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.

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?
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Clint_L

Hero
I'm not sure I agree with racial abilities being minimal though. I think they should have a significant impact. You should KNOW that you are dealing with someone with unique capabilities when you are dealing with a specific race. I actually was just running a group of bandits who I made mixed races (all short) and just their racial abilities alone suddenly changed a lot about how I thought of them and how they were going to act. The Harengon was able to reposition quickly, the dwarves were super tough, the tiefling used magic instead of a ranged weapon, the Earth Genasi was able to deflect blows from the weapons of the players, the leader was a Deep Gnome and was able to stealth and retreat because of the gnome traits. It took a group of generic bandits and added an entire level of complexity to them that altered how they approached the fight.
We are actually totally in agreement - I obviously just didn't express myself clearly. What I meant is that I don't like making things like skills and languages racial features. Like, should all dwarves really be proficient in axes and hammers, and one of three types of tools? What about that nerdy dwarf kid who could care less about making stuff or hitting things and just wants to study magic? Is there a gene for hammer proficiency, or something? This is what I mean about the game sneaking in cultural traits disguised as racial features. Leave those things to the player and the DM.

On the other hand, resistance to poison...sure. That could be a racial trait. Darkvision? That tracks.

So looking at Halflings in thePHB:
I would cut all the "kind and curious" stuff, or modify anything like that with words such as "in many settings," etc.

Base speed 25: Not a huge fan, but okay. The reason that I'm not a huge fan is that it is a nod to realism ("they're slow because they're small"), but given that we have no problems letting Halflings have the same strength score as Goliaths, making sure that they have a lower base speed seems like an odd line to draw.

Halfling Luck: I love natural 1s. They make the best story beats. I don't like robbing players of natural 1s just because they want to play a Halfing. Give them a better feature that doesn't kill their fun.

Halfling Nimbleness: Sure. But should really just apply to all small sized races.

Languages: Get rid of "Halfling" as a language. Racial languages are a weird idea. I don't speak "human."

Brave: Nah. Why is a whole race unusually brave? This is just a nod to Tolkien's Hobbit characters, who were kind of stand-ins for his idealized English people.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
We are actually totally in agreement - I obviously just didn't express myself clearly. What I meant is that I don't like making things like skills and languages racial features. Like, should all dwarves really be proficient in axes and hammers, and one of three types of tools? What about that nerdy dwarf kid who could care less about making stuff or hitting things and just wants to study magic? Is there a gene for hammer proficiency, or something? This is what I mean about the game sneaking in cultural traits disguised as racial features. Leave those things to the player and the DM.

On the other hand, resistance to poison...sure. That could be a racial trait. Darkvision? That tracks.

So looking at Halflings in thePHB:
I would cut all the "kind and curious" stuff, or modify anything like that with words such as "in many settings," etc.

Base speed 25: Not a huge fan, but okay. The reason that I'm not a huge fan is that it is a nod to realism ("they're slow because they're small"), but given that we have no problems letting Halflings have the same strength score as Goliaths, making sure that they have a lower base speed seems like an odd line to draw.

Halfling Luck: I love natural 1s. They make the best story beats. I don't like robbing players of natural 1s just because they want to play a Halfing. Give them a better feature that doesn't kill their fun.

Halfling Nimbleness: Sure. But should really just apply to all small sized races.

Languages: Get rid of "Halfling" as a language. Racial languages are a weird idea. I don't speak "human."

Brave: Nah. Why is a whole race unusually brave? This is just a nod to Tolkien's Hobbit characters, who were kind of stand-ins for his idealized English people.
Maybe I'm an outlier, but you can totally steal all my natural 1's. I won't mind. I promise I'll still have fun without them. :)
 

Scribe

Legend
Base speed 25: Not a huge fan, but okay. The reason that I'm not a huge fan is that it is a nod to realism ("they're slow because they're small"), but given that we have no problems letting Halflings have the same strength score as Goliaths, making sure that they have a lower base speed seems like an odd line to draw.

Theres a fix for this...somewhere....
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
So really, if they have a bonus for anything, it should be ranged attacks in general, not just throwing stuff.
While this is true, and a thing people forget about hobbits, it seems a bit more flavorful to have halflings be effective with weapons almost no one else is effective with, with the weapons of shephards and farmers and simple country folk. Everyone is effective with a longbow in dnd, no need to worry about that.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
While this is true, and a thing people forget about hobbits, it seems a bit more flavorful to have halflings be effective with weapons almost no one else is effective with, with the weapons of shephards and farmers and simple country folk. Everyone is effective with a longbow in dnd, no need to worry about that.
Well, actually, Halflings aren't effective with a longbow. They take disadvantage to use one.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Another reference (been a while since I read the books)
Though slow to quarrel, and for sport killing nothing that lived, they were doughty at bay, and at need could still handle arms. They shot well with the bow, for they were keen-eyed and sure at the mark. Not only with bows and arrows. If any Hobbit stooped for a stone, it was well to get quickly under cover, as all trespassing beasts knew very well.​
The point for lore is that while they may not be considered aggressive by their neighbors and they don't care about building empires, they are surprisingly capable of defending themselves.

Okay, so good with a bow and good at chucking stones at beasts.

But... Well, I don't see them being better than others at throwing things as leading to "surprisingly capable of defending themselves". I'm trying to imagine a group with a halfling rogue and them being surprised that the halfling is effective in combat. That doesn't feel accurate to me. Now, if they are getting crits on 18 that double sneak attack, then yes, that is very deadly, but that is a function of crits and sneak attack, not the idea of throwing weapons. And the mechanic you guys were discussing doesn't only work when throwing, but works when making an attack with the weapon.

And I'm going back to the thing I said about the bandits. How I gave each bandit the racial traits and it changed how they played? If they had d6 slings that had extra crit... it wouldn't really change how they played, it would just make them crit more often. They are more of a threat than most any other type of bandit, simply because they will do more damage, it doesn't seem to fit with this lore you are trying to craft.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
We are actually totally in agreement - I obviously just didn't express myself clearly. What I meant is that I don't like making things like skills and languages racial features. Like, should all dwarves really be proficient in axes and hammers, and one of three types of tools? What about that nerdy dwarf kid who could care less about making stuff or hitting things and just wants to study magic? Is there a gene for hammer proficiency, or something? This is what I mean about the game sneaking in cultural traits disguised as racial features. Leave those things to the player and the DM.

On the other hand, resistance to poison...sure. That could be a racial trait. Darkvision? That tracks.

Well, we aren't in total agreement.

Languages? I love how One DnD is doing them, just let people pick languages, that works. The weapon Proficiencies? I was fine with them, because I integrated them, but I'm not sad to lose them. They didn't work as nicely as I liked, and the dwarven ones I was more than willing to drop for tools.

But skills? I'm fine with some skill profs. Specifically, I tend to like them for the Giantkin and the Beastfolk, where it feels less like they were trained and more like they are just naturally as good as someone trained in those things. Tools? I love the tools. Especially for the dwarves. I am fine dropping brewer's tools, but I feel like crafting is so integral to the Dwarven existence and religion that it even transcends setting to a degree. I can hardly imagine a setting where dwarves aren't doing some sort crafting. I agree it is "cultural" to a degree, but it feels cultural in the same way that being literate in the modern day is cultural. Even if they don't like it, they can do it.

So looking at Halflings in thePHB:
I would cut all the "kind and curious" stuff, or modify anything like that with words such as "in many settings," etc.

An "in many settings" thing I think is obvious. But this is mainly the section of stuff I want to change. This is where the biggest conflicts seem to come from.

Base speed 25: Not a huge fan, but okay. The reason that I'm not a huge fan is that it is a nod to realism ("they're slow because they're small"), but given that we have no problems letting Halflings have the same strength score as Goliaths, making sure that they have a lower base speed seems like an odd line to draw.

I'm not a huge fan either. Loving that One DnD is standardizing 30 ft.

Halfling Luck: I love natural 1s. They make the best story beats. I don't like robbing players of natural 1s just because they want to play a Halfing. Give them a better feature that doesn't kill their fun.

I also hate this ability, but for entirely different reasons, which I have discussed before. It is a call to have plot warping, and I don't like that.

Halfling Nimbleness: Sure. But should really just apply to all small sized races.

Yeah, that feels about right. Nothing about halflings seems like they should be more nimble and able to slip through crowds than goblins or other small folk. I don't mind if they keep it, but it can go away easily I think.

Languages: Get rid of "Halfling" as a language. Racial languages are a weird idea. I don't speak "human."

Meh, racial languages are fine. It is hard enough to have languages come up and keep track of them without having to have "Eastern Lower Goblinese" and "Higher Southern Goblinese" and other languages. They work and fulfil their purpose, even if they don't make a ton of simulationist sense

Brave: Nah. Why is a whole race unusually brave? This is just a nod to Tolkien's Hobbit characters, who were kind of stand-ins for his idealized English people.

I agree, this ability is terrible. Had a long discussion about it and how it breaks story norms and is bizarrely phrased and applied. Along with Luck it is the ability I most dislike from their list.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
If re-rolling a 1 is "plot warping", then so is advantage. As for Brave, well, I still disagree that possessing exceptional bravery somehow makes other people "not-brave". Not everyone will run into a burning building to save lives, but perhaps it turns out that Halflings are more likely to do so, works just fine. Either way, if you happen to be the kind of Human that runs into burning buildings, you aren't any less Brave than a Halfling who does the same thing.

Of course, that's not what Brave does. It protects you from supernatural fear effects. I hope the Kender, once published, will be allowed to keep their immunity to fear, it's a much more useful ability, since all the advantage in the world can't save you sometimes.

Though in reality, this is a unique ability that only arose in 3e, sort of out of nowhere. Suddenly, Halflings had this +2 bonus on saves vs. fear (+3, once you added their +1 luck bonus on all saving throws). This isn't mechanically an ability Halflings had before, it was apparently WotC's attempt to differentiate their Halflings from Hobbits. Even though they kept the thrown weapons bit...

Anyways, I think it's fine for racial traits to represent a trend for a race, though it would be nice to be allowed to trade it in for some other ability, if it doesn't suit you. Like if you wanted to play a non-brave Halfling, or a lazy Human who doesn't have a bonus Feat, or a civilized Lizardfolk who doesn't particularly need the ability to cobble together cheap weaponry on the fly.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Though in reality, this is a unique ability that only arose in 3e, sort of out of nowhere. Suddenly, Halflings had this +2 bonus on saves vs. fear (+3, once you added their +1 luck bonus on all saving throws). This isn't mechanically an ability Halflings had before, it was apparently WotC's attempt to differentiate their Halflings from Hobbits. Even though they kept the thrown weapons bit...
Hobbits are incredibly brave, though. From Fatty Bolger to the Shire in general in two separate invasion attempts, to Sam and Frodo and Merry and Pippin. Like, they don't tend to seek out adventure unless enticed or pushed to it, but they're formidably brave and fierce in a corner.

They changed plenty from hobbit to hin, but bravery was a step closer to the inspiration, not further away.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Hobbits are incredibly brave, though. From Fatty Bolger to the Shire in general in two separate invasion attempts, to Sam and Frodo and Merry and Pippin. Like, they don't tend to seek out adventure unless enticed or pushed to it, but they're formidably brave and fierce in a corner.

They changed plenty from hobbit to hin, but bravery was a step closer to the inspiration, not further away.
I'm not sure about that. I mean, sure, Samwise Gamgee? Absolutely brave. I'll give that to Merry and Pippin, though they are a bit more reckless. But there are times when Frodo is not particularly brave, and while Bilbo has his moments, he's perfectly capable of deciding that discretion is by far the better part of valor. Not that I expect a brave person to never show good sense, but some would call that behavior "cowardly". Even during the Scouring of the Shire, it wasn't until the heroes returned that they were able to rouse the populace into doing something about it.

Thus, while a Hobbit can be brave, I wouldn't consider them universally so. This point can be debated, of course, but let me just say that, if I was given the job in 1999 to differentiate Halflings from Hobbits, bonuses to save against fear wouldn't have been on my mind. A generic bonus to Will saves might be, since we see Halflings stave off the influence of the One Ring, and recovering from being exposed to the mind of Sauron via a Palantir.

I'd have been tempted to give them a racial bonus to Wisdom as well, since most Halflings seem possessed of good sense (Peregrine and Meriadoc notwithstanding), or Constitution, since they seem able to endure more hardship than most folk.

I definitely would have kept their resistance to magic in some form. I certainly didn't mind them becoming a Charismatic race in 4e, though, and that's also a decent choice. I definitely wouldn't have stuck with thrown weapons or slings, since I'm well aware these are traditionally inferior weapon choices in D&D. It might seem flavorful, but when other races are getting free proficiencies with useful weapons, like Dwarves and Elves, it doesn't seem a particularly balanced choice.
 

Remove ads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top