Gnomes in D&D have always lived in the shadows of the other races, yes, even in the shadow of halflings. Where Halflings can draw their evolution from one of the most beloved series of books in the fantasy genre, Gnomes's development in role-playing isn't as clear. In early D & D, they were simply referred to as distant cousins of dwarves and loosely based on some European myths. Not bad, but nothing spectacular either.
Later we did see some more unique interpretations of Gnomes develop in specific settings. We got tinker gnomes from Dragonlance, which played off the Gnomish myths of their industrious natures. We got the Forest Gnomes with their zeal for life. These Gnomes were given wild hair and tied to the wild, much like druids. Then there are the Deep Gnomes, who lived in the Underdark and provided a bastion of good in those dark lands. More somber than the other types of Gnomes, this variation was more like Dwarves than the other Gnome races. So how did these variations of Gnomes come to be? No creation myth, no unifying thread that explained how Rock, Forest, Tinker, and Deep Gnome were related. In short, gnomes in D&D are pretty much a hot mess.
Gnomish gods are pretty cool, but most of them are still the original ones that we got out of Deities and Demigods. Sure, Garl Glittergold is great, but he still seems more like a dwarven god in gnomish clothing. It's almost as if by the time 5th edition came around, the people over at Wizards of the Coast simply threw up their hands and said screw it. The proof is in the pudding. Take a look at Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, where Wizards outlined some of the mythology of the races. Elves get 28 pages dedicated to them, while dwarves clock in at 18 pages. Hell, even the Gith, get 12 pages devoted to them. How many pages did the halflings and gnomes get? They got 15 altogether in a shared entry. The Gnomes got 8 pages, and the poor halflings only got a whopping 6 pages.
I think the lack of attention given to the Gnomes comes from the fact that the real world mythology they are drawn from is so varied. In these myths, there are many variations, and each one shares concepts with other mythical creatures. These variations and the lack of a coherent direction for gnomes led me to come up with a myth that I hope you will enjoy and maybe even use in your own campaigns.
The Gnomes story starts long before man lived in kingdoms, wielded magic, or could read and write. Gnomes made their appearance before the dawning of human civilization when humans were simple hunter-gatherers. This meant little to humans because Gnomes didn't even live in the same plane of existence as humans; they lived in the Realms of the Fey. Gnomish ancestry gets its beginning in the magical land of twilight. They lived independently from the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and resembled little the gnomes of today physically.
They were, however, much like gnomes of today, doing what they liked and continuously playing pranks on others and searching for new experiences. This, of course, did not endear them to the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Still, it was not this carefree lifestyle that upset the Courts of the Fey. What upset the Courts of the Fey was their ability to physically and magically change their appearances.
Gnomes could take on the physical form of other Fey and mimic their innate abilities to the point it was impossible to tell a transformed Gnome from the Fey they were impersonating. The only drawback to these transformative powers was that gnomes, small creatures naturally, could not increase their mass to take on larger forms. While the Gnomes could not take on the appearance of the Lords and Ladies of the Courts of the Fey, they could appear as Fairies, Brownies, Spriggins, and Red Caps, to name a few.
The gnomes of this prehistory time were highly resistant to all Fey's magic as well, which made it hard for the Fey courts to force them to bow to their authority. The Gnomes of this prehistory regularly made the Fey Courts look foolish, by ruining their well-thought-out plans that were part of the eternal struggle between the Seelie and Unseelie courts for the Realms of the Fey. Unlike modern Gnomes, their ancestors cared little if people died because of their practical jokes. This competition between the Gnomes ensured that they would continuously interfere with the courts as the Gnomes tried to one-up each other.
Because of this, the Gnomes became enemies of both courts and all of those allied with them. If it wasn't for the Gnome's natural ability to adapt and mimic others, they would have been eradicated early on. Despite this the Gnomes now felt the intense pressure being leveled against them as both the Seelie and Unseelie courts joined forces to put the Gnomish problem to an end.
A Fey War
As the Fey beings came together to eradicate the Gnomes, their own Lords and Ladies found that even their allies among the Fey had abandoned them. While there were a fair number of Fey that did not partake in the Gnome hunts, they also would not aid them.
For hundreds of years, this war for the annihilation of the Gnomes went on. Hunters from both the courts were vigilant, and if they were lucky and found a Gnome, they were killed on the spot. In response, the Gnomes turned their pranks into open guerilla warfare, and the Realms of the Fey quickly became a paranoid and chaotic place. The very best the courts had to offer were made into hunters, but the Gnomes proved the elusive prey ever.
As the war dragged on, however, the hunters became more adept at sniffing out Gnomes through non-magical means, and the death toll among the gnomes began to climb but at an agonizingly slow pace.
Eventually, both sides began to realize that neither party would be able to win outright, and neither wanted this new paranoid and constant violence to become the norm.
A Compromise and Exodus
Secretly the two sides began meeting to discuss a possible way to bring the war to an end. The Gnomes, while native to the Realms of the Fey, had no desire to live there anymore. Everyone in the Realms of the Fay hated and despised them now. So, it was decided that the Gnomes would leave and go to live on the Prime Material Plane. The only problem was that the Courts of the Fey did not trust the Gnomes to not slip back into the Realms of the Fey disguised again.
Word of this reached the gods of the Prime Material Plane, mainly the gods of the Elves and Dwarves, as humans were not a significant force to be recognized at that time. These Dwarven and the Elven gods intervened wishing to prevent the departure of the Gnomes to The Prime Material Plane. As a result, a grand meeting between the gods and the Lords and Ladies of Fey, and Gnomes was held.
The Gnomes realizing that their ability to change shape and mimic others was the catalyst for the fear others had of their kind. It became clear that this would be a problem anywhere that they went, so the only solution for their continued existence meant that they would need to get rid of these abilities, but how could they do such a thing? The gods of the Elves and Dwarves weren't powerful enough to accomplish such a feat. They could, however, with the help of the Gnomes, cast powerful magic that alters their memories, making them forget that they could do such a thing. In the end, an intricate and powerful ritual was performed by these beings of immense power. The Gnomes willingly submitted, changed, and allowed themselves to be transported to the Prime Material Plane.
The Effects of the Gnomish Transformation
As part of the compromise, the most powerful of the Gnome Lords and Ladies were elevated to the status of divine beings, or gods, and were given residence in Bytopia. The rest of the Gnomes were scattered in small groups all over the Prime Material Plane. What was not anticipated was the effect of such a powerful ritual spell fueled by Dwarven and Elven divine magic.
The Gnomes that appeared on the Prime Material Plane now incorporated certain aspects of those that had cast the ritual spell upon them. Certain aspects of dwarves and elves were absorbed by the Gnomes making them seem distantly related to them. Wood Gnomes were connected to forests and nature, while some Gnomes took on aspects of mining and living underground. Even physically, they changed, with forest Gnomes having a more lithe build. At the same time, those that took after dwarven traits were stockier.
The Ritual of Displacement, as it would later be known, not only removed the Gnomes memories of their ability to change and mimic others. It also stole from them all memories of living in the Realms of the Fey. This explains why the Gnomes have no real memory of their origins, nor myths of their people's dawn. While the average Gnome had forgotten their people's origins, the gods of the Gnomes did not but swore to never speak of it again. As did the Gods of the Dwarves and the Elves that participated in the ritual.
Those left behind
While the ritual magic was successful, albeit, with side effects, none anticipated a small number of Gnomes did resist the Ritual Spell. These Gnomes, known by their ancient name, Gnosh, exist in small numbers in the Realms of the Fey. While they retained their ability to change shape and mimic, they forgot their past as Gnomes and became twisted, vile creatures who hate all. Fortunately, their numbers were so few that they never became a problem in the Fey Realms.
While rough around the edges, I prefer this type of origin story for Gnomes, but that does not mean the story is complete. What did you think of this possible origin of Gnomes? Would you change something, or do you have a better idea of an origin for them? If so, I'd like to hear it about it.