Sunday, March 2, 2008

Separating the Men from the Dorfs

Back when I first started to write columns for the LotRO RP Haven one of my fellow Red Arrows suggested I write a bit on the problem of "dorfs," which is a particular form of Dwarf player character who seems to be common in LotRO. We are talking here about Dwarves who talk in a Scottish accent, who carry beer mugs into Carn Dum, and who fly into berserker rages at the sight of an Orc. They are laughable comic relief characters or, if we're lucky, gruff mentors to younger heroes. Inspiration for these depraved and sad excuses for Dwarvenkind are perhaps inspired as much by Warhammer and World of Warcraft as by Peter Jackson's trilogy and the Gimli presented by John Rhys-Davies. Sadly, they have little in common with the Dwarves of Tolkien's world, but we have been conditioned by other media so that we think we know how to roleplay a Dwarf. All of the races in Middle-earth have this issue (Elves too) but for now let's focus on the Khazad and, as Yoda would say, unlearn what we have learned.

Much of the problem with playing a Dwarf is that we have all these memorable scenes from the film that simply didn't happen in the novel. Gimli belching in Theoden's hall, then drying the beer off his mouth with his beard? Didn't happen. Gimli calling Galadriel an "Elf-witch" as they enter Lorien? Didn't happen (there's a similar exchange, but the suspicious hero is Boromir, not Gimli.) The infamous "Game Over" drinking contest from the Extended Version of Return of the King? Not in the novel. "Never trust an Elf!" No. "Not the beard!" No. "Nobody tosses a dwarf!" No. That business about the Dwarf being so loud "we coud shoot him in the dark"? No, that was Boromir too.

Of Lads and Laddies
Rule #1 (accent): No Dwarf in Middle-earth ever uses a Scottish accent, nor do they use words we associate with Scottish dialects.

Gimli may have called Legolas "lad" in the film, but neither Gimli nor any other Dwarf in the novel actually uses that word. Ever. Some players love their accents; but the truth is that they are much harder to read than they would be to listen to. Some Dwarf player characters spell their words so bizarrely that they are impossible for new roleplayers to play with. Look at it this way: when you intentionally mis-spell your text, you are imposing a demand upon those playing with you. "Decode my bizarre accent!" you say. Well, yes, I could do that. But why should I have to? Are you just that damn special? Answer: No. You're not.

And accents are not lore-appropriate. As I mentioned, they are very scarce in the novel. We do see a Cockney accent in a spot or two -- but it is not spoken by Men. It is spoken by Orcs! That's right, all of you players of Men: talking Cockney makes you sound like an Orc. Bree-landers don't have a Cockney accent.

If Dwarves don't talk with an accent, and they don't use vocabulary stolen from the Cheif Engineer of the USS Enterprise, how do they talk? Well, let's tune our palantir to Rivendell and we'll see. This is when Frodo meets an elderly and much respected Dwarf whom we can find at his camp in the south-west Misty Mountains:

'Welcome and well met!' said the dwarf, turning towards him. Then he actually rose from his seat and bowed. 'Gloin at your service,' he said, and bowed still lower.
'Frodo Baggins at your service and your family's,' said Frodo correctly.

Rule #2 (Greetings): The first person says, 'At your service.' The second person must surpass the first speaker, and offer more. 'At your service and your family's.'

This exchange is repeated several times in The Hobbit, when Thorin and his company all show up at Bag End. Bilbo is too flustered to respond properly, but all the Dwarves do their part with the sole exception of Thorin. Oakenshield, who Tolkien calls 'haughty', is far too important to offer his service to Bilbo. But Gloin is not too proud to say this to a Hobbit he has never met, the nephew of an old friend.

What do we learn here? The importance of courtesy. The Dwarves are an ancient and proud race, and they value courtesy. They expect other people to be polite to them, and they are naturally polite in return. Now, Dwarves can be rude. But their definition of "rude" does not involve direct insults. We can find an example a few pages later, in the Council of Rivendell. Legolas is telling the tale of Gollum's imprisonment by the Elves.

'... we had not the heart to keep him ever in dungeons under the earth, where he would fall back into his old black thoughts.'
'You were less tender to me,' said Gloin with a flash of his eyes, as old memories were stirred of his imprisonment in the deep places of the Elven-king's halls.
'Now come!' said Gandalf. 'Pray do not interrupt, my good Gloin. That was a regrettable misunderstanding, long set right. If all grievances that stand between Elves and Dwarves are to be brought up here, we may as well abandon this Council.'
Gloin rose and bowed, and Legolas continued...


Think about how restrained this is. Gloin and his fellow dwarves were kept prisoners for weeks in the dungeons of King Thranduil, who is Legolas' father. Chances are very good that when Gloin and the rest were brought before Thranduil, Legolas was there. In other words, Gloin and Legolas both have personal memories of this incident. And yet Gloin sat down at the table with Legolas, saying nothing about the incident until it was brought up. When he did mention it, he only alluded to it, because both he and Legolas knew full well what was being talked about. There was no angry challenge, not even a direct insult. Gloin does not insult all Elf-kind. When Gandalf asks for peace, does Gloin forgive and forget? Nothing says he does! Bowing is an apology, but the apology is not directed to Legolas. Gloin is pretty mad! Instead, the dwarf apologizes to Gandalf, and keeps his mouth shut out of respect for the others present.

This teaches us rule three:

Rule #3 (courtesy): Dwarf problems are not for others to get involved in.

If Gloin has an issue with Legolas, he'll take it up with Legolas. The rest of the Council of Elrond does not need to be bothered by it.

Now, one of the things we think we know about Dwarves and Elves is that they don't get along. The root of this quarrel is long but basically has two strands. The oldest reason is related to the Silmarils and can be found in the Silmarillion. Without going into long detail, King Thingol Greycloak hired Dwarves to put one of the Silmarils into an ancient golden necklace of Dwarven make which Thingol happened to have been given as a gift. But once the necklace got the stone, the resulting treasure was so greed-inspiring that Thingol and the Dwarves fought over it and the King was murdered. The Dwarves were later hunted down and killed by Beren, but each side thinks the other did them wrong. Now this was a long time ago and most Elves don't remember this or have any personal grudge, but there's a more recent reason for Dwarf/Elf friction: the Elves blame Dwarves for the appearance of the Balrog of Moria, which forced many Elves that lived near the Misty Mountains to flee western Lorien. Some loss of life was involved, though for Elves the sudden appearance of such a powerful evil is a crime in and of itself. Gimli and Legolas get into this issue on the outskirts of Lorien, when Legolas sings the Lay of Nimrodel.

'It is long and sad, for it tells how sorrow came upon Lothlorien, Lorien of the Blossom, when the Dwarves awakened evil in the mountains.'
'But the Dwarves did not make the evil,' said Gimli.
'I said not so; yet evil came,' answered Legolas sadly.


And that's the end of it. Gimli doesn't bring it up again, or further try to defend himself. He knows he's right, he isn't going to change Legolas' mind, best just keep quiet for the good of the Fellowship.

Gloin may be the ideal Dwarf -- respected but not conceited, wise and yet vigorous, the sort of individual which younger Dwarves would idolize. Here he is again, with a suggestion for Elrond at the Council:

'Still it might be well for all,' said Gloin the Dwarf, 'if all these strengths were joined, and the powers of each were used in league.'


That's right, an old Dwarf, who spent a spell in an Elvish prison, just suggested to the most famous Elf in the world that the Dwarves and the Elves should work together. Why? Because he knows our next rule:

Rule #4 (practicality): Give in when it makes sense to. Working with other people means you have to set your personal issues aside.

Let's look at that scene in the Hobbit when Thorin is brought before Thranduil. It is useful because it shows how a Dwarf and an Elf in a hostile situation might talk to one another. Where do they draw the line, and does their fight break out into violence or even death?

The king looked sternly on Thorin, when he was brought before him, and asked him many questions. But Thorin would say only that he was starving.
'Why did you and your folk three times try to attack my people at their merrymaking?' asked the king.
'We did not attack them,' answered Thorin; 'we came to beg, because we were starving.'
'Where are your friends now, and what are they doing?'
'I don't know, but I expect starving in the forest.'
'What were you doing in the forest?'
'Looking for food and drink, because we were starving.'
'But what brought you into the forest at all?' asked the king angrily.
At that Thorin shut his mouth and would not say another word.


Thorin never stoops so low as to insult Thranduil or assault him. That would be lowering himself to the level of his poor host. He answers truthfully when he can and shuts up when he can't. But he is certainly stubborn, and he has a dark sense of humour you have to love.

The most famous example of Dwarvish stubborness happens in Lorien, when Gimli arrives with the rest of the Fellowship and Haldir only allows him into the woods on the condition that he be blindfolded.

This was not to the liking of Gimli. 'The agreement was made without my consent,' he said. 'I will not walk blindfold, like a beggar or a prisoner. And I am no spy. My folk have never had dealings with any servants of the Enemy. Neither have we done harm to the Elves. I am no more likely to betray you than Legolas, or any other of my companions.'


Note that Gimli does not insult Haldir, or the Elves. Instead, he defends himself. And that defense -- his own word -- should be good enough for anyone. Why is he so insulted anyway? Because to be blindfolded would be to be treated "like a beggar or a prisoner" or "a spy." Gimli is proud.

Rule #5 (pride): Show some self-respect, will you? No drunken, belching, swearing please.

Lets continue to follow this scene. It teaches us a lot.

'I do not doubt you,' said Haldir. 'Yet this is our law. I am not the master of the law, and cannot set it aside. I have done much in letting you set foot over the Celebrant.'
Gimli was obstinate. He planted his feet firmly apart, and laid his hand upon the haft of his axe. 'I will go forward free,' he said, 'or I will go back and seek my own land, where I am known to be true to my word, though I perish alone in the wilderness.'
... Gimli drew his axe from his belt. Haldir and his companion bent their bow, 'A plague on Dwarves and their stiff necks!' said Legolas.

Gimli is willing to draw his axe and die here on the edge of Lorien to defend his good name, that's how serious he is about being honest and truthful. Note that Haldir believes him ('I do not doubt you.') but is shackled by the laws of Lorien. We have the classic irrestistible force vs. immovable object. So how does it resolve? Aragorn, the Captain and fellowship leader, knows the answer: if we all share the Dwarf's cause, he'll let it go.

'It is hard upon the Dwarf to be thus singled out. We will all be blindfolded, even Legolas. That will be best, though it make the journey slow and dull.'
Gimli laughed suddenly. 'A merry troop of fools we shall look! Will Haldir lead us all on a string, like many blind beggars with one dog? But I will be content, if only Legolas here shares my blindness.'


Gimli gives a little here, but he expects Legolas to give the rest of the way. That is enough for him.

'I am an Elf and a kinsman here,' said Legolas, becoming angry in his turn.
'Now let us cry: "a plague on the stiff necks of Elves!"' said Aragorn. 'But the Company shall all fare alike. Come, bind our eyes, Haldir.'

And that's the end of the story: everyone's eyes and blindfolded until they reach Caras Galadhon, and Gimli is content because everyone shared his fate. Even Legolas cooperates, though he whines a little. (I know. Elves. Sheesh.)

Between all of these scenes, you have been able to see the language that Tolkien uses when Dwarves like Gimli and Gloin talk. It is not accented, crude, or simple. Indeed, it is usually quite elevated. They uses words like "perish" instead of "die," and "tender" for "nice." Look at the sentence structure used by Gimli and Gloin in the lines above; it's not simple stuff. Let's look at a moment when Gimli has a lot to say. This will help us answer the question, "How does he say it?" The Fellowship can see Caradhras for the first time, and the two mountains next to it.
'I need no map,' said Gimli, who had come up with Legolas, and was gazing out before him with a strange light in his deep eyes. 'There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales. They stand tall in our dreams: Baraz, Zirak, Shathur.
'Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dum, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead; Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirakzigil and Bundushathur.
'There the Misty Mountains divide, and between their arms lies the deep-shadowed valley which we cannot forget: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, which the Elves call Nanduhirion.'
'It is for the Dimrill Dale that we are making,' said Gandalf. ... 'There lies the Mirrormere, and there the River Silverlode rises in its icy springs.'
'Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram,' said Gimli, 'and cold are the springs of Khibil-nala. My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them again soon.'


Wow. Where to start. First, we can see some of the things we have already talked about working here as well: Gimli uses words like "Yonder" for "Over there," and "of old" for "a long time ago". He doesn't say "I can't wait", he says, "My heart trembles at the thought". But what else can we learn?

Rule #6 (long-winded): Something that's really important deserves a lot of words said about it.

Gimli isn't the only one with this issue. Thorin is remarkable for his long speeches. (The Hobbit: 'If he had been allowed, he would probably have gone on like this until he was out of breath, without telling any one there anything that was not known already.') But you can see that the more important a thing is, the more names it has, and Gimli is going to tell you every single one of those names, in every language he knows (including Elvish, note). Those mountains have at least two names; Caradhras has three. Moria is so important it has four names! Pay attention to them. Gimli is liable to quiz you on them later.

We'll finish with one last exchange which is notable even among Tolkien scholars for the way it shows the author's grasp of dialogue. You may think, 'You have shown us all these Dwarves talking with fancy words and elaborate sentences. But everyone in Tolkien's world talks like this. I want my Dwarf to be different!' But not everyone in Middle-earth does talk like this. This is how Dwarves talk and its different than other races. This is illustrated in The Hobbit, when the Dwarves and Bilbo say farewell to each other.

Then the dwarves bowed low before their Gate, but words stuck in their throats. 'Good-bye and good luck, wherever you fare!' said Balin at last. 'If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid!'
'If ever you are passing my way,' said Bilbo, 'don't wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!'


In The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey wrote that, in this scene, the two speakers are using very different language and speech, but are basically saying the same thing: "You are welcome in my home."

Or, in ancient dorf-speak: "Urr, laddie, c'mon over to me Hall, and we'll toast ye a barrel a'mead!'

19 comments:

  1. I think you'll find that the "drunken Scottish dwarf" thing owes more to TSR's fantasy novels, especially the Streams of Silver and the many books that spawned from it (and Drizzt Do'Urden, bane of many elven RPers as well.) Bruenor Battlehammer is the absolute archetype of the kind of dwarf you are describing here - a D&D Dwarf. Not a Tolkien dwarf.

    To be completely honest, I wish they had made Dwarves in this game look more like the Bakshi animation dwarves (http://bp2.blogger.com/_0dbOexzAiEs/R58lbpFfSuI/AAAAAAAABFc/YP72FA9nsbQ/s1600-h/gandalf.jpg ) rather than the typical D&D/WoW/Warhammer dwarf. Not because I believe that the Rankin-Bass illustrations are more valid than having the thick, stocky guys that we have today, but because it would have SHOUTED at new players from the moment they decided to roll a dwarf: THIS IS NOT A D&D DWARF! THIS IS ANOTHER ANIMAL ENTIRELY!

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  2. I don't know why I did not think of this at the time; you're absolutely right of course. Just as many Loremaster PCs act as if they were Wizards out of the Forgotten Realms -- with all sorts of magic spells at their command which of course do not exist in Middle-earth -- so our Dwarves come from D&D as well. But this should not surprise us, I suppose. Remember: if there had never been a Lord of the Rings, there would never have been a Dungeons & Dragons; if there had been no D&D, there would be no Everquest; and if there had been no Everquest, there would be no LotRO. It's an endless feedback loop.

    Thanks for writing in.

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  3. It wasn't Boromir that breathed too loud. It was Sam, unless my edition of the books is different than yours or something.

    Book 2 Chapter 6, "Lothlorien"

    "Who are they, and what do they say?" asked Merry.
    "They're Elves," said Sam. "Can't you hear their voices?"
    "Yes, they are Elves," said Legolas; "and they say that you breathe so loud that they could shoot you in the dark." Sam hastily put his hand over his mouth.

    then later, as Sam is climbing the ladder up to the flet where the Hobbits and Elves will sleep it says:

    Legolas ran lightly up, and Frodo following slowly; behind came Sam trying not to breathe loudly.

    You have something against Boromir? :p

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  4. No, you are absolutely right. I stand corrected.

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  5. I must thank you dearly, JT, for this bit of your blog. It helps so much and is very informative. I love to Roleplay, and even have a heart to roleplay as a dorf back in other MMO's and tabletop games; they are entertaining in themselves. But they should never be found in Middle-Earth.

    As you stated, Tolkien was first in the fantasy department of modern times. And coincidentally, my first experience into the culture as well (if you don't count small chapter books that I browsed in the 4th grade).

    So you can say Tolkien is my first love, and fantasy my second. I would hate to ever tarnish the beauty of his creation.

    Thanks for opening my eyes a bit wider, so I may do Tolkien and Middle-Earth justice.

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  6. Excellent piece!

    For those of us who are used to the dwarves of Edda and Voluspa, these loud-mouthed dwarves who drink all the time are a curious sight.

    I started in a dwarf-only RP kin, which later folded sadly, and my dwarves do not belch, snore or curse. They are restrained (until it's battle time, also known as axes flying) and respectable.

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  7. Hmmm, some very good points. How about the part where dwarves are always associated with axes?(Unfortunately, Turbine shares in this stereotype).

    If I recall correctly, the only dwarf to be so associated with an axe is Gimli, as Thorin and his company used swords when they got a chance to acquire weapons. Granted, I haven't read the Hobbit or Unfinished Tales, but does someone else have any knowledge about this subject?

    Oh, and as for the drunken stereotype, it was the ELVES who were drunk in the books.

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  8. Thank you very much for a this excellent text. It sums up many of my thoughts I've had about dwarves in Middle-Earth.

    And you are absolutely right about that the films Jackson made have tarnished the look casual people have about dwarves in Middle-Earth. I do not know why, or who, decided the light tone those films have. Gimli turned into a comical sidekick... Unbelievable...

    I think that Bakshi's version is better, because it captures the mood of the novel more precisely. Though it is old and extremely low-budget compared to Jackson's trilogy. Shame that they did not give Bakhsi the chance to finish the story.

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  9. To Lluewhyn:

    I think maybe that with regard to dwarf weapons coice the association with axes, hammers and picks is probably on firmer ground. Since it follows both the presented Rule 4 and Rule 5. Dwarfs are miners by trade, and the tools they use for mining can easily double as weapons in a pinch. Since they have pride in their tools and their craft why not use them as weapons (because they have pride in their tools and their craft and don't want them sullied by being used for something as base as combat. I always manage to argue with myself). On the use of swords you're probably right. That could also be practicality. They use swords because that's what they've got?

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  10. interesting reading

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  11. To Lluewhyn:
    The association is just in my eyes. Look at the warcry gimli shouts in the battle for helms deep "Axes of the dwarves! The dwarves are upon you". Tolkien describes this in the appendixs as a common and well known battle cry therefore i argue that the dwarves commonly used the axe. Just because its a stereotype doesnt mean its not true!

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  12. Dwarves are known for the use of Axes and Hammers because it suits their body type. They are short, stocky, and strong; they can't match or outdo most races with a longsword (because it relies on accuracy, speed, and dexterity; believe me I've used one). They also have the best armour and weapons in Middle Earth, so they know that their equipment can outperform their opponents. So dwarves use a top heavy weapon that adds even more power to their blow allowing them to smash straight through their opponent's shields and defenses. Axes and Hammers are slow weapons in between strikes so the Dwarves rely on their fantastic armour to protect them.
    Before anyone says anything, yes the Dwarves of the Iron Hills carried short swords, but the use of a short sword and long sword are fundementally different. The short sword is a in-your-face stabbing weapon, at those close quarters a Dwarve can overpower his foe with his strength and use that same strength to stab through armour.

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  13. I agree with and love, love, love this article. The only point that might be made is that most of the dwarves used as examples here are essentially nobility. Balin, Gimli, Thorin, Gloin... these are all dwarves mentioned in the genealogy of the line of Durin. It's not clear that the average dwarf's speech would be quite this lofty. Maybe we could compare the speech of Bifur, Bofur and Bombur - who are apparently not of the noble line - to the speech of the others? Regardless, the Scottish accent is clearly inappropriate and this is a great post.

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  14. I discovered this excellent piece a few years too late. I'm not sure if folks are still responding to it. But I wanted to get your impressions about a suggestion for role-playing as a dwarf in LOTRO.

    One thing I found interesting about Tolkien's notion of dwarves, as opposed to D&D dorfs, is the comparisons he drew between them and Jews. Some of these comparisons worry me as they seem a bit anti-Semitic--e.g., dwarves being depicted as greedy and obsessed with gold and jewels. However, a lot of strikes me as being respectful.

    I suppose I'm wondering what people think about exploring the connection between dwarves and Jews as a tool for role playing them. For me, it seemed to help snap me out of thinking of them as belching, beer-swilling, axe-throwing midgets with Scottish accents. A couple of examples. Tolkien supposedly modeled Khuzdul on Hebrew, and this helped me wrap my mind around the idea of it as a private language--one to be used only among other dwarves. I found myself visualizing my dwarf character sitting through the equivalent of Hebrew classes in preparation for the equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah. The importance of ritual and ceremony in Judaism helped me think about the various scenes in Tolkien where dwarves exhibit such remarkable courtesy. In general, thinking about Jews living in the diaspora, the conflicted feelings they have toward Israel, the sense of a lost past that they are struggling to regain/recreate, a past that they see as threatened, helped me wrap my mind around the ways in which dwarves relate to locations such as Lonely Mountain and Moria (which some have suggested is named after the hill, Moriah, in Jerusalem). The passage in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gimli identifies the various landmarks surrounding Moria based on memory and lore reminds me of how Jewish friends talk about landmarks in Israel.

    So, yeah, I was wondering if people had thoughts on exploring this connection between Tolkien's dwarves and Judaism as tool for role playing them more effectively.

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  15. I think you should better check your sources again man, during Thorin's first speech in 'The hobbit' he refers to himself as "a fine adventurous lad".

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  16. I think you exaggerate a bit, at times. Dwarves definitely have a sense of humour, and it can be somewhat rude - the scene in the Hobbit you quote is dwarves showing up uninvited and unexplained to a friend of a friend's house, and they end up teasing him with an entire song about smashing up his plates (albeit being very careful with them in fact). A lot more rancour is displayed between dwarves and elves in The Hobbit; indeed, downplaying it by quoting a scene where Gloin gives into Gandalf, who he greatly respects, after all, strongly downplays what the Gimli/Legolas friendship had to overcome.

    You are right, the dwarves in Tolkein aren't dorfs, but, at the same time, you paint a rather lifeless picture of the race Tolkein created by over-emphasising certain scenes.

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  17. Hi, i love this post, i think many dwarven role players are agreed with this, I want to ask your permission to include this post into a handbook that i'm making to my lotro kinship

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  18. By all means, Bjornen! Just say who wrote it, if you don't mind. See you in game!

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  19. Good article.

    I believe if you google 'Dwarrow Scholar' you will find a lot of interesting articles related to dwar ves, including RPing in LotRO as a dwarf -- material that complements this, I think. I just thought I'd mention it FYI. I joined Khuzd Belkul (the Laurelin kinship run by the Dwarrow Scholar) not too long ago, and I am very happy with how dwarves behave there; not to mention the expanded History and Language attempted by these folk.

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