Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Failings of Gnomes

I don’t understand why there is such an adherence to the various books that have been put out over the years by Wizards of the Coast and their predecessors, which somehow says that these monsters have to have these characteristics or that those monsters have to have these behavioral patterns or what have you.

I’ll take a very old, old example: dwarves and elves do not get along.

Who says?

Well, Tolkein for a start, along with the Player’s Handbook and god knows how many oblique and direct references in modules and material I’ve read and I haven’t read. But you know what? I don’t care about any of that. I have party members who are dwarves and elves and really, when it comes down to it, they’d rather not squabble their way through every session. It’s boring.

More generally speaking, I don’t really give a shit how Forgotten Realms portrayed the svirfneblin, or how drow elf society is supposed to function according to R.A. Salvatore (whom I’ve never read and whom I’m not going to read), or how many troll races are capable of being invented by all and sundry. None of those things have anything to do with my world, or how I choose to use and portray the monsters and humanoids wandering over my landscape.

I guess I’m just not enough of a nerd to try to make the discontinuity of hundreds of opinions make some kind of unified sense. Or perhaps I have better things to spend my money on than pulp fiction and reprocessed modules (scratch out “orc” and write in “bladerager troll”…change module approval from 1st to 9th level characters).

For me, with no recognized precedent whatsoever, svirfneblin came into existence some 13,000 years ago. How they did is unclear; legends say they were made by gods, but it may be that they blundered into this plane of existence from some other. In any event, for more than two thousand years, they did little more than dwell in tunnels deep beneath the Kjølen, or Kölen, mountain range that runs through the Scandinavian Peninsula. During that time they did not see the sun nor even, according to myth, know of the existence of the sun.

Explorations upwards did eventually lead svirfneblin explorers to the surface; some of their number remained at or near the surface, changing their diet to include surface animals and plants. Various genetic changes affected those who came to the surface, who began to call themselves “gnomes.” Fertility increased also with the new diet and their numbers expanded quickly over the next millenia.

Circa 10,000 years ago, with the retreat of the ice of the last ice age, from population pressure Gnomes began to migrate south and east, crossing the frozen Baltic Sea during the winters of this period and eventually settling in the river basins of the Vistula, Nemunas and Daugava; this area would not be occupied by the Balts for more than another five thousand years. During that time a great Gnome culture would spread from the Tatra Mountains to the Volga River…though not far beyond, for at that time much of what is today Bashkiria was occupied by cave trolls, only vaguely tribal but too great in number to permit Gnomish settlement in the foothills of the Urals.

At no time did the Gnomes ever create a single empire that occupied their extent. Various kingdoms dwelt in relative peace until the 3000s B.C., their southern extent ending at the narrow parklands separating the southern steppe from the boreal forest. In all, the great failing of the Gnome race was its all abiding pacifism; too slow to mobilize, they were steadily consumed by more aggressive races (trolls, gnolls, humans) who burned their cities or conquered them, selling many Gnomes into slavery.

The last grand empire of the Gnomes was that of the Vepsians, the Veps being a noble family which ruled in succession for a period of 15 centuries, beginning circa 650 B.C. until 972 A.D., when the last Vepsian emperor—Borin the Crippled—died without heirs in battle against the Varangians of Kiyev.

The Vepsian kingdom was one of many in the central highlands west of the Dneiper Basin. Rurin the III, the fifth king of his line, was instrumental in consolidating the Gnomes and joining with the Elves against the gnolls at the Battle of Silver Lake; during the next century, several kingdoms peacefully conjoined with the Vepsian, which came to control all the lands from the Nemunas to the lower Kama.

The arrival of the Rus, who were essentially Vikings, in the 9th century was the beginning of the end. The peace-loving Gnomes eventually fell apart against the continued human incursion into their lands, until finally by the 14th century they had divided into two remaining kingdoms.

The first, the official remnant of the Vepsian, is that of Vepses which occupies the valley of the Svir River between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. The other is the martial kingdom of Harnia, whose capital Harn is in the location of the city we call Penza. Harnia eschewed the ways of its forefathers and adopted a more formal military structure; this structure enabled Harn to remain steadfast against the onslaught of the Mongol (haruchai) invasion of 1240-42, and to this day remains an outpost surrounded on two sides by orc-held territories.


  1. Re: Demi-human archetypes.
    For my part I'm often annoyed with the tradition that dwarves are by their nature unmagical. I suppose there are game balance reasons for not having dwarven wizards, but even so it strikes me also as an arbitrary relic of Tolkien (or perhaps some other literary or folkloric source I'm unaware of).

    Re: gnomes
    Is there a remnant svirfneblin population still living in the deeps?

    More inanely, what did the proto-gnomes eat before they started catching rabbits? Mushrooms, slime, worms and beetles? Or did they have a more magical biology: gems, stone, loam, etc? This, and your comments about improved fertility suggest a gaunt race of barely subsisting hunter gatherers.

  2. THAT is an excellent write-up on cave biology. It has me tripping out. Thank you max for that addition.

    That's a good question, isn't it? ARE there remnant svirfneblin populations....????

    I think I'd have to go with your proposal about barely subsisting hunter gatherers. But what, assuming they exist, might they have found in all this time?

    I don't have to create adventures; if anyone wants to find out, all they need to do is go and look.

  3. Ha! I just noticed this, listed under nutrient sources:

    7. cavers

    More likely to take on a literal meaning in a D&D world!


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