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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Horwath

Hero
Arbitrary weapon damage, no reason to make short peoples' weapon suck.
one good thing about 3.0 was weapon size category.

Medium creature needed one hand for medium weapons, two hands for large weapons and could dual wield small weapons for less penalties.

for small and large races, you just slide the table one step up or down.
 

one good thing about 3.0 was weapon size category.

Medium creature needed one hand for medium weapons, two hands for large weapons and could dual wield small weapons for less penalties.

for small and large races, you just slide the table one step up or down.
Or you could go with the idea that whatever acrobatics or whatever else the small race needs to do to be effective with the weapon, is the stuff they are trained to do.

Halflings using swords and shields in combat don't have to fight the same way medium creatures fight with swords and shields.
 


Reynard

Legend
one good thing about 3.0 was weapon size category.

Medium creature needed one hand for medium weapons, two hands for large weapons and could dual wield small weapons for less penalties.

for small and large races, you just slide the table one step up or down.

Or you could go with the idea that whatever acrobatics or whatever else the small race needs to do to be effective with the weapon, is the stuff they are trained to do.

Halflings using swords and shields in combat don't have to fight the same way medium creatures fight with swords and shields.

These comments hint at the place of legacy "simulation" elements that some players want and others don't. While the size and strength of halflings (and other small races) was never really "realistic" (they are about the size of a 4 year old human child) some nods were made toward preserving suspension of disbelief. One consequence of tons of "weird" races and the general community embrace of Rule of Cool is that it is harder to try and even a material culture for differently sized or shaped species. I mean, can the minotaur or centaur PC go into the tavern with the rest of the party?
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
If i were to describe how i see halflings it would probably be ‘unobtrusive and sociable’ they’re friendly folk who are easy to get along with and don’t typically make a nuisance of themselves, so other species don’t mind having them around, They don’t have grand ambitions and those that do still seem to carry a sense of having humble goals, there’s few if any halfling cities or empires but there’ll be halflings in near every city and empire, offerings their skills and talents in exchange for the safety of the larger and stronger species’ city’s defences, oh and maybe you might sometimes find a halfling village nestled away from the rest of the world in the woods or the hills but it’ll be a smaller settlement, you’ll be welcomed in offered a delicious hot meal and a warm bed in exchange for news and stories of what’s happening outside before giving you directions to your destination and wishing you good fortune on your travels when you set out again
 

These comments hint at the place of legacy "simulation" elements that some players want and others don't. While the size and strength of halflings (and other small races) was never really "realistic" (they are about the size of a 4 year old human child) some nods were made toward preserving suspension of disbelief. One consequence of tons of "weird" races and the general community embrace of Rule of Cool is that it is harder to try and even a material culture for differently sized or shaped species. I mean, can the minotaur or centaur PC go into the tavern with the rest of the party?
My general take on "realism" with respect to made-up fantasy races is that the rules say what they are able to do and there are no actual real world references from which to make conclusions with respect to their physical capabilities and/or limitations.

So our only clues to what their physiology should "realistically" allow are those rules. Maybe their muscles and bones are laced with adamantine, or magic, or whatever. If the rules say they can do it, they can. They are not just little humans. There is no merit in just extrapolating humans downward and calling it "realism".

As it relates to worldbuilding, how you incorporate fantasy races is certainly a matter of taste. But I would expect that if a business expects to make money from a variety of creatures with a variety of ergonomic needs, then they would either make efforts to accommodate those needs or not and either they would not get business from the creatures whose needs are not met, or those creatures would be uncomfortable.

The wider the disparity of needs a place elects to accommodate, the more exotic that place might seem to the players, since they are not traditionally going to taverns where other patrons may see in the dark, climb, fly, or just be significantly larger or smaller than they are. This, again, is neither pro nor con with respect to "realism".

Can the centaur or minotaur pc go into the tavern with the party..maybe, maybe not, depends on how much money the tavernkeeper might expect to make off of large hooved creatures..ymmv.

The fantasy world is not Earth. The rules are different. There is no singular answer.
 

Reynard

Legend
My general take on "realism" with respect to made-up fantasy races is that the rules say what they are able to do and there are no actual real world references from which to make conclusions with respect to their physical capabilities and/or limitations.
Sure, but not only are the rules just made up, they change between editions. hence the legacy part. Even if WotC eliminates Strength penalties for halflings (just as an example), doesn't mean a GM would be in the wrong to reintroduce them in 5E for "realism" reasons -- especially given they have always been there in some form or another. It's possible it is a bad idea from a game balance cascade standpoint, but not from a those one.
 

grimslade

Krampus ate my d20s
I have played halfling characters in every edition back starting with basic. When I started, I was much younger and smaller than the people I played with, so the draw to halfling was natural. I loved Tolkien and all fairy tales. Halflings filled that niche. So I have a very soft spot for halflings.
That said, halflings are small humans with specific perks in 5E. The move away from racial stats and towards custom lineages really begins to blur the lines between races mechanically. All the races are humans in different hats because we are all humans playing them. If we are players, we don't have the agency to define what halflings are in the world. Halflings are defined in FR, GH, Eberron, and Dragonlance, so it comes down to DMs who build their own settings. What is the story for halflings in your world?
Like I said I love halflings but in my homebrew, I partially stole the origin story for 4E gnomes. Halflings are from the feywild. They can not escape their cruel masters, so they try to build a better life for their children by swapping them with other races' children in the prime. Halflings are changelings. They grow up in their 'adoptive' family's communities, but they still have a touch of fey luck about them. So halflings have a stigma about them, but can be found everywhere.
 

bulletmeat

Adventurer
I don't remember if it was by the book or how we played them but I loved the halflings in the scarred lands. They were slaves that sought revenge against the giant masters that abused them, creating a league of assassin's that could hide and strike unseen.
That and Dark Sun halflings were great as well. It's one thing if a kender steals your purse, but it's another thing if a halfling from Athas steals your toe or finger or forearm. :)

And besides cleric, my favorite b/x class is the halfling. It was easier to get swallowed and stab from the inside out.
 

Sure, but not only are the rules just made up, they change between editions. hence the legacy part. Even if WotC eliminates Strength penalties for halflings (just as an example), doesn't mean a GM would be in the wrong to reintroduce them in 5E for "realism" reasons -- especially given they have always been there in some form or another. It's possible it is a bad idea from a game balance cascade standpoint, but not from a those one.
As long as that gm understands that their "realism" justification is actually just personal preference with delusions of grandeur, sure.

Edit: I mean, even here on earth, body size is not a reliable indicator of strength. Look up anyone who has gotten attacked by a chimp. It's not pretty.
 

ehren37

Legend
one good thing about 3.0 was weapon size category.

Medium creature needed one hand for medium weapons, two hands for large weapons and could dual wield small weapons for less penalties.

for small and large races, you just slide the table one step up or down.
No, no it wasn't. It just meant that the loot you got from an adventure was even more likely to not be what you needed.

3E sadly tricked an entire generation of gamers into thinking "more rules = more real" and more "real = more better". It wasnt. From the spreadsheet to manage the 75 different types of bonuses to sucking over an hour of my life to adjudicate a single high level disjunction spell in the middle of combat, 3E can die in a fire forever.

HP are abstract anyways, and the game should be set so that the two main sizes of characters played, small and medium, are basically interchangeable.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I don't remember if it was by the book or how we played them but I loved the halflings in the scarred lands. They were slaves that sought revenge against the giant masters that abused them, creating a league of assassin's that could hide and strike unseen.
I don’t know about the league of assassins part, but it’s definitely by the book that Scarred Lands halflings were formerly enslaved by the larger races. I love that take, and it’s a big inspiration behind my take on halflings.

Do halflings really live alongside other races and lack communities of their own larger than little farming villages because they’re a quaint, friendly folk who inherently lack ambition towards empire-building? Or is that just the narrative the dominant culture tells themselves to justify a state of affairs where the legacy of halfling slavery has denied them the opportunities other races have had?
 

Reynard

Legend
As long as that gm understands that their "realism" justification is actually just personal preference with delusions of grandeur, sure.

Edit: I mean, even here on earth, body size is not a reliable indicator of strength. Look up anyone who has gotten attacked by a chimp. It's not pretty.
Emphasis mine.

This thing here? It is getting really freaking old around here.
 

bulletmeat

Adventurer
No, no it wasn't. It just meant that the loot you got from an adventure was even more likely to not be what you needed.

3E sadly tricked an entire generation of gamers into thinking "more rules = more real" and more "real = more better". It wasnt. From the spreadsheet to manage the 75 different types of bonuses to sucking over an hour of my life to adjudicate a single high level disjunction spell in the middle of combat, 3E can die in a fire forever.

HP are abstract anyways, and the game should be set so that the two main sizes of characters played, small and medium, are basically interchangeable.

Though I don't know about 3e burning in a fire, I do agree that weapon size was more of a problem than a solution. In 2e we did a 40% roll on found items if we had a halfling or gnome in the party; under meant it was for the small folk.
 



bulletmeat

Adventurer
Do halflings really live alongside other races and lack communities of their own larger than little farming villages because they’re a quaint, friendly folk who inherently lack ambition towards empire-building? Or is that just the narrative the dominant culture tells themselves to justify a state of affairs where the legacy of halfling slavery has denied them the opportunities other races have had?
For SL we had the farming folk as a front for the league. They were Assassin's Creed 3-4 years before the game came out. Frodo Stabbins w/out a doubt.
 

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