We’ve seen numerous passing mentions, but this week we are delving into Kharzan, the homeland of the dwarves. There’s a big difference between the view from outside Kharzan and the view from inside it, which is exactly the way the Kharzani like it. But we get to peek under the hood, or rather, peek under the mountain.
The famed homeland of the dwarves, this rugged mountain range forms the continental divide and reaches from the Rushing Sea in the west to Mergather Gulf in the east. Its rain barrier creates the Verdas Jungle stretching down from its southern slopes and its rain shadow creates the Outland Wastes to its north and west. The name is Dwarvish, and translates literally to “The High Road” (khar zhan). The system of tunnels, mountain passes, and caverns that run through the mountain range has provided dwarves ease of travel since time immemorial.
While there are many alternate routes along the High Road, there are a handful of bottlenecks where the alternatives dwindle. Near the midpoint of the range lies a cluster of volcanos, the Sainted Trio; the magma chambers and vents underlying those volcanoes make safe passage through the area difficult and new developments dangerous. When a dwarf talks about ‘treading sainted ground,’ she means it’s dangerous. Elsewhere chasma, underground rivers, seas of methane, and dragon lairs force traffic into corkscrews and detours.
The oldest Kharzani legends speak of cavern battles against goblins and kobolds, but only dwarves live in Kharzan today. They welcome surface peoples into their tunnels and mountain passes—as paying visitors. As long as your dwarven coin lasts, you can expect a safe and comfortable transit through dwarven territory. The welcome of the dwarves dries up quickly, however, for strangers who stray from the thoroughfares and into the dwarven dormitories, factories, and mushroom caverns.
The dwarves are a secretive people and guard their privacy—and their technical secrets, and the locations of their treasure vaults—jealously. While most assume this is distrust of surface dwellers, most of the time these dwarven defenders suspect the outsiders of being spies for other dwarves.
While the surface peoples tend to think of Kharzan as “the dwarven kingdom,” the truth is far more complicated. Kharzan is home to a multitude of principalities, all bound together in a dizzying network of ancient obligations and fealty agreements. Politics under the mountain is ruthless and never-ending, centering around control of the various segments of the High Road and its tolls. There are innumerable passages for every stretch of the High Road, with more being dug out every year and others falling to disrepair and sabotage. Whoever controls the shortest, safest, most comfortable routes collects the most tolls—and has a giant target painted on their back.
These machinations are often obscured by references to the King Under the Mountain, the ostensible ultimate leige of the varied dwarven lairds. Dwarves speak of the office in the same way as they speak of the office holder, even when the throne is vacant, which is true more often than not. The throne can only be claimed by a dwarf who controls a continuous route from one end of the High Road to the other, an achievement that is difficult to accomplish and even harder to maintain. The last dwarf to do so ruled from Granite Hold, but lost her claim to the throne due to the Dread Tyrant’s interference. She was subsequently assassinated.
The Dread Tyrant understood dwarven politics well enough to stymie and undercut any contender who came close to completing the High Road and uniting Kharzan. He personally seized those mountain passes which were exposed to aerial attack, and destabilized the rest of the High Road by using a number of dwarven lairds as catspaws. The petty dwarven fiefdoms remaining were unable to rebuff his demands for tribute. With the Tyrant gone, the scramble to regain control of the mountain passes and settle old vendettas has turned Kharzan into a very dangerous place.
I think of Kharzan as an instance of “collapsible” world building. For a game with no dwarven player characters, Kharzan can be a black box that turns out merchants and easy travel options. If your table has an itch to explore further, however, you can scratch that itch and find a complex and engaging bit of setting to engage with.
Looking forward, our options for next week are a two-and-two: two regions and two peoples. Which ones pique your interest?