Ask Angry Megablitz 5: Bicycles, Agency, and Gnomes

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Okay, folks, we’re going to do one last Ask Angry blitz this week to clear out a few more questions. And then we’re done blitzing random topics people have seen fit to e-mail. Instead, I’ve got some interesting features coming about probability, villains, NPCs, and structuring mystery adventures along with a host of others. And I’ll be periodically answering more Ask Angry questions on off days in the coming weeks.

Charlie F asks:

Is GMing like riding a bike? I suspect not. The thing is I want to run a game for friends, all new to RPGs, but I haven’t done so in 10 years. I had previously about a year of table Gming experience and five of forum GMing in which I ran a full campaign but it isn’t the same thing since you have a lot more time to react to players. So… all in all, should I follow your advice on first time GMing like a fresh out of the oven and use published adventures or could I throw some creativity on the mix without screwing everything up?

No. GMing is not like riding a bike. Unless you listen to Albert Einstein. Then it is exactly like riding a bike. How’s THAT for a f$&%ing answer.

Here’s the thing: this is one of those questions where the actual question is much easier to answer than the idea behind the question. And, usually, I force you all to read paragraphs and paragraphs of bulls$&% before I cut to the real, simple answer. But I’m going to do things a little backwards today because, hell, I like trying new things as much as anyone. So, let me answer the practical question first and then I’ll explain why the idea behind the answer is more complicated than you think.

If you haven’t run a game in many years AND if you are running for a group of all new people then YES, you absolutely SHOULD approach this like a new experience and take all my advice about being a complete newbie. In fact, even if you weren’t running for a group of new players, it’d probably be a good idea. It’s simply a matter of hedging your bets. The whole point of my advice about using published adventures and pregenerated characters and doing a limited one shot with no consequences is that it allows you to focus on the core skills of GMing while also minimizing the chances and consequences of completely f$&%ing up. If, after 10 years, you’re not so rusty and things go easily, that first crappy session will fly by and you can do whatever the hell you want and no one will suffer for it. But, if after 10 years, you’re struggling to get back into the groove, that first session is a very low-consequence way to get back into the groove. For the cost of ONE simple session that involves minimal work, you can find out how rusty you are without discouraging yourself or failing. And that’s especially helpful with completely new players. After all, introducing new players to the game can be kind of trying even if you are completely on your game. And you DON’T want to f$&% up with new players because you might never see those players again. So, yes, treat it like your first day at the race.

Now, let’s talk about that phrase “like riding a bike” and why GMing isn’t like riding a bike. The reason riding a bike is like riding a bike is because of a thing called “muscle memory.” See, your nervous system is basically broken into a couple of different parts. One of those divisions is between things you do by reflex and things you have to consciously think about doing. For example, when you touch a hot thing, you recoil to avoid burning your hand. And you pretty much can’t stop yourself from doing that. That’s because the nerve signals that make that happen never really reach your brain. Instead, they get processed automatically down in your spinal cord. All of the little delicate movements and adjustments your body has to make to walk from place to place? Most of that also happens automatically. You just decide to walk and your nervous system automates a lot of the process. As you engage in repetitive, physical tasks, you wire up your nervous system to handle stuff autonomously. It gets to know the movements involved and it doesn’t have to involve the brain in them. And those nerve pathways that get connected up last a long, LONG time. THAT’S why riding a bike is like riding a bike. Because most of riding a bike is a repetitive, physical task your nervous system can just learn to handle without your brain.

Is this basic neuroscience remotely useful to understand as a GM? Actually, yeah. Because there is something central to the idea of GMing in this. GMing isn’t a repetitive physical task. It’s a very active task. And it’s always different. Every group of players, every game system, every campaign is a little different. You face different problems and have to adapt on the fly. Every group of players has different expectations, every game system does different things, and every session has its own pace and flow you need to actively maintain. In addition, unlike riding a bike, which is just a basic skill you figure out and then use to get from point A to point B, GMing is something you’re constantly trying to do more with. GMing is like being a stuntman or daredevil. Once you master riding the bike around, you’re going to want to start riding down ramps and jumping alligators. And once you figure out how to jump alligators, you’re going to want to ride loop-the-loops through flaming rings. And so on. GMing isn’t something that ever gets familiar because you’re always trying to one-up yourself. At least, you should be. GMs are constantly pushing themselves to run better games and do more interesting things.

On top of that, role-playing games are constantly evolving and so is the fan base. Today’s players have very different expectations from those of ten years ago and today’s game systems have evolved from those of fifteen years ago. The changes are subtle, but they are there. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t have people sticking with the old-school editions, or with 3.5 or Pathfinder, and you wouldn’t have people playing 4E or 5E or moving to independent games. Sure, RPGs don’t change as quickly as, say, video games, and they certainly don’t change as quickly as medical science, but if you took someone who was running games in the last days of AD&D 2E or even the early days of D&D 3E and handed them 5E, it’d feel different for vague, weird, and subtle reasons.

Albert Einstein once said “life is like riding a bicycle; to maintain your balance, you have to keep moving forward.” And in THAT way, GMing IS like riding a bicycle. You need to keep running games, you need to keep adapting, you need to keep moving forward. And if you stop for a while, you need to start off slow and pick up speed or else you’ll fall over.

Now how’s THAT for a tortured metaphor?

TApicella asks:

I’ve noticed a trend in many storytelling-focused video games such as Wolf Among Us where players can do two scenes in either order, but the latter scene changes based on which was chosen first (e.g. character clinging to life vs finding the character dead). I feel like this adds interesting tension and makes it feel like your actions have consequences. However, video games are designed to be replayable, whereas tabletop campaigns, at least on the player side, are typically not.

Is the opportunity to create meaningful player choices worth denying the players some juicy story and action from the other path? I could always tell them later what they missed out on, but that risks them being disappointed they didn’t choose that one.

First of all, you’ve got a flaw in your premise. Now, that won’t prevent me from schooling you in the fine art of meaningful choices in RPGs, but I DO need to poke some holes in your first paragraph and the concept of replayability. People tend to overstate the value of replayability in video games, when, in truth, it is a very minor factor in driving game sales. In a speech at the Game Developer’s Conference in 2014, game designers Tom Abernathy and Richard Rouse III presented some very compelling data gathered by a number of game publishers showing that only about one third of gamers actually finish a single playthrough of most games they buy, let alone go back and replay them again. Now, obviously, this varies depending on the game. Some games, games that lack a story campaign as a primary component or ones where the story campaign is not the primary draw, are irrelevant in this. But what is compelling is that most of the data came from very story driven, single player campaign experiences that included games like the Telltale Games Walking Dead series, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Mass Effect, and others. On top of that, several academics published an academic paper back in 2011 analyzing the various factors that contributed to replayability in video games. They noted that branching paths (such as the one you describe) were only one small fact that contributed to replayability and, moreover, that replayability was not a large factor that actually drove most gamers’ purchase decisions. You can read the full paper by Timothy Frattesi, Douglas Griesbach, Jonathan Leith, and Timothy Shaffer here if you want, but be warned it’s a dense 300 pages of analysis. It IS remarkably interesting though.

Why is this worth discussing? I mean, am I really just trying to show off how well informed I am about everything? In a word: ABSOLUTELY. I’m really smart and don’t you ever f$&%ing forget it! But also, yes. There is an important point here. The point is that the fact that the game experience changes based on your choices has very little to do with replayability. And, in point of fact, replayability actually decreases tension. Think about it. Imagine how much more tense you would be going through Wolf of Wall Street or the Walking Dead or Mass Affection if you know the game would delete itself once you finished your first playthrough and you could NEVER play it again. F$&%, X-COM isn’t even story driven, but the minute you turn on that whole permadeath and no save-scumming option, it becomes a LOT more tense.

The reason video games do that is to convince you that your choices actually shape the outcome. The fact that the character is either alive or dead depending on the choice you made is not to create an interesting second playthrough, it’s to say “see? You did a thing and now Buddy McExpendable is dead forever and that’s your fault because you did that.” It gives you a sense of agency. And most games are designed so that, even if you DON’T play through the game a second time, the game still lets you know your choices shape things. Look at Mass Erect for a perfect example. If you play through that game a second time, you’ll actually discover how LITTLE your choices matter in most scenes. Most of the story happens the same way whether you’re Friendly Shephard or Douchey Shephard. But the game IMPLIES your actions are changing things merely by asking you the question and giving token responses specific to your choices that then lead to the same major story points.

And THAT is exactly the same thing we want to strive for in RPGs. Not tricking players into thinking they have control with smoke and mirrors, but by making the players feel like their choices matter any way you can.

But here’s where you trip over your own premise. Wolf Among the Sheep HAS TO resort to designing two different scenes based on a binary choice of whether the NPC lives or dies because it’s a video game and it can’t change things on the fly. It has to distill things down to branching paths and either/or choices because the medium is limited. But a table-top RPG isn’t so limited. I mean, think about it. Think about all of the different outcomes you can imagine for the players racing to rescue an NPC and choosing to dawdle. Maybe the NPC is dead by the time they get there. Maybe he is alive. But maybe they get there just in the nick of time where he is dying but savable. Or they get there just in time to watch him die. Or they arrive in time to save him but fail to. You can have an infinite spectrum between “Bob lives” and “Bob dies.” And that’s because you’re a human brain and you can adjust the story on the fly.

If you design your game like a video game where Bob is either alive or dead, you’re no better than a video game. If, instead, you’re ready to adapt on the fly to Bob being alive or dead or anything in between and respond to whatever the players do about it, you’re providing real consequences for their choices. And that’s what you should be striving for. Yes, you should have some idea in your head for how the story will proceed with alive Bob or dead Bob, but you also need to be prepared to be very adaptable about how you get there. THEN, your players actually have real agency. They aren’t just picking a branch you predesigned. Now, that’s easier in terms of up front work because you aren’t trying to design every possible scene. But it’s also harder because you need to rely more on improvising changes to your game.

And THAT is why it’s more important to understand Bob’s role in the story and his character and motives and the consequences of his life or death than it is to just design the scene where Bob lives or dies.

You should always strive for something I call “the only story that could have happened.” That is to say that the actual events of the game could ONLY have happened to that specific group of characters making that specific set of choices. Which means a lot of adjusting on the fly.

But how will your players KNOW they have agency? If they never see all the content they missed, how will they know the story could have gone any other way? Well, that’s sort of a Catch-22. Because, if you’re running the game right, the story couldn’t have gone any other way. It could only work out the way it did because any other story would have required different choices.

The point is to ALWAYS emphasize how the players’ decisions lead to the consequences you add to the game. If the players reach Bob in his dying moments and their actions save him or fail to save him, it’s pretty obvious that their actions control the outcome. But what if they get there too late and Bob is dead? Well, it doesn’t take much to make the players feel like it’s their fault. And there’s a thousand ways to do it. In game, another NPC might blame them for not making it in time. Even though that COULD be scripted, the minute the game starts pointing blame at the characters, it stops FEELING scripted. It’s actually a pretty funny psychological trick. If the game starts berating the characters for their choices, the PLAYERS start feeling guilty for THEIR choices. They assume the game world wouldn’t be mad at them unless it could have gone another way.

But even subtle tricks of narration let the players know that they are in control. If they reach Bob and find he’s dead, there’s a world of difference between saying “you discover he’s dead” and “he’s still warm to the touch, and his blood is still fresh, but you discover he has no pulse. He must have died just moments ago.” For that matter, there’s a world of difference between “you discover he’s dead” and “you discover you’re too late; he’s dead.” Narration counts for a lot.

If anything in the narration or the game world holds the players responsible for their choices, that sends the signal that their choices really did affect the outcome. For that matter, you can even use your own interactions with the players to let them know they are in control. When my players f$&% something up bad, I let them know outside the game. At the end of the session, I say something like “nice work, dumba$&es, letting Bob die. Now I have to figure out how the world works without him. You’re pains in my a$&!” But if you aren’t me and don’t want to break your players’ spirits, you can go with something nicer. At the end of the session, something like “great job, guys. You saved Bob! I wasn’t sure if you would do it,” from you – the GM – to the players also sends the signal that things could have gone differently. Or even something like “it sucks that Bob died. You guys almost made it in time. Good try.”

That might SEEM weird and out of character, but it does tell the players how much control they have by showing them there were possibilities other than the ones they saw. And the more the players see the signs of other possibilities – just signs, you don’t have to spell things out – the more players see those signs, the more convinced they are of their own agency. And, over time, you don’t have to prove it anymore.

The key to making the players feel like their choices is to always find a way to show them at least some of the signs of the paths they didn’t take or the options they didn’t choose or the things they didn’t accomplish.

Mejo, of the Croatian Mejo Strip Blog asks:

Were you a lesser DM, a milquetoast one that allowed gnome PCs at his table, what would you do with the race? I found them always lacking in a certain feel that elves or dwarves or half-orcs had. What would You do to differentiate them substantially from halflings and dwarves? How would You solve the conundrum that the designers of 4th edition couldn’t?

And THIS is why I hate gnomes. Well, there’s a couple of reasons I hate gnomes. It has to do with the gnome in the history of D&D. Gnomes originally appeared in D&D back in 1974 as a sort of alternative to the other races. According to an interview Gary Gygax gave, he introduced them as a sort of a magical alternative to the martial dwarves and the tricksy halflings. And initially, gnomes were a magical race. And they got along well with the other races. Elves liked them for their ties to the natural world and their friendship with animals. Dwarves appreciate their craftwork, as they were excellent jewelers. And halflings liked them because they were friendly and good natured and rarely prideful. But they were curious and intellectual. Scholarly. And that lent them to the study of magic.

The problem was that made the gnomes a weird sort of hybrid race. So as the elves became more and more strongly associated with magic – which was the gnome’s unique selling point – gnomes became a sort of hybrid of all the races. In 2nd Edition D&D, with a strong emphasis on specialty magic schools, the gnomes were salvaged by giving them a focus on illusion. Elves made good wizards, but gnomes were better at illusion. And that lead to playing up their personalities as deceptive forest tricksters.

Meanwhile, along came Dragonlance. The books, I mean. And one of the things Weis and Hickman tried to do in the Dragonlance novels was to give the races unique identities. That’s why they invented their own halfling – the kender – which would later supplant a lot of the original halfling identity as the everyman hero. And that is where the first hints of the tinker gnome started to show up. The problem with the tinker gnome is that it took on a comical bent. The gnomes were mechanically inclined, but they were bumbling and silly about it and their clockwork devices always seemed to fail in spectacular and silly ways.

And this is where I really started to hate the gnomes. See, it was bad enough when they were just the sort of everyrace – a little elf, a little dwarf, a little halfling. But the new identity for gnomes was either obnoxious pranksters OR wacky tinkers. And, either way, the problem I have is with the word “wacky.” I don’t like wacky. And I certainly don’t like an entire race that exists to be wacky. The “annoy the party with silly pranks” thing was bad enough, but I also hate clockwork and steampunk crap in my fantasy. So the wacky bumbling inventor with his clockwork pals also drove me f$&%ing bonkers.

The problem is the gnome is now carrying ALL of that baggage. They are magical forest folk, friends with animals, craftsmen, inveterately curious, wacky pranksters, and steampunk mad scientists. No one is going to play up the forest folk, craftsman, or curiosity aspects because those aspects are in elves, dwarves, and halflings. So, the only players attracted to gnomes are the ones attracted to the wacky. And THAT is why I ban gnomes in my game.

World of Warcraft has NOT helped any of this at all. F$&%ing rocket cars and gnomish jumper cables.

Here’s where I have a major problem with your question. You ask me what I would do with gnomes if I wanted them in my game. But you’re working backwards. I don’t put something into my game just to have it. Instead, I realize there’s something I want in my game and then I invent ways to make it happen. Everything about the gnome is either extraneous or its filling a niche I don’t want filled. So why would I force that into my game.

Do you want gnomes in your game? The first step is to figure out what role isn’t being filled on the race list and decide if that’s something gnomes can do. For example, there isn’t a good tinker and trader race. There’s isn’t a good race of tradesfolk and businessmen. Dwarves are craftsmen, sure, but they are also martial and traditional and socially strict. Gnomes as a sort of race of traveling gypsy folk could work. Not gypsy gypsys. But wandering tinkers and traders and salesmen. Think, like, good natured Ferengi. They aren’t the best at ironwork or stonework, but as village tinkerers and tradesmen, jewelers and cobblers, tradesmen, they are renowned. They are well liked and they set up shop everywhere. Maybe they even have a gift for the intricate. They don’t have to be wacky inventors and your world doesn’t need gear-powered robots. They could just be good at inventing useful things like spyglasses and astrolables and clocks and other useful faire that is just slightly too advanced for a fantasy world without being goofy.

Or gnomes could be the speakers for the forest. They could be Loraxes and the David the Gnomes of the world. They could have a gift for druidry. They reject the gods and have direct ties to the spirit world. They live in burrows in the forest, tend small gardens, and live as gatherers. They are healers of animals and protectors of the natural world. Whereas wood elves are stealthy hunters and tribal woodsfolk, gnomes are spiritual creatures, intrinsically tied to the magic of the natural world in a way elves are not. There really isn’t a race that is strongly tied to druids and the natural world without also being tied to the arcane or to hunting and living off the land.

Or gnomes could be artificers and alchemists. Again, that doesn’t require wackiness. Honestly, if you take the forest dwelling aspects, gnomes could just be the best alchemists and herbalists and mediciners and chemists in the world. They could know every plant and animal substance and ingredient and be renowned for their expertise in those areas. In fact, you could combine that with the idea of gnomes as skilled craftspeople and traders. Their love of fine craftwork combined with their direct connection with the natural world could help them excel as druids or herbalists or gardeners or animal handlers as well as as cobblers and jewelers and tinkers and knife sharpeners.

The only reason I’ve never done more with gnomes is because I never felt any of the archetypes that lend themselves to gnomes are really MISSING from D&D as such. But if you feel differently, go to town. Personally, I’m happier to just say gnomes can f$&% right off.

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19 thoughts on “Ask Angry Megablitz 5: Bicycles, Agency, and Gnomes

  1. Thank you for this. The part about gnomes was eye opening. I very much like the idea of gnomes living in burrows and surviving by gardening, caring for wildlife and holding a connection to druidism in a strongly spiritual way.

  2. For Gnomes I’ve been tossing around the idea of following 4e’s approach to Elves, which split the woodsy Elf from the outsider Eladrin. I think Halflings and Gnomes could follow the same pattern. Folk heroes v. untrusted little people.

    Gnomes would take up the role of the summoned, faerie outsider from classic fairy tales. Their illusionist abilities feed into their oddness, because who can trust an illusionist? Or their mechanical abilities make them outsiders, because can you ever trust someone who would invent a gun? (And then you can make them natives to Mechanus.)

  3. Gnomes: I have an old setting on the back burner that features a tinker gnome-ish race. They’re actually pretty sensible, and the wacky bumbling inventor thing is a racist stereotype they resent. They do have occasional spectacular failures that fed the perception, but that’s to be expected of anyone pushing the boundaries of science and engineering. The important thing is that they learn from their failures and add safety features.

    Video games: Branching paths are a hard thing to do well. The more distinct branches you have, the more time (and money) developers have to spend fleshing them all out. For players like me, it’s easy for it to be wasted effort: There are times when I’m emotionally invested in the world and characters and don’t want to see them suffer. Or a certain decision just doesn’t feel in-character for my vision of the protagonist. So, I stop playing once I get the happiest ending. Trying to get it right the first time sometimes adds a sense of tension when I play without spoilers and walkthroughs.

  4. If your thinking in a Gnomish direction, I’d highly recommend the Gnome episode of the Stories of the Fifth Age podcast. Discusses many of Angry’s points, and they give examples of Gnome characters for every class in 5E.

  5. Gnomes: I’m running a homebrew setting where I tried to change the standard races’ “hats” around. My elves are either desert-dwellers or interdimensional explorers, My dwarves are highbrow cosmopolitans with a servant race doing all the work for them. My halflings are sky-dwelling nomads, and my orcs are a merchant race. My gnomes, on the other hand, are city-dwelling scavengers akin to the tiny elves from folklore. My gnomes have the ability to shrink, and they build their villages out of junk, kinda like the Borrowers. They sorta took the halflings’ usual spot as the sneaky race, but their approach to hiding is a more “leave us alone” mentality than “gonna steal your stuff”.

    Branching Paths: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke
    I have learned, after several years of running games, that it is always prudent to determine what will happen if your players fail at a task *and* if they succeed. Most minor decisions won’t affect much, and with most major decisions, you can easily alter things just a tad to keep the story on track. I like to call this Schrodinger-roading.
    Example: The party gets a MacGuffin from a dungeon and get robbed on their way back to collect the reward, the intent being that they must follow the thieves. Let’s say they successfully fend off the robbers. You can, on the fly, change their benefactors, so that they run off with the MacGuffin without giving the party the promised reward. Now, the party is still hunting down people who have wronged them, even if their exact identity has changed.
    If more-or-less the same thing happens no matter what the party chooses, you don’t have to come up with extra content, and so long as the party thinks they have control over their actions, they never have to know there was only ever one path.

    • “Now, the party is still hunting down people who have wronged them, even if their exact identity has changed.”

      So the intention is not to assign a consequence, but to screw the players regardless of their choices, failures or successes? That’s not choice at all. That is looking into the box until the cat is dead.

      I personally would prefer to make it clear that the players failed if they have no chance anymore to retrieve the MacGuffin and move on to a Plan B or deal with the fallout, but that’s just me.

      • Wow, salty much?

        No, the intent is not to screw my players over. As a GM, I put a lot of time and energy into crafting the encounters, stories, and characters that my players meet. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve crafted a piece of story that my players, for whatever reason, never encounter. When that happens, the effort I spent creating that piece is lost. So, I’ve learned to craft story elements such that, no matter how my players approach them, I can still give them the experiences I want them to have.

        Let me give you another example. While crawling through a ruin recently, my players found a pair of hostile NPCs. I’d designed these two with fun personalities and interesting abilities that synergized well, and I knew the fight with these two would be something my players would enjoy. However, in the first round of combat, before either NPC could act, the party’s fighter critically-hit and one-shot one of the NPCs. I could have simply let him die. However, this would have resulting in a standard and somewhat boring encounter, and all the effort I’d put into fleshing out that character’s personality and abilities would have gone to waste. So instead, in that moment, I doubled his hit points, played the encounter out as I’d planned, and gave the party extra experience for “killing” three NPCs instead of just two.

        I have *never* set out to ruin my players’ game time. It’s my job, as a GM, to give my players the best gaming experience I can. That includes crafting the story I intend them to follow. My players like my stories and rarely, if ever, deliberately try to jump the tracks, but sometimes, a lucky or unlucky roll can send the story-train careening off somewhere I didn’t intend, so I do my best to get it back on track as quickly as possible. Because when I’m running a game session, I want to focus on running the game session, not frantically trying to figure out how to fit my players’ mistakes into the rest of the campaign.

      • I disagree, actually. If done for the right reasons, this particular story telling aspect is very good.

        I’m extrapolating a bit here, but lets say the campaign is set on stopping the Villian getting the MacGuffin and achieving the Very Bad Thing.

        You could just say to the party “go find the MacGuffin before the villian does” and treat it like a treasure hunt, every encounter providing another lead. Which is a find, if very standard sort of way to do it. The issue is that it becomes a very ‘Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle’ thing.

        You could let them find it first, but take it a way in a ‘cut scene’. It lets the players connect with the MacGuffin and gives the players and characters extra incentive to get it back. It’s still a treasure hunt, but they are more intimately connected with it. Problem is it really strips the agency away from the players if you just say “Yeah, the henchman takes it away from you and you can’t do anything about it.”

        This way, though, you can plan for players losing the MacGuffin and having to find it again because they will either
        1) Not get the MacGuffin initially, so by default it falls into the hands of the henchmen
        2) Bandit Henchman attack the party and steal the MacGuffin
        3) Merchant takes the MacGuffin, doesn’t pay, so the players have to track the merchant down, who turns out to be another henchman.

        You can through other options in there too if you like, and run a series of encounters until they either lose the MacGuffin, or it gets to the default case. The more encounters they get through, the more important the MacGuffin will seem. So if half the encounters are them fending off the waves of Villianous henchmen, then half the encounters are getting the MacGuffin back again, it breaks it up and makes it more interesting.

        The more I think about it, the more I really like it.

      • Most of the time, their choices do matter. I never meant to say that I never give my players any choice whatsoever. But when I have a story in mind, certain things need to happen for the story to make logical sense. Some people enjoy rolling with their players’ actions and watching as their campaigns go somewhere they never intended, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, that doesn’t work with me, as I prefer to have several weeks’ worth of content prepared ahead of time. This is because it takes me that long to adjust the story and the world when my players *do* make a decision I hadn’t anticipated.

        The example above is from one of my campaigns, where the main antagonists were a faction of elves called the Ancients that believed only elves were worthy of magic. So, they would go around stealing magic items, enslaving wizards, and killing sorcerers. The party first met the Ancients when the above example happened. The original plan was to have a band of Ancients steal the MacGuffin while the party slept, but the PC on watch rolled really well vs a Sleep spell and then woke up the rest of the party. What happened above is more or less how I resolved that. The thieves that attacked in the night became generic brigands, while the human who gave them their quest became an elf in disguise. He then skipped town with their payment, and the party hunted him down, bringing them into a grand conspiracy of murder, enslavement, and political intrigue.

        Once that session was over, I gave the party their experience (they’d already gotten loot from the dungeon), and I told them what I’d done. They laughed, as all of them either are running or have run their own games, and one said he’d never have suspected if I hadn’t told them. Like I said, my goal isn’t to force my players along with no deviation. Small changes are easy to account for, but there are always major story beats that have to happen for the campaign to progress. And I personally find it much easier to make several contingency plans and a *single* campaign, than to make no such plans and have to rework the whole campaign numerous times. But again, that’s just me.

  6. I personally would like my gnomes to be like Yoda on Dagobah. Now that I think of it, Yoda is a gnome living on Dagobah.

  7. I had spirit folk-like gnomes one time that were associated with the moon. I had a lot of fun making moon-like abilities for them, giving them some minor light-based cantrips and the ability to turn briefly invisible. I also made them immune to confusion, as a nod to the idea of “lunacy”.

  8. I personally love the spin Eberron did to gnomes. On the outside, they are your friendly little dwarves (3e)/outsiders (4e) that just love Eberron and keep neutrality in the whole megaplot of the Galifar kingdom and the last war, while providing humble services from their dragonmarked houses (inns and registry work).

    When you look close, they control the official press of the whole continent, has a monopoly in elemental binding, and have a secret police that know more about you than you.

  9. A upcoming player for my future 5th edition campaign gave me his take on a Gnome character that I felt was somthing fresh. Well, Svirfneblin I should clarify (from the Sword Coast Adventure Guide). He’s a former burglar and trained locksmith. As life unfolded, he moved to a surface town and started a business wherein he breaks into people homes or businesses in order to show them the weaknesses in their security, and then possibly sell them upgrades (his locks). I just felt this was a wonderful character idea that gives props to the gnomes crasftmanship and trickiness, while remaining pragmatic, interesting and – most importantly – not annoying.

  10. Anyone ever played Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? That game’s take on gnomes was really interesting. They were an extremely structured society with rigid class systems, a focus on reason and logic as the primary driving force of their lives, and a policy of strict neutrality in the conflicts of the world. They were Ancient Rome meets Switzerland, and I kinda loved it. I don’t do much with gnomes in my world, but if I ever decide to, it’ll be heavily inspired by that game.

  11. I do have one setting with gnomes, and I think I did a rather good job with them.

    These gnomes are small, quick, and meticulous. They are physically kind of fragile, but they have very quick minds, very fast reflexes, and very good fine motor control. So among other things, they are the setting’s masters of artifice, as well as tending to have a lot of wizards (the ritual magic goes well with their affinity for details). In addition, being physically fragile has made them masters of asymmetrical warfare, and gnomish assassins are feared the world over.

    Physically, their biggest distinguishing mark is this odd jerky motion, kind of like an insect. (it’s a side effect of having very fast reflexes).

  12. I used gnomes to replace the xenophobic wood elves in my setting. They’re fierce as the brownies from Willow, but not comic relief, excelling at guerrilla warfare strike and retreat tactics. This gives me a good excuse to have giant rabbit steeds, as I have a soft spot for bunnies. There’s a second variant that were stolen as slaves thousands of years ago and forced to work as morticians for caste system dwarves that viewed handling the dead as unclean. They have since become an independent, open to anyone, necropolis with a reputation for deep scholarship and philosophy with an unsurprising flair for the necromantic arts. Neither are seen (in game) as silly in the slightest.

  13. Very late to the party but I want to thank you for your answer. That session I planned with the new players fell apart so in the end I didn’t even get to run a game at all, that’s yet another reason why one shouldn’t prepare new stuff I guess… I sort of took your advice and grabbed three published independent adventures for the game I wanted to run(HARP) and came up with a narrative to stich them together for a 3 to 5 sessions adventure with pre gens. But then everyone backed down so… tough luck I guess.

    But thanks anyway, as always, useful advice for the next time. (If there ever is a next time)

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