Firstly: I’m a 30-something white dude living in the middle of leafy Surrey, UK. I’ve lived round here all my life. Go a few miles north and you’re in London, where you’ll find more cultures and creeds living together than practically anywhere else in the world. A few miles south, and you’re more likely to see a hedgehog than a black person. I say this to clarify I’m no expert on the delicate matter of diversity in modern tabletop games.
Since some of my earliest PDFs, there’s been an indigenous race of gnomes. Refugee survivors from the northern mountains, fleeing some catastrophe of their own design. Technical savants, obstructive bureaucrats, and inventive little buggers. I know I’ve gotten a lot of good play out of including them, and I’m not the only one.
Mono-race cultures lie fondly (?) at the heart of the kind of old-school tabletop fantasy games Dungeon World seeks to emulate. At the same time, Dungeon World’s minimal setting, PbTA ruleset and story game sensibilities all encourage player improvisation in a way other games don’t. This can be a bit of a paradox!
So as I’ve been planning the print release of the Mirkasa Chronicles, I’ve been thinking about what it means to include ‘gnomes’ in my games, in all their tinkering, stolen-from-warcraft glory.
We have the native Mirkasans. There’s nothing stopping a PC from rolling a new character and saying they’re from Mirkasa – in fact, I’d encourage it. So we can infer Mirkasans can be human, elf, dwarf, halfling, or any ‘race’ option from the Dungeon World character classes. Mirkasa isn’t a race, it’s a culture – the result of multiple races and creeds living together and reaching consensus over decades of diplomacy, etc. By comparison, the gnomes seem rather two-dimensional.
So for future adventures I’ve redefined the gnomes as ‘the gnolgi’ – an underground culture of peoples who lived below Gnolgorroth mountain. It’s a subtle change, but an important one. The factors I’ve defined previously can still apply – skilled with technology, potent wordsmiths, refugees from their home. Physical factors, too – they tend towards shorter stature, wider eyes and paler skin. (Maybe a stretch, but justifiable as a result of centuries underground.) An individual gnolgi might display some of these traits, or none of them. As a people, they might all be human, or a mix of races living together. (You could have a gnolgi elf, or a gnolgi dwarf.) Perhaps the word ‘gnome’ is still relevant, but an insult; an insensitive shorthand that oversimplifies centuries of cultural development.
Maybe this is relevant to your games, maybe not. When I run a game, I want a space where all my players can feel welcome and have fun. That means not being too political, but also providing an opportunity for situations outside of my humble experience. Where I live, that means working extra-hard when it comes to race and culture.
If you’re reading one of my adventures, I’m willing to bet you’ll get what an average gnolgi is all about as easily as you would a gnome. But a definition of a race can be a limiting factor (“all gnomes are technical savants, because Warcraft said so.”) For better or worse, that’s what we’re used to in popular culture. I hope that won’t be the same when you introduce the gnolgi.