Sunday, April 26, 2020

Finding the Gnome

I am absurdly happy this morning (despite little annoyances) because, as of about 9:30am, I finally, finally have a decent write-up of the illusionist class.

Hmm. Actually, "write-up" is a phrase too far...I have the nuts-n-bolts figured out (including spell lists) and scribbled on a spreadsheet. Sometime in the next couple-few days I'll get the chance to write the class up (hope-hope). But the point is, I've got the mechanics nailed down, especially the aforementioned spell lists which was a major sticking point. Turns out that going back to OD&D was the (as with many things) the cureall for what ails me: building from the ground up is so much smoother (even if it's time-consuming) when you start your construction on the foundation stone.

But we'll address Ye Old Illusionist in another post...this one is about a (slightly) related subject: the gnome.

As they appear in OD&D
I haven't blogged about gnomes much at all over the years. They're just not...well, just not a subject that's come up. They're not a class in B/X (though I included one in The Complete B/X Adventurer) and even back in my AD&D years, I don't remember seeing all that many.

Scratch that, I don't remember seeing ANY.  As a DM, I probably wrote one up as an NPC (I did that at one time or another with most all of the various class/races), but I'm sure it never saw play at the table. And if I had to guess, we neglected the gnome mostly because A) the racial level limits prevented high level advancement, and B) there was a general lack of enthusiasm for illusionists in our circle (and the ability to multi-class as an illusionist is one of the gnome's strongest recommendations). Personally, I've played one or two in Advanced Labyrinth Lord games (generally, assassin/illusionists) but these were all one-off games, not long term campaign play.

So let's talk about the gnome now...prior to starting up an OD&D campaign, I was deconstructing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with the thought of creating an AD&D campaign. As such (and since then) I have done a LOT of reading/research of the OD&D books, pre-'78 copies of The Dragon, and old records of The Strategic Review (the periodical/magazine that directly preceded The Dragon). For most of AD&D rules, I can find precursors in these older one would expect, given that AD&D was, by and large, a reorganizing of the complete OD&D material into a readily usable (and uniform) format.

The gnome, however, is not present.

At least not as a player character. The "gnome" has been around as long as CHAINMAIL, where it appears as part of the entry for dwarves:
DWARVES (and Gnomes): Because their natural habitat is deep under the ground, these stout folk operate equally well day or night. Although they are no threat to the larger creatures, Trolls, Ogres, and Giants find them hard to catch because of their small size, so county one-half normal kills when Dwarves and Gnomes fight with them, for either attacks upon the Dwarves and Gnomes or returns...Goblins and Kobolds are their natural (and hated) enemies, and Dwarves (Gnomes) will attack Goblins (Kobolds) before any other enemies in sight...However, Dwarves and Gnomes will not have to roll an "obedience die" (as do Knights) to follow orders...
They are listed on the same line of the "Fantasy Reference Table" and they have the exact same move, charge, special abilities, attack, and defend ratings. There is NO difference between the two, and they are both listed on the side of Law.

In Men & Magic (OD&D book 1), the section on dwarves makes no reference to gnomes, except with regard to languages in which the text states dwarves speak Gnome, Kobold, and Goblin (interesting it does not reference them speaking their own Dwarvish language...unlike the entry for Elves). The reference for the race in the alignment list shows them as Dwarves/Gnomes (rather than two separate entries); the only other "double species" so listed is Goblins/Kobolds.

In Monsters & Treasures (OD&D book 2) the entry for gnomes IS separate from the dwarves and says only the following:
GNOMES: 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.
Their lines in the Monster Reference chart are nearly identical, mainly differing in treasure type and lair percentage.

The Greyhawk supplement is the first time OD&D offers a physical description of the dwarf character  type and here gnomes ARE referenced, stating:
Dwarves are about four feet tall, stocky of build, weigh 150 pounds, shoulders very broad, their skin a ruddy tan, brown or gray, and are of various types (hill, mountain, or burrowers) (such as gnomes).
Greyhawk makes no reference to using gnomes as a player character, nor do any of the later supplements. Neither do I find any reference to gnomes as player characters in The Strategic Review and early (pre-AD&D) issues of The Dragon magazine. Their sudden appearance as a playable race in the AD&D PHB is slightly strange...unless one considers they were being used as such all along.

Look: in OD&D, monsters (other than humans found in dungeons) do not have "levels of experience." Only player characters (or those with the potential to be player characters: men, elves, etc.) have levels. You'll find no group of goblins or lizard men containing a 5th level leader for groups over 50 or 200 or whatever. Liches (appearing in Greyhawk) are a slight exception as they were a high level Magic-User "in life;" the presumption is that now, as a monster, they no longer adventure nor advance in level. Tritons use spells "commensurate with their hit dice," though not mapping on an equal basis (5-7 hit dice mapping to 2nd-4th level ability) and hit dice are based on size and strength, not necessarily experience gained (some tritons are just born bigger, better, and stronger).

1977 Monster Manual
But gnomes, as stated "in all other respects [besides reclusiveness] resemble dwarves." And dwarves do have character classes: one "above average fighter" (of various levels) for every 40 dwarves appearing. Thus, gnomes, too, would have above average fighters of various levels. This is born out in the 1977 Monster Manual (released before the original Players Handbook) which shows gnomes encountered in groups of more than forty having fighter types up to 6th level (normal dwarf maximum per OD&D) and clerics up to 7th (again, normal dwarf maximum for NPC clerics, per Greyhawk). Thus, other than size (1' shorter, per the MM) gnomes appear to correspond in all aspects to their dwarf "cousins."

For me, this is enough to allow a player to claim their OD&D "dwarf" character is, in fact, a gnome...that gnomes are simply a smaller variation of the dwarf species. As I use the increased level limits found in Greyhawk (17 strength dwarves may progress to 7th level and 18 strength dwarves to 8th level), I would limit any such character to a maximum of 16 strength, seeing as how there doesn't appear to be gnomes over the 6th level fighting experience. Easy-peasy.

So then...from whence comes the idea of gnome illusionists?

That's an even more interesting quandary (at least for those who, like me, enjoy this type of pseudo-research). Dwarves are notoriously non-magical in the early editions of the game; they even have a higher resistance to magic than other character types (as do halflings) perhaps as a justification for their lack of wizards...despite raising the sticky question of who it is manufacturing all these dwarven warhammers +3?

My initial thought was that this was a svirfneblin thing. The "deep gnome" race, introduced by Gygax in his classic adventure Shrine of the Kuo-Toa is as notorious in its magic abilities as dwarves are in their absence. Like the Drow, the svirfnebli possess a number of innate spell abilities (summoning earth elementals?!), magical resistance, and enchanted accoutrements that make them inappropriate as player characters (*AHEM*), and I reasoned that perhaps the idea for gnomes as a magic-using (or, rather, illusion using) race might have germinated with this unique adventure.

A little cheap research, however, turns up the fact that Gygax both D1 and D2 after completing the AD&D Players Handbook, as a way of blowing off some steam. Gnomes already had their illusionist capabilities by then, and the svirneblin was simply a suped-up version of the gnome.

So then...what? Peter Aronson's illusionist class first appears in The Strategic Review #4 and neither the original article, nor the class "update" in The Dragon #1 make any remarks about dwarves or gnomes. In fact, no remarks are made regarding ANY racial restrictions for the class, though Aronson's (unpublished) notes clearly state "Where not otherwise specified, they are as [Magic-Users]." 

[a DM going by that statement might be inclined to allow the class to be played by both elves and half-elves, actually]

So what's the deal? Where does the idea come from? Who's to blame/responsible? There are no nonhuman deities in Supplement IV (Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes) that might show a "divine influence" on the species. So somehow we went from a short, burrowing variation on dwarves to the tricky illusionist types found from the PHB on to the present. What's the deal?

As near as I can tell, the first (and only) reference to gnomes having any magical ability comes from the original Monster Manual. For the most part, the entry for gnomes transcribes all the same OD&D material found in the original texts pertaining to dwarves (with some elaboration)...except for a single, additional sentence in the paragraph on special abilities:
"It is rumored that there exists gnomes with magical abilities up to 4th level, but this has not been proved."
It is rumored? Um, okay...where? When? By whom?

Here's what I think: structurally, mechanically, gnomes were no different from dwarves. The main differences between the two were size, temperament, and habitat, all things (more or less) related to each other (hills are smaller than mountains, thus gnomes are smaller than dwarves; hills are easier reached by humans, so gnomes must be more reclusive in nature to prevent their proliferation in the "realms of man").  However, to add variety, gnomes must be distinguishable from dwarves, and the distinct mechanic, from a dungeon-delving perspective, is their lack of size...thus, a lack of strength, and corresponding lack of fighting ability (or potential fighting ability) compared to their larger cousins.

But who wants to play a small, weak dwarf? Not many folks. The solution, then, is to give them some magical ability...something conspicuously absent from dwarf player characters. Of course, you can't give them straight magic-user abilities...that steps on the toes of the thing that makes elves (and half-elves) special. And clerical spells? No...Clerics are the purview of human characters (except for NPCs) as are druids, the "neutral option" when it comes to human magic (as outlined in Eldritch Wizardry).

So illusionists, the only new magical option not addressed in the OD&D books. When the gnome is made into its own separate racial option in AD&D (as opposed to a variation of dwarf), illusionist ends up assigned to the species as a possible class option. And just to keep it really special, no other race (besides humans) even has the option of illusionist as a career.

The OD&D version...well, my OD&D version...would allow progression a little higher than 4th, however. 6th gives the character to access those 3rd level spells that really help a "reclusive" gnome community to hide in plain sight (nondetection, hallucinatory terrain), as well as drive away nosy human neighbors (fear, confusion). Since I'm using Aronson's original experience progression chart (as published in The Strategic Review), I'd stop them short of 8th level ability: no first level MU spells, no shadow monsters or improved invisibility (sorry gnome backstabbers). Call it 6th level base, 7th maximum for gnomes of 17+ intelligence.

All right...that's enough gnome talk for the day. Though I will mention (perhaps to discuss later) that there are absolutely no gnome thieves (nor multi-class thieves) mentioned in the 1E Monster Manual's description of the gnome race. For that matter, there is no mention of thieves (or multi-class thieves) in the descriptions of dwarves, elves, or even halflings. Now this I find extremely interesting.

But I'll write about that later.


  1. Quite informative JB, thanks for the bit of D&D history! It's really interesting to know the origins of the gnome, especially its leaning towards the illusionist class. My only question is how (and why) did GG come with the idea of illusionists and eventually attach them to the gnome?

    1. @ Zontoxira:

      The illusionist was an idea originally conceived of by Peter Aronson. It first appeared in The Strategic Review, the magazine/periodical that preceded Dragon Magazine. Although TSR (nice initials) only ran for six issues, it is in its pages that we see the advent of the ranger, the illusionist, and the bard, as well as such iconic monsters as the mind flayer and the roper. All of these were “contributions” from others, not created by EGG. However, by the time he did AD&D, he decided to include them all the books, more or less, as written.

      The rest, as they say, is history.
      ; )

  2. I came to the same conclusion: gnomes are a kind of dwarf. Culturally separate but the stat block is identical.

  3. there is this as well to consider...the *D&D Cyclopaedia* itself where it had gnomes listed in the "Monsters" chapter. There is a tiny, obscure passage in the back giving an optional way of creating a gnome PC. Here's the gist of it:

    - Gnomes are halflings mechanics wise in all regards excepting the below.
    - Gnomes have dwarven saving throws and attack rolls, plus they have the dwarven infravision and detection abilities in place of the halfling hiding ability.
    - Gnomes speak gnome, goblin, kobold, and dwarf.

    i didnt see you mention that so figured it may help even tho this is a year old now and if already listed then am sorry i didnt see it.

    1. Hi, Father:

      The post was more about examining how the option ended up in the (Advanced) game after NOT appearing in original version (or rather, seeming interchangeable with dwarves).

      The Rules Cyclopedia is a much later work (1990 maybe?). I do...vaguely...remember their appearance in the RC, now that you mention it. I believe they may have first appeared as a playable PC for the BECMI game in one of the Gazetteers (Rockhome maybe?) and that the RC took that info from there.

      Regardless, I think the RC version is just fine as a "variant" halfling.