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.

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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

Hussar

Legend
That's not the lore. I won't bother to quote the PHB again. Everyone can read it for themselves.
Really?

I'm looking at the 5e PHB right now. Let's quote shall we?

From the opening paragraph said:
The comforts of home are the goals of most halflings’ lives: a place to settle in peace and quiet, far from marauding monsters and clashing armies; a blazing fire and a generous meal; fine drink and fine conversation. Though some halflings live out their days in remote agricultural communities, others form nomadic bands that travel constantly, lured by the open road and the wide horizon to discover the wonders of new lands and peoples. But even these wanderers love peace, food, hearth, and home, though home might be a wagon jostling along a dirt road or a raft floating downriver.

And this:

Most halflings live in small, peaceful communities with large farms and well-kept groves. They rarely build kingdoms of their own or even hold much land beyond their quiet shires. They typically don’t recognize any sort of halfling nobility or royalty, instead looking to family elders to guide them. Families preserve their traditional ways despite the rise and fall of empires.

Many halflings live among other races, where the halflings’ hard work and loyal outlook offer them abundant rewards and creature comforts. Some halfling communities travel as a way of life, driving wagons or guiding boats from place to place and maintaining no permanent home.

So, at best, a minority of halflings are nomadic, but, most of them stay at home and don't travel. So, again, my question stands - how you go from a race described as being stay-at-homes with little interest in gold or anything other than simple comfort to "This is a race defined by trade between various factions"?
 

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Hussar

Legend
Humans make plans and money, Elves make art and arrows, Dwarves make weapons and armor, Halflings make friends and lunch.
Which, frankly, is the heart of the issue. "Makes friends and lunch" isn't exactly driving conflict.

The point about whether a world is poorer if something that almost no one has heard of disappears is a good point. But, here's the thing. Halflings aren't supposed to be something that almost no one has heard of. Halflings are supposed to be common. Found in many communities all over the setting. You should be finding halflings as often as you find every other race. More often than most of the other races actually - they are supposed to be as commonly found as dwarves or elves at the very least.

If you pull elves out of most settings, you would have to massively rewrite the setting - Forgotten Realms without Myth Dranor or Drizz't would be a very different setting. Pull dwarves out of most settings and it would massively rewrite the setting - no dwarves in Forgotten Realms means no Duergar and much of the Underdark ceases to exist.

Pull halflings out of Forgotten Realms and... nothing happens.

Even Dragonlance, which is probably the setting most famous for it's halflings, (or kender to be exact) shows how little Kender actually matter. Of the 14 War of the Lance Modules, guess how many actually take place in Kenderhome. Go ahead, I'll wait. Right. Zero. First four modules are nothing but dwarves and elves. They travel to virtually every corner of Ansalon and even beyond, and not once do they go anywhere near Kenderhome. The fate of Kenderhome is basically a footnote in one of the novels.

These claims that halflings play a key role in D&D are really lacking in any sort of support. At best, in any setting, they're an afterthought. Most of the time, they're barely even acknowledged. But, hey, this is one of the four most expected races to play in the game? Really?
 
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Which, frankly, is the heart of the issue. "Makes friends and lunch" isn't exactly driving conflict.

The point about whether a world is poorer if something that almost no one has heard of disappears is a good point. But, here's the thing. Halflings aren't supposed to be something that almost no one has heard of. Halflings are supposed to be common. Found in many communities all over the setting. You should be finding halflings as often as you find every other race. More often than most of the other races actually - they are supposed to be as commonly found as dwarves or elves at the very least.

If you pull elves out of most settings, you would have to massively rewrite the setting - Forgotten Realms without Myth Dranor or Drizz't would be a very different setting. Pull dwarves out of most settings and it would massively rewrite the setting - no dwarves in Forgotten Realms means no Duergar and much of the Underdark ceases to exist.

Pull halflings out of Forgotten Realms and... nothing happens.

Even Dragonlance, which is probably the setting most famous for it's halflings, (or kender to be exact) shows how little Kender actually matter. Of the 14 War of the Lance Modules, guess how many actually take place in Kenderhome. Go ahead, I'll wait. Right. Zero. First four modules are nothing but dwarves and elves. They travel to virtually every corner of Ansalon and even beyond, and not once do they go anywhere near Kenderhome. The fate of Kenderhome is basically a footnote in one of the novels.

These claims that halflings play a key role in D&D are really lacking in any sort of support. At best, in any setting, they're an afterthought. Most of the time, they're barely even acknowledged. But, hey, this is one of the four most expected races to play in the game? Really?
Ennhh, I don't have a particular need for a race to drive conflict. That's what characters are for.

I confess, I am unfamiliar with the lore in the D&D novels, so I'm happy to take you at you word with respect to how much has been done with them in the novels (although that does rather undercut your earlier contention about how hard halflings have been pushed without seeing an impact).

On the other hand, though, I think you cam point to something like Eberron for how halflings can be integrated.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
So, at best, a minority of halflings are nomadic, but, most of them stay at home and don't travel. So, again, my question stands - how you go from a race described as being stay-at-homes with little interest in gold or anything other than simple comfort to "This is a race defined by trade between various factions"?
Because they have very nice, comfortable wagons and ships is how.
 

Irlo

Hero
So, at best, a minority of halflings are nomadic, but, most of them stay at home and don't travel. So, again, my question stands - how you go from a race described as being stay-at-homes with little interest in gold or anything other than simple comfort to "This is a race defined by trade between various factions"?
You're miscontruing my statements. No one -- well, not I, anyway -- defined any race by trade between various factions. I gave an example of how a halfling merchant might be more interesting in one respect than a human one.

By the lore, some halflings live among other races. By the lore, some halflings travel as a way of life.

Do the majority of dwarves or humans travel on trade routes? No. Does that mean dwarves and humans don't engage in trade?

Halflings are interested in more than simple comforts of home:
They love discovering new things, even simple things, such as an exotic food or an unfamiliar style of clothing.
Do they discover those things by staying at home in their isolationist hidden burrows?

Take a wider look at the lore beyond what you've chosen to emphasize with bold text and you won't find halflings so difficult to incorporate into the game.

They're not hobbits anymore.
 

bedir than

Full Moon Storyteller
do they even trade?
Of course. How do they get fine cheeses, pipeweed, beer, wine, etd?
So, at best, a minority of halflings are nomadic, but, most of them stay at home and don't travel.
At best a small minority of humans travel, and yet we have trade.

You quoted the part about using wagons and canoes, and then just kind of ignored it?
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
I have a hard time believing that most people in most campaign settings show up until particularly needed... (this is the game where villages and towns pop into existence only when the party decides to go see what's in some group of hexes, right?)

Sure, but does that make for good setting design to avoid thinking about it until the moment it is needed?

I'm not saying you can't do that, but that isn't setting design, that is setting avante-garde.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
I kinda feel 'small humans' is underselling it. Being small humans is actually a big deal! (Pun intended.) I'd imagine world seemed rather different to homo floresiensis than it does to us. Imagine an entire culture of humans that are half the size of usual, interacting with the world of the big people. Imagine if most people and things around you were twice the size they're now. Wouldn't it feel pretty different? Or imagine as human visiting a halfling village, where everything is half the usual size. Or mixed settlements, where halflings are living in the rafters of humans houses or some houses have some floors that are divided in two height wise. To me all this is cool, so halflings are cool.

Okay, but this is also true for Goblins, Kobolds, Gnomes, Owlin, Fairies, and a bunch of others.

I agree that being a small race is an interesting outlook on the world. The other small races give you that PLUS MORE. So if that is all halflings give you, then they are 100% replaced by every other small race
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
The simplest way to respond to your concerns regarding point number 1 is to acknowledge that neither players, nor character races are monolithic. Otherwise, a million drow ranger PCs would have died in the womb or egg or mold.. or however drow procreate..and no players would be playing enthusiastically adventurous halflings. Adventurers who are a bit of a contradiction is kind of the way its expected to work.

Right, but here's the thing.

A dwarf can go on an adventure for dwarf reasons. An Elf can go on an adventure for elf reasons. An Orc can go on adventure for Orc reasons.

A halfling has to go on adventure for non-halfling reasons. They were originally written as home-bodies who never want to leave their homes, and then had to be retconned into occassionally leaving their homes. You can say that adventurers break the mold, and you are 100% correct. But having a race that neccessitates you not being like the stereotype of your race to even play the game is something people trip over a lot. And there is no reason for it from a game design perspective. It is just lore getting in the way of the game the lore was designed to support.

As for point 2, to put halflings in the lore requires the same amount of effort as any other common race. They may not make empires, and they may be pretty content, but they still do stuff. They care for and contribute to their communities, some of which are isolated, and some of which are embedded within a mixed-race environment. So instead of thinking in terms of empires and armies, think in terms of social capital. What things would a race that feels more keenly for their homes than the other races bring to their homes.

Humans make plans and money, Elves make art and arrows, Dwarves make weapons and armor, Halflings make friends and lunch.

I make friends and lunch. The elves make friends and lunch. The dwarves make friends and lunch. How do I know? Because all races eat and all races have the concept of friendship.

When I make a community in a game, if I don't explicitly make it a bad or damaged community, then the people in that community care for and contribute to their community. I don't often make communities where that isn't true, because then they aren't really communities.

And your last question makes no sense. What CAN they bring to their homes if they NEVER LEAVE their homes. I recently went to a family reunion. I met people from my extended family. But none of the people I met are the people who never leave their homes. They are the people who traveled. You can't bring anything home unless you leave, and even if you do leave and bring back, say, a ceramic plate from a foreign country.... so what? It is cool, but when I'm designing a world, I don't design individual families and their stories. I don't care what is in a specific farm families basement, I care about what is the history of why that farm is there and whose in charge of that land, because that's what actually shapes the world so I know what is going on on a macro level.

I get the little things matter in stories about families, in stories about little things, and in real life stories of our own lives. But no one cares what the Western Settlers had in their breastpocket. They care that the Western Settlers went west and established control of the United States over land that formally belonged to the native people, and led to massive social and geopolitical change. Who the specific farmer who set up a mile from the Mississippi was doesn't matter to telling the larger story.

And that's the thing that gets so frustrating. The art of world-building is telling the larger story, but people keep insisting that it somehow matters to have people that are never talked about in the context of that story, because those people love their families. I'm glad they love their families, I'm sure they have touching stories about their lives that would be very compelling, but when compiling a history of the world, they don't actually matter.
 

bedir than

Full Moon Storyteller
They were originally written as home-bodies who never want to leave their homes, and then had to be retconned into occassionally leaving their homes
This is basically your foundation to the idea that halflings don't belong in the game. But it rests on the idea of somehow calling the original inspirations for the halfling a retcon. Halflings from the very start went out on adventures -- they went there and back again.
 

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