The Incredible Indestructible Halfling

In B/X, halflings are much like fighters, but with a slew of minor changes that seem geared to make them good ranged combatants. On the one hand, they get a bonus to hit with missile weapons, an initiative bonus and an Armor Class bonus against larger than man-sized creatures. On the other hand, they can only use weapons “cut down to their size” (limiting their offense in melee) and they use six-sided Hit Dice instead of the fighter’s eight-sided dice, making them more fragile than their human and dwarven counterparts.

But in actual play? It’s all frontline halflings in plate mail, all the time.

Your typical halfling warrior in plate mail, ready for action.

The reason for this is an emergent property of the B/X rules for ability score adjustment (p. B6). Characters can drop points from some stats to raise a prime requisite on a 2-for-1 basis. And who has Dexterity as a prime requisite? Halflings. So everyone who plays a halfling trades away Intelligence and Wisdom to get an 18 Dexterity, which is impressive when a natural Dexterity score is rarely higher than 15. Combine that with plate mail and shield and you’ve got a base Armor Class of -1, which goes up to -3 against larger than man-sized creatures. The resulting survivability boost more than makes up for having one less hit point per level than the fighter.

The first question here isn’t what’s to be done, but whether anything should be done at all. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with a party with a bunch of plate-armored hobbits anchoring the front line? If the players seem happy enough with the situation, it may be best to let them keep doing what they’re doing.

On the other hand, if the DM’s dissatisfied with the resulting flavor, there are a number of approaches to be taken:

1) Disallow ability score adjustment, so halfling PCs are stuck with their initial dexterity roll. The downsides here are that this may be a case of taking out a housefly with a hand grenade if it’s the only problematic situation caused by ability score adjustment, and that a player who rolled a high dexterity can still choose to play a plate-armored halfling anyway; this makes the situation rarer but does not abolish it.
2) Put a limit on how much of a dexterity bonus a PC can get from heavy armor, like in later editions of D&D. So plate mail might cap the wearer at a +2 (or even +1) AC bonus from dexterity. This meshes well with the movement rules; if metal armor slows you down, it’s reasonable to think that it also makes you less agile in combat.
3) Remove plate mail from the halfling’s list of allowed armor types. This may have an overly negative effect on the halfling’s survivability, and unlike some other solutions, it requires grandfathering in exceptions to the rule for existing characters if you want to let them keep playing as they have been playing. But it has the advantage of matching the race’s original Tolkienian flavor; they’re not the sort to dress up like knights in full armor.

23 Responses to “The Incredible Indestructible Halfling”

  1. 1 Captain Oblivious
    September 19, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Or, you divorce Halflings from the pothead Hobbits of Tolkien and recognize them as the viscious evil little bastards they truly are. You know all those little dogs that attack any and everyone? Those are Halflings.

    (Search for ‘Chihuahua stops robbery’ to see this in action)

    Just accept that they are murdering little brutes…

  2. 2 Charlatan
    September 19, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    I’m going to recuse myself from comment on whether it’s actually a problem or not. But, addressing your three options:

    1. Too heavy handed in context of the rules, and (as you point out) only makes the situation rarer.
    2. This would hurt some Fighters, too. Here’s how I would make this more interesting: I’d say that heavier armor dampens the absolute value of DEX adjustments to AC. So, if we take your example of +1 max for plate, and presumably +2 for chain, we get an AC chart like this:

    Armor Type 3 4-5 6-8 9-12 13-15 16-17 18
    Unarmored 9 9 9 9 8 7 6
    Leather 9 9 8 7 6 5 4
    Chain 7 7 6 5 4 3 3
    Plate 4 4 4 3 2 2 2

    Which would make armor choice more interesting for dexterous fighters, effectively yielding more mobility than armor class.

    3. I wouldn’t worry about this. Peregrine and Meriweather are pretty badass fighters at the end of things- bossing followers around, killing orcs, facing down Saruman and what-not. Surely all halflings needn’t be Bilbo.

  3. September 19, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    @Captain Oblivious: Some groups very much enjoy the “pudgy pipe-smoker homebody” halfling archetype, in which case your suggestion is not a practical solution. For the rest, I did say that it the players seem happy enough with the situation, it may be best to let them keep doing what they’re doing.

  4. September 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    @Charlatan: An interesting chart! It apparently caps Dexterity penalties to AC at -1; I’m not sure I find that satisfactory.

    Also, option #4: When small PCs like halflings wear heavy armor like plate, it further impacts their movement rate, much like wearing heavy armor along with high encumbrance. So a halfling in plate will move slower than a human in plate, what with their tiny little legs!

  5. 5 Charlatan
    September 20, 2011 at 1:32 am

    It doesn’t exactly cap the penalty at -1; it caps the bonus and penalty at 1, 2, and 3 for plate, chain, and lighter (respectively). You can narrate this: Your dexterity comes less int play (in either direction) in the heavier armors. There’s a little distortion at AC 9, of course.

  6. September 20, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Also note that a Halfling’s armor should weigh less than a Human’s armor. If all his equipment weighs less, but his carrying capacity isn’t so much less due to lower STR, he can be the party pack mule as well because he has a bunch of extra weight capacity.

    The short people should be in the front line anyway, so the people in the middle rank can shoot over their heads. Dwarf and Halfling, SUIT UP YOU SCOUNDRELS and prepare to BASH SOME SHINS!

  7. September 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Yes they are hardcore at low levels! Especially when you add in the fact that they have amazing saves compared to the fighter class. The funny things is that in my game at the moment the highest level PC is a halfling, with the best AC in the group, the best saves, and probably the most hit points — and he still wants to cower at the back! (Maybe that’s how he survived to be the party member with the most XP though, by cowering!)

    Re: the point re-distribution allowed in B/X, my house rule is that you can’t use that system to raise your prime requisite over 16. That way natural 17s and 18s are still something remarkable.

  8. 8 Charlatan
    September 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    “Meriweather”? I should be ashamed of myself. Then again, my Grandfather made up names for his grandchildren throughout my childhood, so maybe I’m just getting old.

  9. September 20, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Thank Vecna we are talking about this.
    The flavor taste of the terminator halflings just rubs my tongue wrong.

    I think the best solution might be to tweak the attribute exchange rules because now all our characters are getting a 18 in something if necessary. It always seemed like a poorly implemented kludge to allow player more say in the nature of the class they want to play. It seems that arranging stats to taste would be a better solution or even allowing the 4d6 drop 1 (HERESY!) for survivability.

    My second choice would be to add a Dex penalty to plate and actually give PCs a reason to wear chain.
    Of course Gygax talks about how DEX is not historically affected by plate armor, but they neglect to talk about how plate armor was only strapped on before big fights and were not worn for days on end.

    Movement penalties and drowning in armor is mostly a lark since it only comes into play in rare/engineered encounters.

  10. September 20, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    The OD&D rules are characteristically unclear about this, but the interpretation favored by Moldvay – that you can raise your stat for all purposes, including Dex bonus to AC – is not necessarily supported by the original text. A variant and IMO equally valid interpretation is that this swapping is for the purposes of bonus XP only – it doesn’t grant the other benefits of a high stat.

  11. 11 Lord Bodacious
    September 20, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I really like B/X stat swapping, it gives the player a bit more agency in the chargen process. Dex is definitely a stat with lots of benefits, and both halflings and thieves benefit from this (although Halflings other abilities dovetail much better).

    Removing the halfling’s ability to wear plate would seem to be the most elegant resolution. The class would still be pretty great, it just means super-halfings would be at AC 0 instead of AC -2.

    Needless to say, a grandfather clause would probably be most politic.

    I do think that chain would benefit from some mechanical advantage. Right now it has a 10′ move advantage and some situational benefits (climbing, sneaking, swimming, etc) which don’t entirely overcome the 2 AC gap in most places . Max Dex seems overly fiddly for my tastes/

  12. 12 Charlatan
    September 20, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Adhering to the point-swapping rules does mean that the halflings that pump themselves up to 18 are starting pretty high to begin with (only INT and WIS can be traded 2-for-1, neither can drop below 9). It certainly makes the phenomenon more prevalent, but you have to segregate the mechanical concern (high-DEX plate-wearers) from the flavor concern (does it have to be Hobbits?).

    I know a high-DEX Moldvay Halfling pretty well- his natural DEX was 16, so while he was able to get it to 18, the effect past his natural scores wasn’t huge. I sometimes look back on him wondering why I didn’t make him a Dwarf*, which I think would’ve had a point-swapped 16 STR, and a natural 16 DEX: Same saves, better melee, more hit points, a foot taller. If house rules had prohibited point swapping entirely, he would still probably have been a dwarf, and his saves would have been a bit better (yikes!).

    In any case, if you were going to start house-ruling, I (unsurprisingly) think dampened DEX bonuses/penalties on heavier armor is the better solution- it gives chain a home with high-DEX fighter types, makes the Fighter-types a home for low-dex, low-int characters, and doesn’t require mental gymnastics about a world in which dwarves wear plate, but halflings don’t. But overall, I think this is not a problem to worry about.

    *: Actually, I was just sad about a character death, and the halfling character seemed more fun.

  13. 13 Naked Sam
    September 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    I like the idea of using max Dex modifiers in re armor types – it would bring back the importance of chainmail, which is basically a mug’s armor in B/X. There would need to be some off-set for the fighting classes, however, if this is done. It’s a deadly game and this would make it deadlier.

  14. September 21, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    @Charlatan: I still don’t understand your “dampened” AC modifiers. It looks to me like your chart simply negates most of the Dex penalties for heavy armor, but you say that’s not what’s happening. Could you clarify?

    @Naked Sam: What do you mean by an “off-set”?

  15. 15 Charlatan
    September 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    @Eric: Oh, your first comment suggested that my chart capped all DEX penalties at -1, which it certainly doesn’t do. It just dampens all effects of DEX (plus and minus) as the armor gets heavier, so yes: In plate, high DEX only improves your AC by 1, but low DEX only worsens your AC by 1. Likewise, chain can only be improved or worsened by 2, etc.

    This seems reasonable to me: It suggests that the lightly armored combatant relies more on agility to avoid blows, and that the difficulty in damaging a plate-clad warrior is in the armor itself. It also makes DEX less important for frontline fighters, which seems fine. If you wanted to be kind of evil about it, you could have armor affect the missile bonus (though not penalties, I think) in the same way- this would encourage high DEX archers to go in chain or leather, and level the disparity between thieves and halflings as archers a bit. But I go down a rabbit-hole.

  16. September 21, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    @Charlatan: I still don’t understand your argument for having heavy armor protect against the effects of low Dexterity. If a PC in plate slips or stumbles or simply gets into an awkward position, then wouldn’t the weight and bulk of the armor make it harder, not easier, to get back into the proper stance?

    As to restricting Dexterity bonuses to missile weapons for heavy armor users, that does make sense and I’ll consider implementing it.

  17. 17 Charlatan
    September 21, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    @Eric: Well, that’s what Dexterity checks are for! Your AC doesn’t really encapsulate that, does it? The stats are all abstract, so I guess I’m saying I’m comfortable with the idea that- regardless of your Dexterity- being an adventurer trained to use plate means you are able to “normally” hold your own in plate armor. In particular, I’m arguing that merely being in an awkward position matters less if you are in heavy armor, because your foe still has to deal with your heavy armor. If you fall prone and are struggling to right yourself, that’s another matter (and another mechanic!).

    In more gamist terms, I’d worry about lowering the DEX modifier ceiling but leaving the floor where it is- it feels like DEX becomes a penalty-only stat for plate-wearers.

  18. 18 Lord Bodacious
    September 21, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I think you guys are going down a rabbit hole that is entirely too fiddly for B/X. Do we really want players to have to cross reference their AC bonus against some additional armor table each time their armor, weapons, enchantments etc. change? No, we do not.

    And before you say “it’s not THAT hard, it’s just one additional table”, stop. Don’t say it. It’s fiddly.

    The problem: Halflings AC is too good.
    The solution: Make their AC worse.

    Personally, I agree with the school that says B/X is deadly enough as it is.

  19. 19 Naked Sam
    September 21, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    @EM — That if a max DEX bonus to AC is implemented for various armor types, the classes that use those armors should optimally receive some off-setting bonus somewhere else to maintain the balance of the game.

    Same thing, if the halfling were to (for example) be restricted to only chainmail and lighter armors. I don’t believe the class should be stripped of benefits without compensation.

  20. September 21, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I love when our blog bleeds over into arguments over our actual play issues.

    No Dex bonus for plate. I have only seen this affect halfling characters. Fighters and Dwarfs are the only other possibilities for this issue cropping up but usually they favor high STR.

  21. 21 Charlatan
    September 21, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Retaining only the DEX penalties for plate would affect Fighters, Clerics, Dwarves, and Elves as well as Halflings. I’ll offer some campaign-specific thoughts on our campaign-specific forum.

  22. 22 Scott LeMien
    September 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    So, this creates a lower baseline AC overall, but puts everyone on more or less equal ground, by which I mean crunched, chewed up and digested by 4 HD monsters.

  23. April 17, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Props for the mostest awesome hobbit mini ever made. Comedy Lords for the win!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2011

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