Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings

This may be the best of the AD&D red books so far, and, ironically, the most unnecessary. The final chapter says, "It is important to remember when playing a gnome or halfling, that halflings are not short humans, nor are gnomes scrawny dwarves." And that is a complete and utter lie.

It was probably because it was a lie that they even felt the need to say it. There wasn't a comparable warning in the Dwarf book, nor the Elf. But I'm sure, after writing 125 pages of this book where you describe gnomes as dwarves who like to party and halflings as humans - full stop, that maybe you need to point out that all of that preceding material was meant to contain a bit more nuance. I shouldn't frame this as a complaint, though, because I'm sure the author was doing the best he could with the source material. It's just . . .

Halfling have the exotic race-specific character kits of Archer fighter, Burglar thief, and Healer priest. The Tunnelrat kit relies on halflings being small and the leaftender kit relies on them not being able to take the druid class under AD&D rules, but ultimately there's very little in the entire halfling presentation that couldn't apply to a small-town everyman character.

That's almost certainly down to the fact that halflings exist primarily to placate Tolkien fans. Did you know that wizards often have a fondness for halflings? Because that one wizard in that one book said as much. So much of the halflings' presentation in this book is a naked attempt to reverse engineer hobbits.

But hobbits themselves were just an idealized caricature of English yeomanry. They are the British pre-industrial countryside viewed through a lens of willful naivety. They are a human culture that is alien only insofar as its citizens are incapable of human vice.

I'm not going to sit here and second-guess the literary necessities in Tolkien's writing ("the Lord of the Rings would have been better if the hobbits like to fuck!"). He's the classic author whose works have an eternal place in the canon of English literature. I'm just a jerk who (technically) writes a blog. But I can tell you, in D&D worlds halflings are redundant. There's not a damned thing about them in this book that couldn't just be relabeled as a description of a "good-aligned village."

Which isn't to say it's bad. It's actually very helpful to have an appealing description of the sort of pastoral idyll that is the starting point of storybook fantasy and an early casualty in darker heroic fantasy. You know that eager farm boy who left his life behind to search for adventure? He absolutely could have come from the sample village of Lindenbrook, and you would barely have to change anything about it.

Gnomes are even less necessary. Everything about them is just "dwarves from the mirror dimension where Disney is a bigger influence on early D&D than Tolkien." Dwarves are good at working metal, Gnomes are good at carving gems. Dwarves wear their beards long and scraggly, Gnomes prefer their beards trimmed and well-groomed. Dwarves mine by aggressively pursuing the richest veins, Gnomes mine by meticulously scraping up every trace of a vein before moving on.

Hey, Dungeons and Dragons, you know that just because someone once had an idea for a dwarf with a sense of humor, that doesn't mean you have to spin them off into a whole new fantasy race? Gnomes barely qualify as an alternate dwarvish culture. They're more like an alternate dwarvish personality.

But again, this book here is pretty good. If you could somehow meld this book directly into The Complete Book of Dwarves, sacrificing only the parts that are the most glaringly inconsistent (mostly the stuff about gnomes loving practical jokes), you'd get a richer dwarven culture that feels much more alive than either of its constituent parts.

If you are to take as a given that gnomes and halflings should exist and have important distinctions from the species they spun off from? Then The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings is a near-flawless player's resource. Its only fault is that it includes material from Dragonlance.

Fucking Dragonlance. Base D&D already has an unfortunate tendency to treat its small races as comic relief, but somehow Dragonlance manages to crank that up to 11. It bugs me how little dignity Tinker Gnomes get. They have a tendency towards needlessly baroque and recklessly unsafe technology? Sure. That's a fun fantasy niche. But at least allow much of it to work. Let the dedicated seekers into truth occasionally find some fucking truth.

Somehow, though, Kender are even worse. Hilariously, the book warns you about allowing them into your game. Twice. Their presentation here is considerably toned-down from mainline Dragonlance, noting that they are completely fearless, but neglecting to mention that they will steal everything not nailed down and the act theatrically innocent when confronted. No justifications here of how completely ignoring the boundaries of everyone you meet is just "having childlike wonder."

But some of us remember. The author was apparently one of them.

Overall, though, I seriously enjoyed this book. Despite being split between two races, it didn't feel rushed. Information was very efficiently presented, and the fantasy races were well-drawn. In fact, the shorter wordcounts may have been to the races' benefit. Less space to include something bewildering or ill-conceived.

UKSS Contribution: The last couple pages of this book contain adventure hooks for all-gnome or all-halfling games. They are all pretty good (though only the one where human children are kidnapped by small-sized creatures who live in dens too narrow for adult humans to enter really seems all that race-specific), but one stood out as being downright bizarre: The City of Illusions.

The idea behind this adventure is that illusion spells stop working because the various illusionary creatures created with Phantasmal Force, Shadow Creatures, et al have gained sapience and escaped the control of their spellcasters. They've gathered in a city of their own and are agitating for Illusion Rights.

As a D&D adventure, this is so far outside the bounds of what the rules say are possible (and, indeed, makes a hash of the metaphysical underpinnings of the spellcasting classes) that if you were to try and run it, your player would revolt. But as a stand-alone fantasy conceit? I kind of love it.

I'll probably tinker with the causality here. Make it so the spellcasters responsible for the City of Illusion only thought they were creating illusionary creatures. But a whole city where nothing is real and its residents are but images with thoughts? That has potential.


  1. Aww man I love halflings... And kender. I'd say I've played a halfling probably at least half the time I've made a character.

    1. I actually really like halflings too. There's something about being small and vulnerable that makes for a compelling fantasy character. D&D halflings, however, only get a -1 Strength penalty, which means its rare for them to suffer greatly from being small.

    2. I like playing ridiculously tropey heroic paladins. Something about the night in shining armor, being 2 and a half feet tall and riding a saint bernard, amuses me greatly.

  2. Ah, the Kender. Remember - if you don't like them stealing your shit and needlessly antagonizing allied NPCs, you are TEXTUALLY EVIL.

    I will never understand what was going at Weiss and Hickman's table...

  3. I, too, have a fondness for the small folk. I've played a lot of halflings and gnomes with personalities larger than a person twice their size.