Gnome Chat

When I asked for suggestions on creatures to use for This Old Monster, the gnome came up once or twice. This week… we will not be doing that. Not yet at least. See, when I do This Old Monster posts, I like to focus on the mythological and pop cultural renditions that came before and incorporate them into the build.

And that’s exactly the problem when it comes to the gnome (and trolls for that matter): they don’t really have a lot of focus when it comes to their depictions. If I’m going to be frank about it, I have to say that almost none of those depictions are very good.

So this week, we’re not going to try to fix the gnome, we’re just going to talk about the gnome: what they are, how they got the way they are, and my personal thoughts on those.

Oddly enough, my first exposure to gnomes of the non-garden variety was actually closer to the original version and yet the one most uncommon in modern gnomes. Specifically, my first fantasy gnome was Gnome, the earth spirit from Secret of Mana.

For those of you who never had the pleasure of playing one of my favorite videogames ever, Gnome in SoM is a spirit creature who you need to befriend to get access to Earth magic. Which is what the first known description of gnomes says they were: earth elementals. Not faeries. Not dwarf expies. Elementals. They were creatures who lived in the earth—as in the actual dirt and stone; they are described as moving through earth like humans move through air.

You don’t get many elemental creatures in pop culture. Yeah, you get creatures who favor or have an affinity for an element, but not many critters that live in and are part of that element who aren’t just animated gobs of the stuff. If there was more to the original gnome than just that, I might find this approach interesting, but there really isn’t more to it than that. They were guardians of mines and buried treasure, which steps on the griffin, but there’s not much more.

The problem is that apparently the moment they came up with the concept of a ‘gnome’, people started using the word for… random crap for no reason. Seriously, check out the Wikipedia entry; there’s one thing where they’re supposedly the spirits of prudish women.

This kind of dilution of brand isn’t uncommon when it comes to European folklore. Goblins and Leprechauns were, at one time a catch-all name for ‘faerie thing’ before settling down to ‘warty green dude’, and ‘tiny Irish dude’ respectively in the popular consciousness. Not so much when it comes to gnomes, trolls and kobolds.

It says something when event he great grand-pappy of fantasy, JRR Tolkein, used ‘gnome’ to describe the Noldor. What are Noldor? This is a Noldor:


So yeah, even the ‘little dudes’ thing isn’t all that concrete when it comes to gnomes.

Which brings us to the meat of the discussion I want to address: their treatment in Dungeons and Dragons.

Some time after the Basic Set, it became clear that players wanted to play something other than humans, elves, dwarves and halflings as they appeared in Lord of the Rings (Fun fact: in the original game, the non-human races were classes unto themselves. So if you were a dwarf, your class was ‘dwarf’.). Hence, we got the three new ‘classic’ races: half-elf, half-orc and gnome.

The half-orc had a built-in role: the big guy. They were bigger and stronger than anyone. They also had the racism shtick where everyone hates them because orcs are supposedly always evil. Half-elves… I don’t even know and I could write an essay on the problems half-elves constantly suffer from design-wise.

Gnomes on the other hand…

Well, see the shtick of halflings literally is their small size. They have a few bennies base don being Bilbo Baggins with the serial numbers filed off, but it’s mostly all centered on being able to play a little dude and turning that disadvantage into an advantage. So when they tried to introduce the gnomes as another small race, they needed to give them something more. The core game went far, far, far afield from all gnome mythology and fiction and made them illusionists of all things and paid lip service to their earth elemental origins by giving them the ability to speak with burrowing animals.

Let’s ignore the fact that they don’t define ‘burrowing creature’– foxes, bears and freaking hyenas have been occasionally known to dig their dens or modify the dens of other creatures – it really demonstrates how poor limits can make an awesome power (speaking to animals) and make it lame (speaking to a tiny class of animals). It might have even been cool as an Aquaman thing where you can contact them at range, but that’s not what this is.

And this illustrates the trouble with gnomes: Being small, in game terms, is already a superpower. You are harder to hit, sneak easier, and move better (though not faster). So whatever powers you give a small race (unless oyu make all races more powerful in genera), they can’t be all that powerful. And the mechanical abilities of a race need to either be based on or inform their society and attitudes.

For halflings, who came first, the smallness is baked right in (and stolen from Tolkien), and they have a few odd bennies like ‘luck’ and throwing things. For gnomes… well the designers don’t want to step on halfling shticks, and can’t give gnomes big powers because smallness is so awesome… so they’re left with minor bennies that turn out not to be a lot to hang a racial identity on.

…Which means they don’t have much of a racial identity. Don’t get me wrong, mechanics aren’t everything when it comes to races, but let me ask you this: without looking at a write-up for them, what are gnomes like? Most people would say ‘silly’ or ‘weird’, and you would be right. They’re often a joke race and that’s all there is to them.

…Which (yeah, used that twice n a row) brings me to Dragonlance. Whatever you may think of Weiss and Hickman’s body of work (I liked a lot of DL stuff up to Fifth Age, which sucked), they probably deserve the blame for ruining gnomes once in for all. In two words: Tinker Gnomes.

Now, if you have read any of my Ere stuff, you know I am all for advancing the tech level in fantasy levels. You will get no argument from me about ditching Medieval Stasis. However, Tinker Gnomes aren’t that. They’re a manifestation of this trope where fantasy writers try to make the idea of tech advancement in their world look unattractive and as a generally foolish idea.

Basically, they’re idiots who built useless or self-destructive anachronistic machines and practice a far less safe or sane version of the scientific method like it were a religion. All they exist to do is suck and fail to the laughter of others.

Oddly enough, there is precedent for gnomes being technologically advanced and it comes from Tolkien. Yup, the Noldor, the elves who are called Gnome, were noted to be the most technologically adept of the Elven peoples. You know how elf rope and bread and armor are all so awesome in LotR? Yeah, that isn’t magic, that’s them being good at what they do. Because elves are better at everything.

Tinker gnomes aren’t like that though, and their creation formed the seed of a shift in how gnomes are portrayed in fantasy in general, not just in D&D. They’ve become majority tinkerers now, but the thing is, almost none of the world that include tinker-style gnomes actually have a higher level of tech. The gnomes’ creations are always isolated, unpronounceable and not really part of the world they inhabit. Once again, it makes gnomes seem more like a joke race or parody of the world instead of part of it.

Even in setting where tech (or magitech) would be expected, like Eberron, gnomes are largely a joke. In fact, they are literally a joke in Eberron where the core gnome dragonmarked house are bankers. Weirdly enough, gnomes don’t seem to have more than your average number of artificers than any other race in that setting, so in the one official setting where gnomes as tinkers would fit in, they aren’t really tinkers.

Pathfinder goes even further, hinting at gnomes being part of an aggregate intellect to which they are sort of independent nodes kind of like Nagato from Haruhi Suzumiya. Oh, and if they get too bored, they bleach out and die from it. Yeah.

The tinker thing is still present in 5th Edition, which is obsessive about advertising Dragonlance in the core book for some reason (I got the PHB now, but don’t expect a review; too many people love this thing for me to not end up pissing everyone off with my thoughts. I will say that it’s at the same time better and worse than 3.5 – classes are better, mechanics are worse. Jaysus Crow, Advantage). It also presents a highly muddled view of how gnome society is supposed to work– largely that they have species-wide Attention Deficit Disorder brought about by living to something like five hundred years old.

To their credit, the tinker (or rock) gnome here can actually make little toys, music boxes and a goddamn cigarette lighter. That’s great! Lighters are going to be in the equipment list for WoE d20. Oh wait: they aren’t in the equipment list for 5e.

And that’s where the credit runs out. Once again, gnomes are set apart from the rest of the setting. Apparently every rock gnome can make lighters, but no one else in the world can have any. Lighters just just some alien artifact gnomes produce and don’t share.

The art also depicts them as bobble-headed monstrosities with tiny, flailing legs. People have told me they’re properly proportioned biologically for a small human, but that’s bullshit because they’re gnomes, not humans. That’s besides the point though.

The running thread in all of these is how the gnome just doesn’t fit into the setting. They’re either alien or a joke. Even 5e, whose prose is otherwise very poetical (I will say I enjoyed the prose in the races and class sections, but I pray any new player has a seasoned DM who can explain shit to them. They basically give you a novel’s version of the race description, then tell you to go read Dragonlance/FR) can’t restrain itself from talking about pranks and stuff exploding when it comes to gnomes.

It’s an example of something I call the Malkavian Problem.

In White Wolf’s World of Darkness setting, Malkavians at a vampire clan whose shtick is madness. The main books emphasizes that this can really be any kind of madness, but supporting material and player preference peg it firmly to the ‘be wacky’ school of portraying crazy. Their early source book even featured crayon drawings and upside-down art.

So when you play a Malky, or a gnome then, the other players have this idea in their heads that you’re going to play wacky, and in all honesty, most players are going to play that way because that’s part of the fun. And I’m not an anti-fun guy, or even an anti-wacky guy, but it’s got to fit with the game and setting.

Which is why I don’t think they should be in the core game.

This might be boring game design stuff, but to me, the core game—every component of it—needs to speak to what kind of game experience you’re trying to create as a default. For D&D, we’re talking heroic fantasy. Not that heroic fantasy can’t have fun parts and jokes, but blatantly incongruous parts like the tinker-style gnome, as I’ve demonstrated, doesn’t fit into the primary game experience of a game like D&D. D&D 4e, for all the grief it gets, had the right idea in removing gnomes from the initial release.

In the end, when it comes to D&D races, I think gnomes are too far gone to rehabilitate into something better. There’s just too much baggage and you don’t actually need another small race.

As a monster?


We’ll see in a couple of weeks.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. I only ever played one gnome in my life. He was a bard named Ozzy, wore KISS make-up, and his stringed instrument was also a crossbow with electrical damage.

    • My only one was an artificer who was TOTALLY NOT Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Of course, this was an Eberron game that was played out as if Sherlock Holmes and Marverick teamed up to stop Arliss Loveless (played here by a general for the Lord of Blades) from Wild, Wild West.

      There was a giant, mechanical scorpion. We lured it between the main hub stones of the Sharn Lightning Rail and electrocuted all hands aboard.

  2. If I needed to salvage gnomes as a player race I’d probably do something similar to how they are in RoleMaster by making them frail magicians. Penalty to con, bonus to int, and in place of halfling luck they get a bonus feat from the wizard bonus feat list at first level. Kind of meh, but it’s all I got.

    Then again as an NPC auxiliary race I can see gnomes working. Keep them earthy and peaceful, tiny miners and gardeners. Make it a standard for anyone trying to be high society to have a lawn gnome tending their lawn. If threatened, they’ll simply escape by sinking into the ground.

  3. I disagree with a lot of what you’ve said, especially (of course) the 5e stuff (mainly because I don’t know anything about most of the other things you mentioned, and therefore cannot comment).

    I like that gnomes are wacky and chipper and strange, and I don’t see how it’s anymore incongruent to the world than dwarves being growly and stubborn and generally drunk. (And just like you can have a cheerful, sober dwarf, you don’t have to have a wacky and chipper gnome.) They aren’t portrayed as having ADD, they’re portrayed as a cheerful people who refuse to live their lives *focused* on the downers. Not that they don’t acknowledge them, just they refuse to let them take over their lives. It’s also unfair to say “how gnome society is supposed to work” when you make the very point in this article that there isn’t any set way of how gnome society works. And being cheerful doesn’t make one a joke, a point you yourself make quite often when talking about the “gritty realness of comics today” doesn’t make them better or more mature than less gory, often brighter stories that have characters and plot.

    As for the lighter you mentioned, a couple of things:
    1. Why should gnomes share their technology when they can sell it?
    2. While there is no lighter of the list, that doesn’t mean they can’t be sold, it’s just not on the list of items. Refluff a tinderbox, and it’s the same thing.
    3. The lighters that the gnomes make require upkeep (for balance reasons), so maybe they can’t sell the lighters. Maybe that’s why they’re not sold- they can make’em, but they can’t make’em last.

    • I’m not saying that being cheerful makes them a joke, it’s just that they’re written as jokes. As I said, even the dramatic 5e flavor text for them can’t stay away from making cracks aboutt heri inventions exploding. And yes, it’s possible to play against type, but most people don’t is the point. Just like you can play truly disturbed Malkys, but everyone plays Daffy duck with a blood dependency.

      I would also argue that the lighter is strictly better than a tinderbox. You’re right that they might want to sell it, but if they do, the game shoudl acknowledge that. With a tindertwig at 1gp, the lighters should be 1gp per ‘charge’. I suspect it’s not because of lazy designers, but it still effectively sets it apart. Heck, the music boxes should show up as background items as a gift from a gnomish tutor (as described in the gnome flavor text.

  4. >I could write an essay on the problems half-elves constantly suffer from design-wise.

    I’d like to read that essay, please.

  5. Funny thing, in a couple of pieces of D&D inspired web fiction I follow or have followed (The Gods Are Bastards & Tales of MU respectively) they dropped the name halfling and used gnomes only. Obviously there’s only room for one of those conceptually but not everyone likes the name ‘halfling’.

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