Game: The Slayer’s Guide to Duergar
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 14th, November 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
The creatures covered by the Slayer’s Guides are getting progressively scarier and meaner – even when you discount the special Slayer’s Guide to Dragons – and the Slayer’s Guide to Duergar is further proof of this. Duergar are creepy little buggers, dangerous grey dwarves that can vanish at will and enlarge themselves too. (No sniggering at the back!).
The thing is, unlike many other Slayer’s Guides, this particular book doesn’t seem to make the Duergar any scarier. Their magical abilities of invisibility and enlarge are rarely touched on and when they are mentioned you can almost hear the voice of an embarrassed author. At one point it is suggested (and I can’t tell if it’s a joke or not) that the grey dwarves devolved invisibility as a good way to avoid the perceptive glare of others of their race. On the other hand, the book does quite well at making the Grey Dwarves seem more real. You could just about run an all Duergar game with this Slayer’s Guide.
The book follows the familiar Slayer’s Guide pattern. The Introduction quickly gives way to a chapter on physiology. The grey dwarves are grey. Oh. They’re without body hair and if they’re not bald then they’re with grey of “colourless” hair. The Duergar here are described as emaciated. The word’s used twice. The Monster Manual uses it too. I get the point, they’re slender compared to other dwarves and the authors go on to remind us that the Duergar are not physically weak. Someone just forgot to tell the artists though. There are some great pictures of these blighters in the book but if you want to find an illustration of a Duergar that certainly doesn’t look emaciated then you don’t need to look far. The section on the powers possessed by these dwarves runs through the formidable list. All their powers and poor reaction to sunlight are a result of the species evolving to suit the dark environment of these cavernous homes. Fair enough. It was the obvious call to make. Darn it though, I’d like to see the obvious being put on the shelf more often and something daring being tried once. Why not tie the poor reaction to sunlight and the invisibly powers together (invisibly could be bending light…) and then say the Duergar moved underground on purpose because it suited their physiology or even that they’ve always been underground and the race as a whole has never even spent a single generation above ground. Better still; why not have the Duergar as the progenitors of all dwarves and the other clans have simply lost their ability to enlarge themselves! But no, we get the usual story instead. The Duergar are just like Drow but are dwarves rather than elves.
Rather unusually for a Slayer’s Guide and even for a book that talks about the Underdark there are some gems in the habitat section. What I like here are the Duergar names given to important places in the maze-like homes these dwarves carve out for themselves. The primary living cavern is called a dur-holt and in the centre of that you’ll find the agut-holt. Slaves are kept in the fethet, the deshtuur are secondary caverns including burial cairns and the uldir-buurn is the strategically important corridor that links the home network of tunnels to the rest of the Underdark. See now. I like this. This is the sort of xeno-anthropology that could widen the basic appeal of the Slayer’s Guide series to those of us who like that sort of thing in the hobby.
There’s more of this in “Duergar Society” too, as you would expect. Their mindset is nicely summarised as – Mining, Murder and Misogyny. There’s something that doesn’t quite jell about this chapter though. Duergar are little bastards towards their kids, throwing all sorts of hardships at them since the very second of their birth. Literarily. A male Duergar has to survive a year alone in the Underdark before he is considered an adult. I like the idea but it’s awkward. What’s the Underdark? You might get half a dozen different answers to that. Some GMs might see it as vast expanse that’s most empty but turn the wrong corner and you’re suddenly in territory claimed by the Drow. A different GM might see it as some huge “second edition” dungeon that’s inexplicably packed with monsters. This is a surmountable problem though and I’ll admit it’s easier for individual GMs to fix than it would have been for the pair of authors who worked on this Slayer’s Guide to address. The religion seems a little awkward but blessed with nice ideas too. At one point in the book it says that Duergar don’t trust magic and describes the presence of clerics among their ranks as “not unheard of” but it turns out that clerics pay a vital and dominant role in society. Divine magic seems rather important too. The Duergar have a horrible fist altar for their God, The Lord of Toil, which crushes rejected sacrifices or failed Grey Dwarves alike. If you know my reviews then you might (ahem) have noticed I’ll rant about type casting fantasy roleplay as “high” fantasy at the drop of a hat. An altar shaped like a fist that closes to crush or kill rejects is… not necessarily high fantasy. It’s certainly not out of place among a race that wields such an array of magical talents. I rather like this idea; it provides a natural focus for everything Duergar.
Warfare in Dark does some work. The grey dwarves will either fight by ambush or by assassination. (Their enlarge ability does seem out of place). In fact, fighting by ambush or by assassination comes from their religious convictions and I’m a sucker for this sort of detail.
The Roleplaying with Duergar chapter does better work. It struggles long and hard to try and wheedle a believable way in which you can have a Grey Dwarf as a player character. Far more successful, though, is the first section in this chapter. It does well to explain the Duergar are all about toil. It’s their religion and life. It’s toil that drives them to mine, to fight off anyone who dares near their land and why they’re constantly striving to improve themselves. It’s in this chapter that you’ll find a handful of feats (and a handful is all I want in a book like this) and a pair of prestige classes. The Stonecaller (10 levels) is a Grey Dwarf with a strong affinity towards earth and stone and the Black Rock Magi (10 levels) make use of magical energy stored in special black rocks in order to enhance their abilities. Back Rock Magi are prestigious necromancers, illusionists and enchanters.
The last few pages of the 32-paged book are divided between a scenario set-up and the reference lists of typical stats. The typical stats at the back of each Slayer’s Guide (and some other Mongoose products) are really useful for a GM in a rush and in need of numbers. The scenario set-up is exactly as it sounds. There is some nice text on a situation that’s just waiting to boil over, some numbers and some stats for NPCs and it’s left to the GM to use this as she sees fit. In my opinion such a set up credits the reader with far more intelligence and gives better value for money than a linear dungeon crawl taking up the same amount of space would.
Just before I offer up a conclusion I’ll point out the front cover. It’s particularly good.
The Slayer’s Guide to Duergar isn’t the best in the series, it comes out as the d20 market continues to push up the level of quality but it doesn’t look out of place. There wasn’t anything in the book that made me think “Oh! Nice angle!” or “I wish I thought of that” but there are parts of the book that make me think “Okay, I can use that”. The book holds its own with relative ease, I think it’ll be more warmly welcomed by Duergar fans (and the race is one of those with its own following) but welcomed anyway by most of its readers.