Gnomes are small humanoid creatures, first mentioned in the time of the Renaissance as little earth dwellers linked with alchemy and magic. They were often contrasted with fairies which were viewed as creatures of the air. A popular book, Gnomes by Wil Huygen, showed a race of elf-like creatures in pointed red caps that live under a tree and work industriously. In Scandanavia, where much of modern fantasy derives its background influence, the idea of a small home protector finds its origin in the diminutive tomte or nisse, with his familiar pointed red cap. Garden gnomes are also iconic in their portrayal of the tiny creatures. In various tales of fantasy, gnomes are presented quite differently from each other. C.S. Lewis called them “Earthmen” who lived in a place called the Underland, a series of caverns, and were enslaved by the Queen of the Underworld. In J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, they are depicted as nuisances that live in gardens and are seen like common pests. J.R.R. Tolkien uses language to find a role for them in his Middle-earth. He chose a different root word than the one we derive the traditional “gnome” from, though a homophone. This he assigned to one of the races of elves. Where the original term meant “earth dweller”, he chose a word that sounds the same but means “mysterious and wise”. Tolkien’s “gnomes” became the Noldor, who were the most intelligent and technologically adept elves. It appears that most modern RPGs and video games take elements of all these ideas into their own concepts of tiny, tough, and technological people.
As diminutive underground dwellers in Dungeons & Dragons, they excel at alchemy and inventing things. They are good natured, enjoying to play jokes especially on dwarves and half-orcs. There was even a separate class of “tinker gnomes” in the popular Dragonlance campaign setting. In the Pathfinder setting, which is based on an earlier ruleset of Dungeons a& Dragons, they are more adventurous. Their origin lies outside the in-game world of Golarion in the realm of the fey, or First World, and seeking adventure is what brought them there. They are quite wild in comparison to their previous incarnation in D&D, but that is due to their origin as a fairy-like creature. However they still enjoy inventions, alchemy, and magic. Male gnomes in D&D and Pathfinder have overly long, multisyllabic names that sound like gibberish such as Bastarger, Krolmnite, Tongtokl, and Zatqualmie. Females use the opposite convention, having single or double syllable names like Dei, Fijit, Gant, and Trig. Surnames are just as long and silly as male names, containing some semblance of a recognizable word but then using a bunch of extra syllables. Some gnome surname examples would be Frothelthimble, Palepartlinger, and Thicketbotter.
In World of Warcraft, gnomes are still a tiny race that work with advanced technology. They were discovered by the dwarves and have an obscured history. Originally created as a kind of automaton by a titan called “the Grand Architect”, they have begun to turn into living, fleshy creatures due to the Curse of Flesh, which affects dwarves in Azeroth as well. They have a nemesis in a Neanderthal-like race called the troggs, who are also suffering the Curse of Flesh. Gnomes build fantastic machines. They lived in the techno-city of Gnomeregan, until it fell under siege by the troggs and their leader at the time, Mekgineer Thermaplugg, detonated an atomic bomb contaminating whatever gnomes were still there. Now the city an area that is to be reclaimed by any new gnomes to the game. There is also an intense rivalry between the gnomes and the goblins of Azeroth, due to the fact goblins also have a love of inventing and technology. The goblins push the envelope of inventing, often bringing mortal harm on themselves, but gnomes love the pursuit of the perfect plan and build beautiful machines as a result, sometimes after overlong preparation. Gnomes are allies with the Ironforge dwarves, with whom they often exchange technologies. In World of Warcraft, gnomes have names given to them by their family as well as a family surname, but when they reach a certain age, are given a new surname that reflects their abilities and achievements. Some gnome names of note are High Tinker Gelbin Mekkatorque, the ruler of the gnomes, Fizzcrank Fullthrottle, founder of an airstrip, and Wilfred Fizzlebang, a Master Summoner.
In the upcoming Guild Wars 2, there is a race of creatures called the Asura. These people lived underground until they were driven to the surface. They are intelligent and use magical technology to create golems to aid their work. They also believe in a concept called Eternal Alchemy, which is the idea that all things are a part of an eternal machine and each part has its purpose. They seek to gain mastery of the Eternal Alchemy in order to control the world, with some of the asura going as far as unethical and dangerous experiments in building to attain it. Asura also take part in a “krewe”, which is a specialized group to develop different abilities in asura. The asura take names in a similar fashion to the gnomes of Dungeons and Dragons lore, where they are shorter. However, male and female names both follow this rule. Male names also end with a consonant, where female names end with an -i or -a vowel. They take surnames that also reflect their occupation. For example, the Arcane Council is led by High Coucilor Flax and one of its members is Klab, director of pest control.
Gnomes represent the tough, innovative spirit found in many story and game backgrounds. Small but innovative, they have become a clever way to bring the concept of gadgetry and machines into a fantasy world.