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RPG Evolution: Solving the Gnome Problem

I mentioned previously 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.

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

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I grew up with B/X, so it took me a long time to incorporate gnomes into my games. I can't even remember anyone playing them, honestly.

Still, in my homebrew they were made by the elves and the dwarves together to create a race that would bridge their two cultures. Unfortunately, their trickster nature caused increasing friction between the two, and when the gnomes were found out, they were cast out.

They now live in their own country (along with halflings*), and are closer to tinker/eberron gnomes who are very good with clockworks and "prankster" magic.

* In my homebrew's ancient past, humans were captured and experimented on by the God of Shadows, whose torture fashioned them into halflings. The Goddess of Mischief tricked the Lord of Shadows into destroying his own mortal empire and led the halflings out to gnomish lands, who happily welcomed the newly freed "race" as brothers and sisters. Those original halflings in thrall to the Lord of Shadows were based on the small ones from Phantasm, and still exist in the dark corners of the campaign world.


I've had success with Gnome Gangsters/Triad as NPCs. But its been a while since i've had any player consider playing any sort of gnome or halfling.


I've been working on a new campaign setting for my paladin solo adventure, and I've made extensive use of Eberron's dragonmarks to define elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings in the world.

First of all, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings are all fey. In the campaign setting, they are all relatively recent immigrants to the Material Plane. They had fled the Feywild because it was corrupted by darkness from the Shadowfell. Before the Flight from the Shadow, the various races had distinct magical abilities and served the Faerie Court in different capacities.

The elves specialized in roles related to travel and the wilderness. They were outdoorsmen, hunters, messengers, and sailors. Their fey magic manifested in abilities similar to the Dragonmarks of Finding, Passage, and Storm.

The naturally hardy dwarves were miners, craftsmen, soldiers, and defenders of people and places. They had abilities similar to the Dragonmarks of Crafting, Sentinel, and Warding.

Gnomes are driven by a need to solve problems and discover how things work. They were researchers, inventors, detectives, scholars, and lorekeepers. Before fleeing the Feywild, they had abilities similar to the Dragonmarks of Detection and Scribing. The gnomes were also the last to leave the Feywild and many of them stayed as long as they could to learn more about the dark energy corrupting their home. Some were tainted by this energy and possess abilities similar to the Dragonmark of Shadow.

The halflings were farmers and house servants in the Feywild, and had abilities similar to the Dragonmarks of Handling and Hospitality. After they arrived on the Material Plane, many halflings chose to align themselves with the Light, and in doing so, developed abilities similar to the Dragonmark of Healing.


Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings are ultra conservative and traditionalist in culture.
Gnomes are ultra progressive and futuristic in culture.

I don't mean in politics. I mean in thought.

Dwarves use axes and hammers because "It is trusted and good enough for my great great great great..."

Gnomes think "What if I put a rotating engine on this garden rake?" or "If I tain a rabbit Gnomish Sign Language, can it be a spy?"

I've often described D&D gnomes as a palimpsest of a people. They are a piece of parchment that has been written on, scraped clean, than written on again, multiple times. Gnomes have been dwarf-like, creatures of folklore and wild, tinkerers, pranksters, illusionists. Different people will come at the gnome from different perspectives (often based on how they first encountered them).

I don't know that you can completely scrape the vellum entirely clean, but I increasingly find myself going more with gnomes as tinkerers. Probably because my first exposure to gnomes in D&D was with Dragonlance. Outside of D&D, it was the amazing Gnomes by Huygens and Poortvliet. Prankster gnome illusionists aren't really my thing, but I can get behind gnomes being divided between the dichotomy of technology and nature.


My problem with gnomes is that the ancestry seems linked to a very specific kind of character class.
A) Short person who is a druid. OR
B) Short person who is a tinkerer.
Of course you could just have a halfling who is a druid or a dwarf who is a tinkerer (or any other combination).
Gnomes came to the party late and are redundant. It's better to just make them a subset of halflings and be done with it.


Dusty Dragon
My problem with gnomes is that the ancestry seems linked to a very specific kind of character class.
A) Short person who is a druid. OR
B) Short person who is a tinkerer.
Of course you could just have a halfling who is a druid or a dwarf who is a tinkerer (or any other combination).
Gnomes came to the party late and are redundant. It's better to just make them a subset of halflings and be done with it.
Interesting. I've seen gnome rogues, a gnome fighter once, gnome illusionist, gnome rangers, gnome clerics... Why limit yourself that way?

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