The Baldur’s Gate series released in 1998 with seven playable races: human, elf, half-elf, gnome, halfling, dwarf, and half-orc. Two decades later, Baldur’s Gate 3 will be adding more races to the Dungeons and Dragons series with Larian Studios including tiefling, githyanki, drow, and half-drow, plus four unnamed races. That will make a total of 15 playable races in the sequel. One of which should be duergar.
The grey dwarves are one of a number of races that have been mistreated and mislabeled over the years and have never been featured as custom characters or companions in any video game or work of fiction. It’s about time the deep dwarves, like drow and orc, are represented as more than thralls, evil creatures, lesser and become a playable race in future video games.
To understand why duergar, or gray dwarves, need to be more inclusive and represented better, we need to look at their history in Dungeons and Dragons. Duergar made their first appearance in the AD&D Monster Manual way back in 1983 and were created by Gary Gygax. However, they were considered evil creatures which characters could fight and weren’t officially classified as a character race until much later. (Don’t get me started on how making a race evil is stupid, because it is, it’s stupid.) It’s not until the third edition of the Monster Manual, released in 2000, that duergar became a fully fledged race complete with their own stats. However, they didn’t get much of a backstory. Actually, they didn’t receive any lore here at all. The only information we get is about their alignment.
An excerpt from the Monster Manual says this about duergar. “Sometimes called gray dwarves, these evil beings dwell in the underground.”
They’re generically classified as evil but are never given a reason why. One of their gods, Laduguer, was given a short snippet as well but it wasn’t enough to reason why the duergar are evil.
Delving deeper into their backstory we learn that they were once dwarves who left their mountain homes and dug too deep. (Cue Lord of the Rings Mines of Moria music). Having wound up in the Underdark they were met with the tyrannical and alien mind flayers. You’ll see them as the antagonist in Baldur’s Gate 3 when it releases in early access in August, maybe. But before then, the illithid are alien creatures who live in the Underdark and enslave other races, with one of the most prominent being the duergar.
The duergar were tortured, experimented on, and enslaved for decades. Their time spent under the dominion of the mind flayers warped their minds taking away their emotions. Another side effect gave the deep dwarves psionic abilities to turn invisible and grow larger for a time. It wasn’t until a lone duergar named Laduguer came along that the duergar people were freed from the clutches of the illithids.
In order to free his people from the illithids, Laduguer went to the Nine Hells and made a deal with Asmodeus. The pact granted Laduguer godhood but also weakened the minds of the duergar making them even more emotionless and greedy. After freeing those captured, Laduguer and the duergar returned to the surface seeking solace and guidance from the dwarves and their god Moradin. However, that is far what they received.
“When Laduguer and his people returned to the dwarves of the upper world, they were shocked by the hostility they faced. As Laduguer quickly learned, the priests of Moradin had long ago labeled the lost clan as heretics, spoken of now only as an object lesson concerning the fate of dwarves who stray from Moradin’s teachings.”
“Laduguer, in response, tried to explain that his people had been lured into a trap by the mind flayers, but his assertions fell on deaf ears. Thus, with no other apparent choice, the lost clan fled back to the Underdark. Laduguer focused his fury on Moradin.”
It is this one act that results with the duergar and Laduguar being labeled as evil beings. But if we look at another aspect of Dungeons and Dragons, this is a classic example of the oath of vengeance for paladins. Looking at the details of the oath, it is not classified as an act of evil.
Because Moradin was angry his followers left, he cast them out and wouldn’t accept them back into society again. Yet, the duergar were tortured, enslaved, and manipulated and returned looking for sympathy but were given none. And that makes them the evil ones? Please.
Continuing the disrespectful way duergar are treated in D&D, they have not once been a character option for any video game or featured as good characters in any work of fiction. By examining games like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter, and the tabletop game, we can see how they are mistreated and shunned by the developers and writers.
Baldur’s Gate 3’s antagonists are the ilithid and as previously mentioned they have a lengthy history with enslaving the duergar. They also have take gith as prisoners as well, and the githyanki are already an announced playable race in the game. So, why aren’t duergar? Both the gith and duergar fought to free their people from a lifetime of slavery and bondage. Just the gith did it in space while the duergar fought the mind flayers deep beneath the ground. Both their backstories are similar, as well, but it’s when and where they were introduced that divides them.
An interesting thing to note is that the duergar appear on page 122 of the 5E Monster Manual, whereas mind flayers are detailed on page 221. Coincidence, well there is no way of knowing, but once again the two are linked together.
Mordenkainin’s Tome of Foes details the history of the two races,
“Duergar used to be dwarves, before their greed and endless delving beneath the earth brought them in contact with the mind flayers. Held in captivity for generations by the illithids, the dwarves eventually won their independence with the aid of the evil god Laduguer. Slavery had forever changed them, however, darkening their spirits to make the duergar as evil as the tyrants they had escaped.”
Gith, on the other hand, had quite a different start to the pantheon and lore of Dungeons and Dragons. Their divided culture of githyanki and githzerai first appeared in White Dwarf Magazine in 1979. The magazine held submissions for new creatures and one of those ended up being the gith created by Charles Stross. While gith may be a name many associate with Dungeons and Dragons, the first appearance of the word is from Game of Thrones writer George R. R. Martin and his book Dying of the Light. They later were featured as official creatures in Fiend Folio in 1981 and were even the cover art for the module. It was 15 years later, in 1996, that the gith got player character stats in the second edition book A Guide to the Astral Plane.
“The warlike githyanki and the contemplative githzerai are a sundered people – two cultures that utterly despise one another. Before there were githyanki or githzerai, these creatures were a single race enslaved by the mind flayers. Although they attempted to overthrow their masters many times, their rebellions were repeatedly crushed until a great leader named Gith arose.”
A great leader named Gith, eh? Sounds a lot like Laduguer.
Both have been playing a difficult game of hide and seek blended with tag for decades and it seems duergar can’t catch a break. The one time they were featured as a playable race before the gith was in the 2015 book Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. It wasn’t until 2018 that gith got official fifth edition stats in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.
“The progenitors of the githzerai adapted to-and were transformed by-the psychic environment imposed on them by their illithid overlords…the githzerai focused their mental energy on creating physical barriers to protect them from attack, psychic or otherwise.”
The same book details the history of the duergar and it is nearly identical to that of the gith.
“During their period of slavery under the mind flayers, the duergar were the subjects or a variety of bizarre experiments that endowed them with psionic abilities. Every duergar is born with some amount of psionic talent. The typical warrior can turn invisible or increase in size, and some duergar take up a more formal study of psionics to enhance or augment their capabilities.”
Yet before that there was more insult to injury to the small yet capable fighters, tinkerers, builders, and fearless grey dwarves in 2014. The fifth edition Player’s Handbook shoves them aside and basically casts invisibility on them as they are left out by Wizards of the Coast and overshadowed by the drow.
When choosing a playable race, players can opt for a dwarf then choose a subrace, but duergar are not one of them. They get a blurb about the size of them on the last page of the dwarf category with no stats whatsoever.
Bringing it back to Baldur’s Gate. There have been a few trailers and new footage for Baldur’s Gate 3. In it, there are character options for dwarf with a subrace selection as well. However, it is unclear if duergar is one of them as the gameplay footage never shows the selection being chosen.
In the most recent gameplay reveal on June 18, A deep gnome was featured as a character your group can rescue. Earlier trailers also show you can play a drow too.
By looking at the dark elf, we can learn more about the duergar missing from BG3 and previous titles. Unlike duergar, drow are listed as a playable subrace, I say it again, subrace, in the Player’s Handbook. Yet in BG3 they are listed as a race all their own. For Nine Hells sake! Half drow are even included as their own race in the gameplay footage.
This all pales in comparison to the way duergar are treated in the first two Baldur’s Gate games and video games in general. This treatment of the dark dwarves feels like Wizards of the Coast is enslaving them as well. The most recent exclusion goes to the MMORPG Neverwinter where the gith are also included as a customizable race and duergar are nowhere to be seen. Cryptic Studios introduced the githyanki and githzerai back in 2019 to go along with their expansion Uprising. The update put the astral sea pirates up against the mind flayers and their enslaved duergar, thralls, and intellect devourers. And still, duergar are not included as a playable race.
The deep dwarves are always shown as slaves or mindless warriors led by a higher power. Not once are they introduced as a capable and powerful race of people who can fend for themselves. It’s blatantly racist and disrespectful.
This goes back to the early days of the CRPG, as well. There are zero duergar companions in any of the previous Baldur’s Gate titles, nor their expansions. Yet, there are two drow companions, Viconia DeVir and Baeloth Barrityl. Both can join your party and travel across the Sword Coast. However, it’s with Baeloth that cements the idea that duergar need to be seen as more than evil aligned slaves.
Baeloth owns Thardek as a slave. He is one of the only NPC duergars in the entire series that isn’t looking to immediately hammer your face in, but he isn’t available as a companion, Baeloth is. This one scenario takes away any urgency from the player to do something fundamentally good and help Thardek escape slavery. No, let’s go with the slave owner instead.
Through investigative digging, no dwarf pun intended here, the history of the duergar is something of a bibliography archeological puzzle. They have been around since the beginning of AD&D and have gone through significant changes and updates throughout the years to fifth edition. Yet, in all this time, they have been overlooked and disregarded in popular Dungeons and Dragons video games and tabletop campaigns.
As someone whose first Dungeons and Dragons character is a duergar ranger, I am deeply offended and angry that I do not have the ability to play my character in a game. Anyone who is a fan of drow can play as Drizzt Do’Urden, yet those who roll up duergar are left behind to be picked up by a wandering mind flayer.
Duergar need to be included in the update Wizards of the Coast is providing for drow and orc. They also need to be a playable race so anyone who actually plays one at the table can choose to be one in a video game.
My character Ruuda Drybarrel is not a dwarf with the darkest skin option for dwarves, she’s a duergar with fiery red hair, a bastard sword and a hammer of radiance, but since there isn’t an option to play a duergar, I am limited to selecting a dwarf and changing my skin.