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


Heretic of The Seventh Circle
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.
I like having gnomes wear red caps when they mean to shed blood. It’s a warning, to anyone not involved.

I also have gnomes generally like masks, and had a gnome PC enamel a human skull and wear it into battle.

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I solve the problem by making gnomes very fey-like (magical and tricksy and whimsical, living in secluded communities in exotic locales, like inside of trees or under a hill or in the actual Feywild) and making halflings very human-like (simple farmers and merchants, living in or near human lands; basically short people with really tough feet).

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