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

ehren37

Legend
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.
Chimps are also roughly toddler size and will rip your limbs off.
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?
The centaur can go in, but only if they answer some questions...
 

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Emphasis mine.

This thing here? It is getting really freaking old around here.
There are no real halflings. As such it is objectively untrue that any mechanical change would be either more or less "realistic" except in the mind of that person making it.

I don’t begrudge anyone the choice to make adjustments to things that they don't think fit with their vision. But is it really that wrong to just label that choice what it is, "personal preference"?

Why go through the gymnastics of trying to prove that you are using the most correct make believe?
 
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The Lucky and Nimbleness traits seem to be the big draws.
And +2 Dex.

This is why it always frustrates me when people suggest that halflings are more than gnomes due to anything other a comically good stat line-up.

Gnomes get a +2 Int. Which classes benefit from a +2 Int? Wizards, and as of 2020, artificers.

Who benefits from a +2 Dex? Every character (not class, character) except for Str-based fighters, paladins and clerics.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
My spouse is playing a halfling in a game I'm running, and in another group while we don't have a halfling now, we've had them before and I think we will get one in the next campaign. So no "lack" of halfling in my gaming life, although it has not been as popular as say dwarves or elves.

That being said, I've somewhat recently build a list of every PCs I've played in 30 years of gaming and... no halflings! Gnomes and dwarves sure, but no halflings.

I think the reason is that to me there is a fundamental tension in how they are depicted - halflings are all pastoral peaceful type (ie hobbits), with the sole exception of every PC or NPC the party meets which are sneaky, thieving and sometimes murderous. That has always bothered me.
 



Oh, how I loved the Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium Appendix. So many great, creepy monsters designed to challenge players' expectations, leaving them on uncertain ground (which is one of the best routes to fear in D&D in my experience).

Yep, they were done in 2E Ravenloft.


...And vampire kender too, in Sithicus.

I can say that I've never met someone that played the kind of thief/rogue that routinely stole from the party that miraculously was a good player when not playing a kender or thief/rogue.

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.

Jerk players can just as easily rob the party by playing a human rogue.

Halflings are fine. Play them like they're from the shire or like kender or somewhere in-between. Play them however you want. And if you're really cool, get that hairy feet thing going.

For the entirety of my D&D-playing span, I've never had any trouble with halflings and their place in the world(s). However, I started running DCC RPG some months ago and now I find that they just don't fit as well when you're specifically channeling Lin Carter, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, etc., and trying to avoid Tolkien (I love Tolkien to the point of having a tattoo, but I am doing this so that my campaign feels more evocative of the other parts of Appendix N).

It wasn't until I'd been running my game for months that I played in a Shudder Mountains game run by Brendan LaSalle. He took the DCC RPG Halfling class and just reskinned it as a "Luckiest Sumnab*tch You've Ever Met" (human) class. Had I seen that before starting my own campaign, I absolutely would've borrowed that trick.
 

Chimps are also roughly toddler size and will rip your limbs off.
No, the toddler sized ones won't. This is the common internet misconception caused by thinking what young bonobos look like and what adult male chimpanzee can do. Chimps can get a lot larger than most people think. They're about 1.5 times as strong pound per pound than humans, so stronger than they look for sure, but not nearly at the internet hyperbole levels.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
It's not. As you might remember in this very thread I suggested appropriate bonuses for the small species.
The +1 to AC that ALL Small creatures got in 3x and presumably would in verisimilitude world? On top of the mountain of punishment's already given. That's not much of a bonus and certainly doesn't make up for realisming them to death.
 

Reynard

Legend
I don’t begrudge anyone the choice to make adjustments to things that they don't think fit with their vision. But is it really that wrong to just label that choice what it is, "personal preference"?
This is disingenuous backpedaling. You literally used the term "delusions of grandeur" to describe the "preference" you are now totally fine with. It was rude and elitist and intended to denigrate. Normally I would have just scrolled on by but this is a behavior that is getting more and more normalized on these boards where folks feel free to attack another playstyle -- particularly anything that has even a whiff of "simulation" or "realism." I am not sure when that attitude started, but it rears its ugly head on the regular lately.
 

The +1 to AC that ALL Small creatures got in 3x and presumably would in verisimilitude world? On top of the mountain of punishment's already given. That's not much of a bonus and certainly doesn't make up for realisming them to death.
What mountain of punishment? Some measly weapon restrictions and one square of move less?

You can fiddle with the balance and add things until it seems fair enough, but I want that effort actually be made. Ultimately homogenising everything is the laziest way to balance things. I don't want that. I like halflings, but I don't expect or want them to play exactly the same than humans let alone goliaths. I actually want it to feel that the character being hella small matters!
 

This is disingenuous backpedaling. You literally used the term "delusions of grandeur" to describe the "preference" you are now totally fine with. It was rude and elitist and intended to denigrate. Normally I would have just scrolled on by but this is a behavior that is getting more and more normalized on these boards where folks feel free to attack another playstyle -- particularly anything that has even a whiff of "simulation" or "realism." I am not sure when that attitude started, but it rears its ugly head on the regular lately.
It is neither disingenuous nor backpedaling.

It is a separation of the action (making a mechanical change) from the reason for making the change ("changing a fantasy creature's mechanics will make it more like the real thing").

People can make halflings stronger, weaker, or a sentient potato for all I care. Whatever makes people happy.

The problems with touting that change as "more realistic" to anyone outside themselves are that:

A. It's not true..there is no "real" thing
And
B. They are implying (even if unintentionally) that those who do not adopt that change are failing to achieve the same peak roleplaying fidelity.

It is an action that falsely thinks it is achieving more than it is..i.e. delusion of gradeur.

(Note: this is distinguished from the gm having delusions of grandeur which i do not believe. The gm is making a creative choice. I may not agree with it or the reasons behind it, but my preferences are no more valid than theirs.)
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
What mountain of punishment? Some measly weapon restrictions and one square of move less?
AKA not being able to play certain classes in any way approaching effectively.

People understand how bad garbage weapons are, but I don't think people understand how terrible being slower actually is.
I don't want that. I like halflings, but I don't expect or want them to play exactly the same than humans let alone goliaths. I actually want it to feel that the character being hella small matters!
But why does it have to equal sucking harder and being effectively barred from certain classes?

Why not give them awesome things only they can do instead? That also makes them different. That also makes being small matter. But too many folks seem to feel the only way to do that is a pile of debilitating penalties or tedium.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
delusions of grandeur

Mod Note:
Of course, by making this insulting, you've succeeded in increasing resistance to your point.

If you actually thought this was a constructive way to phrase it, please take this opportunity to rethink your approach. If you didn't think this was constructive, but did it anyway, that's worse - please rethink your approach.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
This is disingenuous backpedaling.

Mod Note:
This is not helping.

Without authority to back it up, confrontation like this isn't effective. It generally turns the discussion into an ego conflict between you, rather than actually resolving any issues.

When you see a problem, please report the post in question, and let moderators handle it. Thanks.
 

But why does it have to equal sucking harder and being effectively barred from certain classes?
They don't suck and are not barred from any classes. The only class they might have a slight difficulty (at least with their fixed ASI version) is barbarian, which unlike every other melee class is built to run solely on strength. This I feel is a flaw in the barbarian class, and should be fixed at that end.

Why not give them awesome things only they can do instead? That also makes them different. That also makes being small matter. But too many folks seem to feel the only way to do that is a pile of debilitating penalties or tedium.
Sure. And they have that. And could have more. But this doesn't mean there cannot be some limitations too. And ultimately what is a penalty and what is just a lack of bonus is in the eye of the beholder. ASIs are bonuses, but a lot of people started to see a lack of ASI as a penalty. And same can happen with features. If some feature is seen as beneficial enough and it is common enough, it will start to seem as an expected default. Darkvision has almost become this.
 

ehren37

Legend
Why is this only ever trotted out when it's time to give something a bunch of penalties and lock them out of options?

Where is this when DM's cry blood over flying species?
It can be multiple things. I'm totally cool with someone using a different ancestry/race mechanics, but am not a fan of how WOTC keeps trying to erase any meaningful intersection between ancestry and shared culture. "Everyone is people and exactly like everyone else" is boring IMO. That's not to say that every elf has to be the same (particularly PC's), but If there's no cultural hook, there's also no playing against type.
 

It can be multiple things. I'm totally cool with someone using a different ancestry/race mechanics, but am not a fan of how WOTC keeps trying to erase any meaningful intersection between ancestry and shared culture. "Everyone is people and exactly like everyone else" is boring IMO. That's not to say that every elf has to be the same (particularly PC's), but If there's no cultural hook, there's also no playing against type.
it is a complex problem of how do we not just make everyone the same but also some of the worst ideas for cultures that are flat offensive?
 

ehren37

Legend
No, the toddler sized ones won't. This is the common internet misconception caused by thinking what young bonobos look like and what adult male chimpanzee can do. Chimps can get a lot larger than most people think. They're about 1.5 times as strong pound per pound than humans, so stronger than they look for sure, but not nearly at the internet hyperbole levels.
The issue is comparing halflings to toddlers/small children (which resulted in that garbage PHB art... seriously, who the hell approved it?).

Even slapping a -2 strength shows they are massively stronger per pound than an adult human, as a same size human child has a strength of about 4 (and an equally terrible dex)
 

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