I’ve never particularly liked dwarves and halflings in D&D. For some reason, elves don’t bother me. Perhaps this is because there are plenty of examples of elf-life creatures or peoples in other literature (Norse myths, Melnibonéans, etc), whereas dwarves and halflings (especially) only really occur in Tolkien and his imitators. Yes, there are little people in some other myths, but not extensively, and not in a way that feels very close to the Tolkien dwarf or halfling. I feel like the elf is a more powerful archetype. So I’ve been thinking about how to reskin the class.
The dwarf class has two major features: toughness, and dungeoneering. For an adventuring party, I think these features are interesting and fun, and though I could easily see a successful campaign that only allowed the four main human classes, I like having a few other options. And seven classes is a good number.
My first idea to replace the dwarf was to make a drow class. Underdark-dwelling, the drow could easily be made into a dungeoneer/assassin class. I think this is an interesting idea, and perhaps might work well in a campaign which hewed closely to classic D&D elves, but I want my fae creatures to more closely resemble the dark fairies of traditional mythology rather than the more mundane elves of D&D; also, allowing players to be drow would rob the subterranean depths of some mystery.
Another idea: why not replace the dwarf class with a morlock race-as-class? Morlocks are humans who have been underground for so long that they have been changed (credit, of course, to H. G. Wells). Using morlocks has the advantage of remaining truer to the human-centered genre of Sword & Sorcery. But is the morlock really a good fit for a dwarf class replacement? Weird Fantasy Role-Playing describes dwarves thusly:
Once the most powerful people on the planet, their decline has left them a spiritually shattered people. Once they took great pride in their grand architecture, their technological supremacy, and loved each other just as hard as they worked.
Morlocks, as I envision them, fit a similar description, though I see them as the lost slave worker caste of the “most powerful” ancients. The helots of Atlantis, as it were. Perhaps the ancients had exhausted the possibilities of glory in construction on the surface, and turned instead to cyclopean architecture deep beneath the surface (or maybe they ran out of the supply of some precious substance needed to build their structures on the surface, and need to dig ever deeper to locate more). Or, rather than building an arc to escape some approaching calamity, the ancients and their slaves retreated underground. Or, Moria-like, they delved too deep, and wakened long lost terrors (perhaps even impinging on the borders of hell). I really like this idea, and I think it is much more interesting than using drow, but it does suffer from at least one of the same limitations: perhaps morlocks would be better as NPCs to preserve mystery.
A human dungeoneer and treasure-hunter is another option, but this may overlap too much with the thief. And it is not nearly as stylish as the morlock. I haven’t decided yet.