Comic by Drew Shenemann
Concept art by Conceptopolis
"Short People" lyrics excerpts by Randy Newman
was a creature of the 1970s. I'll admit it. And if you were a creature of the '70s, you could not help but be sucked into the lyrics of Randy Newman's "Short People." So here we are 35 years later (really!?!), and I've got the song running through my brain again.
They got little hands
And little eyes . . .
When I was at Gen Con this year, I did a bit of a spoiler and leaked (on purpose) some of the imagery on today's subject. I even did a short presentation in the Art of D&D Next panel that revealed even more on the subject. If you attended that event, this article won't come as any big surprise, but now you'll have a chance to officially respond, and hopefully I'll provide you with some additional information and background.
The concept of "little people" is probably ageless. It abounds in many real-world legends and lore, and it doesn't really come as any big surprise that some variant of those tales quickly embedded itself into the psyche of modern fantasy. The vision of the hobbit in Tolkien's novels is often one of the first things that pops up when folks start talking about little folk in fantasy. Of course, every storyline outside of The Lord of the Rings has its own take on the wee folk. In D&D, we have a plethora of wee folk. Today, I'd like to talk about that lovable little D&D race called halflings.
Halflings have existed in several forms throughout the history of D&D.
In the early days of D&D, the halfling was strongly inspired by Tolkien's hobbits. They were diminutive, chubby, furry-footed little souls that loved to hang around the house. Well, house is a term I use loosely. They had a habit of hollowing out hillsides and calling them "home." Through the years, a number of subraces have been detailed: hairfoot, stout, tallfellow, Athasian, furchin, lightfoot, deep, ghostwise, and more.
Needless to say, there were several forces that caused the differentiation of the D&D halflings from the Tolkien hobbits. In 3rd Edition, there was a marked change in the visual representation of the halfling. I was in on that change, and I thought we were really addressing the needs of the brand. Little did I know the trouble we were causing ourselves. Any time there is change, I expect fan backlash. It's just part of being in this business. The trick is to try and mitigate it as much as possible. Was there fan backlash? Sure. Was that the issue that drove me crazy on a daily basis? No!
What was the issue about the halfling that haunted me? They were exactly what they were described to be . . . halflings, or half humans. I had the tendency to call them micro humans, and the biggest problem with them was the fact that I always had to tell the illustrator to put something in the image that gave them scale—otherwise they just looked like humans. SO frustrating!
When Mike Mearls told me that he wanted to look at the halflings as part of the new Forgotten Realms world-building project, I was SO onboard. For me, the first order of business was to . . .
A: Address the fan feedback I had received over the years.
B: Make sure they didn't look like micro humans.
The biggest conversation we had in the office was around trying to find the ethos of the halfling. Remember my statement earlier? When we think of wee folk in fantasy, often the first image that comes up is the Tolkien hobbit. It's really hard to fight that type of cultural icon. Of course, each brand has to find a vision that they can own. Partly this must be accomplished because the folks that protect the Estate of Tolkien get itchy when you lift their vision whole cloth, but also because a brand wants an identity that can be associated with their brand, and their brand alone. So when we were talking about the halfling, a number of points kept coming up.
- These guys are not big adventurers. The bulk of the race prefers to hang around the community, and they keep themselves a little apart from the larger world . . . pun intended.
- There should be a sense that they are very friendly and approachable.
- They should have an air of innocence—almost childlike in their nature.
- Nature should play a big part in their lives. Nature iconography should come into play.
- While they have a racial consistency, the subraces should have elements that make them distinct.
When we first started concepting halflings, we used the 3E anatomy as a base for the first round of concepts. It became quickly apparent that we were not going to be fulfilling either of my two requirements, and neither would we hit a lot of the points I was just speaking about. We dove back into the racial design with the goal of addressing these needs more completely.
Then we hit on a body type that we felt was starting to get us in the right direction and that was hitting on a lot of the vibes that we felt were important. We started sweating the details . . . making sure body proportions made the halfling feel "small" even when there isn't an element in the image to give scale.
Do you notice that she feels small? Her head-to-body ratio changes our perspective of size. It's a subtle thing, but it tends to be quite effective.
As part of the concepting, a piece of furniture popped up, and I fell in love with the concept.
There was this bookstand that was carved in the shape of a cat. A quick amendment, and it started to look a bit like a displacer kitty (beast). That suddenly became my hook for the halflings' ties to nature. We started pulling together places where the race and subraces would bring nature into their lives—whether it was a simple tea set carved from a beautiful piece of burl, to practical bags that might be worn when about, with carved leather in the shapes of woodland critters and creatures. We also made a conscious decision to keep materials very natural and handmade in nature. We had lots of homespun fabrics, simple leather goods, and practical accessories.
We spent a lot of time looking at the day-to-day life of the halfling instead of focusing only on our development of heroes. So we had a lot of fun fleshing out what a normal household in the world of halflings might look like.
So, you've gotten a glimpse into the world of halflings and the ways that we made decisions about how we developed them. The question that we now need to ask is simple: What do you think?
How well does the halfling fulfill the vision of the halfling ethos outlined above?
Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die
(It's a wonderful world)
Last Week's Poll Results
What should be the guiding principles when we deal with body types outside the human race?
|Just like humans, there should be a full spectrum of body types.
|Unlike humans, nonhuman races should have a smaller spectrum of body types to keep closer to the archetypical look of the race.
|Nonhuman races should not have a spectrum of body types. They should stick to the archetypical look of the race.
|Other. (Explain below.)
What should be the guiding principle when dealing with the look of a nonhumanoid monster? Should there be environmental-inspired differences?
|There should be only a single visual representation. The image in the Monster Manual is the definitive look.
|There can be slight coloration and anatomical differences to indicate differences in environment, but deviations shouldn't be very noticeable.
|Emulate nature! Run the gamut and give me lots of imagination fodder for my world.
|Other. (Explain below.)
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.