Gnomes, The Odd Cousin Out (Part One)

“Trust not in Sprites nor the motivations of a Gnome.” ― Jefferson Smith, Strange Places

Across the fantasy genre, both in games and in other media, there have always been a number of reliable, if trope-worthy, fantasy staples, especially when it comes to the races and peoples that populate the world and constitute our cast:

  • The stalwart dwarves, content in their mountain strongholds, honor their clans and their people through wondrous craftsmanship and stunning treasure. And when danger calls, their hammers and axes are never far from their reach.
  • There are the forest-walking, bow-toting elves, sworn enemies of the nebulous Evil Darkness that threatens the world. They make their homes in places as ancient and secluded as their inner thoughts.
  • Ambitious humanity, whose young kingdoms sprawl across the world. Humans are full of limitless potential, but they are also as corruptible as they are good. The next age will surely be theirs, but can they be the stewards of their own future?
  • The content and peace-loving halflings. Though they may be small, their hearts are large, and when called upon they will leave their idyllic rural lands to show that great things can come in small sizes.

And then there are gnomes, which are sort of related to dwarves, but have more in common with the fey because they can do magic. Except for the ones that are more like dwarves. Also, some of them are inventors? They live underground, mostly. Or in cities? A bunch of them travel, too, I guess, but there are rural communities to account for. If you want a solid identifier for gnomes it’s that they all like pranks and practical jokes. But a lot of them don’t, actually. Listen, stop trying to put gnomes in a box.

The point is that gnomes, although they have been around for a long time, do not have much of a static identity across the different mythologies of the fantasy genre. And while it’s true that variation exists among other fantasy races, such as elves and dwarves, gnomes are by far the most confusing race of contemporary fantasy.

Even so-called iconic depictions of gnomes — from the title-character of Willow, to Scanlan and Pike of Critical Roll — are at odds with one another in terms of culture, attitude, and ability.

Comparing gnomes from two different fantasy universes shows a host of differences in mythology, attitude, and attributes, differences that are irreconcilable with one another at times. These disparities, the lack of a “Gnome Standard” if you will, has made it difficult for me to take gnomes seriously, or to integrate them into my storytelling.

Which is why I set myself to the task, answering a single question:

What the hell is a gnome?

According to the original mythology, gnomes were pest-like, combative, greedy offshoots of dwarves, that dwelled in the earth and shared their cousins’ love of treasure. Little was done in Renaissance writings to change or add to the mythology of the gnome, and instead the name became synonymous with dwarves and domestic spirits of mythology. Presumably, it is this muddling of the term that contributed to the many wild variations of gnomes in contemporary fantasy.

L. Frank Baum’s “Nomes” and J.K. Rowling’s garden gnomes remain the most true to the original mythology. In the Potterverse created by J.K. Rowling, gnomes are pests routinely thrown out of gardens. Baum’s nomes are at least regarded as sapient, though they are mean-spirited and greedy creatures. Arguably, the gnomes of the Shannara world can be put in the same category, as they are relatively short, combative, and easily corruptible in the canon of Terry Brooks’s world.

J.R.R. Tolkien is apparently the first writer to explore the idea of the gnomish-inventor when he created a race of technologically minded elves. No, you read that right, I said “elves,” not “gnomes.” Because, in Tolkien’s world, “gnome” translates to “those with knowledge,” which refers to a certain group of elves otherwise known as the Noldor. The Noldor were proud, inventive, cunning, prone to violence, and lived in subterranean and mountain strongholds. Presumably, the Noldor served as inspiration for the Dwemer of the Elder Scrolls universe, as the two have many parallels.

So far, even with such polar examples as Rowling’s pest-gnomes and Tolkien’s paragon-elf-gnomes, we’re getting some pretty distinct attributes: vain, violent, earth-dwelling, and corruptible creatures, perhaps reminiscent of dwarves. However, we have yet to scratch the surface of gnome depictions in role-playing games.

In Dungeons & Dragons gnomes were introduced as an alternative to other fantasy races, particularly halflings and dwarves, with which they had the most in common. However, halflings and dwarves both already filled the niche gameplay roles of warrior and rogue, and so, in order to make gnomes a viable choice for players, they were given a propensity for magic.

From there gnomes exploded in every possible creative direction, inspired by the different depictions of gnomes in fiction and from their muddled mythology: There were somber, dwarf-like gnomes; reclusive, pacifist halfling-esque gnomes; gnomes with elvish tendencies that communed with nature. Perhaps familiar to most gamers and fantasy lovers are the machine-loving gnomish tinkers of the Dragonlance and later Warcraft worlds. It is insisted that the one consistent quality among all these iterations of gnomes was their boundless sense of humor, their optimism, and love of pranks. However, even that quality feels forced and unnatural when blanketed across all varieties of gnomes, such as the shy, reclusive forest gnomes. The only time this quality really works is with the original Rock or Tinker gnomes as it is consistent with the description of their culture, instead of being liberally painted over an altogether different kind of personality.

Looking at the host of gnome variants from modern RPGs, it is easy to see why incorporating them into one’s game is difficult. On the surface, they have a grab-bag of different qualities: Dwarfish, hardy, tricksome, magical, fey, reclusive, outgoing, inventive, and comedic all rolled into one hodge-podge of very different folks.

But a closer assessment reveals what actually works out of this confused pile: magical, inventive, fun-loving, and passionate. Wildly different than the gnomes before D&D to be sure, more akin to the dwarves and domestic spirits that their name became synonymous with, but certainly a viable new member of most fantasy communities.

So now we have two distinct brands of gnome to choose from:

Vain, violent, dark, and corruptible gnomes, or

Magical, inventive, happy prankster gnomes.

So which one do we choose from? Do we want dark gnomes, or tinker gnomes? And, regardless of which one we choose, how do we integrate their culture and identity into the fantasy world? Where, exactly, is the niche for gnomes, even when they are done right? All of these and more will be addressed in Gnomes, The Odd Cousin Out (Part Two). 

 

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The Harrowed, The Skinchanger, and the Didaras

The Harrowed and Skinchanger racial variants are now pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG, along with a complete original race: The Didaras!

The Harrowed: The Harrowed are people twisted, physically and mentally, by exposure to dark and powerful energies. Who knows what shadows lurk in mortal hearts? You do. And on your adventure you may have to decide: do you pursue the memories and endeavors of your old life, or do you embrace the cold hunger in your soul?

The Skinchanger provides a new human variant for D&D 5th Edition rules! Skinchangers have the latent ability to change into animals. Although their shapeshifting is limited in comparison to druids and lycanthropes, skinchangers remain attuned to their animal instincts even in human form.

Lastly, the Hives of the Didaras introduce a new playable character race for 5th Edition D&D rules! Journey as one of the Didaras, a six-limbed, insectoid creature, whose view of the world is in the context of hive and brood. Choose from among 5 distinct subraces, such as the calculating Didaras Builder, or stalwart Didaras soldier. The Didaras adds a unique sapient creature to your campaign world, and opens the door to new adventures and interactions.

Monastic Traditions: The Four Temples

Ebethan Game Designs is pleased to announce the release of a new set of character class archetypes for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition:

The Four Temples!

Included are four unique monastic traditions for use at your own table, inspired by warrior traditions from both history and popular culture.

Join the Way of the Sumo, and learn to withstand whatever your enemies throw at you, while giving them a lesson in the true meaning of might.

Stride the circular Way of Eight Palms, and you will avoid every futile swing of your enemies’ blades to deal them them a crushing blow.

Shed your plate and shield to walk of the Way of the Unarmored Knight; use your warrior spirit and military discipline to carry you to victory.

Offer a prayer to gods of death and dying, and you may tread the Sanguine Path, manipulating dark powers to heal your allies, and bring down your foes.

If you’re looking for more Ebethan Game Designs products to enjoy, you can check them out Here on DM’s Guild, or Here on Drive Thru RPG, and don’t forget to be on the lookout for more content coming soon!

Druidic Circle: The Circle of Swords and Staves

Ebethan Game Designs is pleased to present a new Druidic archetype to use with Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition:

The Circle of Staves and Swords!

Join a tradition of fierce guardians of the natural order. The Circle of Staves and Swords shirk the overuse of natural magic and shapeshifting abilities. The wanton use of such gifts is an affront to nature herself. There is a reason she gave us our mortal erudition, and it was not to emulate or recreate her thunderstorms or wolf packs.

It is so we could fight those who would corrupt and destroy the natural world. You must use a civilized mind to fight such a foe, and that means not giving into your feral instincts. Once you balance your sapient mind with the gifts of nature, you will make the perfect guardian of the world: an ally to those who see your wisdom, and a slayer of abominable monstrosities.

If you’re looking for more content, and would like to support our page, check out our paid content Here or Here. Otherwise, leave a like if you enjoyed it and consider sharing with your friends and other game players!

Be on the lookout for more class options coming soon from Ebethan Game Designs. We’ve been cloistered away, working on a batch of four new class archetypes!

Campaign Core: Rise of the Red Moon

The second in the series of Campaign Cores from Ebethan Game Designs is now available!

You Can Find It Here!

The Rise of the Red Moon pits your adventurers against a predatory cult with unnatural powers. Will they prove to be better hunters than their foes, or will they be reduced to prey by their dogged pursuers?

The Campaign Core comes with a campaign premise, as well as an outline for the adventure arc, start to finish, along with several diversionary opportunities along the way. The design is intentionally left open-ended and system-agnostic so that you can use these materials to make an adventure that is truly your own. Small scale setting elements are included, but easily transferable to an existing or growing world.

Get ready for a different kind of hunt in a Werewolf Invasion!

Mixing RPG Systems and Why Everyone Should Try It

“Hey! You got your GURPS in my Pathfinder!”

“You got your Pathfinder in my GURPS!”

Chaos ensues and disagreements abound when gamers talk about their favorite systems. Even though all systems have their own drawbacks and merits, many of us feel compelled to defend our chosen storytelling medium as the One Foretold in the Prophecy, the perfect blend of narrative storytelling and number-crunching die rolls. The truth is that no system is perfect for all situations, games, or households. While I openly envy the unique character building and role-playing-reliant drive of systems like Shadowrun and World of Darkness, I am also eternally thankful that my players are content with the systems we play so that I don’t have to deal with dice pools.

I am by no means a purist when it comes to systems, however, and this brings me to the point of this article: There are times in some games where the mechanics of a single system fail to serve the narrative, or where the narrative is better served using another system. Sometimes the story, or part of the story, a Game Master and his players want to tell is not suited to just one system, and this can lead to slowed gameplay and low energy. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about, along with some solutions:

  • Character Creation: It is no question that creating fun and rewarding characters with substantive backgrounds is difficult, especially in the ‘crunchier’ systems, such as D&D or Pathfinder. This is by no means a negative reflection on such systems: over the editions and supplements they have given character-creation prompts and guidance, but have largely left the narrative portion of the character up to the player. Often, this is not a problem, even if a character starts off nebulous, their identity is quickly determined by the successes and failures of their die rolls. However, in a campaign where a characters bonds, backstory, and their relationship with the world are more important, the creativity granted by other systems cannot be overlooked. Games like GURPS, Shadowrun, and World of Darkness have character traits (positive and negative) worked into the mechanics of the game at many layers, and provides a wealth of material for players to flesh out their characters with interesting facets to build off of. The Traveller game, additionally, requires that players roll on event tables for different careers (or classes) for every length of time they pursue that career. Whether you modify existing tables for your own campaign, or invent your own from scratch, these event tables are a fun way of expanding character backstories and creating potential hooks for future storylines.
  • Early-Game Grind: It is safe to say that, much like superhero origin stories, the first few levels of a traditional fantasy RPG are rote primers to the campaign world, and fairly standard means of accumulating some gold and experience early on. While the goblins or bandits are not necessarily generic, and may in fact be vital pawns in the big bad evil guy’s plan for world conquest, the Game Master and veteran players may be more interested in getting to the meat of the campaign. One of the ways to resolve these early sequences is actually listed above, using event tables like those in Traveller to determine some of the early elements of the story, and the mishaps and experiences the characters endure. Another solution is to play out the scenes with a simplified system, such as the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse system, using straight-forward success/failure metrics for character goals in each scene to determine the outcome.
  • Montages: Periodically throughout most campaigns, there are time-jumps or transition periods. Perhaps the group joins a faction, trains for an upcoming event, or disbands for a time. A way to make these lapses in time for fun and rewarding is to use the success/failure system listed above, presenting players with sequences of scenes, and rewarding or penalizing them based on their rolls.

These are just a few examples, and an even narrower range of solutions, but I think they demonstrate the point I am striving to make. There are times in most, if not all, campaigns, where the story is best-served by moving between systems.

None of these solutions require that players use two or more character sheets. Supplementing your system with other mechanics, much like supplementing stories or game aesthetics, is meant to enhance the gaming experience, and can be as simple or involved as you want.

I hope you’ve gained from inspiration, or at least have learned about a fun new system to try out. Suggestions and feedback are welcome, as always. See you next time!

3 Legendary Items

Borne from heroic effort, great magics, and divine favor, these legendary items can add to the repetoire of epic heroes, or dastardly villains!

  • Fendakar’s Bastion Legendary (Requires Attunement): According to legend, Fendakar’s Bastion was blessed during a decisive battle at the saurian fortress Hallow Moon. When the undead hordes broke through the west wall of the fort, the paladin Fendakar is said to have strode into the gap and fend off the assailants single-handed while his comrades regrouped, earning them victory. The shield is of massive size, reinforced with the scales and teeth of a dragon in lieu of any metal. The shield grants a +2 magic bonus to armor class, and as a reaction the wielder may choose to halve the damage from an attack or damaging effect they can see. For every ten points of damage the wielder takes, the shield accumulates 1 charge, and may hold up to 8 charges at a time. The wielder may infuse melee or thrown weapon attacks with these charges, and may choose to do so after the attack connects, dealing an additional d8 of force damage per charge.
  • Ghastbolt Legendary (Requires Attunement): Wielded by great, heroic marksmen and villainous archers through the ages, there are rumors abound of this handcrossbow’s origin. Some say it was an assassin’s deal with the Fates, or a warmongering mage’s tinkering, that brought the weapon into existence. Regardless, Ghastbolt has earned its chapter in the annals of history as a dealer of death. The dark wood of this weapon has the names of renowned and ancient warlords scrawled on it in blue ink, which fails to fade. The weapon functions as a +3 to hit and damage handcrossbow. The weapon produces and loads itself with a glowing blue bolt at the start of the wielder’s turn. These ghastbolts deal an additional 2d6 cold damage on a successful hit, and cannot be removed or recovered for additional uses. Once per short rest, the wielder may cast Melf’s Acid Arrow at 2nd level using the Ghastbolt; and once per long rest the wielder may cast the Conjure Volley spell at 5th level.
  • Zimrah’Kol (Demonwatch Bow) Legendary (Requires Attunement): This cursed, legendary bow was grown from the trunk of a malignant tree by a wretched hag. The weapon was commissioned by an elven folk hero, who sought a weapon powerful enough to fight off an encroaching army of monsters. With the bow, the hero succeeded in defending his city, but the evil of the hag’s tree had corrupted the weapon, and it soon infected the heroic elf. The hero became plagued by hallucinations and delusions, believing his friends to be replaced by monsters sent to kill him. In time, his madness grew insurmountable, and he turned the cursed weapon on his own people. The weapon, much like the tree that bore it, is gnarled and knotted, with sickly green sap leaking through the cracks. The weapon functions as a longbow with +3 to hit and damage, and deals an additional d8 necrotic damage on a hit. The wielder has perception on all perception and survival checks to find and track monsters, but has disadvantage on Wisdom and Charisma saving throws as their delusions take hold. The wielder may disconnect from the bow at will. If the bow is targeted by a Remove Curse, or similar effect, it becomes a +2 bow, and remains that way for one century until the evil grows back.

Hope you’ve enjoyed these legendary items, or that they’ve inspired you for some high adventure and fine looting! Any feedback is greatly appreciated. Check out other things I’ve worked on, and share with your friends!