- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Gnomes do really bad really good

There’s a trend I’ve seen in rpgs towards using small enemies at low power stages of campaigns and then dropping them during high power stages of campaigns. This trend is stronger in certain genres and playstyles, but it’s pretty normal in most cases. That makes sense. Small enemies aren’t generally physically imposing and they’re usually portrayed as having high pitched voices or Napoleon Complexes, so it’s easy to not take them seriously.

What that misses is that small foes have plenty of reasons to be feared. Small races are usually masters of stealth, which makes them good at ambushes, sabotage, poisoning, theft, traps, and sneak attacks [1].

Because of this stealthy nature, small races are also good spies, which makes them dangerously well informed. Small races are usually underestimated, ignored,  or assumed to be good spirited. Much like historical ninjas [2], this gives them an advantage at infiltration and information gathering.

Further, small races often have a history of not being taken seriously or even taken advantage of by other races, leading to tight-knit communities with hidden oppositional attitudes toward their larger neighbors. On a personal level, this phenomenon can cause many members of smaller races to be ruthless and unscrupulous when dealing with those of larger stature.

Don’t be fooled. Small foes are dangerous, cunning, sneaky, determined, and deadly, and they deserve a starring role in your next game.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Gnomes do really bad really good"

#1 Comment By greywulf On October 14, 2009 @ 3:42 am

Y’see. now you’ve got my thinking about Ninja Gnomes, and that’s just wrong.

[3] for you, dear sir! 😀

#2 Comment By Koldhaart On October 14, 2009 @ 6:18 am

Many of the advantages you listed about the combat of smaller characters link closely to a blitz attack, where the first round is absolutely devastating to the unsuspecting player characters (assuming that the smaller characters in question are NPCs).

That’s actually kind of interesting, although poisoning and nearly killing my players in the first round of combat would probably drive them insane. Of course, without players who know what they’re doing, that could kill a story, but I’d like to think my group can handle it.

I was actually just trying to make the race one of my PCs belongs to have a more prominent role in the story arcs I’m designing for the future, and this article had a few fun suggestions.

Thank you, my esteemed colleague, I will get to writing at once.

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 14, 2009 @ 7:46 am

Offhand, I’d say hit your PCs with that blitz, then have the baddies flee. Repeatedly, ala guerilla warfare.

That gives the PCs a chance to turn tail and run like the sissies they are.


#4 Comment By Kristian On October 14, 2009 @ 8:45 am

Gnomes of Zilargo are not to be trifled with.

#5 Comment By Knight of Roses On October 14, 2009 @ 9:35 am

One of the major villain races in my Sea of Stars campaign (the Sen’Tek) are very much small and dangerous with access to crazy magic-tech.

#6 Comment By Omnus On October 14, 2009 @ 9:52 am

In my Against the Gnomes adventures I created for OshCon, I had the players battling gnometroopers (white-armored gnomes with crossbows that fired red-colored bolts) and Gnome-jas (black cloth-wearing gnomes who were great with stealth and unarmed combat to supplement their collection of Oriental-themed weapons. My second edition (a take-off of Indiana Jones movies) involved the PCs fighting the Gnome-zis (use your imaginations, but if you roll your eyes, the mine cart skill challenge is awesome). Now, this adventure was for low-level characters, I grant you, but by making the diminutive gnomes either possess special powers or organization, that theme could have been carried out into the first half of an extended campaign quite easily.

But there is a distinct reason why I, alongside so many other DMs, tend to bury the lesser creatures in a long-standing campaign. The enemies make the adventuring party, after all, and it’s a lot more fun to boast at the hearth about the dracolich you took down than the vile horde of kobolds. It’s a kind of measuring stick for how the players have progressed that the creatures they face have become more fantastical, larger, or even epic in scope. It also help quash being bored with fighting the same kinds of foes (gnome-jas again?)

By saying this, I am not running counter to the opinion that small races obsolete themselves at higher levels, or that they can’t be nasty opponents (for a vivid description, google ‘Tucker’s kobolds’), but in a game system like, say, Xth. Ed. D&D with vast numbers of creatures to draw from, it can be really hard to stick with just one nemesis race as a focal point. I myself would prefer to use them as a shake-up for the players, as a darned good henchman for The Evil Mastermind, or to throw something totally unexpected at the party (like the first time my players found out monsters can have levels in 3rd Edition D&D against a lowly kobold who vanquished half the party, mwahahahahaha).

#7 Comment By Omnus On October 14, 2009 @ 9:54 am

Int he above statement, the first line of the last paragraph should have read, “… I am not supporting the opinion that…”. I agree with the OP in that regard.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 14, 2009 @ 10:14 am

If you really want to mess with your players while using smaller races, use your game’s version of “Narrow and Low” (one-quarter movement, -4 with light weapons, -8 with one-handed weapons). Of course, the little critters don’t have those penalties.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On October 14, 2009 @ 10:24 am

Our game has been a more political/warfare type game, rather than a monster of the week. Stone [traditional] and Clay [reskinned goblin] dwarves have been the foes that show up every week, from level 1 to 14.

Of course, the overhead that come with creating classed critters in 3.5 [especially spellcasters] makes me frequently regret the choice…

#10 Comment By peter On October 14, 2009 @ 10:26 am

My party has their ass kicked twice in an eberron campaign that took them from 1st level to 10th.

the first time was by a gnome vampire and the second time was by an adventure party of 3 kobolts.

On both times, they didn’t take the treath serious until they started to get their asses kicked

so little npc’s can be fun, and you don’t have to be sneaky about them. pc’s will assume they can easily handle them anyway

#11 Comment By greenknight On October 14, 2009 @ 11:46 am

I absolutely love the idea of gnome-troopers and gnome-jas. In one of my worlds, the gnomes run a message delivery service – anywhere in the world in 5 days or less (faster for more $$ of course). None of the other races can figure out how they do it. Can you imagine being on the bad side of these guys? You’d never be able to get ahead of them… Gnome armies would attack and disappear – guerilla-style – or perhaps use gadgets and magic to whack the heck out of you. Beware the little things. 😉 Thanks for the great post!! –Fitz

#12 Comment By HVL On October 15, 2009 @ 9:18 am

DND 3.5, 20th level kobold assassain with cloak of invisibility and a crossbow. It really made my players re-examine the concept of ‘small creatures’.

#13 Pingback By Friday Links for October 16, 2009 | Moebius Adventures On October 16, 2009 @ 10:34 am

[…] Gnome Stew’s Matthew Neagley has increased the paranoia tenfold against the little races of fantasy roleplaying games. Gnomes are being called out as sneaky, dangerous, and effective enemies under the right conditions and damn if they don’t have some great ideas in the comments too – Gnometroopers and Gnome-jas are now going to be added to my own repertoire of evil! [5] […]

#14 Comment By Lunatyk On October 18, 2009 @ 1:13 am

I always tell people they should fear the small ones… and all they do is laugh just before their inevitable demise…

#15 Comment By Bercilac On November 17, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

I suppose the easiest answer to this is class levels. I had a campaign of characters in the 5-8 level range campaigning in a Goblin city (they were mostly goblins and suchlike themselves). Their big enemies were the temple guards. These were goblin fighter/rogues with tumble and spiked chains. That’s tumble, reach weapons, and sneak attack.

Think about that.

Of course, it kind of un-asks the question. If the campaign had lasted, however, I wanted them to go to war with a dwarf city. They would essentially be leading armies of goblins against the dwarven trenches. The mission objectives for most battle scenes would be to get their troops to storm opposing positions, at which point numbers would do the job.

Naturally, I would give the low-level dwarven fighters the advantages of higher ground, fortification, muskets, and cannons. The battles were going to be reminiscent of WWI, so fires would intersect to cut down almost any number of attackers. Even a 5th level ogre fighter has to be afraid of a fusillade of cannon fire.

So yes: if a critter is weak, give them a weapon that isn’t, and a good opportunity to use it. Back up your weak critters with good commanders or extra muscle. (Goblins aren’t scary, Goblins riding elephants are scary). Use obstacles to take away some of the party’s usual advantages. Then set everything on fire, as per Tucker’s classic.