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

Chaosmancer

Legend
The nose of the forest gnome in the PHB is quite large and in line with the PHB text “Their tan or brown faces are usually adorned with broad smiles ( beneath their prodigious noses)…” Prodigious means “remarkably or impressively great in extent, size, or degree.” So read that bit as “(beneath their huge honkers)”.

I am aware of what prodigious means.

But, you mean this picture?

1657650479341.png


Sure, there nose is relatively large. But it is almost a bit romanesque, like from this

1657650528860.png


It certainly isn't "having schnozzes the size of halfling heads." to have... slightly larger noses than the norm.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
The issue is comparing halflings to toddlers/small children (which resulted in that garbage PHB art... seriously, who the hell approved it?).
The PHB halfling art was a result of wanting to update halfling visual design so that they could be clearly distinguished from humans without another creature or object in the picture for scale reference. During the open playtest, there were a number of creatures that got design updates, where they showed off several concept arts and held polls to help decide which would be the new look going forward, and halflings were among those creatures. The winning halfling concepts had distorted proportions to help communicate their size, and they looked pretty good in the style of the artist who drew them, but I don’t think the new proportions translated well to other artists’ styles. It was also a controversial decision even at the time - the winning design was by a narrow margin and a lot of folks who didn’t vote for it disliked it very strongly.

Here are some examples of the concepts. You can see how the PHB halfling art is using the same proportions, but it just doesn’t work as well there.
1657651419527.jpeg

1657651439221.jpeg

1657651468871.jpeg

1657651636535.jpeg

1657651619448.jpeg
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
There's nothing wrong with the standard bucolic Hobbit / Halfling. The bulk of the population of most races lead non adventurous lives. Humans are mostly peasant farmers,


And I think this is part of the issue for a lot of people. The idea is that Halflings are bucolic farmers and that's their identity. It is also the identity of the bulk of humans. So, other than being small, there are almost no differences between humans and halflings.

And yes, people point out that being small is a major thing... but there are multiple small races. In fact, there are now officially 16 races that can be small sized. All of them with OTHER traits that make them not just small humans.

And when halflings are the kind farmers who would give you the shirt off their back and treat you to dinner... they are surly thieves and edgy mobsters who will break your kneecaps. There is such a disconnect between the classical halfling common person and the classical halfling adventurer that it is insane. And there is no real reason for it. The only reason halflings are commonly thieves is because they are a +2 Dex race, and Bilbo has hired as a Burglar. Which he wasn't even particularly good at, unless it was too dark to see or he was invisible.
 

And I think this is part of the issue for a lot of people. The idea is that Halflings are bucolic farmers and that's their identity. It is also the identity of the bulk of humans. So, other than being small, there are almost no differences between humans and halflings.

And yes, people point out that being small is a major thing... but there are multiple small races. In fact, there are now officially 16 races that can be small sized. All of them with OTHER traits that make them not just small humans.

And when halflings are the kind farmers who would give you the shirt off their back and treat you to dinner... they are surly thieves and edgy mobsters who will break your kneecaps. There is such a disconnect between the classical halfling common person and the classical halfling adventurer that it is insane. And there is no real reason for it. The only reason halflings are commonly thieves is because they are a +2 Dex race, and Bilbo has hired as a Burglar. Which he wasn't even particularly good at, unless it was too dark to see or he was invisible.
they need to have someone go over them and make them work better?
 

ehren37

Legend
The PHB halfling art was a result of wanting to update halfling visual design so that they could be clearly distinguished from humans without another creature or object in the picture for scale reference. During the open playtest, there were a number of creatures that got design updates, where they showed off several concept arts and held polls to help decide which would be the new look going forward, and halflings were among those creatures. The winning halfling concepts had distorted proportions to help communicate their size, and they looked pretty good in the style of the artist who drew them, but I don’t think the new proportions translated well to other artists’ styles. It was also a controversial decision even at the time - the winning design was by a narrow margin and a lot of folks who didn’t vote for it disliked it very strongly.

Here are some examples of the concepts. You can see how the PHB halfling art is using the same proportions, but it just doesn’t work as well there.
The "best" of the art is still awful IMO, and and the rationale behind doing so is pretty dumb. Toddlers haven't grown into their heads and their limbs are spindly due to being underdeveloped. I shudder to think what a larval halfling looks like... just all head with vestigial growing limbs, like a tadpole. This is not the body of a coordinated and dextrous creature. Even adult halflings still have feet so small they should be having a hard time standing (which is funny given their previous big feet in prior editions).

They failed in their redesign. Time to go back to the drawing board.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Haflings and their hairy feet, dwarves and their beards*, and gnomes with big schnozes will always be a thing in my campaign world.

* I’m currently playing a dwarf assassin spy whose hairless :p. Playing against type is a thing.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
The "best" of the art is still awful IMO, and and the rationale behind doing so is pretty dumb.
That’s your opinion, and you’re not alone in it, but there are also many others who feel differently - and during the open playtest, a plurality of the people participating did so. I definitely think that giving them a visually distinctive design so they could be told apart from humans without a scale reference was a good idea, even if the execution didn’t really work out.
Toddlers haven't grown into their heads and their limbs are spindly due to being underdeveloped. I shudder to think what a larval halfling looks like... just all head with vestigial growing limbs, like a tadpole. This is not the body of a coordinated and dextrous creature. Even adult halflings still have feet so small they should be having a hard time standing (which is funny given their previous big feet in prior editions).
Yes, and dragons’ wings wouldn’t be able to actually generate enough lift to fly. It’s fantasy, it isn’t supposed to be totally realistic. It’s fine if you don’t like the design, but this isn’t a very compelling argument against it.
They failed in their redesign. Time to go back to the drawing board.
I don’t know when the last time you looked at art in a D&D book was, but they have. Halflings haven’t looked like this in 5e art in many years.
 

payn

Legend
The PHB halfling art was a result of wanting to update halfling visual design so that they could be clearly distinguished from humans without another creature or object in the picture for scale reference. During the open playtest, there were a number of creatures that got design updates, where they showed off several concept arts and held polls to help decide which would be the new look going forward, and halflings were among those creatures. The winning halfling concepts had distorted proportions to help communicate their size, and they looked pretty good in the style of the artist who drew them, but I don’t think the new proportions translated well to other artists’ styles. It was also a controversial decision even at the time - the winning design was by a narrow margin and a lot of folks who didn’t vote for it disliked it very strongly.

Here are some examples of the concepts. You can see how the PHB halfling art is using the same proportions, but it just doesn’t work as well there.
Even the concept stuff was too pixar fatling for my taste. :(
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I don’t know when the last time you looked at art in a D&D book was, but they have. Halflings haven’t looked like this in 5e art in many years.
That may be part of the problem. There are more halfling distinctive examples by other game companies like Paizo. For example, Lem:
LemBeer.jpeg

You pretty much can't look at that picture and not realize it's a halfling.
 

Let's remember little PCs are more allowed to ride flyer monster mounts.

Maybe in a D&D videogame focused into a survival zombie postapocalypse (maybe the "new" Falkovnia, or other land) and building and managing a survivor camp halflings could be very useful thanks their stealth skills.

Little humanoids are harder to be adapted into action-live productions. The dwarfs from the real life have got different body proportions.

A gnomes with enough experencie can be ready with more tricks than Batman's belt.

* I imagine halfling adventures wearing boots because some DMs could design sadist and painful traps for shoeless intruders (not only halflings but also animal companions). Do you remember the scene of the broken glasses in the movie "Die Hard"?
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
My main criticism about this article is that it's anecdotal. "In my experience" does not equal a trend. I would like to see some objective data on what races players are playing.

As for kender...

Players. Players are the problem.

Ever since the internet was a thing, I've seen this criticism that kender are a bad race. Anecdotal evidence always seems to showcase problem players, yet we don't hear about the good players who never have an issue with kender - largely because they are familiar with the source material and understand it.
I'm going to disagree, because kender have bad lore to begin with.

They're fearless, but they lie immediately to get out of trouble. If they have no fear and are curious even about death, they would have no need to lie. They'd be honest all the time, consequences be darned.

They have no sense of personal property, but they don't give things away; they only take things. They should be as willing to give things to other people as they are to take them.

They're as intelligent as a human, but can't seem to understand that other races have different thoughts about concepts such as personal property. They should be able and willing to not take everything that they come across. As far as I can tell, they never had a penalty to either Intelligence or Wisdom to explain this lack of self-control. Additionally, since they have normal levels of Intelligence and Wisdom, they shouldn't believe their lies.

They're totally innocent, but somehow are able to string together insults to make even the most hardened of souls angry. In reality, an "innocent" kender's taunts should be as insulting as a toddlers. But they're (magically?) infuriating.
 


The "best" of the art is still awful IMO, and and the rationale behind doing so is pretty dumb. Toddlers haven't grown into their heads and their limbs are spindly due to being underdeveloped. I shudder to think what a larval halfling looks like... just all head with vestigial growing limbs, like a tadpole.
…That’s actually a pretty cool concept for halflings!
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
That may be part of the problem. There are more halfling distinctive examples by other game companies like Paizo. For example, Lem:
View attachment 253481
You pretty much can't look at that picture and not realize it's a halfling.
That picture probably isn’t the best example because the mugs provide a scale reference. But yeah, his proportions would probably communicate that he’s small without the mugs, and the hairy feet are a dead giveaway.

I’m not saying the early 5e halfling design was the best way, let alone the only way, to make halflings visually distinct from humans. I was just providing context for folks who might not have been around for the playtest.
 


lall

Explorer
I am aware of what prodigious means.

But, you mean this picture?

View attachment 253452

Sure, there nose is relatively large. But it is almost a bit romanesque, like from this

View attachment 253453

It certainly isn't "having schnozzes the size of halfling heads." to have... slightly larger noses than the norm.
Sorry, defined it for myself. Here are synonyms, again, for myself: enormous, huge, colossal. Not halfling head-sized, but not “slightly larger”. The gnome pic above isn’t horrible, but given the author’s own choice of words, I’m led to believe my gnome has to have a prodigious nose. I haven’t seen artwork in 5e of a non-prodigious nose. Some may have a different opinion. Perhaps those folks can produce an erratum of the PHB text.
 



payn

Legend
I was just looking for my favorite halfling art (It's Paizo PF1 Gods and Magic supplement but nothing online) and realized another issue I have. Halflings are often depicted child like because of their size. They are usually doing things like balancing a bottle on their nose or sucking a lollipop. Few actually get the adventurer look that other race artwork generates. Also, barely any elderly halflings either.
 

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