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Outside of D&D, whenever anyone thinks of a gnome, they are more likely to think of a "garden gnome" or (something along the lines of "David the Gnome"), not how they are presented in D&D.

There's plenty of information out there about gnomes in-universe, but out of universe, why are they as they are and not more like garden gnomes (i.e. Tiny Fey creatures, most likely)? What influences inspired the D&D gnome as it first appeared, and continues to appear today?

This came up because I was recently getting a couple of people into D&D using the 5e starters set, but I also brought the PHB along to allow for all races and classes (since I wanted them to have more variety whilst creating characters). I was describing each to them, and all the other races made sense to them, but then we got to gnomes.

What they imagined were garden gnomes, whereas what I was describing sounded more like an alternative to a halfling. The best way I could describe it in the end is basically like a more magically-inclined halfling; "they are to halflings what elves are to humans", which they accepted (in a "if you say so..." kind of way) but it still brought to my attention how weird it is that gnomes are what they are in D&D.

So, how come gnomes in D&D are as they are and not more like garden gnomes or another more common depiction of gnomes?


Note: I am not asking about wanting to change them in any way, since I like D&D gnomes as they are, but it doesn't make much sense to me as to why they are like that to begin with. This also isn't about why they're not considered Tiny in 5e since all playable races are Small or Medium in 5e.

I am definitely not asking for that can only be answered with Crawford tweets or whatever, nor anything from Gary Gygax back in the day (although these sorts of quote won't be rejected either; they're just not mandatory), simply what other depictions of gnomes exist that differ from the garden gnome that may have influenced how they currently are in D&D.

This isn't about any system in particular, hence why this isn't tagged but rather , since as far as I can tell, they've always kinda been as they are presented in 5e throughout all editions, although I only really know about 3.5e (via NWN2) and 5e.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking why they are presented the way they are, or what the history of gnomes in D&D is? Because the community recently decided that "why did they make it that way" questions are off-topic. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage May 5 '18 at 17:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ We have a meta question recommending other forums. Everyone agrees that designer reasons questions seem like they should be on-topic, but in practice they tend to attract way more random passerby speculation than actual properly-sourced answers. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage May 5 '18 at 17:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ The history of how races came to be portrayed by modern D&D is a type of question we field here. We have a previous question about dwarves, for example. Though asking “why did the designers do X?” is off topic, “how did we get here?” is on-topic. I even know how I would answer this question (it has a solid answer), but the volume of research I would need to chase down every source and piece of evidence to properly support the explanation is beyond me at the moment. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 5 '18 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Thanks for the clarification; just to confirm, this is not a "why did designers do X?" question, but rather a "how did we get here?" question. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS May 5 '18 at 17:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah. I don't think it needs rephrasing (the “why” is fine, but naturally we're a bit on edge with “why” in question titles due to the recent issue of why-design questions). But if it was rephrased, that would be fine, as would something along the lines of “where does D&D's version of gnomes come from” or “what's the history of the D&D version of gnomes”. I don't think it needs rephrasing though — actually, I think it might be better like this, to demonstrate that it's not the “why” word, but the meaning of a question that uses it, that matters for being on/off-topic. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 5 '18 at 17:17
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As far as I can tell, the D&D Gnomes are somewhat of a hybrid between Gnomes and Nisse (the "inspiration" for Garden Gnomes)

D&D actually has a surprising level of research and ancient, somewhat-obscure mythologies behind it, as can be seen from the Gorgon in this answer.

The earliest forms of gnomes called as-such (well, technically they were called "genomos", but it's close) are thought to date from the 16th century, featuring in Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris et Gigantibus, by the Swiss scholar Paracelsus. They are a form of Earth Elemental that manifests as a small, human-like figure, about two "spans" (one cubit) tall, and can move through solid earth like it was air.[2]

Gnomes really became popular during the 18th Century in fairy tales, where they were typically depicted as the benevolent and ingenious guardians of treasures and mines. Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars, the Abbot of the town of Villars, France, and who was the source for Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, describes gnomes in this way[3]:

"The Earth is filled almost to the Center with Gnomes or Pharyes, a People of small Stature, the Guardians of Treasures, of Mines, and of Precious Stones. They are Ingenious, Friends of Men, and easie to be commandded [sic]."

This is likely where the D&D source for gnomes comes from: inventive, benevolent creatures who enjoy gems ("Precious Stones") as well as their procurement.

Meanwhile, it is also interesting to note that Garden Gnomes are derived from the Scandinavian Nisse/Tomte/Tomtenisse, which is an ancestral farming spirit which ranges from a few inches to half the height of a human (or almost analogous to their size in D&D, 3-4 feet high), but the Nisse itself is more like a winter version of a Gnome than what a Garden Gnome is.

Overall, I suspect that the D&D version of Gnomes combines several aspects of gnomes from history into one type of creature.

This was actually a fun question to research for, thank you.

(1 is in-use by the link for Gorgons)

[2]Lewis, C. S. (1964). The Discarded Image - An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge University Press. p. 135. ISBN 0-521-47735-2.

[3] Montfaucon de Villars, Nicolas-Pierre-Henri (1680). The Count of Gabalis: Or, The Extravagant Mysteries of the Cabalists, Exposed in Five Pleasant Discourses on the Secret Sciences. Translated by Gent, P. A. London: B. M. Printer. pp. 29–30. OCLC 992499594.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm originally American and have played a lot of D&D, but now I live in Sweden. Last night I was reading my daughter a book (in Swedish) about tomtar, and I thought, "So this is where D&D gnomes come from!" \$\endgroup\$ – brendan May 5 '18 at 21:32
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Gnomes appear in Original D&D volume 2, Men & Magic, and its predecessors Chainmail and Swords & Spells, in pretty much the same style as they've been ever since in D&D.

I didn't find this at all strange when I first started playing back in 1979, and it didn't suggest garden gnomes to me at all. While gnomes aren't in Tolkien, they did show up in plenty of children's books of the 1960s and earlier. The Little Grey Men by "B.B." probably formed a lot of my idea of gnomes - they're much smaller than D&D gnomes, but otherwise have a lot in common.

Garden gnomes, in the 1970s, were clear markers of people with no taste at all. Nowadays, their implications are much more mixed. D&D preserves quite a few tropes from the time of its creation.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As a quick note, Gnomes were originally on Tolkien as a race of elves. They were later called Noldoli/Noldor Elves. Check here \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 5 '18 at 20:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint To be fair, though, gnomes as a myth have been around for far longer than Tolkien. They were, admittedly, much smaller than they are in D&D (two "spans", where one "span" is roughly the distance between the thumb and the littlest finger when both are extended), but in many other aspects they were similar. This description is from Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris et Gigantibus \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath May 5 '18 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint Nevermind, I see the context of your comment now. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath May 5 '18 at 20:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint That wouldn't have been an influence on D&D, though -- JRR Tolkien didn't use the term "gnomes" in any of his published books. It only appeared in some of the posthumous works which his son started publishing in the early 1980s. By that time, the usage of "gnomes" in D&D was already established. \$\endgroup\$ – duskwuff May 6 '18 at 22:41

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