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

Chaosmancer

Legend
So, we agree that there are plenty of reasons for halflings to be adventurers. Cool. Problem solved. Time to retire point 1.

No? Point #1 has nothing to do with "can halflings be adventurers" and is all about "Do halflings have unique reasons to be adventurers"

Take Maxperson's list above. Of that list, points #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 can be the story of any Tom, Dick or Harry. #2 is a bit weird, most people wouldn't think about it being their luck, instead of their mettle or their skill, so I might give him that one, but all the rest are bog standard adventuring plots. Getting a vision from God? That is literally any divine or pious character regardless of race, that isn't a "halfling" reason.

The only "halfling" reason is the wanderlust, which as I said, was added in specifically because they realized that writing a race of people who never leave home for adventures... makes it really hard to make them adventurers.

They value friends more in the same way that dwarves values craftsmanship more and elves value art more. When given a choice between
  • a pile of gold,
  • a master crafted weapon,
  • a chance for self expression, and
  • the friends we met along the way
The halfings are the ones most likely to choose the last option.

That really isn't unique to them. The bonds between people being more important than material goods is a common trope of basically all of fantasy.

As for how that helps you in worldbuilding. Having a race interested in the public good is a good thing. It forces you to think about more than dungeons and castles. It gives you a starting place for factions that have reasons for doing things beyond "more power" or "my god told me to do it". They can be viable on the world stage in the same way that Doctors Without Borders, the Girl Scouts, and the Peace Corps are viable on the world stage.

I'm not saying that halflings are the only ones that can do this. In the same way, I assume, that you aren't saying that dwarves are the only ones that make hammers. But a race more motivated to pursue it is likely to be better at it. Halfling taverns may not be the only taverns, but they should be the best taverns. Similarly with the other institutions noted.

As for the remainder of your post, it seems we disagree on the comparative baseline states of characters in the world. 🤷‍♂️

Maybe I'm just too much of an optimist, but isn't every good-guy organization in it for the public good? All of my gods care about the good of their people, and their edicts and commands are for the public good. The knightly orders who go out and protect the people, whose members might seek more personal power are doing it for the public good.

Any organization just doing things to power is... evil? They are almost certainly villains. And I don't have very many of them tied to the races directly, because they are self-serving and so take anyone.

Is this a genre thing? Do you tend to do more gritty dark fantasy were everything is terrible? I'm just not getting how halflings caring about other people is supposed to make the world any different than all the other races caring about other people. I don't tend to build dark worlds where the kingdom is ruled by a tyrant and the nobles are corrupt and exploiting the peasants, and the guilds only care about their own power. I tend to find those worlds difficult, because who wants to go out and save a world like that? I much prefer a pretty nice world, where things generally are good.... except when it is threatened by [insert threat here] where something like a tyrant king is notable, not just Tuesday. But this post is really making me feel like your world-building is much grimmer and darker, which is why you see halflings as providing a source for such basic things as a group of healers who isn't beholden to a nation.
 

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Chaosmancer

Legend
Even if "halflings are just humans, but smaller", that makes their success and adventures twice as incredible, no? Because they have greater odds to overcome.

I would consider Willow Ufgood a Halfling- if he was just a human, I don't think his adventure would be as amazing.

No, I don't think it makes there adventures twice as incredible. Being short doesn't give you greater odds to overcome in DnD. Much like guns, magic is a great equalizer.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Take Maxperson's list above. Of that list, points #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 can be the story of any Tom, Dick or Harry. #2 is a bit weird, most people wouldn't think about it being their luck, instead of their mettle or their skill, so I might give him that one, but all the rest are bog standard adventuring plots. Getting a vision from God? That is literally any divine or pious character regardless of race, that isn't a "halfling" reason.
The thing is, no race has any unique reason to adventure. What racial abilities that influence adventuring are, are just increase numbers with that particular story. So yes, Tom the Dwarf might go adventuring because he wants to find recipes, but he's going to be a rarity among dwarven adventurers. There are going to be many, MANY more halfling adventurers wandering the world looking for recipes.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
And on the inevitable differences such would produce between they and most other species.

Most notably, their entire arithmetic/numeric/math system would almost certainly be base-12 rather than base-10; as would everything in their society that spins off of that.

Didn't say it was impossible, but would you find a race whose only difference s having six fingers and a base 12 math system engaging to play? I certainly wouldn't, it isn't a distinction that actually make a difference in the game in any way.


For you, perhaps.

Yes. For me and for every other person who has struggled with this. Why do people think this is somehow a counter-argument? "Well, the only people who have trouble are those who have trouble!"... Yes? And?

Well, usually the "and" is followed by them explaining how they haven't had trouble, usually by engaging in something that the people who do have trouble don't engage in or don't find interesting.


When it comes to building stories and-or worlds I've never had any more problem with Hobbits than with any other species. Less, perhaps, in one world-building regard: I can stick a community of Hobbits on any random piece of spare farmland on the map, where Elves generally want a forest (also usually easy) and Dwarves want mountains (not always so easy). I can also make sailors out of Hobbits, not so much for Dwarves or Gnomes.

As for stories, the rationale behind any story arc be rooted in the lore of any species; and while I usually use Human lore/history I could just as easily use Dwarf or Hobbit lore as the underpinning (or Elf, but that's been done to death).

The species that have no real lore or history to call their own are Part-Elves and Part-Orcs, and thus they can (and do) present story and world-building issues; but I don't hear any strident calls for their removal.

You don't hear strident calls from me to remove halflings either. Please, find a single time of me saying we should remove them in this thread. You won't. Because I haven't said that. Have other people? Sure, but much of their frustration and desire to remove the race is because any attempt to change the race is met with vehement disapproval. So, they say, if they can't change it they want to get rid of it.

As for the rest, I know this has worked for you for decades, but "I stick them on random spare farms" is not world-building in my eyes. You'd do just as well to take a bag of d6's, upend them on the map, and have every six be a halfling settlement. It doesn't mean anything.

And you mention that you use Hobbit lore, but as we who have trouble have said, we find hobbit lore utterly lacking in anything to build off of. Any attempts to expand hobbit lore are met with vehement denials and recriminations, so... how is "I use the lore you don't" help us find ways to use it that actually work for us?

Honestly, your post seems to be mostly "I don't have this problem" Which I'm happy for you, but it doesn't help those of us who DO have this problem.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
They don't engage in inherently dangerous and conflict prone activities.
Yes, they do. It’s literally common for them to spend part of their life as adventurers, just as a start.
The base lore of 5e says they "are adept at fitting into a community of humans, dwarves, or elves, making themselves valuable and welcome. The combination of their inherent stealth and their unassuming nature helps halflings to avoid unwanted attention."
Why do you insist this is some sort of absolute imperative to avoid conflict and risk.

Like…it literally doesn’t say that.
I'm sure the racial communities they move into do most of the heavy lifting for economic, diplomacy, science, and war.
That’s a wild conclusion seemingly based on your own biases, not on what’s in the books.
5e even took out the Halfling weapon proficiency and specialties.
Okay?
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
"Being silly" is in the eye of the beholder (no, not you, Xanathar! Man he has such a big ego). I might find a race of birdmen who can only speak in prerecorded sound bites to be silly. Or turtle people. Or Orcs who have super speed only so long as they are headed towards someone they don't like at the moment.

I think a lot of people play Halflings because they are grounded and relatable in a world of gonzo fantasy. They aren't giant robot men, or gorilla-armed Bugbears, or even mystical snake people- they don't stand out, and, it would seem, they have less going on for them than the bland, boring regular Humans.

But as it turns out, that's a lie. Their abilities may not be exciting as being born knowing how to cast firebolt or able to wear armor, or fly through the air, but they are just as capable of greatness as anyone else. They're underdogs in a world of fantasy, and some people like the underdog.

I mean people like to play Fighters, don't they? : )

How is a level 1 halfling Wizard any more of an underdog than a level 1 Half-elf Wizard? Using Tasha's rules so that they both have a 16 intelligence, how is one of them the underdog?

Because they are short?

That is, frankly, a stupid reason to assume someone is an underdog. Want to know why? Because any party of level 1 adventurers who know the score are going to balk at facing a tribe of Grung. Grung are short, why aren't they the underdogs?

Seriously, people make this claim that halflings are the ultimate underdog, but back it up with nothing except the monsters and people of DnD being too stupid to know better. Being small in DnD does not make you weak or helpless or an underdog. Volo's Guide had the Booyahg Booyahg Booyahg, a Goblin that is a CR 6 caster with access to Cone of Cold.

In a world where magic exists, no race is the underdog because of their size.


It's not that Halflings are underdogs, it's that people tend to see them as such, in and out of universe.

Out of universe obviously, but I can't for the life of me figure out why.

And what's so relatable about humans? The fact that we are humans? Forgive me if I find that extremely boring in a fantasy game. Look, I can roleplay being myself in a fantasy world! It's like the last 10 years of anime combined!

They're the most boring, bland race imaginable. No special abilities to speak of, they can't see in the dark, they don't do anything special of note, and the only reason they have a strong place in a setting is because the game developers say so. It would be trivial to point at other races that should be more successful than humans.

+1 to all stats is really kind of meh, since few characters are going to be able to get mileage out of that. Unless you want to talk about Variant Humans, who lean on an optional game element that, depending on who you talk to, can be seen as busted and unbalanced.

It'd be like making a race that starts off with a free magic item at level 1, lol.

And you are kind of getting why I say that humans fill the everyman niche. They don't get any special powers. They are only successful because the game is written by humans. That's why we like putting the humans as the everyman and then want something else from the races like halflings.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
They're "monsters." Even if that wouldn't mean "evil" these days, they're still creepy darkness gremlins, probably widely distrusted. It is pretty much the opposite vibe that the halflings have.

So.... no different than the orcs, half-orcs, minotaurs, Kenku, Tieflings, Lizardfolk, Kobolds, centuars... I could go on but I don't see "widely distrusted or often an enemy" as the equivalent of wings and shooting magical lazers out of their eyes. Heck, I have humans who are enemies, creepy and distrusted. They are called cultists. Does that make humans super cool and unique just like half the playable races in the game?
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Except that it's based right in the PHB

Them traveling using common modes of transportation? Yes.

Them being the mercantile race of the world? No, that isn't based right in the PHB. So, since you responded to the idea with "but here's this piece of PHB lore" I decided to ask about expanding on it.

No, there's the third unique culture. All of my conversations with people in two cultures have talked about them being in a third. Whether that's due to immigration as told in Kamala Khan, or my pro wrestling buddy who told me he was too black for the white kids and too white for the black kids, so he had a very narrow choices of friends.

Well I don't know your buddy and I'm not familiar with Kamala Khan, but since you mention immigration and pro wrestling those don't seem to be cultures writ large and seem to be more sub-cultures within a larger culture. A sort of "finding your place" like someone could get into DnD as a "third culture". But that still doesn't seem to make the two cultures they came with which is the conflict at the core of their story (talking from a literary point of view) not matter.

Again, you have to remember, my comment was in response to someone saying my half-elf was "basically a human" and that since my half-elf could be any race (or just human) then all half-elves lacked a culture. Well... a half-elf is also a half-human, so being seen as human would be... kind of the point? The entire point of choosing to place yourself between two worlds is to interact with those two worlds, this character just happened to find his place in one of those worlds. Are we going to say that never happens?
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
They don't engage in inherently dangerous and conflict prone activities.
Neither do a lot of other races.

The base lore of 5e says they "are adept at fitting into a community of humans, dwarves, or elves, making themselves valuable and welcome. The combination of their inherent stealth and their unassuming nature helps halflings to avoid unwanted attention."

I'm sure the racial communities they move into do most of the heavy lifting for economic, diplomacy, science, and war.
And you're basing that on what, exactly?

5e even took out the Halfling weapon proficiency and specialties.
Because slings are a simple weapon usable by nearly everyone.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So How have you integrated halflings into your campaign world?
As adventurers; also in general the rural ones are very good farmers, the urban ones (and some rural ones) are very good cooks, the far-southern ones are sailors, and there are many who fall outside/beyond these very rough guidelines. Societally their main ethos is live and let live: leave them alone and they'll leave you alone, but if you piss 'em off you might be in for a rude surprise on learning how tough and bloody-minded they can be when put to it. Further, NPC Hobbits get the same to-hit bonus to thrown missiles as do PC Hobbits.

Their homelands are usually-isolated shires, but just like any other kindred species they can and do live anywhere people will accept them; and acceptance is usually pretty easy to come by if you can cook like a typical Hobbit can. :) Their known homelands have historical reasons for being where they are.

They have their own pantheon of a half-dozen deities or so, one of whom is unique among all in my game: a pacifist god to whose Clerics all weapon use is banned. (I'm interested to see how it goes if anyone ever tries playing one of these, so far no-one has)

In play they can be any class except Ranger - despite their inherent toughness the living-rough woodsy lifestyle just doesn't suit them. (this probably won't last forever; next campaign I'll likely open Ranger up for them while shutting down the arcane-caster classes, as Hobbit arcanists are proving to be a balance headache even to me who doesn't much care about balance) Thief, Assassin, or Cleric best suits them, and there are no level caps other than those imposed on everyone by some classes (e.g. Assassin caps at 15th no matter what you are). They also make good Bards - and overly-stupendous mages, hence my issue above. :)
 

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