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.

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.

the-land-of-the-hobbits-6314749_960_720.jpg

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

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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!
Was it this one?

"The Shard Shunners were a gang of halfling wererats operating in Waterdeep in the late 15th century DR. Their name came from their refusal to deal in silver, called shards in Waterdeep, because of their wererat nature.

The Shard Shunners committed petty crimes around the city. Around 1492 DR, they were pickpocketing patrons at the Endshift Tavern in the Field Ward as retribution for a disagreement between the tavern owner and one of their members."
 

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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
There's a lot of avian races in the game's history. My personal take is probably these guys:

View attachment 255083
That's a good one. I would either go with some sort of raven race or create a race based on this bird.

"Lyrebirds work their magic by attempting to mimic all the sounds around it. They're best known for copying other bird calls, and they're so good at doing this that sometimes even non-imposturous birds in their general vicinity find themselves confused or fooled."
 

Mind of tempest

(he/him)advocate for 5e psionics
There's a lot of avian races in the game's history. My personal take is probably these guys:

View attachment 255083
I would prefer something mythic for kenku, another normal people screwed over by the gods for dumb reasons is overdone in dnd, plus tengu work as great foes for monks who would want to kill the for a better reason than petty spite.
Was it this one?

"The Shard Shunners were a gang of halfling wererats operating in Waterdeep in the late 15th century DR. Their name came from their refusal to deal in silver, called shards in Waterdeep, because of their wererat nature.

The Shard Shunners committed petty crimes around the city. Around 1492 DR, they were pickpocketing patrons at the Endshift Tavern in the Field Ward as retribution for a disagreement between the tavern owner and one of their members."
but they added the wererat to make the evil seem more comprehensible and it makes it less their flat as it is a curse that makes you evil, if halflings have evil it would be greed, sloth and gluttony based.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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..
Yes. That's much more unique, but other races(or at least populations of them) that have been cursed, so they would produce some members who seek to break it. There would certainly be far fewer of these sorts of adventurers and you might never meet one.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Was it this one?

"The Shard Shunners were a gang of halfling wererats operating in Waterdeep in the late 15th century DR. Their name came from their refusal to deal in silver, called shards in Waterdeep, because of their wererat nature.

The Shard Shunners committed petty crimes around the city. Around 1492 DR, they were pickpocketing patrons at the Endshift Tavern in the Field Ward as retribution for a disagreement between the tavern owner and one of their members."
No they weren't wererats. I'd have to find the adventure, if I remember right, you're hauling a wagon down a busy street, and these guys run up and start swiping your cargo, then if they got off the map, they "melted into the crowd".
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
One of the main drawbacks of mages is supposed to be a lack of hit points, but Hobbits in my game usually end up with stupendous Con scores due to racial adjusts and thus negate this drawback with trivial ease. Sure they roll a smaller die than other classes but the Con bonus (which other species don't generally get except for lucky individuals) quickly makes up for it.

Taking this Con adjust away from Hobbits would gut them for most other classes, thus not a viable option.
They might get better hit points, but (arcane) spellcasters still don't wear armor and thus will still get killed very easily.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
@James Gasik, nicely put!

And of course, it all depends on the player and DM actually playing their character exactly like the books say they should be played. And how often does that happen? There's a lizardfolk NPC in a game I'm in who is a friendly, eager-to-please, actually-not-cannibalistic ship's cook who likes cooking with his "special" mushrooms. I don't know if the DM didn't read the lizardfolk description or just didn't care, and it doesn't matter. He's a fun NPC and makes the game more fun. (I wish I could do NPCs as well as this DM.) The books provide a guideline, not a straightjacket, for how a race is played.

There are people who might say "but then why not make him a human," to which I again agree with what you said, James--having these nonhumans, even if they're just treated as humans in masks, can make the world feel more vibrant and more fantastical. And it's not hard to make them be more than just humans in masks.
 


Faolyn

(she/her)
No they weren't wererats. I'd have to find the adventure, if I remember right, you're hauling a wagon down a busy street, and these guys run up and start swiping your cargo, then if they got off the map, they "melted into the crowd".
The FR Wiki says they were wererats.

 


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