Monday, September 5, 2011

Halflings of Another Color

The word halfling is an old Scots English word for "one not fully grown; a stripling" according to the OED.  Tolkien eventually picked it up as the Common Speech word for a hobbit on this basis: to indicate one who is roughly half the size of adult humans.    But the word has other uses in Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara and Jack Vance's Lyonesse novels (and perhaps other fantasy literature as well), and could name creatures who were half one thing and half something else just as well as it does creatures who are are half-sized.  Today's Mythopoeic Rambling will be dedicated to exploring alternative ideas for developing a halfling race.

Beyond Classical Halflings
Let me start by saying I love Tolkien's hobbits.  While I don't encourage their derivative use in  fiction unless it is fan-fiction, I definitely understand the desire to play one of them in a fantasy game with a Tolkienesque setting -- in which case they shouldn't be, say, the strike force of the Thieves' Guild, wielding repeating crossbows whose bolts are coated with deadly poison  (I wish I was making this up just as a random example). To put the same point differently, Tolkien's hobbits don't work in every setting, so I have been thinking about ways to keep the halfling game race across settings.  I have two ideas.  The first continues to center on the idea of size (pygmies) and the second picks up the idea that they are the bearers of a dual heritage (human descendants of fae).

Real world pygmies are indigenous peoples in  various areas of the world -- most famously Central Africa* but also in other regions of Oceania, Southeast Asia, and South America.  Both the real world tribes themselves and the  ways they entered into the folklore of other peoples are rich sources of inspiration for a developing a distinctive halfling race that will fit fantasy worlds that are different from Middle Earth.  For myself, I will undertake a reading of anthropological literatureand supplement it with material from Greco-Roman mythology and African folklore to produce a race that is proudly African and heroic in flavor.  For example, the war with the cranes (or better, one of D&D's crane-like monsters) could be central to pygmy culture and history.  This is the direction I was planning initially for the halflings in the World of Ygg setting.  Now to turn away from size and toward the biracial.

Fey Halflings
Fairy tales and folklore are full of dalliances between humans and the denizens of faerie.  Classic forms of D&D have a number of fey creatures in addition to elves as a PC race.  And if you are playing a game with only the four classic races (and not the races added by Advanced D&D and its descendants), halflings provide a slot that will take the place of races added later and have flavor that works well for half-humans with fey blood.  Halflings' ability to disappear in wooded areas reflect well the flavor of a fey heritage, and the diminutive size of many of these creatures in their natural state would explain halfling size.  
While I imagine the appearance of this fey-blooded race to vary greatly, they may vary in size, too -- I suggest two physical types for halflings, to represent the variety of potential fey parentage: small halflings for those in whom the heritage of small and beautiful faeries predominate and medium (up to larger than the average man) for those who derive the majority of their heritage from big or ugly faeries. In essence, this would allow halflings to take the place of the roles of half-elves and half-orcs, that proved so popular in later editions of D&D.   In mechanical terms, what would decide whether one had generated a large or a small halfling would be, above all, strength size (the idea of a standard halfling getting a strength bonus has always stretched believability for me, certainly any modifier over +1).  Higher strength scores would indicate a larger halfling, descended from the more brutish creatures of faerie.  The idea behind this is that the interaction of fey blood with human in the case of the beautiful races has the quirk of producing smaller half-humans, while the larger or uglier fey blood produces a hybrid vigor that gives a game equivalent to half-orcs.  All this while sticking with the core four racial choices.

Elves, Pixies, Sprites, Nixies, Dryads (Gnomes possibly)
Halflings as they are already represented in the standard versions of the rules fit well the flavor of humanoids with fey blood: small, hard-to-catch humanoids who "are difficult to spot, having the ability to seemingly vanish into woods or underbrush" and are also good as hiding in subterranean surroundings (B10).  In games that follow the structure of four PC races, this would

Goblinoids, Trolls (Hags, if they have them in your game)
This is where I begin to question keeping the mechanics of the halfling for larger creatures.  The GM may want to come up with flavorful replacements for the dodging, hiding, and missile accuracy mechanics for the larger halflings, although, with a little thought, there could be reasons why they get the same bonuses other than size (they exude a slippery skin oil, have some subtle, protean ability that doesn't utterly change their appearance but distorts their physical form enough to allow escape, their skin color lends them natural camouflage in certain environments, etc.)  This version of the race could be used to satisfy the desires of players who like the appearance options that half-orcs or even tieflings offer in the  the Advanced form of the game (and its descendant) and.  One thing I can tell right away: using my idea of a racial primary attribute (and accompanying bonus) that I briefly introduced in my card generation method, I would switch the primary attribute for this line of fey halfling from Dexterity to Strength.

The simple solution is to have halflings breed true: they seek out others of mixed heritage, perhaps as a result of feeling rejection or difference from the community of their mother, and settle with like outside of a human or fey community.  Over time, the commerce between humanity and faerie would result in a significant enough population that they would come to be, in practical terms, a virtual race.  Location vis-à-vis populations of different kinds of fey creatures would determine whether a halfling community was predominantly small halflings, larger halflings, or composed of both sizes.

Happy world-building until the next Mythopoeic Monday!

*For one way to help the plight of one pygmy people, the Batwa of Uganda, I recommend the Kellermann Foundation.


  1. If one is part troll, would you keep the -20 int and Common Sense Resistance 10 the original breed has?

  2. Nah, that would be an internet troll. I'm sure we'd have fun killing one, but who would want to play one? I'll stick with the trolls of faerie for PC halflings.

  3. Interestingly enough, I've done very much the same thing with halflings in my setting. I skipped the goblinoid issue, though, because in my setting goblinoids aren't fey.

    One other thing I picked up from one of my DMs is that halflings, as described in the book, are natural sailors. They are small, meaning they need less room on the ship. They are nimble (looking more at the recent versions), making them good at clambering through rigging. And, of course, sailors rarely if ever wore shoes (shoes slip much more easily on wet decks).