Saturday, March 5, 2016

Gnome Maintenance

Recently I've been thinking about Gnomes. I confess, I've been feeling a little guilty about them.

 For a number of years I've thought on and off about the place of these little guys in the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, and why in its Basic form they never distiguished themselves enough to be Player Characters. Sure, they're there among the Monsters in Mentzer's red box, and in the Moldvay Expert Set a floorplan of a Gnome lair appears, but by and large I suspect that early players just treated them as I and my friends did when we played - easy Experience Points. Kill them all!!! After I stopped playing of course the Companion module Earthshaker! came out, and then the supplement Top Ballista!, but these were, to my mind, mid-edition AD&D Gnomes retro-fitted in.

In D&D's Basic rules, Gnomes are NPC characters at best. They have an entry among the other 'Monsters' in the red box DM's Guide - and that's pretty much it. Cross over to the various versions of AD&D however, and it's a different story. For whatever reason the Gnome was abandoned in the Moldvaying and Mentzerising of the core game (fellow casualty races of course include the Half-Orc and Half-Elf), the race gets something of an on-going revision within the various iterations of the 'Advanced' game. First edition casts them as Halfling-sized Dwarf variants with similar attributes and an enmity with Kobolds (this is the version translated over to Moldvay/Mentzer); and as the game gets older the Gnome derives its own variants - Rock, Deep, Forest, and so forth. Originally given the option of an Illusionist specialty, Gnomes are later cast as Bards (another unloved and un-developed character class) and by 4th and 5th edition Gnomes really come into their own as tinkerers and tricksters - crazy inventors with a love of mischief.

I can't say I'm mad about the idea of Gnomes being cast so much along personality, particularly a personality almost purpose-built to irritate the hell out of fellow players or unbalance your campaign world with quasi high-tech. Indeed, I've heard of some groups who mutually have decided to just not include Gnomes for that reason.

Back in Basic-land I guess for purists the temptation in bringing the Gnome in as a Player Character is to adopt the D&D version - but even that has its critics. The popular argument goes: why use a Gnome when you could use a Dwarf? They generally live in the same areas, have similar cultures and a weakness of underground treasures. Or why not just use a Halfling, if you're after a diminutive Thief? There is of course the Illusionist class type to be imported - but a combination of magic and fighting ability in Basic is the domain of Elves; and a potentially weak fighter with a less-offensive array of spells may not have much going for it for players. So what then?

I believe the problem with the shifting niche of Gnomes is that they apparently lack a clear literary or mythological archetype. Gnomes in culture go only as far back as Paracelsus and the 16th century, and have no mythological or folklore precedent, which may be why they are often switched for Dwarfs (or dwarfs) in stories. The original Gnome is a theoretical earth elemental, but with more description becomes... a Dwarf with the registration number filed off. But what about in literature?

Ask anyone who lived through the Seventies about books with Gnomes in them and they may well recall Will Huygen's Gnomes(1974), the twentieth-century imprimatur that put the Gnome - pointed hat, jolly face, fulsome beard, well and truly in the public consciousness. If your common or garden Gnome wasn't already, well, a garden gnome, then this book would do little to change that.

But there is another literary precedent to the Gnome, and one that pre-dates Huygen's field guide by nearly three decades. 'B.B.''s The Little Grey Men and its sequel Down the Bright Stream* posits the adventures of the last four Gnomes in Britain, and places the race firmly in the woods as one of Pan's people (don't laugh). For all of that, however, 'B.B.' and Huygen seem to have seized on the Gnome in a smiliar fashion - they are guardians of the earth, forest-dwellers, and immensely practical, without recourse to tinkering with large-scale machinery (there are exceptions, but they are clearly not the rule).

The up-shot of this is that I think I've found a decent niche for the Gnome in a Basic D&D setting, and one which is rigid enough to avoid the overlap with the game's two other dimunitive PC races. Having read both Huygen's book and B.B.'s two novels, I considered the woodland guardian element of these texts and thought that with a brace of Druid spells one could effectively accommodate the race without too much hard work. That did do for my other idea of swapping Magic User spell sets for Elves with Druid spells, though. And in the end, I didn't want to do that. So my Gnomes are not especially magical - just like the literary ones, but they retain their woodland expertise, loyalties and preternatural identity. Rather than making them Druids I seem to be casting the Gnome as a Race-As-Class Ranger. And I think I'm pretty happy with that!

[Insert obligatory video. NO, no that one**]
[* Blogger's note: 'B.B' was the nom de plume of D. J Watkins-Pitchford, who also provided the wonderful illustrations - painting, etchings and line art, in both volumes. The name was apparently taken from the ball-bearing gun pellet and wasn't, as my thirteen-year-old self assumed, a cash-in on the name Bilbo Baggins]

[** This song's nomination is more apposite than you may think, as Syd Barrett was a huge fan of the books and the writer, a quote from the first book was read at Barrett's funeral]

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