Lets Make Gnomes Great Again. Fith Edition D&D Design for the Malazan world
Updated: Dec 12, 2018
Gnomes Are a Much Maligned Race.
Dungeon Masters tend to find it hard to picture Gnomes in their own settings, often because the Halfling already covers the ‘short humans’ section of their world and because unlike the Halfling and the Dwarf, they they don’t come with the same history that gets a creative Dungeon Masters mind sparking.
They are in traditional mythology more a type of faerie, than their own race of people and culture. That is true of the Halfling too, but thanks to Tolkien and his Hobbits we have a something in our shared psyche of what they are, the same as Orcs, which don’t even exist before Tolkien.
Gnomes are not part of most peoples fantasy upbringing and as such get forgotten and hence end up with very poor foundations in Dungeon Masters settings. Even within the standard Dungeons and Dragons settings how many of you Dungeon Masters out there know of campaigns full of Gnomes? Or even sections of campaigns that feature Gnomes, or Gnome characters heavily?
What about players? A lot of players seem to dislike gnomes for the same sort of reasons. They are normally relegated to joke characters, I think their visual appearance in games like World of Warcraft has not helped players ideas of Gnomes. Those who do create Gnomes are often creating joke characters that aggravate people. The most common ones are the Gnome Wizard who is eccentric and mad, likely to therefore be disruptive, probably has a funny accent and has some gimmick. The Gnome barbarian, because someone wants to play against type. At which point you get the standard people getting cross that a Gnome managed to out arm wrestle a Goliath (the world is magic people, they also just have really dense muscle). Finally we have the most common thing I see on the D&D 5eFacebook group I am part of “Can I be a gnome who uses a Barbarian as a mount?” There are plenty more out there. Because of this a lot of players just seem to really hate gnomes, going so far as to try and persuade other players to not play them.
I personally love playing against type, but a lot of people who struggle with the idea of even having Gnomes in their world, struggle even more with a Gnome welding an axe. But even I who loves theory crafting characters, have only come up with a couple of Gnomes and not even ones I would be that excited about playing. I don't dislike them and am happy to see them in games. But they just don't excite me. Their Bonus to intelligence also tends to mean than unless you are playing against type, you really have only a very limited number of options in which to play class wise for those people who like to Min/Max.
So Why Gnome at All?
So why would I work so hard to fit them into my Dungeons and Dragons world, inspired by the Malazan Books of the Fallen, if there probably aren’t going to be players clamouring to play Gnomes? Especially as those of you who have read the books know, there are no Gnomes, nor anything that I could reasonably re-skin as the gnome stats. (So saying, that hasn’t stopped me from finding a home for the Dwarf stat block as the seafaring Meckros, or Halflings as horse riding Wickans).
For those of you have not read my other blog post I’ll give a very quick summary about the design philosophy here. I am not making a perfect rendering of the Malazan setting. I am instead creating first and foremost a first edition Dungeons and Dragons Game. I am however using the Malazan world created by Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont as the springboard to create a Dungeons and Dragons world that deviates heavily from players expectations. As part of this I don’t want to restrict too much what people can play. As such I set myself the goal of fitting every one of the Player Handbook races into a setting where there are no Orcs or Dragonborn. This is the kind of design challenge that really gets my brain ticking over. The problem solving of this is a large part of why we want to be Dungeon Masters after all. For us a high percentage of the game happens outside of the two or more hours we get to play.
A Gnome Shaped Puzzle Peace
So where do Gnomes fit? At first I tried to do as I had done with the other races, look for a group of humans or some other races that fight closely enough with the Gnomes of D&D that I could re-skin then and use the Gnome statbock with the smallest number of changes possible.
So lets take a look at the Gnomes in the player handbook. All gnomes are more intelligent on average than humans, they are of course small (though at 3-4 feet tall, they are on average taller than a Halfling, which still just seems wrong to me), they can see in the dark, and are very cunning at dealing with magic.
The size and darkvision to me are something that can be left down to the reskinning aspect of the exercise so the only question then is what about the intelligence and the Gnome Cunning which grants them advantage on saves against mental magic. Where did this defence against magic come from, and why are their race so smart? Are there any human or other groups for whom it fits? No bolts of inspiration hit me so perhaps the sub races of the Gnomes will aid us?
There are two sub races of Gnome in the Players Handbook. The Forrest Gnome and the Rock Gnome.
Forrest Gnomes are, you guessed it, Gnomes that live out in the wild forests and like Halflings make their homes underground. They get an increase to their dexterity, have the ability to cast minor illusion (a very useful cantrip for a creative player) and can also speak to small animals. There are no races within the Malazan world that fit even closer to that description.
Rock Gnomes live live deeper down than their forest kin and are more what most players think of when the imagine the Gnome, especially those who have played World of Warcraft. They have an increase to their constitution, have knowledge of Artificing, which allows them to know lore about magical items and finally they can use the Tinker’s Tools. Though these tools are described in “Xanathar’s Guid to Everything” as tools for fixing simple objects, thanks to the gnomes ability to spend gold and downtime to craft clockwork contraptions they have become to steampunk tools of choice. Where do clockwork contraptions fit into the world of the Malazan? At first you might think that there would be no place for the Gnomes. Until you remember one thing.
Ancient Clockwork ’Punk Dinosaurs
The K’Chain Che’Malle are a race of intelligent reptiles that live in a hive like structure and became extinct a very, very, very long time ago. One important aspect of them is that they were highly skilled in the creation of mechanical devices, relying on them far more than the younger races do due to how much magic was present in the general population. As such the only Clockwork Punk objects that appear in the world are their creations, or created by those that learnt from them.
Originally I planned on using the Dragonborn as a kind of descendant of the K’Chain Che’Malle who have forgotten most of the mechanical skills. One of the gentlemen I know who is also building a Malazan inspired D&D world has turned the Dragonborn into a kind of Cult of the Machine. Those of you familiar to Warhammer 40k will no doubt enjoy the idea of tech priests worshipping machines, but beneath their hoods are the heads of reptile people. Red Dragonborn considered more blessed as they can work in hotter forges, Black used to supply alchemical materials and perhaps White working in cold labs to stop machines from overheating. I rather like his, but the way I have been building the world it does not fit and a home has already been found for the Dragonborn state block in my design. Making the Gnome stat-block into tiny reptile people does appeal, but I’m already pushing my luck with the Tieflings. All of the major races in the Malazan world are clearly mammalian, so it is better that I maintain the feel of the books and stick to some form of Hominid.
Gnomes + K’Chain Che’Malle
So we have a race of small intelligent humanoids, who have some connection the K’Chain Che’Malle and are resistant to mental magic. They have two races. One who live near the surface, who can speak to animals and have limited illusion magic. Then we have the second race who live deeper underground and have access to the technology of the K’Chain Che’Malle.
So with a few simple questions I followed a path which allowed me to create a logical explanation of who these Gnomes are.
How could some Gnomes have access to K’Chain Che’Malle technology? Well, they found it.
Where are they most likely to find it? In one of the giant floating fortresses that the K’Chain Che’Malle call home.
Why do we get species, including humans, that are really small? Due to limited resources, pygmyism is most common on islands.
I think you can probably see where I am going with this.
A race of humans, probably the Imass or even the Eres, (both ancient forms of Hominid) perhaps found their way to the crashed remains of several Moons Spawn (the name given to those floating fortress’s). Having been crashed for a long time they had formed into islands with their own plants and soil. Coming to live there they discovered the deep caves that wound their way through their island homes. Deep within they found devices and machines they could not understand but over time might learn to. With large avian predators that live on the island or creatures from the sea, the people took to living in underground homes rather than building on the surface, perhaps even going so far as to live a whole completely nocturnal lifestyle.
But we have two sub races don’t we. How do they come about? Well we have Rock gnomes who live deeper down and make use of tinkerers tools, and we have forest gnomes who live in the wilds and can speak with beasts.
At this point I’m picturing a race like the Morlocks from H.G.Wells Time Machine (1895). I admit to never reading the book but the 2002 film was something I really enjoyed as a child. So like the Morlocks we have a race which has split into parts. Those Gnomes who live on the surface and suffer the most from predatory attacks (dexterity to avoid capture) and retreating into their shallow burrows by day, working the land by night. Then we have the Rock Gnomes, those of higher status who are living within the fortresses of the K’Chain Che’Malle and learning many of its secrets. In so doing become the rulers of those who live above. (So should the Rock gnomes be of ‘Lower’ status?)
Giving Gnomes a Culture and Style, Building on Player Knowledge
How do we push it a little bit further though, so that we don’t have players falling back into Gnomish stereotypes? Well the first thing to do would be to change the name. If you tell a player they are playing a Gnome, they can not help to bring their mental baggage along with them. So with the idea that they have learnt something from the ancient lizards, lets give them a name that hints to that. It might be a bit too much but I’ve called them the Che’Mess, with the ruling Rock Gnomes called K’Che’Mess. A combination of the lizard name, and just enough the the Imass and Eres in there to leave it open who their ancestors are. [Tough I continue to use the above names throughout this article I've come to realise that the name is far too much of a giveaway as to their history. to keep some mystery I need to come up with something more original, either drawing on the mythology of gnomes or from the other languages.]
The second is to make a clear visual style, that differentiates them from the pink haired giant moustached Gnomes that many people think of. Drawing on cultures that exist in our own world is the fastest way to build an interesting people and it also makes it a lot easier to describe a new race to a player when you can simply reference wheat they are already familiar with. There are several island nations that I could draw upon but the idea of Māori gnomes stopped my speculation pretty fast.
With their history of island hopping and seafaring cultures it fit nicely with the idea of a race who had arrived on these isolated islands and made in their home, moving between different islands for trade or war. I can imagine the Rock Gnomes being rulers of their different mountains and each one sending their Forrest Gnome workers to fight for them as well as cultivating their fields, using the technology they have gathered from far below to ensure that the more numerous Forrest Gnomes don’t take charge. Or perhaps the Forrest Gnomes war between each other, encouraged by the rock gnomes, as a way of keeping them distracted from their rulers?
Not to mention the natural history of New Zeeland. scientists were curious for years why the Kiwi is nocturnal. It was discovered that an ancient form of giant eagle used to live on New Zeeland causing many animals to become nocturnal, this was largely my inspiration for the nocturnal aspects of the Gnomes so far. There were also Moa, giant flightless. The Māori have a rich mythology of both giant birds, and reptiles from the sea, that I can use to build the predators that drove my creations underground.
What I had Starting the Game
So this is what I have been using until now based on these ideas:
Age: Che’Mess live longer than humans reaching 150 years of age. Some K’Che’Mess live up to 200.
Hight: Che’Mess grow to between 3 and 4 feet tall.
Common Class: K’Che’Mess are generally Wizards but those who are not gifted or lucky enough to posses their own magic may make a pact with an ascendant to become a Warlock. Those who enforce the working cast are often Eldritch knights. Che’Mess are normally fighters, barbarians, rangers or rogues. Some small number of shamans (Druids and Sorcerers) do exist but the K’Che’Mess ensure that they do not become too powerful. Even fewer in number are Clerics, these are devoted to an Ancient Hero’s who exemplify a particular character trait.
Overview The Che’Mess are small none human race that live on a large tropical island cluster featuring many mountains. The Che’Mess race are split in two between the surface Che’Mess who are a working cast, and the K’Che’Mess who rule them. The Che’Mess have no concept of gods or religion, though they do accept that these beings exist, they see them simply as powerful creatures. Instead the culture venerates stories of heroes from their history, both warriors and mystics, or even simply a brave mother. Their Islands have been isolated for years due to the storms and reefs that surround them, making physically leaving or approaching the island difficult. Only a small number of travellers have visited the islands and a brave few Che’Mass have traveled beyond the horizon to visit the wider world on their own.
The Che’Mess live largely upon the surface, planting and gathering crops, fishing in their canoes, or making war on rival tribes. Due to daylight predators, great birds and reptiles from the sea, the Che’Mass work mostly at night and live in homes built underground during the day. The Che’Mess have a knack for communicating with small animals with whom they feel a kinship, thanks to the predators of their islands. As such the Che’Mess to not eat meat, such food reserved for the rulers. As part of avoiding danger the Che’mess are also skilled illusionists, aiding them in escaping predators. This skill is used in performance as well, both in war and and the telling of stories.
The K’Che’Mess encourage constant fighting between the different island clans of Che’Mess, both to promote the power of their own island, but also to stop the surface cast from working together. This has resulted and a heavily warrior society that is quick to take offence and grudges are held for generations. Respect and appearance are highly important.
Che’Mass have light brown complexions and black hair, sporting numbers body tattoos across torso and face. These tattoos consists of stylised swirls and patterns which mimic forms in nature and are seen most heavily on warriors and shamans.
[Uses the Forest Gnome Statblock]
The K’Che’Mess rulers live within caverns beneath the islands that extend for vast distances. Making their homes in the upper tunnels where the air is still fresh they delve deep for the secrets beneath the surface. Such knowledge has allowed them, despite their lesser numbers to retain control over the more numerous Che’Mess. The Che’Mass supply them with food and are the only ones permitted to eat meat, maintaining the concept that the Che’Mess surface cast are prey while the K’Che’Mess rule under them as predators.
Despite the assumptions of the surface cast, living beneath the rocks of their islands is not the lap of luxury that one might think. Long hours working, excavating, and in poor air conditions make them hardier than their more nimble surface cousins. Long years of segregation have resulted in the two groups being unable to interbreed.
The K’Che’Mess culture means that those deeper under the ground are of higher standing; as such pale skin is seen as attractive and unlike their servant cast they sport a variety of hair colours. Like the surface cast the K’Che’Mess have numerous body and facial tattoos, though in their case, rather than curves, straight lines and circles dominate resembling their more rocky and artificial homes.
[Uses the Rock Gnome stat-block]
What Have I Missed?
So there are still some flaws with this, as well as other avenues for expansion.
The first problem is why do the Che’Mess not have superior darkvision? I made them nocturnal so as to explain why they would have darkvision, but if they only came out at night would they not just have superior darkvison? And if the K’Che’Mess only lived underground then they too would develop this feature.
In answer to that we look at how darkvison is normally used and ask a question. Dwarves spend most of their time underground, so why don’t they have superior darkvision? Well, simply because they are not completely adapted to it. If the Dwarves don’t have it, it should make sense for the Che’Mess to not have it. The other way to look it is by examining beasts. Many of the animals like cats that one might expect to have darkviosn due to hunting at night do not. Creatures like owls do, so far as having superior darkvison, but that is due to their generally amazing eyesight. I think then it is reasonable to say that even a nocturnal species of humanoid would not need to have evolved superior darkvison.
So though it might look like an issue, I don’t think there should be any problems.
Artificers Lore and +2 Intelligence
The big issue I’m having, and have honestly only realised upon writing this, is with Artificers Lore. As I have it now the Che’Mess as a whole have been isolated. This was my way of making my life easy, by not having to fit them into the wider world. But I have a problem now. Picture this:
Now if I have a K’Che’Mess Wizard player. They want to take a look at a magic sword. They say they want to use their Artificers Lore to roll a History check. They roll very high and I tell them that they have found a Hust Sword, an ancient artificial of the Tiste wars between light and dark.
I have a Arcane Trickster Che’Mess who wants to roll for religion.
Do you see the problem? I have an intelligent race who knows nothing about the outside world, making both their racial stat increase and the Rock Gnomes artificer Lore make zero sense. Would I just have the Che’Mess know different things. If I have two players who roll the same thing, I only tell the none Che’Mess player?
How am I going to fix this? Well, I can compromise. The island nation of the Che’Mess is still isolated. Physically it is very hard to get to get to or for the Che’Mess to leave. But what other method of transport are we familiar with from the Malazan books? Warren travel. Powerful mages can open a portal into a Warren of magic and can travel though it. So perhaps isolated as they are the K’Che’Mess developed advanced skills in warren travel and use it as a method of visiting the wider world.
I am inspired here somewhat by H.P Lovecrafts Great Race of Yith, which if you are not familiar with them are from the “Shadows Out of Time” story. I shan’t spoil the story for you but suffice to say they are knowledge gatherers. Deviating from that initial inspiration, I envision the K’Che’Mess forming knowledge gathering expeditions, assisted by units of Che’Mess warriors (who have no way home if the mage dies, ensuring their loyalty), travelling by warren to visit the wider world throughout history. Stealing items, technology, books, and possibly even people, they have gathered a vast amount of knowledge.
This method makes it perfectly fitting to explain how a Che’Mess knows some lore about Azath or a K’Che’Mass knows about a magical object created in Seven Cities. It also expands the potential of how a player could come to be in my campaign. Originally I only had Che’Mess who had escaped from the island by boat, or K’Che’Mess who had used magic to visit the wider world for unknown purposes. The idea of fanatical knowledge gatherers popping up around the world to steal rare objects and sometimes leaving people behind, makes for some much more creative stories and far more variety in character creation options. (Not to mention K’Che’Mass knowledge clerics).
The final issue is one again that I only spotted when writing this article. Because for the other races I really had to study all of their attributes and think about how they worked. In order to re skin them I made sure to take them into account during my design. Where as for the Gnomes, I just looked at their size and for an explanation of their Tinker’s tools and living underground. I ignored the other details. Perhaps Wizards of the Coast do too, as it isn’t explained in the player handbook. Perhaps when my Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes arrives it will give answer.
So why are Che’Mess Cunning when it comes to magic that would effect their mind?
Lets consider some options.
Could there be something magical about the storms that effect the island and stop them leaving? Some sort of illusion or mind control magical effect that is part of the landscape, that they have had to fight off the effects of which has given them heightened ability to fight off such effects. Which due to long term expose on the surface is also the reason the Che’Mess posses their own illusion magic?
What about the cast system? Perhaps The K’Che’Mess make use of lots of enchantment spells to mind control people and each other. Tens of thousands of years of magic focused on controlling each others minds might result in a race more hardy at defending against it.
Could predators be the answer? There are many strange creatures that make up the Malazan world, the Jhorligg being the main option I was considering for the predator from the sea (Lees at Laughters End). There is also appears in the same book another powerful beast with amazing mental powers. Reading the books I had simply assumed they were one and the same species, so perhaps the older Jhorligg are capable of mental control or attacks, and over the generations only those able to withstand them have survived, resulting in a mental hardiness? Or even some other predator? Perhaps I could make use of the Siren (I know it is a Harpy, but real greek harpies don’t lure sailers to their deaths so I’ll call it a siren) from the Monster Manual, re-skin it a bit and have the Che’Mess deal for generations with predators who played with their minds?
The last possibility is something relating to the K’Chain Che’Malle. What is some machine left over from their old constructions is still active? Something related to the oils that they produced from their bodies in order to communicate, alter their minds etc. Either gaining a tolerance to these oils or long exposure to the oils having changed them and increased their mental ability.
Currently I’m erring on the side of predatory idea, as this leave me more options when it come to encounters on the islands if players ever go there, I’ll have to continue thinking about it.
A few of you will have thought early on about Dungeons and Dragons Deep Gnomes and questioned why I hadn’t bought it up. The first answer is that I simply had not thought about them when I first started, so they played no part in the early design. My focuses was making the Player Handbook races fit so I hadn’t really bothered thinking about the extended races. Originally they were completely ignored.
That was until I discussed with my father, who is a big fantasy and such-fi fan, about my project. When I explained the idea of the surface gnomes ruled over by the gnomes underground who posses superior technology, the first thing the said was
“Oh, and there could be an even deeper level of gnomes that none of the others know about, but who secretly control even the ruling gnome class. A bit like the humans who worship the bomb in the Planet of the Apes films.”
To be able to say that there was already a deeper race of gnomes that I could use for this was perfect. I have no intentions of making them a playable race, but rather the hidden hand behind the Che’Mess.
The Deep Gnome racial abilities of being able cast non detection, disguise self etc as well as advantage on stealth checks in rocky terrain make them a great option for the hidden rulers of the Che’Mess, manipulating events as they see fit from even deeper within the K’Chain Che’Malle fortresses than their kin. Hiding in the walls and perhaps with an even deeper understanding of how the K’Chain Che’Malle technology works, I think there is a lot of opportunity for great stories and adventures to be had on the islands of the Che’Mess.
Well……that was a lot more writing than I was expecting. Creating a whole race to plonk into the Malazan world while also sticking within the confines of the Gnome stats was quite the interesting challenge. I hope what I have created here is something that players can really enjoy, and that a few of you might take on when either trying to find a home for Gnomes in your own campaign world, or perhaps if you are running a Malazan inspired world yourself.
This is the end of my articles on the Races section and I hope that now I can start talking about the campaign itself. I plan on writing an overview, then going through the design of each section, hopefully as much shorter articles than I have written here!
To those brave few who have soldiered on all the way through this then thank you for taking the time to read it.