Digging Deep (Gnomes)

Deep Gnome by Ben Hodson

In one of my favorite home campaigns that I ever played, I played a gnome cleric who worshipped—as if I even have to say it—Garl Glittergold.  The DM for that campaign was as awesome and dedicated as a DM could be, and before long one of the ongoing plot threads was a worldwide war between Glittergold and the evil gnomish deity Urdlen, the Crawler Below.

This was one of those campaigns that make you want to write novels about it: the PCs were engaging and fun, with rich and intertwined backstories.  Both the villains and the helpful NPCs were richly imagined characters in their own rights.  Everything within this homebrewed world seemed to make sense, and the setting breathed with a life all its own.

Except for the deep gnomes.  Older gamers might remember them as the sverfneblin.  Even the name sounded jarring, like fingernails on the proverbial chaldboard.  They were an integral part of the campaign’s story, but they just seemed forced.  It was as if the game’s designers knew that if the elves had the drow, and the dwarves had the duergar, the gnomes needed an Underdark counterpart as well.  But whereas the drow were cool in their history and design, and the duergar made sense as the dwarves that had made infernal pacts with the evil incarnations deep below the mountains, the sverfneblin (I cringe just to type the name) seemed corny.

And the worst part was I couldn’t really even get a good nerd-rage hatred worked up for them, because they weren’t even evil.  They were just sort of there, being the watered-down version of the dwarf in story, and being just underground gnomes in design.  If they had been evil and sinister, at least I could have gotten some joy out of kicking the snot out of their cantrip-using, nondetection-emitting little gnomish butts.  But they were just there.

A few years later, a great boxed-set adventure called The Night Below was released, and my gaming group asked me to run a campaign based around it.  I was stoked to get into it, and I loved what I was reading.  Then boom, like half-witted relatives who always seems to find you when you are out on the town trying to impress a date, the sverfneblin appeared and ruined everything.  I could not even summon up the enthusiasm to run the campaign because of my sverfneblin mental block.

Decades have passed since my initial interactions with the deep gnomes.  They popped back into my mind recently as I was imagining some possible adventures to be set in the Feydark (the intersection between the Underdark and the Feywild).  In such a place, the sverfneblin actually seem like they might fit.  I have been away from the dirty little buggers for long enough now that I am curious if there might be a way to give them a legitimate place in the ecology and history of a world on their own.  So let’s see what we can do!

[As an aside, I know that there is a hardcover from WotC called Underdark that even has a chapter on the Feydark that contains information on gnomes living in there.  It is probably the one 4e book published by WotC that I do not own.  I am going to assume that the sverfneblin did not make a glorious return there.]

First, a New Name?

While I love tradition, and I have been accused of creating one or two unpronounceable names in my time, “sverfneblin” has got to go.  I don’t have a lot of great ideas for a cool-sounding name for a race of Underdark gnomes, but really I think I can just run my fingers across the keys and come up with something better.  Hell, even “gnophers” would be better than “sverfneblin.”

Maybe group-think would be better on this.  In the comments area, feel free to put in your suggestions for names.  The person who comes up with the best name wins a free cyberpat-on-the-back.

What’s Their Shtick?

Every good monster (and a few bad ones) needs a trait or characteristic that makes them recognizable mechanically.  Kobolds have shifty, goblins have goblin tactic, and gnolls have pack attack.  What should our deep gnomes be known for?

Actually, if what we are seeing from Wizards recently is any indication, gone are the days when all monsters have the same special racial ability.  In Craig Campbell’s nifty article about duergar, he provides a list of alternative quill powers.  I applaud this new design direction.  There was nothing more frustrating than having a tough duergar soldier base up to a character, only to realize that using the infernal quills power would provoke an opportunity attack.  Campbell creates a different quill power for each category of monster, and if Wizards R&D is smart they will continue this aspect of monster design into future offerings.

Still, our deep gnomes need something.  Being creatures who live in the dark caves, I strongly suggest that they have some powers and/or traits related to stone.  But before we create the powers, let’s dig deeper into what their world would look like.

I think the new expanded way that monsters are handled in publications—with more detail provided on their habitats, origins, attitudes, and other considerations rather than just the stat blocks—is a great thing.  As both a DM and an adventure designer, those additions to the monster entries can provide a great many ideas for games or whole campaigns.

Deep Gnome Society

In a place as dark and dangerous as the Feydark, I see deep gnome societies as focused solely on survival.  They would not have the time or energy to enjoy such frivolous activities as mining gems or ore.  They would spend most of their time harvesting mushrooms or other edible crops, caring for herds of lizards or large frogs for food and other activities, and defending their lairs from the many dangers of the Feydark.

If something fantastical is needed to make the deep gnomes a little more interesting, I could see them as protectors or stewards of areas containing regions touched by fey magic: enchanted springs, fey portals, etc.  This gives them a little more fascination for players who might need something from them or–more appropriately–need a reason to fight them.

In terms of personality, deep gnomes need to be far different than just regular gnomes with darkvision.  Personally, I would love to see deep gnomes take on some of the characteristics of Gollum from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, only without the cuddliness.  Okay, maybe not that bad.  But I would definitely want players in my games to never, ever feel at ease around deep gnomes–even if they strike truces with them.  I would want the players to feel that at any moment, these strange, hairless, paranoid little creatures might turn on them just because they were a little hungry.  And I certainly would not want to take the time to create stat blocks for them if the PCs were never going to fight them.

The deep gnomes would have to hold a powerful affinity with the stone tunnels in which they live.  Their magic and their power should spring up from that very stone.  Their defenses and traps and attacks should call upon the rock and stone where they eke out their existences.

Their weapons should be of stone, as should their tools.  Their armor could be created from the hide of the lizards and amphibians that they raise and kill for food and clothes.  These creatures of burden would also act as mounts, both for more mundane tasks and in battle.

Sample Stat Block

With all that in mind, I decided to see what I could come up with as a stat block for my first deep gnome creation: the deep gnome sentry.  As a sentry, it would be her job to be the first line of defense against raiders of the deep gnome territories.  Assuming that there were traps and other barricades erected in the tunnels behind her, the main job of the sentry would be to slow down the intruders long enough to let her fellow deep gnomes get the defenses in place. The sentry gains power from the stone of the tunnels that she guards, using it to do more damage and restrict the movement of enemies.

Take a gander at the stat block and let me know what you think.  Are these little guys and gals worthy of a place in the D&D world?  If so, what would their fellow warriors look like?


  1. Nice. Sometimes races need a little kick to bring them back to the use-able world. I’ve had some similar issues with this race. I read some of the Drizzt novels, and they were promoted their as sort of the only points of light in the underdark. They also had a strong affinity with the earth, and their clerics could summon Earth Elementals, which was neat.

  2. I think the idea of deep gnomes as a race of Gollums sums up everything you need 🙂 Might just have to steal that

  3. Maybe you could call them erdgeists (the german gnome equivalent)?

    As for Underdark, yes, gnomes do make an appearance, but that horrid “sv” word is never mentioned. Their culture is very egoist; they believe that they were the original gnomes and the gnomes of the above world are descended from those who were too weak to survive in the Feydark. They also have a saying that “religion is a trick you play on the gods to make them give you things,” and their priests brag that they can worship multiple deities at once without the gods knowing. Mechanically, however, they’re still the same as overworld gnomes.

    I think mixing gnomes’ innate trickery and magic with stone and earth would be cool. Maybe they have a power that can knock an opponent standing on the ground prone from far away? Erdgeists in German myth can move through stone as if it were air. That’s a bit powerful for a D&D race, though!

  4. They should be called Merwins…

  5. AD&D Svirfneblin have the chance of summoning earth elementals, so a summoner variant (Earth Caller? Stone Speaker?) could be cool. They call the tough (6th level, ha!) svirfneblin “Burrow Warden”, which could be a cool name for an elite.

    Illusionist angles are big in the AD&D version. They all have blindness, blur, change self, and non-detection. Change self could be fun for a lurker, maybe borrowing the “I look like you” ability from some of the Skulks? It is a tough power to adjudicate, but works really well for a melee illusionist, where the DM can basically say “while adjacent, you can’t tell which is which”. That is actually very strong.

    They are fast-moving, and that could be cool to have a highly mobile opponent. What if they could move 9 (same as their old inch speed)?

    And I have to say that Underdark does have Gnomes in it. Gnome Stonewalker and… geez… Rockaller (clearly I have no original thoughts!) both have a cool Merge With Stone power that I think could be treated like the Quill power. A skirmisher could use it as written. A lurker could perhaps work like a gargoyle and end inside stone. Artillery, controllers, and lurkers might be able to trap stone, sort of like a variant on the 3E Spike Stones spell. Stonewalk in the Gnome Stonewalker is a cool power for a skirmisher or artillery. Something like the old 3E spell where you create a phantom image of yourself and at the same time become invisible and move away could be cool.

    Ok, I better stop. I love this sort of stuff even when I don’t come up with anything particularly useful!

  6. I really like your idea of giving them a greater affinity with stone. Why not go one step further, and say that they’re actually born from the earth? This inspires some cool racial traits:

    *From Dust to Dust*
    When a deep gnome dies, it’s body crumbles like stone, turning it’s current space into difficult terrain.

    *Stone’s Blood*
    As the deep gnome is near death, its body begins to meld with the earth… The deep gnome has Earth Walk (ignore stone & earth based difficult terrain) while bloodied.

    *Bleeding Earth* (move action; at-will, but only while bloodied)
    Shift 3 spaces. You may move freely in any direction through solid earth and stone during this movement.

  7. Brian Ballsun-Stanton says:

    If the intent is for the deep gnomes to have a strong affinity for earth, then I think the theme should be “of the living stone”

    Thus you can get stuff like: “Womb of the living stone, standard action” The deep gnome melds into the rock or stone floor, gaining superior cover, resist Tier*5, and regen tier*5. This provides an iconic racial power that can be varied by role.

    Another is “Grip of the living stone” the stone around the targets feet liquifies and starts drawing them in.

    For an origin story, perhaps the deep gnomes believe that they were cast away by the gods at creation, like in this incan myth: “Creation. According to one myth, Viracocha’s first creation was a dark world inhabited by giants that he had fashioned from stone. These creatures proved disobedient, however, and Viracocha destroyed them. He may have turned them back to stone, or he may have swept them away in a great flood. Once they were gone, Viracocha made a second race, this time forming people from clay. ”

    Maybe in their language they are the “survivors of the flood” are hostile and bitter because well, their gods quite literally flushed them down the toilet, and they are continually trying to find energy sources to grow deep mushrooms around. The quecha language has some not unpronouncable words: http://www.dicts.info/dictionary.php?l1=English&l2=Quechua&word=stone&Search=Search

    Rumi (Stone) is not bad. Erqe (Child) also works. Maybe Erqe Rumi to describe themselves as children of the giants who were washed into the caves? Maybe those giants are still alive?

  8. Dingari “din-GAR-ee” Etymology: The first consonant follows the Dark elf/dwarf lead. Being a survivalist subterranean species, the first syllable suggests dingy or dim environs. A hard G on the second syllable implies an aggressive stance, but softened by the final long vowel–they are dangerous when cornered, but unlikely to attack first (unless the opportunity or hunger is too much to resist…)

    And if they are so focused on survival in the dark, they need to have a penchant for eating adventurers–individually, they would slink back into the shadows staring at you with oversized eyes and just a hint of drool, but in numbers, they would get a group feeding frenzy attack–one free standard bite/claw melee attack for each Dingari adjacent to an enemy at the end of the combat round. Each bite does a small damage (4 points, standard for each successful attack) with a check–on a successful bite, victim is slowed for up to 2 rounds, save ends.

    Does this fit?

  9. Jacob Dieffenbach says:

    I don’t have an idea for a name, but all Underdark creatures build and tunnel and take shelter in caves that are easily accessed once you get past the gates.

    I wonder if, as a racial schtick, undergnomes should have the ability to SEAL stone passages. Like, gnomes are known for hiding with illusion magic–what if svirfneblin are simply awesome not at hiding with illusions but good at hiding by simply sealing up the umber hulk/purple worm tunnels they’re living in with a solid rock face?

    And as a racial power, the ability to generate simple stone objects + create difficult terrain while over natural stone would create a very “fey creature of the wild” sensation for them while still making them definitely creatures of stone and darkness.

  10. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Brian: I think maybe their depiction as a point-of-light in the Underdark is part of the problem I had with them. I wanted them to be a little more creepy and have a harder edge to them.

    @highbulp: Steal away! I really like the idea of putting PCs into a situation where they escape from a big Underdark threat, and they are forced to make peace with these really unnerving creatures that the PCs are never sure if they can fully trust.

    @Camelot: Thanks for the rundown on the current version of the 4e Underdark gnomes. While the religion thing is funny, it doesn’t match what I would like these creatures to be, as evidenced above. To me, bluff and trickiness should be the bailiwick of the above-ground gnomes. The Underdark version should be more intimidate and hardness.

  11. Shawn Merwin says:

    @alphastream: No, they should definitely not be called “Merwins.” But thanks so very much [not] for the suggestion. I will thank you for the rest of the comments though. I don’t really like the idea of getting them into illusions, because that really is the above-ground gnome shtick. However, all the rock calling and rock merging stuff would be perfect.

    @Dave: Definitely digging the move-based stuff and the dust-to-dust stuff. Lurkers and skirmishers definitely need the pass through stone abilities, but we need to be careful not to make them too powerful. Nothing gets older faster for players than only being able to hit creatures by readying actions because they can just hide in solid spaces that PCs cannot reach. That hearkens back to the dread wraith problem of 3.5e.

    @Brian: Great stuff as well. I like the creation myth content you mention. It reminds me of the Greek flood myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha (I hope I spelled that right) who repopulate the world by throwing rocks over their shoulders after Zeus floods the earth.

  12. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Rich: The name sounds better than anything I have come up with! I like the idea of them having the penchant to devour creatures whole when hungry. I would be more inclined to maybe make a deep gnome minion (maybe young deep gnomes) that had that ability when grouped together. Or maybe more them a swarm.

    @Jacob: I like your ideas as background material. To fit abilities like those into stat blocks and make them usable in combat without being overly powerful is a tough balance. Being able to seal a passage completely requires too much work on the part of the DM to make sure that using the power doesn’t end the battle completely, or worse yet seal one PC away from the others with no chance for the PC to be saved. However, I think making that power into a ritual is perfect. It gives the deep gnomes a way to mess with the PCs, or teach the PCs if they find a way to become friends.

    In terms of something stone-based that could possibly be used in combat, what about an encounter power from a controller that opens a 10-foot-deep pit in one square directly below a PC. Attack vs. Reflex. But even with something like this, you can see how it takes a lot of explanation outside of the power itself to resolve it: what is the Climb DC to get out; what about Acrobatics checks to reduce falling damage; do falling creatures provoke OAs; what if the combat takes place on something other than stone; what if DMs put the combat on a ledge, and then say the 10′ pit is now a 1000 foot fall; etc.

  13. Alphastream says:

    For the “closing off” idea, make it a wall power for a controller? I like the concept. Walls are tricky to run, though. Combo of solid wall and another power with spike stone zone could be cool.

  14. Randomly thought of the name “Digrin” (deh-grin). Of course, you could have multiple names– perhaps a slang name that other races use, and Deep Gnomes could also have a name for themselves… like… Ruroktok? (roo-rock-tock). Or maybe that would be a better name for their language… (yoo rock talk?) Lolz.

  15. Cool! But don’t forget the gnome race’s ties to fomorians as slaves. There’s gold in them there hills . . .

  16. tikkchik fen tikktikk says:

    I **hate** 4Es treatment of gnomes, especially their past as fomorian slaves. Blech.

    Isn’t the above ground gnomes “thing” that they can turn invisible at-will? Maybe hitting these dark gnomes causes blindness. Or if you’re going more with the earth elemental angle, they can increase their AC and Fort defeneses at will (an at-will “earth skin” ability).

    Regarding the example stat block: are those stats correct for a level 7 soldier? 22 AC and 1d10 + 6 damage seem really low.

  17. Madfox11 says:

    @Chris Sims: Which is the biggest difference between 4E gnomes and 3E and earlier variants. The 4E gnome is actually already an Underdark race as former slaves of Fomorians, and they have their evil variant in spriggans. I prefer the 4E variant, and the deep gnome still does not make me enthausiastic although the blog is interesting of course in regards to other races 😉

  18. In my homebrew system i’ve foregone dwarves, gnomes, and halflings altogether, settling on a single, unifying race called the Dwarrow (taken from Tolkien’s use of the Norse when he named the dwarf kingdom Dwarrowdelf).

    The Dwarrow are a scientific race, eschewing magic in all its forms, and they even get a racial ability to reflect magic. Because they live underground, they study the earth and the surface world through the use of Sonoscopes, which are like telescopes but use sound waves to create pictures of the earth, like sonar.

    Perhaps the Deep Gnomes are scientific geniuses with a sadistic bent, combining some elements of magic with their science to create living horrors (Frankenstein, Human Centipede, flesh golems) and keeping them as pets or putting their “creations” in an arena to fight. If you want something disturbing for the Underdark, there you go. And maybe their inspiration for flesh hybrids could be their observation of the Driders. Perhaps their research started as a means to find an effective counter for the Drider, and over time it became an obsession for something else.

    Psychotic little buggers, eh? Dwarven followers of evil gods, Drow S&M societies, and Gnome mad scientists.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Going Last Podcast, Shawn Merwin. Shawn Merwin said: #dnd My latest article is up at Critical Hits: http://critical-hits.com/2011/02/18/digging-deep-gnomes/ […]