In Defense of the Gnome

He’s actually pretty interesting and can make a good member of an adventuring group. But he has problems. I’m talking here of course of the Gnome from 1E through 3E. I don’t know much about 4E at all.

First, the Gnome is essentially a magical small character. We have a magical medium character (Elf), a nonmagical medium (Dwarf), a nonmagical small (Halfling), and the ubiquitous Human. I can see why they need a magical small creature to round things out. Of course, the half-elf and half-orc are just there for filler and in case your unique and beautiful snowflake needs family angst issues.

From the source material it’s unclear that a Gnome and a Dwarf and an Elf (much less Pixie, Sprite, Brownie, Dryad, etc) are really different creatures. The mythology plays fast and loose with terminology and because we take from many cultures they all have different words for things. It’s the same gripe I have when they have a perfectly serviceable “Werewolf” and then pack on a “Loupe-Garou” with different statistics. Or Vampire / Nosferatu. It’s the same damn animal! But in this case the Gnome fills a PC niche left open by the others.

The Gnome is an earthy character. Not stony like the Dwarf, and not woodsy like the Elf, or loamy / grassy like the Halfling. He’s really right between Halfling and Dwarf. He also does gem work, which specializes him further toward Dwarf, but can speak with burrowing creatures which makes him seem more Elf-like. His illusion magic specialization makes him a good alternative for people who want to play a short magical guy.

So now the problems. Gnomish culture apparently revolves around playing pranks like dumping glitter and goat yogurt on people. If some even gets on the mayor, even better! And gnome NPCs written up all seem to be really weird in general. Tinker Gnomes specialize in steam/clockpunk. Most others seem to be the irritating loudmouth gnome bard who talks like he hits every Ye Olde Reniassance Faire in the tri-state area. The character needs to chuck both of these concepts for the good of roleplaying.

What’s left then? Well, Gnomes are regular people too. Don’t play up the funky prankster stereotype. Make a personality the way you would for a Human. Roll on a table a few times! Or steal from an actor in a specific movie. Or a character from one of Shakespeare’s plays. Or mix one of each.

But playing off the Gnomish ability set creates an interesting culture for us. Let’s examine this:

Gnomes live in generally temperate, moist places where you can get nice forests and rolling hills. Sure they can live anywhere, but we’re trying for a baseline here. They can speak with burrowing creatures, which must give them a sense of how the natural world is faring. So Gnomes have a sense of environmentalism like Elves and may conflict with Dwarves and Humans sometimes over things like mine tailings thrown in a river or silt deposits from logging upriver. Let’s make them gregarious rather than shy like Halflings, just for another difference. So we have Gnomes who travel about and negotiate and trade with other people and who care about their local wild environment.

They have illusion magic, which they would obviously use in defense of their communities. It’s likely that in event of invasion, the Gnomes could hide and the invaders would pass them by. It’s far less likely for Gnomes to get involved in war, or even help others in that case, because hiding is always an alternative. Their connection with nature and with the burrowing animals would further cement their ability to avoid in their home territory.

You’d also see far fewer Gnomes in places that have no burrowing mammals. In these places the Gnome would feel somewhat alone because he doesn’t have constant flows of gossip and chatter from his little buddies.

Gnomes also like working with gems. Gems can be found in many different geologic formations but mainly in places you’d associate with Dwarves: rocky, mountainous, steep slopes that don’t grow grass or trees. But it’s in the valleys and hollow where you do see vegitation and earth where the Gnomes would build their mining settlements. The otherwise ideal places downland that just don’t have gemstones to mine would be where the larger Gnomish communities thrive. Uncut gems are sent on to the Gnomish towns to be cut and set into jewelry. Waiting to cut them makes the danger of transport lower: who would steal a bunch of funny rocks? But in the real world gems are often cut at least a little at the mining town, so whatever works for you.

Religious Gnomes are probably more likely to get involved with a nature religion, like Elves. For this reason Gnomish Druids and Rangers seem especially appropriate and they should be added to the list of allowed classes.

Gnomes still seem to need just a little spice. Something a little strange that makes them interesting, but nothing outright weird like the Tinkers or the Pranksters. If you modify your Elves and your Dwarves, consider giving a little love to the Gnomes too.

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