Monday, January 1, 2018

Halfling Weapons Through the Ages

Here's a "small" issue that gives me fits any time I try to analyze it. Halfling preferred weapons varied wildly across different editions of D&D. Let's look at that. (Also: Happy birthday to J.R.R. Tolkien, who was born on Jan-3.)


Nonetheless, ease and peace had left this people still curiously tough. They were, if it came to it, difficult to daunt or to kill; and they were, perhaps, so unwearyingly fond of good things not least because they could, when put to it, do without them, and could survive rough handling by grief, foe, or weather in a way that astonished those who did not know them well and looked no further than their bellies and their well-fed faces. Though slow to quarrel, and for sport killing nothing that lived, they were doughty at bay, and at need could still handle arms. They shot well with the bow, for they were keen-eyed and sure at the mark. Not only with bows and arrows. If any Hobbit stooped for a stone, it was well to get quickly under cover, as all trespassing beasts knew very well.
This is the key paragraph on Hobbit martial prowess from the Prologue to the Lord of the Rings ("Concerning Hobbits", 18th paragraph). Interestingly, what takes priority here is first and foremost the bow (and only secondarily stone-throwing). And this is underscored elsewhere, too: the only assertion of historical Hobbit military action outside the Shire emphasizes the same thing (3 paragraphs prior): "To the last battle at Fornost with the Witch-lord of Angmar they sent some bowmen to the aid of the king, or so they maintained, though no tales of Men record it."

In the Lord of the Rings, we see Hobbit archers in action only at the very end. Perhaps more memorable for most readers is the major combat in Chapter 8 of The Hobbit, in which Bilbo, alone and invisible, holds off at least 50 giant spiders by throwing stones at them (one-shot killing at least the first two he targets). Tolkien writes:
Bilbo was a pretty fair shot with a stone, and it did not take him long to find a nice smooth egg-shaped one that fitted his hand cosily. As a boy he used to practise throwing stones at things, until rabbits and squirrels, and even birds, got out of his way as quick as lightning if they saw him stoop; and even grownup he had still spent a deal of his time at quoits, dart-throwing, shooting at the wand, bowls, ninepins and other quiet games of the aiming and throwing sort—indeed he could do lots of things...
So we can forgive most readers if foremost in their minds are the scenes of Hobbit stone-throwing, instead of archery. If you search online, you'll find quite a bit of confusion and debate as to the source, context, and meaning of these passages (e.g., here and here). But if we read carefully in each case, Tolkien indicates that stone-throwing is but one instance of a broad family of similar skills. In the Prologue to Lord of the Rings, it is clear this is due to their being "keen-eyed and sure at the mark". Likewise in The Hobbit it is emphasized at many points that Bilbo has significantly better eyesight than any of the dwarves, e.g., even in the darkness of the Mirkwood ("for by now they knew Bilbo had the sharpest eyes among them", Ch. 8).

We might think that the halflings should therefore get some bonus to finding secret doors or traps or somesuch, but they do not in any edition of D&D; in contrast to elves with their secret-door detection, and dwarves with their stonework traps detection, etc.

Chainmail Fantasy

They can fire a stone as far as an archer shoots, and because of their well known accuracy, for every two halflings firing count three on the Missile Fire table.
Unfortunately, in Chainmail (hobbits/halflings being the very first entry in the list of fantasy creatures), the weapon being described is ambiguous: "fire a stone". This is might be throwing (although "fire" is a slightly unusual verb for that; Tolkien does not use it). Or it could be slings (but there is no reference, statistics, or fire rate given for slings anywhere else in Chainmail). Or it could possibly be crossbows (some crossbows fired stones instead of quarrels). It seems like the only thing it couldn't be is the self-bows highlighted by Tolkien. The three-for-two attack rule means that halflings get a boost on the normally mass-attack Missile Fire table, with any group likely scoring an extra hit as a result.

Original D&D

In Vol-1 (Men & Magic) we see this:
... they will have deadly accuracy with missiles as detailed in CHAINMAIL.
This shares the ambiguity of Chainmail itself. Is this meant to be throwing, slinging, and/or crossbows, as it might be in Chainmail? Could it be a blanket bonus to all things that count as "missiles"? Furthermore, handling the numerical bonus gets murkier as we shift from mass combat to man-to-man. (This was written, presumably, shortly before the "Alternative" combat system using d20's.)

On that point, after Sup-I (Greyhawk), we get a Corrections sheet that says this:
Hobbits:  All hobbits add +3 to hit probabilities when using the sling.
Now we have the first clear specification, giving the preference to slings (and only to slings). The bonus of +3 is both odd and surprisingly hefty (equivalent to the melee attack bonus from 18/75 Strength in these same rules, say). But consider this: Against an opponent in chain mail (AC 5, e.g., most humanoid types), a 1st-level fighter hits on a 14 or more (that is, 7 in 20, or 35%). The chance to get at least one hit from n such attacks is given by P(n) = 1 − (1 − 0.35)^n. For 2 attacks we have P(2) = 0.58, whereas for 3 attacks we have P(3) = 0.73. The difference between these chances is 0.15 = 15%, or precisely 3 pips out of 20; so the +3 attack bonus is a reasonable translation of the advantage given in Chainmail.

AD&D 1st Edition

We will see that across AD&D, different books in the same edition always expressed contradictory ideas about the halfling attack bonus. (Perhaps as one was updated and the other lagged one edition behind?) In the 1E PHB, we see no reference whatsoever to any attack bonus in the section on Halflings (9 across paragraphs on p. 17). But the 1E MM says this in the monster entry for Halflings:
SPECIAL ATTACKS: +3 with bow or sling
This is in the statistical summary block (p. 50), with no further explanation in the text. This seems to be a retention of the +3 bonus from the Greyhawk correction, expanded by Gygax to be more in line with Tolkien's original depiction. The illustration of halflings in this book features one in action with a bow (see top of this article); their weapon frequency table shows 20% with short bows, and 20% with slings. However: we will see that this is effectively the one and only time that a D&D editor thought to call out halfling specialization with the bow. (Side note: at this time Thieves cannot use bows, but in the later Unearthed Arcana they will be given permission to use short bows.)

AD&D 2nd Edition

The 2E PHB says this:
Halflings have a natural talent with slings and thrown weapons. Rock pitching is a favorite sport of many a halfling child. All halflings gain a +1 bonus to their attack rolls when using thrown weapons and slings.
Notice that the preference here is different from the 1E MM, shifting from slings/bows to slings/thrown (emphasizing the final line from Tolkien about stones, and overlooking his thoughts on archery). The bonus is dropped from the hefty +3 to a measly +1 (but see also the B/X rules, which the author Dave Cook worked on previously -- this may be from whence his numerical sensibility for the issue comes from). On the other hand, the 2E MM still says this:
They are very skilled with both the sling and the bow (receiving a +3 bonus on all attack rolls) and use these weapons to great advantage in battle.
Note that the weapons and bonus value both contradict the 2E PHB, but are still in line with the 1E MM (likely a copy-paste mistake from that prior edition).

D&D 3rd Edition

3rd Edition can be credited with somewhat better organization, finally synchronizing the rule between PHB and MM. The 3E PHB says this, and the MM agrees:
+1 racial attack bonus with a thrown weapon: Throwing stones is a universal sport among halflings, and they develop especially good aim.
This is different from the 2E PHB rule, and is the most restrictive version seen in any edition (thrown only, no slings or bows). It's also the most likely interpretation to come from someone who primarily remembers the combat between Bilbo and the Spiders in The Hobbit, say.

D&D 3.5 Edition

From the 3.5 PHB and MM:
+1 racial bonus on attack rolls with thrown weapons and slings.
This backs off the hyper-restrictive rule in 3E, and returns the skill with the sling (so: exactly matches the rule from the 2E PHB).

Basic D&D

Here we check in with the Basic D&D line, which branches off temporally after OD&D, but has its own distinct rule. Holmes Basic says this (p. 7):
Halflings are extremely accurate with missiles and fire any missile at +1.
According to Zenopus Archives, this bonus is exactly what Holmes put in his original manuscript (before an editing pass by Gygax; link), which is totally different from any other ruleset. Compared to the prior OD&D Greyhawk, it seems to massively expand the preferred weapons (from only slings to all missiles), while severely reducing the bonus (from +3 to +1).

What was the motivation for this? Well, let's imagine for a moment that Holmes was looking only at OD&D Vol-1, and didn't have the Greyhawk Correction sheet in sight when he wrote this rule. As we saw above, Vol-1 fails to explicate either the exact weapons or bonus applicable for the present ruleset ("they will have deadly accuracy with missiles as detailed in CHAINMAIL"); even if you looked back in Chainmail the weapons are ambiguous, and the bonus is totally not in terms of the present ruleset. So you might very well interpret "missiles" as "all missiles", and some kind of undefined bonus as +1, in all probability. But perhaps more importantly: if you have expert familiarity with the writings of Tolkien, re: Hobbits being "keen-eyed and sure at the mark" with bows and other weapons, then this might be the most faithful expression of that conceit.

This "any missile at +1" was kept unchanged through all later editions of Basic D&D: it is the same in Moldvay-Cook B/X, Mentzer BXCMI, the Allston Cyclopedia, etc.


Below is a table summarizing the always-changing status of the halfling attack bonus across different editions of D&D:

I also asked the question as a poll on the Facebook 1E AD&D group. Interestingly and unusually, the 1E rule (neither of them) did not come out on top, with a strong preference for the 2E/3.5-style rule highlighting slings and thrown items:

Recall once more that Tolkien himself emphasized use of bows, and secondarily thrown items. In the history of D&D, this latter item seemed to get the focus of attention: an ambiguous rule in Chainmail/Vol-1, with the Sup-I correction translating it to slings, around which the rule orbited from then on (and reflected in the poll results above). Yet amusingly, in some sense the sling was the only missile weapon that Tolkien didn't call out by name as favorable for Hobbits.

At this point in my OED house rules I have the benefit to halflings listed as +2 to all missile attacks (the least-popular option in the poll above, but one). It would seem that if we want to be in any way faithful to Tolkien, we must give the bonus to at least bows and thrown weapons; and then the most concise rule is to just wrap in slings on the side and make it "all missiles". Moreover, if Tolkien attributes this to being "keen-eyed and sure at the mark", then by all rights it should benefit all types of ranged attacks. The value I set at +2 as the mean between the +1 and +3 bonuses seen in various editions above (also: I have a rule-of-thumb that I don't want to deal with any situational modifiers less than +2). However: I've juggled that benefit around in OED I-don't-know-how-many-times, so based on that, it might get adjusted again in the future.

What is your preference for the Halfling attack bonus, in terms of both numerical value and preferred weapon(s)?


  1. I don't remember the books but in movies (watched them yesterday) hobbits made some stone throwing but never used a bow.

  2. I give Hobbits +3 to their attack throws using any projectiles, based on the assumption that their deadly accuracy applies to any weapon that relies mainly on...accuracy. Turns out it was the right call, or at least the closest to the original thing.

  3. Given the arguments made and the relevant passages from Tolkien, I'd go with +3 with all missiles.

    1. Hmmm. I was leaning towards that, but in the past I got grief from some readers at +3 being too high a bonus in the system.

    2. It's not like the min-maxers are likely to play hobbits anyway, so I'm not really concerned what they think.

    3. Heh, accidentally commented out the "grin" tag with angle brackets. Pretend that there's a <grin> at the end there.

    4. Or if you need a balance argument, it helps compensate for never being able to rise past Hero level.

    5. Although indefinite levels as Thief which is what they're likely to take.

    6. Surely, but Thieves hardly hit much better than Magic Users in the first place. Also, if we're talking about Thieves, then we're either talking about Greyhawk supplement or AD&D. In the latter, Halflings can reach as high as Myrmidon as a Fighter.

      Either way, though, I still don't think that a +3 is at all "unbalancing", and I still maintain that people who care much about that sort of thing are not likely to play a Hobbit/Halfling in the first place. You know, in any reasonable edition of the game. I make no claims about the WotC editions <eyes Order of the Stick suspiciously>.

    7. LOL, I pretty much agree. :-)

  4. When I first saw the title of this post I thought it was going to be about the varying size restrictions on weapons over the years - this is a good alternative, though.

    For those curious about how WotC handled things in 4E and 5E, they didn't. They removed the bonus entirely, for whatever reason. I'm assuming that it's because of bounded accuracy in 5E, and for 4E perhaps it's a combination of being unwilling to give out a +1 racial bonus and also being unwilling to give out a free +2 to hit?

    1. Thank you for that info on 4E/5E! Interesting and wouldn't have guessed that.

  5. Late to the party but:
    Based on your sources and reading a decent bonus to all ranged weapons seems to be the way to go. (I give a +1 to all ranged attacks in my game, but they get some other good stuff as well, so a +2 or ++3 would be a bit much I feel.

    I wonder if part of the reason to stick with just slings/stones was to differentiate them from elves. elves get bows, they get the rest.... (in my own game I took away the elven weapon bonuses altogether, instead I allow elven wizards to be proficient with Long Swords and Long Bows)

    I wonder if we can emulate the keen eyes in another fashion, like extending range or removing range penalties?

  6. Something else to consider is that with their bonus to Dexterity, they sometimes in earlier editions (what with the non-linear ability score bonus tables) - and always in 3E or beyond - get +1 to hit with all missile attacks due to having higher Dexterity. So a halfling in 3.5 using a thrown weapon or sling is effectively +2 to hit compared to a human with the same rolls/array for ability scores.

    1. True, although in that 3E context of generally higher bonuses and ACs it proportionally counts for less.

    2. A fair point at higher levels, but at low to mid levels the AC numbers are actually fairly similar to older editions; maybe 1 or 2 points higher to compensate for the fact that fighters with 15 or 16 Strength are getting bonuses on par with what you got for having an 18 in older editions. IIRC it's really starting at CR 7 monsters that the AC starts to skyrocket.

  7. Huh. I've been using the straight B/X rules the last few years (and have had many halfling players), so that's been my default. It's been so long since I saw an AD&D (or other edition) halfling in a game, I can't remember how we handled it.

    However, just considering hobbits (based on Tolkien), I'd think that their keen-eyed sharpshooting is mainly due to a higher manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination, something already taken into account by most rules (AD&D provides halflings with a DEX bonus, and B/X makes DEX a prime requisite of the halfling class, allowing PCs to improve the score during character creation). As even non-supplement OD&D provides a bonus to missile combat for high DEX, I'd probably consider their "skill" to be appropriately modeled...nothing in Tolkien seems to suggest a supernatural amount of marksmanship deserving greater bonus (consider that CHAINMAIL mods exist as a convenient short-hand for the ability score bonuses found in a more detailed RPGs).

    RE the reduction from +3 to +1 in "basic" versions of the game: Again, I've found there to be plenty of "missile bonus" for a halfling in B/X due to the attack bonus of high DEX score (often a +2 or +3) in combination with the halfling's "racial bonus." Certainly, I've found no need to shower more missile bonus on a creature that often hits as a character 3 (or 6!) levels higher than their actual level!

    [in B/X, a 1st level halfling with an 18 DEX shoots as a 7th level fighter; a 1st level halfling with a 13 DEX shoots as a 4th level fighter]

    1. Don't forget, though, that AD&D has very little use for most stats. It takes a Dex of 16 (!) to get any attack bonus at all, and Halflings only get a +1 to their Dex scores. Admittedly, the 4d6s3 method is given as the preferred method for stat generation, but that only raises the average of a stat to something like 13, if I recall correctly (looking it up, it's 12.24), which with the +1 Dex brings Halflings to all of 13.24 average, for no bonus in AD&D terms. In that game, the main purpose of such stats is to act as a prerequisite for various subclasses. Since Halflings in that game are limited to Fighters and Thieves, it doesn't really do much at all for them, other than slightly increasing the number of Halflings who get a Dex bonus. I could work out the precise average of Dex bonuses, but that sounds like work, and the point is really that most Halflings still don't get one in AD&D.

      Anyway, in all versions of the game, the roll to hit is about the least useful part of combat. Outside of extreme cases, AC is not nearly as important as damage rolls. The difference between needing a 15 or a 12 to hit affects combat a lot less than whether the damage roll is on a d6 or d6+2*. (Average damage per round, given d6 damage, for 15 to hit is 1.05, while for 12 to hit it is 1.575, an increase of 0.525 average per round, but with d6+2 a 15 to hit gives a 1.65 damage per round on average, 0.6 per round better than the d6 equivalent; conclusion: a +2 to damage is more useful than a +3 to hit, though if you can get both that's better still).

      So, my point is really "don't be so afraid to give out to hit bonuses, they're nice but they're not that big a deal; keep an eye on the damage bonuses though".

      *Or d10. Each +1 to damage is equivalent, on average, to an increase of one die size across d4/d6/d8/d10/d12, then nominal size equivalents of d14, d16, etc. Which, of course, is mostly how DCC handles things, sort of.

    2. Yeah, I'm more persuaded by faoladh here. Having just re-read The Hobbit and gotten clobbered repeatedly by Tolkien about how incredible their eyesight is (e.g., beating even dwarves in the darkness of Mirkwood) my intuition is there really is something "supernatural" (compared to men) that should be reflected with an added bonus here.

  8. I like +3 to anything that needs accuracy (so all ranged weapons). Good, yes, but I don't think it breaks the game, and it gives people a decent reason to play a hobbit.