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?