Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes — Halflings and Gnomes in D&D

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For a long, long time, I didn’t like gnomes in Dungeons & Dragons and I wasn’t too keen on halflings either. Like Nerdarchists Dave and Ted point on in the video where they discuss the Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes chapter on halflings and gnomes in D&D, gnomes in past editions were billed as sort of dwarf-adjacent but more lighthearted and magical. Their prankster and kooky inventor archetypes didn’t appeal to me or find their way into my own campaigns and settings. Halflings for their part fared better in my imagination. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings certainly played a role there, but despite those wonderful stories halflings were never very compelling for me. I’ve since changed my tune and had a lot of fun playing characters of both races. After reading through Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes my appreciation for these cultures in D&D deepened.

halflings and gnomes in D&D
Halflings and gnomes in D&D as seen in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. (And yes, I like the halfling depiction!) [Images courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

A place for halflings and gnomes in D&D

Small folk, big hearts

The opening of the chapter in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes on halfling and gnome cultures in D&D perfectly captures what I’d been missing and come to appreciate about these two small races — both survive in a multiverse full of conflict by living largely under the radar of bigger creatures and their conflicts. Halflings are mostly pastoral folk (although I dug their place as river/swamp people in fourth edition D&D). They have a good nature and famously good luck, optimistic outlooks and a generally positive demeanor. They’re plucky, and who can help but getting a little misty eyed at the end of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King when this courage is honored by Aragorn and the assemblage bowing to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin?

What I cherish most about halflings is, among all the myriad playable races, each sort of focusing on different aspects of the human experience, they exemplify the best of human nature. There’s plenty of space for variation of course — not all halflings are good for example — but in general, they have an everyperson quality of shared values and virtues. They’re like humans, if humans all got along and worked together for the betterment of their community.

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes
A halfling adventurer as seen in the fifith edition Dungeons & Dragons Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]
Halfling culture makes me think of a place like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show, and mentions of halfling sheriffs throughout various editions of D&D only strengthen this view. Mischief and minor squabbles are probably the bulk of problems halfling law enforcement deals with, along with keeping watch for dangerous outsiders who might bring trouble.

Halfings traditionally are all about the creature comforts too. A cozy home, good food and plentiful free time to enjoy are hallmarks of halfling life. They don’t want trouble coming to their doorstep and they don’t go looking for it, either.

Now that I think about it, I suppose the main reason halflings didn’t have the same juice for me as other fantasy races in D&D was because I identified with them too much! Idyllic, laid back lifestyle of comfort and calm…why would they head out into a dangerous world and leave that all behind?

This is where Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes really nails it, in the section about halfling adventurers. Every so often, for inexplicable reasons, a halfling comes along with a case of “fancy feet.” The call of curiosity is too great for these halflings, who feel compelled to explore the wider world. There’s no reasonable explanation for such adventuresome behavior. Nevertheless these fancy-footed folk take to the road not traveled and head off to see what else is out there. This is something I can relate to too, having moved around the US many times myself and gone on spontaneous trips in other countries as well. Seems I have more in common with halflings than I thought; guess I have a bit of the fancy feet myself.

Wherever adventure takes them, a halfling finds the positive in any situation, a trait I admire. There’s always good and bad things going on in the world — the real one we live in or the fantasy worlds where our stories take place. Any party will benefit from a halfling adventurer in their midst to remind them of the best the world has to offer even in the face of grave danger and terrible evil.

Aside from all the cool bits of history, lore and details about halfling deities, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes has several tables customized for halfling adventurers’ personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws. But it also includes a fun table of various reasons for adventuring. Any of them would give players terrific reasons for exploring the wide, wonderful world or inspire the sorts of unusual reasons your halfling might get the fancy feet.

If you want to play a good-natured adventurer with a zest for life, uncanny courage and remarkable optimism, a halfling fits the bill perfectly.

Lives full of magic

I’ll admit, gnomes turned me off for a long time primarily because a friend played nothing but gnomes basically the entire length of our friendship and gaming activities together. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It just became a thing in our group that I didn’t like gnomes, and over time the myth became reality.

Not so anymore!

Gnomes are wonderful, and have really come into their own as distinct creatures in fifth edition D&D. Small and sly like halflings, crafty and communal like dwarves, gnomes possess a magical quality imparting a really splendid place in the world. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes does a terrific job of exploring these aspects. Curiosity drives a gnome, and wonder about the world(s) around them lends to a deep appreciation for whatever draws their attention.

halflings and gnomes in D&D
I came across this illustration a while ago and loved it. So when it came time to create a new character I knew exactly what to do. [Art by Oscar San Miguel]
Like any D&D material, the best way to understand something is to use it in play. When the opportunity to join a new campaign on The Greyhawk Channel came about, I created my first gnome character ever in D&D (and I’ve been playing since the mid-80s!). Gusamon Gusfun is a Circle of Spores druid in The Secrets of Castle Greyhawk campaign run my DM Sean McGovern and the little fella is already one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played. Leaning into a gnome’s curiosity and obsession with their interests, humorous outlook and zest for life is a lot of fun to play. It also gives me chances to move things along in our live stream game — Gus often drifts away from the group of larger folk while discusses plans to poke around. Not too much though — I don’t aim to plunge the party into deadly danger. But he’ll certainly get himself in sticky situations, trusting that his awesome friends will figure out a way to overcome them. They’re heroes, after all (especially his personal hero, Aurora the aasimar paladin).

The magical nature of gnomes is an important part of their culture, too. Whatever variety of gnome — rock, forest, or deep — gnomes have an affinity for magic. Traditionally in D&D, this is illusion magic, but there’s a certain kind of magic to the tinkering of rock gnomes and the woodland wiles of forest gnomes as well. A gnome’s interest in magic is similar to whatever other mundane pursuits they enjoy, very often towards making the world a little brighter. Other creatures might not see it this way — gnomes do have a reputation for practical jokes, often enhanced with magic — but at the end of the day a gnome typically aims to make life more enjoyable.

Similar to halflings, gnomish adventurers are drawn by their curiosity to explore the wide world. The difference is this behavior is expected, and encouraged, by gnomish society in general. A gnome who spends their whole life in the burrow would probably be considered very strange by their kind. And gnomes are smart! Their desire to learn and ability to understand things is a valuable trait for an adventuring party. Puzzles and mechanical traps that confound adventurers are right up a rock gnome’s alley, while guiding friends safely through the wild wilderness is a perfect job for a forest gnome. And delving deep beneath the earth, something adventurers often do, is a great place to have a deep gnome along.

Like the section on halflings, there’s extensive info about gnome deities in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, including a great sidebar about gnomes’ relationship with kobolds, their traditional foes. The book does a great job of incorporating racial pantheons into their cultures, illustrating the sorts of things that are most important to a culture through the variety of gods each race venerates. Unlike halflings, whose pantheon are all good or neutral, gnomes do have one evil god, the chaotic evil Urdlen. One of the more interesting deities, I really like Urdlen’s place in gnome culture — as a reminder of why it’s important to be a positive member of society.

And of course, the customized personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws tables are awesome. These sorts of resources are so useful for players, if for no other reason than they provide a succinct summary of what a creature’s society is like. From the gnome tables, you can see they are intensely interested in focused pursuits, fascinated by the world, eager to learn, and helpful to those around them.

If you want to play a character who sees the wide world and multiverse as a magical place and can’t wait to go on the next adventure with their friends, bringing their knowledge and magical nature to bear in order to win the day, give the gnome a try in your next campaign.

What about your thoughts on halflings and gnomes in D&D? Is there a chapter or section in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes that you enjoy the most, gave you a new perspective or made playing a character more enjoyable? What cultures in D&D interest you, and do you hope to learn more about in future products? Let me know in the comments below!

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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