Something Different: The Gnome Barbarian
“Something Different” articles explore race and class combinations that are just a little bit off-center.
A dwarf, an elf, and a gnome walk into a bar…
But this isn’t just any bar. This is The Drunken Pig, and famously the seediest dive join in the city’s roughest neighborhood. The door’s marked by little more than a flickering lamp held above a wooden board in a dark alley. The floor is sticky with spilled beer and old puke that didn’t get thoroughly cleaned. The barmaids arm themselves with razors—and all know how to use them.
This bar is the sort of place where a stray glance or misspoken word can quickly get you stabbed. It’s the sort of place where the customers who lose the bar fights wake up in the trash bin—if they’re lucky enough to wake up at all.
So when the elf starts putting on an air of superiority, it causes some folks to glance about nervously. The elf has a spellbook, so there’s no telling what he can do. But the dwarf’s not having any of it. Maybe the other drunkards are content to let the elf talk down their favorite bar. Yeah, the liquor’s no good, but that’s why it’s the cheapest bar in three nations. So the dwarf puts his hand on his axe handle and marches up to the elf.
And everyone can tell this is going to get messy somehow. People start finishing their drinks quickly and measure the distance to the door versus the safety they might find beneath their tables or in the corners of the room.
The elf’s not backing down. He goes on about an axe being no match for one who can wield the elemental powers of fire and ice. And the dwarf starts growling about the elf needing to back up all his big talk.
Then… there’s a feral roar from the nearby table, and the silver-haired gnome to whom no one had paid any attention (not even the barmaids—much to his never-ending irritation) leaps into the air brandishing a hammer and brings it cracking down on the elf’s skull, collapsing him in a heap. And even as the dwarf starts laughing, the gnome turns around, shouting, “AW, SHADDUP! WHY DON’T YOU?!” And with the sort of savage ferocity one rarely, if ever, expects from a gnome, he pummels the dwarf twice in the gut so hard that the dwarf drops to his knees—only for the gnome to clobber him on the side of the head and leave him unconscious, face down in his drool.
“NOW,” says the gnome barbarian, “my name’s Maxwell, and I want my drink!”
Why It’s Different
Like our Maxwell, the gnome barbarian is always something of a surprise. They’re solidly among the characters you’re least likely to encounter in a game of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition—at least according to the article FiveThirtyEight compiled after scraping the data from the D&D Beyond archives.
This is likely because gnomes tend to be curious and fun-loving tinkerers. You’d expect to meet a gnome wizard or a gnome rogue. These are classes that suit the typical gnomish approach to life—as well as the gnome’s +2 bonus to Intelligence and the forest gnome’s +1 bonus to Dexterity. But the gnome brings nothing to the barbarian’s focus on Strength. In fact, the gnome cannot even use many of the barbarian’s most iconic weapons. As a small-sized character, the gnome cannot wield heavy weapons—such as the greatsword, greataxe, or maul.
But there’s something even more surprising than the rare appearance of a gnome barbarian—who so utterly lacks the synergies that make a character genuinely effective in Dungeons & Dragons combat.
What is this great surprise? It’s the fact that gnome barbarians appear more frequently than a bunch of race and class combinations that offer greater synergies—like the gnome monk and aasimar sorcerer. After all, there is entirely nothing in the mix of “gnome” and “barbarian” that fits together naturally—except, perhaps, the idea of a character named Maxwell after the famous Beatles song, running around and smashing things with his hammer.
Of the 227 gnome barbarians FiveThirtyEight found within the D&D Beyond archives, it would be interesting to see just how many were named “Maxwell” or ran about with hammers… possibly silvered.
How It Can Work
If you’re going to play a gnome barbarian, then, you might as well run with the memes. Enjoy every bit of your murderous little madman. It’s Dungeons & Dragons, after all, and most of the time, you’ll get to murder “monsters” in the name of all that’s good.
To this end, our little Maxwell will want a hammer—a warhammer, to be precise. Since this is a one-handed weapon, we’ll have Maxwell use a shield, as well, and we’ll make sure Maxwell is a rock gnome so that he’ll start life with a +1 bonus to his Constitution and can take full advantage of the barbarian’s Unarmored Defense.
This means that if we were to build Maxwell with the point buy method presented in the Player’s Handbook, we could end up with an array of attributes that look like this:
STR 15 (+2), DEX 15 (+2), CON 16 (+3), INT 10 (+0), WIS 8 (-1), CHA 8 (-1)
While it’s a bummer that our little barbarian will start his career with a Strength of just 15, the fact that 5th edition caps attributes at a maximum of 20 means that Maxwell can—by 12th level—catch up to all the other barbarians who started with higher Strength scores. In the interim, he gains Gnome Cunning, which provides him an invaluable advantage on all his Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saving throws against magic.
As a rock gnome, Maxwell also gains the ability to tinker with tiny clockwork devices, which may not play directly into the barbarian’s standard strengths, but which offers a lot of story potential when the devices are destroyed, break down, or fail to work correctly—all of which could easily throw Maxwell into one of his furious rampages.
With this role-playing hook in mind, we’ll plan to steer Maxwell down the Path of the Berserker, embracing his inner rage as fully as possible and ignoring the various animalistic aspects from the Path of the Totem Warrior. This means Maxwell will gain an extra bonus attack at 3rd level and the ability to enter a Mindless Rage at 6th level, which renders him immune to charms and fear effects. And by 14th level, when Maxwell has the same 20 Strength as all his barbarian and fighter peers, he’ll be able to swing his hammer as many as four times a round, adding his bonus rage damage to each of his hits.
How to Play It
You can certainly make a gnome barbarian that doesn’t take its inspiration directly from a Beatles song. But since we’re doing that with Maxwell, we’re going to embrace the inspiration as much as possible.
This means Maxwell is a young, psychopathic gnome who is somehow obsessed with his hammer and how it smashes things. Perhaps he names it. We’ll presume that Maxwell has somehow managed to avoid an evil alignment because he’s been happy enough killing vermin, pests, and evil things that he hasn’t yet crossed the line into killing anything good or innocent.
The song’s chipper, upbeat melody leads us to believe you wouldn’t take Maxwell for a feral killer until the hammer strikes. We’ll imagine him as a rather clever barbarian. His Intelligence score is perfectly average, though his Charisma is a bit low. Accordingly, Maxwell’s likely the sort to lurk in the background until he spies some kind of opportunity. Maybe we’ll give him a background that offers proficiency in Stealth, such as the Urchin background or the Urban Bounty Hunter background from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.
All together, we can envision Maxwell as a self-made young gnome who likes to dress fancy, oil and comb his hair and beard, and perfume himself like an entertainer. But there’s something wrong with him, and when he’s pushed to his limit, he snaps. He breaks away like a spring loosed from its restraint—uncoiled and launched into the world, lashing out with his hammer.
To play Maxwell this way, you’ll want to find the humor in the ironies. You’ll want to feel his limitations, to see yourself hedged in by a world you don’t fully understand—except that there’s one thing you do understand: This world is full of nails. And you? You have a hammer.