Chad Perrin: SOB

5 May 2009

How Paizo Fixed D&D Gnomes

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 04:09

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

Someone recently asked me what I dislike about gnomes in D&D that I feel Paizo has at least partially fixed in Pathfinder RPG. I figured I’d take a shot at explaining it, and this SOB entry is the result.

The three major problems I’ve had with gnomes in earlier editions that come immediately to mind at the moment, and how PRPG fixed those problems (at least in part), are:

  1. Gnomes are really short in D&D. They’re actually ridiculously short. Hell, even dwarves seem ridiculous in their shortness, and gnomes make them seem tall by comparison. To make a race that small seem less ridiculous as an equal of PCs would, I fear, require making it entirely non-human — maybe like a squirrel.

    PRPG, meanwhile, mitigated this problem by making them a bit taller. There aren’t exact measurements provided in the PRPG Beta to give me canonical heights, but based on the picture at the beginning of core races section where a member of each race is standing alongside the rest of them, the height of a gnome relative to a human seems to have increased. Yes, I did the math, based on a reasonable average for a human and the ratio of illustration heights.

  2. Gnomes look ridiculous in D&D. Have you ever noticed that, before 3E, gnomes always look like half-size dwarves of the most preposterous sort? They have bulbous red noses, rosy red cheeks, puffy white beards, and so on. Hell, they’re a bit like knee-high Santa Clauses in appearance the way they’re generally depicted, described, and imagined in D&D editions prior to third. In 3E, meanwhile, they suddenly look like the bastard love children of halflings and “greys” (those spindly aliens with the gigantic noggins and funny looking eyes) to judge by the illustrations in the books and some of their descriptions. No way am I playing one of those, or letting one of them slip into a game I’m running where they simply won’t be taken seriously by at least some of the players.

    PRPG describes gnomes as being of mixed fae blood, and their appearance as described in various Paizo/Pathfinder books (vaguely) and illustrated really reflects that origin of the race. They now look more pretty and, well, fey, and as a result they appear far less absurd and comical. It helps that they look a fair bit more nimble, too, considering that an old-school illustration of an AD&D gnome often looked like it could trip over its own belly or nose at any moment. The racial origin also gives the race a fair bit more reasonable explanation for why they’d be so good at illusion magic, if you want to go that route, too.

  3. Gnomes are annoying by nature in D&D. Why is it that gnomes always seem to talk fast, act like absent-minded professors, and behave in a manner designed specifically to bug the living crap out of anyone and everyone? This is the last nail in the coffin, the final piece of evidence that even the people who developed the canonical D&D gnome think of them substantially as comic relief. The only D&D gnome I’ve ever liked was the “I’m a monster!” guy from the animated marketing video for 4E from WotC, and that’s only because the whole point of that video is to be funny.

    The whole “gnomes have to be incoherent babbling stereotypes of accident prone nerds” thing has entirely gone out the window, with the flavor of things presented in PRPG. This makes me much happier with the prospect of a “gnome” race in my fantasy RPG campaigns.

Far from being relegated primarily to the realm of comic relief, the descriptions of gnomes in the PRPG Beta give them a role in the implied setting that can much more easily be taken seriously. In fact, given the description and images, I could easily see them becoming tragic or dark figures that lend to more depth in a setting, such as in the case of a gnome prostitute who caters to the desires of depraved pedophiles.

Of course, that last paragraph might be giving something away to my SigO, with regard to a vague idea I have for something one of her characters will run into in the future, but I think she can handle it. (Hint: I’m not going to turn your character into a prostitute, dear.)

11 Comments

  1. I dunno… I liked the noses. What’s a gnome without a big schnoz? What’s a Ferengi without big ears?

    Comment by Siskoid — 5 May 2009 @ 05:08

  2. It’s no longer (as much) comic relief. It’s a more serious character concept.

    Comment by apotheon — 5 May 2009 @ 05:25

  3. Comic relief is a serious character concept. The smaller races have always had a more innocent world outlook, which inherits from Tolkein. He used the hobbits as an analogue to a more simpler, and better, in a way, time; allegorically referring to pastoral England through his fantasy race. Old-school halflings are simply hobbits without the name, and a very viable fantasy race. I dislike what Wizards did to them in 3e, simply because they turned them into kender without the kender-specific properties.

    Mythical archetypes have always had the weird, wizened sage, whose trope is what the classic gnome race fills. A little silly, very eccentric, but played right there’s a disturbing depth of reality in them. An example of the power that character can wield is when Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that he will be afraid when he goes into the dark cave on Dagobah – he goes from the silly, trickster-type to serious, and clearly spoken when he says, “You will be” and everyone gets goosebumps.

    Don’t dismiss the power of appropriate silliness, as long as the underlying layer of deep conviction is still there. It’s a powerful thing.

    Comment by Keith — 5 May 2009 @ 02:08

  4. I’m glad to see gnomes becoming a little more distinct, but I don’t think you can really blame D&D itself for your issues with gnomes – instead it’s largely been the fault of the settings produced that created the stereotypical gnome. For example, much of what you describe in #3 is due to the influence of the Dragonlance setting on many people’s images of gnomes. In the late 1980’s & early 1990’s, that’s the type of gnome everyone wanted to play. 3rd edition warped them into something a bit different, especially when 3.5 turned them all into crooning bards. As for the newest versions I’m not sure who stole who’s idea but fey gnomes certainly aren’t unique to Pathfinder – they’re part of 4E as well.

    Comment by MJ Harnish — 5 May 2009 @ 02:21

  5. Keith:

    Comic relief is a serious character concept.

    Sure, it can be — but that doesn’t mean a PC race should be comic relief, unless of course you’re playing a strictly comedy-focused game.

    Old-school halflings are simply hobbits without the name, and a very viable fantasy race.

    Hobbits were pretty damned ridiculous, too.

    Mythical archetypes have always had the weird, wizened sage, whose trope is what the classic gnome race fills.

    . . . except it’s a two foot tall weird, wizened sage who talks too fast, waddles when he walks, looks like an alcoholic who has been punched in the face a few times, and can’t possibly be taken seriously, at least in D&D editions before 3E.

    An example of the power that character can wield is when Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that he will be afraid when he goes into the dark cave on Dagobah – he goes from the silly, trickster-type to serious, and clearly spoken when he says, “You will be” and everyone gets goosebumps.

    That’s a matter of Yoda (the character) playing a role, and conforming to some extent to the idea of the “foolish sage” that is so central to some Taoist and Buddhist contexts. It’s not a result of looking like D&D dwarves as rendered by The Onion.

    Don’t dismiss the power of appropriate silliness

    I don’t. It’s the inappropriate silliness that annoys the crap out of me.

    MJ Harnish:

    much of what you describe in #3 is due to the influence of the Dragonlance setting on many people’s images of gnomes.

    That was part of what made it popular, but that’s hardly the only place it has occurred in D&D. In fact, the 2E Player’s Handbook description of gnomes lends itself to such an interpretation anyway.

    In the late 1980’s & early 1990’s, that’s the type of gnome everyone wanted to play.

    Not everyone. I was an exception, as were several of the people who gamed with me.

    As for the newest versions I’m not sure who stole who’s idea but fey gnomes certainly aren’t unique to Pathfinder – they’re part of 4E as well.

    I’m aware they’re like that in 4E too. Notice I haven’t been referring to 4E in my complaints about D&D versions of gnomes.

    Unless there was some corporate espionage going on, though, Paizo definitely didn’t get the idea from Wizards of the Coast. The first public playtest version of PRPG became available in March 2008, and the fourth edition of D&D wasn’t released until several months later. WotC was being remarkably secretive about much of what was coming in 4E before its actual release date.

    Comment by apotheon — 5 May 2009 @ 03:19

  6. I’ve got to say that I am with Keith on this one. As far as hobbits being ridiculous, that is why they are so wonderful – look how much several of them accomplished even though and maybe because they were ridiculous.

    Comment by Mildred — 7 May 2009 @ 03:34

  7. I guess the difference of opinion must have something to do with the types of RPG campaigns we like.

    You seem to enjoy games that have a very strong component of “cute” or “folksy” or “quaint” or “comical” or maybe “Disney-esque”. I tend to prefer mine where the stronger thread is “gritty” or “serious” or “tragic” or something else along those lines. While there may be a moment of tragedy now and then in your games, or an occasional bit of gritty “realism” (within the context of the game world, that is), the folksy feel (or whatever it is) takes precedence; while there can certainly be a bit of humor now and then in the games I prefer to play, it’s sparingly used, with the main focus being on the grit, et cetera. The only time I’m really inclined to play a comedy is when I’m specifically in the mood for comedy (very rarely), and in such cases it’s pretty much all comedy all the time, and is over quickly.

    While you guys seem to want to play The Hobbit, I’m more interested in playing The Black Company or The Elric Saga. Perhaps, in terms of the Amagi model of roleplaying motivations, you’re more focused on Humour or Paida, while I’m more focused on Kenosis.

    Patently ridiculous PC races aren’t really compatible with the way I generally prefer to play the game, I’m afraid. If I was playing a rare (for me) “all comedy, all the time” game game, though, I might call it “Shorties” rather than “D&D”, and only include races such as dwarves with clan names like Tösser and Reddish and Oompa-Loompa, lawn gnomes, kobolds remarkably similar to Jar Jar Binks, and rotund hobbits with hairy feet and ludicrously domestic habits.

    Comment by apotheon — 7 May 2009 @ 10:17

  8. Does anyone know how gnomes entered the D&D canon, anyway? Hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs are all Tolkien-derived to some extent. Why did lawn gnomes become a PC race?

    Come to think, maybe it’s all that English mythology that did it. The OD&D and some AD&D illustrations of elves were more of the Santa’s Little Helper variety than the Tragic Tolkien Immortal, but I’m not sure if that was the Gygaxo-Arnesonian intention or whether that was just artists lacking a design document, such as with the pumpkin-headed bugbears.

    If it was intentional that would fit with the nixies, pixies, dryads, druids, grigs, and so on. Even so, though, it doesn’t explain why this one race of the Little People got to be a PC race.

    (Aside, am I the only one that thought a Kercpa campaign would be a lot of fun?)

    Comment by d7 — 7 May 2009 @ 03:12

  9. I don’t have any comment on the origins of lawn gnomes as a D&D race at this time. Maybe later.

    I really do think that a Kercpa campaign would be a double helping of Awesome Salad, but part of the reason for it is the lack of intolerable ridiculum built into the race that would sour me on an all-hobbit campaign.

    Comment by apotheon — 7 May 2009 @ 03:28

  10. I solved the gnome issue in the world my group plays. A few hundred years ago there was a genocide, and the Big Bad killed them all. When I announced that before we started, there was a universal sigh of relief.

    Comment by Tebh — 4 July 2009 @ 11:11

  11. You’re a (wo)man after my own heart.

    Comment by apotheon — 5 July 2009 @ 06:35

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