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D&D General My Problem(s) With Halflings, and How To Create Engaging/Interesting Fantasy Races

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
And this takes me to halflings. What's their niche? Short-person. Are they the only race in that niche? Only if you don't count gnomes, dwarves, kobolds, and goblins (and Fairies if you count UA, and I'm not even counting the Lineages/Races that can be small or medium, including Verdan). Are they strongly rooted in the identity of most worlds that they're included in? Not really. If you take Halflings out of the Forgotten Realms or Exandria, it doesn't really change anything important/major about the settings. If you remove them from Dark Sun you don't have cannibal halflings, which are a cool tidbit about the setting, but certainly not essential to its identity, IMO. Eberron probably changes the most noticeably of any of these listed settings, as it has Talenta Plains, Dragonmarked, and House Boromar Halflings, but even then, you could just as easily replace all halflings with Gnomes (or possibly even Goblins) and get practically the same outcome. What is their lore-based reason to exist in most D&D world's? There's rarely actually ever one of these, and even if there is, the explanation is lacking (cause this god I just came up with to create halflings created halflings), and/or could just be summed up by "Halflings are in this world because they exist in D&D". And why do Halflings exist in D&D as a whole? Because Tolkien's works (a huge part of the inspiration of D&D) included Hobbits.

And that's where the issue (for me) comes down to. Their existence is circular. They exist for no real narrative or plot-driving purposes, but because Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit had small-folk as a race for some of its most prominent characters. And that's not a "bad" reason to warrant their existence in a fantasy game where quite literally anything can exist, but it's just not a "good" one, either (and by "a good reason to warrant existing", I meant it as in a reason that empowers creative thought, drives/inspires plot points, and motivates players to think a bit more about the identity of their characters). Warforged exist for a good reason (to provoke discussion and tropes of "what measure is a non-human") and give a lot of inspiration for both character backstory and plot points. Felshen exist in my D&D world to create plot points about the Felyik Conflict (shorthand for Felshen-Yikkan Conflict/Wars), to give players ideas on how their character(s) feel about major parts of the world (the magical goblinoid and psionic humanoid societies), and to drive discussion on who the "good" and the "bad" in the conflict are (it's neither, all shades of gray, but some individuals and mindsets are more wrong or right than others). The Kryn Dynasty exists in Exandria to drive discussion on essentially the same issue as Paarthurnax's famous question of "What is better - to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?" The Warforged, the Felshen, the Kryn Dynasty, (and endless further examples), all exist for what I define as "good" reasons. They exist for story-driving reasons, while Halflings just exist to be "short people that are humans . . . but short".
Possibly D&D has smudged out their original purpose. Halflings are the crofters of old England. Whereas elves capture the arts-and-crafts movement. Tolkien's faith in the deep roots and good hearts of those people, and fears about industrialization, made them the perfect foils in his epic. The corruption of the Shire more than anything else showed the worst of what might happen. In particular, the corruption of individual halflings who went along with it. Possibly Tom Bombadil represents a kind of arch-halfling, so grounded as to be unmovable by the artifices of industrialists. The elves on the other hand were tricked when industry crafted things that looked like art.

So if you want a grounded people, who are hearty and at heart kind and honest, then you have halflings. They care for crafted things, but not so much art (which they respect, but it is above them). Well made, useful things. Their purpose in a campaign is as what is to be protected. They are the good children of the home counties. There is much wrong already with this whole picture (!), of course. But anyway, their sense for good and fair is so deep that at a pinch you know they will always do the right thing. Even if they don't know the way.

This is a coherent purpose, although its value will depend on the game world in question, and what is going on there.
 

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And that's where the issue (for me) comes down to. Their existence is circular.
This is what it comes down to with halflings.

They were created because hobbits were a thing, and some (probably small) minority of players wanted to play them in D&D, back in the 1970s and perhaps 1980s. Then they got put in D&D settings, and then they had to keep providing rules for them, because even though no-one plays them, and every "niche" they could be said to fit is much better covered by other small races, but as you say, their existence is circular - they existed in the past so must exist in the future. I don't think it's rational - I think it would be fine to remove them from the PHB and add them in a later supplement.

The sad thing is I don't even dislike them. I quite like hobbits. But they've got no real place in D&D. They fit into Tolkein's world for very specific reasons that just don't apply to most of D&D.

Because they don't fit well and indeed because WotC has intentionally moved them away from the Tolkien-esque concepts, they basically just become "mini-humans", and various settings have desperately sort out niches for them, which can be fun but seem a bit "trying to make it happen", like with Eberron's dinosaur-riding halflings (why not buy a leather jacket and a low-end sports car if you're going to have a mid-life crisis lol?). It's notable that the vast majority of more recent D&D-inspired games just don't have them, and have other short races instead.

Honestly, I'd say to WotC - stop trying to make halflings happen, stop desperately trying to find a niche for them, and don't put them in the PHB or expend a ton of effort integrating them into settings. If you want a short race, you probably can't go with goblin because it screams Pathfinder, but kobolds are very popular (and just got new mechanics, IIRC), as are fairies (note that Earthdawn switched out halflings for fairies, so even back in the early 1990s they knew this was an issue).

TLDR: Halflings only exist because of failures of imagination in the 1970s, leading to them existing for the sake of existing. WotC (and others) need to stop trying desperately to "make them happen", and replace them. Gnomes are coming up on a similar place, as the last attempt to give them an actual identity was rejected by angry grogs, and now they're nearly identity-free and must seem pretty bizarre to people new to RPGs. Still, they have more identity and more of a place in D&D than halflings, because they're not just mini-mes. Whereas kobolds, goblins and fairies make actual sense, provide something not already covered, and have more immediate appeal, especially to people newer to RPGs.
 


They were created because hobbits were a thing, and some (probably small) minority of players wanted to play them in D&D, back in the 1970s and perhaps 1980s. Then they got put in D&D settings, and then they had to keep providing rules for them, because even though no-one plays them,
This is certainly not true. Whatever the merits of halflings, they are extremely popular with my players, actually the most played race (after human). Here is a breakdown of races played in my campaigns over the last couple of years:

Human: 4
Halfling: 3
Genasi: 2
Half elf: 2
Bugbear: 2
Half orc: 1
Custom Lineage fey changling: 1
Eberron Changling: 1
goblin: 1
gnome: 1
dwarf: 1
goliath: 1
 
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Possibly Tom Bombadil represents a kind of arch-halfling, so grounded as to be unmovable by the artifices of industrialists.
Not to derail, but I don't think that's quite right, because his views and way of life only partially line up with those of the hobbits, and he doesn't have every trait of theirs in an extreme form - or even many. Tom is basically, a straight-up return-to-nature utopian anarchist. He thus represents something more extreme than the hobbits, and which doesn't match up with the frequent small-minded-ness, xenophobia (not so much in the Fellowship hobbits, but certainly hobbits as a whole), and so on. He's lived free since the dawn of time, and he wants to continue to live free. Tolkien himself expressed strong anarchist sympathies (much as that may shock people). In letter 52 to his son, he specifically calls himself an Anarchist and also offers support for what would today be regarded as luddite terrorism (workers dynamiting factories etc.).
This is certainly not true. Whatever the merits of halflings, they are extremely popular with my players, actually the most played race.
Well, let's be clear, when I say "no-one", I mean "a tiny percentage of players", not literally no-one. Apologies if that was confusing.

But your players are freakishly unusual, if that's true. Because every single time we've seen figures on this kind of thing, the number of players playing them is laughably small. Discounting one I made recently basically to be difficult (he's actually turned into a cool character lol), I've seen 2 halflings played in 30 years of D&D, and whilst that's more extreme than the figures we've seen, it's not much more.

EDIT - Wait you're saying 3 out of 19 is "extremely popular"? That's a lot higher than their popularity has ever been shown to be generally, but I still wouldn't call that "extremely popular". OTOH it's as many as I've seen played in D&D in my entire gaming life so there's that.
Halflings are fine, the endless amount of "the problem with halflings" threads on the other hand...
This is a perfect illustration of an unfortunately common attitude towards like virtually anything which is a problem in human society lol - "The thing people are complaining about isn't a problem, the complaining is!" without the slightest intellectual effort to consider what is being complained about. It's unhelpful at best.
 

Well, let's be clear, when I say "no-one", I mean "a tiny percentage of players", not literally no-one. Apologies if that was confusing.
Without evidence, it's not confusing, it's wrong. You, anecdotally, find few players play halflings. I, anecdotally, find lots of players play halflings. Neither of us are qualified to speak for the thousands of other games that exist.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
This is a perfect illustration of an unfortunately common attitude towards like virtually anything which is a problem in human society lol - "The thing people are complaining about isn't a problem, the complaining is!" without the slightest intellectual effort to consider what is being complained about. It's unhelpful at best.
I've actually had a few DMs express their loathing for gnomes before, so I'm kind of surprised to hear that at other places it's hobbits who get the ire.

Well, let's be clear, when I say "no-one", I mean "a tiny percentage of players", not literally no-one. Apologies if that was confusing.

But your players are freakishly unusual, if that's true. Because every single time we've seen figures on this kind of thing, the number of players playing them is laughably small. Discounting one I made recently basically to be difficult (he's actually turned into a cool character lol), I've seen 2 halflings played in 30 years of D&D, and whilst that's more extreme than the figures we've seen, it's not much more.
 

Without evidence, it's not confusing, it's wrong. You, anecdotally, find few players play halflings. I, anecdotally, find lots of players play halflings. Neither of us are qualified to speak for the thousands of other games that exist.
I can't speak for you, but I'm not just going on anecdotes.

Every single survey and DNDBeyond data dump and so on has shown halflings as pretty unpopular, especially when you consider they're a well-established race and in the PHB and Basic set rules. I'd love to see an "actually played" data dump from Beyond with the current halfling figures. I would predict that it would not look great for them, based on previous trends. Even when they were one of very few 5E races available, they got beaten by Genasi (of all things - who aren't even mechanically good in 5E, unlike halflings!) back in 2017.


More popular than half-orcs but there's literally no possibility half-orcs will make it into the next PHB (they'll be replaced by orcs most likely).
 


I personally ,dislike gnomes and elves, and loath kenku, but I don't stop my players playing them )apart from kenku).
To be fair I think the number of people who loathe elves (which is significant) is matched and exceeded only by the number of people who love them. I remember people complaining about the inevitable elves in every setting in every fantasy-ish RPG back in the mid-'90s even, and I have a lot of sympathy for that. Especially given the excessive numbers of subraces. But they are very popular, and they fill conceptual and mechanical niches, and unlike a lot of D&D races, they appear in a huge amount of fanatasy literature - if a setting is going to have any non-human intelligent species, the odds that they will be either elves or direct elf-equivalents are extremely good. You could find probably fifty or even a hundred fantasy-novel settings with elves or elf-equivalents for each one with dwarves or dwarf-equivalents, let alone hobbits/halflings (I can only even think two, off-hand, both from heavily Tolkien-derived authors who started writing in the 1970s or early 1980s).
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I think halflings have a useful niche. That being, not human, but human adjacent (obviously, I'm referring to typical halflings, not DS halflings).

I've known plenty of players over the years who don't want to play a human in a fantasy game because "that's what I am in RL". I think halflings provide a comfortable niche for someone who wants to play something a little more fantastical than themselves, without having to stray too far from their comfort zone and what they know.
 

I think halflings have a useful niche. That being, not human, but human adjacent (obviously, I'm referring to typical halflings, not DS halflings).

I've known plenty of players over the years who don't want to play a human in a fantasy game because "that's what I am in RL". I think halflings provide a comfortable niche for someone who wants to play something a little more fantastical than themselves, without having to stray too far from their comfort zone and what they know.
Not really seeing how halflings fit than more than elves/dwarves/half-elves (the latter being the classic race for the type of player you describe) in 4E and 5E.

In earlier editions the fact that elves didn't mature until 100 and dwarves until like 50 (IIRC) did freak a certain number of people out, but since 4E, it's been a similar age to humans for both, they just live much longer. So perhaps that was justifiable as a "niche" in earlier editions, but I don't think it is any longer. And even in earlier editions, half-elves filled the niche better.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
Not really seeing how halflings fit than more than elves/dwarves/half-elves (the latter being the classic race for the type of player you describe) in 4E and 5E.

In earlier editions the fact that elves didn't mature until 100 and dwarves until like 50 (IIRC) did freak a certain number of people out, but since 4E, it's been a similar age to humans for both, they just live much longer. So perhaps that was justifiable as a "niche" in earlier editions, but I don't think it is any longer. And even in earlier editions, half-elves filled the niche better.
I never said that elves or dwarves freak people out. However, their mindset is different from that of a human owing to a multitude of factors (including their long life spans). Half elves often fall into the "child of two worlds" archetype, so they have a bit of baggage.

Halflings are not human, but are closer to human in outlook (IMO) than any others. Obviously, you can have your elves and dwarves have human outlooks as well, if that's your preference, but I think a lot of people prefer to RP them as something a bit different.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Not to derail, but I don't think that's quite right, because his views and way of life only partially line up with those of the hobbits, and he doesn't have every trait of theirs in an extreme form - or even many. Tom is basically, a straight-up return-to-nature utopian anarchist. He thus represents something more extreme than the hobbits, and which doesn't match up with the frequent small-minded-ness, xenophobia (not so much in the Fellowship hobbits, but certainly hobbits as a whole), and so on. He's lived free since the dawn of time, and he wants to continue to live free. Tolkien himself expressed strong anarchist sympathies (much as that may shock people). In letter 52 to his son, he specifically calls himself an Anarchist and also offers support for what would today be regarded as luddite terrorism (workers dynamiting factories etc.).

Well, let's be clear, when I say "no-one", I mean "a tiny percentage of players", not literally no-one. Apologies if that was confusing.

But your players are freakishly unusual, if that's true. Because every single time we've seen figures on this kind of thing, the number of players playing them is laughably small. Discounting one I made recently basically to be difficult (he's actually turned into a cool character lol), I've seen 2 halflings played in 30 years of D&D, and whilst that's more extreme than the figures we've seen, it's not much more.

EDIT - Wait you're saying 3 out of 19 is "extremely popular"? That's a lot higher than their popularity has ever been shown to be generally, but I still wouldn't call that "extremely popular". OTOH it's as many as I've seen played in D&D in my entire gaming life so there's that.

This is a perfect illustration of an unfortunately common attitude towards like virtually anything which is a problem in human society lol - "The thing people are complaining about isn't a problem, the complaining is!" without the slightest intellectual effort to consider what is being complained about. It's unhelpful at best.

Edit: Crossed-over your post above. In any case, if your argument is popularity, then Gnomes are certainly nuked before halflings. Half-orcs would have been nuked about the same time pre-2020. I wonder if there was a revolt caused by the discussion of their portrayal often being problematic.

One set of numbers from 2017 with a pretty graph of DnDBeyond data Is Your D&D Character Rare?
showed Halflings to be around 3/4 as popular as Dragonborn (77.5%) or Tieflings (72.3%) and around 3/5 as popular as Dwarfs (62.2%). Halflings were a bit more popular than Half-Orc and Halflings beat Gnomes by about what Dragonborn beat Halflings (Gnomes came in at 78.3% Halfling).

Looking at the numbers scree-plot wise, Humans and Elves certainly stood out, but then they started a slow gradual smear, with the aasimar falling off the end.

1623410588809.png

In 2019, it looks like Halflings still kicked Gnome butt (4.7% to 3.1%) and were about tied Half-Orc (4.7%). D&D 5E - D&D Beyond: Updated Character Popularity

Geeknative reported the top 5 in 2020 as being Human, Half-Elf, Dragonborn, Tiefling, and Half-Orc.
 
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Necrozius

Explorer
D&D has that whole "kitchen sink" approach of tossing in a pile of races/cultures without more elaborate thought about what the implications would be of such a mix. Add in the more recent desire for slightly gonzo, post-modernist take on fantasy races (friendly, benevolent spider people who love baking for friends UwU), and I'm starting to feel that all of this is becoming a kind of slightly shallow, Adventure Time experience. Which, if people want it, is totally fine! Not for me, however.

If the setting is a merging, or melting pot of worlds, like in Science Fiction, that's a different matter, of course. There's a reason why 13+ humanoid races are coexisting the in the same area somewhat harmoniously.

But a single planet with 13 (or more!) native, fully sentient races coexisting without too much trouble? Our own world only has a SINGLE RACE and we've had endless conflict that's shaped history and geography for millennia. People have started normalizing the differences, of course, but that's starting to feel like humans in funny hats, which, again, feels shallow to me. Racial ability score modifiers are gone now, for instance, but nothing else seems to be replacing them as a way to biologically and culturally make them unique from each other (besides stuff like weapon proficiencies and spell abilities). Not much in terms of helping the players understand that their elf or dwarf is several hundreds of years old and how they could consider roleplaying that! Or races who've previously been demonized as being evil... what interesting challenges would that bring to the game? Tieflings seem to be common place and trivial, but their origin (and nature) should be anything but trivial.

Even the exotic world of the Dark Crystal has more restraint than the Forgotten Realms. I'd like to see more fantasy worlds with more curated restraint, honestly, but that won't happen because the player crowd has spoken: "more races! more options! don't constrain us!". Oh well.
 

Edit: Crossed-over your post above. In any case, if your argument is popularity, then Gnomes are certainly nuked before halflings. Half-orcs would have been nuked about the same time pre-2020. I wonder if there was a revolt caused by the discussion of their portrayal often being problematic.

One set of numbers from 2017 with a pretty graph of DnDBeyond data Is Your D&D Character Rare?
showed Halflings to be around 3/4 as popular as Dragonborn (77.5%) or Tieflings (72.3%) and around 3/5 as popular as Dwarfs (62.2%). Halflings were a bit more popular than Half-Orc and Halflings beat Gnomes by about what Dragonborn beat Halflings (Gnomes came in at 78.3% Halfling).

Looking at the numbers scree-plot wise, Humans and Elves certainly stood out, but then they started a slow gradual smear, with the aasimar falling off the end.

View attachment 138128
In 2019, it looks like Halflings still kicked Gnome butt (4.7% to 3.1%) and were about tied Half-Orc (4.7%). D&D 5E - D&D Beyond: Updated Character Popularity

Geeknative reported the top 5 in 2020 as being Human, Half-Elf, Dragonborn, Tiefling, and Half-Orc.
What I find most surprising is the popularity of dragonborn. I have never seen a PC dragonborn. Ever.
 

That sounds exactly like an "everyman", who is by definition a normal Human.
in DnD human is the perfect chameleon, and can decently mimic any race.
Halfling can be considered useless, but you will need an efficient lobby to pretend that Tolkien books and films never existed. Halfling race is backup by books and movies that assure them a place in fantasy game for ever.
But I agree that for a world building addict, halfling is not very glamour. You don’t build a fantasy world around halfling. Replicating the Shire thousand time, will create a nice place, with only cute gardens and farms. If you need drama, passion, betrayal, power, you go for human, elf, Tiefling.
 

edemaitre

Explorer
There are a couple of issues worth noting regarding Halflings as a racial option in D&D5e:

-Any Game Master is free to pick and choose what to allow in his/her/their game. If the concept doesn't fit your world, don't use it. Since I've been running my homebrew setting for 38 years, I've got a lot of history using Halflings built with my players. I wouldn't retcon away the role of Meadow Rangers in the Seven Kingdoms War or the oppression of the Shan Sao by the Bakemono in the east. Newer races such as Tieflings, Dragonborn, and Warforged are rare, but players have requested them.

-Aside from story, the mechanical benefits of each race/subspecies within the rules may vary, but they're generally balanced, if not equally exciting to everyone. Role-players like having options, and even slight differences matter between a sneaky Halfling Rogue and a slick human Bard or a nimble Elven acrobat. If you want to reskin the standard fantasy races with human-animal hybrids, like badger folk (Dwarves), squirrel kin (Gnomes), cat people (Elves), etc., go for it!

-Don't get caught up in "edition wars." Every edition has its adherents, and our hobby is richer for them. Your campaign and your player group should find what makes everybody happy. That's part of the fun of tabletop RPGs -- each table has a unique combination of personalities, ideas, and rules. I get that some fans -- especially those of us who post to message boards -- like to argue, but keep it constructive.

-If you can't beat them... try it out! I've tried to play every race-class combo at some point, at least with memorable Non-Player Characters. My Cajun Halfling chef, punk Gnome Bard, or drunkard Half-Elf Fighter P.C.s all explored different aspects of myself, as well as fictional exaggerations or rules/role elements. Creative players can help flesh out cultures and find ecological or thematic/tactical niches.

-Nothing is written in stone. Try an all-human campaign, or one with everything but humans. You're only as good as your next session. Every scenario is a new opportunity to try out ideas and to see what works for you. Despite my fondness of tradition, I'm not running in the same way or the exact same characters I did years ago. If I did, I'd still be running "hack-and-slash roll-playing," which was fun at the time but would not satisfy me now. Styles change, and I've learned from every G.M. and even and especially the failed games. Good luck!
 

What do non-Duergar Dwarves do to push things ahead narratively that can't also be done by humans? (Or what do most humanoids do that can't be done by humans?). What do gnomes do that a short variant elf wouldn't do?
For Dwarves, I would describe the traits for which they are known in 5e as follows:
  • Tradition;
  • Piety;
  • Worship of ancestors;
  • Warrior Might;
  • Craftsmanship;
  • Living in Mountains/hills;
  • Stubborness.

If you described a character that had all those traits but didn’t tell me the race, I would assume that you were a dwarf.

For Elves, I think we need to take subraces into account, since there is quite a bit of variety of flavor depending on subrace. Let’s take wood elves:
  • Living in forests;
  • Being very in tune with nature and fey;
  • Otherworldly grace;
  • Love of art and music;
  • Good at magic;
  • Ridiculously long-lived;
  • Haughtiness.

If you described a charcter that had those traits, but didn’t specify the race, elf would be a pretty good guess.
 

I don't understand. That seems like a lot of writing to say "I don't want halflings in games I run," which is your prerogative (I don't have Dragonborn. A friend of mine is starting a game where humans are the only playable race).

Now if what you are trying to argue is that "no one else should play a halfling at a table in which I am a player either because I don't see a niche for them," well then. . . that seems off.
I would suggest that @AcererakTriple6 ‘s point is that when 6e comes out, perhaps dragonborn, tiefling or tabaxi should replace halflings as the 4th core race. I think there will always be a place for halflings in D&D, perhaps among goliaths and aasimar.
 

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