I have been enjoying working on the setting for “Dwarf King” with Ashton recently. It is interesting work, because having to build a game around Dwarves means that we have to figure out how their society fits into the game mechanics and the story setting. And it is hard work, because Dwarves sometimes seem like something of a “joke race” in fantasy. Once you think a little bit about how they live, many of the things which are “classically Dwarven” don’t really make much sense.
For instance, why would an underground race used to fighting goblins arm themselves with massive axes and warhammers? Both weapons would be highly impractical in constrained tunnels, and neither of them are particularly superior to other weapons against unarmored opponents. If the Dwarves of the deep tunnels had any military sense, they would be arming themselves with short swords to supplement pole arms and spears (a shieldwall of armored men presenting a hedge of spearpoints would make for a very difficult opponent in a narrow tunnel).
Fortunately, we do have the freedom to build our world how we feel like, and in this case, our Dwarves don’t fight much underground (although they still live there – underground based cities are good for protection). In this case, we have chosen to go for an (approximated) late iron-age level of technology and a Norse style of warfare. Obviously, the latter fits well with the common imagination of Dwarves, seeing as how many of the tropes are fetched from Norse roots in the first place.
In our world, then, the core of the Dwarf army, then, becomes the class of professional soldiers – paid for and maintained by the player (monarch) and nobles. These are heavily armored men; covered with in mail armor from head to foot, as illustrated in our concept image for a typical warrior to the right. Good mail armor is an excellent protection; it is not a coincidence that mail was used for almost two millennia, despite the significant cost of producing it. The armament is a mix of swords and battle axes (of both the one-handed and two-handed variety). In above ground fighting, battle axes clearly have their place, particularly as an effective anti-cavalry weapon (as the Normans and Franks discovered when they came up against them). Having that capability is convenient when your own forces have no effective cavalry component. Swords are a versatile weapon eminently suited to a well-armored soldier expecting to fight in a shield wall. Both weapons have their place in the hird of the Dwarf King.
The professional soldiers are supplemented by a small force of rangers and/or scouts. These are the Dwarfs who patrol the countryside surrounding the Dwarfheald for you, keeping an eye out for ogres and goblins and pesky elves sneaking around. Being reliant on mobility, they tend to wear little or no armor. Their primary weaponry is a crossbow; supplemented by a small light axe or sword.
Combined with the talents of your nobles, the warriors and the scouts form the core of the player’s force when going out on adventures and provides you with both devastating offensive force (warriors with two-handed axes are forced to sacrifice the protection of their shields), a powerful defensive component (well-armored warriors capable of forming a shieldwall ), as well as ranged support (crossbows).
If your Dwarves go to war, however, you’ll need to call out the levy. Given that we are dealing with a society that doesn’t practice slavery, the vast majority of your people will be peasants: farmers, miners, and craftsmen. These are not professional soldiers, and are consequently neither as well armed or well trained as your warrior core. In a more established Dwarfheald, a larger proportion of the levy might be able to afford or have inherited an old set of mail armor, but your people are refugees and the vast majority will have left such unessential weight behind as they fled. Consequently, the levy will generally be unarmored, with a helmet, shield, and long spear making up their main armament.
As a player, one of the decisions you will need to make is the balance between expensive professional warriors in your settlement and the extent to which you rely on the levy for safety, as well as the extent you spend resources on strengthening the levy (by purchasing/constructing better arms and armor) versus spending the fortifications of your home. Finally, when facing an external threat or a dangerous situation, whether to hide in your fortifications, march out to meet them with the full muster, or attempt to strike surgically with your elite forces.