Something Different: The Gnome Fighter
“Something Different” articles explore race and class combinations that are just a little bit off-center.
Your mom wanted you to be a doctor. Your dad, who was a wizard himself, wanted you to follow him into the arcane arts. Or if you weren’t going to be a doctor, a wizard, or the next great inventor, your mom and dad hoped you would at least do something clever with your hands and mind like your roguish sister, Nyxie Barrow Maplethorpe.
But you? For you, it was always the call of adventure and the clang of the swords from the human training grounds down the street. You watched the young men and women learn to master their blades, and something in the effort spoke to you. Sure, these warriors twice your size, but you were sure you could learn to fight every bit as effectively as any human; you’d just have to trade in the greatsword for the rapier.
With dreams full of trolls and dragons, orcs and oozes, and rampaging minotaurs, you began to sneak in your lessons. To keep your parents off your back, you studied some wizard magic as well, albeit halfheartedly. It was useful, and you were good at it, but you knew with every beat of your gnomish heart that the tingle of magic would never replace for you the heft and balance of a finely crafted blade.
Sure, there may be reasons you don’t hear much about all the other gnome fighters, but you? You were bound and determined to make a reputation for yourself as not only the greatest gnome warrior of all time—but one of the greatest fighters of any sort!
Why It’s Different
In fact, when FiveThirtyEight published the character data published on D&D Beyond from August 15 to September 15, 2017, gnome fighters accounted for just 0.2% of the 109,189 listed characters. By contrast, fighters were the most popular class, representing more than 12% of all the different characters, and the most popular gnome—the gnome wizard—accounted for a respectable 1.2% of all characters.
It’s no surprise that fighters are well represented. They’re iconic. They’ve been around since the beginning of the game—and in nearly every form of mythical, heroic and fantasy literature. Also, the 5th edition fighter is incredibly versatile. Its Martial Archetypes work well with or without magic, and it gets the most Ability Score Improvements of any class, which in turn affords characters more freedom to pursue feat options.
However, for better or for worse, the iconic fighter so overshadows the wider range of possibilities that we tend to see only a narrow spectrum of the many possible types of fighters. According to the data on FiveThirtyEight, the vast majority of fighters are human, dwarf, dragonborn, elf, and half-orc. The focus is largely on strength, large weapons and heavy armor—with the possible exception of the elven fighters.
Along with this traditional cast of fighter comes the grim warrior persona, and the gnome fits neither the armored warrior mold, nor the grim fighter. Gnomes are small-sized, too small to wield heavy weapons. They look ridiculous in full plate. And they’re so vibrant and energetic, you’d almost never expect to see one of them looking dour and acting taciturn as she straps on her shield prior to battle.
How It Can Work
Fortunately, playing against type can be thoroughly entertaining—for both you and everyone else at your table. And the joyful—but strangely adventurous and martial—gnome can prove a welcome addition to any party, able to hold his or her own with the biggest, tallest, and toughest of humans, dwarves, or half-orcs.
This is because 5th edition (5E) allows Dexterity-based fighters to utilize their Dexterity not only for their attack bonus with finesse weapons, but their damage bonus as well. This means a Dexterity-based gnome fighter with a +4 Dexterity can stab as effectively with his rapier as a hulking human fighter with a +4 Strength can chop with his battleaxe.
This means that if you’re using the point buy rules that cap your initial attribute scores at 15, the forest gnome’s bonus point to Dexterity can keep her on pace with every other fighter. You’ll bump it to 16, and you’ll get the same +3 to attack and damage as all the human, dwarf and dragonborn fighters with 16 or 17 Strength.
However, the key is that you’ll then want to make use of the gnome’s +2 bonus to Intelligence. So you’ll likely play an Eldritch Knight—which is great, because magic is fun and can be just as tricky as you need it to be…
Among other things, this means the gnome that abandons full plate in favor of studded leather or Mage Armor can make use of the Shield spell to gain 5 points of Armor Class just when the troll thought it was ready to sink its teeth into the pocket-sized fighter!
How to Play It
The key to playing the gnome fighter is to revel in everything that’s novel and exciting about it. Gnomes are curious and impulsive, prone to tricks. While you don’t have to play to the gnome’s traditional characteristics any more than you have to play to the fighter’s stereotypical role, exploring everything that’s gnomish about your gnome fighter is part of the joy of it. After all, how many other fighters are likely to try pranking their opponents in the middle of combat? Which other fighters are likely to explore all the combat advantages that their illusions can give them?
Lean into this impulsivity during your character progression too. Make sure you have enough attack bonus, damage bonus, AC, and hit points to help your party. But then explore all of the options available to you.
When you feel comfortable with your ability scores, you can pause from increasing your Dexterity, Intelligence, and Constitution to take a feat or two.
You might find yourself Lucky, or you might become a Martial Adept to gain a couple of the Battle Master’s special combat maneuvers in addition to your Eldritch Knight spells.
Mix some of the obvious combat spells like Shield and Haste with some more esoteric options.
Perhaps you’d be more interested in disabling giants with Hideous Laughter than with multiple rounds of hack-and-slash. The idea is rife with comic possibility, but it also makes great use of the gnome’s attribute bonuses, as few fighters could ever hope to take down two giants as quickly as a gnome fighter with Hideous Laughter prepared. Dust yourself off after an encounter or two like that, and you might just gain a reputation as the greatest gnome fighter ever—or even one of the greatest fighters of any sort!