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

Chaosmancer

Legend
Do you have any idea how many trappings of civilization have been destroyed by druids? How many bear animal companions have been illegally taken into taverns and used in fights? How many time they've changed into a bear and attacked someone in town? How many times some lord or official is damaging nature lawfully and been attacked by druids?

No, and neither do you


Nor do stereotypes. As badly as you want to ignore it, there is a LG rogue stereotype that Indiana Jones is modeled after. I've seen it in other movies, read it in books, etc.

So it's a fact that the most common halfling stereotype matches a popular rogue stereotype and the existence of other popular rogue stereotypes does nothing to change that.


They aren't.

Does it matter. LG is a general behavior, not some perfect following of all laws and rules. A person doesn't have to do everything in a LG manner to be LG.

You can't say "right" and then say that there's a "dissonance." I was saying that the lore matches up just fine, because there's plenty of room for both lores to fit together seamlessly.

Right. There is no bias. The thief was designed to fit both criminals and non-criminals equally.

There is no THE stereotypical rogue. There are several different major rogue stereotypes. One of them is criminal, yes.


Whatever, you are just proving, once again, there is no point in talking to you. You must deny the literal most common stereotype in the game, because to do otherwise might possibly maybe, mean that someone other than you has a point.

The Criminal Rogue who steals things isn't the rogue stereotype. No idea why literally every person making a joke about stock rogues says this, why the class literally used to be called "thieves" and their most iconic abilities involves stabbing someone from behind, stealing, and breaking into treasures chests. It must be a fever dream. Clearly the entire class called "thieves" wasn't built on the concept of criminal behavior.
 

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Lazvon

Explorer
Would you really put Sam, Merry or Pippin as rogues though? Not really what comes to mind. The only rogue really is Bilbo and even that’s a stretch.

It’s not unreasonable to say that there is a pretty big disconnect between the archetypal halflings of Tolkien and the halflings of DnD.

I wouldn’t say Rogues except for that sneak attack that someone else just posted… but then we will start arguing about whether there were vital organs for him to actually attack or not…

Actually also, (been 30-years since I read the books, so maybe this was movie only) they were stealing fireworks successfully… stealing all the food from the farmer for the third time and even “caught” still getting away in the corn field…

Oh yeah, Sam outside the window listening to Gandalf… GM clearly made him recheck his sneak since it had been a while and he rolled a Crit 1 and snapped a twig. Otherwise, sneaky enough to spy on Gandalf for the whole conversation… that heard “nothing other than… everything”.

That said, my point was, seems innate to me and not nearly as “practiced” as a class would indicate. Especially in Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam’s cases.

Lastly yes on watching the movies. Some of the CGI isn’t the best… but man they hold up. Extended release watching in half parts last weekend. Awesome. Got through first third of Two Towers.
 

Hussar

Legend
Yoinking some farmer's mushrooms isn't exactly what most people have in mind when they think of the rogue class, I think. :D

Basically though, the point is fairly well made. The pairing of the rogue class with halflings is a bit of an odd duck. So odd that they rewrote halflings as kender in order to make the race actually fit.
 

Halfling adventurers, who are good at doing rogue things, wind up as rogues. Seems pretty straightforward, you take the job you're good at.

Excessive concern over the 'thematic implications' of one class association like this seems kind of silly given that like 90% (or more) of D&D rules content is spent detailing how to kill other creatures or otherwise ruin their lives.

Edit: response to moderation.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Halfling adventurers, who are good at doing rogue things, wind up as rogues. Seems pretty straightforward, you take the job you're good at.

Excessive concern over the 'thematic implications' of one class association like this seems kind of silly given that like 90% (or more) of D&D rules content is spent detailing how to kill other creatures or otherwise ruin their lives.

Edit: response to moderation.

Again it’s a bit chicken and egg though. Halflings are good rogues because they were designed that way mechanically. They were designed that way because of Tolkien even though pretty much nothing such halflings as a people lends itself to being thieves or rogues.

Like I said that’s why kender are the way they are - the anti-hobbit.

It would be interesting to see race play stats from DnD Beyond post Tasha’s and floating racial stat bumps. Suddenly halflings don’t make the best rogues. I wonder if the change has had any impact.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Again it’s a bit chicken and egg though. Halflings are good rogues because they were designed that way mechanically. They were designed that way because of Tolkien even though pretty much nothing such halflings as a people lends itself to being thieves or rogues.

Like I said that’s why kender are the way they are - the anti-hobbit.

It would be interesting to see race play stats from DnD Beyond post Tasha’s and floating racial stat bumps. Suddenly halflings don’t make the best rogues. I wonder if the change has had any impact.
Probably, yes. Especially now post Mordenkainen's, when more races, like Aasimar have the option to be Small if that suits your concept. I once made a Goblin Cleric, not because of their racials, but because they were the smallest available race- I decided I would solve my mobility issues* by occupying the Fighter's backpack, lol.

*Playing as a healing Cleric, I've found that it can be sometimes hard to get close to an ally to deliver a real healing spell, so I've tried a few options to counter this. The Goblin was fun, but that was my last AL game. I also played an Orc Cleric to take advantage of the fact that "moving closer to an enemy" usually also means "moving closer to a wounded ally", lol.
 

Hussar

Legend
See, that was the point I was making earlier about halflings and to a large degree gnomes. Both are molded around a really specific archetype which does make them somewhat less broadly appealing. Even something like a half-orc works as pretty much any fighter type and not a terrible cleric either. Sure, you don't get that Wis bonus, but, that Strength and Con bonus both work pretty well for a lot of cleric builds. Granted, no one is going to accuse you of optimizing for playing a half-orc bard, but, there are a number of options that they do lean into pretty well. Dragonborn fill kinda the same niche. Again, any fighter type is fine. Clerics work as well. So, even though Dragonborn have pretty much zero lore in 5e, they still get played a lot because they have a pretty broad appeal and especially the fact that they appeal to the most popular classes in the game.

I mean, sure, rogues are still one of the most popular classes in the game. No question there. But, when you combine all the fighter types, suddenly I think you get a much better picture of why halflings struggle to find a place in the game. You've got a race that's tied to a class that is quite popular, fair enough, but, it's still only one class compared to a range of classes (fighter types 4, wizard types 3, clerics (which, let's be fair here, cleric just as a class has a BUNCH of different types) 2 and then rogues 1 class)

Honestly, I think if we want to expand halflings, the best approach would be to make them more broadly appealing to more classes. Sure, dex fighters work, but, that tends to be a more specific build and there's nothing really to suggest halfling over, say, elf which also gets the dex based stuff, plus weapon proficiencies and possibly spells and that speed penalty hurts.

I'm not sure how to fix this to be honest.
 

See, that was the point I was making earlier about halflings and to a large degree gnomes. Both are molded around a really specific archetype which does make them somewhat less broadly appealing. Even something like a half-orc works as pretty much any fighter type and not a terrible cleric either. Sure, you don't get that Wis bonus, but, that Strength and Con bonus both work pretty well for a lot of cleric builds. Granted, no one is going to accuse you of optimizing for playing a half-orc bard, but, there are a number of options that they do lean into pretty well. Dragonborn fill kinda the same niche. Again, any fighter type is fine. Clerics work as well. So, even though Dragonborn have pretty much zero lore in 5e, they still get played a lot because they have a pretty broad appeal and especially the fact that they appeal to the most popular classes in the game.

I mean, sure, rogues are still one of the most popular classes in the game. No question there. But, when you combine all the fighter types, suddenly I think you get a much better picture of why halflings struggle to find a place in the game. You've got a race that's tied to a class that is quite popular, fair enough, but, it's still only one class compared to a range of classes (fighter types 4, wizard types 3, clerics (which, let's be fair here, cleric just as a class has a BUNCH of different types) 2 and then rogues 1 class)

Honestly, I think if we want to expand halflings, the best approach would be to make them more broadly appealing to more classes. Sure, dex fighters work, but, that tends to be a more specific build and there's nothing really to suggest halfling over, say, elf which also gets the dex based stuff, plus weapon proficiencies and possibly spells and that speed penalty hurts.

I'm not sure how to fix this to be honest.
I think at that point we're talking more about mechanics than lore.

I do think halflings could use a it of a bump on that front now that Tasha's has flattened the dex-based playing field, though I don't think elves are really the issue (outside of their lore vampirism). The weapons proficiencies are mostly an irrelevance on a martial class, the charm resistance is equivalent to Bravery with a less common effect. With elves, it mostly comes down to darkvision and Perception proficiency, which are good but not game breaking (imho).

The "problem" post-Tasha's, from a mechanical perspective, is gnomes. They are already small, have darkvision, and Gnome Cunning is waaay stronger than any of the halfling features.

What kind of mechanical bump would do it..not sure, maybe a bonus to mounted combat, maybe an ability to use acrobatics for combat maneuvers, getting under folks' feet. Maybe pack tactics or something similar. Lots of potential flavor that could be translated into mechanics.

I don't think the problem is insurmountable.
 

Hussar

Legend
What kind of mechanical bump would do it..not sure, maybe a bonus to mounted combat, maybe an ability to use acrobatics for combat maneuvers, getting under folks' feet. Maybe pack tactics or something similar. Lots of potential flavor that could be translated into mechanics.

I don't think the problem is insurmountable.
Oh, I actually agree. Surprisingly maybe, but, I do agree. Where I might disagree isn't that the problem is insurmountable, but, rather that I question whether it's worth it. :p

I mean, if we give halflings pack tactics and dark vision, then, well, why not just go all the way and make them kobolds? There really isn't a whole lot of difference between the two at that point.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Oh, I actually agree. Surprisingly maybe, but, I do agree. Where I might disagree isn't that the problem is insurmountable, but, rather that I question whether it's worth it. :p

I mean, if we give halflings pack tactics and dark vision, then, well, why not just go all the way and make them kobolds? There really isn't a whole lot of difference between the two at that point.
Because unfortunately, Pack Tactics was deemed too good, and Kobolds are losing it.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
I think at that point we're talking more about mechanics than lore.

I do think halflings could use a it of a bump on that front now that Tasha's has flattened the dex-based playing field, though I don't think elves are really the issue (outside of their lore vampirism). The weapons proficiencies are mostly an irrelevance on a martial class, the charm resistance is equivalent to Bravery with a less common effect. With elves, it mostly comes down to darkvision and Perception proficiency, which are good but not game breaking (imho).

The "problem" post-Tasha's, from a mechanical perspective, is gnomes. They are already small, have darkvision, and Gnome Cunning is waaay stronger than any of the halfling features.

What kind of mechanical bump would do it..not sure, maybe a bonus to mounted combat, maybe an ability to use acrobatics for combat maneuvers, getting under folks' feet. Maybe pack tactics or something similar. Lots of potential flavor that could be translated into mechanics.

I don't think the problem is insurmountable.

I mean, giving them a skill proficiency seems like the obvious answer. Maybe alongside a tool.
 

Oh, I actually agree. Surprisingly maybe, but, I do agree. Where I might disagree isn't that the problem is insurmountable, but, rather that I question whether it's worth it. :p

I mean, if we give halflings pack tactics and dark vision, then, well, why not just go all the way and make them kobolds? There really isn't a whole lot of difference between the two at that point.
One of the reasons I did not mention darkvision even if it seems like more races have it than not.

As to whether it's worth it, we probably disagree. While I don't share the opinion some folks have around here that there is something fundamentally wrong with the pseudo-hobbit lore that currently exists, I do find it exceptionally and unnecessarily boring, especially considering the mechanics of the bace race.

Sure, a lucky, brave, sociable race can live quietly in isolated pastoral communities, or mixed peacably within other populations and be perfectly cromulent within a D&D setting. It just leaves most of the meat on the bone.

Instead of continuing to pay homage to an IP they can't directly reference, they could devote a little bit of creative energy toward thinking through how a racially lucky, brave, sociable race might live (though that might mean we have to wait a little bit for the next subrace of elf).

Personally I'm partial to politically neutral nomadic city-states that behave like giant circuses moving from nation to nation trading in exotic goods and lore. Mechanically, you throw a couple cool abilities related to acrobatics and/or some of the social skills their way (at some appropriate level of combat applicability) and call it a day.

On the other hand, maybe what we need is yet another race that allows us to explore what other fantasy creatures might share pelvic compatibility with fantasy humans..

Have we done oozes yet?

I don't know man.
 
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Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
I keep saying give them luck points.

Give halflings the lore ability to change luck.

In my Klassico setting, the goddess of luck, Lady Luck, blessed the halfling race "because she thought it was funny" and to pissed of the Fairy Queen by making humaniod leprechauns.

Halflings have a culture of suspersition about luck and can activate luck by being reckless or carefree. Halfling shires don't get attacked or are easy to defend because the conflux of lucky short bastards ensures that no one ever randomly attacks them and when attacked, the halflings either get lucky shots or "their allies show up just in time".

However luck swings back and halfling communities unususll encounter a tradegy every 3 or so generations.

Humans, elves, dwarves keep halfling around because they are litterally walking lucky charms in large numbers. However every 70-100 years, expect a orc horde or aspiring dark lord walking into your county.

Halfling don't have kingdoms and don't belief in nobility because of this. Too many halflings in one place means "Golden Age then Dark Age". There are stories and legend of halfling kingdom that was a heavenly city-state that got absolutely obliterated and lost to history.

The family unit is big enough to pull in luck but small enough to not invite disaster. Halfling shires stay small. Halfling adventurers and travelers is a social defense to keep numbers down. If too many halfling are born, the elders encourage the rowdiest ones to seek wonders or set up new towns. They keep up ties with the nobles of other races to offer a noble a caravan of 100-200 halflings to ensure a good harvest or nice prospecting of resources.

"Oh you setting up mining town? Who be taking care of the towny stuff? You need bakers, brewers, tailors, and cobblers and such. Well we got a bunch of sons and daughters..."
 

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