This Old Monster: The Gnome

So. Here we are. It has come down to this.


This is going to be a bit different in terms of This Old Monster segments because I’ve already gone over the origins and popular mythology of gnomes in Fantasy. In fact, I expressed my irritation with them and how they’re used. But so many people still want me to do a rebuild on them that it’s hard to deny them. No matter how much I want to.

If I sound or have sounded hostile to gnomes, let me give you a brief history of my relationship with this particular fantasy race. As I’ve said on the podcast, I started roleplaying when my friend noticed I was playing Arcanum: of Steamworks and Majicks Obscura, a game that exemplifies the kind of blending of magic and technology I love (well, not the ‘magic doesn’t work with technology‘ trope, but otherwise…). My first game where I was a player then turned out to be set in Dragonlance.

Dragonlance is where the tinker gnomes live.

And at this point, I will make a correction. The DL Tinker Gnomes were not the technologically geared gnomes in D&D. In the setting that would become Mystara, there was an adventure module called Earthshaker in which a traveling carnival bring a goddamn clockwork giant robot to a city, which is driven by a colony of gnomes living inside it. And they’re competent at it!

As I suspected, it turns out that the tinker gnomes exist as pushback against the Mystara/Blackmoor campaign setting, which had a very trippy mix of Sci-fi and Fantasy. One of the first Blackmoor adventures ended up beign about aliens manipulating everything. The non-human races had flying ships and cities. There were dimensions instead of planes. And spacefaring Atlantians were a major political power.

So Dragonlance’s tinker gnomes and their roaring incompetence really was a ‘science in fantasy is stupid’ jab against another campaign setting. This is something I kind of picked up on at the time when we, of course, met the tinker gnomes and watched them fail at science a lot. With Arcanum fresh in my mind, this annoyed the hell out of me and pretty much made me hyper-aware of the flaws in gnomes in the same way I am about alignment.

That said, there’s a reason gnomes were just plain extinct in the original World of Ere setting. And why I had trouble coming up with a good build for This Old Monster.

As I gave this thought, I originally considered just making gnomes monsters.

The way I envisioned it was sort of like barrow wights, only not undead. They would be burrowing creatures with illusion magic that used that magic to separate travelers and then pulled their victims underground to suffocate them.

That would have worked. As far as doing as cool and interesting reimagining, that’s sort of in line with what I did with the Unicorn, especially as far as making them into a monster monster that you would want to fight or see defeated, which was the goal of the unicorn build.

And creepy gnome isn’t all tha far afield either. Certainly the gnome in the video above is designed to get the ‘creepy cute’ vibe going. Lawn and garden gnomes have also taken on a reputation for creepiness over the years. The League of Steam did an episode casting lawn gnomes as something akin to Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels.

I could have gotten away with just doing that, but as the saying goes, it’s what you are in the dark that matters. In this case, I wouldn’t have been making them creepy out of a genuine desire to make them cool monsters, but rather to jettison everything the D&D gnome stands for. That’s not the spirit of TOM articles, so that’s not going to happen here.

Instead, my plan is to make an honest effort to make cool player-friendly gnomes not necessarily a PC race, as you’ll see) that keeps the general lighter, more fun spirit of the D&D gnome.

Keep in mind that my beef with the ‘wacky’ gnome thing isn’t because I hate fun or something, but because the cartoonish ‘exploding inventions’ thing isn’t the kind of fun and whimsy that most D&D settings fit with. That’s why I suggested moving them out of core instead of axing them entirely.

So my rebuilt gnome still needs to be a light, fun kind of creature. We can do that. We can do that with stuff from Ere. While they haven’t made it into a book, Ere has precedent for this in the form of the Mousin Orm, a creature who is not only a magpie-style thief, but whose special power is that they are literally too cute for sapient beings to kill. Again, not anti-fun, just pro- a different kind of fun.

Like all TOM’s, the new gnome is going to be best served going back into its roots and finding elements I could really sink my teeth into. Seeing as how most D&D gnomes are right out for me on that front, I sat down and took some time to think about gnomes I did like. What I hit upon was my first Fantasy love: video games. Specifically, Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. In those games, Gnome was a specific elemental spirit you had to befriend in order to gain Earth magic. This is very much in accordance with the mythological gnome’s portfolio and conveniently in accordance with a feature of the World of Ere setting: the Spirit Docent, people who can bond with spirits for power.

Thus, I formulated a firing solution for recreating the gnome.

The Build

The mythic gnome was an earth spirit, not a race of people. This is something that was sort of lost to D&D wherein they only connect back to that idea in having a kinship with burrowing animals. However, if you subscribe to the classical Chinese elements, Earth bears Metal (And yes, Ere’s elements steal Metal from Chinese mythology, and Void from Japanese mythology), so there is a bit of an in to give gnomes a bit of a unique techy bent—but not the ‘comically incompetent’ version because tech in fantasy is awesome not lame, Hickman and Weis.

The classic JRPG version of the gnome already has a shtick for granting Earth powers to those who befriend them. We can, of course, use this. Since I was already thinking in ere terms, we have a built-in precedent for spirits who grant powers. If you got a look at my 4e Soulbound Preview, you will see that the Soulbound (later the Spirit Docent) can bond with many types of spirits including elementals.

Bringing gnomes back to a ‘spirit of the Earth’ typing is a pretty old school move. It also helps me solve a problem I’ve personally been wrestling with for some time in regard to what to do with elementals in general.

Forgive a tangent here, but in most games, D&D included, elementals and elemental creatures are super-boring. D&D is extra bad here with most elementals just being a big, sapient glob of whatever they’re an elemental of. Earth elementals are especially bad because they’re rocks. Just rocks. Rocks in the shape of men and largely devoid of any personality or society. That to they’re color-coded animals. One of the two.

On one level, I touched on this when I did the Phoenix: they’re fire elementals and spirits of Selfless Sacrifice. Here, I intend to expand this to gnomes.

Wanting to keep them as Earth elementals, I gave it some thought, and came up with the idea that gnomes as spirits of the Fertile Earth. While they are still kin to rock and stone, their true connection is to soil and what grows in it. They cultivate wild gardens, gathering together in sizable numbers to combine their powers to have a larger affect on the land.

Being social creatures with one another, they are one of the few types of spirits that work well with demihumans and are affected by them. While they will defend their gardens from those who would despoil, they respect the cycle of life and bringing forth sustenance from the soil. Therefore, a colony of gnomes can be a great boon to farming communities willing to work with them.

When working with demihuman farmers, the gnomes reshape the land to provide better drainage, till the fields, raise earthen walls, and warn their partners of danger using innate tremorsense.

Over time, the gnomes of the colony learn from and begin imitating (in their own way) the demihumans they spend time around, even constructing miniature terracotta humanoid bodies to communicate with them. It’s easy to tell how long a gnome has been ‘civilized’ by how detailed and realistic their assumed body looks. Gnomes that have spent decades working with demihumans may even create facsimile clothing.

Occasionally, a spirit docent will from a bond with a gnome. Unlike the docents who bond with non-corporeal spirits, these do not have to house the gnome in a reliquary and seldom merge with them. Instead, the gnome forms a body and travels with the docent, acting on their behest, of merging into the local elemental earth and controlling it at the docent’s behest.

So having a gnome as a spirit companion is more like having a buddy than a superpower, which is more compelling for certain dynamics.

The Tale

Gren pulled his kerchief up over his face as the wind blew the road dust from the approaching column of horse- and ornismen over him and pulled down the brim of his hat to protect his eyes from the worst of it.

The road followed a long-dry stream bed between banks cut into rising tiers planted with colorful flowers that masked thorn bushes. The flowers scented the air with their perfume while the bushes discouraged all but the most nasty wildlife from approaching from any direction but the clear and open road.

Normally, this made the front gates a nice place to come and think or get some work done that could be brought out there. In fact, that’s what found Gren out front: he’d taken up all his neighbors’ tools that needed fixing and dragged them out front.

Unfortunately, some of the nasty wildlife was coming calling. The kind that carried firearms and knew magic.

The lead man of the column was a big, burly Calleni. His dark, glossy hair had been allowed to grow out and now hung bound in a tight braid slung over his shoulder and a branching tattoo, reminiscent of antlers covered the lower right half of his face. His thick, padded leather armor bore the image of a bird of prey clutching a double-sided ax in its talons.

Gren didn’t recognize the insignia.

No wonder they didn’t know better.

What they weren’t however, was stupid. Upon seeing a single man armed (if one could even call it that) with a hatchet he was currently re-wrapping the leather grip of, and a wall consisting of a gateless earthwork, the column slowed down and spread out as best they could along the road. A surprisingly prim-looking Chrodini woman leveled a rifle at him.

The Calleni rode forward, putting his hand on the pommel of the sword on his hip. “What’s this place called?” He boomed.

Gren tipped his hat’s brim back up. The dust was subsiding, so he also pulled the kerchief down. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed some of the dust moving against the wind, winding through the bandit group, occasionally circling someone who looked particularly novel or exotic. Kanna was feeling curious.

“This is the Felvour Homestead. We grow just a big of everything you can find on a stalk, bush or vine if you’ve come to trade.”

The Calleni let out a low laugh. “Yeah, we’re here to trade. We’ll give you a lack of burned homes and you’ll give us a full saddle bag of whatever food and valuables you’ve got each.”

As deliberately as he pleased, Gren tilted his head, acting for all the world as if he’d just been made an offer he needed to consider. He wouldn’t do it if he were on his own, but it amused the gnomes and that was always a positive in these situations.

Eventually, once it started looking like the Calleni might draw steel, Gren shook his head. “Sorry, friend, but that’s not the kind of trade us here in Felvour go in for. You might want to head up north through Hei Ro or Valish. They might be more amenable. Don’t you think Kanna?”

The ground rippled slightly as the gnome ended her examination of an ornis and returned to his side. Then the packed dirt heaved and split like water from a surfacing whale. Kanna emerged from it, forming a body as she went.

Her body was the red-brown of the local dirt, baked and hardened. A pair of large, smooth spheres of compacted and smoothed soil served as shining eyes, while spikes of smokey, white quartz formed a stand of upright hair and eyebrows. They way her body was sculpted made it look like she was wearing a simple shift with bare feet.

Kanna regarded the Calleni as if she half wanted to reach up and pet him. At length, she spoke, her mouth hinging open like a theater puppet’s to reveal jagged gravel teeth. Gren often wondered if the two-foot tall statue Kanna called a body was how she saw him and the other people of the Homestead.

“Yes, Gren.” Her voice was high a slightly musical like the tones from a porcelain ocarina. “That is a bad trade. If the village burns, we can easily put it out with sand and soil. If something burns the village, we can bury it up to its curiously thick neck.” She tilted her head as if confused by the aforementioned thickness of the Calleni’s neck.

Proving that he wasn’t just a dumb brute, the Calleni took his hand away from his weapon and made a quick hand gesture. Another of his group, an elderly Calleni whose advanced years had thinned his hair and turned it white, but did nothing to his impressive physique, rode forward.

“Golan.” said the Calleni. “Do you recognize that one?”

The older man, Golan, stared hard at Kanna. After some consideration, he turned his gaze to the ground around the bandit column. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see oddly shaped bumps and depressions all around and recognized them for what they were.

“Gnomes, Rohas’sin. A colony.”

“Dangerous?” asked the leader, now known to Gren as Rohas’sin.

Golan shook his head. “They will not kill. But they will block. Entrap. Mire. And they will not object to the homesteaders killing us once we’re rendered helpless.

Kanna took the moment to tap her foot on the ground, signaling the rest of the colony to reveal itself. The spots in the ground Golan had seen heaved and disgorged more terracotta statues serving as gnomish bodies. Few were as detailed as Kanna, some being little more than crude stumps of dirt with round heads and stubby arms bearing no facial features at all.

They rose, as was their way, slowly and at their leisure, all staring (whether they had eyes or not) at the bandits with guarded curiosity.

Horses snorted and shied from the spirits while ornises clacked their beaks and stomped, trying to keep an eye on so many small creatures that clearly weren’t food.

Rohas’sin saw all this, then looked back at Gren. His jaw clenched, but after a long moment, he nodded. “I suppose there’ll be no trade here today.” With that, he made another hand-sign, ordering the bandits to turn away, presumably to move on to someplace not in league with dozens of earth spirits.


And that’s it for this week.

As I leave you, I have to do so with a note. There are some things going on in my life right now that might cause me to disappear without a lot of advanced warning over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to try and preload the main series up to the end of this arc so you aren’t left hanging, but yeah, summers around here seem to become balls of stress and dread for me.

No matter what happens, The Descendants and all my other stories will return if there is even cause for them to disappear in the first place.

Thanks for understanding and hopefully, I will see you all in this space next week.

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. Minidragon kender. Kender are tied with gully dwarves for the least popular element of Dragonlance. Not in my game, thanks … gnomes as spirit companions has more room in the game and less baggage, that’s a decent idea.

  2. The “blob” elementals really only have two uses.
    1- Summon Nature’s Ally
    2- The PCs angered the spirit of a lake or whatever, it needs a quick body for a beatdown, and you hadn’t settled on (or written yourself) some other stat block to represent it.

    • An important third use is to remind a rogue who has been putting on airs that they’re really just a glorified cutpurse.

      • I actually really hate the un-sneakable enemies. In the context of how precision damage works, it makes no sense. Undead and constructs have structural weaknesses just like everything else. An air elemental might be un-sneakable maybe, but an earth elemental is really just a stone golem with all the same weaknesses.

        • I’m going to have to disagree there. Sure, some spots in a stone statue (moving or not) may break more easily than others, but unless it’s severely flawed there aren’t any weaknesses on anywhere near the same level as what living things have in points uncovered by armour or vital organs.

          After all buildings have structural weaknesses as well, but that doesn’t mean stabbing a knife at the weakest part does meaningfully more than stabbing the strongest part.

          • Translate that to the context of D&D and the combat abstraction though. IF (and you totally can) stab an animated statue to death, you are capable of doing damage to it with a dagger that is enough to cause catastrophic failure somehow. You could never destroy, say, David in real life with a butcher knife and power attacks, but you totally can in D&D.

            And since you can somehow destroy it with a knife,it makes sense that stabbing it in stress points or in the places where the statue’s shape weakens its crystaline matrix makes sense. Hense, getting SA on a statue.

          • Amusingly, D&D 3.5 says that the GM can simply declare by fiat that certain weapons are completely ineffective against an object (shooting arrows at a wall is… not going to work). There is, of course, no such comment on constructs. Then again, between DR and immunity to SA, your kitchen knife is pretty ineffective anyway.

            To note: there’s alway the possibility of saying all constructs have weaknesses like magic runes you can scratch and things like that. If you can use Disable Device on a magic trap…

            Personally, I tend to see it the same way as the “surviving a fall at terminal velocity” thing we talked about a while back. Plenty of characters out there who shouldn’t but are somehow able to slice through stone because THEY ARE REALLY GOOD AT SWORDING. People complain that D&D characters outpace Olympic athletes at mid levels; I embrace it. Realism is over-rated anyway.

          • I really like the idea of constructs having a Z sigil on their chests you punch to destroy them like Zed’s putties from Power Rangers.

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