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Basic Information

Like anything else with a basis in mythology, it can be "a little tricky" to pin down exactly what a gnome should be.

Alchemy and related traditions used the term to refer to a form of earth elemental, and more generally they seem to have been regarded as a form of (generally subterranean) spirits or fae similar to dwarves. Alternatively they may be "seelie" counterparts to goblins and/or gremlins - personifications of honest craftsmanship and productive labour.

Indeed, the dwarf/gnome boundary indistinct in many traditions - gnomes are perhaps more likely to be found near the surface and may work with less "industrial" crafts than the dwarves - but are otherwise hard to distinguish from them. Into the modern era, the gap widens, with gnomes often being brought out of the ground altogether to become forest dwellers or urban tinkerers, sometimes specialising in light hearted japes and illusion magic (in the face of the dour, non-magical dwarves), or engaging in artifice or spinning out clockpunk (or even steampunk) equivalent technology1. Sometimes all at once.

"Certain RPGs" have taken the "new gnome" to such extents that their "cheery little chappie" toymakers with a love of entertaining and an innate ability to talk to animals are effectively unbearable.

See Also


2. Book: Gnomes by Wil Huygen, illustrated by Riet Poortvliet (1976) — a mock-scholarly exploration of the natural history of the European Gnome. Outside of gaming, this book established the pop culture conception of gnomes and the pointy red cap as their defining characteristic. In the late '70s and early '80s, this book inspired a slew of similarly-themed coffee-table books about fantastic creatures; and also the animated series David the Gnome. (Original Dutch title: Leven en werken van de kabouter)
3. cRPG The Steampunk masterpiece Arcanum has an important, almost central, role for gnomes as the driving force behind the recent industrial revolution and rise of commerce. Not, it must be said, an entirely positive one.

Game and Story Use

  • See also the idea on the dwarves page about having them, the gnomes and the nasty hobbittses be different races of a single species, differing mainly by culture and biome of choice.
  • As with all mythologically variable species, be clear about what they are like in any given setting to avoid player confusion - someone expecting a whacky steampunk engineer is going to be confused when he gets a minor earth elemental. And vice versa.
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