First They Must Catch Us: Reconcepting Halflings

The fire crackled, sat in the centre of the group. Four sets of boots, three large, one small, glimmered orange as the campfire’s light licked over them in pinions of orange and gold, contrasting with the deep dark of the woods, and the deep, suffusing blue of the glass-dusted sky.

“So the story goes, the story goes,” the creaky-voiced half-elf said. “Shipwrecked, they say. A crew of fifty survivors, and food enough for twenty five. They drew lots, and half the number accepted their end – casting themselves from the rocks to save the survivors the cost of them.”

“We have a story like it.” The orc said. “The strongest half went into the jungle, without any supplies, to show they were strong, and to give the weaker half the best chance to survive.”

The human pushed a stick into the fire, and shook her head. “Grim stories.”

“Stupid stories.” The fourth said. They sat forwards, their hands waving animatedly. “I don’t know about the folk of yours, but for us? We’d all find a way to do with half as much.”

“You can say that,” the half-elf started.

“Yeah. I can. And then I live it. We live it.” The Halfling gave a grim smile. “We are the ones who always survive.

Once again, we’re here to talk about the world of my D&D games, Cobrin’Seil, and what choices I made in talking about the way the world players experience exists. In the past we’ve discussed gods and nations, knightly orders, and the presences of things like orcs and elves, and even how things are named. This time, we’re going to talk about a heritage I was seriously considering ejecting wholesale, and how now, I’m not: The Halflings.

Glossary Note: Conventionally, the term used in D&D for this mechanical package is race. This is the typical term, and in most conversations about this game system, the term you’re going to wind up using is race. For backwards compatibility and searchability, I am including this passage here. The term I use for this player option is heritage.

Once upon a time, I took a standard that was ‘everything you want has a place.’ If a player wanted something from another setting book, even if that thing made some weird radical changes to the cosmology to make it work, I said, it worked, and things like the Weave, Spellfire, Planar Cosmology and eventually stuff like Dragonmarks were all the result of a steadily increasing chain of ‘but what’s really true,’ like I was opening ever tinier doorways in a series of hallways, pretending that the world made sense and I wasn’t justifying player decisions post-fact.

When I reapproached my setting a few years ago, I really disliked the way this had led to redundancy and a bunch of unnecessary stuff I didn’t really like, but served to justify mechanical components I wanted around. The result was to strip setting information out of a lot of components, which made things kinda more boring and generic feeling, in hindsight. My most recent revisions included a more stern look at the cultures and a decision that if I didn’t like what a culture said about my world, I should just get rid of them.

So, no Drow, at least not as they were out of the box. No ‘Dwiggers.’ No necessary need for the Underdark as it was represented in the books that have a ‘proper’ Underdark. And then I started to get aggressive on hucking things out the window. What use do I have of gnomes? I kept them around because whisper gnomes were stupidly overpowered in 3rd edition. What about halflings? Never liked halfling, don’t like Tolkein, fuck his hobbits, but the strongheart halfling of Faerun was absolutely ridiculous, so we had to include them.

See, halflings live in a space of heritage design that bugs me because they fail to answer the question ‘why is this not just humans?‘ Humans exist. Short humans exist. We have seen entire cities and civilisations built around the needs and demands of short humans. The idea that ‘human, but short’ is an entire cultural barrier bothers me. And yes, the halfling are really short – but there are really short humans! And what’s more, those really short humans should exist as types of human. The idea there’s a hard species line between ‘human’ and ‘short human’ is part of the problem with dwarves (and we’ll get to dwarves).

There’s also a question in my worldbuilding, where I want to know, as far as the feeling and style of a culture, if they are meant to be an entirely natural outcome of material process, something that’s the result of some alteration of a material culture, or an entirely magical thing, something where natural processes and problems don’t quite work for them any more. You may have heard of me describe this as whether or not a culture is made of meat. Orcs, for example, in Cobrin’Seil, are made of meat. So are humans. They are both cultures that exist because they evolved out of progenitor species, and the orc and human strands are in fact cousin cultures – a long time back, they separated, and entirely natural processes made them similar but different player-option heritages. Eladrin, by comparison, are made of magic, which is to say, they exist because the feywild supports and maintains them. That kind of elf is a little bit magical, and fundamental to the way they relate to the world is the fact they are magical.

The question then becomes: if halflings are in this world, why are they in this world? Where did they come from, and why are they not, again, just humans?

In my recent decision to overhaul the world, and give a meaningful reflection on why the world of Cobrin’Seil is the way it is, I opined in public that the dwarf, gnome, and halflings just didn’t do anything I found interesting enough to keep, and was gunna junk them wholesale from the setting. And someone chimed in to express – very simply – some modest, and very reasonable – dismay at my dismissal of the halflings.

That person was Kelly Digges, the worldbuilder who was behind the world design of the Magic: The Gathering set Dominaria, which was about reconstructing an entire world out of a number of exploded bibles.

So we had a chat.

The idea that Kelly brought to my attention here, which is the hook that shifted me from Halfling Hater to Begrudging Halfling Apologist is the idea that halflings are a heritage that in conventional D&D rules are the only ones who exist in a world that wasn’t built for them. Every other culture has their own cities, their own states, their own empires, but halflings don’t. Halflings have, at best, towns. They have caravans and trade ships, but those things are comparable to large businesses rather than things like say, dwarven strongholds and empires.

Some of this is just a byproduct of how halflings have been treated throughout the history of the game. I’m sure some worlds have ‘halfling empires’ and some worlds have experimented with the idea of dangerous halflings. Like there’s the Talenta Halflings from Eberron, who ride around on dinosaurs and live in the harsh climate of a desert. Those are neat, but they are kind of niche, and they don’t address any of my problems with halflings.

This is a bit of a false dichotomy though: Because if I have a good reason to want halflings, I’ll be able to come up with a justification for them. Not wanting halflings and not seeing any reason to keep them neatly shuts off the question of whether or not halflings are interesting. When halflings become interesting, then that’s all it takes to start asking the questions that get us to ‘what are halflings in this world for.’

I have sympathy for the question of ‘how do you interact with a world that wasn’t made for you.’ That’s a very relatable experience for a lot of neurodivergent and disabled people. A lot of our world isn’t built for wheels or one leg or one hand. And rather than build the world around an entire heritage of neuroatypical characters who make other people deal with their neuroatypicality – like kender – the halfling instead lets the player think about how it must feel to be that exhausted and that constantly marginalised. It’s a fantastic experience of that kind of cultural gap without racialising it, or necessarily making it about treating halflings like they have a disability. They’re just differently shaped.

That’s interesting! That’s an interesting reason to want them in the world and to give them a place and to maintain that odd way that the halflings lack empires or strongholds or artifacts. If they have an entire culture that’s sized to them, then why wouldn’t they just stay there, associate with the world that is in scale to them.

Okay, so halflings are in. What’s that going to entail. Real quick, time to make a list and look at things about the halfling I want to keep.

  • Minimal mechanical munging. The halfling is a heritage with a decently large amount of support. It was in the player’s handbook and the heritage power is really good, so, I don’t want to have to give it a flavour that changes the mechanics overmuch, or even requires me to write more feats.
  • I want their size to be meaningful to their relationship to other cultures. A halfling can probably build a lock half the size of a human not because they’re magically gifted at it but for the entirely pragmatic reason that they half hands half the size and can work twice as close to the mechanism.
  • I don’t want them to be Made of Magic. That’s a big problem, though because they’re so very similar to humans in almost all ways and then very pointedly not similar to humans, which is the kind of stuff that seems to work against being Made of Meat.
  • This obviously pushes us towards our third category, where they’re Made By Hand. That’s a category for your ‘a culture that was meat or magic based that somehow was changed by a cultural event.’
  • The idea of a ‘world not created for you.’ No halfling empires, maybe not even halfling cities. There’s some reason halflings are around and exist and haven’t gone and reshaped the world to their needs as per their immediate needs.
  • The name. Renaming Halflings looks fraught, with all the possible different slurs or loaded racialised terms for a group of caravan-riding people renowned for their industrious ability with lockpicking. Plus, no name is going to have the same cachet. If I’m keeping the size, and probably keeping the appearance, and keeping the general style, changing the name has the same energy as White Wolf games trying to rename ‘party’ in every version of Exalted.

That gives us some direction. Halfling, as a name is a great tool for pointing us in the direction that I wound up going: A Halfling implies that there is a whole-ling. If that’s the halfling’s term for a halfling, then that’s a term which implies they know there was a whole status, or something twice the scale of them. If it’s not – if halflings don’t call themselves halflings – then that’s kinda a slur, and I don’t want that.

That means ‘halfling’ has to be a halfling term. That means that halflings have to have some reason to regard themselves as literally in reference to a whole, which coincidentally, is about the size of a human.

And that gives us what we need.

The halflings of Cobrin’Seil were humans, once. The story varies from telling to telling, but there’s a few consistent details. The idea is that at one point, a population were isolated and deprived of resources, and presented with a future where half of them would die, due to that lack of resources. They had half as much food, half as much space, half as much water as they needed.

The people then gathered together and began to discuss plans for this. After all, there are some ways this kind of situation can get really grim and starts doing things like mass executions or whatnot. There are a lot of things you can do in this situation, depending on your values, on what you think works and makes sense. These people, these humans, were confronted with the potential end of half of their lives and instead, they resolved to find a way to live with half of what they had.

The story’s not clear on what was involved. Some say faeries, some say alchemy, some say some kind of great ritual pact, and some say the caprice of a god. Numerous gods claim it was a god, and that seems reasonable until you remember the #1 job of any god is maintaining good publicity for themselves, a god. Common retellings of the story say that a god of the rabbits heard them, or that the moon heard them, and, impressed with their unwillingness to simply end, granted their wish.

Whatever the method, the result was easy enough to explain: One day after committing to this decision, the Halflings woke up, half the size they were. Some thought this was a temporary change; some thought it was a change for just their generation as they found a way to survive. It was deeper than that though – now a halfling was a halfling, and a human (‘a doubling’) was a human.

Halflings were made out of humans – a culture that was ‘made by hand.’

What changes for players who want to play halflings in Cobrin’Seil versus playing them in ‘default’ D&D?

The first big note is: Mostly nothing. No new name, no major lore events, no ancient empire, no content change. Any builds you liked that were halflings should behave entirely the same.

What might shift though is a feeling of pride. The halfling as presented in default D&D was generally a bucolic permutation of the hobbit. They like home and family and food and pipeweed and then maybe you can tack on some elements of nature. That’s not bad or nothing but it is a bit like you filled in the sheet in the last minute and copied off the kid next to you’s homework. The halfling presented like this doesn’t have a cultural identity as much as they have the default position of ‘I like the things I like.’

Now, however, halflings – regardless of where they’re from since the great change – are the culture who know, in their heart of hearts, that they’re the ones who will find a way to survive. They’ll push harder, they’ll go without, they’ll make a solution that breaks just to make a better solution that breaks later, and they’ll walk over bodies and walk through fire if it gets them out. If they survive.

Part of the inspiration here was the book Watership Down, which I know I’ve written about. Halflings live in a world that is dangerous to them, hazardous in the extreme and which they have explicitly made more dangerous by a choice in the past. And they are the ones who face a world that is saying I will kill you. The halfling stands in the face of this and responds if you catch me.