At 2:30 this morning I woke up from a dream about the dwarves in Godsbarrow and the Snarl, realized it was an idea I’d never seen anywhere before, and knew this was a chance to contribute to the collective lore of my favorite fantasy species. So I grabbed my tablet and wrote it down, couldn’t get back to sleep, and got up to turn my notes into this post.
You know those tragic instances where a huge crowd (in a sports arena, lets say) panics, and the weight of all those bodies exerts a terrible, crushing, fatal pressure on anyone trapped against a barrier? That sometimes happens when dwarves assault an underground fastness.
In a warren of tunnels, all it takes is an unexpected dead end or a wave of reinforcements on either side of the fight and the two opposing forces can literally get jammed together, immobile, with nowhere to go, as more bodies pile into the same too-small space.
This is called the Snarl.
Left unchecked, a Snarl is an awful thing. Pressure and lack of air can kill everyone involved, and the sensation of being trapped in a press of flesh, with one’s mortal foes, unable to escape, is simply dreadful. (That haunting image is what struck me when I first awoke.)
Shouting and other signals can’t be heard over the din, or seen through the press of fighting bodies, so dwarves rely on smell to avoid a Snarl. Underground-dwelling dwarves in Dormiir carry tiny ampoules of scented liquid. Each unit, clan, or other group has their own unique concoction, but they all carry a powerful, overwhelming scent. When crushed, either by the force of a Snarl or actively, by a dwarf trapped in one, the vial shatters and releases its potent stink.
Especially in snug spaces already tight on air, one vial’s scent might not travel far — but the scents from several of them will. That smell signals a Snarl, and it tells every dwarf within range to halt, retreat, and then work undo the Snarl.
Some foes know of this practice, and will also work with the dwarves to untangle a Snarl when they catch a strong scent. Historically, a Snarl successfully undone often leads to a peace treaty between the dwarves and their snarl-mates, making it an oddly effective, if accidental, form of diplomacy.
I didn’t dream about poignards, but while I was lying bed, half-awake, thinking about Snarls, my brain started pondering effective weapons for medieval tunnel-fighting — and out popped poignards.
The stereotypical dwarven weapon, the axe, isn’t actually a practical choice for fighting in confined spaces. You need room to swing an axe, especially a two-hander, and tunnels and snugs and crawlways don’t tend to allow that kind of maneuvering room. (The same goes for picks, mauls, longer swords, etc.).
Dwarves who fight in tunnels prefer short thrusting weapons, especially poignards, and it’s rare to meet a dwarf underground who doesn’t have a poignard or two. Warriors often carry several, each set up to be drawn in a different position (boot, belt, upper arm sheath, etc.). Some will also carry a longer, heavier weapon — like an axe or pick — that they can unlimber when fighting in caverns and other larger spaces.
Daggers and crossbows are also popular choices. A two-edged dagger can be a good alternative to a poignard, and a crossbow offers a compact ranged option that can be fired — once — even in a narrow tunnel. And dwarves girding for battle often don spiked armor and spiked gauntlets, which work as deterrents and effective weapons in their own right.
(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number. I’m using the setting-creation approach detailed in Worlds Without Number [paid link], which is a fantastic resource.)
The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.