Monday, March 5, 2012

Gnobody Gnows the Gnomes' Gniche

The Gnomish Identity Crisis in Fantasy Role-Playing Games

Ever since I first ran into gnomes, they've seemed to be a fantasy race looking for an identity.  Or maybe a better way of putting it would be, competing for an identity with the other player character races.  My thesis is that gnomes are always in danger of getting absorbed into one of the three, clearly distinguished, iconic fantasy races that are standard in D&D and other fantasy role-playing games in the D&D lineage, per the diagram above.  The order I pursue is not chronological, but thematic.

Basic Gnomes (1981, 1977)
When I first met them in Basic D&D, they were not a player character race, but in the MONSTERS part of the rulebook.  Therein, they are described as a "human-like race related to dwarves.  They are smaller than dwarves, and have long noses and full beards" (B36).  They save like dwarves and are metalsmiths and miners like dwarves, but they "usually live in burrows in the woodlands" (ibid.).  They share the characteristics of dwarven greed.  They still are enemies of goblins and kobolds, especially kobolds.  By 1981, they have already acquired their "love of machinery of all kinds" (ibid.).  Uninteresting and unillustrated, they did not stand out from other monsters.  For that matter, they seemed more like potential allies than monsters, but even then, why would a more halfling-sized, and perhaps more human-like version of the dwarf be needed when we already have halflings and dwarves for NPC allies.

I didn't know hobbits at the time, so I didn't think of them when I read that they lived in burrows.  I would have more likely thought of dwarves, who also lived in the ground.  But once you know of hobbits, the gnomes loose the distinctive nature of their homes, with the exception that they live in woodlands, unlike dwarves -- but like elves!  I was not familiar with the Huygen/Poortvliet gnomes either, later popularized by the David the Gnome cartoons, Amélie, and Travelocity, but these gnomes live underground in woodlands (in trees root-systems, in fact).  But they are much too small to be D&D gnomes -- they're smaller even than some of D&D's fairies, and arguably too small to work well as a PC race.  But even if one imagined them living in a woodland of giant trees (and animals), they are more similar to various fay or elves that live in mounds or trees in folklore.  They'd be left with the distinctives of beards and dress, which is not much more than the distinction from dwarves by a nose.  Now we have an impression of gnomes as fey dwarves.  In a fay focused campaign, there might be a call for such an elf-dwarf hybrid.  It's not the first time that gnomes have been associated with elf-kind, nor, we shall see, will it be the last.

[For the Holmes crowd, I note that the very brief description of the gnome in his Monsters section is very close to the above, but instead of "woodlands" it has the more vague "lowlands and hills."]

Dragonlance Gnomes
The idea that gnomes are tinkers or engineers seems to me to have picked up on the phrase about their love of machinery in Moldvay's Basic and expanded it to the proportions for which they are well-known in World of Warcraft.  As I understand it from various podcast interviews, this was a contribution of Jeff Grubb to the Dragonlance setting, which took off in 1984, just a few years after Moldvay. 

While this is one of the more successful attempts to distinguish gnomes from the other demi-humans, it doesn't preclude gnomes being an off-shoot of dwarves or elves.  For that matter, Dragonlance has its version of halflings, the Kender, as an off-shoot of gnomes.   I think it is obvious that gnome tinkers could be as much a development of dwarf smiths as gnomes could be an off-shoot of dwarves as a race.  But why do I bring elves in again?  Think Keebler elves.  Or Santa's elves.  Or the cobbler and the elves.  Once again, gnomes are overlapping with the elves/fay niche.

I'm not a fan of the Dragonlance setting as a whole.  There are some really great ideas in it, that I would consider re-purposing for another setting, but the whole package doesn't appeal to me.  That doesn't mean that the gnome as (fey) tinker might not reach the desired level of distinction if it fit as a key element of design in a well-conceived setting.  If anybody can put together a setting where this concept would come off strong, I think I know who that publisher would be.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977, 1979)
The description of gnomes grows in AD&D.  Not all of this description is distinctive: like dwarves, the basis of society is the clan and they are miners.  On the distinctive side, most are said to be colored wood brown.  (Note, another fay characteristic.)  They are said to live in both earthen burrows and rocky hills (the latter, again, like dwarves and now 75% of the time).  No explicit mention is made of woodlands, but the common presence of badgers and wolverines in their lairs and their ability to communicate with burrowing animals would seem to suggest woodlands more so than rocky hills.  Finally, they are identified now with a particular class in which they are talented: illusionist.  The common number of gnome illusionists or thief/illusionists is suggestive of a trickster figure -- a direction that we will see developed in Dragon Magazine and later publications.  Both tricksters and illusionists are especially identified in folklore with fey creatures.

4e and Pathfinder Tackle the Problem
This ongoing dilemma is passed on to the current generation of designer-heirs to D&D.  This is particularly interesting to the extent to which they represent opposing reactions to how to extend the legacy of D&D, yet pursue similar solutions.  While I don't know much about 4e, it is evident to me that both sets of designers took the gnomes in the fey direction, to distinguish them from dwarves and halflings.  That brings them closer to the elf camp, and so perhaps it is not accident that both attempt to remove elves from feykind.  Fourth edition did this by introducing the eladrin as another fey race, Pathfinder attempted to make the elves some kind of star race.  Both of these seem to me doomed attempts, as elves are by definition related to fairies -- both within folkloric sources and in the text of first generation D&D primary source materials (1974-1981),  However, it is understandably an attempt to keep gnomes from just being little elves.  Note that, in addition to all the setting material about gnomes being creatures of the First World in Pathfinder's setting, the iconic druid is a gnome (below).  (Pathfinder still has you covered if you are a fan of DL or WoW gnomes, by the way.  The obsessive trait gives a bonus to profession or craft skill of their choice.)
WAR's Lini is a lot cuter than 4e's freakishly fey gnomes, but she's still a wild child.

Tolkien's Gnomes
One of the acknowledged literary sources* of D&D is the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Does he offer a solution?  By no means!  For Tolkien, gnome is a term that he initially used for the Noldor, one of the elvish lines, specifically, the line that is exiled to Middle Earth.  To follow Tolkien would lead us back towards the elves -- his elves, which have nothing short or funny about them.

The Problem Isn't a Problem
The problem of the making the gnomes a distinctive race may not matter to some gamers, although, from the amount of buzz I hear on this issue, not to mention the number of gamers who just want to ignore the existence of gnomes in their games, I think a sizable group of people are thinking along lines similar to mine.  But if you are happy with gnomes as an off-shoot of dwarves or another fey relation of elves, then you only need to develop them into a distinctive sub-race, if you will.  Just as sub-classes are only a little distinct from the larger, iconic class from which they derive, gnomes are smaller more specialized versions of their relations.  For those who only want a shade of distinction, this is enough and gnomes aren't problem.  Whether they are all that attractive is another matter, and I won't presume to speak for such folk.

A Way Forward
As you might have supposed, I do see another way forward.  I will treat the directions I am taking to develop gnomes along a distinctive line, breaking them out of the overlap of the other demi-human races, in a future installment.  I've also been going back to look at old Dragon Magazine articles, so I might flesh out some of what I have pointed out here from those sources in some future installments as well, but on this I am still undecided.  For now, I will note that the direction I am going to be pursuing does take them in a non-fey direction, but in settings where the fay are particularly important, I wouldn't worry about making faerie the distinguishing factor.  In such a setting, dwarves, gnomes, and elves would all be fey creatures, along with many others, as they all are in the original folkloric sources, and the focus would be on distinguishing kinds of fey creatures from one another.  However, that is not the way I will be pursuing in the settings I currently have in mind, nor in this series.  If you are interested, stop back for the next installment of Mythopoeic Monday.

NB.  I use fay as a noun and fey as an adjective.  If I'm in an archaic mood, I'll use fae instead of fay.  Fairies (or faeries) are diminutive fay.


  1. Nice overview. I humbly submit a couple of takes I've done on the subject of gnomes: ultraterrestrial tourists and perhaps somewhat sinister elemental artists.

  2. I liked playing gnome characters way back in the day, and I played them - and ran them in my campaign - as closest to brownies and leprechauns. More industrious than elves, less stodgy than halflings, and way funnier than dwarves.

    I never heard of the interest in things mechanical until Dragonlance appeared, and I never incorprated that into my campaigns even after it became received wisdom among D&D gamers with later editions.

  3. I've always disliked gnomes as a PC race so I will be interested to see what you come up with.

  4. David: Except in one home-brewed setting my college DM ran, I didn't care for gnomes, much either, feeling they lacked distinction vis-a-vis the other races. (For that matter, I didn't like halflings until I read Tolkien, which was later in life. They were, by the way, NPCs only in that setting, and relatively rare.) I was never interested in them as a PC race until I saw Pathfinder. For a more classic, simplified version of the game, I'll tackle them first as a "Monster"/NPC race, though, and try to get them the way I want them there. Even then, I don't know that I'll feel the need to bring them in as PCs in a version of the game with the class four PC races.

  5. Trey: You teach me that, even if you rediscover Paracelsus, someone else has already rediscovered him before you. :D Thanks!

  6. Black Vulmea: Your fey direction makes sense to me. Apparently, it made sense to Paizo, as well. With all those various fairies out there, it could make sense that there would be one that would be a PC playable race.

  7. I haven't had a close look at the Pathfinder version, so it will be interesting. I bought the Huygen/Poortvliet Gnomes book in my early teens and it became (and remains) on of my all time favourite books. I'm afraid it set in concrete what a gnome is to me - but I'm open to persuasion for my players' sake.

  8. I run a gnome in my game and I think that saying that they are an undefined race is unfair. All you have to do is Google Gnome culture and you will find a large amount of information on their race and personalities. Also if you want to say that one race is undefined a hafling is just a little kid who picks pockets, the dwarves are just midgets who dig up rocks, and elves are just hippies living out in the woods. All races in an RPG are derived, personality wise, from social niches in our own race. Oh lets not forget half orcs who resemble felons that people don't trust. I feel that most people who say Gnomes are undefined from other races should really look at the similarity between all the other races and humans. I also realize that in earlier D&D systems that they were probably undefined but a lot of races were a dwarf was a class for crying out loud. Now nobody get made I only took this personally because Gnomes are my favorite race.