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.


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

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Huh. As a DM, I like the 4e river nomad halfling. May they kinda are like a trucker? They transport goods between towns, and follow a seasonal traderoute circuit.
In my own setting, the halflings were considered to be a protected people by the big bad evil empire. The empire decreed that none would harm the halflings and they had free passage to go anywhere without being subject to any sort of traveling tax. However, they were not permitted to stay at one place for more than a year. So they're mostly traders and merchants who travel the breadth of the empire and its tributary kingdoms.


In one of my settings, I made halflings into one of the only two races to have cities and to issue currency (the other race being dwarfs), as the world-forest actively resists large settlements. Everyone else has small towns at most. As a result, three of of five PCs are halflings. One of the major villains (who is dead... for now) was a halfling as well.


I’ve been drafting a campaign setting based off of Norse mythology in which the dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings ( the last two as land wights) exist as the divine beings they are. Players can play as these beings but become mortal from their own misdeeds or misdeeds done to them. In the halflings’ case, I envision, for example, an innocent forest spirit witnessing some depraved or dishonorable action done in their wood and the trauma causes them into a corporeal halfling form. Their in-game traits allow them to maintain the “residue” of their original magical form.


One thing I've always tried to do is to get into the more alien parts of a race's mindset.

Elves are long lived and skilled. They, if allowed, will create great kingdoms and perfect elements of their culture and technology/magic because every elf has all the time in the world to do so. They also don't think about the short term that hard. That's why elves use bows. They mastered bows and hold a sense of superiority wen doing so. So when crossbows and guns appear, elves low down on these new weapons. So you can take elves and put them in new setting with heavy twists but still feel the elfiness.

But with halflings,it's harder to get into their mindset without changing it a bit. Because mentally, they don't interact with much. This puts them at odds of being PCs or major NPCs. They are either children or homebody. So they are fully reactive to the setting at base.
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There's nothing wrong with the standard bucolic Hobbit / Halfling. The bulk of the population of most races lead non adventurous lives. Humans are mostly peasant farmers, Dwarfs are miners and craftsmen, etc. The adventurers are the ones that don't fit the standard roles of their people / culture or come from small segment of the population. If, as a race, they need a special niche it could be something as straightforward as a specific agricultural product they raise, or expertise in a specific craft. Something that can fit them into a larger economy.

Some of my Halflings live in hidden villages (even their fields are camouflaged) and do a booming trade with Gnomes, Wood Elfs, and Forest Goblins. Others live in human areas (more openly and often in mixed communities) or in enclaves in cities and towns. They fit the setting. I've only had a couple of PC Halflings. They were the ones that didn't fit or took their skills in a new direction. Adventuring.

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