Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Gnomes

Yes, I am a Gnome-Lover, which is for gamers the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Gname. People always think of Elves or Drow as the most hated of characters, but I think you'll find that many people revile Gnomes just as much.

When it was announced Gnomes were not to be one of the "original" races of D&D 4e, the gnome-haters came out in droves. "Good riddance!" and "Worthless" were the cries of the day.

I freely admit to you that Gnomes have a difficult path in fantasy gaming. Not the stout, proud warriors that are Dwarves, or the cute, mischievous Hobbits-turned-Vietnamese Boat People that are Halflings, Gnomes have long held more than a single identity.

The problem with many races outside of Mankind is that we wish to assign them a basic identity, while reserving the "Sooooo Adapatable!" moniker for Humans (a little bit of home cooking, perhaps?). In fantasy gaming Gnomes were originally a more magical race, by turns subterranean and sylvan. They later morphed into the fast-talking crazy inventors of Dragonlance and other settings. By the time of D&D 3.5, their favored class turned from Illusionist to Bard. In my current RPG of choice, Castles & Crusades, they're back to being largely portrayed as wilderness-dwelling Illusionists.

All this means is that we do not agree on what Gnomes should be; they are too small and wizened to be the graceful poster children for the forest that Wood Elves are. And so, left in limbo, Gnomes were endlessly divided; Rock Gnomes, Forest Gnomes, Tinker Gnomes, Deep Gnomes, Sky Gnomes, and several others to boot. Each highlights a different portion of what we want gnomes to be. Personally, I have a race of gnomes in the East of my setting that love trickery, (bad) humor, inventions, explosions, and discovery. In the West, a sylvan race of Gnomes barely survived a technological catastrophe, and became a Luddite society. A "lost tribe" in the High North lives underground and serves dragon overlords by mining and earth magic. I don't know if any will meet or not in my current campaign, but it will be a blast if they do.

I think, in order to really get the most use out of gnomes, they need to be played not unlike we play humankind--with infinite varieties in the gene pool, and interesting, clashing cultures. I am not saying make the cultures humanlike--that seems boring--but emphasize the cultural and philosophical differences between the different types of Gnomes. We have no problems doing this with Elves or Humans--why should Gnomes be different?

Like Elves or Humans, you're going to find something to hate in Gnomes. But there should also be something you like. Their niche is that they can fill whatever niche you choose--there's a treatment of it out there, or you can make your own. Don't lightly consign a race with this much potential to the dustbin.


BlUsKrEEm said...

I feel your pain. I'm a Halfling enthusiast. While 3.x-ers are usually accepting of the man halfling union, the OSR mob which I usually hang with laugh at the idea of a halfling in the party. I still maintain that Halflings are not only the funnest race to RP , but in BX / BECMI the class is one of the optimal options.

I'd say my one real problem with 4th ed is the "halflngs." Don't even get me started.

Rob Conley said...

The portrayal of Gnomes in Elisabeth Moon's Surrender None as bad asses for Law inspired me to make sure Gnomes were a interesting race in the Majestic Wilderlands

Zzarchov said...

I've never liked mono-cultures and have always ensured that every race has multiple cultures, often starkly different. Gnomes are no different, with the technological gnomish republic, the forest gnomes, the deep gnomes and the enslaved domovoi.

Zachary The First said...

@BIU: Yeah, I like my Halflings a little chubby than the dreadlocked river people they’ve morphed into. I never cared for Kender, and they seem to have obtained a dose of Kender in their DNA over the years.

@Rob: Haven’t read that. Is it a series or single book you’d recommend?

@Zzarchov: I quite agree. Actually, I plan on expanding on this a bit in tomorrow’s article. My thanks!

Ryan said...

In my nearly two decades of DMing, I have had only two gnome player characters, one in AD&D2 and one in 3.5. Personally I like underground gnomes, but as you pointed out, it's possible to have both subterrainean and sylvan gnomes in the same world.

...of course, deep in my heart, gnomes will always look like David the Gnome and his ilk!

Tim Shorts said...

I have a problem with finding places for halflings and gnomes in my past campaigns. My own personal bias. But lately I have been trying to rework them. To make them more interesting for my world. What got me started to think they could be cool was reading over old HackMaster stuff and read about the Gnome Titans. I got excited about playing one. Anyways, this new year will see me being more tolerant and accepting of the short people.....as long as they don't start singing. Then they get exterminated by a short person plague.

seaofstarsrpg said...

I have nothing against gnomes as such, but they never really seemed to have a place to fill in the D&D world. But I highly respect anyone who can play an interesting gnome as they are inventing much of the gnome culture for themselves and the campaign.

Rob Conley said...

Oh yeah I recommend this.

First read the Deed of Paksenarrion
Then the Legacy of Gird both are trade paperbacks that collect the two series.

They are set in a D&Dish world. The first is the story of Paksenarrion a potential paladin. And the second is about Gird her patron saint.

Some of the middle part takes place in a very familiar places.



Doug Wall said...

Nomes are indeed awesome.


Maroon said...

I've always adored gnomes. They're everything elves and dwarves were supposed to be: Wise, bearded and magical, and not a little covetous. They wear pointy red caps and mine for gems and do the gardening. They can be everything you want them to be. They can be short bearded miners and sylvan wizards and sneaky gardeners and still all of them are recognizably gnomes. I think they're one of the core archetypes of fantasy, even though most people can't see past the red cap and the toadstools.

In my world, they're the reason wizards wear pointy hats. In ancient times they were servants to the Atlanteans/Lemurians (elves), and took care of gardening, farming, fishing, mining, accounting, entertaining, tailoring, tinkering, cooking, brewing, housekeeping, butlering, did magical research and alchemical work, and were there when you needed them and invisible when you didn't. Just before Atlantis/Lemuria sank beneath the sea, the gnomes escaped and left their ungrateful masters to their folly, and were dispersed over the continents. Some continued their elven masters' sorcerous practices (rock/tinker gnomes), others returned to their shamanic roots (forest gnomes), and yet others swore off magic altogether and focused on mining and smithing (dwarf analogs) or farming and gardening (halfling analogs). But in the end humanity learned their magic from the gnomes, not the elves, which is why wizards wear pointy hats.

You might recognize part of this (but likely not) as the back story of The Gnole by Alan Aldridge. It's a really cool book, one which I recommend reading if you like subtly moralistic fantasy in the vein of Tolkien with a dash of Jim Henson magic. Oh, and mole people.