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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I took them out. I believe that they only really belong in Tolkien's middle earth, and that in Tolkien's middle earth they are a simply a human racial group not that dissimilar in distinctiveness physically to say pygmies and culturally representing the rural farming English farming culture of Tolkien's youth in a somewhat idealized form. (While the halflings of Tolkien do not identify as Men, it's clear from the Legerdemain that they are a human subgroup and not a separate class of Children of Illuvatar - for example they are mortal.) As such, they don't offer a particularly interesting or distinctive choice unless you completely reimagine them in which case you should stop identifying them according to Tolkien's terms. Kender are in fact IMO, whatever utility they have as PC race and whether or not they are hated, at least distinctive and fair to Tolkien in that they don't pretend to be Tolkien's creation.

The primary 'little folk' race in my campaign is the Sidhe which are one of the fey races. Sidhe are diverse enough that you could play one who had many of the characteristics of a halfling or a gnome or a kender if you wanted to play a character like that, you'd simply be a slightly odd member of your race but probably no odder than some of the other members of your race you'd run into. You lose that attribute of being part of a community of nearly identical beings that you get with halfling or gnome or kender, and I guess some players could be disappointed by that, but I haven't had those players.

I always played a halfling thief in my brother's AD&D campaign. I saved the whole party by taking down a harpy which had charmed everyone else in the ruined keep near Hommlet. Never had a problem integrating!


In my settings halflings and gnomes are the same race/species. I just can’t justify having both and them staying separate, but I don’t want to eliminate either. Plus combined they become a richer culture with more depth and variety.

Halfling is an exonym; they call themselves gnomes.

Players can use either sets of rules, or we can brew up something for a more unique take.
In my last home brew campaign world, halflings were the native inhabitants of the island to which the human explorers/conquistadors had come and we explored for colonialist questions.

Well, they were the mortal natives, anyway. Half of the island was covered in a fey forest (basically the feywild on the Prime) and all the fey races dwelled there -- elves, dwarves, goblinoids and gnomes. Gnomes in fact were "good" goblins, or goblins were "evil" gnomes. Whichever. it was a seelie/unseelie thing.


I've played halflings, have a player with one in my current campaign. I don't find if particularly difficult to integrate them in to my game world.

They basically fall into 3 categories: agrarian, nomadic tinkers, city folk.

The agrarian halflings are in hidden away alcoves and valleys, typically using a connection to nature and luck to avoid notice. While they're happy to have guests, they don't seek them out and do their best to avoid notice. In civilized lands, they're good tenants who happily live simple lives, paying taxes and not really causing much trouble.

The nomadic halflings travel around on carts trading small goods, selling intricate craftwork and helping with repairs or buying broken items to fix and sell down the road. Perhaps the biggest reason they are welcomed is because of the news of the wider world and acting as messengers and mail carriers. Because they rarely get involved in politics they generally give a balanced report of what's going on, as well as trading gossip when they can.

City folk tend to live in attics and out of the way places or build in out of the way places and alleys. Like their nomadic cousins, they specialize in small crafts including intricate carvings, detailed metalwork or lace. Because of their size they also do odd jobs that suit their size such as chimney sweeps. While some do turn to a life of crime in general they are quiet and considerate neighbors who just happily go about their lives.

my hatred of halflings is absolute, I believe the only halfling should be in Tolkien's setting and nowhere else as any attempt to fix them removes anything that makes them a halfling, in eberron they might as well have made the the dinoriders any other races as they would be cool regardless.
darksun dwarves are less a departure from the base idea than the darksun halfling who might as well be anything else.
halflings do not deserve the fourth spot of common races, they should be moved towards the uncommon as they are less needed.

that said I do see the utility of a small folk race, I just do not really gel with any of the ones presented.

I do wonder how to do an evil version of halfling which I have ideas for.

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