Pathfinder (Dragon Age Setting)
Before the first Blight the dwarven empire expanded as much underground as the Tevinter Imperium did above, and maybe far grander as there is some evidence that suggests trade relations with the ancient elves of Arlathan.
The first Blight, however, severely crippled the empire as Darkspawn flooded the Deep Roads that connected the countless Thaigs and cities. Political disunity and the inability to focus their defense led to the dwarves losing countless thaigs over the next couple of centuries, pushing them to the brink of extinction. In order to preserve the remnants of their kind, Orzammar closed its gates to any survivors and became the only bastion of dwarven culture. Centuries later it was discovered that the great Thaig of Kal-Sharok had survived, though because of their coldness and anger over Orzammar’s drastic act of isolation, any chance of restoring the dwarven empire in all its glory is bleak. So long as Orzammar stands however, so do the dwarves, though more and more lives and territory are lost every year to the darkspawn.
It seems that in ancient times, before the dwarves began recording their history, dwarven society was much different. Over time the dwarves have built cities closer and closer to the surface, but originally they lived very deep underground. The Deep Roads and its thaigs represent the historical layer of dwarven civilization, but below the Deep Roads exists an older layer of tunnels, caves, and thaigs that predate the Deep Roads and the dwarven empire. These Primeval Thaigs display cultural practices that would be completely foreign to any modern dwarf, such as the construction of temples, and the veneration of a pantheon of deities. It also seems that in prehistoric times the dwarves were capable of wielding magic, and used lyrium in very large amounts to amplify their power. It is not certain why modern dwarves do not possess magical abilities, but it is likely that over-exposure to lyrium over many generations caused the development of a resistance to lyrium, and thus a resistance to the energies of the Fade.
“We dwarves do things much the same, when it comes time for the Houses to contest the throne, though there’s rarely any… bystanding… No House is neutral in the Assembly, not ever. In Orzammar, things are solved quickly and with as much bloodshed as we can stand… and then a little bit more.”
—Nalthur, of the Legion of the Dead
Unlike many other cultures in Thedas, dwarves do not worship anthropomorphic god(s). Their beliefs are more akin to ancestor worship, and they also hold a sacred reverence for the stone that surrounds them throughout their entire life. Dwarves who lead a strong and noble life are said to strengthen the Stone when they die, becoming Ancestors. Those who are ignoble or disgraced would weaken the stone and are therefore rejected by it for all eternity.
Every once in a while there’s a dwarf who is declared by the Assembly, a sort of ruling council, to be particularly noble. These dwarves become Paragons, and are worshipped during their lives and long after their deaths. When a dwarf is declared by the Assembly to be a Paragon, a noble house is created which bears their name. The deeds of a Paragon are carefully recorded in the Memories, which record the lineage and deeds that help determine what caste a dwarf is born into. The word of a Paragon is held in such esteem that it is sometimes equal to even that of their king.
The social structure of dwarves is broken up into castes. The casteless are the lowest rung of dwarven society: outcasts in their own city, unable to take up work even as servants among the higher castes, nor to defend their honor in the Provings. Dwarves who are exiled or born on the surface are also considered by the Shaperate to be casteless, but with an increase in the number of dwarves from high ranking castes choosing to live on the surface, it is becoming more difficult for some surface dwarves to be considered permanent exiles. The average dwarf will never see the surface, and often will have superstitious beliefs concerning surface-life (such as falling into the sky, or the sun falling to the ground). Those dwarves who are most commonly seen on the surface tend to be merchants, or on occasion smiths, but amongst the dwarves they might have been thieves, murderers or worse.
Above the casteless, numerous and distinct castes make their home in Orzammar, including merchants, smiths, warriors, and nobles. While it is possible for some dwarves to “better their position” within this rigid system, this is rare and very difficult.
The dwarves do have a king, but heredity is not always the determining factor in who sits on the throne. When the time comes, the noble houses fight each other for the power that the throne will bring. While the king may propose an heir to the throne, ultimately, the next ruler is determined in the noble Assembly, by a vote of the deshyrs (dwarven council members).
It has been mentioned that most of the wealth of the dwarves comes from selling processed lyrium to the mages of Thedas. While the Chantry holds a monopoly on lyrium trade with the dwarves, in order to maintain control over templars and mages, the need for lyrium on the surface promotes a great deal of illegal trade.
Orzammar – and so probably the ancient dwarven empire – is a constitutional monarchy, consisting of a king and one legislative house entirely of nobles. The head of each noble house has the right to sit on the Assembly as a deshyr, representing their house. The Assembly holds the power to advise the king, approve or veto acts of the king, propose policy, declare Paragons, and elect new kings.
When a king dies, the Assembly goes into deliberation and chooses one from amongst themselves to be the next king, by majority vote. Ever since the First Blight, it has been traditional for the Assembly to choose a descendant of House Aeducan to be king – the house whose paragon helped save Orzammar and dwarven civilization from destruction. On the rare occassions when this does not happen, the fighting, intrigue, and assassination can be intense, and last for a very long time, before the election is resolved.
The second most important ability of the Assembly is the authority to declare paragons. Declaring a dwarf a paragon is essentially declaring a new noble house, since that paragon and their family will be elevated to noble status. From then on, that house will have the right to have a deshyr to vote at the Assembly. If the Assembly declares no new paragons, the Assembly will stay the same size, and the number of noble houses will remain the same. All growth in the nobility will result only from natural births. If the Assembly declares many paragons over a period of time, the number of houses, and the size of the Assembly, will grow, and a larger percentage of dwarves will be nobles. Because dwarven society, in particular the nobility, is so incredibly conservative, new paragons are almost never declared.
The judicial functions of government are split between the king and the Orzammar Shaperate. The king and his warriors deal with murderers and thieves, while the Shaperate deals with civil disputes. The Shaperate is the keeper of all dwarven law, tradition, history, and records. As a result, the Shaperate holds authority over the authenticity and binding nature of contracts, as well as legal precedent. As the Shaper of Memories is considered a role of extreme impartiality in dwarven society, the Shaper has enormous respect as a disinterested third-party in legal matters.
While the king has the power to propose legislation, the Assembly has a lot of authority to block the king’s actions, giving the king limited ability to affect domestic law or international relations without the approval of a majority of the noble houses. The king’s primary functions are as an important figure in ceremony, and as the Commander-in-Chief. The king’s greatest autonomy is in the deployment of troops in the deep roads and the training of warriors.
In Orzammar, dwarven society is divided into rigid castes with houses that compete for power and prestige. But all that is discarded when a dwarf abandons the Stone for the surface. Under the open sky, everyone is equal. Or so the story goes.
The Legion of the Dead
A great deal of importance is placed on the appearance of nobility and justice amongst the dwarves. The actions of one family member can often severely diminish an entire house’s place in the social hierarchy of the dwarves. Some disgraced dwarves will choose to go through a ceremonial “death” to clear their names and the names of their families. They walk out of Orzammar into the Deep Roads to fight darkspawn for the rest of their lives as a member of the Legion of the Dead. When one of their number dies, the Legion will bury him or her within the stone, and celebrate the fact that the fallen has finally found peace.
Provings are combat-arena matches between dwarves. Dwarves believe that a fighter who wins a Proving has the approval of the Paragons and so they use Provings to settle debates and honor challenges that could not be settled otherwise. This usually falls to warrior caste champions. Some Proving matches are fought to the death, but even in a dwindling society such as Orzammar, that one death is thought preferable to the widespread bloodshed of a conflict between noble houses. In recent years, the Provings have also been used for entertainment matches and events to honor special guests, and each year the best fighters in Orzammar meet for the “Trials of Blood”, a great tournament that crowns the kingdom’s best and most popular fighter.
The great gladiatorial battles of the ancient Tevinter Imperium are based on this dwarven tradition.
Stone Halls of the Dwarves
“Some years ago, at a time when Orzammar was uncharacteristically open to visitors from the surface, I traveled to the ancient thaig deep beneath the Frostback Mountains to learn more about the dwarven way of life. Like many people of the surface I had met surface dwarves before, but had no idea how truly different they lived from their cousins in the “homeland”. Surface dwarves are considered outcasts from Orzammar despite their necessity to farming and trade, and by and large they have eschewed the culture, the politics, the honor, and the brutality of the world they left behind.
Hidden from the sight of the Maker, the “dwarva” (as the dwarves refer to themselves, our own word no doubt deriving from theirs) revere the Stone – the very substance that gives them shelter and inspires their creativity and strength. When a dwarf dies an honorable death, he is said to have “gone to the Stone.” They do not worship it as a god, however, as I quickly found out upon asking. With stares of incredulity they mocked such notions. The fact that they came from the Stone and thus return to it is, as they see it, a matter of practicality.
Most people on the surface think of dwarves and imagine greedy merchants or dour craftsmen, and certainly those are the faces most often seen by those of us who live under the Maker’s eye. But a journey to the thaig reveals a culture of nobility and of poverty, of proud warriors and of necessary brutality. Much as the heat of the forge strengthens the blade, the dwarves have been hardened by the constant threat of the darkspawn onslaught, forcing their warriors to excel or die, their craftsmen to create masterpieces of durability and style, and their nobles to engage in a deadly political game of intrigue that shames the goings on in the simpler courts of Ferelden. Everything done in Orzammar is done to fortify the remaining domains of the kingdom (of which there are, regrettably, few) against the relentless onslaught of the darkspawn.
A more fascinating culture I have never visited, and my time there was bittersweet. For while I was blessed to be among a people so dedicated and stout-hearted, I could not shake the feeling that I was witnessing the last days of a proud people that, despite their best efforts, were destined to be overrun by evil.”
— An excerpt from “Stone Halls of the Dwarves” by Brother Genitivi, Chantry Scholar
“As I studied amongst the dwarves I became aware that their social system was as rigid as the stone that surrounded them. From the lowest servant to the King of Orzammar, each dwarf has a caste, a rigid social standing, which dictates what he may do and how he may do it. What fascinated me then was that the dwarves, stubborn and proud as they may be, have built in a way for even the lowliest dwarf to bypass the caste system and reach prominence. Any dwarf who has made an achievement of significance can be named a Paragon, elevating them above all others.
To become a Paragon is to be recognized as, essentially, a “living ancestor.” Your words are considered ineffable, and the dwarves consider liken you unto a god. Your family, those you choose to ascend with you, become the founders of a new line of nobility. Indeed, every existing noble house amongst the dwarves traces its line back to a founding Paragon. It is a rare thing, however: in my visit I learned that only one Paragon has been elected in generations: the smith Branka, exalted for her discovery of smokeless coal.
I met the Paragon Branka only once during my stay, and I consider it an odd occasion indeed. Surrounded by those of her house, the ill-tempered woman was draped in the finest clothing and jewelry and obviously revered even above the highest nobles – perhaps even the King – yet she seemed to enjoy none of it. The burden of being a living legend is great indeed, it appears.
Statues of the Paragons are found throughout Orzammar, though nowhere so prominently than in the Hall of the Paragons that one must pass through upon passing through the surface gates. It is a breathtaking sight to behold, such great works of stone all seemingly holding up the stone ceiling above. It is meant to impress upon visitors to Orzammar of all who have gone before, I think. It is also meant to convey to dwarves that are going to the surface and thus abandoning their brethren forever all that they are leaving behind.”
The Endless War
“I spoke with a dwarf of the Warrior caste who told me tales of sacrifice and honor and glory found in the Deep Roads beyond Orzammar and a realization struck. Whereas we on the surface mark four darkspawn Blights, four distinct periods during which the darkspawn have assaulted us only to be driven back by the Grey Wardens, the dwarves have experienced precisely one: the original one, stretching back to the rise of the first Archdemon, unbroken by peace or respite.
The dwarves are a dwindling race, their exiled surface-kin threatening to match their numbers, if the projections of their scholars are correct. They are under a state of constant war, and judging from my warrior-caste friend, this serves as a backdrop for all that they do. Dwarves have few children, and so priceless sons and daughters are sent into battle day after day against the darkspawn, but it is a price that is paid both at the behest of their noble lords and out of a desire for a glorious death.
My warrior friend introduced me to the strange custom known as “the Provings.” Initially I thought these combat-arena matches to be barbaric on the levels of the great gladiatorial battles of ancient Tevinter, which were said to emulate the dwarven tradition. But my friend noted the true importance of the fights: the dwarves believe that a fighter who wins a Proving has the approval of the Paragons and so they use Provings to settle debates and honor challenges that could not be settled otherwise. This often falls to Warrior-caste champions, and some Proving matches are fought to the death, but even in a dwindling society such as Orzammar, that one death is thought preferable to the widespread bloodshed of a conflict between noble houses. In recent years, the Provings have also been used for entertainment matches and events to honor special guests, and each year the best fighters in Orzammar meet for the Trials of Blood, a great tournament that crowns the kingdom’s best and most popular fighter.
Being a warrior in Orzammar is, as expected, a bloody, deadly affair, but the warriors accept their role with stoic pride, knowing that they die to save their brethren from death. They have the most to lose in the face of the constant darkspawn threat, but they risk it with stout hearts and unmatched skill. Theirs are lives of battle, meant to end the same way.”
Dust in the Wind
“The social caste system in Orzammar has many who are considered privileged: the nobility and the warriors above all others, but to a lesser degree also the merchants and the smiths and the miners. Tradition establishes a clear hierarchy. But as in any culture where there is an upper class, there is also a clear under class. These unfortunates, the so-called “casteless”, are believed to be descendants of criminals and other undesirables and are looked down upon by the ancestors since Orzammar’s foundation. They have taken up residence in a place called “Dust Town,” a crumbling ruin on the fringe of Orzammar’s common areas.
Orzammar society considers these “casteless” to be lower than even the Servant caste (indeed, the casteless are not allowed to become servants, as it is too honorable a position for them). They are seen as little better than animals, their faces branded at birth with a symbol that forever marks them as the bastard children of the kingdom. Their home district, little more than a slum, is a haven for crime, both organized and not, and the guards and government of Orzammar seemingly can not be bothered to patrol its streets. The best most casteless dwarves can hope for is a brutal life at the whim of a local crime lord, ended abruptly by violence or an overabundance of toxic lichen ale.
Even so, there is some hope for the casteless, a rope dangling down that offers a way up into the greater Orzammar society. Since a dwarf’s caste is determined by his same-sex parent, the male child of a nobleman is considered a part of that noble’s house. Strangely, it is an accepted custom for women of the casteless to train in the arts of courtly romance in order to woo nobles and warriors. Any male child produced of such unions is considered a joyous event, considering the relative dwarven infertility, and the mother and entire family of the child will be raised to the caste of her child to avoid the taint of association. There’s even a name for casteless women who engage in this practice: “noble hunters.” A casteless girl with a pretty face and a kind manner can be the key to raising her family from the poverty of Dust Town.
The dwarves we know on the surface are also considered casteless once they leave Orzammar, though it is only relevant to those who return… if they are allowed to return at all. Dwarven traders from the surface are allowed to enter and to sell their goods (grains and wood are especially valuable in the deep kingdom), but they have no rights and are considered to be no more dwarven than those few humans and elves who do the same. My guide explained that dwarves who leave for the surface (the “sun-touched,” as they’re often called behind their backs) lose their connection to the Stone and the favor of the ancestors, and thus are worthy of little more than pity… for upon dying they are said to be lost to the Stone forever. Put that way, it seems a sad existence indeed.”
Life in Orzammar
The dwarves of Orzammar are quite unlike those found in most human cities. Although Orzammar derives its vast wealth from trade with human kingdoms, all dwarves who come to the surface to trade are stripped of their position in society. Dwarven merchants are so ubiquitous in human cities that many people labour under the impression that all dwarves are merchants, or that their whole race worships coin and trade. But these surface dwarves are atypical creatures, the ones willing to give up all their ties to their kin and sacrifice their rank in order to conduct business.
Below ground, the dwarves are a people obsessed with honour—their own, and that of their family. Most dwarf nobles incorporate chainmail even into formal gowns, because slights and insults often turn deadly.
They are a people who revere excellence and strive to achieve it in all things. Even members of the Servant Caste have been elevated to Paragons, usually posthumously, in recognition of remarkable service."
There are two known dwarven cities. Orzammar is said to be the largest and proudest of the two. The other dwarven city is Kal-Sharok. It was thought to be lost to the darkspawn, but after centuries it was discovered to have survived— although it had done so only at great cost, and with a great deal of resentment against the cousins in Orzammar who had sealed off the Deep Roads and given them up for dead. Other now lost cities were Hormak and Gundaar, both lost at roughly the same time as Kal-Sharok, and Darmallon, which was lost at an indefinite time.
Thaigs are caverns within the Deep Roads where dwarves had built settlements from the stone in tribute to their Paragons.
One of the first thaig was the Primeval Thaig, created many years before the first Blight but it’s so old (over ten thousand years) that seems to have forgotten in dwarf history, because a thaig named “first thaig” is mentioned in the dwarf history but according to the codex, the Primeval Thaig is much older.
The dwarven kingdoms originally consisted of 12 large thaigs and numerous smaller thaigs, but most have been lost during the Blights. There are only two of the large thaigs still inhabited – Kal-Sharok and Orzammar.
List of known thaigs
Bownammar, now the Dead Trenches