In 1981, Tom Moldvay and David Cook wrote a set of rules called "Basic and Expert D&D." These two boxed sets were to be followed by a "Companion Set" that was never released, detailing character levels 15-36. The set was meant to provide a simple alternative to games like "Advanced D&D," the original "White Box" version of "D&D" and the "Holmes Blue Box Basic Set."
A few years later, Frank Mentzer wrote a series of five sets that went by the names of "Basic, Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortals." This series is often called "BECMI." In 1991, the "Rules Cyclopedia" condensed the first four of the Mentzer sets, and was followed by "Wrath of the Immortals" to round out the reboot of the edition.
While the original "White Box" game evolved into "AD&D" and the Holmes set was never truly meant as a stand-alone game, the Moldvay/Cook sets and the Mentzer sets were truly a separate game from "AD&D." The rules in these two sets were virtually identical to one another. They were also very similar to "AD&D" but the Advanced game introduced many more options. Notable among these differences was that "AD&D" included the Half-Elf, the Half-Orc and the Gnome.
Another big difference was that in "Basic D&D," each of the demi-human races (as Dwarves, Elves and Halflings were called) were classes unto themselves. That is to say, one did not play a Dwarven Cleric or a Dwarven Fighter; one simply played a Dwarf. Each such class had racial abilities such as infravision or automatic languages, and each also had its own hit die, saving throws and weapon and armor allowances ("proficiency" in modern usage).
The Dwarf was essentially a Fighter, as was the Halfling. The Elf was a blend of the Fighter and Magic-user. And while three of the main races from "AD&D" were missing from the game, most fans have considered house rules to introduce them.
To capture the flavor that a Gnome class ought to have, one must first compare it to the other demi-humans. Like Elves, Gnomes love nature and magic. But they also like to go underground a lot, and have a hard time taking the haughty Elves seriously. Like Dwarves, they enjoy mining and gems. But they are far more prone to laughter and practical jokes. Like Halflings, they have a pleasant nature and a strong sense of community. But they also have an insatiable drive for invention that drives Halflings to run for cover.
Their Saving Throws should be similar to those of Dwarves and Halflings. They might also enjoy some of the Halfling's combat abilities, particularly with regard to larger opponents. They should also have access to some sort of magic, most probably the Magic-use and Elf spell list. One might choose certain spells from that list and restrict the Gnome to those, and perhaps throw in a few bonus illusion abilities and an ability to talk to small animals.
Here are some attempts by others to tackle the Gnome dilemma:
The Vaults of Pandius actually summarizes the "Rules Cyclopedia" suggestion:
My primary source was the *D&D Cyclopaedia* itself where it had gnomes listed in the "Monsters" chapter. I then consulted some information in the AD&D PHB, and scanned one last time through the *D&D Cyclopaedia* where I found a tiny, obscure passage in the back giving an optional way of creating a gnome PC. Here's the gist of it:
- Gnomes are halflings mechanics wise in all regards excepting the below.
- Gnomes have dwarven saving throws and attack rolls, plus they have the dwarven infravision and detection abilities in place of the halfling hiding ability.
- Gnomes speak gnome, goblin, kobold, and dwarf
Chris Gonnerman's "Basic Fantasy" retroclone removes the races from the classes and allows "combo classes," which is 2-class multi-classing. In this system, each race has specific bonuses that apply to the different classes.
The most important thing to remember is to make the class (or race) stand out. Whether a class unto itself or a racial option a la Gonnerman, the Gnome should feel sufficiently different from the Dwarf, Elf and Halfling that a player can get an immediate sense of what a Gnome is.
A wise-cracking, earthy and nature-wise character who is no stranger to machines and magical workshops is a good way to portray her. They love nature but don't revere it; they see the value of mining and precious gems and metals but don't define themselves by their personal wealth; and while they enjoy creature comforts, they are more than willing to risk life and limb for a thrill. This gross characterization is hardly representative of every member of the Gnomish race, but to be fair, the descriptions of the other demi-humans are generalizations as well.
Perhaps the best approach to Gnome design is to first decide whether they are common enough in the setting to warrant their availability as player characters. If so, then one must decide how magical they ought to be, and whether they should cast spells like the Elf or simply know a few magical tricks. The hardest part might be deciding which combat bonuses they receive - a good start is to look at the Halfling's AC bonus vs. large opponents and ability to hide in terrain. Saving Throws and the like should probably mimic those of the Dwarf.
Some house rules give Dwarves and Elves bonuses with certain weapons - an idea taken from the 3rd and 4th edition rules. Gnomes tend to favor picks and other "mining" tools in this context, and these weapons are largely absent from the Basic game. Dwarves are generally assigned axes and hammers, while Elves have bows and long swords and Halflings are given slings. Since "Basic D&D" has no military picks, and hammers are already the province of Dwarves, perhaps the mechanical crossbow is the weapon that can make the Gnome unique. The addition of a lighter version of the crossbow would help in this regard.
Giving all Gnomes a base chance to open locks and find traps as a Thief would also go a long way to making them feel like tinkerers, which is a niche that is largely absent from the game. Allowing them to craft simple magic items or perhaps brew a potion or two might also help define their role. With Gnomes shaping up to be alchemists and mechanists, it becomes easier to envision them as a class.
Hit Die: d6
Abilities: Minimum Con and Int of 9
Restrictions: No two-handed weapons or longbows, light crossbows only
Special abilities: Gnomes receive a +1 attack bonus with the light crossbow; Infravision to 60'; may speak with small animals once a day. A Gnome of 5th level or higher may brew potions, following the costs and time expenditures in the "D&D Expert Set."
Save as Dwarf/Halfling (using the Moldvay Basic rules)
Level Maximum: 10th
This rough outline, while in line with the Basic rules, won't fit every retro clone version of the game, particularly the ones that use darkvision instead of infravision. But it's not a bad start, and it shows the Gnomes as they ought to be: a race in their own right. This article is hardly the final word on the subject. Hopefully it will inspire readers to come up Gnomes of their own.