream-like compared to humans, internally coherent but otherwordly. The duergar, especially, act in a way that appears more like animal than human, or like a highly inebriated human. They are intelligent, but not in any way a human could really understand.