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.

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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

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
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)
Now you've completely lost me. "Cunning" is totally a personality trait. But either you're ok with Gnomes being more Cunning than anyone else, or you just renamed the trait so it doesn't do that.

If it's the first...I got nothing. If it's the second, just rename "Brave" to "Lion-Hearted" and call it a day.

Lots of races are described by their personality traits. Here, let's look at the PHB.

According to page 18, Dwarves are "Bold and Hardy". Are they bolder than everyone else? No, but they are bold. Dwarves are "Determined and Loyal". Does this mean that everyone else is wishy-washy and can't show loyalty? No, but they are determined and loyal. Dwarves have a "strong sense of justice" (continuing on to page 19). So other races don't?

Dwarves hold long grudges. That doesn't say other races don't.

Some Dwarves have a love of precious metals and gems that descends into avarice. So what, other races can't be greedy? Dwarves are also "slow to trust"...so everyone must be immediately trusting of others? Of course not.

Every race has traits they are noted for. Like Halflings being practical. That doesn't mean other races aren't practical. Sometimes, these traits have mechanical weight, like Halflings bravery, Gnomes cunning (which means deceitful or resourceful, by the way), Half-Orcs being menacing, full Orcs being aggressive, Bugbears being sneaky, and Hobgoblins either being paranoid about losing face or, in the update, having weaponized their sense of hospitality.

Often times, they do not, and the racial traits are either physical in nature, like Drow having darkvision, are the result of training, like High Elves knowing a free cantrip, or some Dwarves having armor training, or just something that is based on their culture.

Granted, cultural and trained traits seem to be getting phased out for races, but this is how things have been done for many years. If it's a problem, then it's a systemic one, not just for Halflings, and this thread should be named "The Trouble with Personality-based Racial abilities".
 

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Chaosmancer

Legend
Now you've completely lost me. "Cunning" is totally a personality trait. But either you're ok with Gnomes being more Cunning than anyone else, or you just renamed the trait so it doesn't do that.

If it's the first...I got nothing. If it's the second, just rename "Brave" to "Lion-Hearted" and call it a day.

I renamed it Crystalline Mind because in my world Gnomes were originally Slaadi, and it ties into them being born from crystals. They quite literally have brains made of organic crystal.

And while Cunning is a personality trait, it isn't something really used to describe gnomes. Cunning means "having skill in achieving one's ends by deceit". When people talk about gnomes, they aren't generally talking about them being highly deceitful. And how would the ability to have advantage on all mental saves tie into lying and deceit? You could use it more vaguely, as with a different definition "crafty in the use of special resources (such as skill or knowledge) or in attaining an end" but even that is just... very vague. What would it mean to use special knowledge to succeed on Charisma saves? At that point it almost sounds like gnomes have passed down special techniques or magic to resist magical effects, which isn't a personality trait at all.

So... no, I wouldn't really be okay with them being better schemers and planners than other races, but that doesn't seem to be how the ability is described. Meanwhile, changing "brave" to "Lion-hearted" is just changing to a synonym. It literally means "brave and determined"

Lots of races are described by their personality traits. Here, let's look at the PHB.

According to page 18, Dwarves are "Bold and Hardy". Are they bolder than everyone else? No, but they are bold. Dwarves are "Determined and Loyal". Does this mean that everyone else is wishy-washy and can't show loyalty? No, but they are determined and loyal. Dwarves have a "strong sense of justice" (continuing on to page 19). So other races don't?

Dwarves hold long grudges. That doesn't say other races don't.

Some Dwarves have a love of precious metals and gems that descends into avarice. So what, other races can't be greedy? Dwarves are also "slow to trust"...so everyone must be immediately trusting of others? Of course not.

Right, but none of these are given mechanical weight. Well, maybe "hardy" is because of the increased hit points. But they don't have a "Boldness" ability or a "Justice" ability. These are just stereotypes, and as true or untrue as the player wants to make them.

Every race has traits they are noted for. Like Halflings being practical. That doesn't mean other races aren't practical. Sometimes, these traits have mechanical weight, like Halflings bravery, Gnomes cunning (which means deceitful or resourceful, by the way), Half-Orcs being menacing, full Orcs being aggressive, Bugbears being sneaky, and Hobgoblins either being paranoid about losing face or, in the update, having weaponized their sense of hospitality.

Often times, they do not, and the racial traits are either physical in nature, like Drow having darkvision, are the result of training, like High Elves knowing a free cantrip, or some Dwarves having armor training, or just something that is based on their culture.

Halfling practicality doesn't bear mechanical weight., it is a stereotype But let's look at the abilities that DO have mechanical weight you list.

Gnomes? Covered above.
Half-Orcs being menacing? This has been noted as a problem many times. It is being phased out as well.
Orcs being aggressive? This has been noted as a problem many times. And in the most recent iteration of them in Mordenkainen presents, it was gotten rid of in favor of "adrenaline rush". I personally went a bit further and took from Colville's orcs and renamed it "Bloodfire" and tied it even deeper into a series of traits and biology.

Bugbear's being sneaky is actually interesting. For a long time it was just proficiency in stealth, which isn't the personality trait of being sneaky, but the actual physical ability to sneak. And as ambush predators this is a thing. Tigers are sneaky, not because of their personality, but because of their bodies blending into their environment. Additionally, in the most recent version of Bugbears, sneaky was expanded. It isn't just their ability to stealth, but they can move through small spaces without squeezing. Considering their massive size (they can be 8 ft tall) being able to move comfortably in a 3 ft space and likely squeeze into smaller? This isn't a personality trait. It is a biological trait for an ambush predator.

Hobgoblin's saving face? Again, another ability that was widely decried for its flavor. Just like grovel and beg, just like menacing, just like aggressive. And again, one that was altered in Mordenkainens. And it isn't weaponizing their "sense of hospitality". Their first ability is called "Fey Gift" and the other is "Fortune from the Many" and says that they "draw on your bonds of reciprocity". This isn't a personality trait, it is flat out fey magic, using the belief's surrounding fey and the mystical weight of concepts like hospitality.

Granted, cultural and trained traits seem to be getting phased out for races, but this is how things have been done for many years. If it's a problem, then it's a systemic one, not just for Halflings, and this thread should be named "The Trouble with Personality-based Racial abilities".

Sure, I can agree it is a systematic problem. So can many people who have repeatedly identified things like "Menacing", "Aggressive", "Saving Face", "Grovel, Cower and Beg" as problems to the point that every one of those abilities is being altered, re-flavored, or flat dropped.

And Brave falls under that same umbrella. And sure, we could have a thread discussing why those abilities that we have gotten rid of were bad, but considering the majority of them are gone it would be a rather short conversation. However, halflings have more than just that single point to discuss, and this thread was made to discuss halflings, not a larger systematic problem that also touches on halflings.
 

Oofta

Legend
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.

Being good with ranged weapons is part of their defenses so they practice. If fighting off invaders the tactic is going to be hit-and-run sniping, direct melee confrontation is an absolute last resort. It fits the narrative picture.

But you aren't going to be happy with any explanation. 🤷‍♂️
 

Oofta

Legend
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.

Which is why I would approach all racial descriptions simply as typical defaults. Halflings don't have to be cheerful hobbits in your world, but if you don't want to do too much work to integrate them into your world or come up with a default culture here's a typical one you can use. It's not a rule that halflings are "affable and cheerful", but it's a starting point if I'm not trying to write an entire world completely from scratch. Much like alignment for monsters, it should be a general default and suggestion, not a rule.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Being good with ranged weapons is part of their defenses so they practice. If fighting off invaders the tactic is going to be hit-and-run sniping, direct melee confrontation is an absolute last resort. It fits the narrative picture.

But you aren't going to be happy with any explanation. 🤷‍♂️

So humans would get bonuses to spears, polearms and swords, right? They would also be fighting off invaders to their lands, so they would also practice with weapons as part of their defenses.

The problem you are running into is you are acting like "defending their homes" is somehow something that no other race does. All races defend their homes, not all of them use guerrilla tactics based on size sure, but all of them would use weapons. And so if the logic is "halflings defend their homes, therefore they are good with the weapons used to defend their homes" then that is going to apply beyond halflings until you find races that do not defend their homes and instead choose to flee.

It isn't the idea that I will never be happy with any explanation, but that it has to stand up under at least mild scrutiny. Because you also have to consider that if you are going to add an improved weapon proficiency to them, and they were considered balanced before, then you need to take away an ability. They need to lose something, and therefore what replaces it can't be bland and flavorless or it is just going to hurt the race.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
Because you also have to consider that if you are going to add an improved weapon proficiency to them, and they were considered balanced before, then you need to take away an ability. They need to lose something, and therefore what replaces it can't be bland and flavorless or it is just going to hurt the race.
They were considered balanced with the original PHB races but I wonder if that would still be the case when comparing them with everything else that’s been released since then? Power creep is an oft complained issue.
 
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Chaosmancer

Legend
They were considered balanced with the original PHB races but I wonder if that would still be the case when comparing them with everything else that’s been released since then? Power creep is an oft complained issue.

Oft complained, rarely backed up.

After all, until the One DnD playtest what were the most powerful racial options? Variant Human and Half-Elf, from the same PHB as the Halflings. And they are still strong contenders. If there has been racial power creep, it has been so mild and limited that it might as well not exist.
 

Mecheon

Sacabambaspis
After all, until the One DnD playtest what were the most powerful racial options? Variant Human and Half-Elf, from the same PHB as the Halflings.
Yuan-Ti made a strong showing, along with Satyrs.

But, yeah, nothing has ever come close to toppling variant human. Feats are just that powerful
 

They were considered balanced with the original PHB races but I wonder if that would still be the case when comparing them with everything else that’s been released since then? Power creep is an oft complained issue.
Especially since, with unshackled racial ASIs, pretty much every race with an inconvenient ASI got a bump relative to Halflings.

Gnomes and Tieflings immediately come to mind.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
Oft complained, rarely backed up.

After all, until the One DnD playtest what were the most powerful racial options? Variant Human and Half-Elf, from the same PHB as the Halflings. And they are still strong contenders. If there has been racial power creep, it has been so mild and limited that it might as well not exist.
I wasn’t making an assertion i was asking a question, however sure there might be a few powerful options in the PHB but that doesn’t mean the baseline of other races could’ve also trended upwards.
 


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