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

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
That sounds very... humanlike to me. I know plenty of people who are adverse to new things and have massive trust issues. Not all humans are dwarflike - but the traits you list as dwarflike are all appropriate for some but not all humans.

So too with halflings. Not all humans are halflinglike but the traits listed for halflings are appropriate for some humans. Yet somehow you, despite entirely humanlike dwarfs only pick on halflings.
You aren't going far enough with it.
Dwarves don't even trust swords to me. Why would dwards prefer axes and hammers when spears would be better for tunnel and underground fighting.
Because dwarves needed tools first and they trust weaponized tools before even getting to swords and spears.

I see races so flanderized that if they were human you'd ponder if they suffer mental illness.

The elf wizard I play treats the young races as children, makes week long plans, and records data in 7 forms (including basketweave and pottery). Yes a spare copy of my spellbook is 47 clay pots. I'm working on the tea set.

Because you make it up and flanderise halflings? Then you find that @Minigiant halflings, which can't even work out how to use their size and gregariousness to be good criminals, suck. The problem isn't with halflings as written. It's that you change the lore and the race to make them suck then declare that under your actively changed lore they suck.
Isn't the point of nonhuman NPCs to be a bit flanderized?
Halflings aren't human. They don't have human brains.
 

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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
You aren't going far enough with it.
Dwarves don't even trust swords to me. Why would dwards prefer axes and hammers when spears would be better for tunnel and underground fighting.
Because dwarves needed tools first and they trust weaponized tools before even getting to swords and spears.

I see races so flanderized that if they were human you'd ponder if they suffer mental illness.

The elf wizard I play treats the young races as children, makes week long plans, and records data in 7 forms (including basketweave and pottery). Yes a spare copy of my spellbook is 47 clay pots. I'm working on the tea set.


Isn't the point of nonhuman NPCs to be a bit flanderized?
Halflings aren't human. They don't have human brains.
See, this is very different from anything else in the thread. Like, a whole different thread. Had you lead with this folk wouldn’t be reacting so negatively to your arguments.

We would still disagree, but more mildly.

That said, halflings are more like humans than even half-elves, by default, but they certainly aren’t the same as humans. They’re less risk averse ( due to bravery, curiosity, and better luck at avoiding catastrophic failure), more communal, more prone to cross-species empathy, more curious, and just the lack of desire to control others or take what others have is a huge difference.


However, at the same time, there is no reason they wouldn’t have crime families, they just aren’t as likely to be brutally ruthless, or to go in for the darkest aspects of organized crime. See, The Boramar Clan in Sharn, Eberron, and various Thieves Guilds and the like all over the multiverse.
 

You aren't going far enough with it.
Dwarves don't even trust swords to me. Why would dwards prefer axes and hammers when spears would be better for tunnel and underground fighting.
Because dwarves needed tools first and they trust weaponized tools before even getting to swords and spears.
Oh, so we're not actually talking about dwarfs. We're now talking about @Minigiant dwarfs that bear only a passing physical resemblance to actual D&D dwarfs. And dwarfs use axes and hammers because spears would be a terrible weapon underground under a lot of circumstances.

First spears are a pretty terrible weapon for carrying in close underground tunnels. They are let's say five foot long. (That's a short spear but dwarfs are a short race). That means that that's a five foot straight line you need at all points to get through the tunnel - and manually dug tunnels are frequently small because it's hard work. If you try carrying a spear on your back in tight tunnels you will get stuck regularly - so you have to carry a spear in your hand. Meanwhile the one handed hammers and axes (dwarves don't get greataxe or maul proficiency) that dwarfs carry are things you can wear on your belt. So you can go through the tunnels with hands free and not getting stuck. This gap gets even bigger when kobolds counter-tunnel so the dwarfs would be squeezing and scrambling. Oh, and hammers and axes are in D&D shorter than the equivalent swords; a longsword would be a tripping hazard and really gets in the way if you need to crawl.

Second spears are a pretty terrible weapon for fighting in close underground tunnels. Not only are they a pain to transport you need there to be a significant amount of space. You need to be able to line up the butt of the spear with the point of the spear with your foe. This requires at a minimum five feet for the spear plus about two feet for your foe. In any sort of tight and twisting corridor that's made narrow because excavation is work the spear is going to run into real problems each time there's a corner. And if you're fighting spear and shield one handed you hold the spear half way along for balance - it's frequently going to hit the back wall. Spears are a really bad weapon in any tunnel that's e.g. been built following a seam of ore. Or been built knowing that the other side uses spears.

Third there is precisely nothing saying martially inclined dwarfs can't use swords every bit as well as human fighters can't. What dwarf weapon proficiency says is that there are no dwarfs without martial training. It doesn't say what the best do. It doesn't say what the military units do. It says what the militia do. And something about what the noncombatants would do in other races; every dwarf fights. The spear is a specialist weapon underground, more akin to the pike in the real world.

Oh, and dwarfs are miners. Of course they are slow to trust. Get something wrong in the mines and you can bring the mine down on top of people. Gnomes can be happy go lucky underground folk (or whatever they are as it's never been settled) but bringing a mine down is a catastrophe and they need to make sure everything works, both on their kit and of their crew.

So. Rather than being Darwin-Award stupid dwarfs are a race that adapts effectively to their environment.
I see races so flanderized that if they were human you'd ponder if they suffer mental illness.
That sounds like your dwarfs tbh.
 

James Gasik

Falling Dawizard
Supporter
I never had a Halfling crime family, but during a Living Forgotten Realms module set in Waterdeep, I did run afoul of an all-Halfling street gang. The Green Gang I think they called themselves (and now I'm wondering if that was a Power Puff Girls reference).

I did, however, once have a Gnomish crime family. Player came to me with his Gnome Thief/Illusionist and said he thought it would be cool if he had a backstory where he was running from an arranged marriage. So I created the prettiest, nicest seeming Gnome lass you could imagine (secretly crazy and obsessive over her beau), and her three, very annoyed elder brothers who wanted to make the Gnome's life miserable.

One a Fighter, one a Thief, and one an Illusionist. The Thief was hands off and refused to actually fight the party directly, using traps and minions (his favorite stunt was to send the party notes in scroll tubes- said tubes were willed with an inhaled paralysis powder, just to mess with the opener).

The Fighter ended up the most memorable, as, due to exceptional strength and a bastard sword, he dished out enough damage to make the party's Fighter nope the hell out of their fight!
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
That said, halflings are more like humans than even half-elves, by default, but they certainly aren’t the same as humans. They’re less risk averse ( due to bravery, curiosity, and better luck at avoiding catastrophic failure), more communal, more prone to cross-species empathy, more curious, and just the lack of desire to control others or take what others have is a huge difference.


However, at the same time, there is no reason they wouldn’t have crime families, they just aren’t as likely to be brutally ruthless, or to go in for the darkest aspects of organized crime. See, The Boramar Clan in Sharn, Eberron, and various Thieves Guilds and the like all over the multiverse.

I didn't say halflings would not have crime families. They love family.

What I said is that halfling traits and their base lore in this edition would not nudge them into adapting their hideout completely to their racial benefit. Like you said "less risk averse ( due to bravery, curiosity, and better luck at avoiding catastrophic failure), more communal, more prone to cross-species empathy, more curious, and just the lack of desire to control others or take what others have"

Meaning they would be a bit lackadaisical in design, cater to their human gangster allies, and end up fighting straight up. They, to me, would never make a Tucker's Kobolds base outside of a doomsday, death, or post-apoc setting. And thus halflings would fight straight up.

And after 3 session of seeing PCs fighting the Brownboys, halflings stink at fighting straight up. Even after I customized them in the second session. I'm biased though as I run races a bit more flanderized AND ran halfling enemies.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Actually.

Half elves and halforcs has a racial reason to become adventurers as many of them have an outsider mentality within the 2 races of their heritage. Adventurer is a classic outside of normal society career.
Except that halflings, dwarves, humans, tabaxi, all other races here can also have an outsider mentality that sends them adventuring. Those two races just have it in greater numbers, just like halflings have more recipe hunters and adventurers out to test their luck.
Dwarves in their clannishness might need money to restore or regain a clan's property.
Except that halflings, half-elves, humans, tabaxi, all other races can need money to restore or regain a clan(family) property.
Though halflings do have unique reasons to adventure as well.
There are no unique reasons that I can think of for any race.
 

James Gasik

Falling Dawizard
Supporter
Well, I could think of a few unique reasons. A Kenku who wants to break the curse that robbed their race of it's wings is one. But by and large, that's an exception, most races are motivated by the same things as everyone else: ambition, survival, greed, revenge, etc..
 

Well, I could think of a few unique reasons. A Kenku who wants to break the curse that robbed their race of it's wings is one. But by and large, that's an exception, most races are motivated by the same things as everyone else: ambition, survival, greed, revenge, etc..
honestly what were the kenku before they lost their wings anyway? were they tengu or something else?
 


I didn't say halflings would not have crime families. They love family.

What I said is that halfling traits and their base lore in this edition would not nudge them into adapting their hideout completely to their racial benefit. Like you said "less risk averse ( due to bravery, curiosity, and better luck at avoiding catastrophic failure), more communal, more prone to cross-species empathy, more curious, and just the lack of desire to control others or take what others have"

Meaning they would be a bit lackadaisical in design, cater to their human gangster allies, and end up fighting straight up. They, to me, would never make a Tucker's Kobolds base outside of a doomsday, death, or post-apoc setting. And thus halflings would fight straight up.

And after 3 session of seeing PCs fighting the Brownboys, halflings stink at fighting straight up. Even after I customized them in the second session. I'm biased though as I run races a bit more flanderized AND ran halfling enemies.
Why would you separate lore and mechanics as if mechanics aren't part of lore?
 

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