Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Gnomes

I have a weird confession: I like gnomes.  Not in a way that would be classifiable in the DSM-V, but as a PC race.

The first gnome PC that I remember playing was a 2e Thief created for a game a friend of mine ran during the 7th grade.  We played during a free-form elective class that we took that was ostensibly a chess club; eventually, someone had the idea to talk the teacher into letting us play AD&D instead (on the grounds that it 'used math').  Possibly as a result, I've never really learned to play chess properly.  Further gnomes followed, most of them thieves, illusionists, or (once 3e rolled around) wizards and rogues.

I think this is relatively uncommon.  Dwarves and elves have always been popular, I think, and humans are kept in play thanks to a wide variety of fantasy archetypes and wish fulfillment vehicles.  Even halflings have their constituency, consisting of Tolkien lovers, rogue/thief min/maxers, and recovering kender addicts.

But gnomes?  Gnomes seem to consistently get the short end of the stick, both from players and from the various keepers of D&D lore.  As the latest in a long series of insults to gnomes and their boosters, WotC has seen fit to make some significant changes to gnome lore, turning them into essentially sneaky junior eladrin.

This is a very strange circle to have come for a race that started out as junior dwarves.  No other standard race has undergone anything like the level of transmogrification seen by gnomes over the years.

In 1e and  2e, gnomes were essentially described as small, slightly magical dwarves.   Monsters & Treasure describes them as living in the hills rather than the mountains and being more reclusive than dwarves, but being otherwise identical.  They got bonuses to Int and a penalty to Wis in 2e, reflecting an intellectual bent but a tendency towards being incautious. 2e also gave them low-grade versions of some of the dwarfs underground-related racial abilities, as well as the invaluable capacity to learn the language of moles and burrowing critters. 

Once Dragonlance appeared on the scene, tinker gnomes began to make themselves known to the world, and began to change the perception of gnomes, even outside of Krynn.  In the Arms & Armaments book, an ostensibly universal supplement, you find gnomish workman's leather, a distinctly tinker-like creation.  Tinker gnomes dominate the Spelljammer setting as crafters of bizarre ships and breeders of fearsome Giant Space Hamsters.  Technology began to become a dominant gnomish trait, one that would filter into the rest of D&D and ultimately feed the development of Warcraft's gnomes.

The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings appeared in 1993-94 and represented the longest investigation of gnomes undertaken during the TSR era- despite the fact that, unlike dwarves and elves, gnomes were forced to share space with their hairy-footed rivals.  The Svirfneblin had earlier been introduced through Monstrous Compendium entries and the Dark Elf trilogy, but were finally detailed as a PC race, and the Forest Gnome- reclusive, above-ground dwelling gnomes slightly more elf-like than the standard race (now described, rather uncreatively, as 'Rock Gnomes').  The new race book was at some pains to do a better job than earlier materials had of distinguishing gnomes from dwarves and giving them a clearer role in the D&D world, emphasizing their humor, skill at doing intricately detailed work, and a bit about their connection with nature (particularly the Forest Gnomes).

Third edition D&D was something of a renaissance for gnomes.  Finally shaking off the vestiges of the 'small dwarves' reputation that they had had since 1e, gnomes became a more clearly defined race on their own.  Elements of the Tinker gnome and Forest gnome sub-types were integrated into the base race- gnomes were now skilled at alchemy & engineering in addition to gem cutting.  There were still a few references to dwarves, but mostly by way of contrast now.  Gnomes got a little more slender and tall, but retained their basic 3'-ish stature.  They gained keen perception (a Forest gnome and Svirfneblin trait), but lost their Int bonus as a consequence of 3e's greater concern with balance and parity in adventuring classes.  Gnomes also gained Bard as their favored class, a change that at first seems somewhat random, but seems more reasonable now in retrospect.  The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings in 2e had established that gnomes particularly loved music, dancing, storytelling, and gossip.  Illusionist magic makes up a significant chunk of the Bard's spell portfolio.  Gnomes are referred to as great sages and scholars, consistent with the Bardic Knowledge class feature.

Eberron emerged as WoTC's attempt to throw together in one setting all of the various game options that had crept in over the years- an attempt to solve the problem of the ever-growing list of character options and supplements doing increasing violence to the consistency of settings like Faerun and Krynn, or, worse yet from a sales point of view, being nixed entirely by the DM.  Gnomes got a decent bite of the apple in Eberron, getting their own nation (Zilargo), and their own Dragonmarked house, House Sivis, associated with the distinctly gnome-appropriate portfolio of writing and communication.  Races of Stone saw the introduction of a few new gnome subraces- Chaos Gnomes and Whisper Gnomes- and the possibly odd characterization of gnomes as closet philosophers obsessed with the search for truth in the world.

4e was a big step back for gnome-kind.  First, gnomes were kicked out of the Players Handbook, relegated with half-orcs, shifters, and other degenerates to the Players Handbook II.  Secondly, gnomes got a physical makeover that resulted in them looking less like their traditional selves, and more like the protagonists of the Sectaur's cartoon, as they grew taller, skinnier, and gained the shark eyes that WotC inexplicably granted the grey elves in their transition to Eladrin-hood (presumably, Roy Scheider is now frightened by gnomes).  Thirdly and perhaps most irritatingly, previous lore about gnomes was pretty much thrown out the window.  Gnomes are now residents of the Feywild, formerly enslaved by Fomorians, uninterested in technology, and primarily focused on being stealthy.  Any mention of crafts or technology has dropped away from their characterization (even relating to gems or alchemy), as has scholarship.

It's not a complete break with the past.  Illusion is still there, storytelling and music, and humor as well.  But moving the gnomish homeland into the Feywild, reshaping them physically, and throwing a lot more emphasis on stealth and slipping out of site has moved their characterization solidly into territory previously occupied by both Eladrin and Halflings and restored them to the sort of second-banana status they once bore in relation to dwarves.

Following up on their bump from the PHB, gnomes vanished from the Essentials series as well.  They got three new feats in Heroes of the Feywild, mostly focused on enhancing their stealth abilities, but very little in the way of lore expansion.

Pathfinder plotted a middle course, adding in a few more fey-ish traits presumably borrowed from 4e, while preserving more of the 3e flavor- particularly when you take into consideration the expanded racial options added for gnomes in the Advanced Players Guide.  Some of the traits adopted for gnomes even seem to be call-backs to features mentioned in the 2e gnome book that were never really referenced in 3e or any other product.

I find myself a bit bummed by the position of gnomes in 4e right now.  There was enough consistency between 2e and 3e that it still felt like the same race, whereas 4e seems like a sharp break.  A sharp break with weird doll eyes.  I can understand wanting to make a sneaky, Fey-dwelling, junior Eladrin race, but I don't really understand why the gnome was re-purposed for that aim.  If WotC wants a new race to do something with (though they haven't done much with them), then make a new race- let people who have been playing a particular race since the 70's keep playing it the way it was.  WotC would never suddenly decide that dwarves were beardless, whip-wielding interior decorators or that elves loved explosives and were covered in warts.  Why turn D&D's resident race of diminutive engineers and sages into bug-eyed invisible flower children, particularly if you aren't going to follow up on it in any interesting way?

Splitting elves into elves and eladrin seems like a much better model to follow.  Give players who want to play a 1e-3e gnome their old race back, and create a new subrace or alternative race of black-eyed fey dwellers.  Or, if you aren't going to take the development of the bug-eyed fey dwellers in any interesting new directions, just leave well enough alone and let people use the thirty years of existing background information and character concepts to inform how they develop their game.  If eladrin-izing the gnomes was a play by WotC to make gnomes more popular among players, it seems like a poor choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment