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The New World, Part 8: Names and Cultures of the Gnomes

by Rich Burlew - originally from

Let’s talk about gnomes.

I’ve already determined that gnomes are going to be the only major nonhuman race, which means they are going to be a focal point of the setting. The gnomes therefore need to have a compelling culture that can withstand close examination. It also needs to jettison most of the sillier aspects that have hung around the gnomes’ necks like a big honking albatross. No tinkers, no pranksters, no long unpronounceable names or fast speech. These gnomes are going to be serious—maybe even a bit sinister?

I want to focus on their role as the loremasters of the Thrannish Empire and the Three Kingdoms. They are the masters of magic and the keeper of secrets. With no elves, they can easily settle into the role of the most magically-skilled race. But let’s not underestimate the difference in connotation between “knowledge” and “secret”. I see the gnomes as being hoarders of lore, only parceling out to the humans what is necessary to accomplish their aims.

History: How did the gnomes come to be intertwined with the Thrans (and thus, humans in general)? Good question. I can picture a time, long before Garrick lead the Thrans to conquest, when the gnomes lived on their own. Interested even then in the knowledge of cultures long dead, they lived in and around the ruins of older ancient cultures—the equivalent of the Greeks and Egyptians, in our world. Of course, their delving into the lore of these dead people yielded magical secrets and great knowledge, but they were not able to defend themselves against barbarians who sought to loot the ruins for treasures of the ancients.

The gnomes chose to make an alliance with one of these tribes, the Thrans, and share a small portion of their knowledge in exchange for protection. Even the least of their secrets allowed the Thrans to overwhelm their foes, and the alliance was solidified through a period of years. The gnomes, however, chose to hold back the bulk of their magical secrets, instituting the rituals of the Church of the Sun and the Church of the Moon as a means of keeping their magical lore out of the hands of all but those humans most sympathetic to the gnomes. As time passed, even the knowledge of this aspect of the Churches’ purposes faded from the gnome’s memory, as it was never recorded in the histories. Thus, contemporary gnomes are not aware that the Churches began their existence as a means of keeping control of the Thrans.

An aside: this does not mean that the Sun and the Moon are not really gods. It’s just that in this world, they are largely impersonal and uninvolved gods. They don’t care about the rituals that pervade the Churches, and one does not need to follow the Churches’ dogma in order to draw on their magic. Of course, the Churches try to suppress the knowledge of this fact, which is why magic-wielders outside the religious hierarchy are persecuted. In a way, this ties back to the Churches’ origin as a means of control.

Getting back to the gnomes, though, we can see that as the combined Thran-gnome culture grew, it became more powerful both militarily and culturally. While the gnomes kept separate from the Thran rulers, they were in many ways the power behind the throne (such as it was). The unifying teachings of the Churches also helped form the Thrans into a nation rather than a loose collection of ethnically-similar tribes. At some point, two gnomish high priests of the Sun and Moon crowned the first true Thrannish king, and several generations later, this crown fell to Garrick, who turned his eyes to the rest of the continent.

Culture: The gnomes are not inherently magical beings, but the study of magic is integral to their identity. Almost all gnomes have some minor magical tricks they can perform, though only those who study at the Churches (or strike out to do research on their own) truly master the art.

Visually, I picture the gnomes as having a slightly ancient style, as they admire the dead cultures of the past. Loose robes and such, circlets, lots of jewelry, and sandals. At least, that’s how the priests and scholars in the cities will dress; adventurer gnomes are more likely to adopt more protective clothing like the humans around them. I also see them as being more colorful, literally, than the humans. Their clothes will have reds, golds, and purples, while the humans wear brown, brown, and more brown.

The gnomes will have their own language, which will be a complete secret. They are utterly forbidden by centuries of tradition from teaching their tongue to humans. Were the knowledge slip into the human population, they would be able to read the texts of ancient gnomes and learn some not-so-pleasant truths about the early gnome-human relationship.

Politics: The gnomes exist oddly separate from the human concepts of nobles and commoners, despite living in the same nations. Humans treat them as essentially their own class, with many of the privileges of nobility though none of the wealth or clout. Within their own groups, however, status is directly related to age and magical knowledge. Gnomish laborers and craftsmen, while respected, do not have the same opportunities allowed to a scholar.

Gnomes can theoretically serve any role in the unified civilization, but they rarely take on the most menial or unskilled tasks. Even a simple artisan is likely to have great freedom to move and determine his own fate compared to a human commoner skilled in the same craft. Gnomes also have greater opportunity for social advancement; a gnome silversmith who decides to study the lore of the Moon could easily join the Church and rise through the ranks, while a human would need to be raised from early childhood before being initiated into the priesthood.

The division of the Thrannish Empire into three competing kingdoms is of some concern to the gnomish leaders. During the reigns of Garrick and Royce, gnomes spread beyond Thran, serving Churches or studying magic in all corners of the empire. The death of Royce, however suddenly broke the empire into three groups, but the gnomes had no real loyalty to this new order. To deny the sovereignty of the local ruler, however, was a sure path to suspicion and ultimately destruction. Thus, the gnomes have taken to paying homage to the regional authority while often maintaining true loyalty to the race of gnomes as a whole (and to a lesser degree, to the two Churches and the high priests thereof). A gnome from Redwater and a gnome from Fachard are likely to see each other as brothers and allies, even though the nations they live in have strained relations.

The biggest seats of gnomish power are the twin cities that hold the respective temples of the Sun and the Moon. I just realized I need names for these cities, and now is as good a time as any. I’m not going to get too fancy here: the Sun Citadel and the Moon Tower. This will actually be the name of the city as well as the actual temple; one might be a merchant in Moontower without having any relation to the Church of the Moon per se.

Ok, cool, I have a pretty good idea for now of how they fit in. I’ll move on to other topics for now.