Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ode to a Dead Halfling


I was a little sad the other night, when Brick, the party's Halfling, got turned into a Brickcicle by a freezing blast of dragon breath.  It truly was a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time; the player figured the halfling was out of harm's way down a hall, away from the fight, not realizing that dragon breath would travel some 80' down the passage.  It was one of those absurd D&D deaths that underlines the randomness of the game.  The guys that charged the dragon's teeth, banzai style, all made it through.  War is hell.

As the referee, it's important to maintain an impartial demeanor, but that doesn't mean we can't feel bad when something unfortunate happens to the players through poor luck.  In this case, the players just missed identifying the extent of the risk.  But there are truly selfish reasons why I'm going to miss that party halfling.  Consider the following a spirited defense of the class.

Halflings bring two important and complimentary elements to the adventuring party; world class Scouting ability and Durability.  This makes them the ultimate trailblazers.

Let's first look at the importance of scouting.  Most of my favorite moments as a game master are when the party is confronted with a difficult situation, a tough tactical challenge or tricky puzzle, and all the players are forced to lean in a little closer, hovering over the map, planning their way forward through difficult choices.  I can't count how many of those situations emerged directly from the halfling's ability to creep forward, stealthily, and return with valuable information about the disposition of the enemy (it seemed like that happened almost every game).  We've been spoiled, perhaps, by the LOTFP flavor of the halfling, which emphasizes halfling stealth even more than Moldvay's BX rules.

Information is the lifeblood of player planning and strategy; it cannot be overstated how valuable it is to have a competent scout, even though we don't normally view it as an important character role or niche.  Not only is the poor thief abysmal at stealth during the low levels, he is further saddled with poor saving throws and weak hit points, making him a tough choice for risky scouting missions.

Which highlights the other under-appreciated value of those 4' tall crumb-snatching halflings; their amazing saving throws and durability.  Part and parcel of scouting ahead is a willingness to put your character in mortal danger, particularly when you get jumped by something that forces a saving throw.  And nothing brings the game to a halt like haggling over who is going to test some risky dungeon element, like sipping the unidentified potion, seeing if the trap was successfully deactivated, looking at the scroll to see if it was cursed, or "touching that thing and seeing what happens".  The halfling is perfect for those risk-taking instigators in the party.

So this is my selfish confession as a DM; I like halflings in the game, because their scouting prowess gives me frequent opportunities to give the players insider information, and their hardiness emboldens the players to take risks and test more dicey situations during exploration.  Both are powerful net positives and important party roles.

Alas, the halfling love is not universal.  For instance, ACKS has omitted the halfling class.  Here's what Alex had to say on the matter back when ACKS was in development:
Halfings were created by JRR Tolkien specifically as an example of a race that was NOT good at adventuring. That's their whole point in the story; they are the unlikeliest heroes imaginable, the meek, the average, the overlooked. But because the Fellowship of the Ring was the original adventuring party, and it had halflings, every RPG since has riffed on Tolkien and made halflings one of the core adventuring races -- missing the entire point. When a game includes halflings, they are aping the trappings of our fictional sources without understanding their context. Thus I refuse to make halflings a core playable race in ACKS for this reason!!
-Alex, game designer and confessed halfling hater
I'm a big fan of those Autarch products, but clearly, Alex has it all wrong on the utility of the these guys.  It seems like a good time for a new poll.  Be a kind soul and let me know how you feel about the grubby, shoeless, little mugs in the latest poll.

25 comments:

  1. I like Halflings for exactly the reasons you describe, and think that LotFP really puts them in their niche. They also have amazing AC (what with their +1 to their DEX modifier and their bonus to their AC).

    Halflings; you don't see them hiding in the bushes, and if you do, they dodge, and when they fail to dodge, they bounce, and when they don't bounce, their luck tends to save them. Only then do they die.

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  2. I share your love of the Halflings; to compare them directly to Tolkiens Hobbits is a bit wrong I think. They are inspired by him, but just as D&D elves are no Noldor, D&D Halflings are no Hobbits. Very similar, yes, but not really the same thing. Every party needs a slippery little punching bag!

    About their stealth though... did you houserule this? I've been back and forth about it myself, but the LotFP rules specifically state "In the wilderness, Halflings have the uncanny ability to stay hidden...". Do you include dungeons in "wilderness", perhaps?

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    1. Moldvay give the halflings stealth on 4/6 in dungeons, so we've been using 5/6 in the wilderness and 4/6 in the dungeon.

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  3. Before reading your post, I probably would have said "monsters need to eat, too." But your ideas are convincing and, as a result, my respect for the halfling has just increased substantially. I may even have to try playing one again sometime in the future.

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  4. I asked this question on G+ as well - if you concede the role of "durable scout" is important, how would you re-skin the halfling to something less offensive?

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    1. The explorer class in ACKS is a re-skin of the halfling class. They share almost all the main abilities (+1 to missile attacks, 90% chance of hiding in the wilderness, etc). The mid-level abilities seem to mix in a bit of ranger (less chance of getting lost), but otherwise the explorer is almost identical to the B/X halfling.

      Also relevant:

      http://bxblackrazor.blogspot.com/2009/08/how-bilbo-baggins-ruined-everything.html

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    2. Now that the player's companion is out, I'll probably make a GOBLIN class that mixes scouting with durability. Seems like a fair compromise. I don't love the Explorer.

      My players really want to get back to Gothic Greyhawk once we've done enough Black City playtesting for me to feel comfortable with it, and we're going to convert everything to ACKS at that time.

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    3. Holy shit. I've been thinking about making a custom race that boosts thievery value, and goblin is an awesome choice that I had not thought of. If you go this way, please post it!

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  5. Unlike Bard, I selected 'monster need to eat too'. But I have grown more accepting of the little guys of late. I disliked halflings for a long time and mostly because of LotR. But because players have been selecting them to play and I've been constructing my own halfling societies, I've found a place for them. But Tolkien's hobbits need to be fed to the animals.

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  6. Love the little guys and tried to "re-skin" them 2 months ago. For everyone interested in my results:

    http://the-disoriented-ranger.blogspot.de/2012/11/why-not-to-extinguish-halflings-part-1.html

    Works just fine with Tolkien (I hope). Basically they thrive with civilisation, so there is a need for them to protect civilisation, too.

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  7. I love halflings, although I prefer the LotR type, precisely because they are unlikely heroes. I played a halfling wizard last year who was great fun to play.

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  8. Alex makes a good point about the origins of halflings, but I don't think it follows that they shouldn't be included in games; it's not about emulating Tolkien, so what Tolkien did with halflings is more or less irrelevant.

    I like the little fellows myself; my favourite halflings are the ones from WFRP, almost useless in most situations, but designed by space frogs to be resistant to the effects of Chaos.

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  9. Oh, and I'm also fond of the halflings in Creature of Havoc; you don't find out much about them, aside from eating them is the best way to restore your health!

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  10. I love halflings, especially the Dungeon Crawl Classics take on them. For a non-JRRT view of halflings that jibes well with D&D, see A. Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage, which is also listed in Appendix N in the 1e DMG.

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  11. When I do run "standard" fantasy settings, I like Halflings in the quasi-Tolkien flavour: plump, rural, weed-smoking, eating two breakfasts each morning, sneaky but unlikely to adventure.

    But I tend to find Halflings quite Tolkien-specific; while both Elves and Dwarves have a good number of mythical and literary sources to draw on, Halflings have, for the most part, only The Hobbit and LotR.

    Anyhow, I'm in a sword and sorcery mood as of late so I now tend towards Men and Changelings ("Elves") for a more European setting or Men and Lizardmen for a more 'proper' S&S setting rather than have all three D&D races.

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  12. I once ran a character named "Harkana Hobbit-Smasher". She was a bison-riding barbarian from the days when I wanted to run female characters (I was "that guy"). I have mellowed on hob… er, halflings since then.

    The way I plan to reskin them is by appropriating Dennis Sustare's Bunrabs from Swordbearer. They are small bunny-people (with a little bit of bloodhound look to them, too - you need to see the picture to really get it). I'll also incorporate stuff from Bunnies & Burrows, such as the social structure and such, imported to the bipedal, tool-using Bunrabs.

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  13. Congratulations!

    You just got ACKS another sale.

    Halfling pelts DO make nice slippers, though.

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  14. It's always that favorite henchman whose death hurts the worst.

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  15. I've always been a big fan of halflings. I don't take issue at all with the idea of the race as a whole being rustics and homebodies, peace-loving appreciators of creature comforts, but why should that stop us from recognizing the ability of certain individuals to be exceptional? Even with the explicit characterization of hobbits as a people having little temperament for adventure, Tolkien tells us of their inherent toughness and the "slow-kindled courage" of the race. All of this may well be a good justification for making NPC halfling adventurers rarer than human ones, but should it bar them entirely as a choice for PC adventurers? I think not!

    For what it's worth, here's my attempt at revamping the halfling to fit the literary archetype a little better, without totally nerfing it as a class: http://thedragonsflagon.blogspot.com/2012/11/breaking-limits-halflings.html

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  16. Honestly, I feel that ACKS' solution to the durable scout problem was the Dwarven Delver from the Player's Companion. Sneaks better than a thief, d6 HD, and dwarf saves to boot. Personally I don't much mind halflings either way; they were a lot of fun mechanically to play in 3.x, but the flavor doesn't do much for me.

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  17. When Alex of ACKS said the Hobbits were ill-adapted to adventuring, he was missing his own point. In fact, it is explicitly pointed out by Tolkein that Hobbits are stealthy, resilient, and in possession of surprising reserve. Their rarity wasn't a result of ill-adaptation to adventuring, but rather that they were truly rare. Most denizens of Middle Earth had never heard of them, and they all lived in a small region and hid away from the larger folk. They were super rare. But in D&D, they are ubiquitous. DMs everywhere treat them as though they are a major part of the populace of any city or town. That dilutes them.

    I recently read some of the Firefly RPG, and it makes a similar mistake. River Tam of the TV series was unique. The Alliance carved on her brain and created the first psychic in the 'Verse. But in the RPG, she's got her own class archetype!

    I love halflings, just as I love River as a character. But their use should be justified. If you want to play one, you should be prepared to explain exactly how they managed to join the party.

    On a related topic, D&D has always treated elves entirely differently than Tolkien. So much so that they are barely recognizable as the same creatures. If Alex wanted to completely get rid of halflings because they have become too unlike Tolkein's vision, then elves should have been the first to go. In LotR, they are an ageless race of ancient creatures who can only die via accident or attack and for whom disease does not exist. They are so otherworldly than they can choose (seemingly at will) to sail "the straight road" and have their boats lift into the sky and sail to a place that no longer exists in Middle Earth. D&D halflings far more closely match their LotR counterparts than D&D elves match anything similar to Tolkein's vision.

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  18. I have not played (0)D&D often, just once TBH (4ed.) but I did play a lot of 1st ed. WFRP, where Halflings are very dexterous and agile (which helps with trying to be stealthy), making them perfect thieves and scouts. They're good shots too, but weak in melee and quite fragile (lowest Toughness and Wound scores among the playable races).
    I think that Tolkien does in fact cast them as such (scouts) despite their "rather stay home" attitude. I recently reread "the Hobbit" and he actually says (paraphrased): "Some Halflings are quite adventurous and travel to other lands etc.... Tooks are particularly known as being 'adventurous'" it's somewhere in the first chapter. Alex probably missed that part.
    Besides, my guess is that the greater majority of the 'adventuring races' -as great a percentage as among the Hobbits- would rather stay home and have a warm fire and hot meal (just like a Hobbit) rather than going without supplies for three days while being chased by orcs and giant wolves to get to some foreboding place far away to find some or other mcGuffin.

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  19. I've been thinking about this a bit more. Why not just give the +4 save bonus to the thief?

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