Halflings and how to make use of the other races. Fifth Edition D&D Design for the Malazan world.
Updated: Dec 8, 2018
There is re-skinning and then there is just flat out flagellating the books.
The standard D&D setting involves a lot of species living together. Though you will have Dwarf cities and Gnome villages you will more than likely expect in every city you go to a multi racial spread across the full spectrum of possible creatures. Anywhere that does not, is normally so because of some political and story reasons, such as racism, an ancient history of enmity between the elves and dwarfs, resulting in them noting being allowed in great number into each others lands etc. These are the exceptions though rather than the norm in most settings. This general sense of species variance is not as present in the Malazan books. The Rhivi live together and you don’t meet any wondering the streets of Darujistan, You don’t wander into an inn in Seven Cities and find a Trell stood behind the bad cleaning glasses. When Mappo Runt enters a city unfamiliar with the Trell, a guard escorts him, believing it would otherwise create a panic, and forcing him to travel down hardly used alleyways lest people start screaming ‘Daemon!’ in the streets. This creates something important that I wanted the players to experience. The feeling of being somewhere foreign, and being seen as foreign.
It is hard to role-play a seven foot tall blue scaled Dragonborn when everyone talks to you like a normal human. It is also sometimes hard to explain away why you don’t know certain everyday things, when it is perfectly reasonable that you would have been around this sort of culture all the time. You have to actively create a backstory that makes you foreign to explain this away. Also this mass of multi species intermingling does not seem terribly realistic. By having the varies species spread across continents it gives the opportunity for them to have their own distinct cultural feel and to make more of a difference when you go about visiting another country.
With this in mind I could happily have left the available races at their limited pool. Part of the fun however of D&D is choosing a race that fits with what you want, and creating a party of varied characters and backgrounds. By choosing a race that fits what you want, I am not only referring to you appearance and role play, but mechanically. Due to every race having different bonuses to the six abilities scores there are certain races which players are inevitably drawn to use. Myself, I actively ignore this at every given opportunity, proffering to play Lizardfolk Wizards and Dwarf Rogues.
This means that if I have only a very limited set, then players will inevitably be drawn down certain paths and more often than not, I will have parties of adventurers that tend to lack particular classes.
How can I fit in some more of the player handbook races, without having to go through the work of having to make up whole cultures and shove them into the books? I knew I might have to do that and had have already discussed the issue of the Dragonbron in a previous post. My problem was solved relatively easy by a single thought. Wickan Halflings. For those not too familiar with the books the Wickans are a group of humans subjugated by the Malazan Empire, who make use of them as their preeminent light cavalry. They bear a lot a resemblance to Native Americans both in terms of culture and how their lands are treated. They have a strong waring culture, with the varies tribes, such as the Foolish Dogs, Crow and Weasel clans. These clans used to fight amongst themselves until they were shamed by the previous Emperor of the Malazans into joining the Empire, saying that he had no need to fight them because they were doing all the work for him.
Horse riding Wickan Halflings
So we have race of warriors who are more than happy to scalp people, who have shamans called Warlocks, who get reincarnated when they die into the next generation. Wouldn’t it be funny to turn the whole idea of Frodo Baggins on his head and have a bunch of tribal horse riding Halfling, galloping about? Experienced players of the game might already be thinking about the Dark Sun setting. In my defence I had not heard about Dark Sun until after several months of playing my own games, when it cropped up in the comments section on the 5e D&D facebook group.
Clearly a good idea then right? Seems to be as both groups of my players have ended up with one player as a Wickan Warlock.
Having an existing culture I can build on from the books, characters and story that already exist in the world, would be a good place to start. Not to mention the opportunity to turn on its head common conventions about the fantasy races in Dungeons and Dragons. The only problem is that in the books the Wickans are completely human and most certainly not four feet tall.
For some people this might be a step too far. It would be sacrilege to change the Wickans so fundamentally. There are two things here.
The first is regard to how you are looking at the games design. I’ve spoken to a few people who have made their own private Malazan D&D games and there are two clear camps.
There are those people who wanted to make a Malazan game that they could play, they would use whatever system they needed, which might be GURPS (which is how Erikson and his friends played it) or some other RPG, but have settled in 5e D&D, probably because it is the system they know and the easiest to find players. They will strip apart the whole of D&D, making up races and classes from scratch, changing the way the magic system works to fit with the Warrens of magic. They want to play a Malazan game, and 5e D&D or whatever system is just the base from which they will build it.
The other party, to which I belong, want to run a 5e D&D game, but really like the setting of the Malazan world, and want to run games in it, most probably with the expectation that the players will never have heard of, nor care about the books. I however love these books and think there is something amazaing they can bring to Dungeons and Drragons.
So going forward I will warn you. If you are a member of the first group, you might not like what I am doing, but none the less I hope it will give you the some inspiration for your own games.
The second is this. Have I really changed that much? So Wickans are now short. Does that really change anything? They are still horse riding badasses (admittedly one player mentioned that they could now ride their Wickans hounds which I have to admit, the Malazan fan in me flinched away from, so perhaps I’m not so far from the first group as I thought). Their Warlocks are still children with the souls of the long dead. Would you take the Chain of Dogs and the actions of Coltaine less seriously just because they were very short? They are still called Wickans to players. They still have all the behaviour and culture of them. They just are not a 100% human species. They even get an ability called Brave to boot.
So how do you make Halflings into Wickans?
Well the most important thing clearly was to have something that represented their skill with horses. I decided something that would encourage players to make use of more mounts than is often the case, would be the best way to go, but not something that would be too powerful. I concluded that I variation of the Dwarfs Stone Cunning ability could be used to very simply put forward this idea.
Master of horse and Hound: You add twice your proficiency bonus to any checks related to horses or hounds, ignore your normal proficiency bonus. This might be a animal handling check to control a spooked mount, a medicine check to diagnose a lame dog, or a nature check to identify where a particular horse breed is from.
This lets the player feel like they can and should be confident with mounts and hounds, but does not shakel them with an ability that only works while they are mounted. This is the problem with the Mounted Feat and trying to design the Cavalier subclass for fighters.
The only remaining problem was what do do about the Halfling sub races. There are two in the books and the variation is important for games design. I could have done away with sub races and simply said the Wickan was you race and nothing more and chosen the abilities from the two that I wanted. I could also have said that when you choose Wickan you simply pick one of the two sub races. How often in games does it really matter for role play which sub race you play? This however felt like something of a missed opportunity. The Wickans main spell casters are called Warlocks. Though they don’t directly correspond to 5e D&D warlocks, it is far easier to just say that they are Warlocks. It would be very hard to persuade a group of players unfamiliar with the books that even though I am calling the short child a warlock, they are mechanically a sorcerer or a druid or something. This decisions means what? They want to use Charisma as their main statistic. And who has a bonus to Charisma? Light Foot Halflings. I could simply do away with the Naturally Stealthy ability, which is their because of the old Tolkin skills of Bilbo Baggins who was hired as a thief. But to be honest, how often have people used it? (Besides a few people who are very lenient with their rouges taking the hide action in combat to hide behind the fighter).
This leaves the question of what to do with the Stout Halflings? This is solved surprisingly easily.
The Rhivi, tribal herders and stone slinging enemies of the Malazans.
As I mentioned in the first blog post on the races/speciaes of the Malazan world the idea of the interrelatedness and family tree of peoples is very important to the setting. With humans being the defendant of an older none human species it is perfectly fine to have wickans being a shorter defendant. The Barghast are large because they are the descendants of a small race and a tall race of humanoids (who I shan’t mention incase this is a spoiler) who then spread across the world leaving their descendants all across the world. Could it not be that the shorter of those two, in some cases did not breed with the taller and so remained small, perhaps even growing smaller?
If that is the case then why not have other population of these short desendant who have, like the Barghast, spread themselves across multiple continents?
The Rhivi are a pastoral nomadic society that live on the continent of Genabackis where both the first few books and my own campaign are based. The like the Wickans are in some ways modelled off of the Native Americas. Where the Wickns were more inspired by their warlock characteristics and horse riding prowess, the Rhivi with their thousands strong herds of bhederin (big ox time animals) more reflect the native Americans, before us westerners came a long a slaughtered both them and their buffalo. Less warlike but none the less able to take up arms when the Malazan invade or or when farmers trespass on their sacred grounds. With a rich culture of shamans that can run shoulder bones to define the future, a belief that spilled blood creates angry spirits and as such a strong funerary practice, as well as the believe that those with mental inlness are spirit touched leads to some great role playing opportunities. And with the Rhivi and importantly Silverfox being an important part of the story it won’t be the case as in many stories that the Halflings fall into the background.
Halflings with spears and slings, walking across the backs huge herds of bhederin seems to make like a nice change from the food guzzling and often joke characters of standard D&D settings. That Halfling Nimbleness makes a lot more sense when you imagine them slipping between their herds without being trampled. Their increased constitution also fits nicely with a race that walks huge distances alongside their charges. The poison resilience is a bit harder to explain but makes for an interesting connection with the next race that I’ll discuss. No changes need be made mechanically to make Stout Halflings into Rhivi.
So now we have both Wickans and Rhivi as none humans. Isn’t this going against the idea of ‘forigner’ mentioned before?
Yes and no. The Wickans are their own separate people and just because I have made them into their own species rather than a human culture does not mean that suddenly you have to meet wickans everywhere you go. Yes, I have added one more none human species to the continent of Genabackis but the Rhivi live speratly from the human, out on the plains, so again, if you visit a clan of Rhivi, you are probably going to be the only none Rhivi there, and if you play as a Rhivi, you will probably be the only one in the bar, if not the whole city. This also helps to make the sub races feel more distinct. If you played as a lightfoot verses a Stout Halflings in your games, did it feel like a different role play to you? Now you are essentially two different races, rather than two sub-races.
With this little thought experiment having worked so well I had no hesitation in extending the number of playable races form the Players Hand Book, that I would find homes for in the Malazan world. The world would still be the same, so long as I found the people that most fit their Dungeons and Dragons Stats Block, and didn’t try to cram them all onto he same continent, then there would not be a problem. The races could still be spread out over vast distances, they would still live together in their own cultures and the player could feel like a foreigner. The first time they met someone from another playable race in the game, would probably be the first time their character had done so as well.
Here concludes another attempt to make 5e D&D fit within the Malazan world. Some of you are going to hate this. I know that. It probably means you want something very different from your games. WE aren’t going to agree but never mind.
For the others of you who just want to play a game of D&D inspired by the Malazan world, I hope the ideas I’ve put forward here are useful for your own campaign. In my next blog I’ll be discussing where else I can fit the remaining races from the Players Hand Book.
I had to split it up into three part as I had once again gone far too long so thank your for being patient.