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The Art of the Small—Finding Fluff in the Crunch Since 1995

Written by LanJemWezz - Published on October 7, 2011

Well met, fellow gamers! Join me in a series that takes a 20 on a Spot Check examining details in the D&D game that provide role-playing cues. Recently, we began a gradual look at the core races and classes, touching on humans, dwarves, and elves, and this time we’ll wrap up the section on races with a look at gnomes, half-bloods, and halflings.

Part the Fourth: “I’ll race ya!”

Competition can help us excel. In a role-playing game like D&D, the players compete against the DM and, more specifically, the monsters and obstacles he puts in their way. Rarely do players compete amongst themselves. The goal of D&D play is cooperative not competitive. However, just as competition can help us to excel, so too can it have a place among players in relation to their characters, if we at first know where to look!

“I know you are, but what about ME!?”

Gnomes and halflings. These two most famous of D&D small folk have little to compete over at first glance (except perhaps their height), but a reasoned look at how each of their distinguishing traits might prompt them to act given certain in-game situations yields a different result. As small characters in a world of colossal dangers, gnomes and halflings may find themselves struggling to compete for attention over their larger companions. This competition for attention can be explored in even more meaningful ways when gnomes and halflings are both represented in the same party. While both share the same relative speed in most cases, the gnome’s vision is a shade better (due to Low-light), so gnomes may be led to seek point positions in the party formation as a way of demonstrating their worth to the party and stealing attention away from her halfling companion(s). Even other larger races with competing or superior modes of vision may be at a loss for words when they realize how easily the gnome becomes lost in the scrub and weeds that hedge the road they travel on, a fine deterrent against being detected, and something the taller elf or bulkier dwarf would have to work harder at staying hidden within. Point goes to the gnome.

Whereas the gnome’s vision may be better, the halfling’s natural athleticism is a boon few others can boast. The halfling’s natural springiness and clinginess may be just what he needs to risk scaling and scrambling up into places only he can go, not only to get a better vantage on the party’s surroundings, but as a means of grabbing attention away from the gnome and her “oh so sensitive” eyes. Point to the halfling.

How then does the gnome respond? An oft overlooked role-playing tool of gnomes is found in their magical touches, such as their familiarity with the languages of burrowing mammals, or their skill at illusion. These racial traits alone hold enough interest to fill an entire article. Suffice to say, anytime a member of the party stops to converse with a ground squirrel, hedgehog, rabbit, or furrow their brows at the strange noises and flashes of light emitted from the gnome, it ought to turn heads, and in the gnome’s case involve more than providing the player with a quick bit of information or a distraction. Perhaps the gnome has a special rapport with a specific type of groundling critter, styles her hair and clothes in a manner that is befitting such a relationship, or keeps such an animal as a pet and an easy means of locating others of its kind when needed? And if animals aren’t her thing, the gnome’s command of minor magics might yield specially colored balls of light or unique sounds that she entertains herself and others with. Getting back to the rivalry above: what better way to play point than to converse with the wildlife (all of which is connected to the local ecosystem and what happens there) about recent trespassers, all the while avoiding suspicion (save for the paranoid druid), or using those special magics to warn off or warn of specific dangers? Point: gnome.

“No problem!” the halfling says unflinchingly. Banking on his practiced arm and a good skipping rock, halflings can ensure all attention (including the unwanted kind) remains squarely on them. Next time the gnome goes to banter with a badger, or baffle the party with one of her magic tricks, sling a rock (remembering to target the space the critter or illusion occupies, and not the poor gnome or critter itself) and watch the conjured figment react falsely, or send the groundling fleeing for cover! Point: halfling.

No finer time can be had than watching these two small folk go at it. So long as the players are comfortable keeping the competition at a joshing, friendly level, and the DM is capable of maintaining a fair hand and nurturing the idea of role-play, not “rules-lawyering,” then back-and-forth moments like these between gnome and halfling (or any two characters for that matter) can be entertaining and edifying. When the gaming group can begin to enjoy the art of smaller moments like these, the bigger moments will take on an even greater significance.

Half-elves and half-orcs. Since we won’t be pitting these two against each other, and for the sake of simplicity, let’s call them the “half-bloods.” Half-bloods can experience an entirely different kind of competition: that between themselves and their full-blooded relatives. This kind of competition between races is less amusing and more serious. The disconnect and distance between the half-blood and her full-blood parentage is a hallmark (if not a stereotype) of the relationship these two races share, and is a mark of the depth of role-play and emotion that can be mined there. But what else does it tell us?

It’s important for us to remember that, unless the game is couched around such interactions, any non-hostile competition the half-orc enjoys will be with his human parent. While the half-orc may enjoy tolerance in human settings, acceptance may be harder to come by. Because of the blessing their darkvision provides them, half-orcs may prefer nocturnal activities; a time during which, because of their similar size, they are unlikely to be singled out by humans for their exotic looks. Half-orcs are still technically “orcs” though, so when it comes to making decisions like favored enemy for the ranger, choosing human or orc may have significant role-play implications for the character. For those who still adhere to the (now defunct) rule stating only evil rangers may choose their own race as a favored enemy, the implication is obvious. However, a half-orc who grows up around largely human stock may be conflicted over hunting humans. Then again, perhaps the ostracized and abused half-orc is a renegade in his own home, an urban ranger crusading through the alleys against the oppressive human rulers of his kind, or a wild ranger striking at travelers on the roadside or in their sleepy frontier towns. The half-orc who chooses orc as his favored enemy may have been bred to think that way, or outcast from his orc home as a “stain,” or suffering from a bloody crisis of identity or some other malady that urges him to kill his own.

Half-elves too struggle with their parentage from time to time. Examining what the half-elf “lacks” in racial traits with that of the elf yields some delicious fluffy bits. While most elves are predisposed to the use of blades and bows, the half-elf doesn’t come “prepackaged” with any such predilection. This means the half-elf should be compelled to express her martial tastes however she chooses. Players would do well to decorate this “blank slate” with a more eclectic arsenal, presenting a half-elf character with a more personalized, original look and feel, and a depth of weaponry choices that the average elf would be remiss to compete with (after all, for an elf to not take advantage of her given proficiencies is something of a waste). And while the elf boasts a slightly better suite of perceptive traits, this can also be taken to mean the half-elf isn’t as paranoid and flighty as her full-blooded cousin. Where the elf may be eager to use her skills of perception often (and more than likely to good effect), such constant “radar” tendencies won’t always ping a threat, and a little needling from the half-elf to the tune of, “Afraid of your own shadow are you?” or, “Admiring the sound of nothing, eh?” can only add to her character. Furthermore, the proactive half-elf might put her own personable traits to good use and learn all she can about a local area before venturing in, then base her travel and actions upon good intuition and forethought rather than pure on-the-spot detection.

When competing among humans, half-elves should never forget that they possess some of the same advantages. With freedom similar to that of a human (in terms of racial powers and/or multiclassing), half-elves can excel in several pursuits at once. While they don’t have the full flexibility of humans, half-elves will find it better to play to their other strengths. Within the party, in lieu of a competent bard, the half-elf is fit as a proper spokesperson with her penchant for Diplomacy. And in lieu of a competent scout, the half-elf is a passable lookout, regardless of class. The key for the half-elf player in this situation is to remember to diversify, making the half-elf the perfect role-player for where she can fit in the party. Half-elves rarely excel at direct competition on a one-to-one basis, and thus players should be ready to accept such a reality as the party rover. Additionally, DMs should recognize this phenomenon and be ready to seed their games with enough diversity so that the half-elf at least always has a chance at doing something the others can’t.

Looking at what the rules give us, we can see how what others in the game can do helps us to define ourselves a little bit better. When DMs create an atmosphere for players to let go of stereotypes and explore race in a way that is less fearful of failure and more true to character, both may find that games improve leaps and bounds like after donning Boots of Striding and Springing! So until next time, with swords high and daggers low!

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Written by LanJemWezz

Writer for ICOSA Entertainment LLC, and author of the upcoming in-house offering, “The Alchemist’s Trilogy”: a series of Pure Steam tie-in novellas. Also, look for his short story “Dark Magic in the Root Cellar” in the “Dreamless Roads” anthology for DreamWorlds Publishing, due out Winter 2014!

Check out the Pure Steam Campaign Setting at: puresteamrpg.com, drivethrurpg.com, paizo.com, d20pfsrd.com
Twitter: @PureSteamRPG

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2 Responses to “The Art of the Small—Finding Fluff in the Crunch Since 1995”
  1. Rambage says:

    Go gnomes!

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