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

Tonguez

Adventurer
I gnomes are smurfs.
I went with this wholeheartedly and thus IMC Gnomes paint their bodies with blue dye (a mix of woad and berry juice), have clans of around 100 and there is only one breeding female in each clan (who is the mother of the next generation). Most gnomes also remain in an immature non-reproductive stage of development, with only a few advancing to maturity (ie growing full beards like Papa Smurf) - in the case of the Smurfs the Clan mother Lilly died.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
It's kind of a problem with kitchen sink settings. Let everything in nothing stands out.

If you just add a few races or even 1 they stand out more. Kender and Warfirged for example.

Gnomes are generally seen as a joke race. I blame Dragonlance.
 
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It's kind of a problem with kitchen sink settings. Let everything in nothing stands out.

If you just add a few races or even 1 they stand out more. Kender and Warfirged for example.

Gnomes are generally seen as a joke race. I blame Dragonlance.
You both credited Dragonlance for having few races like Kender, and detracted for having too many like gnomes?
 

the Jester

Legend
I want you to step in the way back machine and think about all the Dungeons & Dragons games you've participate in. Did it really matter what fantasy race a player chose for his or her character? Obviously there were mechanical reasons to chose one race over another for attribute bonuses, special abilities, and access to kits or prestige classes but what difference did it make in the campaign? 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.
I can't speak for anyone else's campaign, but in mine, yes, it matters. The way other creatures interact with you and perceive you starts with your appearance- and that starts with your race. (It also includes things like how you are dressed, whether you are clean, etc- but all things being equal, if a dwarf and an elf interact with someone and the two of them are both filthy, the elf's filth will be noticed, while the dwarf's filth will be taken for granted.)

Beyond that, races come with different cultural defaults. While your elf may not be an effete poetry-writing tree-hugger, most are, and that's how most people will assume you to be until they know you better. So if the party meets a band of bards, they're probably going to assume that you're the one with genteel taste and a fondness for the arts, while they're probably going to avoid pitching their art ideas at the (perceived) stolid, humorless, anti-fun dwarf guy. Likewise, the legendary chef you meet is going to be more inclined to compare culinary notes with the party halflings than anyone else.

Naturally, members of each race violate the stereotypes of those races, but those are exceptions. The way I see it, certain parts of the culture of each race are more-or-less inborn. They arise from the races' biological differences. This is also why I prefer racial modifiers that are both positive and negative for nonhumans, since those indicate the difference between that race and humans in basically genetic terms.

I recently came across what I call the Gnome Problem. I was creating my own campaign setting and since we have rules for all these races the only reasonable thing to do was to shoehorn them into my setting.
Gah. Strongly disagree. No wonder you're questioning this.

New races are the pieces of player-side content I am least likely to allow, because they require the most work to slot into my setting. I have no interest in rewriting my world to accommodate someone's desire to play a race I am not into allowing.

Drow, for instance, are not pcs in my campaign; they are monsters. And they are as rare and mysterious as they were in 1e before the Fiend Folio dropped. They don't appear often, they're terrifying and memorable when they do, and they aren't represented by any major friendly npcs on the surface. Just no. They do not fit that role in my game, and they aren't going to be available as a pc option because of the role they do fill.

"Why would you do this, MGibster? I can hear you ask. 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.
As long as your setting supports that race, sure. But it's entirely reasonable to limit the available options in a campaign.

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?
Totally with you. In general, if it's not in the PH, you have to check with me to see if you can play it, and you're best off assuming that the answer is "No" so you don't get disappointed. I do have a few non-PH races that I'm all good with- tabaxi have been a racial option in my game since 2e, goliaths since 4e, warforged and aasimar since 3e. And I have a custom race that's sort of like a dolphin-were. But kenku, goblins, wilden, thri-kreen, etc.? No.

Now, all that said, that's my default approach. Sometimes the circumstances allow options I wouldn't normally let someone play. For instance, a pc got Voided by the Deck of Many Things; the group set off to rescue him from his captor on Pandemonium (who the party described as a "meth dragon" after seeing the pic of a howling dragon in the 3e Draconomicon), and the player of the Voided pc made a new character to play in the interim. Because he came in in Pandemonium, he got to play a shadowswyft (a 3e planetouched race), with several other weird racial options available to choose from. So circumstances might allow for unique/limited exceptions.
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip
But if you removed racial stats from the game entirely and simply said that everyone plays with the Variant human stats but can say they are any race they like, do you really think no one would play anything but human? I seriously doubt that.

If anything, I think you will get more Drow and Kobold characters than you do now.
Well, all I can say is that this has very much not been my experience. As soon as you get away from D&D, suddenly race of the character seems to matter - things like clan in Vampire and whatnot.

But, yeah, if you stripped out racial stats from the game, the only people who would play non-humans would be those actually interested in portraying a character as something other than just a human that sees in the dark. Again, this is my own pet peeve drum that I tend to go on about. :D I'm just so sick of people playing non-humans that never actually reference the fact that the character IS NOT HUMAN for the entire career of the character. Drives me right up the wall.

If all you want is that stat bonus, I'll give you the stat bonus you want. Just play a human and we're all happy.
 

the Jester

Legend
Could you have a quick run down on the identity you've given gnomes?
For the record, here is my write up of gnomes, their place in my world, and how they typically view the other common races.

My Notes said:
GNOMES

There are only a few hundred gnomes in the city, and of those, at least a hundred (and perhaps more) are unknown to any save other gnomes. Gnomes tend to be longtime residents of the city, and very few are refugees (the gnomish penchant for illusion and camouflage makes it easy for populations of gnomes outside of the city to remain unnoticed by humanoids). There is a small gnomish neighborhood in the city, but a good number of gnomes live scattered throughout the city's other neighborhoods.

Values: The gnomish worldview is based on their small stature. Rather than the semi-parasitic approach that halflings take, seeking shelter among bigger folk, gnomes are more prone to deal with overpowering foes through stealth, tricks and traps while remaining largely self-reliant as a race. Gnomes view the following as virtues: a sense of humor, cleverness, complexity, helping those in need, sneakiness, inscrutability, acting through others. They see the following as vices: malice, simplicity, predictability, pointless attention-getting, braggadocio, directness, underestimating an enemy.

The Art of Being Unseen: Gnomes are masters of stealth, camouflage, illusion and trickery. That manifests in many ways in their culture, from the tendency of gnomish homes to have secret rooms or exits to the way entire gnome communities are hidden by clever architecture, landscaping and illusion. Many gnomes wear clothing with a mottled pattern of colors on it to aid in blending into the local terrain; other gnomish garments might have secret pockets or hidden weapons within them.

Trickery: Trickery runs deep in gnomish culture. Gnomes are encouraged to have a good sense of humor, to collect jokes, to pull pranks and to be able to laugh at themselves. However, one of the most terrifying things about an evil gnome is its cruel and twisted sense of humor, and it may play pranks with deadly intent. Many a gnome has fallen afoul of his own tricks gone awry, yet every gnome aspires to pull the greatest prank or trick ever. Despite this, gnomes draw a distinct difference between trickery and malicious deception.

Deep Connections to the Fey: There are deep ties between gnomes and other fey, including unseelie ones such as spriggans and redcaps. Many gnomes shun those darker connections, but most gnomish families have a secret or two somewhere in the family tree. Often, individual gnomes are unaware that a sibling, cousin or closer relative is actually another type of fey who can blend in among the gnomes.

Secret Masters: Gnomes prefer to work behind the scenes, and thus gnomish society is full of secret cabals and organizations who work to manipulate others for their cause. Despite their small numbers in the city, gnomes have a strong hand in the banking, jeweling and lending industries, and most gnomes would not be surprised to find a group of gnomish illuminati hidden behind the scenes, manipulating the city, various guilds and churches or other groups.

Language: Gnomish is a rich but simple-sounding tongue, but almost every word in Gnomish has at least two meanings. The language is easy to pun, riddle, jest or joke in, and lends itself easily to double entendres, veiled meanings and subtlety. Gnomish has a wide variety of vowel and nasal sounds, including six distinct sounds that transliterate roughly as “N”- to a gnome, the sounds at the start of knurl, gnome and name are distinct and different. Gnomes often use a modified version of Dwarven runes for their written needs, though a growing number use transliterated Imperial characters instead.

Names: Gnomes collect names over the course of their lives, adopting new or additional ones as the need and desire suit. Many take names meant to imply competence at their chosen trade, while others assume nicknames given them by friends or family and some simply make up names that they like. At birth, gnomes are given at least two names, a given name and a family name, and often have one or more in addition- a middle name, a patronymic and/or matronymic (“Knurlipate” would mean “Knurli is my father” while “Leymamate” would mean “Leyma is my mother”) or an aspirational name (which embodies a hope for the child, such as Goldenluck).

Typical male given names for gnomes include Alburm, Broughton, Gambli, Knurli, Malford, Nebbin, Nuckles, Thimbleton and Ziggy. Some common female given names include Elsporeth, Galler, Knedra, Mellory, Nackle, Nheesa, Ngamoras, Thumbeline and Ziggy. Family names are usually descriptive of the family, its history or a noteworthy ancestor, but not all gnomes translate this for other races; thus a gnome might refer to himself as “Knurli Ngarfordeth” or as “Knurli Giantprank”.

Other Races: As usual, exceptions abound, but typical gnomish stereotypes of the other races include:

Dragonborn: Dragonborn are solid but simple warriors with little subtlety. They are easily manipulated and very useful if properly directed.

Dwarves: Gnomes like dwarves for their shared interest in things of the earth. Dwarves tend to be crafty, if not tricky, and share many of the traditional enemies of the gnomes. However, dwarves are easily taken by greed and are typically very dour, both things that grate against the gnomish character.

Eladrin: Quite taken with themselves, the eladrin are a laughably haughty but fundamentally good folk. They take themselves too seriously and often have trouble laughing with other races, so some gnomes take it upon themselves to prank such stuffy eladrin in the hopes of teaching them to laugh at themselves.

Elves: Gnomes see elves as being very similar to themselves in most ways; in addition to their shared ties to the fey, both races share an appreciation of stealth and trickery. Elves are trustworthy allies, and many gnomish communities have a few elves living as allies among them.

Goliaths: Dangerous, overly physical and completely unsubtle, goliaths are just about the complete opposite of gnomes. A goliath is a useful tool that is dangerous to the wielder and best deployed from considerable distance. Gnomes are typically very wary around goliaths and prefer to keep a good distance away from them.

Half-Elves: Gnomes and Morraini half-elves have a long history of alliance and friendship. Morraini are well-natured, good-humored, reliable partners or friends, prone to forgiveness and generally good folks. Other half-elves are viewed through the same lens, but those who struggle to find their place are usually seen as overly dramatic and weepy by gnomes, and ought to learn to laugh at themselves.

Half-Orcs: Brutal, thoughtless, deceptive and destructive; all the traits that make orcs so foul are passed in half-measure to their half-human offspring. However, they also get half of the worst of humanity- the corruptibility, the venality, the hunger for advantage. However, one trait that gnomes do admire within half-orcs is their cunning; a half-orc can scheme and plot better than most non-gnomes.

Halflings: Another race that gnomes consider to be cousins (in this case, due to shared stature), halflings are aided and tolerated despite their light fingers. Halflings are like the bad cousins of the gnomish communities; members that will not be turned away despite the troubles they bring. At least they can cook!

Humans: With all the variety amongst humans, it's easy to see the common threads. Humans are ever playing for advantage, seeking greater status or wealth than their fellows by one means or another, and ever work their own social schemes. Gnomes view humans with both admiration and wariness; though they can achieve great things, humans cannot be trusted in the long term, as a single generation's passing may see complete social reversals in attitudes and values. In addition, humans are more prone than any other civilized race to actually fight and make war upon themselves- something that gnomes simply cannot understand.

Tieflings: Fellow inveterate schemers, tiefling humor tends to be cruel and biting, their tricks lead to the deaths of their enemies and their general attitude tends to be pretentious and melodramatic. Tieflings generally make the most formidable opponents in extended contests of manipulation or political maneuvering, something that gnomes appreciate even if they find it unsettling. Gnomes view tieflings as disproportionately dangerous because of this propensity for scheming.

Warforged: Warforged are marvels of engineering given life. Gnomes find them delightful. They are surprisingly warm and emotional, often possessed of quirky senses of humor and surprising talents. The warforged have proven themselves to be staunch allies against all enemies of the city, something that gnomes appreciate- and, of course, would like to manipulate.
 

the Jester

Legend
Ok DMs, Have you made any race a scape goat/unwanted in certain towns?
The first or second 5e session I ran, the pcs, including a dragonborn, were performing in a bar, using magic and breath weapons and the like to enhance the bard like a stage show, and they accidentally started a fire, then bailed. The next time they came around that bar, there was a "No Dragonborn Allowed!" sign out front. That bar has banned dragonborn ever since. Also, I use random rumor charts, updating the rumors quarterly; and there has been a "Dragonborn are dangerous!" rumor on the chart about half the time since then.
 
From a gaming standpoint, I think the myriad races serve an important and valuable role. In some ways BECAUSE of the stereotypes: They provide a scaffold (much like Class and in 5e, Background) with which to develop a personality. Not, of course, that people can't roleplay WITHOUT race. But given the hordes of individuals who either don't roleplay a consistent character or roleplay with the finesse of a two-by-four (i.e. none at all), I'm happy to have even terrible stereotypes. I much prefer them to two-by-fours amongst my playgroups. Despite any potential overlap in role and character between individual races (/species), there are always differences between them. Is it ever actually beneficial to decrease the number of available colors in your palette?

Here's a DMing tip though: If a player wants to use a race that you think just doesn't fit in your game world, consider asking them whether it's the mechanical aspects or the lore about it that appeal to them; and then consider which part of their request doesn't seem to fit. Because it's trivially easy to reskin one race as a variation or subrace of another. Perhaps halflings in your game world are really a type of gnome. Or vise versa. Half-orcs could actually be a type of genasi.
 
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Zardnaar

Hero
Kender don't usually confine themselves to their own stuff. That abomination is tailor-made for griefing.
Yeah Lenders are more or less the worst race ever. Never really like DL as a Gameworld and it's a bit meh in terms of novels, way to hit or miss and even in the 90s the main DL novels hadn't aged well IMHO.

Krynn needs to be interdicted both in Spelljammer and Planescape. Keep Lenders there.
 
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I largely agree with this take, especially when compared to halflings (or hobbits).

Halflings are usually considered to be living in the countryside, happy and content, and not too interested in adventure (you know, hobbits). The adventurer hobbit is the odd-one-out who is tired of that and goes out on an adventure to see the world; he's the exception, not the rule.

The gnome is similar in appearance, and sometimes in their environment (countryside and quaint homes), but that's it. The gnome is erratic, hyperactive, energetic. They are curious, inventive, and unfocused. Either they're tinkering away on a new invention, or devising a theater production that is dazzling in both sound and lights.

The problem with this isn't the cultures, which are actually pretty different. It's the adventurer, as the hobbit adventurer is usually depicted as the exception to his race, the gnome is the norm. And then they end up overlapping even more in behavior.

Tldr: Halflings are hobbits, gnomes are smurfs.
There are no halfling companions in BG2 or NWN2, but their are a couple in BG1. One is a psychopath and the other is saccharine. The one in Pathfinder: Kingmaker also leans to saccharine.

We have a gnome an a halfing PC in one of my games. The gnome is played as a bit of a kook, but the halfing is indistinguishable from a small human. But that's how Tolkien wrote them, so I don't see it as a problem. Several of the D&D races are basically just exotic humans - half elves, tieflings etc. But some are rather more alien, such as gnomes and elves (when played well).

Bottom line, I don't really see a problem. Some races give players the chance to play an truly alien character, whilst others are pretty much humans with gameplay quirks. And that's the difference between gnomes and halflings.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
Generally I DM human only settings. Although I let players choose a race purely for their mechanics. We just call them variant humans. Amazing how no one really cared about race once I gave them all the mechanical benefits. I do more homebrew settings anyway.
 

Kurotowa

Adventurer
From a gaming standpoint, I think the myriad races serve an important and valuable role. In some ways BECAUSE of the stereotypes: They provide a scaffold (much like Class and in 5e, Background) with which to develop a personality. Not, of course, that people can't roleplay WITHOUT race. But given the hordes of individuals who either don't roleplay a consistent character or roleplay with the finesse of a two-by-four (i.e. none at all), I'm happy to have even terrible stereotypes. I much prefer them to two-by-fours amongst my playgroups. Despite any potential overlap in role and character between individual races (/species), there are always differences between them. Is it ever actually beneficial to decrease the number of available colors in your palette?
As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with cliches. If it wasn't a powerful story element then it would never have become a cliche in the first place. No, the problem is with lazily executed cliches where only the shallow surface details are present. Lazy cliches are the copypaste image macro of the narrative world. It was great when it was fresh and new, and it can be again if someone puts some real effort into it, but lots of people just spam the low effort version that quickly wears out its welcome.

So there's nothing wrong with leaning into the racial cliches, or at least using them as a foundation before you flesh out their personality and add in a fresh twist or two. Everything has to start somewhere.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
..
Here's a DMing tip though: If a player wants to use a race that you think just doesn't fit in your game world, consider asking them whether it's the mechanical aspects or the lore about it that appeal to them; and then consider which part of their request doesn't seem to fit. Because it's trivially easy to reskin one race as a variation or subrace of another. Perhaps halflings in your game world are really a type of gnome. Or vise versa. Half-orcs could actually be a type of genasi.
Another DM tip, tell the player the race is not allowed in your campaign. If they can't accept that tell them you see them on taco Thursday.
 

jgsugden

Adventurer
It doesn't sound like a lot of DMs out there separate race and culture.

In my games, the culture from which a character originaes has more to do with their personality than their race. Sure, there are racial impacts as well as certain 5E races have a 'high tendency' to have particular traits, but I do not play those as absolute rules, and quite often go across the norm as a role playing decision. The various books describe Halflings as curious, superstitious, kind and practical... even a bit simple. However, these traits are not common for all of my halflings. The halflings that exist is a dread empire where people disappear from their beds in the middle of the night if they stand out tend to not be curious or kind to strangers. Meanwhile, the ones that exist in the nation where everyone is educated in basic magic are not superstitious, nor are they interested in the simple relaxing pleasures of a quaint farming life.

It really isn't that hard to make meaningful differences for your PCs origin, but it doesn't have to be all about that race.
 

the Jester

Legend
Is it ever actually beneficial to decrease the number of available colors in your palette?
You sure can make a muddy mess when you throw every color on the canvas.


Here's a DMing tip though: If a player wants to use a race that you think just doesn't fit in your game world, consider asking them whether it's the mechanical aspects or the lore about it that appeal to them; and then consider which part of their request doesn't seem to fit. Because it's trivially easy to reskin one race as a variation or subrace of another. Perhaps halflings in your game world are really a type of gnome. Or vise versa. Half-orcs could actually be a type of genasi.
This can work, sure. Or, as an alternative, explain that you don't allow said race, that it doesn't fit into the setting, and get your players to stay inside the lines.

The problem with reflavoring is that it waters down the race's identity, and therefore its role in the world and the flavor of the races and cultures the DM has set up. That's fine for some people- especially those who are building their milieu around the party. But for those with an existing setting with a strong identity, it's a terrible solution, because it dilutes exactly what (hopefully) makes that setting strong.
 

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