RPG Rants: Evolution of the D&D Halfling
Dungeons & Dragons has almost always been in a precarious spot when it comes to the balance between being a generic fantasy adventure game and possessing valuable intellectual property of its own. There are plenty of hits out there, such as the beholder and mind flayer which were deemed so valuable to D&D that they weren’t made open content with the rest of 3rd edition. There are also plenty of misses out there, such as the acid-farting flumph which has been largely ignored before suddenly (and arguably inexplicably) being included in the core Monster Manual for 5th edition. But there’s one race that has neither been a resounding success nor a colossal failure, instead doomed to get reinvented every few years as designers try to find a marketable niche for them. That is, of course, the D&D halfling.
Okay…also the gnome. But fuck gnomes.
The halfling began as Tolkien-esque hobbits. Literally, the original D&D boxed set called them hobbits. Said boxed set also had ents and balrogs in it. Tolkien’s estate had some issues with the use of those names, forcing a change to halflings, treants, and balors. Personally, I think the fact that the using the names was taboo but keeping the descriptions the exact same was just fine is kind of asinine, but I can spend multiple other blog posts complaining about the intellectual property idiocy that goes on in the American legal system. This is about hobbits halflings.
Despite the name change, halflings were pretty much straight out of Tolkien – they were small, plump, and had hairy feet. They generally didn’t like excitement, and those who did pursue a life of adventure were considered oddities or madmen. These hobbits made poor fighters (originally limited to 4th level) but made excellent thieves, which was an obvious nod to everybody’s favorite burrahobbit, Bilbo Baggins.
1st edition AD&D provided two variants on the halfling: the stout and the tallfellow. Stouts were more akin to dwarves, while tallfellows were taller than normal halflings (nearly four feet high!) and tended to associate with elves.
Enter the Kender
2nd edition AD&D brought about an explosion of campaign settings, meaning that there were also dozens of different iterations on halflings. Many of these different versions tended to keep the same general feel for the race, adding only superficial differences. There were a few notable exceptions, though. Birthright halflings had ties to the Shadow World and had fled something truly terrifying that existed in that plane. Dark Sun halflings were cannibalistic barbarians. And then there was kender…
The Dragonlance setting is notable in that it was a story first and a campaign setting second. That means the setting by and large defaulted not to game mechanic necessities but rather to dramatic needs. Rather than incorporate halflings into the setting, the creators chose to add a character named Tasslehoff who was a kender. Kender are basically halflings, but tend to have a terrible attention span and no sense of personal property. The books thus led to a lot of funny little scenes where Tasslehoff would accidentally steal somebody’s valuables and then respond with bewilderment when caught because he didn’t understand why people cared so much about their things.
In a book series, a kender character or two can work well as comic relief, even though the existence of an entire race that interacts with other species but shows no ability to learn that there is this thing called theft doesn’t hold up well to close scrutiny. In a cooperative RPG played by tens of thousands, however, an entire race of people who constantly steal your hard-earned items tends to get really annoying. As a result, uttering the word “kender” to a group of D&D players familiar with the race will often lead to threats of bodily harm. Heck, when 5th edition added kender to the playtest as an optional race, a number of people threatened to drop the game entirely due to such an inclusion.
Kender did get notice from TSR/Wizards of the Coast, though. They were part of a book series that routinely landed on best seller lists, and they filled the halfling niche while being different from Tolkien hobbits (aka halflings that Wizards of the Cost did not own). This got noticed when the game went through a major revision with 3rd edition.
3rd Edition Halflings
3rd edition made some sweeping changes to D&D as a whole, and halflings got caught up in that. They lost their paunch and put on boots, transforming from traditional Tolkien hobbits to small, normally-proportioned creatures that just happened to be about three feet tall.
Taking away the Tolkienesque features of halflings necessitated a change in their racial personality as well. While a sliver of their preference for peace and quiet remained, they got a heaping dose of kender attributes as well. They became a more nomadic race that was more at home as thieves and burglars and less inclined to shake their heads in disappointment at family members who chose to become adventurers. At the same time, they didn’t go full-on kender, lacking that race’s tendency to steal everything and then claim ignorance. Apparently, the designers of 3rd edition decided it would be best not to make every D&D player out there hate halflings.
The biggest problem with the 3rd edition take was that halflings lost a lot of what made them distinctive. There were plenty of short, nimble races out there, and they tended to have a better overall identity than halflings (even fucking gnomes could hang their hat on their illusions and ability to talk with burrowing mammals). And by adding some kender features but not all of them, the race sort of got caught in the indifference zone where nobody hated them but nobody really thought, “This is cool! I want to play a halfling!” On the bright side, stouts and tallfellows remained, even though stouts got their name changed to deep halflings.
Overall, the 3rd edition halfling was just kind of meh. It didn’t stand out in a bad way, but it didn’t seem to have much of a niche in the larger D&D milieu, either.
The 4th Edition Riverfolk
4th edition was a very ambitious version of D&D that created a lot of controversy as a result. Many old standards of the game got major changes, and halflings were no exception.
The first thing that got changed about halflings was their size. According to one of the promo books that came out prior to the game’s release (yes, Wizards of the Coast effectively sold ads for the new edition to their customers), one of the designers took issue with the size of halflings because his toddler was three feet tall and it didn’t seem realistic that somebody of that height could fight giants and monsters effectively.
Personally, that line of thinking makes no sense to me. First of all, toddlers have a lack of refined motor skills and undeveloped muscles that represent their biggest barriers to doing complex physical tasks. You want to see what a three-foot tall person is really capable of? Find somebody with an extreme case of dwarfism and learn that the array of things that person is capable of is really quite vast. Secondly, if you’re trying to apply realism to a scenario where a three-foot tall person fights a 20-foot tall giant, you need to start with the fact that said giant should not be physically capable of standing, let along walking around and fighting. Thirdly, the whole reason they’re called halflings is that they’re half as tall as men.
Regardless, the size of halflings was increased to four feet tall. So now they were half as tall as ogres – I guess ogres gave them their racial name? And apparently a four-foot tall person slaying a dragon is much more realistic than a three-foot tall person doing the same thing.
4th edition also tried to give each race a geographical niche. Humans got plains, elves got forests, dwarves got mountains, and so on. Previously, halflings were pastoral farmer folk, but with humans occupying that niche they had to be moved. They wound up getting shifted to swamps and rivers.
As with 3rd edition, these halflings also got a makeover to move them further away from their Tolkienesque roots. Their hair now naturally curled in a way that basically gave the natural dreadlocks. That combined with their new niche as riverfolk definitely made them different from their predecessors. But for whatever reason, this new halfling didn’t last very long.
The Little Big-Heads
4th edition had a lot of bright spots, but it was controversial enough to be deemed a failure by Wizards of the Coast (or, more accurately, their Hasbro masters). 5th edition came along and basically wiped the slate clean, keeping a few elements of the last edition but largely pretending that 4th edition had never happened.
With so many things in the new edition going back to the way they were in the olden days, you would think that halflings might go back to being furry-footed hobbits. And they did…sort of.
Modern D&D halflings have a lot of familiar elements to them – they’re back to their three-foot height, they love food, and they generally fade into the background with the exception of a few bold adventurers. But their look has changed yet again, and quite honestly it takes a dive into that little place called Uncanny Valley.
Uncanny Valley is that place where something looks familiar and humanoid but is just different enough to be disturbing or frightening. An otherwise normal person with solid black eyes or a human who moves in a jerky way like the girl from The Ring are just a couple of basic examples. On their own, the new halfling look doesn’t seem disturbing. But when you put them in the bigger picture, it creeps me out.
Halflings are now small people with giant-sized heads and tiny feet and hands. They look very much like characters you might expect to see in an animated movie. And that’s fine.
Unfortunately, they’re also put into a world where nobody else looks anything like that.
Basically, modern D&D halflings look like Pixar characters, but they’re running around in a world where every other race is normally proportioned. This is like watching an episode of Archer, but one of the characters is Charlie Brown – not Charlie Brown done in the style of Archer, but actually Charlie Brown, with the little curly-cue forelock and the head that looks about twice the size of his body.
A part of me kinda likes the new halfling, because I like that art style. The part of me that things way too much about verisimilitude in my elf-games, though, finds these giant-headed monstrosities to be a little creepy.
Basically, the visual look of 5th edition halflings is best enjoyed by somebody who doesn’t spend 1,800 words going over the minutiae of D&D history like I just did.
If you’re playing 5th edition but hate the halfling art, look on the bright side – the race will probably change again once 6th edition hits the shelves, because I don’t think Wizards of the Coast has quite found the sweet spot between a race that hearkens back to Tolkien’s hobbits while still remaining distinct and popular enough to become valuable intellectual property.