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.

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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

It's better to just make them a subset of halflings and be done with it.
But down that path lies the Halfling thread. Because while we’ll debate the two races, they have their own niche. Gnomes are way more “elf but short” than halfling

Anywho, I’m a big gnome fan so they tend to show up more. Mind, my world started as a Neverwinter Nights module I experimented with, and that inspiration has stuck with it since. Hence why gnomes have airships, because that was an easily available piece of custom content. And then I just used the snivneblin house tiles recoloured for other tilesets, as they looked really tree-y in that one “elven city” tileset that was a redone Underdark except trees. And then someone made proper gnome houses

Meanwhile Halflings got some hobbit holes that date back super early and I just slapped down in a rough fashion
 

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Retreater

Legend
Interesting. I've seen gnome rogues, a gnome fighter once, gnome illusionist, gnome rangers, gnome clerics... Why limit yourself that way?
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).
 

Lojaan

Adventurer
I'm my world gnomes and goblins are the same thing. They are small fey creatures that are dominated by an emotion which depends on whether they are aligned to the summer or winter courts. Those aligned to winter are dominated by fear and are known as goblins. Those aligned to summer are dominated by the opposite of fear - curiosity - and are known as gnomes. This does not make either of them good or evil by default, but it does colour their outlook, influence their behaviour, and even affect their appearance. I make it so that no two gnomes or goblins look alike (think the goblins in the movie Labyrinth).

Gnomes are great! You just gotta go weird with them.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
The only campaign of mine where gnomes were significant in any way was in 3e. Those gnomes could neatly fit the "tinker" stereotype, but the setting had a fair bit of room for them to inhabit other roles like mages, scholars, assassins, soldiers, blackguards, pirates and sailors, inquisitors, rogues, merchants, and so forth. The weakest link to a particular class was probably to clerics.
Gnomes were an offshoot of elves, subjugated for generations by the hobgoblin empire and forced into mines and laboratories in support of their captors' expansionist aims. The gnomes revolted and eventually overthrew the empire when they conquered the massive capital city, Uum Cuprum. A period of brutal extermination followed, with the goal of the complete genocide of the hobgoblins and the eradication of "The Cancer," the revolutionaries' name for groups of "collaborators", an accusation which grew to include those gnomes who disagreed with the genocide.

After the violence of the rebellion and subsequent infighting drew to a close, the gnomes set to work reshaping the ruins of the hobgoblin empire to their own ends. Except for a few key resource-rich holdings, most of the old empire's outlying territories were abandoned, left to be fought over by their former occupants. Neighboring kingdoms received wave after wave of tireless gnome delegations to stabilize diplomatic relations and trade. These efforts were boosted as the gnomes enhanced the old empire's shipping lanes with a vast network of causeways connecting the gnome capital to trading hubs on the coastline of the surrounding sea. The capital city itself was rechristened Copperknock City.* Practically overnight it became the gleaming magitechnical wonder of the world during the era of gnomish hegemony.

Within their own lands, the gnomes soon established a technocratic police state. This tamped down political dissent and simplified regulation of trade in a wide variety of alchemicals and magetech, monopolies the gnomes were loathe to give up. Despite their reputation for paranoia and a sometimes too-quick trigger finger on their weird weapons of war, the gnomes were generally regarded by their neighbors as a benevolently neutral power, and one to remain friendly with at all costs.

The gnomes of Copperknock City were the last major civilization to rise and fall, not long before the fading of the City of Silver Cathedrals at the center of the world. When the spirit goblins and their spidery allies breached the dikes surrounding the gnome capital, their hegemony vanished in a matter of hours. From that day forward, the rest of world began its fitful collapse into eons of barbarism, never to recover.

* The ruins of Copperknock City lie in what humans today refer to as "Copernicus Crater" on the Earth's moon.
 

Oofta

Legend
On a related note to what I wrote above, the reason gnomes tend to be noted sages is because of their long lifespan and insatiable curiosity. Along with a good-natured competitive nature making them want to know more obscure information than their fellows, you never know what fascinating discoveries and connections you might uncover.

On the origin of gnomes, both gnomes and goblins originate from feywild ancestral goblinoids. Fey goblins are akin to goblins of Harry Potter and mythology, practical jokers and tricksters but not with malevolent intent even if the end results can cause harm. When these goblinoids left the feywild some decided to lean into the dark side of practical jokes as they were seduced by Maglubiyet. Others followed Garl Glittergold and embraced laughter and happiness.
 






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.
honestly, gnomes are far more usable as a small race than halflings, halflings are a thing that is just a leftover from an older age of fantasy, my appendix is more useful for me the halflings will ever be.
 

Tinker gnomes are perfect if you are willing to add magitek or some steampunk touch in your world, but if you want something closer to sword & sorcery, then there the gnomes are like the shorter version of "Jem & Holograms" singing bardcore, they wouldn't fit very well with the grimmdark tone.

I imagine gnomes being slavered by the giants, escaped toward the feywild. There they faced the fomories, giants who were living in the Feywild for a long time by tainted by fault of a Lovecraftian cult from the Far Realm. Gnomes acquired a "feytouched" traits, and their used their new gifts to escape to the material plane as new refugees. Their culture is in the middle between elves and dwarves, and they are very useful in the diplomatic relations between boths because they can understand their radically point of view.

Halflings are wellcome in the noble feuds because they are good vassals if the lords are honorable. Halflings are very honest and peaceful, they don't cause troubles, and if the new lord is a tyrant, they "vote with the steps", they travel to a new places where they can feel confortable. The weak point of the halflings is they are too typecasted into "stealth" classes as rogue. The trope of halfling rogue has been abused for a long time, and then it has become more boring than an episode of Spiderman in the middle of the dessert. Halflings need more flexibility to can play with no-stealth classes.
 

Tinker gnomes are perfect if you are willing to add magitek or some steampunk touch in your world, but if you want something closer to sword & sorcery, then there the gnomes are like the shorter version of "Jem & Holograms" singing bardcore, they wouldn't fit very well with the grimmdark tone.

I imagine gnomes being slavered by the giants, escaped toward the feywild. There they faced the fomories, giants who were living in the Feywild for a long time by tainted by fault of a Lovecraftian cult from the Far Realm. Gnomes acquired a "feytouched" traits, and their used their new gifts to escape to the material plane as new refugees. Their culture is in the middle between elves and dwarves, and they are very useful in the diplomatic relations between boths because they can understand their radically point of view.

Halflings are wellcome in the noble feuds because they are good vassals if the lords are honorable. Halflings are very honest and peaceful, they don't cause troubles, and if the new lord is a tyrant, they "vote with the steps", they travel to a new places where they can feel confortable. The weak point of the halflings is they are too typecasted into "stealth" classes as rogue. The trope of halfling rogue has been abused for a long time, and then it has become more boring than an episode of Spiderman in the middle of the dessert. Halflings need more flexibility to can play with no-stealth classes.
so you just reinvented 4e gnomes by accident.

halfling either needs to go all in on being sneaky so they have stealth everything or have a more diverse list of options that work well for one or the other.
 



I guess halflings and gnomes being separate would bug me less if they were at least related. Like if gnomes were Feywild affected halflings or something. Similar relationship like the elves and the eladrin have.
 


James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
how good arw the hallucinations? I want to know if there could be a market for this?
Well, there's a few factors to consider. First, sliders are only delicious when fresh and when it is some amount of time after midnight.

Second, to achieve maximum potency, you have to leave them in the fridge for a couple days, then microwave them back to an edible state.

Third, consume. Then go to sleep and have bizarre dreams.*

Fourth, deal with the known aftereffects of consuming sliders, which will involve frequent and uncomfortable visits to the little adventurer's room.

*I haven't collected data on this, since I didn't want to repeat the experience, but consuming copious amounts of Mountain Dew to wash down said sliders may be required. I stopped drinking the stuff years ago, even before I found out I was type 2 diabetic, so I couldn't repeat this experiment even if I was so inclined.
 


Chaosmancer

Legend
Gnomes were the first race I really went all in on re-writing the lore for, alongside the Yuan-Ti. But, from the various media I've engaged in if you want gnomes to "work" in your setting you only need two things.

1) A willingness to have renaissance or steampunk technology in your gameworld
2) Allow the gnomes to be competent.

I remember one gnome NPC I came up with who was a shut-in, and so had rigged his house with pnumatic tubes powered by wind magic. The tubes allowed for things to be delivered into or out of his house without him needing to meet people, and he had speaking tubes to talk to them if they insisted. Pretty simple, but very "gnomish" as most other races wouldn't make something like that.

But for my homebrew world, I went a bit deeper.

I went back to the creation myth for Gnomes about Garl Glittergold laughing and gnomes springing from gemstones. I was looking for a way to integrate the "Lost Sisters" and when I read the account I noticed something odd. It had said that Garl led the gnomes through deep caverns until they exited from the Golden Hills. The Golden Hills are the Gnomish heaven.

Now, it was possible this was a mis-print or something, but it got my attention and gave me a view of Gnomes that is utterly unique. Then I just looked back at my tendency to pair races with an "enemy" or a "threat" and came up with the following.

Garl before he was Glittergold worked for the Slaadi Empire, a cosmic spanning empire which has taken on the role of an "Elder Evil" in that it destroyed and stripped its original world and has set out into the strangeness of the Far Realms to find other worlds to plunder. Unlike the Hive Mind of the Illithid or the existence of the Deep Father, the Slaadi are individuals, but their birth requires the insertion of specialized gemstones into a creature. Some slaadi have evolved into terriyfing forms, but the vast majority of them are the "Red" and "Blue" Slaadi, which are their foot soldiers. However, the Slaadi in traveling the Far Realms heard of a strange force called "magic" and that it offered immense power to those who wielded it. They sought this power and found it greatly enhanced their soldiers, and they hungered for more.

Garl was tasked with researching this magic, finding a way to tap into it so that the Slaadi did not need raids and captives, but could manipulate the force directly. And Garl, the master researcher he was, figured it out. And the beauty of the rainbow lights he created as he first dipped into magic caused him to burst into laughter, the first joyous laughter that had been heard in the halls of the Slaadi fortress for millenia. This caused the magic to surge, infecting the gems of the unborn Slaadi that he had been tasked with. But it also opened his eyes. This wondrous force would be nothing more than a battery to the Ruling Council, and would be destroyed as they destroyed everything. They could never get his research. And then the first gnomes started stirring in their gems.

Garl and the firstborn gnomes fled, traveling dark paths through the Far Realms. Places where sight was impossible. And, as more gnomes were born into this darkness, Garl taught them of magic, of wonder, and most importantly, he never let them see themselves. With magic in their veins and walking through the malleable reality of the Far Realms, the gnomes lost their original selves, and became as we see them today. And when their journey came to an end, they exited into the Prime Material plane. A place of beauty and wonder. A place so beautiful, and so full of endless mysteries that the gnomes never wished to leave, and so their Goddess of Death constructed a device, and locked gnomish souls to this plane.

This world, this endlessly shifting and swirling world of magic, ideas, and other races, is the Gnome's heaven. They are a race of joy, because how could they not be joyous in this place? Some turn to the natural world, hoping to explore everything that every plant and beast has to offer, boiling together concotions and mastering illusory magic so to hide and observe, or display their findings to others. Others turned to physics, the math of the world, which to their crystal-minds is a joy and at times a hilarious joke, and they take those theories and turn them into realities, like taking a dream and working it from stone and metal and wood.

And they make weapons. Because Heaven is under siege by forces that would destroy it, and so they must protect this world, lest they lose it forever.
 

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