Meckros as seafaring Dwarves. Fifth Edition D&D Design for the Malazan world
Bear with me here. It’s a good idea, honest.
The Meckros are a seafaring people who live on huge man made wooden islands. They float across the oceans supported by inflated bladders and built upon them are fully functional cities with tall buildings and narrow streets. The Meckros themselves are traders as well as raiders and are familiar to costal peoples around the world. It is conceivable that they probably travel the whole world over time, living as they do.
So why would I make them Dwarves? Firstly because it turns the idea Dwarves that live underground on its head, to have them as a race that live on the open sea just appeals to me. Playing a dwarf no matter the setting will probably bear strong similarities to Tolkien fiction and I have rarely seen an RPG game that puts a unexpected spin on them. Having dwarfs that live on floating ocean going cities should change that a bit right? But remember; these are not dwarves. These are Meckros. It is just that the player who wants to use the Dwarf stats will be used to the concept of the dwarf. It does also mean they are short, as part of the dwarf stat includes their base 25 feet walking speed and their stout build, which aids them in wearing heavy armour without penalties for being too weak.
But why dwarfs specifically? Couldn’t I have taken any of the remaining races, or one of the ones already used, and have placed them here? I decided on these pretty early on in fact and the reason for that decisive decision was the character of Withal from Midnight Tides. A blacksmith of great skill, it is also mentioned that some of the greatest weapon smiths in the world are Meckros. Perhaps due to their travel they learnt a lot from different cultures? If you take away the tunnels and stone from a Dwarf, what is the next thing you most associate with them? Forging. The racial characteristics already let you take blacksmithing tools as a default and it helps to have players not thrown too much of a curve ball when they choose to play a dwarf. They can still be the forgemaster that they wanted, even if their forge is floating over an ocean.
And how else do Dwarves nicely fit a Meckros seafarer? Stonecunning. They have exchanged their home of stone beneath the ground, for one of wood upon the waves. So all it takes is a few replacement words and you now have Meckros players who have Wood Cunning. Switch out the Mason and Brewers Tools with a Carpenters and Navigators Tools, and you have the recipe for a flavourfully different race.
Do I still just look like a Dwarf?
This is where I try and make them stand out from normal Dwarves. For one, your are not going to have much of a beard. There is very little description of the physical appearance of the people of Meckros, at least as far as I am with the books. In my mind I’ve pictured the as Inuite people due to their traveling around on the waters. I think probably initially inspired by my misremembering the wooden cities as being on icebergs. It does matter I’m stuck that way now.
The only important think to get from this is that a Meckros player isn’t going to have a magnificent dwarf beard nor are they going to be culturally a kind of Norse armoured warrior.
Nicely this works as I can somewhat borrow their art style with all the wooden carving that would exist in Meckros culture. I might end up drawing more from Norathan Native American art more.
Meckros Weapons Training
All that raiding and in turn being attacked, makes sense as well of the Dwarves(Meckros) combat training. Why would the people not be taught how to be a militia? I did make a slight change here as well though.
The weapons that races characteristically use is an important part of how we visualise them. Elves with their bows and dwarves with their hammers and crossbows, orcs with their axes. Once again, changing this makes for the character of a race to appear very different. I’m a big fan of making my fantasy settings as realistic as I can (within reason) and enjoy as an artist trying, where possible, to keep my fantasy art believable. That way you can save your suspension of disbelief for other things. Erikson does a good job of this, likely due to his history as an anthropologist. I was inspired by Shadiversity (a Youtuber who looks into the ideas behind lots of medieval media, fantasy or otherwise, the accuracy of game of thrones castles etc) and his Fantasy Re-armed series.
In this series he looks at what, based on their physical characteristics, weapons a fantasy race would use. Their traditional fantasy weapons or something different? On the subject of Dwarves he suggested that their knowledge of Smithing would allow them to create metal bows but due to their short size they could expand more draw weight over a shorter time making them excellent archers. This would allow me to move away from the normal crossbow wielding dwarves. He also noted that the traditional weapons of the dwarfs, axes and hammer, especially the one handed variety, would have such little reach as to be none functional for a dwarf. He instead suggests Pikes, Polearms, Poleaxes etc as better weapons and I very much see the logic of this. For fighting alongside a shield he suggest swords.
Another Youtuber Scalgrim, who does a lot less theory crafting and more practical testing, also had a go at this and generally agreed, though he suggested a two-handed axe would still work well, where as a great sword would be limited due to the dwarves manoeuvrability.
So what does this mean for the Meckros?
As part of their Weapons Training Dwarves become proficient in the Battleaxe, Hand Axe, Light Hammer and Warhammer. Both the Warhammer and Battleaxe are functionally the same, being versatile weapons that can be used in one or two hands. The hand axe and the light hammer are both light weapons which means they can be duel welded, and throne. The Axe dealing a D6 damage and the light hammer a D4. This is really there to effect the less martial classes that don’t get the extra weapon proficiencies.
So for a Dwarf even if you are a wizard you have a combat weapon that deals 1D10 image if you use it with two hands (which my chainmail wearing old Dwarf lady Oriff does to great effect). Most commonly it will come up with Clerics, as the Dwarf Cleric is one of the iconic D&D characters. Not all Clerics get martial weapons but if you are a Dwarf you get a weapon with one more damage dice than anything you can reliably use from the simple weapons table. If you are proficient with a Warhammer you still get one as part of your starting equipment as well. (This might be the one place I would make a change to the classes based on what I’m planning).
So what classes don’t get martial weapons and how do the current Dwarf benefits proficiencies effect them?
Bards: The only martial weapons they have are Longswords, Rapiers and Shortswords. Most bards will be Dex based apart from some rare Valour bards like my Half-Orc soldier. But as all you would be gaining is a D8/10 versatile weapon, it doesn’t do anything if you are a Dwarf Bard.
Cleric: As mentioned before most cleric subtypes don’t have access to martial weapons.The use of a Warhammer is a great boost, meaning that you have a D8 weapon to use alongside your shield and can use it for a D10 for those times you don’t have the time to use an action to get your shield up.
Druid: The only martial weapon they have is the scimitar.
So again having a two-handed weapon can be good for a Druid, though most of the time you will have a higher Dex than strength.Despite this, doing D8 instead of D6 might be appealing enough if your dexterity isn’t that high.
Monk: Shortswords are the only martial weapon.
Sometimes it might be useful to use a two handed hammer or axe but due to them not being “monk weapons” there is little point in ever using them.
Rogue: You will be Dexterity based (bar a few rare players) so the two-handed weapons do nothing.
Sorcerer: This is the sort of place where it really starts to come into it’s own and be fun. They don’t even have most simple weapons.Every Dwarf weapon is a bonus to you and makes you feel very dwarfish.
Warlock: Only simple weapons again.
The warhammer and great axe are fun and interesting additional skills that make being a Dwarf warlock amusing, but unless you are a Hexblade warlock it won’t come up often, but it will be cool.
Wizards: Same as sorcererAs mentioned.
Dwarf mage screaming “hammer time” never gets old.
So what can we conclude from this? Unless you are a cleric, the weapons are mainly there to make you feel like a Dwarf. Most of the classes that could use them will probably be using dexterity and are also unlikely to choose to play a Dwarf anyway. The weapons do a good job of making you feel like a Dwarf. But you have to remember that they are there, which most of the time you will not.
But how can I make you feel like a Meckros and have the weapons training mean a bit more?
The first thing is to swap out the Warhammer for Pike proficiency. Pikes are way more common in history as the weapon of war and protection than the sword ever was. As mentioned above the warhamemr deals D10 damage and the Pike does not increase this, what you have lost is versatility, but gained a weapon with reach. That extra 5 feet can make the difference when you have 5 feet less movement. So both in game and out it makes sense for a Meckros militia to use pikes and Halberds. Now your Dwarf Wizard can stab someone without getting into combat range and then retreat, without feeling that a cantrip is always the best option (at least at lower levels). Where as with the Warhammer, my mage only uses it in self defence or for opportunity attacks. In addition the Clerics, who this matters to the most, can now start playing around with all the interesting aspects of being able to stab people while still standing behind the two fighters, who are blocking the corridor.
Next, to replace the Great Axe withe a Longsword. Though there is some disagreement between the two YouTubers with regard to the functionality of the two, the final vote for me comes down to style. I want you to be playing a Meckros, not a Dwarf. Put a great axe in your hand and you feel like a Dwarf. Give you a sword instead and it is that much easier to remind yourself that it says Meckros on your character sheet. It also makes sense that the Meckros use swords when you consider the possibility of who their short, seafaring, ancestors might have been. The I’mass are the ancestors of many Malazan races and with their large two-handed flint swords, I can see a tradition being passed down to teach everyone how to use a sword.
Finally replace the Light Hammer and Handaxe with Shortbow and Longbow. I know Longbow is quite the power upgrade and it is by far the biggest change I am making here, but hear me out. This means that all the classes mentioned above now have access to a D8 damage dice ranged weapon with a very large range. This weapon makes sense for the Meckros as they are both masters of wood and metal. They could both build metal longbows, after all crossbows use metal, or alternatively have mastered some method of making wooden bows that are incredibly strong. Rather than the great magical bows of D&D legend being crafted by elves, what if they are made my dwarfs, in this case the Meckros?Though this is a substantial upgrade over the hammer and axe I feel that it still remains balanced. You no longer have any light weapons. So you can’t duel weald a pare of hand axes, so you’ve lost that option. You’ve lost two Strength based weapons and have instead gained Dexterity based ones. But you are a Dwarf with no bonus to Dexterity meaning that the bow will almost never be your main weapon.
So what does this do for the classes? As above the Cleric gains the most here with access to a longbow, which can fire at far greater range than their cantrips normally can. It doesn’t come up often but it would be fun for the Meckros player on the Walls of Capustan, to take hold of a longbow and tell the other players that he was trained to use this to defend their home. It also means that the Trickery Cleric, which often wants to be Dexterity, based doesn’t just have to be an Elf to get access to the Longbow.
So what do these weapons mean for classes besides the Cleric? Spell casters can use a longbow on occasions that they have to hide their magic? They can opportunity attack at longer range so long as they don’t have their focus in hand? Rogues and Bards can be Meckros rather than just Tiste to upgrade their short bow to a longbow? For a Bard this is rather good actually? Valor bards and Hexblade warlocks get an extra boost for the first few levels? So as you can see it doesn’t have any big game changing effects. But just enough that it makes the Weapon Training more relevant, more of the time and has the player feeling like they are playing a Meckros, rather than a Dwarf.
One final change I made to make it completely clear that you are not playing a Dwarf. You will no longer be living until you are three hundred and fifty years old. Rather you would be lucky to make it to eighty. They on average die at sixty, due to their harsh lives and, well, honestly I just wanted to make it clear you were not a Dwarf. To this effect I added to the Meckros law slightly, suggesting that all deals done with a Meckros trader are done with the family rather than the individual. This is because with the world spanning voyages they travel, it is quite likely that it will be their child, or grandchild, who will be around to see the business completed. Admittedly this makes them feel slightly dwarf again but, meh, can’t win them all.
Unlike the Wickans and the Rhivi there isn’t any easy way of splitting up the two sub-races. The Hill Dwarves increase your Wisdom and health points making them a common choice for clerics and druids. The Mountain Dwarf instead gets increased strength and armour training.
How to make them fit the Meckros? The easiest way I can think of it is to split them up between those Mecros who are the traders, and those who are the raiders. So the Hill Dwarves will be mainly from those groups who trade and spend longer times at sea. Wisdom helps with the insight and survival the extra toughness expresses the hardship of living out on the deep ocean. The Mountian Dwarf variant is for those who live closer to land and make regular trips to attack costal peoples (though still trading of course) and as such are stronger and their militias are taught to wear armour as well as weapon skills.
I really hope that playing as Meckros will feel very different for any RPG player who is used to traditional Dwarves.
In the next blog I will discuss how I have gone about using the the Half-Elf stat block.
Thank you for reading.