Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Gnomish History

While writing my last variant on Gnomes I took the opportunity to revisit the race’s history. Gnomes are truly D&D’s forgotten (or bastard) siblings. Differently from elves and dwarves, Gnomes never got a literally “remake” or “consolidation” – the closer to that was Dragonlance, with a concept that many still find unplayable, uninteresting or just plain silly.

D&D’s first entry on gnomes – from Monsters & Treasures – reads: Slightly smaller than Dwarves, and with longer beards, these creatures usually inhabit the hills and lowland burrows as opposed to the mountainous homes which Dwarves choose. They are more reclusive than their cousins, but in all other respects resemble Dwarves.

You can go further back, to Chainmail, where Dwarves and Gnomes share the same entry: Because of their natural habitat deep under the ground, these stout folk operate equally well day or night. Although they’re no threat to larger creatures, Trolls, Ogres, and Giants find them hard to catch because of their small size, so count only one-half normal kills when Dwarves and Gnomes fight with them, for either attacks upon Dwarves and Gnomes or returns should the Dwarves be the attackers. Goblins and Kobolds are their natural (and most hated) enemies, an Dwarves (Gnomes) will attack Goblins (Kobolds) before any other enemy in sight, regardless of orders to the contrary. (…)

 AD&D 1st Edition’s Monster Manual kept this thread, adding little to the core gnome race, besides details on clans, martial organization, basic skills and other racial knacks (like the ability to speak with burrowing animals). They could be fighters, illusionists, thieves or assassins (but not clerics, odd). Gnomes are still a dwarven subrace – which might have been a good place to have let them.

Let me explain: Gnomes as a dwarven subrace make a little more sense for me (after all they’re just eccentric dwarves!); because they share enough traits with their more traditional cousins to be known and understood by most players, besides having unique differences which may create funny and interesting roleplay scenes (they’re jolly, like magic and animals… dwarves might “accuse” them of being “elf-friends” while elves might think that gnomes are “dwarves with better tastes”). This strange blend of both worlds is commonly noted by players and DMs – I once knew a Forgotten Realms DM who stipulated that Gnomes were actually the offspring of elves and dwarves, a forbidding and shameful event from the past that both races would like to forget.

AD&D 2nd Edition didn’t change Gnomes much: it just expanded their allowed classes. Neither did Forgotten Realms added a different view on the race. However, between the 1st and 2nd Editions we got Dragonlance and Tinker Gnomes – an entire race of curious, obsessive, mad Da Vincis. While the concept in itself isn’t bad (quite the contrary in my opinion), the design of an entire race that is limited to only one archetype gets boring very fast (especially for players). What's more, the “mad inventor” character is probably one of the hardest to design mechanically in any RPG – off the top of my head I can remember of Warcraft d20’s tinker class, which seemed playable, but hardly balanced without a lot of GM’s interventions (the same can be said of Deadlands’ mad inventor, another great character but with mechanics that require GM’s handling). Actually, as far as I know, inventor-types work in a balanced fashion only on effect-based rules systems (like Mutants & Masterminds or Wild Talents); and we know that D&D never was an effect-based system (ok, maybe D&D 4th took a 5ft. step in that direction).

After Dragonlance, I just can’t remember any other original approach to the race. Ironically, by calling his gnomes the “Forgotten Race”, Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realm hit the right spot. Even unique or innovative settings like Dark Sun and Birthright didn’t include gnomes as a core race (however, they did have original halflings). I believe that this last evidence really shows the “underdog” status of Gnomes in D&D.

D&D 3rd Edition didn’t changed gnomes, at first, besides giving to them a more ‘slim’ visual (which halflings also got). Gnomes’ favored class was the only “subclass” of D&D 3.0 – illusionists. With the 3.5 revision we got a small re-made of Gnomes; now as D&D’s foremost bards. While the change was a good one, it wasn’t followed by changes in the flavor of the race – they added a new illustration and a new favored class.

The best reconstructions of the Gnome race came from third party publishers. I’ll mention here the two that I remember most and which I believe influenced quite a bit how we see these little fellows today. The first was in Fantasy Flight Games’ awesome Midnight Campaign Setting – in this world Gnomes are a charismatic river-folk, famous for their trading acumen and infamous for allying with the setting’s Dark Lord. Yeah, they were strongly linked to the setting, but also were the first full implementation of Gnomes as a race of clever and charismatic small humanoids.

Interestingly, the second most original use of Gnomes was also from a Fantasy Flight Games’ product – the Dawnforge Campaign Setting. In that “1st Age” fantasy world Gnomes are creatures from an alien otherworld (the classical fairy realm), more fey than mortal. One of their cooler abilities was the power to “phase out” of the Material Plane for brief moments. Dawnforge’s Gnomes too were tricksters and humorous creatures.

It is easy to see how this last concept was incorporated (conscious or no) in both D&D 4th Edition (Feywild) and Pathfinder (Gnomes as a race of fey creatures).

When writing the Chronicles of the 7th Moon Campaign Setting, I was in charge of adapting D&D 3.5 core races to the moon of Isaldar. At the time (influenced by the Bard favored class and, probably, by the Midnight approach) I decided to heighten the Gnomes’ concept as the “social race”. Isaldarian Gnomes are everyone’s best friend; renowned for the diplomatic, artistic, academic and – most important – entertainer skills. A gnome bard is almost a pleonasm for the inhabitants of Isaldar and Gnomes have a freedom of movement among most countries and regions of the 7th Moon; including monstrous (but intelligent) and barbaric races, like Orcs, Goblins, Giants and Lizardmen. Finally I created for them a mythology built around an elusive Creator that made the entire world with language and music (hardly original, but perfect for creatures whose favored class is a song-based spellcaster) and, consequently, the belief that words and written knowledge are the utmost virtues.

Today, although Gnomes have changed and became a more interesting race, they’re still the last choice of most players (and the first race to be erased in any GM’s home settings). The true irony is that – if I remember right – Tolkien once thought about calling his elves (or at least his Noldo high elves) of “Gnomes” (in a sense “Wise Ones”). That would have, without any doubt, changed a lot of things in fantasy RPGs. After all, before Tolkien most people believed elves to be…

Bonus Content: Gnomi (Yet Another Variant Gnome)

I’m a firm believer that, when in doubt, go must go read the classics. Instead of creating a new fantasy race called Carachi or whatever, I’m much more inclined to “steal” a myth or legend and reinterpret it my games***. Its lend “weight” to the new class, helps to legitimate it. So, if I wanted to recreate Gnomes or make them more interested my first instinct would be dig a few Gnomes’ legends.

Gnomes, like Goblins, encompass a lot of different legends and myths and can easily be signify the same creature. However (and according to Wikipedia), one of the first reference to Gnomes comes from Paracelsus, linking them with earth-dwellers and alchemy. It’s a perfect start for me.

We could write Gnomi (singular Gnomus) as race of reclusive, gruff and ancient sages and alchemists, who prize very much their isolation (besides the occasional oddball adventuring Gnomus). They would be small, gnarly and stubby creatures, with old features and earth-tone skins. The origin would be as a class of homunculi that gained not only full consciousness but starting with time to breed in vats new Gnomi. Obsessed with the goals of mot alchemists, Gnomi quickly became references for wizards, sages and greedy opportunists hunting after things like transmutation of lead to gold, the Philosopher Stone and immortality.

Gnomi are natural underground creatures and have a slight agoraphobia. Their chambers and enclaves are usually below cities (where ingredients can be found) or closer to rare and exotic locations – like caverns of rare fungi and crystal-rich chasms. Gnomi are natural aligned to the Depths and share many of its secrets, keeping constant contact with other underground races and serving as messengers and go-betweens between them and surface-dwellers. Gnomi are usually of Neutral alignments and despise aerial creatures, especially intelligent ones.

Gnomi Racial Traits
+2 Intelligence, +2 Constitution, –2 Charisma
Small: Gnomi are Small creatures and gain a +1 size bonus to their AC, a +1 size bonus on attack rolls, a –1 penalty to their Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense, and a +4 size bonus on Stealth checks.
Slow Speed: Gnomi have a base speed of 20 feet.
Darkvision: Gnomi can see in the dark up to 60 feet.
Acid Tolerance: Gnomi suffer nonlethal damage from acid.
Light Sensitivity: Abrupt exposure to bright light dazzles Gnomi for 5 rounds.
High Homunculi: Gnomi were created to be aligned with earth spirits and constructs. Earth elementals and constructs will usually ignore a Gnomus. Unless the Gnomus attack or a specific command is given, these creatures will not strike against him. Gnomi also have a +2 racial bonus on Diplomacy checks with Earth subtype creatures.
Golem’s Sleep: Gnomi can hibernate. While in this state they don’t need air, water or food. They must set a trigger to awaken (like touch, a word, damage etc.). If a trigger is not set, the Gnomus is reactivated by anything that would awake a sleeping creature. A Craft (Alchemy) (DC 25), Heal (DC 30) or Knowledge (Arcane) (DC 25) allows the character to identify a hibernating Gnomus. This is an extraordinary ability.
Keen Senses: Gnomi receive a +2 racial bonus on Perception skill checks.
Obsessive: Gnomi receive a +2 racial bonus on a Craft or Knowledge skill of their choice.
Vatborn: Gnomi were created as special homunculi in unique vats and possess some of their resistances associated with constructs. Gnomi get a +2 racial saving throw bonus against mind-affecting effects, diseases, poison and negative effects from potions. However, Gnomi suffer damage from any item or effect the target only constructs.
Alchemical Blood: Gnomi can store magical effects in their blood. When targeted by any supernatural, spell-like or magical effect the Gnomus can store it in their blood stream. Only one effect can be thus stored. Later, as 1 round action, the Gnomi can activate it. A second option is to “bleed” the effect in a vial or otherwise feed it directly to other creature; this creature is now the target of the effect. This special bleeding causes 2 points of damage/character level to the Gnomus. While “holding” an effect, the Gnomus is sensed by abilities like detect magic and a dispel magic can dissipate the effect. This is a supernatural ability.
Favored Class: Alchemist.

[Variant racial trait]
High Homunculi: If you don’t like this trait’s mechanics, I propose two alternatives.
First, give to the Gnomus the spell-like ability to become invisible against earth elementals and constructs. Treat it as hide from undead, but affecting the types above.
Or, as second alternative, allows Gnomi to roll social checks (Diplomacy, Intimidate and such) against constructs. Gnomi’s origins as homunculi allows them to establish contact with the elemental spirits within constructs. Treat all unintelligent constructs as having a Charisma bonus of 0.
Both alternatives keep the Gnomus’ +2 bonus on Diplomacy (in fact, I suggest that, If using the second option, extend this bonus also to constructs).

***In case you’re curious the “Carachi” example is a true one. My editor wanted a new race for Chronicles of the Seventh Moon and suggested that one in a first draft. Because at the time we needed a new race with a slight oriental flavor, I did some research, give my “Carachis” a strong Indian flavor and renamed them Yakshas – stolen from a class of spirits (I’ll post Yakshas here in another opportunity).