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

Chaosmancer

Legend
You're the DM - you want 'em to have railguns in their shoulders? Then - ##boom## - now they got railguns in their shoulders.

(says the player whose character still has the "frickin' laser beam" she once looted from the head of a shark...)

All right, I didn't think I needed a visual aid, but let's try this from the top.

This picture right here?

1667421445782.png


If I said that this picture depicted the dreaded Cyber T-Rex with shoulder mounted cannons, I would be wrong. I would be wrong, because there are not shoulder mounted cannons on in this picture.

I can add them, but I would be adding them. From the design of the picture, you cannot assume that there are shoulder mounted cannons. If your job was to bring someone a picture of a T-Rex with shoulder mounted cannons (a fantastical beast that does not exist) and you brought them this artwork, you have failed your job. Because this isn't a T-Rex with shoulder mounted cannons.

This picture here?
1667421656026.png


This is a picture of a T-Rex, with shoulder mounted cannons. I can say that accurately, because the picture shows shoulder mounted cannons. If your job was to bring someone a picture of a T-Rex with shoulder mounted cannons, this would be a good job, because it has shoulder mounted cannons.



So, whether or not I can add them as a DM has NOTHING to do with anything I have said. And with that in mind, let's look at the Ravager again. Right here

1667421766815.png


Now, if I am supposed to look and this and say "this is a monster whose legs lack bones and tendons" then this is a bad design. It is a bad design, because I can clearly see bones and tendons in the legs. This is not a design which indicates that the legs are amorphous, shape-changing, or lacking coherent structures. In fact, especially the left leg on the ground has clearly delineated tendons and a bone joint.

Could I, in my infinite power as the DM decide that this picture is wrong and that the creature has some other traits? Of course I could. I could decide that this thing is actually a Goat head surrounded by tongues that are covered in thorns. However, that isn't what the picture shows. So, if I am going to discuss the picture, I need to stick to what the picture shows, which isn't a goat head surrounded by thorny tongues, but is a lion head, surrounded by lion legs, that have tendons and bones like normal lion legs.
 

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Faolyn

(she/her)
Why are you people so obsessed with a thing I never claimed? I have never once said my thoughts on the design are "objective". I have said that, repeatedly. If all I needed to do was not claim that my opinions, logic, thoughts, posts, emotions, ect are not objective to get you people to stop, then none of you would ever have responded to me because I've never claimed objectively unassailable facts. And in fact, this is the second time I've spoken to you specifically Faolyn in telling you I have not tried to claim some "objectivity" that you can rail against.
When you say, "this is a bad design," you are saying that objectively.

If you truly thought your belief that it's poor design was subjective, then you would not have argued with people who had ideas about how to use it. You would have ignored them or said "well, I wouldn't use it anyway because I think it's dumb" But by saying that other people are using it wrong for adding things to it, or using it in a way you wouldn't (like my idea or making them the chariot wheels for a godling, which didn't add anything to them at all), then you are saying your beliefs are the objectively correct ones and everyone else is wrong.

And quite frankly, lots of DMs rarely or never use monsters straight out of the book, but instead change the stats and add and remove abilities as desired, so saying that adding things to a monster somehow invalidates the idea that the monster isn't bad is just... pointless. You'd be saying that a huge number of DMs are playing the game wrong, rather than playing the game the way the books actually suggest.
 

When I write, I am verbose. That is why it is getting more and more frustrating to try and hold any sort of conversation on this forum. Because I will spent multiple hours making responses, with the thought that I will be able to hold an actual conversation.

Then I get buried in strawmen, false accusations, and people demanding that I be silent.

It is infuriating.



Nothing about my post proposed a binary set of outcomes. You are making that up.

The creature being fantastical has nothing to do with the amount of "imagination" and "other descriptive material" I should be forced to consider before judging the art. Unicorns are intensely fantastical creatures, capable of flight, speech, magic, teleportation, having silver blood that grants immortality, unfailing senses that move beyond the physical, ect ect ect. Their design is a horse with a spiral horn. Not exactly something that needs a lot of explanation despite how intensely fantastical and magical they can be portrayed in media.

Also, again, this is not a "less representational" art style. I keep repeating it, you keep ignoring it. The art I posted is this one.

View attachment 265523

You will note, this is not a stained glass window.
This is not a cartoon.
This is not done in Crystal Cubism.
It is not done in a mosaic style
It is not done in a futurism style.


So, since this is done in a rather realistic style, I don't need to assume that this is "less representational" because... it isn't. It just flatly isn't done in a style that demands intense interpretation of symbolic shapes, that is simplified to reduce detail, or made of a specific material like shards of glass or newspaper clippings. Your insistence that it must be treated as though it is is maddening, and if it continues I will just start insisting that we must treat it like a fully detailed, holographic 3-D model because that is just as accurate as treating it as a cartoon or a stained glass window.
If you are going to spend the time to indulge your tendency to be verbose, perhaps you could also spend the time to address the actual rather than assumed content of a post.

What has come across as binary in your posts has been your tendency to do things like replace "little weight" with "zero weight" and then act as if there is no meaningful difference in doing so.

I keep ignoring your particular opinions about the particular art because I don't feel a need to address them. I don't care that much about the particular art.

I do care about how the art is used and judged. And I find biomechanical plausibility and comprehensibility one of the more useless metrics by which to judge fantasy art, especially as the creature gets further and further from the human experience.

Your contraexamples so far, a unicorn which behaves mostly like a horse, and an owlbear which is and behaves mostly like a combination of owl and bear, are, to me, less fantastical by nature than a demon president of hell. I have never seen real demons with my naked eyes but have seen owls and bears and horses. As a result of this difference, I am more tolerant of elements in the art that seem nonsensical for "demon president" than I am for "owl+bear". And so I'm more willing to use my imagination to make sense of the nonsensical, rather than pissing on an artist for not doing their job.

(Fun story though: what in the unicorn art suggests any of the abilities you have noted? Looks like a white horse with a gold mane and a horn to me)

For the art style, it's basically an elevation. It tells you what the thing looks like from the front and that's it. It's like "art" you find in dictionaries (strange though that may seem). In the same way I would not use dictionary art to draw conclusions about creatures' nature or capabilities, so I would not use it here.

You are welcome to argue that this was a poor choice. It's your opinion. I'm inclined to call it a push given that is seem to be intended to directly reference an old timey illustration.

So again, in total, its a piece of dictionary art for a creature with zero real-world analogues. It just isn't that important to understanding how the thing "really" is.
 
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Chaosmancer

Legend
When you say, "this is a bad design," you are saying that objectively.

No, I am not.

If you truly thought your belief that it's poor design was subjective, then you would not have argued with people who had ideas about how to use it. You would have ignored them or said "well, I wouldn't use it anyway because I think it's dumb" But by saying that other people are using it wrong for adding things to it, or using it in a way you wouldn't (like my idea or making them the chariot wheels for a godling, which didn't add anything to them at all), then you are saying your beliefs are the objectively correct ones and everyone else is wrong.

Or, and hear me out here, I think I'm right, because I have reasons. And when asked to share those reasons, I did. And when I shared those reasons, you said I was wrong, and ignored my reasons.

If someone says Fortnight is a better game than Overwatch, that isn't an objective opinion. If they say it is better designed, that still isn't an objective opinion. Because objective opinions do not exist. However, if someone came up to them and asked "Well, why do you think that Fortnight is a better game".... wouldn't you expect them to answer? And they aren't going to answer "because I think it is good." I mean, they might, but that is an incredibly poor answer. They probably have based their opinion on more than that. They likely have reasons.

And, if they gave a reason like "the gun are better balanced" and someone responded "Well, actually, if you hack the game and change the gun stats to unbalance them, it is really unbalanced" the person isn't going to be saying "well, your beliefs are valid" they are going to be saying "Why are we comparing the game as it is to a hacked version that you altered to unbalance it? That's a terrible comparison and doesn't address my reason at all!"


I'm not reacting as someone who thinks they are the only person who could possibly see the truth. I'm reacting as a person who WAS ASKED THEIR REASONS and after given them was berated and their reasons ignored because people decided they wanted to alter the fundamental situation.

And quite frankly, lots of DMs rarely or never use monsters straight out of the book, but instead change the stats and add and remove abilities as desired, so saying that adding things to a monster somehow invalidates the idea that the monster isn't bad is just... pointless. You'd be saying that a huge number of DMs are playing the game wrong, rather than playing the game the way the books actually suggest.

"The Oberoni Fallacy is an informal fallacy, occasionally seen in discussions of role-playing games, in which an arguer puts forth that if a problematic rule can be fixed by the figure running the game, the problematic rule is not, in fact, problematic."

How is "The problematic design can be fixed by the figure running the game, therefore the design is not problematic" not just a straight Oberoni Fallacy? I don't care if you alter the product, if you felt that it was only good if you altered it, it wasn't good in the first place.
 

I do care about how the art is used and judged. And I find biomechanical plausibility and comprehensibility one of the more useless metrics by which to judge fantasy art, especially as the creature gets further and further from the human experience.

i think the real problem is that it's kind of in the middle in terms of plausibility and alienness. Sort of an uncanny valley thing, but inspiring amusement and bemusement rather than revulsion.

As an example, to me it would seem less silly if instead of cartwheeling it flew around like Gamera. That's even less plausible, but somehow it also feels less silly.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
i think the real problem is that it's kind of in the middle in terms of plausibility and alienness. Sort of an uncanny valley thing, but inspiring amusement and bemusement rather than revulsion.

As an example, to me it would seem less silly if instead of cartwheeling it flew around like Gamera. That's even less plausible, but somehow it also feels less silly.
Maybe it's a two-dimensional creature in a three-dimensional plane. That'd make it a walking buzzsaw!
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
If you are going to spend the time to indulge your tendency to be verbose, perhaps you could also spend the time to address the actual rather than assumed content of a post.

What has come across as binary in your posts has been your tendency to do things like replace "little weight" with "zero weight" and then act as if there is no meaningful difference in doing so.

So, you saying "I give little weight to the art that was copied from a 16th century manual" is something that I should have just gone 'oh, you give it a vague amount of 'weight' that you feel is inconsequential" instead of just addressing the actual point which is that you believe any art based on an old manuscript from the middle ages shouldn't be taken seriously. Your point was that you were dismissing the idea that the art shows the creature, because of the source it was copied from. Which was also shown in the fact that you and others keep referring to it as an extraplanar fiend, when it isn't. The creature is a magical beast. Not a fiend.

And really, you are basically taking a stance which would discount many many many pieces of artwork in the game. Which seems like a very poor stance.

I keep ignoring your particular opinions about the particular art because I don't feel a need to address them. I don't care that much about the particular art.

I do care about how the art is used and judged. And I find biomechanical plausibility and comprehensibility one of the more useless metrics by which to judge fantasy art, especially as the creature gets further and further from the human experience.

So, you continuing to insist I consider how I would view the creature if it was on a stained glass window or a cartoon was... pointless. That wasn't even the point you cared about. Yet you kept bringing it up again and again.

Weird to flex on yourself like that, but fine, you admit it wasn't a serious point of consideration.

Your contraexamples so far, a unicorn which behaves mostly like a horse, and an owlbear which is and behaves mostly like a combination of owl and bear, are, to me, less fantastical by nature than a demon president of hell. I have never seen real demons with my naked eyes but have seen owls and bears and horses. As a result of this difference, I am more tolerant of elements in the art that seem nonsensical for "demon president" than I am for "owl+bear". And so I'm more willing to use my imagination to make sense of the nonsensical, rather than pissing on an artist for not doing their job.

"Use your imagination" being a stand in for ignoring what the artist drew and inserting your own reality in its place.

I don't care about your tolerance level, your tolerance level has nothing to do with my points. You are fully within your rights to say "I don't care what it looks like" but saying that the design is good because you are just going to ignore the problems with the design and decide to make up solutions? That isn't a good faith look at the design. I could argue that owlbears are terribly designed because their bones are made of glass and they shatter with a single blow, but that isn't a true thing, that is just a thing I made up, and not a fair take on the Owlbear.

(Fun story though: what in the unicorn art suggests any of the abilities you have noted? Looks like a white horse with a gold mane and a horn to me)

Nothing. They don't need to. My point was that unicorns as depicted in media are highly fantastic (true, as I listed abilities given to unicorns in media) and that it has nothing to do with their design, which, as you note is just a horse with a horn.

For the art style, it's basically an elevation. It tells you what the thing looks like from the front and that's it. It's like "art" you find in dictionaries (strange though that may seem). In the same way I would not use dictionary art to draw conclusions about creatures' nature or capabilities, so I would not use it here.

So, you wouldn't be able to tell me anything at all about this creature in this dictionary?

1667444234227.png


Because... I can say an awful lot authoritatively about that tiger from that picture alone. It is a bit small, but you can zoom in and even see fangs and whiskers. That there is a very good depiction of what a tiger looks like. Which makes sense, because as a picture in the dictionary, the entire goal is to present a picture that accurately shows a tiger. It would be incredibly bizarre to use a picture meant to inform to mislead.

So again, in total, its a piece of dictionary art for a creature with zero real-world analogues. It just isn't that important to understanding how the thing "really" is.

...

You seem to have completely missed the entire point of art in a dictionary. Like, to an astounding degree. The entire point of an art piece in a dictionary is to attempt to show how the thing "really is". If it is not doing that job, it is bad art. I don't understand how you could completely dismiss art in a dictionary as not showing what the thing really looks like. I'm just utterly confused, because the very nature of a dictionary and its purpose runs counter to your point. It would be like saying the musical score in a movie isn't supposed to match the emotions of the movie. That is, in essence, the entire point of its inclusion.
 

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