RPG Evolution: Solving the Gnome Problem

I previously mentioned how I’ve never quite solved adding a halfling culture to my campaign. But I’ve got gnomes all figured out, and it starts with the Guilds of Florence.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

What the Heck is a Gnome?​

TVTropes sums up the challenge with strictly defining gnomes in the entry "Our Gnomes Are Weirder":
In the greater modern pop consciousness, gnomes are pretty well-defined. Specifically, garden gnomes: tiny (anywhere from two or three inches to a yard high), long white beard, jolly demeanor, and a big pointy (or maybe floppy) red hat. Often seen shilling for vacation deals. The problem becomes greater in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, where they share conceptual space with at least two other "short" races, dwarves and halflings. As a result, gnomes tended to go unnoticed and forgotten in D&D settings; in fact, they were explicitly referred to as "the Forgotten People" in Forgotten Realms.

A Short History of the Gnome​

The word gnome comes from the Renaissance Latin "gnomus," which was coined by Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. He uses the term to reference one of four elemental, specifically as earth-dwelling beings eighteen inches high and very taciturn:
Paracelsus, a Swiss alchemist, philosopher, physician, botanist, astrologer, general occultist, and the credited founder of toxicology, derived the term gnome from the Latin gēnomos, which itself was from the Greek γη-νομος, that literally means “earth-dweller"...Paracelsus classified gnomes as small, humanoid earth elementals, whom he described as two spans high, very reluctant to interact with humans, and able to move through solid earth as easily as humans move through air. Paracelsus also considered gnomes the most important of the diminutive spirits, which is high praise from a noted alchemist and founder of toxicology.
Gnomes were later used in poetry in the 18th century:
...presented as small, celestial creatures which were prudish women in their past-lives that now spend all of eternity looking out for other prudish women. (Now that’s juicy.) The 19th century saw gnomes come alive by authors who presented them in fairy tales, albeit used mostly synonymously with goblins. Finally, in the late 1800s the gnome started to get his due. Famed poet William Cullen Bryant contrasted gnomes to elves. They were later used to satirize materialism, likened as subterranean creatures that guarded treasures of gold buried within mountains.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's Arda​

Although gnomes weren't a part of the Fellowship, they did indeed exist in Tolkien's Middle-Earth. The term was used briefly in The Book of Lost Tales to describe the races of elves that would become the Noldor. "Gnomus" has a lot in common with the "gnosis" which is why the term was used to reference the elves, Noldo meaning "The Wise" in Quenya.

Because gnomes were traditionally identified with many of the characteristics of dwarves, they are often confused with them: short, underground dwellers. Similar to the confusion between "goblin" and "orc" (between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings).

For that reason Tolkien dropped the term, concerned that the similarities would confuse readers. However other folkloric names would persist, although Tolkien eventually segregated Elves" and "Dwarves" (he did replace "Goblin" with "Orcs" after the publication of The Hobbit).

In Dungeons & Dragons​

In Dungeons & Dragons, Gnomes first appear in Chainmail, grouped with dwarves. They appear as monsters in Blackmoor as living in "air-enclosed cities on the bottom connected to the surface by tunnels." Gnomes didn't appear as a playable race until the advent of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons:
Later on I added gnomes to D&D to broaden the choices for non-human PCs, as I did in AD&D. This was done because a number of players, myself included, were tired of having so many dwarves, elves, and halflings in the group of adventurers.
Gygax went on to explain that he created gnomes to fill a gap between Halflings and dwarves – specifically a demihuman spellcasting alternative to elves. He cited the gnome illusionist as being the primary role for gnomes. Gnomes changed over time in D&D, with technology assigned to gnomes as part of what makes them unique. TVTropes explains:
That began to change with the Dragonlance setting and the tinker gnomes of Mount Nevermind: descendants of humans cursed by the god of the forge for being petty and small-minded, the minoi shunned magic in favor of the sciences, particularly engineering... and were completely incapable of approaching these rationally, compelled to make everything they built as complicated and Goldbergian as possible, and valuing failure above success because you couldn't learn anything new once you'd got it right. Tinker gnomes were played for pure comedy, and proved fairly popular. Since then, engineering prowess has become a recurring trait for gnomes in various universes. Some of them are as inept as the original tinker gnomes, but other versions are actually much more competent.

Gnomes Today​

The association with technology has become most prevalent in World of Warcraft:
Gnomes in World of Warcraft (and, briefly, in Warcraft II) are heavily based on Dragonlance tinker gnomes; they have advanced technology all the way up to nuclear reactors in a world where most other races are still fiddling with steam engines (not that it really matters that much, 'cause Rock Beats Laser whenever needed).
I ended up positioning my gnome culture as originally winkies, transplants from Oz who were forced into servitude by larger humanoids to churn out their inventions. Now free, they are highly suspicious of anyone larger than them, and use their clockworks to act as go-betweens with the outside world. Their highly capitalistic culture is based on a rigid guild hierarchy inspired by Florentine guilds in which each guild’s specialty is a point of family pride and social status. They liberally use mercenaries, known as condottiere, to do their bidding, pitting them against each other in games known as calcio. It’s also an excuse to run gameshow style competitions for player characters and adds some justification for the inclusion of the artificer class.

With a few tweaks, my gnomes became bureaucratic, capitalistic, slightly paranoid, and constantly scheming to push their art to extremes in the hopes they can climb their social ladder (e.g., the Bakers Guild creates bread golems and build gingerbread houses, the Metalworkers Guild makes powered armor, the Tinkers Guild makes firearms, etc.). It's worked well for my current adventure and my player is enjoying playing her gnome artificer.

Your Turn: How have you fit gnome culture into your campaign world?
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


I think the most important thing to do to make gnomes work in a fantasy setting is to not have it also have halflings.
Gnomes or halflings, either work well in most settings. But they don't have enough distinguishing features to work both at the same time. There is not enough difference to justify them being separate things. There are many kinds of elves that are very similar, but they are all called elves.
Telling players gnomes and halflings are different things even though they seem to be the same thing is probably what makes most people unhappy with the situation. And with halfling being a term from The Lord of the Rings, they win by default.


I pull from eberron where gnomes are on the bleeding edge of science with a KGB-esque secret police force empowered to act as judge jury & executioner free of oversight & the monster hunter international books where gnomes are basically a walking "gangsta" stereotype. From there I mix them together as appropriate to any given gnome

Maybe the next year Playmobil launchs a new line "Dungeon Adventures" with fantasy heroes and creatures (If a LEGO Transformers is possible, our minds should be opened to other licences) and thanks this gnomes and halflings are popular as monster-rider heroes, or being pilots of magitek techas to fight kaijus.

Their "flaw" is they have been typecasted as rogues or illusionists for a long time, because their racial traits didn't offer enough flexibility to create with other ideas.

In the hands of a right writters, they can very interesting as characters, something like Steve Urkel from the sitcom "Familly Matters", potential creators of true wonders but also total disasters.

Halflings, gnomes, and other little humanoids are potentially perfect for D&D horror stories they aren't the badasses who defeats the bad guys, and that feeling of vulneravility helps for the grimmdark tone.

Gnomes aren't only good as tinkers or artificers, but also as monster-riders with some little spellcasting touch. Maybe with some racial feat the gift to speak with animals can be used with other creatures.

My suggestion is something like the article "Class Act Warrior Martial Cultures" from Dragon Magazine ,#341 (I bought it) where some racial traits were replaced to can play other type of classes.

Tyrion Lannister the "gnome" from "Games of Thrones" is one of the best example of the potential for characters with a smaller size but a brighter mind.

* Could a magic crossbow crafted by a gnome artificer to reload itself?



Brass and Dobbin, playable heroes from "Orcs must die: Unchained".

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
When the Hill Dwarves left their mountain homes, no longer content with the stagnation of their society, or the rigid caste structure imposed by the Guilds (or having been tossed out for their rebellion, depending on who you ask), they made their way to the iron-rich hills at the edges of Dwarven lands.

To their surprise, they found a people already living there, the Hill People, or, in their own language, gnomoi. These "gnomes" seemed to be cousins to the dwarves in many respects. They acknowledged the power of the earth, and their homes were partly burrowed into it. They mined, and had a love and penchant for gems and jewelcrafting.

And best of all, they were friendly and welcoming to their new neighbors, where other races would have fiercely repelled them from their lands.

As the Dwarves began to emulate their new friends, learning their ways, and showing them Dwarven innovations for mining, smelting, and shaping ore, they discovered differences as well.

The Gnomes were far more savvy at using magic than Dwarves, who rarely trusted the arcane, preferring the power of steel and faith. But most Gnome children were entertained by simple illusions, and inspired to learn more about the unseen world around them.

At the same time, the Gnomes tilled the land, and made friends with the beasts that burrowed in the earth and lived in the woodlands. They respected nature, disturbing it as little as necessary, and some could even claim to speak the language of beasts!

Thus, slowly, the Hill Dwarves gained an appreciation for new ideas, and they became different from their Mountain-born cousins, in both form and culture. Thus when Humans finally came to the Hills, though the Dwarves were cautious, they began to trade with the "tallfolk", and soon, younger, more adventurous Dwarves began to travel to Human lands, wanting to see more of this greater world.

And a few Gnomes followed them, because nothing excites a Gnome more than the thrill of the unknown.

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
I vaguely recall some fantasy setting where "gnolls" were half gnome and half troll. Either that, or I shouldn't eat leftover pizza.


I gave my answer for halflings over on the other thread and, likewise, I have no problem including gnomes in my campaign.

Gnomes basically fall into two groups, nature (forest) gnomes and tinker (rock) gnomes. Nature gnomes use illusion and camouflage to live in forests or other natural environments, preferring to avoiding notice when possible. People can walk through a nature gnome village without even realizing it. Nature gnomes work with the natural environment around them. They view small animals as friends and allies, an extension of their community so that everyone can live in harmony. On the other hand they are fierce fighters when their homelands are threatened, using their knowledge of the local environment, stealth and clever traps to fend off far larger foes.

Tinker gnomes on the other hand love to create and experiment. At times their creativity goes too far as they have a tendency to show off complexity over function. Tinker gnomes are also adept at illusions, so it often ends up being integrated into flashy displays in their homes and towns. I sometimes describe the largest tinker gnome city in my world as a fantastical Las Vegas, with creative installations designed to draw attention to local businesses augmented by illusions. Some people believe that the gnomes exaggerate this tendency for creativity to appear a bit crazy. After all, an enemy you cannot understand or predict is a very dangerous enemy indeed!

Both forest and rock gnomes can frequently be found living with other races, although if there is a large enough percentage they tend to cluster together. Forest gnomes will live in park-like environments and rock gnomes tend to make neighbors nervous. In either case they will frequently be sages, keepers of knowledge and experts at all things mystical or obscure.

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