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


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I'm not sure why people keep imagining D&D halflings just as hobbits. They have for a long time not been just that, they have a decent dose of kender in them. And I prefer them that way, makes them more adventure-friendly.
but has their basic culture evolved?
I have not had this experience; halflings get chosen about as often as dwarves in our group, and I don't recall any aversion to halflings in previous groups.
do you happen to know why they are liked?
 


My headcanon for haflings is that they are charismatic daredevils. They love to try things, talk about the things they’ve tried, and hear about things they haven't tried yet.

I don't exactly mind if there is a particular Tolkienesque bent to that, but it isn't a flavor I'd find particularly interesting.

If my halflings are going to be country bumpkins, I want them to be bootlegging in souped up airboats and running illegal owlbear fights rather than sitting down for quiet Sunday picnics.
 



Stormonu

Legend
but has their basic culture evolved?

do you happen to know why they are liked?
Yeah, it has. 4E even had them as river nomads, which still boggles me.

This was one of the first D&D depictions of halflings I ran across, and to me it really enforced the difference from hobbits:
1657571798338.png


One of the reasons I liked to occassionally play them was three-fold; they're Jack the Giant Slayer, where everyone/everything is bigger than they are and they have to be smarter; second they tend to be dismissed/overlooked allowing you to get away with things/get places others couldn't and thirdly, their appearance can be somewhat childlike allowing you to play eternal optimist, chirpy and fast-talking individuals (a break from my old curmudgeonly love of being a grumpy dwarf)
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
One of the reasons I liked to occassionally play them was three-fold; they're Jack the Giant Slayer, where everyone/everything is bigger than they are and they have to be smarter; second they tend to be dismissed/overlooked allowing you to get away with things/get places others couldn't and thirdly, their appearance can be somewhat childlike allowing you to play eternal optimist, chirpy and fast-talking individuals (a break from my old curmudgeonly love of being a grumpy dwarf)
The thing is...

....Halflings aren't the only small race.

If gnomes, goblins, kobolds, fairies, and rabbit people can be small, then the halfling specialness of "being small" stops being special. This is especially true as small humaniods are added to the player side or DM side of the table. This is I think halflfings had to evolve over time. Because even if you don't do a setting with many small races, even one other small race eats at a halfling whose whole point is to be "be small and underestimated".

I think this is why goblins, kobold, and fey folk gained a lot of popularity in the last 20 years and PCs and major NPC setpieces. You get to be small and have anoter tweak on the character. Not gnomes though for reasons another thread explains.
 

Stormonu

Legend
The thing is...

....Halflings aren't the only small race.

If gnomes, goblins, kobolds, fairies, and rabbit people can be small, then the halfling specialness of "being small" stops being special. This is especially true as small humaniods are added to the player side or DM side of the table. This is I think halflfings had to evolve over time. Because even if you don't do a setting with many small races, even one other small race eats at a halfling whose whole point is to be "be small and underestimated".

I think this is why goblins, kobold, and fey folk gained a lot of popularity in the last 20 years and PCs and major NPC setpieces. You get to be small and have anoter tweak on the character. Not gnomes though for reasons another thread explains.
Funny thing that - I've never played a gnome. Most of the other races you mention - goblin and kobold have only been PCs in my game starting with 5e.

Gnomes seem to have their own thing with "tinkering" from the days of Tinker Gnomes in DL. Goblins & Kobolds - I don't see the appeal and would have to let someone else answer why they enjoy those races. However, their existance doesn't lessen halflings in my eyes. They're still the "country mouse in the city" in my eyes.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Most of why I never saw halflings played was their speed. I heard a lot of, "Hmm. Maybe I'll play a halfling this time. Oh, that's right. They're slow so never mind." I think if they moved 30 they would be played more. Perhaps not a lot more, but you'd see more halfling PCs.
 


D&D loves to punish Small people for that sweet, sweet verisimilitude.
Being small is mostly (a mild) disadvantage in 5e. Which is fine, but I don't think balancing of the species rules takes this into account.

So give them something extra! Perhaps something that further reflects their small size verisimilitudously! For example +1 to AC and/or dex save because they're harder to hit due being a small target.

What I don't want is all the species rules to become homogenised non-representative mush because the unimagine designers cannot think other ways to balance things than making everyone the same.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Most of why I never saw halflings played was their speed. I heard a lot of, "Hmm. Maybe I'll play a halfling this time. Oh, that's right. They're slow so never mind." I think if they moved 30 they would be played more. Perhaps not a lot more, but you'd see more halfling PCs.

One thing I missed was the halfling's natural bonus to jumping. I felt it made a bit of sense that they couldn't move those pudgy legs fast but they were packed with more muscle which let them jump and climb better. A 10th level halfling fighter would be jumping around in combat like Yoda.

Part of me wishes every small race had a little bonus with explained how they adapted or were blessed to survive.
Halflings wouldbe springy and clingy. Gnomes would get illusions. Goblins would be faster that youd expect..
 







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