Itâ€™s old news know, but when 4e was released gnomes and half-orcs were cut from the first PHB! The exclusion of a race predicated on assault or really unusual romance was one thing, but why gnomes?
The Gnome Question
So what exactly are gnomes? Well, theyâ€™re a race of short happy folk. No wait, thatâ€™s halflings. Theyâ€™re a race of subterranean humanoids. No, thatâ€™s dwarves. Theyâ€™re a fey race known for its innate magic. No, thatâ€™s eladrin / elves.
Gnomes donâ€™t have an easy one-line identity.
A Look Back
Gnomes didnâ€™t make the cut into some of the original D&D products either, back when dwarves and elves were a mixture of classes and races (you could be a fighter, or a magic user, or an elfâ€¦).
In 1e gnomes had very similar racial abilities to dwarves, only they lacked the dwarven resistance to poison, and instead of the bonus against orcs they had an attack bonus against goblins and kobolds. Gnomes also lacked any ability score modifiers. In 2e gnomes gained a +1 to Intelligence and -1 to Wisdom but little else.
In 3e gnomes were much the same, being able to talk to burrowing mammals (although what exactly was a burrowing mammal was left open, leading to regular jokes that a dog hiding bones counted, as did hobbits) and cast minor wizardly cantrips like a sorcerer. Unlike past gnomes, 3.5 added the change of gnomes being bards instead of illusionist giving them an actual class to favour rather than a specialized class. Their racial bonuses were also completely changed to physical bonuses with a dwarf-like bonus to Constitution and a halfling penalty to Strength. At this point, gnomes also lost the dwarven ability to detect slopes and unsafe caves and magical resistance.
In myth and fable, gnomes were short folk that overlapped much with dwarves. They lived underground, often turning to stone when exposed to sunlight, and were known as mischievous tricksters â€“ a habit they shared with most fey creatures including brownies, faeries, and elves.
Gnomes also had a fondness for knowledge and secrets, often being portrayed as holders of hidden lore. And they had a leader, the notable Gnome King most well-known for his role in the later Oz books (he is the real villain of the book series, unlike the Wicked Witch who had a rather minor role overall).
Overall, gnomes are roughly interchangeable with dwarves and goblins with the exception of their role in garden furnishing.
When Dragonlance came on the scene in the mid-eighties as the first new campaign it validated and justified many of the quirks of 1e and worked to give every race a role, tweaking the odd races out. Such as changing halflings from the hobbits they had been to the shoed kleptomaniac kender, which set the mould for 3e and 4eâ€™s halflings. Gnomes, also lacking an interesting niche, were turned into the mechanically orientated tinkerer gnomes, who had a penchant for crazy devices. The MMO World of Warcraftâ€™s gnomes seem to have been inspired by the Dragonlance gnomes, also being mechanical gadgetteers. I will admit to having a fondness for the crazy gnomes of both.
Warcraft also brought in "cute" gnomes, although garden gnomes probably also share a fair bit of blame for this. Dragonlance and the gnomes of earlier editions were seldom cute, but rather jokey and talkative. I imagine many high-charisma gnome bards probably also contributed to this. I know my gnome bard in Living Greyhawk was super-cute, but that was more her personality than an inherent racial quality.
Even in the other fantasy worlds gnomes are less used. In burnt world of Dark Sun all the races are given a renewed focus such as the feral halflings and the swift-running elves and the unstopping dwarves and the something-something gnomes. I cannot for the life of me remember. Merchants?
In 4e gnomes have once again changed their racial ability bonuses, regaining a bonus to Intelligence and now gaining a Charisma bonus, likely so they can excel as bards. They gain more illusionary powers, suddenly becoming masters of hiding, while losing the ability to talk to animals.
Gnomes are now embracing their fey side, being closer to small elves than skinny dwarves. The illustrations so far have all but dropped the large noses, perpetual old-age (grey hair, wrinkles, balding), beards, and previously identifiable gnomish traits. They're closer to short-haired halflings with unusual eyes. But they're still not
Gnomes have always been the forgotten race. At the end of first of the Drizzt books (the Crystal Shard) one of the characters mentions their fellowship has one of each of the major races: human, halfling, dwarf, and elf. There are few popular or iconic gnomes in fiction, regardless of the gaming world. It's almost ironic that the most noteworthy gnomish addition to in the game was a joke: the gnome of the cartoons. Who doesn't love that little guy?