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

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And really, it's up to the player to decide what their character acts like. Maybe they were a Gnome raised in a human village, who can say? The only thing you can do as a DM is have other Gnomes act the way you think Gnomes should act, and think the PC is kind of a weirdo.

Lead by example, if you will.
A gnome in a humanvillage would see humans as stuffy and stoic and would likely get into a lot of trouble and/or focus heavy into hiding their actions via stealth or illusions.

but without a gnome community, they would still likey cause an incident due to the lack of gnomish cultural safeguards.


There's a few other races that could use some love (or scorn) outside of the PHB as well. Like Lizardfolk!

Yeah, their Volo's lore is okay according to memory (I'm not a fan of the completely lacking emotions, as it runs into that "incredibly hard to actually role-play" problem) but we definitely need to recheck their MM lore and avoid their old lore from 2e or whenever it was their origin story came from.

It is curious, because when I gifted the RPG for children "Tiny Dungeons" and I asked my niece to create a character, she chose a lizardfolk, I guess because she loves dinosaurs.

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
I don't know if Lizardfolk got an update in Mordenkainen's, but the version in Volo's got a strict "thumbs down" by my play group. Natural weapons in general are looked upon with scorn, because they don't work the way you'd think they would, the ability to make basic equipment using tools shouldn't be a racial feature as it implies that anyone can't pick up a bone or piece of tree to use as a club, and it's not often very useful beyond 1st level, and a consistent complaint is how natural armor not only doesn't do anything if you do wear armor, but it has no effect if you're a Monk or Barbarian.

I did make the point that it would be busted if the race just gave Monks and Barbarians 3 extra AC, which they conceded to, but then they point to how Tortles have a superior unarmored option, and Warforged just get a +1 AC, both of which would be more useful than what lizardfolk get.

Oh and only being able to use Hungry Jaws 1/short rest is the kind of fiddly mechanic that I thought people didn't like in 4e, so what's it doing here?

So that basically leaves a sometimes useful Swim speed, a rarely used Hold Breath, and free skill proficiencies as the great things about this race.


My rock gnomes are basically jawas, including their giant mobile crawlers. They first build the warforged.

I like the classis pointy red hat gnome as my forest gnomes. There was a 3.x 3rd party supplement or an OSR book whose cover had a cool looking gnome war party with the hats. Can't for the life of my remember what it was.

My rock gnomes are basically jawas, including their giant mobile crawlers. They first build the warforged.

I like the classis pointy red hat gnome as my forest gnomes. There was a 3.x 3rd party supplement or an OSR book whose cover had a cool looking gnome war party with the hats. Can't for the life of my remember what it was.
gnomes as jawas seem oddly obvious in hindsight.


Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Look at the art and presentation - even in this thread. If it's a short ancestry and they're either fiddling with gears or talking to a squirrel, then they're a gnome. Any other short race can be depicted as fighters, clerics, rogues, bards, etc. But all we ever see of gnomes is a very specific and limited application - one of which isn't even a part of the core D&D experience (the tinkerer).
Gnomes are in art as Druids, rangers, thieves, assassins, and yes tinkerers, but I see plenty of people talking on Reddit or twitter or wherever else about their gnome warlock, Paladin, wizard (lots of wizards), clerics, barbarians, and monks. Can’t recall seeing any gnome sorcerers, for some reason.

Also the tinkerer is absolutely part of the core D&D experience. I’d say this is true for more players than not.

It’s not for nothing there’s so many homebrew artificers on Reddit and DMsGuild, and the designers kept working on the concept through at least three very different takes, until they got it right, and then added it to the next major game expansion.

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