Updated Sat, Dec 07, 2013 by gunky
Race: Gnomes, Goblins, Asura and others
Finally, an archetype that can't be pinned solely on Professor Tolkien. Be warned: this column will use the politically-incorrect term "midget" in reference to small-bodied fantasy races. Because they are midgets. Annoying little midgets, and the reason that actual little people get offended by the word. They are not suffering from achondroplasia or other types of human dwarfism. Real-life little people are humans, and we already looked at those in another piece.
The super-industrious tiny magic/engineering genius traces its roots to 16th century alchemist Paracelsus, who described Gnomes as tiny earth elementals able to pass through solid earth as easily as humans pass through air. Later on, these elementals got incorporated into 18th and 19th century faerie tales, where they got lumped in with kobolds, goblins, leprechauns, brownies and other household spirits, and the "earth elemental" aspect was more or less dropped.
The Gnome featured in the works of many famous fantasy authors, including L. Frank Baum and C. S. Lewis, among others. Tolkien, of course, also used Gnomes in some of his stories, but they were much lesser-known - in some cases, the word Gnome refers to the Noldor elves, and means "those with knowledge" (possibly related to Gnosticism, but more elf-y), and in the Christmas stories he wrote for his kids, Red Gnomes were Norwegian and helped Father Christmas's Elves battle evil Goblins.
The super-clever wee folk most often encountered in fantasy games, however, draw more from the 1970's Dungeons & Dragons version of the Gnome - a diminutive being that looks like a shorter, thinner Dwarf, but which is less cantankerous and more gifted with magic, and with the Illusion school of magic in particular. After the progenitor Gnome came the sub-races - the Svirfneblin, who are more closely akin to Paracelsus' earth elementals, and the dreaded Tinker Gnome.
Essentially, all fantasy-game mad-genius midgets are spun off from the Tinker Gnome. This includes World of Warcraft's Goblins, who often build dangerously-unstable and anachronistic machines powered by steam and cranks and gears. It also includes the Asura of the Guild Wars universe, though these little megalomaniacs are more proficient with dangerous magic than with steampunk tech - more like regular Gnomes in that respect, but with the "inventiveness" of a Tinker and the high-blown ego of an Elf.
The words "curious" and/or "mischievous" are often used to describe these little people, but more often they come across as annoyingly manic children bristling with dangerous weapons and lollipops. It boggles the mind that societies advanced enough to invent technology hundreds of years ahead of its time wouldn't come up with the idea of Ritalin.
ADHD medicine would probably help them invent devices that aren't dangerously unstable. These races often invent themselves all the way to the very brink of extinction with their machinery and gadgets. When their contraptions invariably break down, the failure is always catastrophic. This is a fairly transparent allegory to humanity's own technological over-reaching with nuclear power - a source of energy that is mysterious to most people and has the potential to be very, very dangerous.
In already-cartoony games, these races are even cartoonier - the equivalent of a "___ Babies" version of whatever other races are in the game. This sort of child-like aesthetic has an appeal to some players - the same people who enjoy magical rainbow ponies, but also actual children - but for more serious-minded players looking for an immersive world, they are anathema. Nothing breaks suspension of disbelief like a ridiculous tiny big-headed baby-person bouncing around giggling and spraying death-rays and sparkly rainbows all over the place. But that's exactly the sort of thing that players of these races tend to do. If you've ever been corpse-jumped in a PvP match, chances are good that it was a tiny-race guy that did it.
Were I a little person in real life, I would be rather offended by the diminutive races in fantasy games. Peter Dinklage doesn't have a goofy chipmunk voice, and he doesn't bounce around like a manic toddler when he walks. He carries himself with poise and dignity, and his immense talent brings great depth and pathos to the character of Tyrion Lannister - a character that would be far less sympathetic, and almost completely offensive to most sensible human beings, if he were portrayed in the same manner as a giggly Gnome.
Trolling with a "midget" race is super-easy, which is why so many players do it. A lot of it relies on the premise that a tiny person character is equivalent in power, intellect and maturity to a small child, and disregards logical things like game mechanics that try to keep all the races balanced. For instance, it can be humiliating to get defeated in a PvP match, but doubly so when the victor is tiny and uses the size fallacy to insinuate that the defeated character is therefore incredibly weak - "he got his ass beat by a midgit lolz!"
There are other ways to troll with a tiny character besides PvP trash-talk. The "Annoying Gnat" maneuver is fairly popular - simply follow another character around, jump constantly, run circles around him when he pauses to check a map or type in chat or whatever, and spam emotes when the other player starts fighting mobs. The other player will likely assume that you are a child trying to get his attention for something, but he has no idea you're an adult with a neckbeard, no friends and a job you hate and suck at. So the joke's on him!
Fortunately, this trope seems to be primarily a thing of the past. Only a couple of triple-A MMOs have the mad scientist midget race these days. Most games go the other direction with little people and make them a race of sneaky, untrustworthy thieves. But that's a discussion for a different day.