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

Atomoctba

Explorer
In my homeworld, there is a place called Otherside, essentially a blend of Feywild with Dreamscape. Fey are creatures born in dreams, not necessarily dreams of mortals. Gnomes (but not elves) are fey creatures in this world. As such, they came from dreams. More to the point: exiled from dreams. Each gnome simply pop out in the "Waking World" (prime material plane) without any memory of his/her previous life in Otherside. They do not know what they done to be outcast from there. No one never saw a gnome children or a pregnant gnome. All gnomes just pop out here already adult. No one knows how gnomes reproduces. IF they reproduces.

Gnome types are different according the original dream they came. Some are transitory (with a changeling shapeshifting trait). Other are living nightmares. Other yet are melancholic, quite literally black-and-white in a colorful world. There are gnomes from vivid dreams, that seem more real than anything around them (and gaining enhanced senses such as scent). And, once most people forget about the last night dream, there are easily forgetable gnomes (that can use the invisibility reaction from 4e and have a permanent non-detection effect upon them).

All this said, the gnomes are very different in my homeworld, occuping a very distict character niche than elves and dwarves, for instance.
 

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Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
I think one of the biggest issue with D&D races is that people make them too human.

When I hear people say they can't tell the difference between dwarves and gnomes or halflings and gnomes, it boggles my mind.

Gnomes to me always felt like a whole race of people who "...never stopped to think they should" and developed rules, family traditions, and guilds just to stifle themselves and keep them from going to the dark place.

So at least 50% of innovation would be gnomish.
 


Chaosmancer

Legend
I think one of the biggest issue with D&D races is that people make them too human.

When I hear people say they can't tell the difference between dwarves and gnomes or halflings and gnomes, it boggles my mind.

Gnomes to me always felt like a whole race of people who "...never stopped to think they should" and developed rules, family traditions, and guilds just to stifle themselves and keep them from going to the dark place.

So at least 50% of innovation would be gnomish.

That's fair, but if you make them too alien, it becomes too much of a hurdle to play them. Take the Kenku. I've never seen a player actually commit to their mimicry talk and never having an original idea. Playing Kenku like that makes them completely alien, but it is so difficult most players abandon it.

I know I had one person who tried very hard, it was a play by post game, and they were writing down in a seperate channel all of the things their Kenku heard, so they could pull from that list and type only those sentences... and they stopped after a couple of months which might have translated into 3 or 4 sessions.

This isn't to say I disagree with you, I think you've hit the gnomish culture on the head, and the fact that they have developed this strong sense of community and caring for each other as a way to counteract their impulses to bury themselves in their work til they starve or to create something truly horrible, but it must be a balancing act or else no one is going to bother engaging with how the race "should" act.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Agreed. I think its a Tolkien legacy.

It is.
That's fair, but if you make them too alien, it becomes too much of a hurdle to play them. Take the Kenku. I've never seen a player actually commit to their mimicry talk and never having an original idea. Playing Kenku like that makes them completely alien, but it is so difficult most players abandon it.

There is a balance an it's actually easy.

For example dwarves are traditionalist and slow to change. It's not cultural but mental. Dwarves talk a long time to adopt new ideas and are slow to make friends. So a dwarf player would be a bit standoffish to party members at first but made bloodoaths to them once they accept their party as friends. Any player running a more progressive or futuristic dwarf should display how their ideas got them in trouble and how it made other dwarves see them as weird.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
There is a balance an it's actually easy.

Right, I don't want to say you are wrong, but traditionally any time someone looks at a long-standing problem and says "this is easy to fix" their solution either isn't easy, or doesn't fix it.

For example dwarves are traditionalist and slow to change. It's not cultural but mental. Dwarves talk a long time to adopt new ideas and are slow to make friends. So a dwarf player would be a bit standoffish to party members at first but made bloodoaths to them once they accept their party as friends. Any player running a more progressive or futuristic dwarf should display how their ideas got them in trouble and how it made other dwarves see them as weird.

Okay, but that's still human. Heck, that first part describes my elven barbarian I'm playing in a game. He's quite stand-offish to the others (because he's better than them, he has far more experience in this line of work than they do) but over time he is going to be accept them and be deeply loyal towards them.

And, "my ideas are before their time" is again, a very human story.

I'm not saying this can't also be a dwarven story, this is perfect stuff for a dwarven story, but it doesn't really make them xenofiction.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Right, I don't want to say you are wrong, but traditionally any time someone looks at a long-standing problem and says "this is easy to fix" their solution either isn't easy, or doesn't fix it.
I say that on this forum all the time.


Okay, but that's still human. Heck, that first part describes my elven barbarian I'm playing in a game. He's quite stand-offish to the others (because he's better than them, he has far more experience in this line of work than they do) but over time he is going to be accept them and be deeply loyal towards them.

And, "my ideas are before their time" is again, a very human story.

I'm not saying this can't also be a dwarven story, this is perfect stuff for a dwarven story, but it doesn't really make them xenofiction.

Individual mindsets and one of a whole race are different concepts.

One haughty noble vs a whole city-state of ancient haughty snobs.

How does your character act when not only they can barely hold in their ideas and expressions but everyone around you can't and it's normal.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Individual mindsets and one of a whole race are different concepts.

One haughty noble vs a whole city-state of ancient haughty snobs.

How does your character act when not only they can barely hold in their ideas and expressions but everyone around you can't and it's normal.

Sure, I get that. But 80% of all interactions with a particular race (except humans) comes from dealing with your own party members. Many campaigns go their entire length with the only member of a particular race being the person who picked that as their option.

Just an anecdotal example, but I have a guy who is running a campaign set in a post-apocalypse, the evil overlord won, he's fighting the gods and holding them off, and the powers of hell are common place in the world. That was the pitch. I'm playing a tiefling, because that makes perfect sense in this world.

We've met humans, a dwarf, drow, halfings... and not a single tiefling or fiend. I'm literally the only one in the entire campaign to date.

So, sure, an entire society and city based around haughty nobility would be fascinating and weird to interact with and see, but if you design that and no one ever goes to a city where those people are the majority instead of being an one-off NPC.... then the table never experiences that weirdness of that story. Instead they just have the one character, maybe two.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Sure, I get that. But 80% of all interactions with a particular race (except humans) comes from dealing with your own party members. Many campaigns go their entire length with the only member of a particular race being the person who picked that as their option.

Just an anecdotal example, but I have a guy who is running a campaign set in a post-apocalypse, the evil overlord won, he's fighting the gods and holding them off, and the powers of hell are common place in the world. That was the pitch. I'm playing a tiefling, because that makes perfect sense in this world.

We've met humans, a dwarf, drow, halfings... and not a single tiefling or fiend. I'm literally the only one in the entire campaign to date.

So, sure, an entire society and city based around haughty nobility would be fascinating and weird to interact with and see, but if you design that and no one ever goes to a city where those people are the majority instead of being an one-off NPC.... then the table never experiences that weirdness of that story. Instead they just have the one character, maybe two.
I get that too.

My point is that the PC should roleplay how being a member of the community of a majority of their race or how being a minority in mentality in a community affect you.

For example my elf PC treats humans like children, insult dwarves and gnomish craft, and makes plans that take no less than a week to complete. Because he is an elf who is over 200 years old, has fey like tendencies, and was brought up with elfish bias in his education. "Tomorrow? I haven't chronicled this adventure in pottery form yet. Most of that cult is dead so what is the rush?"

So for a gnome, youd would be freely spout CRAZY IDEAS because in gnome town EVERYONE says CRAZY stuff all the time. So it would be normal to just openly suggest the utter madness of a human 5 year old like it is nothing. "How about we BLOW IT UP! We just need a containment magic circle to prevent forest fires."
 

Sure, I get that. But 80% of all interactions with a particular race (except humans) comes from dealing with your own party members. Many campaigns go their entire length with the only member of a particular race being the person who picked that as their option.

Just an anecdotal example, but I have a guy who is running a campaign set in a post-apocalypse, the evil overlord won, he's fighting the gods and holding them off, and the powers of hell are common place in the world. That was the pitch. I'm playing a tiefling, because that makes perfect sense in this world.

We've met humans, a dwarf, drow, halfings... and not a single tiefling or fiend. I'm literally the only one in the entire campaign to date.

So, sure, an entire society and city based around haughty nobility would be fascinating and weird to interact with and see, but if you design that and no one ever goes to a city where those people are the majority instead of being an one-off NPC.... then the table never experiences that weirdness of that story. Instead they just have the one character, maybe two.
This is why I like worlds with more limited set of races, so that you can actually properly feature them and give context to the PCs of those races. That way you can also play 'non typical' member of the race and it actually comes across.

Though sometimes "unique weird thing" can work. I played in a long campaign in a human only world where one PC was literally the only tiefling in existence. And as it was pretty grim dark ages style setting with a monotheistic religion that hated witches and heretics, you can imagine they were not so thrilled about a literal hellspawn either, so her being a tiefling really mattered.
 
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Chaosmancer

Legend
I get that too.

My point is that the PC should roleplay how being a member of the community of a majority of their race or how being a minority in mentality in a community affect you.

For example my elf PC treats humans like children, insult dwarves and gnomish craft, and makes plans that take no less than a week to complete. Because he is an elf who is over 200 years old, has fey like tendencies, and was brought up with elfish bias in his education. "Tomorrow? I haven't chronicled this adventure in pottery form yet. Most of that cult is dead so what is the rush?"

So for a gnome, youd would be freely spout CRAZY IDEAS because in gnome town EVERYONE says CRAZY stuff all the time. So it would be normal to just openly suggest the utter madness of a human 5 year old like it is nothing. "How about we BLOW IT UP! We just need a containment magic circle to prevent forest fires."

Ah, okay, I see that. The problem could come, unless the group is very skilled at RP and the functions of running the game, is that becomes a dysfunctional group without the majority being "straight men" to the absurdity. Or everyone has to be playing in the same direction. Anything that causes friction on the path of actually going on the adventure and playing the game has to be done in small doses. It can be challenging enough to move things forward without encouraging a bunch of wackiness. A party of four with two elves who never make plans that take less than a week is going to face a lot of struggle to keep to the pace that most groups expect, as they may lean on the other characters or the DM to "force" them to act while their characters wouldn't.


Also, all PC's are secretly gnomes. The blow it up plan isn't even the craziest thing they will come up with.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Ah, okay, I see that. The problem could come, unless the group is very skilled at RP and the functions of running the game, is that becomes a dysfunctional group without the majority being "straight men" to the absurdity. Or everyone has to be playing in the same direction. Anything that causes friction on the path of actually going on the adventure and playing the game has to be done in small doses. It can be challenging enough to move things forward without encouraging a bunch of wackiness. A party of four with two elves who never make plans that take less than a week is going to face a lot of struggle to keep to the pace that most groups expect, as they may lean on the other characters or the DM to "force" them to act while their characters wouldn't.


Also, all PC's are secretly gnomes. The blow it up plan isn't even the craziest thing they will come up with.

That indeed is the problem.

In order to fight the "humans in hats" issue and not create redundant races, everyone has to be good at RP and able to RP their PC being their race AND an adventurer of the D&D style.

D&D gnomes are not like D&D Dwarves. But you have to be good at RP or commited to the race traits to display those differences.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
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.
 






Chaosmancer

Legend
The trouble with halflings, Solving the gnome problem, what's next; The Dirt on Dwarves? The Issue with Elves?

I mean... it isn't like Dwarves don't also need a hard look. And elves are doing okay, but they need to be consolidated. We do not want elf bloat again.
 


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