Monday, April 8, 2019

G is for Gnomes

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

G is for Gnomes. And dwarves, I suppose...but there aren't that many of those (comparatively) in Karameikos.

I've mentioned the gnomes before (briefly) when I was writing about the Elvenguard. Unlike the 'guard, the gnomish community of Karameikos has been established since the first light of publication, in the write-up of the duchy found in the B/X expert rulebook. Their description paints a fairly pastoral (if subterranean) picture of the demihumans:


No solicitors, please.
Gnomes: Living in the hills, the gnomes are a quiet and solitary group. They make little effort to contact the outside world, but will deal with traders when such arrive. There are 620 gnomes living throughout this area. This number is divided between a large lair of 250 and several smaller outposts of no more than 100 each. A council of elders chosen by the gnomes, 1 from each outpost and 3 from the main lair, guides the members of the community in most decisions. This council will act as judges, handle trade, and distribute any money for the defense of the various outposts. However, any important decisions are decided by a general vote of the population. Strangers desiring to deal with the gnomes must first present their case to the elders for approval. Should this approval not be given (and the gnomes are extremely reluctant to involve themselves in the affairs of an outsider), the case will be closed. In the event that the council cannot decide, a general vote will be taken. If great differences prevent an outpost of the lair from agreeing peacefully on an issue, the dissident faction will leave and establish a new outpost in the area, In this manner, the gnomish lands are slowly growing, although disunity slows this somewhat.

[there are, by the way, no other species listed in the NON-HUMANS section of the expert set's Sample Wilderness text; they could have just headed the section "GNOMES"]

After this description is a paragraph about trade difficulties (already quoted in the aforementioned Elvenguard blog post), followed by a section marked Gnome Lair describing a, gnome lair (I love the use of the term "lair" by the way...this isn't a "home," "stronghold," or "warren," but a lair. Monsters have lairs, and in D&D lairs are meant to be explored...and perhaps plundered). The Gnome Lair section contains an un-keyed map of what might be a typical outpost or perhaps the main lair of the gnomish community (I always assumed the latter, but the text isn't explicit). It's decent enough with some evocative description, filled with pockets of trained ferrets that double as both pit traps and pens for the gnomes' hunting beasts.

The inclusion of gnomes is an interesting decision. Unlike AD&D, in B/X gnomes are not a player character race, but an NPC monster...though quite possibly a helpful one (alignment is listed as Lawful/Neutral). The monster entry for gnome in the Tom Moldvay penned Basic book is far more descriptive and outright different from any prior pass at the species; check this out:

OD&D: "Slightly smaller than Dwarves, and with longer beards, these creatures inhabit the hills and lowland burrows as opposed to the mountainous home which Dwarves choose. They are more reclusive than their cousins, but in all other respects resemble Dwarves."

Holmes: "Gnomes are similar to dwarves, whom they resemble. They are smaller, have longer noses and beards and inhabit low-land and hill burrows rather than mountains. They favor crossbows."

AD&D: Adds nothing besides notes on coloration, military formations, and AD&D mechanics (languages, magic resistance, etc.). Note their weapons are limited to short swords, clubs, spears, slings, and short bows; crossbows aren't even an option,

B/X (Tom Moldvay, B36): "Gnomes are a human-like race related to dwarves. They are smaller than dwarves, and have long noses and full beards. Gnomes have well developed infra vision (heat-sensing sight), and can "see" heat to 90' in the dark. They usually live in burrows in the lowlands. Gnomes are excellent metalsmiths and miners. They love gold and gems and have been known to make bad decisions just to obtain them. They love machinery of all kinds and like to use crossbows as missile weapons and war hammers in hand-to-hand combat. Gnomes like most dwarves, but war with goblins and kobolds who steal their precious gold. They will usually attack kobolds on sight."

[B/X also has a paragraph that details war parties, hit dice of chiefs, etc. similar to that of other humanoid species like hobgoblins and orcs. There is no mention of "leveled" leaders as gnome is not a character class in this edition]

Talk about going off the reservation! I'm not sure why they bother retaining the (earlier edition) AC of 5, when these "excellent metalsmiths" should probably be sporting at least chain and shield, if not better! The bit about their "bad decisions" based on greed speaks to their corruptibility, and their love of "machinery of all kinds" (!) can be read either as the primordial precursor to Dragonlance's "tinker gnomes" or something more sinister (like Tolkien/Lucas association of machines/technology with evil). For those who like to mix the SciFi with their fantasy, this is the perfect excuse to create a cyborg subterranean species, or a bunch of mechanical (rather than magical) automatons and "living statues."

Coupled with the politics and inter-clan relations described in the Expert set and you start to get this really interesting picture of what the gnome faction is all about...some sort of advanced egalitarian think-tank commune, an anti-Amish Amish group, something like a weaponized tribe of trapdoor spiders in humanoid just add some steampunk cybernetics to the giant ferrets and moles they routinely capture for experimentation, and you've got a vicious, powerful faction living within your borders.

I don't know why I tend to see gnomes as prone to evil...which is pretty weird considering I grew up reading (and loving) those Huygen/Poortvliet books. Maybe I've just seen too many "evil" depictions of them over the years: the insane followers of Keraptis (detailed in White Plume Mountain), the evil illusionist in Gygax's first Gord the Rogue novel...and who can forget their turn as a bat-riding, magic-wielding evil alien species in Marvel comics Star Trek (issue #16)? Certainly not me, True Believers; that story is indelibly burned into my childhood memories!

EVIL gnomes.
What it means is that I'm often writing up gnome assassins and assassin-illusionists with names like "Shoon Grinblade;" in my mind, D&D gnomes are always half-cracked/crazed and prone to psychotic episodes. Unless you're talking svirfneblin, of course; they are to my evil surface gnomes as the Drow are to their goody-good cousins.

*ahem*  ANYway, considering the potential of what can be done with B/X gnomes, the gnomes of Highforge (as GAZ1 names the community) is pretty banal. I mean, they mine silver for (and engage in trade with) the duke...and that's about it. Allston's GAZ1 increases the size of the community to 6500 (and adds a dwarf clan to the mix, perhaps to give the PCs an "in") and adds the following information:

Ruler: Dorfus Hilltopper, Gnome King of Highforge. Dorfus is a typical Gnome. He isn't too fond of humans -- though not impolite, he avoids dealing with them whenever possible; the annual Gnome Caravan is enough for him, and he doesn't even accompany it.
Population: 6500 gnomes and 1000 dwarves.
Laws: Within Highforge, the gnomes and dwarves ignore the Duke's Law and live by gnomish and dwarfish custom; they settle their own disputes, try their own criminals, and do not report law-breaking to the human officials. Additionally, they do not pay taxes to the the humans; they have their own economic system and only pay taxes when selling goods to humans. 

That's it for the gnomes; the only other notes are regarding the dwarves and their mines. No info is provided regarding the interconnectedness of the gnome silver and the the duchy's coinage. If it wasn't for the information in Mentzer's expert rulebook, one would never think the gnomes the source of the archduke's silver ore. One could even see Allston as working directly from the B/X source material...except that he sets up "King Dorfus" (a portmanteau of "Dork" and "Doofus?") in place of the egalitarian council of elders originally described.

Personally, I'd probably axe all of the BECMI/GAZ info on the gnomes...there's just not much there worth keeping. Not only does it set up potential adventures for B/X player characters (meeting and establishing relations/trade with the gnomes) but it allows the gnomes to be a powerful "wild card" faction in the region...for good or ill. However, here are some additional ideas you might want to run with:

Option #1: Gnomes as Escaped Slaves. Long time readers of the blog know I'm a big fan of adventure S2: White Plume Mountain...I even did a B/X conversion of it waaaay back in 2009. If I were to start a new campaign set in Karameikos, I'd probably set "the feathered peak" somewhere in the northwest Cruth Mountains. What if the gnomish community in Karameikos were descendants of gnomes that had revolted and escaped from the yoke of Keraptis (and their corrupt, evil brethren). They were probably evil themselves (once), having made "poor decisions" because of the gold and gems the evil wizard offered...but having repented their wicked ways, they've since sought a clean slate, far away. It remains their secret they do not want discovered as there are people who would consider them "war criminals" of the type that need to be expunged. What's more, they live in constant fear of Keraptis (or his lich or whatever) discovering their location and returning to claim them. Helps explain the reclusiveness and unwillingness to deal with outsiders.

Coming for YOU, man.
Option #2: Gnomes as Evil Racist Slavers. Racist towards humans, that is. The gnomes are the biggest customers of the Iron Ring slavers guild (or the secret powers behind the guild) requiring a constant influx of bodies to work their mines. Humans are a cheap, expendable resource, and the growth of the duchy has just meant lower prices. Plus, the gnomes have developed a taste for "long pig" (sure, make 'em cannibals, too) and used up slaves go straight into the cook pots. This becomes especially twisted if you decide to go with the BECMI idea of gnomes as the duchy's silversmiths: Does the archduke suspect how his silver is being mined? Is he complicit (or a secret participant) in the slave trade? Regardless, I'm certain the gnomes are "skimming" silver from the duke's shipments, using the extra for the purchase of gold, jewels, and (of course) more slaves. Evil, evil gnomes.

Option #3: Gnomes as Oppressed Species. Or perhaps it is the gnomes themselves that have been enslaved. Why have the gnomes become Stefan's silver miners? Because they have no choice in the matter! Having discovered rich veins of silver in the hills, and ready-made workforce on site, the Duke has used his army to put the gnomes to the task of mining the precious metal. Of course, it helps that the Callarii elves have a long history of bad blood with the gnomes...the Elvenguard was only too happy to aid in pacifying the "reluctant workforce." Let's face facts: gnomes aren't an adventuring species (like dwarves, elves, and halflings); to humans, they're a strange little species with a weird machine fixation. They're not that far removed from goblins or kobolds (probably related to both, seeing as how they speak those languages!) and there's nothing wrong with exploiting such creatures for the good of the duchy. Hell, the duke's being nice...he could have just put them to the sword (as he does with other humanoids)...they should be grateful he's giving them a chance to work his mines. Maybe if we upped their daily ration of gruel they'd actually whistle while they work.
; )


  1. 'king' dorfus could be an aspiring usurper supported by the Duke with promises of an endless supply of silver, but he plans to backstab the Duke when he comes to power.

    1. Never trust a man (or gnome) names “Dorfus.”
      ; )

  2. I liked the use of gnomes in some weird computer game I played a long time ago. They were almost a trap - you could step on a 'Gnome Hive' and all these 4" tall bastards in little red hats would swarm out and just start clambering on you with murderous intent and sharp teeth. Fairies and Pixies are done like this a lot as well - but I enjoyed the gnomes as army ants thing.

    hard to make as a playable class. I thought about making intelligent rats as a class - but it never really gelled. something like 1 HP and every level you gain a couple followers also with 1 HP?

    1. Ultimately I think if the PCs in my current game asked about gnomes I'd say "They live in the walls and sometimes steal babies to eat".

    2. @GusL:

      Yeah, not sure why you need both gnomes AND kobolds...except D&D, right.
      ; )

      Have to admit, rats as a playable race is way too gonzo for my taste...I like my players to be able to interact with shopkeepers and whatnot, not in danger of “death by rat-catcher” every time she steps into town.