Today we continue the discussion on how to reconcile long-lived races with the desire to have realistic worldbuilding and roleplaying in our D&D games. There are many challenges presented to us as DMs wishing to create robust settings when one must include in them races that live for hundreds of years at a time, and players face a whole separate suite of issues stemming from this same source.
The most simple way to reconcile these things is to introduce the limitations of memory to the people of your worlds. Elves don’t remember everything because they physically can’t. The same is true for Dwarves, Halflings, Half-Elves and all the multi-centennial races of the multiverse.
Today we discuss Gnomes.
We have discussed so far how a limited memory is inherent to the structure of the mind, and we have treated this like an irrefutable fact that all long-lived races must mitigate somehow. Dwarves cultivate a society of temporary mastery, Elves actively manage what they choose to store in their minds.
Gnomes, however, break this mould entirely. Gnomish brains are naturally more powerful and capable than those of other sapient races. A Gnome in fact can remember the majority of its 500-year lifespan. Why then do Gnomes not advance technology to an incredible degree compared to other races?
Well the answer to that is simple. They actually do advance technology, as well as arcanology. They are excellent chroniclers and historians, their scholars are second-to-none. The reason this doesn’t skew the technological progression of a wider realm is for an entirely separate reason: Rarity.
Rate Of Replacement
Gnomish children are exceptionally easy to raise, at least by most standards. Their powerful minds make them excellent learners from a young age. They grasp language quickly, allowing them to communicate with their seniors to far more proficient degrees than children of equivalent ages in other societies. They pick up the baseline of necessary skills to function in a society with great speed. It is not unusual for a Gnome to be involved in a family’s economic activity to a similar degree of competency as their parents from around the age of 8.
This has the curious effect of meaning Gnomes will seldom have large families. Indeed, more than just 2 children is rare. This is due to a number of factors.
Firstly, Gnomish advancements in medicine combined with the sheer capability of their children mean child mortality is low, so off-setting a high mortality rate by having lots of children is unnecessary.
Secondly, Gnomish children are a handful. Their mental acumen make them easy to raise from a pragmatic standpoint, but that powerful mind must be actively nurtured. Parents can only dedicate so much time to keeping their children mentally stimulated, and to stimulate and challenge the minds of 3 or more Gnomish children would take more hours than there are in the day. It is an accepted fact among Gnomes that they are smart, so raising a stunted child who is left unable to reach their full mental potential due to lack of attention is considered a great shame for the parents.
Suffice to say that there are simply not as many Gnomes in most realms as there are other races. Indeed, in the realms where Gnomes are a greater majority often technology has advanced significantly as a result.
Scholars, Wizards And Tinkerers
There is something of a stereotype that all Gnomes are either scholars, wizards, or tinkerers. This is similar to the stereotype of all Dwarves being master artisans, and indeed there is again some basis for this in reality.
A well-nurtured Gnomish mind will, as the Gnome becomes more independent, continue to seek stimulation and challenge. These three professions are at their very core highly mentally stimulating and challenging. Gnomes gravitate toward these disciplines as they are satisfying to the powerful Gnomish mind.
It is not fair to simply point out these three disciplines and act as though each are monolithic, however. To do so would be to discredit the sheer breadth of Gnomish academia. Scholars will more specifically be botanists, historians, linguists, astronomers, and so on. Tinkerers will be engineers, inventors, arcanosmiths, alchemists, etc.
Indeed, of the three, wizards are the most seemingly-monolithic. This still however is not entirely true. Gnomish wizards will be evocationists, diviners, abjurers, and so on. This may seem standard but in fact this is only because it has become so among wizards of other races. It is Gnomish arcanists that originated the idea of organising wizarding disciplines by the different manifestations of magic, now codified with their modern names and arranged into ‘schools’.
To think that Gnomes haven’t advanced the societies around them is to misunderstand or forget the origin of many of our technologies and concepts. It was Gnomish tinkerers who first invented physical devices for divination such as scrying lenses. It was Gnomish botanists who first cultivated the modern, robust versions of the crops we grow (compared to their wild-growing ancestors). It was Gnomish engineers who first built windmills and watermills. It is many of the things that we now think of as so fundamental that are in fact Gnomish inventions and discoveries from ages past.
If there is one unifying concept that pervades Gnomish academia it is the idea of Completeness. Gnomes above all else seek a completeness of understanding. A Gnome exploring a concept or testing a theory will not walk away from that theory until they have explored every possible facet of it.
This is often mistaken for the oft-touted ‘Gnomish Curiosity’, as a Gnome will continue pursuing a concept long after any other scholar would rule it out as fruitless. This habit sees them plumbing the depths of an idea far more fully than their scholarly peers from other societies.
Even when something fails or doesn’t work, a Gnome is compelled to explore that failure in its fullest. If a Gnomish tinkerer finds a device does not work as intended and explodes periodically, they will work to make that explosion as perfected as possible. They must work until they understand every possible way the device can fail such that it causes an explosion, and must manipulate the failure until they have produced every kind of explosion possible.
It is due to this that a Gnome can step away from their work and know with absolute certainty that they know everything there is to know about it. Understanding why something works is only half as useful as understanding both why it works and why it doesn’t work when done differently.
This is where we also find the origins of another stereotype. Despite their reputation as incredible inventors and tinkerers Gnomes always seem to be creating things that break, blow up or otherwise fail. Gnomish wizards seem to always be mis-casting spells. Gnomish scholars always seem to be devoting decades at a time to obviously fruitless pursuits. However, just as the stereotype would have you believe that this is because all Gnomes are secretly incompetent it is in fact because the exact opposite is true. Gnomes are competent to a degree almost incomprehensible to other societies.
Gnomes understand fail-states so keenly that they know far ahead of time whether something will fail or not, while other societies often only find out after-the-fact. Indeed Gnomes find it laughable that so-called ‘experts’ in other societies will claim to know everything about a concept when they only understand how it works and have no knowledge of the ways in which it would not work if circumstances were different.
Due to this obsession for ‘completeness’ Gnomes will take significantly longer to reach what other races would call ‘mastery’ in a discipline. While a Dwarven smith will find a technique does not work and will ignore it to focus on learning what does work, a Gnome will spend several decades exploring the flawed technique before continuing on with learning more successful methods of smithing. As such, they will appear to an outsider to ‘lag behind’ the Dwarf in terms of mastery. The Gnome sees this differently, however, considering the Dwarf to hardly be a master at all.
This Gnomish idea of ‘completeness’ of knowledge extends into other professions that are less about discovering new things and instead concerned with preserving that which has been. This does beg the question again of how things get lost to time when there are such meticulous record-keepers as Gnomes in the world. The explanation draws once again from the same notion of completeness.
A Gnomish historian will not just record the few ‘key events’ as other races might consider them to be. Instead they will record everything. Indeed Gnomes find it insufferable that historians in other societies will pick-and-choose what to record with the claim that only certain things are important. Gnomes consider it highly arrogant that these so-called ‘historians’ think they have the authority to decide what is and isn’t important.
This sees the emergence of two major roadblocks for those that would turn to Gnomish records as a way to remember what has come before. The first is that Gnomish records are dense, dry, and filled to the brim with information most will find meaningless. If one were to be searching for, say, a long-lost artefact that was lost at sea then they would find themselves sifting through endless pages of shipping manifests, crew logs, meteorological records and even histories of the mechanics of sailing itself, all codified in the same single enormous tome. Somewhere in there may be one line that mentions this one artefact, revealing the ship it was aboard and where the ship likely sank based on the weather patterns present at the time.
The other issue with relying on Gnomish record-keeping is that creating and maintaining records takes time and space. Indeed eventually old records will deteriorate and the knowledge they contained will be lost. This is a natural and unavoidable process. One would think that this would bother the completionist Gnomish historians, but in fact the opposite is true. Every lost morsel of knowledge becomes something that can now be re-discovered, and to the thirsty Gnomish mind the possibility of discovery is tantalising. By slowly losing the knowledge held in records Gnomes continue to fuel their own desire for mental stimulation.
Despite all this, even for a Gnome memory is finite. It is broader and with a greater capacity than the memories of most, but it has its limits. A Gnome at the age of 350 will inevitably begin to forget things, much as a human of 70 would. This does not bother a Gnome though, for once again everything forgotten is a thing to be rediscovered. A Gnome’s advanced years are filled with the joy of unwittingly rediscovering that which was once known to them. What is by other races often considered a tragedy is to Gnomes a small pleasure awarded to those who live long enough to begin forgetting.
Fundamentally all Gnomes will find themselves across their lifetimes engrossed with and greatly fulfilled by the joy of knowledge.
A Small World After All
When introducing Gnomes to your settings there are a few things to consider if we want to be able to reconcile their great lifespans with the necessary limitations of a world’s technology. Keeping Gnomes relatively rare, or possibly relatively isolated, is a key piece to this (consider also the notion of the Industrial Pocket).
Gnomes provide more opportunities than problems though, as Gnomes can act as excellent sources of technologies you wish to include in your settings. If your realm has firearms then perhaps Gnomes first invented them. Any other race would never explore the specific confluence of alchemical and mechanical concepts required to develop a firearm to the same extreme degree as a Gnome would.
Alternatively, if you have a high-technology setting in mind then Gnomes are a great point of origination for this advancement. Perhaps Gnomes are significantly more common in this setting, or perhaps their inventions simply get adopted more quickly and readily by other societies. Indeed, a high-technology setting may be crumbling into ruin as the Gnomish populations have dwindled and no-one else truly understands how to maintain the devices society relies on as well as the Gnomes did.
Also consider Gnomes as being a source of your players learning about those things that are otherwise lost to time, but have that learning be a challenge. They may need to expend significant time to trawl through dense records, or track down the record’s original author to ask them about specific details. There may be a slew of skill challenges between them and learning of their lost artefact’s final resting place.
As far as Gnomes go as player characters, once again they naturally make for great scholars, wizards and tinkerers. In addition to the natural inclination toward classes such as Wizards and Artificers, the Gnomish need for mental stimulation may well be what drives them out into the world to seek new experiences or learn more about their current obsession. Gnomes at their very core make for excellent adventurers.
During their middle-age a Gnome will continue to be as sharp as they were in their youth. Players who like having a deep knowledge of the lore of a world will get a lot out of playing a Gnome with some years of travel and experience behind them, as they can serve as an in-universe mouthpiece for this knowledge rather than having the DM relay it to the other players. Such a character may only just now be starting the life of an adventurer as a happenstance side-effect of their other scholarly expeditions, or they may be an already decently-capable Wizard joining a mid-to-high level party after that player’s original character died.
There’s also something to be said for playing into the stereotype of the ‘old doddery Gnome’. This provides opportunities such as playing a Wild Magic Sorcerer who considers themself a Wizard but has forgotten the techniques of spell execution and occasionally misfires, or perhaps as the Wizard’s scholarly source of their power deteriorated they chose to strike a pact and become a Warlock.
Then there are the ‘Scholarly’ Gnomes whose disciplines are outside the purview of being Wizards or Wizard-adjacent classes. A Gnomish archaeologist may be a Rogue, a Gnomish playwright may be a Bard, a Gnomish theurge may be a Cleric. Indeed, a Gnome may have dedicated themselves to the study of natural laws and become a Druid, but from the perspective of an observer and student rather than a protector.
Ultimately, consider how the power of the Gnomish mind informs who your character is, who they have chosen to become and what discipline they have opted to pursue. Where other characters may have to account for memory’s limitation, you instead have to account for its lack of limitation for Gnomes.
Perhaps by some quirk of evolution Gnomes find themselves with minds beyond compare. Where Dwarves and especially Elves have to actively manage their memories over their lifespans Gnomes are far more free to fill their heads with whatever flights of fancy take them. Indeed a Gnome can even afford to be reckless with what they choose to learn and remember, much to the envy of the extremely-disciplined Elves.
Explore in your games how Gnomes may benefit the world around them, both as sources of technological advancement and scholarly record-keeping. Indeed, Gnomish invention can serve as a great fundamental start-point for the particular blend of technologies you wish to include in your settings.
So that brings us to the end of Gnomes. I hope you’ve come away with some useful ideas for how to both play Gnomish characters and integrate Gnomish societies into your worlds without ultimately breaking the pseudo-medieval miasma of traditional D&D settings.
Halflings and Half-Elves are on the horizon still, and beyond that we may yet discuss the short-lived races as well as some of the more exotic creatures of the multiverse. Thanks as always for reading!