Wednesday, September 12, 2012

[Article] Halflings

Of all the demi-human races in Dungeons & Dragons, halflings are surely the most undeniably linked to the mythology of Middle Earth. The earliest printings of the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement reference them as hobbits, along with nazgul, balrogs, rangers, and various tribes of orcs, terms which were apparently mostly removed after some legal disagreement with the Tolkien estate. Nonetheless, halflings remained completely recognisable as their former selves; indeed the term itself is drawn from the Lord of the Rings, being a word used by men to describe the "little folk". As presented in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement, halflings are indicated to have "small" (pun intended, no doubt) place in a war game, and are only included for the recreation of "certain battles". In fact, though, they are rather effective troops in that they have the ability to turn invisible in brush or woods, have a movement of 12", and every two shooting count as three on the missile table. Unfortunately, no point value is provided, so players must come to their own agreement as to how and when halflings can be deployed. Most likely Gygax had in mind scenarios recreating the "scouring of the shire" or perhaps the exploits of "Bullroarer Took".

Whatever the facts of their initial inclusion, halflings certainly made the transition to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons as a player character option. However, it is again reinforced there that they have no great place in the game, which is to say that "should any player wish to be one, he will be limited to the fighting-man class" and in any case "cannot progress beyond the fourth level" of ability. On the other hand it is noted that halflings have "magic-resistance equal to dwarves" and "deadly accuracy with missiles", so they are not completely unappealing, for example as henchmen. These limitations were slightly mitigated with the release of the Greyhawk Supplement and the introduction of the thief class, which provided all demi-humans with unlimited advancement potential and the prospect of multi-classing. Furthermore, it included errata to the effect that hobbits got +3 to hit probabilities with slings, translating the earlier Chain Mail advantage into the alternative combat system. Unlike the other demi-humans, halflings do not get a listing in Monsters & Treasure, and are inconsistently referenced in the Swords & Spells supplement, so we are left in the dark as to their original capabilities as "monsters".

However, halflings do get a half page entry in the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, which preserves and elaborates somewhat on the previous details. By contrast with dwarves and elves, halflings are deemed a rare encounter, which tells us a little of their relative expected frequency in a given campaign milieu. Following Strategic Review #6, their alignment is fixed as lawful good, whilst the fourth level of ability continues to be the highest they can achieve as a fighter, though two subraces are introduced whereby advancement to fifth or sixth level is possible for those with very high strength. In keeping with Swords & Spells the halfling movement rate is reduced to 9", no doubt reflecting their size and typical armour type. We also learn there that halflings are very intelligent, but stand only 3'+ in height; the subraces are a bit taller at 3½'+ and 4'+ respectively, though the former is intriguingly implied to be therefore smaller than the average. The "stout" halfling subrace exhibits some dwarvish qualities, including the ability to see in the dark with apparently no drawbacks. All halflings enjoy the equivalent of elvish stealth and can operate together with them in that capacity.

Notably, there is some controversy over how the halfling entry in the Player’s Handbook relates to that in the Monster Manual, especially with regard to their adjustment to hit with missile weapons. Essentially, the question is as to whether the bonus encompasses the dexterity of halflings or not, since the saving throw adjustment versus magic and poison clearly does subsume their constitution. A compromise approach was taken by the Holmes edition of Dungeons & Dragons whereby the bonus was reduced to +1, and this was followed in subsequent iterations of the non-advanced game and the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Confusingly, the latter assigns the bonus to slings and thrown weapons only in the Player’s Handbook, but the Monster Manual indicates that a +3 adjustment applies to attacks made with slings and bows. This confusion is compounded by the Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings and Player’s Option: Skills & Powers, the former indicating that the +1 applies to all missile weapons and the latter again restricting it to thrown weapons and slings. Similarly the second edition of the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual disagree as to whether halfling base movement is 6" or 9", respectively.

During the first campaign in the World of Silver Blade, halflings were a popular choice of race; there were at least three amongst a dozen or so player characters. In part this may have been the continuation of a trend carried over from the non-advanced version of the game, but it is also worth noting that level limits were of little concern, being as if there was any awareness of them at all it was in the context of the less stringent second edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system. Concerning the fates of these halflings, one was unlucky enough to put on a vampiric helmet, and another slain by a powerful demon, but the third did manage to retire as a wealthy burgher. Subsequent Silver Blade campaigns witnessed a pronounced decline of interest in halflings as a player character race, indeed no examples spring to mind. Even widening the net yields only two recollections, the first being from almost two decades ago in a Ravenloft campaign, and the other a more recent addition to the Greyhawk roster. This apparent lack of interest suggests that halflings have as little place in adventure games as they do in war games, but nevertheless it behoves us to offer them as an option, perhaps for the recreation of "certain adventures".

From a design and development standpoint it is relatively straightforward to resolve the contradictory rules that have accrued around halflings through the editions. It is much more difficult to make them a compelling and interesting game option, as the article by Roger Moore, the "Halfling Point of View" (Dragon #59), and the Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings both amply demonstrate in their over generalised restatements of a Tolkien gleaned mythology. There is no reason halflings could not be presented as more fey than mortal, for instance, less "little men" and more "little elves". Maybe, like the faerie folk of the Broken Sword, they have not souls as men do, and belong properly to the unseen otherworld. Nor is there really any compelling purpose to keeping them married as a race to the lawful good alignment. Certainly, a lot of potential for differentiation could be realised without needing to go so far as the kleptomanic kender of Dragonlance or the cannibalistic halflings of Dark Sun. Since there has been so little call for them in the World of Silver Blade, though, the following must be necessarily somewhat speculative, but is intended to explore one way in which they might be leveraged a little way out of the Tolkien mould: Silver Blade Halflings.