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

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
So, congrats, you have shown that you just wanted to waste my time. After all, you have never once engaged a single criticism I gave except for the impossible to see second head, and instead have devolved to insult after insult to try and beat me down into silence.

Mod Note:
Next time, just walk away. Disengaging silently is probably more constructive than this - people on the internet generally do not learn from your anger.
 

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billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
And then there's art that's misleading, like people who insist (due to some D&D Mandela effect) that Kobolds used to be dog-men, despite always having been stated to lay eggs, based on the way their language is stated to sound, and their pre-3e art.
Was the art misleading? Or was it part of the content, approved by the editors in multiple instances, that presented kobolds to the players/DMs in 1e? The art may not have underscored that the kobolds laid eggs, but, absent a text description of their heads/faces plus the art, it isn't really a Mandela effect that kobolds were seen as little dog-like humanoids. It's just an impression based on incomplete information, not a false memory.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Was the art misleading? Or was it part of the content, approved by the editors in multiple instances, that presented kobolds to the players/DMs in 1e? The art may not have underscored that the kobolds laid eggs, but, absent a text description of their heads/faces plus the art, it isn't really a Mandela effect that kobolds were seen as little dog-like humanoids. It's just an impression based on incomplete information, not a false memory.
Oh maybe, it's just how conversations about kobolds seem to go. Person A says: I miss when Kobolds were dog-people, not lizard-people! Person B says: they were never really dog-people! Person A insists they were, and when presented with the evidence to the contrary, starts to feel like they have slipped into another universe!
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Oh maybe, it's just how conversations about kobolds seem to go. Person A says: I miss when Kobolds were dog-people, not lizard-people! Person B says: they were never really dog-people! Person A insists they were, and when presented with the evidence to the contrary, starts to feel like they have slipped into another universe!
It feels like they were factually dog-like people in at least one semi-popular early version of the game...

1667322289711.png
 


Faolyn

(she/her)
So yeah, expecting a D&D critter to conform to any sort of logic is a bit suspect. This is a game where a Gorgon is a bull with a metal hide that breathes a gas that turns people to stone, after all!
1667323575743.png


"AMong the manifold and divers sorts of Beasts which are bred in Africk, it is thought that the *Gorgon is brought forth in that Countrey. It is a fearful and terrible beast to behold, it it hath high and thick eye-lids, eyes not very great, but much like an Oxes or Bugils, but all flery-bloudy, which neither look directly forward; nor yet upwards, but continually down to the earth, and there∣fore are called in Greek, Catobleponta. From the crown of their head down to their nose they have a long hanging mane, which make them to look fearfully. It eateth deadly and poysonful herbs, and if at any time he see a Bull or other creature whereof he is afraid, he presently causeth his mane to stand upright, and being so lifted up, opening his lips, and gaping wide, sendeth forth of his throat a certain sharp and horrible breath, which infecteth and poysoneth the air above his head, so that all living creatures which draw in the breath of that air are grievously afflicted thereby, losing both voyce and sight, they fall into lethal and deadly Convulsions. It is bred in Hesperia and Lybia."


The petrifaction bit is probably just because of Medusa and those gorgons. While the text doesn't say metal plates, it does say "scales like a dragon" and turning them into metal was probably just to make it more supernatural.
 

Well actually, if we go back far enough, the tale becomes even more confusing...View attachment 265417
View attachment 265418
View attachment 265419

That's not confusing at all, that's the original meaning of the word, which was just a synonym for "goblin". There's a trend in fantasy literature and D&D in particular to take synonymous words for a type of monster (especially if that monster is only vaguely defined in the popular imagination or has a lot of variation to it) and make the different words apply to diffetent variations on the theme, rather than remaining synonymous. Compare the separation of "demon", "devil", and "fiend" (edit: and "ghoul" too, for that matter) into different (albeit sometimes overlapping) concepts. Or the existence of the Orcs, If I recall correctly, prior to tolkien "orc" was just a weird regional version of the word "ogre" rather than a seperate monster. And then there's the whole "gorgon" thing that we've also been discussing in this thread.


Now that I think of it, this sort of thing could actually solve the issue that I have with the halflings being an inconsistent mishmash of new ideas and derivative ideas. What we need is a seperate "hobbit" creature to soak up all the derivative ideas while the "halfling" race would retain the original ideas and both would be defined and the derivative ideas would be safely quarantined
 

I imagined the kobolds in the 2nd Ed with a look close to the version of Capcom arcade.

Maybe in their origin they were goblinoids but after experiments by dragons they became reptilian "dracotouched".

kobolds capcom.PNG
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Is there anything in the post you are responding to that suggests that the art has zero weight?

While I'm sure I can waste my time arguing with you about how you said "little weight" and that doesn't mean "zero weight", I really don't think that is constructive when it was clear what I have meant.

Especially in light of the posts from multiple people about how the image depicted can't be trusted to be accurate, since it is a fantasy creature and therefore doesn't follow the rules. Additionally, we had that little aside about the angels and how some monsters are just "what our mortal minds can comprehend" and not what they actually look like.

I have zero interest of litigating the difference between "little" and "zero" in this current environment.

If all the art was done as stained glass portraiture, or cartoon, or mosaic, would you suggest that artists have not "done their job" because they have not presented their assigned impossible creatures "how they really are"?

Funny, it doesn't look like that art was created on stained glass. Also, cartoons DO depict how it looks, some worlds are cartoon worlds, not photo realistic worlds, and so if it does not show how that cartoon world actually looks, then it is a bad job.

But frankly, this has nothing to do with the criticisms I have leveled against the design, and is just a pure sophistry that "well, if the art was done in a different medium or a different style, then it would be considered differently" Which is entirely pointless since I'm not discussing an art that has been done in a different medium or a different style, but the art I posted.

Do you judge portraiture, still lives, and landscapes by how closely the art resembles the subject?

If someone draws a landscape of a hill that looks like an ocean, I'm going to say they did a bad job of portraying a hill. Now, maybe they are doing something symbolic, and you can find art that was made to make a land of rolling hills look like an ocean, using a visual metaphor, but that is clearly different than what I'm talking about. Because the visual metaphor is clear in their design and artistic choices. It isn't like they tried to make a land of rolling hills that looked like an ocean that really looked like a urban skyscraper. Which again, would be a failure of their artistic design.

If the artist of the Ravager intended it to have shapeshifting legs without bones and tendons, then depicting it with bones and tendons UTTERLY FAILS THEIR DESIGN. I do not understand how this is such a contentious point of discussion.

Do you find it impossible to differentiate between more and less representational styles of art without doing any research?

Do you?

Do you really think the only options are zero weight and whatever weighting you are using?

Does it matter since I can't even get to the point of "the thing clearly looks like X"? Seriously, you all are jumping down my throat to insist things that you cannot see must be true, just to justify a bad design as not actually being bad. I do not understand it. The thing doesn't have shapeshifting legs, that is abundantly clear. If the artist wanted to depict shapeshifting legs, they should have done so, not relied on the observer to psychically understand that this fantasy creature actually looks differently than it was depicted.

What I've suggested is that the art is there to provide fuel for the imagination, not to serve as evidence in a courtroom. And the amount of work your imagination may have to do depends on the art, the subject, and what you, the user, need to be satisfied.

And what I'm suggesting is that if you are supposed to look at the Mona Lisa and say "She is clearly supposed to be the King of Germany" then the artist did a bad job. You people are adding unsubstantiated "facts" to this creature solely to defend something that does not need to be defended. It doesn't hurt the game to admit that the Ravager was a bad design. I don't care that if I look at a cartoon illustration of a person it has been simplified from the photo of the person, because this isn't a cartoon design, this is much closer to a photo realistic design and so I don't need to consider "what if it was a cartoon and you had to interpret" or "what if it was a stained glass design instead". Because we have the art, we aren't guessing at what the art looks like, it is right there.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
And what I'm suggesting is that if you are supposed to look at the Mona Lisa and say "She is clearly supposed to be the King of Germany" then the artist did a bad job. You people are adding unsubstantiated "facts" to this creature solely to defend something that does not need to be defended. It doesn't hurt the game to admit that the Ravager was a bad design. I don't care that if I look at a cartoon illustration of a person it has been simplified from the photo of the person, because this isn't a cartoon design, this is much closer to a photo realistic design and so I don't need to consider "what if it was a cartoon and you had to interpret" or "what if it was a stained glass design instead". Because we have the art, we aren't guessing at what the art looks like, it is right there.
It also doesn't hurt you to admit that your opinion (that it's a bad design) is not an objective fact, and that clearly a lot of people here have managed to get some good ideas for it, which means that it's clearly not a bad design for them.

You don't like the monster? Fine. So what? Don't use it in any of your games.
 

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