RPG Evolution: The Trouble with Halflings

Over the decades I've developed my campaign world to match the archetypes my players wanted to play. In all those years, nobody's ever played a halfling.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

So What's the Problem?​

Halflings, derived from hobbits, have been a curious nod to Tolkien's influence on fantasy. While dwarves and elves have deep mythological roots, hobbits are more modern inventions. And their inclusion was very much a response to the adventurous life that the agrarian homebodies considered an aberration. In short, most hobbits didn't want to be adventurers, and Bilbo, Frodo, and the others were forever changed by their experiences, such that it was difficult for them to reintegrate when they returned home. You don't hear much about elves and dwarves having difficulty returning home after being adventurers, and for good reason. Tolkien was making a point about the human condition and the nature of war by using hobbits as proxies.

As a literary construct, hobbits serve a specific purpose. In The Hobbit, they are proxies for children. In The Lord of the Rings, they are proxies for farmers and other folk who were thrust into the industrialized nightmare of mass warfare. In both cases, hobbits were a positioned in contrast to the violent lifestyle of adventurers who live and die by the sword.

Which is at least in part why they're challenging to integrate into a campaign world. And yet, we have strong hobbit archetypes in Dungeons & Dragons, thanks to Dragonlance.

Kender. Kender Are the Problem​

I did know one player who loved to play kender. We never played together in a campaign, at least in part because kender are an integral part of the Dragonlance setting and we weren't playing in Dragonlance. But he would play a kender in every game he played, including in massive multiplayers like Ultima Online. And he was eye-rollingly aggravating, as he loved "borrowing" things from everyone (a trait established by Tasselhoff Burrfoot).

Part of the issue with kender is that they aren't thieves, per se, but have a child-like curiosity that causes them to "borrow" things without understanding that borrowing said things without permission is tantamount to stealing in most cultures. In essence, it results in a character who steals but doesn't admit to stealing, which can be problematic for inter-party harmony. Worse, kender have a very broad idea of what to "borrow" (which is not limited to just valuables) and have always been positioned as being offended by accusations of thievery. It sets up a scenario where either the party is very tolerant of the kender or conflict ensues. This aspect of kender has been significantly minimized in the latest draft for Unearthed Arcana.

Big Heads, Little Bodies​

The latest incarnation of halflings brings them back to the fun-loving roots. Their appearance is decidedly not "little children" or "overweight short people." Rather, they appear more like political cartoons of eras past, where exaggerated features were used as caricatures, adding further to their comical qualities. But this doesn't solve the outstanding problem that, for a game that is often about conflict, the original prototypes for halflings avoided it. They were heroes precisely because they were thrust into difficult situations and had to rise to the challenge. That requires significant work in a campaign to encourage a player to play a halfling character who would rather just stay home.

There's also the simple matter of integrating halflings into societies where they aren't necessarily living apart. Presumably, most human campaigns have farmers; dwarves and elves occupy less civilized niches, where halflings are a working class who lives right alongside the rest of humanity in plain sight. Figuring out how to accommodate them matters a lot. Do humans just treat them like children? Would halflings want to be anywhere near a larger humanoids' dwellings as a result? Or are halflings given mythical status like fey? Or are they more like inveterate pranksters and tricksters, treating them more like gnomes? And if halflings are more like gnomes, then why have gnomes?

There are opportunities to integrate halflings into a world, but they aren't quite so easy to plop down into a setting as dwarves and elves. I still haven't quite figured out how to make them work in my campaign that doesn't feel like a one-off rather than a separate species. But I did finally find a space for gnomes, which I'll discuss in another article.

Your Turn: How have you integrated halflings into your campaign world?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Halflings do not need to be "integrated into the game world". They are described as having hidden settlements, so if no one has ever seen one until a PC turns up it's not surprising. And if a PC does not turn up, it doesn't matter.

Halflings are a popular choice in our games, and are simply played as humans, only smaller. We have had an elderly wizard, an archaeologist turned barbarian, and a rogue.
 

Shiroiken

Legend
Rural Halflings in my Greyhawk are typically small farming communities under the control of a human/elven/dwarven overlord. They tend towards being insular, like most of the non-human races, but tend to be friendly towards those of the land they live in. Other than the occasional wanderlust that hits some young adults, very few become adventurers.

Urban Halflings are often considered a scourge, since they've typically leaned into their innate thieving abilities. While nothing like the infamous Kender, most see nothing wrong with supplementing their income with a bit of thievery of the big folk. These halflings often become adventurers, for the same reasons that humans do.
 

Hussar

Legend
I'm with you on this one @talien. Halflings have barely registered in my gaming in years. The odd PC but, far more often other short races have featured - kobolds particularly. Between halflings and gnomes, they've mostly been completely absent from the circle of players I've gamed with or DMs I've played under.

I remember, years ago, a player playing a short, charismatic bard... kobold. Character was well spoken, intelligent, urbane, all the things that most people would associate with either halfling or gnome. It was a 3e game, so, it's not like gnome bard was an unknown thing. So, a few levels into the campaign, I finally asked the player why kobold? Why play a kobold that was pretty much everything that you would expect from either a halfling or a gnome? Her answer was basically that the thought of playing a halfling or a gnome just never occurred to her. Wasn't even on her radar. She later played a halfling in a 4e Dark Sun campaign but, that's probably closer to what a kobold typically is. :p
 


We had a couple of halflings in our campaigns, mostly of the classical Hobbit type, sometimes a bit more of the cutthroat thief type. It never posed a particular problem, but overall they were rare.
 

aco175

Legend
Halflings are a staple in my games. The PCs run into them about the same rate they run into the other PHB races. A generic town like Phandalin has a few, but the group may need to head far south to find whole villages of halflings. They are accepted in more pastoral circles, but tend to be overlooked when force is needed. Most of the halflings do not mind it that way, but will stand up if their lands are threatened. I guess it is more a LotR view of them.

I did try to get through all of 5e by only playing halfling rogues, but needed to add a couple dwarf clerics along the way for Adventure League play.
 

Bitbrain

ORC (Open RPG) horde ally
Halflings are not a species in my home game, but a term for any non-goblinoid humanoid species whose average height is equal or less than three and a half feet tall.

Kender (dragonlance), Hin (mystara), Vegepygmies, Kobolds, and Darklings are all halflings.
 


In my settings halflings and gnomes are the same race/species. I just can’t justify having both and them staying separate, but I don’t want to eliminate either. Plus combined they become a richer culture with more depth and variety.

Halfling is an exonym; they call themselves gnomes.

Players can use either sets of rules, or we can brew up something for a more unique take.
 

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