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Does Your Fantasy Race Really Matter In Game? (The Gnome Problem)

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Non-humans in D&D, and fantasy in general, are humans with funny-shaped ears. I have trouble understanding what the point in them is, they all merely represent subsets of humanity. It stems from the source - Tolkien. Tolkien's dwarves are dour, hard-working, hard-drinking Scots Presbyterians. His elves are his view of an idealised human - in harmony with nature, artistically-inclined. Hobbits are the rural English. You could do all that with humans.
You could. Or you could assume that there are different distinct sentient, humanoid races, that can or can't interbreed and enjoy worldbuilding and roleplaying around what that might look like.

I've been thinking of creating a campaign based on real-world archaeology. Set 50,000 to 80,000 years ago when homo sapiens was spreading out an encountering the neandrathals (homo neanderthalensis), denisovians (Denisova hominins), and Homo floresiensis (flores man). I like the idea of exploring that period when various archaic human began encountering each other and throwing in a bit of fantasy. You could look at this an argue that these are just different humans. But I think if you really get into the roleplaying and world building part of the game that this would be a very different flavor of game than an all homo sapiens game.

Also, dwarves, gnomes, elves, orcs...these races touch on some deep archetypes in our cultures. They may not be true to a specific historical folk lore and tend to be Tolkien-influence mash-up of different folklore, but the early creators and players of D&D and the writers who influenced them tapped into some powerful archetypes that remain compelling today. I like a surly Scotsman as well as the next, but he's not a D&D dwarf.
 

Saelorn

Explorer
I just don't think having a plethora of available races necessarily adds much of anything to the setting. Anyone with me or am I out on a limb here?
As a DM, you should only add a race to your setting if it makes sense for them to be there. Personally, it's hard for me to justify more than six races on a single planet.

The only settings which should come close to having a dozen races or more should be something like Forgotten Realms (which is basically just a joke setting, haha wouldn't it be funny to have a world with everything in it?) and Planescape. Even then, a kitchen-sink setting with every race that's ever been printed, doesn't have nearly as many things as there could be. The truly bizarre thing about Forgotten Realms is how it canonically includes everything that's first-party published content, and nothing from third-party or homebrew sources. If you try to add your homebrew race of squirrel aliens into the setting, then it's not canon anymore, because there canonically aren't squirrel aliens in that setting (probably).
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
As a DM, you should only add a race to your setting if it makes sense for them to be there. Personally, it's hard for me to justify more than six races on a single planet.

The only settings which should come close to having a dozen races or more should be something like Forgotten Realms (which is basically just a joke setting, haha wouldn't it be funny to have a world with everything in it?) and Planescape.
See also Spelljammer.
 
In my current campaign I started with just six races that player characters could choose from. My players had input into which races these were so that their 'favourites' would be available to them and (I am happy to say) the end list included Gnomes. Over time they've encountered a few other humanoid races (Goblins, Hobgoblins and Gnolls) and are aware of a few more but starting with a small pool enabled me to spend time incorporating each humanoid race into the setting in a way that made some sense (to me at least).

I have checked with my players and they didn't feel that they've been short-changed by having a restricted race choice to start with and I feel that if I had kept open dozens of possible PC races then my world would lose a lot of its character.

However YMMV and I'd never want to criticise any GM having dozens of different character races available to players.
 
Would there be a noticeable difference in the campaign had your human Fighter been a goliath, an elf, or a dragonborn? At the risk of sounding presumptuous I'll bet the answer is probably no.
Well, you are making presumptions.

If I invited you over to play some D&D it would not be unreasonable of you to expect to play any one of the races from the Player's Handbook.
I would never assume that. There are too many settings (more than half are homebrew), too many editions, too styles of campaign.

As I was figuring out the broad strokes behind my setting I had humans, various elfs, dwarfs, halfings, orcs, and even tieflings figured out but then I got to gnomes. I

Not every fantasy race works for every campaign setting. Personally I think dragonborn and half-orcs don't belong anywhere near Ravenloft. If you've got a setting where demons don't mate with demi-humans then tieflings probably won't work. At least not as written and then why bother having tieflings in the first place?

I just don't think having a plethora of available races necessarily adds much of anything to the setting. Anyone with me or am I out on a limb here?
No, I think sanity is finally returning to you. Not every race is in every setting. My preferred homebrew has the following approved PC races: changling, pixie, sidhe, goblin, half-goblin, hobgoblin, elf, human, dwarf, orine, and idreth. And that's it.

No one in the setting has really heard of a gnome, goliaths, orcs, dragonborn, half-orc, tieflings or what not. They have heard of kobolds, gnolls, minotaurs and so forth but they would treat these things as monsters because that's actually what they are. (Bugbears are technically people but not suitable as a PC race, for the same reason that effreeti and hill giants are arguably people but not suitable as a PC race.)

D&D has acquired a sort of Star Wars cantina shtick where all sorts of different aliens are living together and despite the different bumps on their forehead, none of that really matters. The great irony of this approach is that if everything is alien then nothing is - it all becomes familiar and as you put it there is no noticeable difference between characters of different races beyond that they were chosen entirely to acquire attribute bonuses or the like.
 

Dausuul

Legend
I am also not a fan of kitchen sink settings. It's why I allow and even encourage variant human as a race option, even though it's way overpowered: If all of my players pick variant human, it takes off a lot of the pressure to incorporate races that make no sense in the setting.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I like gnomes, but this is definitely a problem. There’s such a palimpsest of identities to the gnome that it can be hard to say what a gnome actually is.
I am not sure that this is somehow more true of gnomes than it is of, say, elves, with all the sub-races that have been out there.

And, heavens forfend you can't summarize *an entire race of people* in a neat little stereotype! The horror!
 

CleverNickName

Adventurer
I’m always flummoxed by folks having a hard time seeing a place for Gnomes.

I’m curious. What is your general conception of the identity of the Gnome race?
Back in the red-box days of BECM, gnomes were just pointy-nosed dwarves that love gold. And that's how I treated them in the game, and I never really paid much attention to them otherwise. There was the odd adventure where the party would have to go retrieve something that was stolen by gnomes, but that was about it.

Fast forward a few dozen years (ugh, am I really that old?) and I realize that how I see gnomes hasn't really changed. To me they are, and probably always will be, pointy-nosed dwarves that love gold. So if I were ever inclined to include gnomes in my game, I would just shrug and make them a subrace of dwarf. Something like:

[SBLOCK="Gnome (Dwarf Subrace)"]GNOME
Gnomes have the dwarf traits in the Player's Handbook, plus the traits below.

Ability Score Increase. Your Intelligence score increases by 1.

Artificer's Lore: Whenever you make an Intelligence (History) check related to magical, alchemical, or technological items, you can add twice your proficiency bonus instead of any other proficiency bonus that may apply.

Gnome Cunning: you have advantage on Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saves against magic.

Tinker: you are proficient with Tinker's Tools.
[/SBLOCK]
I'm sure it could use a little bit of polish, but anyway. You asked me what my general conception of gnomes is, and that's pretty much it in a nutshell (or rather, an SBLOCK tag).
 
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Charlaquin

Explorer
I am not sure that this is somehow more true of gnomes than it is of, say, elves, with all the sub-races that have been out there.
Elves absolutely have too many subraces, but at least the base race has a clear and consistent identity.

And, heavens forfend you can't summarize *an entire race of people* in a neat little stereotype! The horror!
This is why I am a huge proponent of separating race from culture.
 

CleverNickName

Adventurer
What irks me is that Gnomes can have as high strength as half orcs! Should be capped at 12 or something, in my opinion
Back in 3rd Edition, we had a house rule that ability scores were capped at 18 + racial modifiers. So a dwarf (+2 Con, -2 Cha) could have up to a 20 in Constitution but could never have a Charisma higher than 16. I'm sure that you could implement a similar house rule in 5th Edition fairly easily if you wanted.

But listen to me. This is my second "back in the older editions of D&D" post in a row. I'm practically a rocking chair away from yelling at kids to get off my lawn. Feel free to ignore me; I assure you I'm harmless.
 

Oofta

Explorer
For me it usually does matter what race I play. I try to run my characters from their perspective and race is one of the aspects that influence how they would think and approach various situations.


I think that's one of the reasons I have problems playing elves or halflings; elves are just "human but better" and halflings are just short. But a gnome? Sure. Inventive, fast talking, either ties to the natural world (forest) or contraptions (rock/tinker), fond of puns and practical jokes.


Dwarves are easier in some ways. Very pragmatic, blunt to the point of being insulting to non dwarves, always tries to consider the long term. Half orcs are easy as well. They feel like they never really belong, tend to be short tempered and brash.


Could I also have these features in a human? Of course. But for me, the different races come with certain archetypes built in that help me build a unique personality, cultural history and POV.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Registered User
I like gnomes because they are the little ugly duckling, unpopular among most of players. In the right hands they can be characters so cool like Tyrion Lannister.

About metagame their racial traits are to used like illusionist spellcasters or stealth classes like rogue.

I guess the solution may be the racial traits to be replaced by an optional list of racial feats, like in Pathfinder 2.

Halflings and gnomes aren't races to play classes who wear heavy armour.

I don't respect the canon very much.

My version of the halfling aren't like the kenders from Dragonlance, maybe like the ones from Dark Sun, but softer. Let's say my halfling and gnomes could be used for a preteen cartoon version of D&D.
 

GreenTengu

Registered User
Elves absolutely have too many subraces, but at least the base race has a clear and consistent identity.
I think the base concept of Gnome is fairly consistent.
They are small, smart, studious and long-lived. And they live in damp, musky, mossy underground areas, often dimly lit and out of sight and mind of the bigger people who might seek to do them harm.
And they probably keep lots of books and lots of vials of either herbal or chemical stuff.

Whether they use their intelligence to master magic and nature to the point that utilizing such abilities becomes second nature to them or they utilize their intelligence to advance science beyond the standard boundaries of the setting, those are both just applications of their base core concept.
 

Seramus

Explorer
And, heavens forfend you can't summarize *an entire race of people* in a neat little stereotype! The horror!
I think the stereotypes are important. Certainly not the best thing from an IRL perspective, but within the realm of fantasy those racial stereotypes are what makes those races distinct. You can play to the stereotype, subvert the stereotype, or do all kinds of neat narrative things with the stereotype... but without that anchor? Elves and a Dwarves just become Humans with different stats.

Granted, there is no one true stereotype. But having one is what makes them unique.
 
Ok DMs, Have you made any race a scape goat/unwanted in certain towns?
The PC's tried to get entry into a certain large town. One character was a half-elf with a very large bear companion. The customs officer cheerfully told the character that they would be responsible for all damage inflicted by their pets and to not leave it alone in public, but no big deal.

One of the PC's was a hobgoblin. Entry positively refused until one of the other PC's told the customs agent that the hobgoblin was his man-servant with very excellent references and name dropped that formerly he had worked for a very prominent wizard. At that point the customs official agreed to allow the hobgoblin entry, but angrily complained about what this thing might do to their lovely town and the consequences that might happen if it did.

At which point one of the PC's leaned over to the hobgoblin and whispered, "They consider you lower than the bear."

Exactly right. And yes, walking around with a bear attracted curiosity, but walking around with the hobgoblin provoked terror, muttered curses, and wards against evil.

And if they'd tried to go into the hinterlands, where people were less open minded, less used to the foreign and the weird, and had nearer and dearer grievances to hold and nurse, they probably would have tried to lynch the hobgoblin on the spot.

Of course, there are places you can go as a human and receive as hostile of a welcome, or be the wrong sort of human and receive about as nice a welcome from other humans.
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
Perhaps the point of fantasy races is that they make the stereotypes less obvious. Everything that D&D dwarves are - grumpy, drunken, belligerent, avaricious, clannish, good engineers, etc - could also be done with a Scottish stereotype. But such national stereotyping is usually regarded as, at best, artistically lazy. Make em dwarves instead and you add a layer of distance, of plausible deniability.

Ofc Tolkien's dwarves weren't originally Scottish, they were Jewish, but along the way they've switched ethnicity.
 

Greenstone.Walker

Registered User
It's just kind of expected, isn't it? If I invited you over to play some D&D it would not be unreasonable of you to expect to play any one of the races from the Player's Handbook.
Players don't want to play "one of the races". They want to play "whatever race you've not included." :)

If you allow all races, no-one will play a gnome. If you say, "Allowed races are human, elf, dwarf" then that guarantees someone will want to play a gnome. They will complain bitterly about how unfair you are at not including gnomes. Then if you allow them to play a gnome, and people in the game world comment on this member of a rare race, the player will then complain about how you are picking on them. :)

My thinking is that just because a race or class or option is in a book, that doesn't mean it's necessarily allowed in a game. The people crafting the game world should only add the classes, races, etc that fit the game world, and no more.
 

doctorbadwolf

Explorer
Players don't want to play "one of the races". They want to play "whatever race you've not included." :)

If you allow all races, no-one will play a gnome. If you say, "Allowed races are human, elf, dwarf" then that guarantees someone will want to play a gnome. They will complain bitterly about how unfair you are at not including gnomes. Then if you allow them to play a gnome, and people in the game world comment on this member of a rare race, the player will then complain about how you are picking on them. :)

My thinking is that just because a race or class or option is in a book, that doesn't mean it's necessarily allowed in a game. The people crafting the game world should only add the classes, races, etc that fit the game world, and no more.
IME gnomes are played more than dwarves or halflings, less often than elves or Tieflings or Dragonborn.
 

GreenTengu

Registered User
Ofc Tolkien's dwarves weren't originally Scottish, they were Jewish, but along the way they've switched ethnicity.
Gnomes became the Jews, and it was all too obvious if you know negative Jewish stereotypes in 1st and 2nd edition.
Big noses? Check.
Obsessed with gold and gems? Check.
Intellectual with little physical power? Check.
Could in many ways be described as rat-like? Check.
Insisted on constantly wearing funny hats? Check.

I am sure there are many other traits that could be added to this when the race was even further expanded on.

Which makes it all the more ironically unnerving that the Gnomes are the first race that people want to exterminate from the game because they don't see what benefit they bring and can't figure out what to do with them.
 

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