Gnomes have been present in mythology since the 16th century. Their roots can be seen in several mythologies, among which are the type of domestic fey that resided in people’s homes fixing broken items, gnomes that played pranks on people, gnomes that made deals in exchange for something, a type earth elemental, and the subterranean type of creatures that were used synonymously with such creatures as dwarves, goblins, brownies, kobolds, and the like.
Many times these creatures were depicted as being ugly or deformed in some way. These ideas coalesced into the gnomes that we know today in RPGs where they’re often depicted as being either mad scientists/ crafty inventors or illusionist specialists. Unfortunately these ideas as to what gnomes are can be unnecessarily shoehorn them into only these roles. But by looking at the roots of the character, examining their strengths, and seeing what various games have to say about them, a more complex depiction of these creatures can be derived.
Having said all this, it’s apparent that Gnomes are all over the map in their descriptions, both in fantasy settings and classic mythology. With this as background, what can be said about them? First of all, it can be noted that, like dwarves, gnomes are small subterranean creatures. For the most part, unless in a city or traveling, gnomes are most at home underground mining, but even this snapshot is a bit more than it seems at first glance.
Because of their small stature, gnomes have developed a number of tools for mining which they employ as weapons when pressed into doing so, which likely is one of the reasons why the monster stat block for these creatures in D&D has them being encountered as a group of armed warriors. Individually, gnomes aren’t all that impressive. However, when encountered as a group they can become a threat. While fighters aren’t necessarily the mainstay of the gnomish population, it wouldn’t be unsurprising to see a good number of gnomes having multiclass combinations, among which the martial classes would be heavily prevalent. One of the things that would help them in this is the fact that they tend to be healthier (in gaming terms they have a Constitution bonus), and from a real world perspective, a small stature. This video from Shadiversity talks about what weapons a smaller creature would use and talks about how a small creature fighting against a larger one could potentially cripple it by slashing at the legs without much danger to itself if it were sufficiently armored or able to use a shield to block incoming blows.
It also should be noted that Gnomish fighters, rangers, and druids, among other martial classes, because of small stature, would also be able to make especially good use of ranged weapons, especially if they are able to use cover to help them shoot without danger to themselves. Due to the gnomes’ inventiveness and ingenuity, the warriors may have either experimental weapons that increase damage, range, or accuracy. Some may even be able provide the user(s) with the ability to create different types of damage with the same weapon.
Similar to dwarves, a gnome’s day is regulated by the music which helps the mining go faster. Unlike the dwarves, however, the one of gnomes favored class in D&D (3.5 & 4th editions) is a bard. This is in stark contrast to the mythological depictions of gnomes being deformed, ugly or uncharismatic. In further contrast to dwarves, much of the gnomish music found in the mines would probably lighthearted, jovial, joking types of songs that make the day fly by, and may even play harmless pranks on their fellow gnomes – though they need to be careful not to let their jokes get out of hand. This is in comparison to the mechanical, regulatory songs and chants the dwarves use. In fact, in some versions gnomes are depicted as attractive creatures and having a charisma bonus. This bonus would also help them if they were to take levels in sorcerer. More about this later.
Gnomes are also highly connected with nature, whether this is from their fey nature, or just an innate sense of how the natural world should work. This allows them to communicate with the burrowing creatures they live near. Because of this, there should be a fair number of druids and rangers within their ranks protecting the areas where they live. They would be especially effective as rangers due to their racial hatred towards kobolds and goblinoids, which gives them a bonus against such creatures. It would not be unsurprising to see gnomish druids and rangers to have burrowing creature companions such as foxes, badgers, rabbits as mining helpers or as creatures that can carry messages back and forth. Perhaps if the burrowing creature is “dire,” it might be able to serve as a mount. These creatures may be seen more as pets and assistants (something akin to a bomb sniffing dog or one that helps a person with disabilities) rather than servants.
It also can be said that Gnomes are naturally curious. In D&D 5th edition, this is brought out as an intelligence bonus to their character. This intelligence bonus allows them to pick up various languages easily including Draconic, Dwarven, Elven, Giant, Goblin, and Orc. This innate curiosity allows them to be alert against anything in their surroundings that might not be right, especially sounds. It also helps them to be able to pierce through illusions. With this curiosity they make excellent tinkers/ inventors, alchemists, artificers, illusionists, as well as standard wizards. When doing alchemy, gnomes get a bonus to any sort of creation they attempt. This innate curiosity, and thirst for knowledge can be the impetus that sends them out into the world to find new information, get ideas for their inventions, ingredients for their concoctions and to challenge themselves and those that oppose them with their spells and illusions.
Furthermore, it can be said that gnomes are inherently magical creatures due to their fey blood. Some versions of D&D have even granted them the ability to cast illusions irrespective of their class, whereas others have simply given a bonus if they choose to go that route. This may harken back to when they were synonymous with leprechauns. This magical nature may be amplified insofar as they pursue it, which can be expressed in a variety of ways, among which are taking levels in sorcerer and contacting the fey court to have as a patron for levels in warlock. To compliment the “burrowing creatures” theme, it wouldn’t be beyond the pale to allow a gnome such a creature as a familiar, but the creature would need to be homebrewed to serve as a familiar. Gnomes that want to hone their trickster abilities, while delving deeper into the arcane side of things should look into becoming an arcane trickster.
Additionally gnomes can take levels in cleric, which they have several options. Please note that this list comes from Wikipedia and Fandom, heavily edited for space and conciseness:
- Baervan Wildwanderer is the gnome deity of Forests, Travel, and Nature. Baervan’s clerics wear wood-brown clothes and green caps. His sacred animal is the raccoon. His holy days are on the full moon, and he is worshipped in forest clearings. Treasured items are sacrificed to him monthly.
- Baravar Cloakshadow is the gnomish deity of illusions, protection, and deception. He creates traps and illusions of stunning complexity and cunning. He is somewhat mean-spirited compared to most of the other gnomish gods, and his pranks may cause even his friends real pain, at least emotionally. He genuinely hates the kobold, goblinoid, and orcish races, believing they cannot be expected to reform. His symbol is a cloak and dagger.
- Callarduran Smoothhands is the svirfneblin (deep gnome) god of the earth. He voluntarily led his people to the depths as a means of encouraging diversity among the gnomes. His symbol is a golden ring with a ruby star on it. Because his earthen portfolio, Shugenja clerics may be found among his clerics ranks, which are divine spellcasters with a close tie to one particular element.
- Flandal Steelskin is the gnome deity of mining, smithing, and fitness. His symbol is a flaming hammer. He appears as a balding, aging gnome with skin the color of blue mithral steel, eyes like flaming coals, and hair of brilliant blue-silver. He wears a leather apron over the rest of his clothes, and carries Rhondang, an intelligent axe-backed hammer made of yellowish metal. He is the strongest of the gnomish pantheon and is able to sniff out veins of any ore with his prodigious nose. As such, he is the patron of gnomish warriors, miners and metalworkers.
- Gaerdal Ironhand is the gnome deity of protection, vigilance, and combat. His symbol was an iron band, usually worn on the upper left arm, and his preferred weapon was the warhammer Hammersong. His church is organized as a strict military hierarchy, which means most of his followers would have levels in paladin. Though temples of Gaerdal Ironhand are rare clerics built statues of him at the entrance of gnomish settlements. Priests of Gaerdal pray at dawn. Every tenth day was considered a holy day known as a Great Clang and believers would assemble to sing hymns and chants
- Garl Glittergold, also known as The Watchful Protector is a member of the D&D’s default pantheon of deities. His portfolio is luck, protection and trickery. His symbol is a gold nugget. On the 13th day of each month, the Forgotten Folk held the Communion of Laughter in his honor. It consisted of joke telling contests, communal meals, dancing, prayers, and storytelling, and donations of Gold, which Garl’s Church used to the benefit of the entire community.
- Gelf Darkhearth is Garl Glittergold’s brother, the gnomish deity of entropy and revenge. The two brothers have a bad relationship, delighting in opposing everything his brother attempts. He is depicted as a gray-skinned dwarf with a black beard. The reason for Gelf’s attitude and rivalry with his brother is because they both covet the Gnomish goddess of love Sheyanna Flaxenstrand. Gelf’s holy symbol is a black anvil that is split in two, set against a murky purple background. His favored weapon is the warhammer.
- The Glutton is the gnomish deity of disaster and greed and is usually depicted as a massive, ravenous badger or wolverine. The Glutton figures prominently in the bedtime stories gnomes tell naughty children — “Go to sleep or The Glutton will get you!” He is blamed whenever misfortune befalls gnomes. It is said that The Glutton was once a gnome who was cursed with a hideous form and a desire to consume the gnomes and all they hold dear (why is not known). His holy symbol is a gaping, fanged mouth surrounded by what looks like a golden band, and what appears to be a smear of pink blood behind it. His favored weapon is the heavy mace.
With all these ideas on how to play gnomes, there should never be an excuse to ever run a standard gnome without class ever again.
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Art by Ben Morton
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