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?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
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.
That’s a significant part of why I chose to expand their crit and non-disadvantage range with those weapons in the halfling proficiency, i know those weapons aren’t incredible so just giving them the proficiency is a bit naff when 90% of classes already get those weapon proficiencies or better.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Which means they really should rename it as Fearless. It should also protect against magical fear effects e.g. spells like Scare, Spook, etc. (if they even still exist).

I give this to Cavaliers as a baked-in class ability, and it shows up now and then as a side (or main, sometimes) property of some magic items.
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.
Agreed.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
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.
None of that makes them any less brave. When someone said “hey let’s not put up with this” they rose up, go hasty, and stood up to bigger folk.
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.
Which is why my suggestion wasn’t proficiency, which they’d have anyway because they’re simple weapons. Instead I suggested better damage, or some other bonus to make them comparably effective next to normally better weapons.
 

Oofta

Legend
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.

I was thinking of @James Gasik's post about defending their homelands along with the epilogue to the lord of the rings books. Combine bonus to ranged attacks (including simple rocks) with small size and abilities to hide and I can see halflings being guerilla warfare types defending their homes while retreating into small places difficult for large races to access. They don't go out seeking confrontation, but defending home territory? Being small could actually be a pretty huge benefit for setting up defenses.

Makes sense to me. 🤷‍♂️
 

bedir than

Full Moon Storyteller
I was thinking of @James Gasik's post about defending their homelands along with the epilogue to the lord of the rings books. Combine bonus to ranged attacks (including simple rocks) with small size and abilities to hide and I can see halflings being guerilla warfare types defending their homes while retreating into small places difficult for large races to access. They don't go out seeking confrontation, but defending home territory? Being small could actually be a pretty huge benefit for setting up defenses.

Makes sense to me. 🤷‍♂️
I need more halfling rangers in my life.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
If re-rolling a 1 is "plot warping", then so is advantage.

Re-rolling 1's isn't plot warping. It is all the stuff that surrounds the assumptions of what halfling luck means. I posted about it multiple, multiple times. I don't feel like re-litigating it here would be worthwhile.

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.

Right, so you have pointed out the exact problem with the ability.

1) Running into a burning building to save lives is a "brave" act.
1A) This act is not about mechanics, but is purely a factor of how the PC is played at the table. If a PC wants to be played as "brave" then they are 100% as brave as a halfling. Which is just as brave as an adventurer is normally. And as brave as many people are normally.
2) Interacting with the commonly held idea of Bravery isn't even what the ability does, it simply is a protection against supernatural and magically induced fear.

Our only point of disagreement seems to be you don't think it is therefore implied that other races are inherently less brave than halflings, if you make halflings the brave race. But I find this to not hold up. You can't have a "strong one" without someone being weaker, you can't have a "smart one" without other people being less intelligent, and you can't have "the brave one" unless the others are less brave. But look at any team of heroes. Is there really a "Brave One" in the Justice League? The Power Rangers? They are super heroes, they are all brave. That's the point of being heroes.

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.

It is fine to represent a trend. I don't think it is fine to take a core part of being an adventurer and try to delegate it to a single race's "iconic" and "archetypical" depiction.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Re-rolling 1's isn't plot warping. It is all the stuff that surrounds the assumptions of what halfling luck means. I posted about it multiple, multiple times. I don't feel like re-litigating it here would be worthwhile.



Right, so you have pointed out the exact problem with the ability.

1) Running into a burning building to save lives is a "brave" act.
1A) This act is not about mechanics, but is purely a factor of how the PC is played at the table. If a PC wants to be played as "brave" then they are 100% as brave as a halfling. Which is just as brave as an adventurer is normally. And as brave as many people are normally.
2) Interacting with the commonly held idea of Bravery isn't even what the ability does, it simply is a protection against supernatural and magically induced fear.

Our only point of disagreement seems to be you don't think it is therefore implied that other races are inherently less brave than halflings, if you make halflings the brave race. But I find this to not hold up. You can't have a "strong one" without someone being weaker, you can't have a "smart one" without other people being less intelligent, and you can't have "the brave one" unless the others are less brave. But look at any team of heroes. Is there really a "Brave One" in the Justice League? The Power Rangers? They are super heroes, they are all brave. That's the point of being heroes.



It is fine to represent a trend. I don't think it is fine to take a core part of being an adventurer and try to delegate it to a single race's "iconic" and "archetypical" depiction.
Two people are in a room. They have IQ's of 170 and 175. Is the 170 IQ person not exceedingly intelligent because someone smarter exists? Spider-Man can lift 10 tons. Thor can lift 100 tons. Is Spider-Man not superhumanly strong?

Halflings exhibit bravery, but unlike other races, that bravery is sufficient to grant them additional protection from magical fear effects beyond their Wisdom save alone. All stop.

Compare and contrast Gnome Cunning, which does all of that and more.

But it's like how Kobolds had the ability to Cower, Grovel, and Beg. We're not saying other races can't be cowardly. Or pathetic. Or that a non-Kobold can't plead for their lives, protesting their unworthiness. Kobolds just have a knack for it.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
I was thinking of @James Gasik's post about defending their homelands along with the epilogue to the lord of the rings books. Combine bonus to ranged attacks (including simple rocks) with small size and abilities to hide and I can see halflings being guerilla warfare types defending their homes while retreating into small places difficult for large races to access. They don't go out seeking confrontation, but defending home territory? Being small could actually be a pretty huge benefit for setting up defenses.

Makes sense to me. 🤷‍♂️


Right, but let's take away that "crits on an 18 with a sling" and "increased range with light or thrown weapons". What are the halflings going to do when invaded?

They are going to use their small size and ability to hide to engage in guerilla warfare to defend their homes. They will use simple weapons like slings, daggers, thrown stones and even staves, hammers, and axes to do so. In actuality, not giving them a mechanical incentive to focus on just a few weapons could make them better at defending their homes, because it widens their options.

Sure, you are correct that being small is a useful thing for guerilla warfare, just like it is for every other small race in the entire game. But throwing things good doesn't actually play into them being guerilla fighters any more than being excellent archers would or excellent trap makers, or the ability to use magic. It doesn't affect the lore or the potential interpretations of the lore at all. It just makes them more mechanically effective at using those specific weapons.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Two people are in a room. They have IQ's of 170 and 175. Is the 170 IQ person not exceedingly intelligent because someone smarter exists?

IQ is a horrendous measure of intelligence. But, you are missing the point. Neither the person with the 170 or the 175 could be considered the "smart one" of the pair, because they are both smart.

You have Lebron James and Michael Jordan in a room together. Which one is the "Great Basketball player"? They both are. Claiming one is and the other isn't just derides the acheivements of whichever one you don't pick.

Spider-Man can lift 10 tons. Thor can lift 100 tons. Is Spider-Man not superhumanly strong?

"Superhumanly strong" is a measure compared to "humanly strong". Of course Spider-Man is superhumanly strong, he is stronger than a human, who cannot lift 10 tons.

However, what is the equivalent of lifting 10 tons compared to lifting 100 tons in terms of Bravery? What are Bravery Units? Can we decide which brave actions are braver than others? Of course not. We don't measure bravery this way. We don't look at a man who runs into a burning building and compare him to a woman who dove into a rushing river and decide that one action was worth more "bravery" than the other.

The question is absurd.

Halflings exhibit bravery, but unlike other races, that bravery is sufficient to grant them additional protection from magical fear effects beyond their Wisdom save alone. All stop.

And that is bad, because of how we depict bravery, what bravery means, and the integrity of a player's concept of their character. Making a "brave" race is just as terrible as making a "kind" race or any other binary state of being. The most you can hope for in states for bravery is "Brave -> Neutral -> Cowardly" you can't measure it beyond that in any meaningful way. And so you can't make it so that someone is "braver" than someone else without shoving them down the scale towards Neutral.

Compare and contrast Gnome Cunning, which does all of that and more.

And Gnome Cunning is a fine ability. It is a resistance to mental compulsion effects of all kinds. It doesn't give a personality trait. (Though I did rename it Crystalline Mind for reasons)

But it's like how Kobolds had the ability to Cower, Grovel, and Beg. We're not saying other races can't be cowardly. Or pathetic. Or that a non-Kobold can't plead for their lives, protesting their unworthiness. Kobolds just have a knack for it.

And you realize that that ability was so loudly decried that Kobolds lost it nearly immediately, right? Because people found the idea of the entire race being cowardly off-putting and they didn't like it. Sure, some people want their Kobolds cowardly, but many instead preferred the brash and over-confident kobold. Those who would be... ya know... brave, even to the point of foolishness.

It may have taken a couple of years, I know the book was published in 2016 and the Draconic options wasn't until 2021, but five years with how slow 5e publishing was and them rarely doing errata? When we are discussing patterns where people think 30 years is moving too fast? And I know not a single table I played at kept the ability, we all reflavored it. I'm pretty sure the outcry over it was immediate on this forum too.
 

Clint_L

Hero
Why we gotta try to legislate how different tables roleplay? This impulse to define fantasy for everyone else is deep in the DNA of D&D, going back to Gygax's particular notions about what a fantasy world and fantasy races should be like. Remember when half-orcs had to be evil?

In my worlds, a halfling is no more likely to be "nice" than a goblin, though "nice" can also mean different things to different people and cultures. My villains aren't villains because of how they were born, but because of the choices they've made, or maybe their economic, political or cultural circumstances put them at odds with the party's interests.

And I respect that other feel differently, and want a more traditional D&D setting with alignments and all that stuff. I just don't think we need rules that make one way of roleplaying a halfling (typically, as Tolkien's hobbits) the "correct" way. Leave all that stuff up to each table to decide for themselves.
 

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