Monday, February 17, 2020

Alright Let Me School You on Gnomes

Let’s do a follow-up on that dwarf article I wrote a few months back. Gnomes are controversial, notorious for being hard to define and oftentimes rejected entirely by DMs who just can’t sink their teeth in.

One way races are sometimes justified in D&D is by a mechanical function, a role they play in the game as a whole. Dwarves make great fighters and halflings make great rogues. So the gnome was meant to be a good race for playing wizards and illusionists. Kind of stepping on elven toes a bit but sure. The result in lore ended up looking like a weird hybrid of details from elves, dwarves, and halflings. Fey but earth-y. Big beards and big into mining. Intrinsically magical. Borrowed a lot of the same inspiration that Tolkien used for Hobbits. Really just lacking in a unique identity. Most of the early attempts to give them something of their own was just “zany” stuff, which leaves a bad taste for many people. As time has gone on, they’ve been given a bit more to do with alchemy and steampunk engineering and stuff like that. I dig it, but for some people that still isn’t enough.
Personally, I like to think of the role their society plays in the world, not the role of one individual in an adventuring party. Mining and manufacturing seems firmly like a dwarf-y thing to me. Nature wardens, artists, and dreamers are definitely elfs. I’ve treated halflings as serfs, laborers tied to the land. Gnomes make the most sense to me as a very economic people. They’re very mercantile. They’re big into trade and banking and being greedy capitalists. But since my setting is grounded a bit more in the 17th century, they’re actually based on the Dutch Golden Age. Here are some details I’ve given them.
  1. Obviously they live in giant mushrooms, both above ground and below. Their favorite foods are mushrooms, cheeses, and candy. All three of these are frequently made into magic items (if you’re lazy, I’d still at least insist you reskin healing potions as a weird Gnomish lollipop or syrup or something). But when it comes to the culinary, for gnomes it mostly has to do with smell. Since most of them live underground, like all subterranean people they have a strong focus on surveying the caves and building three-dimensional maps. To solve this, they’ve created a magic food called a Käse Map, which looks like a big hunk of perforated cheese. They set out a bowl of milk, mix in magic acid, and toss in a few local rocks and some dirt. By morning it will have cultivated into a block of swiss cheese that correlates perfectly to the local cave system. The best part is, at the end of the day when you are done with it, you can eat it as a ration.
  2. Building on smell, we of course know that many creatures in the Underworld are blind, sensitive to light, or rely on tremorsense or something. So scent can be as important down here as light. Humans are disadvantaged at smelling but gnomes are exceptionally good at it, more than those around them. A “scent camouflaged” gnome will be invisible to all but other gnomes, often. And, drawing on the magic of the earth around them, they can extend this into other forms of invisibility (remember how svirfneblins do that? Yeah, this is that). It actually has more to do with becoming a part of the natural earth for a moment. This same magic can be used to create and dispel illusions, based on how much the gnome chooses to believe in it. Again, kind of only works when they’re becoming one with their underworld-y reality.
  3. But this sensory experience also lends itself to art. An expensive item in the Underworld is a Gnomish Aromatic Synthesizer, used by many of the greatest artists of Gnome and Myconid culture to create arrangements of scent, much like a musician with a concerto.
  4. They sometimes give visitors a special type of magic mushroom to temporarily shrink them small (like Alice in Wonderland) so the visitor can fit into all the tiny architecture during their stay. And as good hosts, they will of course provide tiny fitting clothing for you when they do this. It’ll be hilariously tacky, colorful and garish, floofy and frilly and poofy, etc. And you’ll probably also have clogs, since that’s just what gnomes are into. The fancy clothing of rich gnomes and their guests takes, at minimum, an hour to dress and be undressed by servants every single day.
  5. Hats are, of course, extremely important in Gnomish culture. By default, it’s like a lawn gnome’s cone hat, but you’ll also see variations. The village-idiot wears a dunce cap. All gnome children wear little cone party hats. Spellcasters where brimmed cone hats, like a witch. Businessmen wear buckled, brimmed cone hats. Soldiers might have a cone hat that’s held on with a strap. Journeymen gnomes wear a full, black bodysuit with the cone incorporated into it. What 5E D&D calls “Rock Gnomes” are a specific cultural subset of svirfneblin called “bluecaps” because they wear blue hats as a symbol of nationalist pride. They live closer to the surface world and enjoy a lot of autonomy and success, one of the few republics in the world.
  6. We can expand upon this distinction. The politics of my gnomes also takes from the Dutch Golden Age. Bluecaps and svirfneblin are both subjects to the Fire Giant High King, but more immediately to the drow empire (who basically enslave them). The Underdark gnomes correlate to the Dutch Republic from the Thirty/Eighty Years’ War, and are thus rebelling against the Spanish tyrants (the drow). The bluecaps, being further upward and away from the drow, are mostly now independent, while the svirfneblin are still struggling. They want independence for political, religious, and economic reasons. The drow are fascist, demon-worshipping, and tax-obsessed assholes. There are some traits shared between bluecaps and svirfneblins and some differences. They use muskets and pikes in warfare. The further down you find them, the more desaturated their skin and hair (although this could be because they’re sad and enslaved by dark elfs). Most svirfneblins are forced by the drow to mine for rubies and do gem cutting for them. The bluecaps focus on engineering and machinery, mostly fascinated with clockwork. This ranges from guns to toys to advanced mining equipment. Some of them travel independently in the Underworld as tinkerers, fixing broken tools and machinery for people they meet.
  7. While the svirfneblin look like stone, they totally have hair, don’t let the Monster Manual deceive you. They’re considered above the quaggoths in the drow caste system, and are granted enough autonomy to run their own communities (did I mention that a gnome community is led by a Burgomaster? That’s universal). Also, contrary to the MM, they are not sullen, distrusting, and stoic. But they definitely are very stealthy, and any scene using them should have them appear as if from nowhere. They use elemental earth magic a lot, conjuring golems and stuff.
  8. They are rivals to kobolds when it comes to trade, and get very competitive. They have great relations with the myconids. But the bluecaps, being more independent, are able to prosper with their Aardmannetje Handel Verbond (Gnome Trade Pact), a trading company that reaches across the entire Underworld. The AHV is a mega corporation chartered by the bluecap government, and is more powerful than some entire nations. The drow try to disrupt their trade within the Fire Giant Empire, but can’t do much elsewhere.
  9. So throughout the Underworld, the main paths used for travel by adventuring parties are Gnomish trade routes. The closer you get to a Gnomish city, the more magical and obscured the path will get. They steal a lot from M.C. Escher, especially for the river portions where shipping flatboats are taken, down, and around in defiance of gravity. Gnomes try to keep the locations of their most important communities a secret, requiring that some magic tests be passed during the river-maze before the city or fortress reveals itself.
  10. Sometimes when gnomes are doing their apprenticeship for a guild, they’ll be sent up to the Overworld to work for human nobles, as a way to build diplomatic and financial connections between communities. A gnome in this position is designated by wearing a black suit rather than their normal colorful clothing.
  11. All gnomes have seven names.
  12. They have massive strongholds based on star forts like Fort Bourtange in the Netherlands, although they’re grown from crystals instead and go in every direction. 
  13. Gnome merchants above ground use giant goats and rams to transport their goods, those in the upper Underdark use giant naked mole rats, and those in the lower Underdark use giant snails. 
  14. Because of their profitable global trade network, rich Gnomish palaces will just have exotic birds like parrots and whatnot flying all around the place. Similarly, you can replace Ottoman-imported tulips with a Yuan-Ti underground lotus or something. Or just take one of the few actual subterranean flowers, like rhizanthella gardneri. Or maybe just give in and use colorful glowing mushrooms because the mental image of “Dutch tulip field but instead glowing, shifting colors, and in a cave” is way too fucking cool.
  15. Go to Gnomish tavern, you’ll find they only sell half-pints and at double the price of a pint.
  16. Obviously they got a whole “steampunk but emphasis on the clockwork” thing going on, but how do windmills enter in? It’s essential to the Dutch aesthetic. Now, I have a whole lot of materials written up about Underdark weather that I won’t get into right now, but to put it briefly: there are absolutely sources of wind in the Underworld. I would figure that the most likely one for gnomes to capitalize on are mushroom blooms, when massive fields of fungi spores are ejected and spread through the caverns of the underworld. I gotta figure out how a windmill might be properly reconfigured to capture a spore bloom instead.
  17. The wealthy bluecaps are obsessed with painting. It’s all the rage these days, you see. There are dozens of wannabe fancy commercial painters who are all constantly stealing from each other and are basically indistinguishable, and no shortage of vapid and insecure wealthy gnomes who will pay through the nose to commission some incredibly dainty and detailed money-flex painting that dramatizes their own petty personal life on display for everyone to see (while including as many of their personal material luxuries in the background of the painting as possible). Every time I ever introduce a noble gnome NPC, they are in the middle of having their portrait painted.
  18. Finally, I will address the forest gnomes, who I am not nearly as interested in. I like to call them “brownies” because that’s a classic term for some tiny fey people but vague enough that it can map onto gnomes easily. They wear colorful little fairy tale outfits with lots of jester motifs and bells and stuff. Brownies dwell among forest critters and hide their communities with illusions. They’re based a bit more on the Swiss, and operate as bankers for much of the Underworld (always fiercely neutral). Their above-ground forest villages are like offshore tax havens. Imagine my surprise when I first heard the phrase “Gnomes of Zürich” and it turned out to be a real thing. I thought I was so original. Their language and culture is more aligned with the faith of the Great Melody, native to Elfs and the rest of the fey. Sometimes, in war, they ride giant corgis. Anytime a story in my campaign calls for a leprechaun or brownie or generally-good goblin, it’ll probably be a forest gnome.
At the heart of all this is just my love for making fun of rich people. Sometimes my critiques are serious, sometimes they are petty and superficial, and sometimes they come from a place of love (think, like, The Addams Family. Eccentric rich weirdos who you can’t help but like). Thus, gnomes can sometimes behave in extraordinarily silly ways, and yet also take their own cultures extremely seriously.


*EDIT* I came up with another idea that I love so much and I have to add it.

19. Gnome soldiers set up ambushes by camouflaging as stalactites and stalagmites. They already wear cone-topped iron helmets, so they'll cake themselves in mud and rocks and wait in a limestone cave. The ones on the bottom will pop up and strike, but the dreaded drop-gnomes will all from the ceiling and gore you like a Shrieker.
20. My co-writer came up with this one: Gnome kingdom is now called Dunshire. "It's all about the cones..."


  1. the best take on gnomes I've ever seen is without a doubt the one by False Machine, but this is a nice dose of flavor and definitely a solid approach...

    1. I definitely like his gnonmen a lot but I'll admit they are my least favorite race in Veins of the Earth. And of course I wantes to make a race that would be easier to use as something playable.