Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hobbits as weaklings?

I have previously discussed the Tolkienesque nature of Dave Arneson's Halflings. In all early D&D, the connection to Tolkien was apparent. With the release of the third edition, however, the halflings were re-imagined in a way which grognards have described as "ninja Kender". The reason for this change was a view of the older edition D&D Halflings, not just among WotC employees, but I believe among many D&D players as a whole, that Halflings in D&D were a race of fat, weaklings, useless as PC option.

When ZGG began publishing Blackmoor in 2003, they announced that Blackmoor's Halflings would be a return to the Tolkienesque halflings, in the spirit of Dave Arneson's original fantasy campaign. However, what does that really mean? Is it true that Tolkien himself described Hobbits as weak, fat and useless? Not at all, of course!

Sam carries Frodo. Scene: Return of the King, 
Peter Jackson, Dir. 2003

When looking at Tolkien's Hobbits, I think it is useful to distinguish between Hobbit adventurers and regular folks. Much of the early day inspiration for D&D halflings seems to have been drawn from the first part of the novel The Hobbit. But the descriptions there refers to the non-adventurer Hobbits of the Shire. Bilbo is said to have been the first adventurer from the shire (though there are some references to previous heroes of the race elsewhere in Tolkien's writing). Still, Bilbo wasn't much of an adventurer when he was first dragged out of his hobbit hole by Gandalf and the dwarves.

Similarly Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry were completely unexperienced at the onset of the Lord of the Rings. Compare this to the same characters towards the end of the trilogy. The Hobbits have all become heroes in their own right. They have no problem disposing the stooges of Saruman who have been destroying the Shire in their absence. Similarly, Bilbo makes the trek from the Shire to Rivendell completely on his own, even though the distance he covered was known to be populated by Wights, Trolls and other evils.

One of the abilities most often overlooked in Hobbits is their resiliance. Gollum was able to keep the Ring for centuries. Still, he had retained enough of his "humanity" to give Frodo hope that he could be redeemed in Return of the King. Frodo was the only one who would be able to carry the Ring to Mordor, a task none of the heroes of the other races would have been able to accomplish. Sam was even able to give back the Ring to Frodo after "carrying it for a while" for his master.

Take a look at Sam carrying Frodo up the slope towards Mount Doom. Is that the work of a weakling? I think not! Hobbits can be tough heroes without the need of being turned into anorectic ninja elflings. Dave Arneson and his players were aware of this, as shown in the adventures of Mello and his companions.



  1. Chello!

    Yes, I've always preferred the traditional hobbits, er, I mean halflings, myself.

    The 3E halflings are more like some cross of kender and gnome. Halfling wizards? Really, WotC, really? I know y'all are in Seattle, but I'm pretty sure smoking that stuff is illegal up there, too.

  2. I am also a supporter of the Halflings as Hobbits model myself. Hobbits represent the best traits, and some of the less good ones, of the English townsfolk. How is that not easy to work with?

    And I have an special loathing for FR halflings as natural thieves take on the race.

  3. I am a Halflings as Hobbits guy too with the caveat that I kind of like Halfling Wizards. Willow is of course the ur example but I think the idea works fine in most games.

    I do tend to see them using less "blasty" spells and more clever and protective magics though.

  4. Heck yeah. Two excellent PC characters from a great campaign I played in a few years back were Halfing brothers- Cyril & Ogden Bramblethorne. They started off a bit Pippen & Merry-ish, but took a dramatic turn later. Cyril was a warrior; always good-hearted and a specialist with a bow. Ogden was a wizard; and gradually went evil, which started a quest to eventually secure a helm of opposite alignment and "cure" him. Some great play and amazing emergent story.

  5. @Anthony: Thanks for the feedback! :) I don't really have anything against 3E Halflings although my post seems to have come across like that. However, I also think that more traditional Hobbit-style Halflings have alot going for them, which was what I was trying to argue here.

  6. @5stonegames: Good point about Willow as the model for Halfling Wizards. The only problem I see with allowing that combination is that it removes much of the use for Gnomes, and I guess that is why WotC ended up changing that race as well.

    IMO Tolkien might have argued that each race had its own kind of magic, but magic is much more subtle than that of D&D.

  7. @Shimrod: Great story, thanks for sharing :) I might steal those halfling brothers for another game at some point ;)

  8. Thanks. ;) It was a great game. Ogden was secretly evil for quite a while, until we were high enough level that he was easily the most powerful member of the party. My character (the party cleric) had researched a lead on an item to change alignment, but we knew we'd never be able to get him to come along on a quest for it, and he might actively sabotage us. We finally got our break when the party fought a nasty undead wizard-thing, which hit the party with a Prismatic Spray and turned Odgen to stone. After killing the undead thing, we saw this as our chance, and went out and found that item, leaving Ogden a statue. We brought the item back and put it on him before we turned him back. ;)