Archives of Candlekeep: Where Are The Duergar?
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Ninety Five on 12th January 2022.
Ryu (gasping): Ahh that stings!
Ryu: Yes I know this isn’t your normal job but I didn’t want the other guys to know.
Libby (worried): Book.
Ryu: No, you’re doing fine, really. I think I got scratched in more places than I realized.
Libby (really worried): Book!
Ryu: What is the problem – oh drat.
Ostron: Wow, okay, I usually have the book before I even make it across the threshold. You feeling okay…Libby?
Ryu: This isn’t what it looks like.
Ostron: It looks like you have Libby helping you with surgery.
Lennon: Hey did you find that map of-…okay, you do know we don’t pay Gath just to hang around and look pretty right?
Ryu: I just…was hoping to avoid this conversation.
Ostron: So you decided having Libby give you medical assistance was your best option?
Libby (indignantly): Book!
Lennon: Look, no offense mate, but it’s not exactly your strong suit. Fingers really help with sutures.
Libby (resigned agreement): Book.
Lennon: Still, I suppose any surprise from Ryu that doesn’t involve the hat still has to be considered a good day.
Ryu: Ugh, Let’s not talk about KayDee right now.
Ostron: Trouble in paradise?
Ryu: She’s the reason I got hurt! At least, I think she is. All I know is that I was going to see Lennon so I could get some gold to buy a few new outfits and the next thing I know I’ve got a painful lump on my head and I’m in the Underdark.
Ostron: So the Killer DM went to the Underdark. Why?
Ryu: How should I know? I just know I was suddenly being chased by a bunch of hungry looking, angry dwarves. I was outrunning them pretty well and then some of them grew like, three times normal size and started swiping at me with claws.
Lennon: Ah. Yeah, well that can happen with the duergar.
Ryu: Is that who they were? What did KayDee do to tick them off?
Ostron: It…probably wasn’t her. Actually, they probably only attacked once they figured out she was gone.
Ryu: Why…wait, never mind, it was the Underdark, they just attack everyone, right?
Lennon: Well…sort of.
Duergar are another species from D&D that had fairly simple beginnings and have picked up a lot of lore and identity to make them unique as time passed.
Near as the research beholders were able to determine, the duergar first showed up during 1st edition, but not until the publication of the 2nd Monster Manual. At the time, they were much like the drow; at some point Gary Gygax or whoever was in charge of the flow of new monsters into the setting decided that most of the major playable races in the game needed “evil” equivalents. The drow were the evil counterpart to the elves, and the duergar became the evil counterpart to the standard dwarves. Throughout first edition it was only really stated that the duergar were mostly in the Underdark, tended to look emaciated rather than stocky and bulked up like regular dwarves, and were mostly hairless.
Their role as “generic evil Underdark dwarves” continued through second edition, even as creatures such as the drow and beholders got their backgrounds more fully fleshed out. Even when the duergar became an option for character creation, the description still simply described them as dwarves who had separated themselves or been separated from mainstream dwarf society and settled instead in the Underdark. They also took a page from the drow lore by stating that most of the duergar society was rather evil and hated outsiders, but allowed that some unique individuals could venture out on their own and take on more virtuous lifestyles.
It took until 3rd edition for some more details to make their way into common lore, allowing the duergar to exist as a separate society with an identity and culture more distinct from the dwarves and the derro, another species of shorter, aggressively antisocial creatures from the Underdark. Note that most of the lore was rather Forgotten-Realms-centric as is most of the generic lore up to 5th edition.
The lore remained fairly static through both 4th and 5th edition, though as with everything else 4th edition put its own spin on the lore that needed to be slightly retconned and accounted for in later editions.
As of 5th edition the collected lore is as follows. “Duergar” was actually a dwarven clan that was originally part of the larger shield dwarf community back eight thousand years ago or so. They began to distance themselves from the rest of the dwarven community for two reasons. First, they took the dwarven god Laduguer as their patron. Laduguer is one of the more controversial gods in the dwarven pantheon who doesn’t get along with the rest of the crowd. It may have something to do with his doctrines of “working until you die is the bare minimum” and “if you don’t have enough people to get the job done, go find some slaves.”
The second point of contention is that the dwarves fought a fairly extensive war against a group of drow and were successful in pushing them out of some valuable underground territory. The leaders of Clan Duergar believed they not only deserved credit for most of the victory, but that they had proven themselves competent to lead the entirety of dwarven civilization. Unfortunately for them the rest of the dwarves didn’t agree. They basically told off the rest of their brethren and set up shop in a remote part of the territory they’d just pushed the drow out of.
Unfortunately for them, the Underdark abhors a vacuum. Having pushed the drow out, they were not the only things that came by looking to inspect the recently vacant real estate. In the duergar’s case, it was the Illithids that dropped by. Without the support of the rest of the dwarves, the whole clan was defeated and enslaved by the mindflayers.
As far as most historians can figure, the enslavement lasted for nigh-on 4,000 years. During that time, the duergar grew bitter and resentful of the rest of the dwarves for not coming to their aid in the first place, and later for failing to rescue them. Most duergar believed the other dwarven gods had forsaken them and leaned into their worship of Laduguer even harder. Some of them, however, believed all the dwarven gods had forsaken them, and began appealing to devils and other fiends for their salvation. They were also subjected to the same things illithids did to most of their slaves; body modification and enhancements to help them be better servants and/or shock troops for whatever the mindflayers might need.
Also in keeping with illithids and slaves, the illithids eventually got complacent and the duergar managed to free themselves. The duergar themselves attribute this to a figure named Deep Duerra, who supposedly stole some of the mindflayers’ power and gifted it to the rest of the duergar. Shortly after that, they carved out a section of the Underdark for themselves and began contributing to the local culture, also known as killing, enslaving, and being generally ornery to everyone and everything that wasn’t them.
Duergar’s current abilities are mostly well catalogued, but why they developed is something of a mystery because there are a lot of possibilities. Some of the things they can do might be the result of mindflayer tampering, others could have come from long-term exposure to the the faerzress (the magical radiation that permeates the Underdark), and some of it may have actually been gifts bestowed upon them by deals with devils. At this point in time the duergar either intentionally forgot or simply refuse to tell outsiders, preferring the narrative that all of their enhancements are either natural or god-given gifts as rewards for their hard work.
There are some individual variations, but in general all the duergar have two abilities that are considered magical; the ability to adjust their size in a similar fashion to the enlarge/reduce spell, and the ability to become briefly invisible. Their other defining trait is an innate ability with psionics that isn’t present in most other dwarven subraces. The duergar clergy, who are also the ones that lead their society, teach that psionics was the power that Deep Duerra stole from the mindflayers which allowed them to successfully rebel. Almost all other independent researchers think it’s far more likely the illithids grafted psionics into the duergar makeup at some point and just lost track of exactly how organized and rebellious their slaves were, since the same basic thing happened with the Gith.
The lore even in 3rd edition was more neutral in its description of duergar society, painting it as extremely brutal rather than completely evil in many respects.
Duergar in general tend to be grumpy, not talkative, and pessimistic although not completely fatalistic. This is somewhat balanced out by an almost obsessive devotion to their work and to doing a good job; duergar craftsmanship is very utilitarian but also very precise and well made. They also despise leaving projects unfinished and will typically work on whatever goal they’ve decided on until they finish or until something stops them, with death usually the only thing they count as a valid excuse.
The main thing that distinguishes this drive from dwarven devotion to craftsmanship and work is intent. Dwarven crafters will work to find a pinnacle of both form and function in whatever they do, trying to become the ultimate masters of a particular craft and create the ideal version of whatever they’re making. Duergar will simply try to find the most efficient and functional design of whatever they’re trying to make, and will then try to make as many of them as possible. It’s a fairly typical example of quality vs quantity, with the duergar focusing on the latter.
Many of the duergar also tend to be sadistic, but not in the same way species such as the drow or fiends are. Many of them will enjoy watching a slave die from overwork or being the target of a cruel joke or prank, but they won’t go out of their way to inflict unnecessary wounds or kill just to get a rush. They value slaves for the work they can do above anything else and won’t do anything to intentionally reduce their ability to contribute. So, if you end up enslaved by duergar, you probably won’t be tortured or sacrificed to some god, but you will be worked to death.
Their outlook has also somewhat perverted the typical dwarven trait of wanting to acquire riches and turned it into an obsession, with many duergar claiming the only time they can actually feel happiness is when they’re claiming territory and/or stealing gold and valuables from others who they’ve beaten. They do still engage in mundane commerce, however; their penchant for mass-producing equipment means they usually have more than enough goods to sell to others, and there are enough sapient species in the Underdark interested in being armed that they have no shortage of customers.
Because the customers are one of the few reliable ways for the duergar to acquire gold, they try not to discriminate. They won’t turn away any legitimate customers just for who or what they are, so they have at times arranged trade deals with drow, derro, svirfneblin, and even mindflayers. Some duergar located near the Darklake have actually formed something of an alliance with the society of kuo-toa that live there. They will sell to beholders assuming one of them manages to adhere to the concepts of commerce long enough to finish a deal.
The only exception to their “all customers are welcome” policy are dwarves. While they’ve managed as a society to somehow get past ancient fighting with the drow for territory and the mindflayers enslavement, they’ve never really forgiven the dwarves for casting them out and abandoning them to enslavement. Any encounter between duergar and dwarves almost always ends in violence and death.
Duergar do engage in raids on surface settlements for money and slaves but it’s not a regular thing; if a village or town is going to be raided by Underdark creatures it’s much more likely it’ll be drow or derro or one of the more aggressive types. However if any of those groups want to drop off or sell some slaves to the duergar, they have no problem taking them. They are fiercely territorial, however; if anyone comes in trying to set up in their space, the response will be brutal and violent. Assaulting their home space isn’t easy either; remember you’re still talking about dwarven-level craftsmanship just without the fancy decorations and with a workforce driven by efficiency.
Working duergar into a campaign is situational. If you have people venturing into the Underdark, the duergar are one of the groups of hostiles they’re more likely to run into as opposed to exotic ones farther down. They can also provide another option for “will they or won’t they” foes who the characters could have a chance of talking down and coming to an uneasy truce with to get supplies rather than being yet another group of people they have to fight.
Outside of the Underdark their presence is a little harder to justify if you want to stick to established lore. As mentioned they are known to raid some surface settlements but they aren’t the most likely candidates. Then again that can be used to throw off a party with knowledge of the Underdark, sending them off chasing drow or other creatures they think are at fault only to discover the duergar are the culprits. Also if you have dwarves digging in or trying to establish a presence in the Underdark, conflict with the duergar is almost required. Also, if you have illithids or devils in your campaign as a theme it’s plausible to have duergar around as henchmen; lore has established that having used them as slaves before, the illithids are more than willing to try it again, and also some duergar apparently gave up on Laduguer in favor of fiendish backing, so some of them being in service to devils or demons would make sense as well.
Outside of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, not a lot of effort has been made to integrate the duergar explicitly. They usually get lumped in with “aberrant and warped creatures” for whatever setting they find themselves in. For example, in Eberron they’re said to be dwarves experimented on by the dhalkyer, and in Dark Sun if they’re present at all it’s assumed they were dwarves warped by some of the magical cataclysms that occurred in Athas’s past. They did show up in Spelljammer back in it’s heyday, but only in one or two side adventures; again, nobody made an effort to explicitly include them.
One note about species identification that relates to the duergar. They are often confused both in and out of game with the derro. The derro are another race of aggressive humanoids who are shorter of stature on average and tend to be aggressively antisocial while living in the Underdark, but beyond that they are very different from duergar. On sight it can be hard to distinguish them, particularly because it’s usually dark in the caves, but duergar skin tends to be more gray with a hint of blue while derro skin is a more definite shade of blue. Also the physical builds of the two creatures is different; duergar have dwarven frames with wide shoulders, stocky torsos, short legs, and somewhat hunched posture. Derro have physiques more like halflings or short humans. Assuming they are attacking (which is a safe bet) the easiest way to tell the difference is derro will be using arcane magic, while the duergar will have access to psionics. Also derro will not take you back to any city or fortress; they exist mostly as nomadic clans or families in the Underdark.
Ryu: So this still doesn’t tell me why they attacked me. Unless you’re saying they were actually derro.
Ostron: No, definitely duergar. Derro tend to stay the same size.
Ryu: Well then what ticked them off?
Lennon: Have you met the killer DM? Your hat persona isn’t exactly the poster child for “How to win friends and influence people.”
Ryu: I still think there was something else going on.
Ostron: I tend to agree with you but we need to get over to the scrying pool. Assuming “Doctor Eyes” over there is done with their treatment.
Ryu: Yeah, I think I’m still bleeding a bit. Wow, they must have really got me. Let’s go, I can have RaeRae patch up the rest of it.
The Mimic: Sod it all, and I was really starting to get into that meal…oh bugger.
Libby (blind panic): BOOK!
(multiple beholder rays)