The long-lived races of the D&D multiverse create a number of worldbuilding challenges and over the course of this series I’ve sought to address some of those challenges using the unifying concept of memory. We’ve discussed Dwarves, who pursue a multitude of masteries, Elves, who carefully manage their memory, and Gnomes, who seek a completeness of understanding.
Today we discuss Halflings.
The Halfling Experience
Halflings don’t live anywhere near as long as the likes of Dwarves and Gnomes (let alone Elves). Indeed a Halfling can expect to live to around 150 years old. In many ways this leaves their memories far more free than those of the longer-lived races of the multiverse. Even so, memory is a naturally limited phenomenon and the lucidity of old experiences will fade with time.
Halflings, perhaps more so than any other people, seek experiences that imprint so powerfully that their lucidity cannot fade in the way most memories do. They are keenly aware that the senses of smell, taste and hearing create much stronger pathways of memory, and so they often seek experiences that focus on stimulating these senses.
The Memory Of Joy
As with all stereotypes, there is some kernel of truth at the core of the idea that Halflings do nothing but eat lavish meals, drink fine wines and play music all day. An excellent meal imprints such a strong memory that it will be recalled many decades after. From there, the memory of association kicks in. Remembering the taste of a meal will conjure up auxiliary memories of the company, the conversation, the mood of the evening, and so forth.
By anchoring a good time with the powerful memory-maker of a quality feast a Halfling can carry their good experiences with them forward through time across their entire lives.
Halflings take it as a quiet point of pride that all of their most vivid memories are all happy ones. A Halfling of a full 150 years of age may remember thousands of excellent dinner parties and endless refrains of joyous music, and wrapped within each is the tapestry of the occasion where the memory was formed.
The Halfling memory rings clarion with the laughter of a lifetime of joy.
A Life Well Lived
In light of all this it can be easy to consider Halflings to be hedonists, seeking nothing but pleasure in the stead of great achievement or world-changing invention, and indeed there is some truth to this notion.
Whether this is a problem or not ties ultimately into a difference of values. To a Halfling there is little point in having changed the world in your lifetime if it has not made you happy along the way. On the surface there is a small selfishness to this, but in truth Halfling values extend that desire for a lifetime of happiness to others.
It even goes a step beyond what other cultures may consider ‘selfless’. To many, sacrificing one’s own happiness for the happiness of multiple others is virtuous. To a Halfling, it is needless. The spreading of happiness should itself create happiness for oneself otherwise it is a tragic and foolish act, not a heroic one. In fact some Halfling folk would see the self-sacrificing spreader of so-called joy to be nothing more than a self-serving flagellant who only sacrifices so that they may gain the approval of others, finding gratification therein. What a waste, say the Halflings. Would that person not be so much more gratified were they to simply focus on their own direct happiness once in a while.
Whether or not that particular view is justified is debatable, and indeed this is the closest many Halflings come to any kind of philosophy over happiness and the nature thereof. Philosophy in general is seldom seen as a source of joy. Enlightenment is not a worthwhile pursuit to most Halflings.
But there are exceptions.
The pursuit of happiness can lead a Halfling down a different path, one that strays from the traditional vices of food, drink and song. Ultimate happiness can be sourced from ultimate peace, and so there are Halflings who take to the monastic life. Happiness can be sourced from the pleasure of killing, much as many folk would like to believe that this is not true, and so some Halflings take to soldiery and assassin wet-work. Happiness can stem from a height of accomplishment, and so some Halflings do in fact take to pursuits of scholarship and craftsmanship with the intent to advance a field beyond its current limits.
But this is the exception, not the rule. Most Halfling folk would see this as being ‘the difficult way’, and there is sense little in taking the difficult way when the easy way will bring them just as much joy while inflicting no greater harm. In fact in terms of harm often it is the difficult way which runs the risk of damaging others (or the world at large).
A Matter Of Perspective
To bring us back to the concept of memory and its limitations, one must remember that a Halfling’s prioritising of experiences that leave strong imprints is a double-edged thing. A Halfling’s memory of other things may be severely lacking, especially as time takes its hold of the mind and takes hostage that which once was. A Halfling may feel these forgotten things to be unimportant, and in many ways they may be, but in some instances they are not and the Halfling will be none the wiser.
There is a saying held by some that you can always trust a Halfling with a good time but you cannot trust them with a crucial message.
This certainly is an exaggeration. A Halfling will not have forgotten a message they were given just a few hours earlier when it comes time to deliver it. But a message that must be sent across decades or centuries? That is a more troublesome thing. There are many tragic instances when a Human has asked their Halfling friend to say some important thing to the Human’s child when they are of-age, only for the Halfling to have forgotten or only half-remembered it by the time that day comes.
Perhaps, though, if the message had first been given to a Halfling while sharing a cup of fine wine it may have been remembered all those decades later…
The Spaces Between
This all leads us to some very simple concepts we can employ when introducing Halflings to our settings.
Halflings often keep to themselves, preferring insular societies even in the most cosmopolitan of places. Other peoples may see Halflings as simple, even perhaps a bit quaint, and so will often not interact with Halfling society at large. Halflings being on the other end of this assumption see it oppositely, viewing others as living overcomplicated lives without enough regard and care for themselves and their own wellbeing.
Within larger cities where populations are mixed Halflings will often gravitate toward one-another, creating something of a ‘community-within-a-community’ wherein they will patronise each other’s businesses, marry their sons and daughters to those of other Halfling families within the community, and share the company of one-another at festivals, parties or even just regular evening dinners.
This isn’t to say they are inherently insular. Quite the opposite is true. Halfling communities, both within larger cities and within their own towns, are extremely welcoming. Provided one is willing to share their values, even if only temporarily, they will find a place within a Halfling’s home (often around their dinner table). For the outsider, taking on the values of ‘having a good time’ is exceptionally easy.
And so the reputation for Halflings making for excellent company is born.
Indeed even though others may not interact much with Halfling society at large they may interact with Halfling individuals on a highly regular basis. Their favourite barkeeps, bakers and brewers may all be Halflings if only for the fact that a friendly shopkeep is always preferable to a grumpy or indifferent one.
Furthermore, Halflings themselves may be incredibly worldly. Travelling troupes are often made up mostly or entirely of Halfling performers. There are few better ways to spread joy while simultaneously experiencing it as performing a play for a town. Most societies will be highly familiar with Halflings as a people in spite of their insularity.
When playing a Halfling one can first consider whether they wish to play ‘the exception’ or ‘the rule’. Though it may seem somewhat ‘vanilla’ to play a happy-go-lucky Halfling, quick with song and levity, any sensible Halfling will tell you that vanilla is in fact a deeply complex and nuanced flavour.
Are you perhaps inappropriately cheerful, forgetting that in other cultures it is unusual to play drinking songs at funerals? Are you cheerful to mask how out-of-your-depth you have become as the adventure has worn on and the stakes have heightened? Are you losing your sense of levity as the gravity of events spirals beyond anything you may have experienced back home? In many ways playing a ‘traditional’ Halfling means playing the foil, but a foil is ultimately a reflection of that which it is a foil to. A foil to a serious party is often the comic relief, but the foil to the comical party is the proverbial ‘straight-man’. No less the bringer of levity, but more the enabler of jokes rather than the cracker of them.
Then there are the ‘exception’ Halflings. Monks who have sought enlightenment, Barbarians and Rogues who take lives and pleasures in the same act, Wizards who seek power and greatness, and so forth. Indeed, a Halfling does not even need to be seeking happiness. Perhaps they wish to break the mould entirely, seeing some merit in how other long-lived races handle their memories. A Halfling acting in the image of a Dwarf seeking mastery of a discipline may be a Fighter. A Halfling who has taken to the utilitarian management of memory as an Elf would may be an arcane savant, surging forward with innovation in their chosen field.
Ultimately Halflings are not as limited by their memories as other long-lived races for the sheer reason that their lives are not anywhere near as long. Even so, an elderly Halfling Bard may remember all their songs but only have a faltering memory of the places they’ve travelled and the roads between them. They may only remember having travelled down a road before when they spot a tree along the roadside that they took lunch under with a most fascinating Tabaxi companion.
Remember Me Fondly
What a marvellous thing to be able to be at one’s end and only know life as having being good.
Halflings truly are blessed among us all. In many ways they have ‘figured it out’, so to speak. It’s not even a secret discovery that they hide. In fact it’s an entire way of life to them that they demonstrate the value of day in day out. Whether others ignore this and view it as simple, envy it and cast judgement and ire, or exalt it and seek to emulate it themselves, it is undeniably the central-most aspect of the Halfling way of life.
Explore then how to play a character who seeks a life well lived. If you are running the game, consider how Halflings may interact with themselves and others. What do people think of Halflings? How do Halflings behave in light of this?
Not being as limited by memory as a Dwarf or Elf is a double-edged sword. As much as their memory is more free to be filled with nonsense than that of an Elf, a Halfling will never know the ways of mental discipline that an Elf does and so inevitably things will slip and disappear from a Halfling’s mind. It is up to you to decide whether this is a tragedy, or whether forgetting all else and only remembering the good parts is the greatest triumph of all.
So that’s Halflings. This piece took longer than anticipated, mostly because there was a thing I wanted to capture here that proved to be far more complicated and salient than I had originally expected.
I truly hope this has been helpful for integrating Halflings into your settings and also for creating Halfling characters for the games you play.
The only long-lived PHB race left to cover are Half-Elves, and following that will be a Patreon-exclusive piece on what I call ‘anomalies’, wherein I will discuss individuals who become unusually long-lived and what playing one such character might look like.
Thanks for reading!