Dragonmarks: Svirfneblin

Gnomes Beyond Zilargo was the topic my Patreon supporters chose in September, and there’s a lingering question: What would you do with the Svirfneblin in Eberron?

In my personal campaign I tend to limit the number of unique species and subspecies in the world. For example, in my campaign, Hill Dwarves, Mountain Dwarves, Ruinbound Dwarves, and Mark of Warding Dwarves are all just “dwarves”—a character from the Mror Holds could use any of those subraces and I’d just describe the character as a “Mror dwarf”, not a “Mountain dwarf.” Essentially, the Mountain Dwarf subrace represents early military training—it’s a secondary background, not a genetic disposition.

So with that in mind, I have a set of questions I ask when adding any exotic race to Eberron: Why do you want to add this race to the world? Is it simply that you want a character that has its mechanical advantages? Could your character be UNIQUE—perhaps a creation of House Vadalis, Mordain the Fleshweaver, or the daelkyr? Or do you want to add the CULTURE to the world—because you specifically want to be part of the society associated with that species?

With that in mind, the next step is to look at the svirfneblin and identify their defining features in Fifth Edition. As a subrace, they don’t actually have a lot of abilities: they have Superior Darkvision, Stone Camouflage, and speak Undercommon. If we look further to the Monster Manual description, Deep Gnomes have innate spellcasting abilities, and can cast nondetection, disguise self, blur, and blindness. This ties to their existing story: they are a society of subterranean gnomes who have close ties to earth elementals and who largely use their magic to avoid contact with outsiders, hiding themselves away. Keeping both sets of abilities in mind, here’s a few ways I might use them in MY Eberron.

The Gnomes of Lorghalen

Earlier I wrote an article about the Gnomes of Lorghalen, presenting them as a reclusive culture with strong ties to elementals. I wouldn’t say that ALL Lorghalen gnomes are svirfneblin; most dwell on the surface of the island and have no use for Superior Darkvision, the Lorghali work with a wide range of elementals, and I don’t see any reason for the Lorghali to be physically distinct from their Zil ancestors. However, I think it’s entirely plausible to say that there are a number of Lorghali families who took up residence in deep caverns below the island—caves with an especially strong tie to Lamannia, specifically the element of earth. It’s this that drew these families down there—it’s much easier to perform earth magic and work with earth elementals in the depths—and that over the course of generations, the energies of the caverns mutated these families, creating the genetically distinct Deep Gnomes. Essentially, it’s a variation of the genasi. I think these Deep Gnomes would be a fully integrated part of Lorghali society, even if they largely chose to remain in their caves; the Lorghali are a close-knit society, and I don’t see the unusual appearance of the svirfneblin being an issue.

If I went with this approach, I would replace Undercommon with Primordial; the Lorghali have no contact with the daelkyr or their followers, while they use Primordial in their dealings with elementals.

Agents of the Trust

The Trust is known for its secrecy. There’s even rumors of “ghost agents” who use rings of invisibility and sustenance to live their lives entirely unknown. What if evidence surfaced that the Trust wasn’t just training and equipping spies, but that they had magebred a subspecies of gnome, born into the service of the Trust and innately imbued with the ability to evade divination? If you don’t wish to hold on to the culture of the Deep Gnomes, this is a story you could explore. Per the Monster Manual, the svirfneblin can cast nondetection at will—an exceptional tool for a spy. And disguise self and blur are both excellent tools for espionage.

There’s two ways to take this. The first is more benevolent—the process of becoming a Deep Gnome is voluntary, and involves both training and alchemical, arcane treatments—more Captain America than Doctor Moreau. If I went this way, then a player character svirfneblin might be an active agent of the Trust: James Jalius Bonde.

A second approach is to emphasize that the process used to create these Deep Agents is horrifying and that they are forced to serve through lifelong indoctrination and psychological conditioning—that the people of Zilargo don’t know about the svirfneblin and would be horrified if they found out. In this case, I’d emphasize that this is the work of a small sub-branch of the Trust—a semi-rogue agency who has hidden their work from the Triumvirate. The reason for this is to emphasize that if a player character is a svirvneblin who’s broken free, that they aren’t being pursued by the entire Trust, which is a crazy burden to place on a PC; rather, they are dealing with a secret agency WITHIN the Trust, which has limited resources. My inspiration here would be the Bourne Identity series—The hero is hunted by Treadstone, not the entire US government. I’d suggest that the player character is presumed dead, and is trying to stay off the grid. With that in mind, I’d actually be willing to give the Svirfneblin Magic feat, but emphasize that they NEED to stay hidden or they will be targeted by assassins. While it’s a powerful ability, there’s a limited number of scenarios that will actually be broken by nondetection, and I think it’s a fun story to explore.

A third possibility would be to make the svirfneblin a society of gnomes WITHIN Zilargo who managed to magebreed themselves to induce the natural nondetection and other talents, as a way to avoid being watched Trust. Essentially, a secret enclave of brilliant alchemist artificers who believe that the Trust is watching EVERYONE with divination magic ALL THE TIME—sort of a tinfoil hat conspiracy taken to an amazing extreme!

Q&A

Would these Eberron deep gnomes still be gray and bald?

The Lorghali deep gnomes would. The idea is that it’s a physical mutation similar to a genasi. In the case of the “Captain America” agent of the Trust or the “Tinfoil Hat” gnome, I’d be inclined to give them the abilities of the deep gnome but not the traditional appearance; in which case Stone Camouflage might be a sort of limited invisibility (given that it works regardless of what the character is wearing, it’s presumable not just based on skin color). With the “Bourne Identity” version of the Trust agent, I personally WOULD keep the gray-and-bald appearance to emphasize how dramatic the experiments were—that they largely DO stay hidden (though again, Svirfneblin Magic gives them limited use of disguise self!). Of course, in that storyline almost no one knows what a deep gnome is; they’d be a curiosity, quite possibly mistaken for some sort of goblin.

Have you used svirfneblin in an Eberron campaign? If so, share your approach in the comments! And if you’ve missed any of the previous gnome articles, check out the Gnomes of Lorghalen and the Gnomes of Pylas Pyrial! And if you want to vote on the topic of the next dragonmark article, check out my Patreon!

38 thoughts on “Dragonmarks: Svirfneblin

  1. Would these Eberron deep gnomes still be gray and bald or would they appear similar to normal gnomes (the normal spectrum of rock and forest at least)? Would an rogue Trust agent on the run have to invest in a disguise just to pass?

    In 3.5 the Player’s Guide to Eberron suggested magebred agents of the Trust for a possible role for Whisper Gnomes (quick, stealthy and magically quiet) and I love the concept but feel the deep gnomes here suit it better for sure.

    • Would these Eberron deep gnomes still be gray and bald or would they appear similar to normal gnomes? Would an rogue Trust agent on the run have to invest in a disguise just to pass?

      That’s up to the DM and the player. In the case of the Lorghali deep gnomes, I’d say yes, they would be gray and bald—that again, it’s a mutation not unlike the Genasi. In the case of the Trust deep gnomes, it’s open to discussion. If I used the Captain America or Tinfoil Hat route, I could see giving them the typical gnome appearance (in which case, I guess Stone Camouflage becomes a weird sort of limited invisibility). On the other hand, if I’m going the Bourne Identity route, where they are supposed to have been created through a horrifying process, I’d likely make them gray and bald to emphasize that they really have been twisted from the traditional gnomes—that they have been through something deeply unnatural. Of course, they would be almost entirely unknown in the outside world, so no one would know WHAT they were; they might be mistaken as some sort of goblin.

      As for Whisper Gnomes, as I’ve said, I personally hate having 52 flavors of every species, so in my campaign I just quietly pretend that whisper gnomes and chaos gnomes never existed…

    • Do Lorghali deep gnomes have any danger of digging too deep?
      It’s up to the DM. But remember that it’s not DEPTH that is actually a danger in Khyber, it’s DEMIPLANES. The daelkyr aren’t just waiting at a particular depth; you have to uncover a portal to a prison plane. Personally, I’d say that the strong Lamannian resonance of the Lorghali caves would block any demiplane connections; they already HAVE a planar connection. And we’ve got a deep war in the Mror Holds; it’s not the story I want to define Lorghalen. But ultimately, that’s up to the DM.

      And what agriculture and architecture do they have?
      It’s a big question and not one I have time to explore in depth (get it?) at the moment. Given that they work closely with earth elementals, I’d expect them to have smooth tunnels that have been bored out by elementals, and to have a lot of carytid-like art that’s sculpted into the walls. Agriculture requires more thought, because the question is what role the influence of Lamannia plays on the vegetation. Of course, they also have close ties to the surface Lorghali, so they don’t necessarily HAVE to have sustainable agriculture in the depths; they could trade ore, gems, and other deep resources for food.

      • A big part of deep gnomes is mazes and gems so I’d say you could make adapt it either for the Lorghali gnomes, making it a feature of their manifest zone or possibly for the hidden gnomes in Zilargo by making them hide in the Seawall mountains in a city in the center of a massive labyrinth filled with illusions; the city itself would include a massive vein of Khyber dragonshards and those deep gnomes would have discovered several innovations of elemental binding, helping them keep the air clean, control the temperature of the cavern and even using earth elementals bound to the walls of the labyrinth to constantly shift it.

      • If these caverns have lakes and rivers, then maybe they have eel or salamander cattle and water based plants to farms? Or just fishing like Gollum.

        I just realized that sushi might be a Lorghali deep gnome dish.

  2. I had my players meet a svirfneblin NPC before in Xen’drik. Her name was Specs and she was a reporter for the Korranberg Inquisitive. I hinted that her presence was peculiar, but at the time the party did not choose to pursue what encountering an open svirfneblin meant. I intended her to be a secret/double-agent, which would tie in with the magebreeding options by the Trust you have presented.

  3. I hadn’t thought of them being another anti-Trust group hiding from the Trust within Zilargo, that seems like it would terrify the Trust if they ever learned of them.

    • … Which lends to the idea that they might look just like other gnomes and be VERY LOW KEY about being deep gnomes; it’s not obvious that they’re deep gnomes until you try to scry on them and nothing happens!

  4. This is awesome! I may have to ‘respec’ my gnome trust agent when he goes up a level and say then tell anyone who asks that he just came back from Tahiti (it’s a magical place).

  5. So, deep gnomes finally on Eberron (kanon)!!!

    Great article, Keith. Thank you so much!

    Well, I have some questions and thoughts. Sorry for so much, but is my favorite subrace hahahah.

    1. Do you think that all versions could work at same time? You know, living underground on Lorghalen have this effect and the Trust or the Power of Purity (probably one of the two and Power of Purity, that already have conections with Lorghalen, being the group of the artificers) discover about it and some how could replicate for them objectives. Of course, in this version Power of Purity maybe would be more antagonist to Trust than is the canon/kanon, but I could see some stories work in this way.

    2. Do you think that some of this village or city that become Deep Gnome could be inside of The Hammer? I was thinking yesterday, as Lorghali gnomes worship nature, would sound natural to me some trying live there if The Hammer allowed. This could be a good place for a order of paladins or monks too. Probably not a lot of gnomes live there for…is a really really huge elemental after all, but something with more religious or discipline could work.

    3. Do you have any idea of how flavor the reasons of deep gnome magic if they are from Lorghalen and Lammania touched? In my thoughts about them, before know that Lorghalen was influenced by this plane, I thought about this, but never thought in a good way to justify this.

    4. Besides I agreed with you about not use Daelkyr as threat, I really think that there is enough races/subraces/cultures that are direct affect by it, do you see some reason from the first Deep Gnomes have make villages or cities on the underground of Lorghalen and like stay there?Some entity, some influence, etc…

    This next two are a little more about all series of articles, so I will understand if you prefer answer in future or other moment:

    1. Do you see some problem or story arc inside Lorghallen? I love all informations of Lorghalen Article (probably my favorite and god knows that was useful to make my character from there) and I know that you cannot write about all things in just one article, but you have some ideas of inner problems?

    2. When I read the first time the Lorghalen Article I become curious about Tolanen. The other gnome city I understood the lore and that it is a example of the curse, but Tolanen is just a open mistery for the DM complete or I lost or didn’t understood something?

    • 1. Do you think that all versions could work at same time?
      Sure, if you wanted. These are all just possibilities; you could combine them or do something entirely different.

      2. Do you think that some of this village or city that become Deep Gnome could be inside of The Hammer?
      I think there’s fun story potential in saying that there’s deep gnomes living in the Hammer, but I’d definitely make it an order of monks, stonesingers, or Ancients paladins as opposed to just a mundane city. Having it be a sort of sacred monastery makes sense to me.

      3. Do you have any idea of how flavor the reasons of deep gnome magic if they are from Lorghalen and Lammania touched?
      I’m not sure I understand the question. I THINK what you’re asking about is how to justify the racial magic of the svirfneblin, such as nondetection? If so, it’s a valid question, given that it’s not especially elemental in its theme. I might play up the idea that they are tied closely to stone — that when they activate nondetection, they essentially read as stones to divination, not as living creatures—and so divination overlooks them. Blur could be presented as exuding a cloud of powdered stone. Disguise Self could reflect making their flesh like clay, and letting them mold it. However, this would suggest it was a physical change (while disguise self is illusory) and that it wouldn’t affect their equipment — like a changeling. With that said, if I was, for example, giving a PC Svirfneblin Magic as a free feat, I’d have no problem imposing that change — physical-but-doesn’t-affect-equipment — on Disguise Self.

      Do you see some reason from the first Deep Gnomes have make villages or cities on the underground of Lorghalen and like stay there
      Yes; what I said in the article is the idea that the earth energies are especially strong, and that it’s possible to perform earth-related magic in the depths that can’t be performed above; logically this also means that there would be more earth elementals in this region. If you wanted to add a distinctive earth elemental, you could – but again, anthropomorphic elementals like the Dao don’t come from Lamannia.

      I’m afraid I don’t have the time to address the other two questions here.

  6. About Svirfneblin Magic feat, as someone that always give for free to deep gnomes players in my tables, I have some experience that can be useful to who read the idea on the post of give the feat for free, but not sure if it would be balanced or not.

    Usually the biggest point is “non-detection at will is too strong”…but it is not reaaaaally true. Ok, there is specific scenarios that it is really good have it, but in general it is good for the DM that someone can use this. Do you know, when you need that a player can touch in a curse item (and even so, can be a discussion if curse items are not necromancy magic) or enter in a place without be noticed for some divination spell there. And when this not happens, it is ALWAYS a debuff for the player that cast. Non-detection don’t use concentration, so for eight hours the player it is with this spell always when he cast. This means no guidance, no detect magic, no all divinations spells that can give him a buff, no Detect Thoughts (this hurt so much in my deep gnome Bard: College of Satire once), no portent (ok, this one can be discussed, but seems to me that while using non detection you can not have a roll yours change by it…so if you have a friend or you are a divination wizard, don’t matter), and any abilities that are flavor as divination magic (if you have lucky for help of a god it is a common case).

    And it is good notice that is SELF only. So a lot of better uses are impossible here too, unlike the normal spell if you catch it as class.

    Honestly, the strong thing on it is Blur on level one. And this can be easily fix give Blur on level three if you think that can be a problem.

    Of course, this always depend of your campaign and what exactly you will have on it, but I played a lot with this feat and sometimes with this being give for free in level one. I never saw any problems. And except if you are a big fan of deep gnomes and love for it think about ways of non-detection shine in a adventure, it is really possible be a rarely used ability.

  7. So, it’s possible that I’ve just missed/don’t remember right now the positioning and activities of gnomes during the Age of Monsters. But if I’m CORRECT about it not being expanded on much yet, could the svirfneblin also be the result of daelkyr experiments on gnomes?
    Now, that doesn’t make them a great call for a PC race…but it kinda feels like a fun way to use the monster stat block – after all, if the gnomes WERE on Khorvaire during the daelkyr invasion, it doesn’t make a ton of sense that the daelkyr just ignored them (although that could be an interesting story in of itself!).

    • Orlassk (I think it is the name of the Lord of the Stones) it is a good match if you would like use Deep Gnomes in this way. My first thoughts about Deep Gnome was about them fight as ally of the Gatekeepers (while other Gnomes just stay in Zilargo) and with them end in the underground of Shadow Marches, affected by Orlassk. They would be there or because in the end they become crazy or because they are keeping some seal (or both).
      It is a cool use, but I just feel that are too many races affect by Daelkyr.

    • It’s possible. With that said, what’s been suggested is that gnomes existed in the Age of Monsters but that they didn’t have a CIVILIZATION. If you accept the theory that the ancestors of the Zil came from Pylas Pyrial, it’s entirely possible that they hadn’t arrived on Eberron in significant numbers at that time; it could simply be that there were literally a just a handful, who wandered away from the feyspire but in insufficient numbers to create a civilization or to draw the attention of the daelkyr. Notably, when you compare the svirfneblin to the other things the daelkyr are known to have created—halflings into chokers, goblins into dolgaunts, dwarves into derro—svirfneblin seem pretty benign.

      Of course, another possibility is that the Dhakaani ATTACKED Pylas Pyrial at some point, and that this led to the exodus of gnomes that ultimately became the Zil; perhaps they stole Thelanian artifacts, or there’s some other reason Shan Pyrial doesn’t want to discuss it.

      • One alternative to why deep gnomes are more benign than other races is to say that the gnome magical resistance it is the reason of it. As other races dont have it, maybe it is more difficult change a gnome than other races.

        If you use Daelkyr to justify them. They even for this reason can think about it more as a blessing.

      • If you play up the whole “basically grey aliens” aspect of deep gnomes, they suddenly seem less benign and a lot more like dolgrim or derro.

        • That’s a good point. If as a DM you choose to PLAY them more alien, you could definitely give them a daelkyr feel. Say that Stone Camouflage is because they have a rocklike skin texture and generally run around naked; blur and disguise self are psychic abilities that twist the perceptions of others; and they only communicate by clicking their stony fingers together or scraping them across stone surfaces. NOW I could see them as creatures of Orlassk….

  8. Might the Korred be part of the magebreeding of the gnome or perhaps the other way around where the Korred are Zil deep gnomes that went to the city of joy?

    • The Korred are FEY. As a result, I personally wouldn’t associate them with magebreeding or with Eberron at all; I’d say that they are and always have been creatures of Thelanis, part of the endless story of the Faerie Court, and come up with the STORY that defines them and that people tell about them, the story that gives them meaning and also establishes the role they will likely play in an adventure.

  9. What about their fellow non-evil underdark denizens, the Deep Imaskari?

    Best I can think of is them and Spellscales are remnants of early attempt at magebreeding humans (smarter, better vision, some magic affinity, unnaturally pale) that failed (less capable physically, lack the “knack” humans have) and haunt the human genome to this day, sometimes showing up in random children. Anyone have any better ideas?

    • What about their fellow non-evil underdark denizens, the Deep Imaskari?
      My basic question is always: WHY add a race/subrace/culture from another setting into Eberron? Is it actually going to make your STORY more compelling, or do you run the risk of overcrowding the world with so many concepts and cultures that people never really get to know any of them well?

      With that in mind, if I were going to add the Deep Imaskari I’d emphasize that they ARE an alien culture, a hidden civilization that’s been completely unknown to this point. Personally, I’d make them the inhabitants of a demiplane, a realm in which stone is unnaturally alive. In this it would be a touch of Agharta: a magical civilization within the world that can be as wondrous as I want it to be and yet that has played absolutely no role in the history of Eberron, because there’s literally ONE PORTAL THAT CONNECTS IT TO EBERRON. When the adventurers discover that portal, do they want to convince the Imaskari to emerge into the material world? Or could the seemingly peaceful Imaskari be hiding a terrible secret (for example, they are secretly creations/servants of Orlassk and want to turn the world to stone)?

  10. So, my first campaign as DM was a Out of The Abyss campaign. This is one the motives of my love to all underdark races.

    I always thought about how adapt this in a cool way in Eberron. It is not easy, demand some rewrite, but using underground and Khyber layers always was possible you know, justify in your journey there you found Umbragen and Akiak in the same adventure in my mind. Of course, you have to adapt motivations of both, but this can work with some cool ideas.

    And now with Lorghalen, I could see this working too. Blingdenstone could be a city of there build too deep. Probably this ones don’t have more contact with surface anymore or little. This give a opportunity too of substitute Gauntlgrym for Lorghalen (besides Mror could work too) and make have more sense there is no army to help in the problem after first part of adventure. Lorghalen don’t have political power enough and probably only the principalities came to the reunion (and some other groups in background of the player characters).

    Anyway, just thoughts about implications or possibilities of the article. I could see Blingdenstone being a rebel base against the Trust in underground of Zilargo that is really deep to keep them way.

    Not a question here, just some thoughts.

    • So to be clear, you object to Keith Baker saying how he’d do things in his Eberron (separating his opinion from Wizards of the Coast canon as they hold the copyright but he created the setting)?

      Or you object to Keith encouraging people to do what is best for their purposes in their own games?

      I’m terribly confused, I’m sure

    • So to be clear, you object to Keith Baker saying how he’d do things in his Eberron (separating his opinion from Wizards of the Coast canon as they hold the copyright but he created the setting)?

      Or you object to Keith encouraging people to do what is best for their purposes in their own games?

      I’m terribly confused, I’m sure something just isn’t clicking here.

    • Eberron is meant to be tailored for individual campaigns, this is the shorthand for telling people what they are personally doing regarding the setting details in their game(s), so others can differentiate it from what is official.

    • I feel the opposite. When someone says “my Eberron” sound as if he wants make clear that it is his vision and that can be others. This really don’t sound arrogant to me.

  11. Adventure seed:
    A civilized rural area in the Five Nations is having some weird and disturbing phenomena: livestock mutilations, strange lights, disappearances, people reporting nocturnal paralysis with visitations by diminutive grey-skinned hairless humanoids with huge dark eyes. The players should be thinking “It’s greys!”. Meanwhile some Trust Gnomes in Black show up and flood the zone with disinformation and truth suppression, for some reason. Then the players track them back to the Khyber deminplane the invaders are striking from and discover that they’re snerfneblins.

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