Monday, December 28, 2015

On Goblins and Gnomes

I was looking at some 19th century sources on goblins and fairies (basically the same thing) because Gus L's takedown of The Lost Mine of Phandelver at Dungeon of Signs is so harsh on goblins. I was trying to find some material for a different take on the goblin, when something hit me.

Open any classic D&D book, from Holmes on to the Rules Cyclopedia, or open the Monster Manual for 1e AD&D. Look at Goblins. Now look one entry back (in the MM, just skip the entry for "GOAT, Giant"). That entry will be Gnomes. Every single number for Gnomes and Goblins will be within 1 point of the other. Gnomes have AC 5, Goblins have AC 6. Gnomes have 1 HD, Goblins 1-1 HD. In Moldvay and later versions of classic D&D, Gnomes have 8 Morale and Goblins have 7 Morale. In AD&D, Gnomes speak the Goblin language. In each version, we find that they even have similar (though not identical) leaders, even with similar morale boosting effects in Moldvay. Not to mention, they are both chthonic humanoids somewhere between 3' and 4½' tall.

The implication should be clear: these are the same monster.

I mean, what real differences are there? Gnomes have beards? Goblins are a bit uglier? Alignment? A point of AC and a single hit point? A point of morale? Gnomes are fond of crossbows? All that is minor details. Goblins and gnomes are more like each other than they are like other monsters. More important, it gives things an interesting hook. It's simple to merge the two and differentiate them by alignment and disposition. Goblins are now like gnomes but Chaotic or Lawful Evil in alignment. You can even keep the terms "goblin" and "gnome" and the respective languages.

I picture the merged creatures as favoring classical gnomes. The evil "goblin" versions may be uglier because of association with Chaos, or because they live in the Dungeon-as-Mythic-Underworld, but they should look basically similar. Since goblins have an antipathy to dwarves, perhaps they don't keep beards, but I think visual cues should be subtle to make the merger meaningful.

Twentieth century fantasy literature drew extensively on the fairy tales collected in the 19th century. These were far from precise in terminology. "Goblin" is one of several catch-all terms that referred to pretty much any of the diminutive, chthonic creatures, whether we are referring to mine spirits such as the Welsh Coblynau or domestic brownies. "Gnome" isn't any different. The idea that gnomes are somehow separate is an invention of Gygax.

Once you recognize that goblins and gnomes are the same monster in D&D, a few things happen. First, the dynamic of encounters with short humanoids will be different. Just because a creature is about 3½' tall, doesn't mean that it is always good or evil. This creates an ambiguity that games with short humanoids otherwise lack: you can no longer tell at a glance whether a creature is a friend or foe.

Second, the idea that gnomes have an affinity for illusions is a natural fit for goblins. It's a downright nasty twist to add goblin spellcasters with access to Phantasmal Force. A goblin lair is a dangerous place, and adding illusions can give them some bite. It becomes a place where you cannot trust anything, which adds a distinct layer of classical fairy lore. If the idea doesn't appeal to you on its own, watch Jim Henson's film Labyrinth.

Third, it justifies the existence of gnomes. As written, there's no reason to ever use gnomes. You can always do the same thing with dwarves or halflings, and do it better. But once you make gnomes and goblins the same monster, there's a reason to put them in a dungeon. Neutral gnomes/goblins are a great faction to add to the dungeon mix, with just enough potential for nastiness to make them interesting.

Fourth, there is a great amount of 19th century folklore that works with this view of goblins/gnomes as chthonic fairies. For instance, British Goblins by Wirt Sikes is a good guide to Welsh fairy lore, and the merged creatures that we get from goblins and gnomes can fit a lot of the stories within. The Coblynau (Welsh mine-spirits) are one of several examples of creatures that can be used as inspiration for gnomes. The pranks and demands of British goblins are good ways to make goblins more than one-dimensional bags of HP to be killed.

I think this is a simple solution to a dilemma that I've seen in OSR circles for years now. There is a need for straightforward dungeon factions in the best tradition of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. But after 40 years of the goblin being abused as an entry-level monster, there is some understandable goblin fatigue. This brings them close to their folkloric roots and I think changes the way things work without losing an iconic monster to overuse.


  1. Love it - it makes gnomes and goblins the seelie / unseelie versions of the same faerie.

    1. Yeah, that's a good way to look at it. A Wild Hunt of goblins would be pretty wicked.

    2. Briggs definitely supports your idea and I think I remember reading one of your earlier posts about Goblins being the guardians of the underworld ecology, resetting traps, etc. The conflation of gnomes with goblins is definitely there...

      "... the gnomes were supposed to live underground, moving through earth as freely as if it were air, and their function was supposed to be to guard the treasures of the earth. In popular tradition, they were called [Dwarfs] or Goblins." An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Katharine Briggs.

    3. Nice reference, Todd! Thanks for that. The Briggs book is a good starting point for a lot of fairy stories.

  2. I like this dichotomy. Gnomes--in D&D--have always been unsatisfying. They don't tend to appear as protagonists in canonical fantasy literature, and so people have a hard time finding a mental touchstone to envision adventuring as one. They're little, not dwarves and not halflings, so they... do what? Cast illusions?

    You can see D&D trying to address this problem in later editions, by emphasizing gnomes' fey nature--suddenly they've all got bottles of Manic Panic turning their hair green! Now they're bold-for-emphasis fey creatures.

    But goblins didn't get that treatment. They're still flesh-and-bone creatures without the fey makeover gnomes got, and without the fey mythology they arose from in the literature. The vermin of the sentient races, as it were. Moreover, we're tired of them because they're overdone at low levels.

    I think I might adopt your approach in my own gaming. Gnomes/goblins are the two sides to the same fey coin, the division being by virtue or lack thereof. And get them all back underground where they ought to be.

    The mythological connection to mining is also interesting. My suspicion is that any pre-modern profession that gives rise to substantial amounts of unpredictable death or injury (think, mining or sailing) will necessarily create superstition/mythology around the unseen creatures that cause those risks. For our purposes, mines are great because they're one of the few plausible reasons someone would dedicate the resources to excavating a huge underground complex ("dungeon").

    The most recent map I've been working on is a mine, and for my purposes it's kobolds (sometimes you just want traps). But it could just as easily be gnomes/goblins. (Of course, kobolds themselves aren't originally the dragonkin they've lately become, but arose from the same miners' mythology of why Piotr keeled over in that pocket of bad air at the bottom of a shaft.)

  3. I really enjoy this type of approach, and in my homebrew setting I rules that almost all evil humanoids of 'small' size (and some of medium) into different shapes of goblin. So Kobolds, Kenku, gnolls etc are all 'phenotypes' of goblin. What's more they can be brother's and sisters - when they are born/spawned/pop into existence each brook will contain a mix.

    This nicely emphasises the unnatural, magical and chaotic nature of goblins. As John suggested I associate them with unseelie fey. It also means that any encounter with goblins is likely to be a nice mix of different monster types without having to justify some kind of alliance.

    I even considered doing the same thing with Seelie fey, making all types of elves, plus gnomes and dwarfs etc into Seelie phenotypes (with a secret that dwarfs are actually unseelie). I really wanted get away from 'monster as race' and even race-as-race and present race-as-physical-attributes in a world where physical appearance of fey beings can vary greatly.

  4. I had very much the same idea with my own setting. I went with the neutral middle ground option and made them the only short and sneaky people of the setting.


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