I’m returning to the framework of “what role does this race’s society play?” Look at the group, not the individual. For halflings, there are basically two answers to this. The first was Tolkien’s original hobbits, which are essentially an idealized version of the Victorian English Bourgeoisie. Yes, you grew up in the countryside, but still in a manor with servants. Hobbits don’t farm you see, they garden. They don’t wear shoes, not because they're poor or anything but because they’re in a perpetual state of leisure. They eat and eat and eat. And they gossip. They’re obsessed with dignity and prestige and public perception and bloodlines. They’re not quite so bad as the aristocracy, but they’d like to be. Let’s just look at their clothing. Tolkien often slips in little details that paint kind of a weird picture if you’re paying attention, and the folks behind the movies fucking nailed it. They made it blend in inconspicuously and instead just read as charming and quaint to the untrained eye. But you might not realize that wearing waistcoats, jackets with lapels, and suspenders would place you about a THOUSAND years too late for Charlemagne (and much of Middle Earth is based on that “Dark Ages” early medieval period of Europe). It is not an exaggeration to say that hobbit-wear is as anachronistic as if a group of characters in the Norman Conquest of England were inexplicably wearing hoodies, denim jeans, and Air Jordans.
Tolkien was Bourgeoisie, and it’s clear that he had a deep love for that part of society. Where he was comfortable criticizing it was in calling it lazy and timid. That’s probably because he had to fight in World War Goddamn One. But even for all the “Hobbits are cowards!” stuff, he simultaneously glorified how cozy their lifestyle was, fully equating “victory in this quest” with “smoking a pipe and eating a cake prepared by unseen servants.” He many times stresses that the primary quality of Hobbitdom is comfort, which is an insanely privileged and modern thing. And it works. It is impossible to watch The Fellowship of the Ring and not fall in love with the Shire.
But not only is it classist and very un-medieval, it also isn’t very compatible with adventure. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the two most influential pictures of what fantasy adventure is supposed to look like for most people, and they feature five separate halflings as their main characters. So halflings literally have to be a major option for play in D&D, right? But those five were also the exception, which is a big reason why they were even the subject of a story at all. So are all halfling PCs in D&D supposed to be exceptional little snowflakes who don’t mesh with their society? That’s dumb. And correctly recognizing this, the official alternative within D&D lore is to then change their society so that individuals who become adventurers make more sense. That's a great start! But the way they have done that is… by literally trying to give them an “adventuring society?” This is the second answer that’s been given, started by D&D and mimicked in many other works. “Halflings are a race of people who base their entire culture around being plucky, brave, and curious Bilbo Bagginses.” I am 100% positive this came about as a result of a particularly lazy worldbuilding trope. So some of the more clever ways to make that, you know, workable is to ask yourself “how can an entire culture be, fundamentally, adventurous?” Nomads, naturally. Which is a fucking great answer.
Here is your fantasy setting: humans have their feudal kingdom, dwarves have industry, elves are decadent and isolationist, gnomes are mercantile, and halflings are nomads. Many DMs take a step further and just make them into fantasy Romani, which is both problematic and rad as hell. The other classic and badass nomad group are Bedouins, of course. Maybe you turn halflings into sailors or highwaymen. These are all cool and will give them a very distinctive place within your world and will inspire many different sorts of adventurers.
Anyway I don’t want that, either. It’s a step a bit too far. Remember, the goal is to just make individual adventurers seem reasonable within their society, not that they have to be 100% adventurers. That’s crazy. Also, I want lots of human nomad groups and I want demi-human races to be a bit more mysterious and less familiar.
As I was thinking on this problem, it occurred to me that the reason I’m so fascinated by medievalism is because it’s like an alien world to me. Like, people are told constantly that “vanilla” fantasy is synonymous with “medieval European” fantasy even though we all know that’s bullshit. Anyone who paid attention in history class when they talked about the Middle Ages knows that there’s nothing authentic about Forgotten Realms, and that plundering real history is actually a great way to make your setting more exotic and interesting. It seems counter intuitive to refer to 13th century England as “exotic,” but that’s because you didn’t know that in 13th century England people put animals on trial for crimes, it was illegal to wear clothes too fancy for your class, and that people ranked wild bears and lions and jaguars as being equivalent to dragons and unicorns. That’s crazy.
So many D&D games include banks, “general stores,” surnames, orphanages, coffee, police (“watchmen”), tobacco, clocks, etc. because DMs take for granted that these things commonly existed in the Middle Ages even though they actually didn't. I mean, like, do you know how dramatically different a society is when literacy rates are lowered to a medieval level? Medieval Europe is a crazy place. It’s at least as fascinating to learn about and be immersed in as The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect or Avatar. Either Avatar, in fact. To me, it feels alien enough to provide the culture of a demi-human race and come off as weird and mysterious.
Another thing I thought about was the concept of "smallfolk." So when you take a foreign language course, you usually have to also learn a bit about the culture(s) who natively speaks that language. And when I took Latin in high school, we got to learn about Ancient Rome. But one thing that my teacher really wanted to focus on was the plebeian class, because traditionally there has been a major historical bias in classical studies where attention is paid only to the patrician class. All literature and poetry is about them, the way other societies viewed Rome (both contemporaries and in the ages since) is about the patricians, the values and customs and religious beliefs and whatnot we're taught about is actually for the patricians, etc. But patricians probably comprised less than 5% of the population. When we're told that the people of Ancient Rome enjoyed music and theatre and had running water and were politically active and blablabla we're hearing about a very small portion of the people. The vast majority of society just got buried by history and is only being unearthed relatively recently. And we've found that they belong to a very different culture than the Rome most of us are familiar with. To put it this way, can you imagine if someone described American culture to you by saying that Americans don't use the internet, don't believe in the moon landing, are stay-at-home workers, and are vegetarians? That wouldn't seem right, would it? Well each of those are true for 5-10% of Americans, and yet for some reason they aren't the stereotype. Imagine that.
Well, I've read quite a lot of medieval literature and I couldn't help but notice that nearly 100% of it comes from rich people. 100% of chivalric tales exclude peasantry and serfs. Sir Thomas Mallory and Chrétien de Troyes and the Pearl Poet and all of those guys. The Decameron? Literally a bunch of a rich trust-fund babies going out to their parents' summer home to wait out the Black Death while the poors dropped dead in the streets. The Divine Comedy? Sure it was the first book to be written in the Italian vernacular, but it's still about rich society and politicians and historical figures/fictional characters that would only be known to those who had a well-read, well-educated upbringing. Even The Canterbury Tales? That's like the go-to medieval work that talks about classism. But Geoffrey Chaucer was born middle class and rose into high society. The pilgrim characters are almost all middle class, and even if this is the story that popularized the English vernacular into literature, it's still not about serfs.
This is really important. Serfs are estimated to have made up 75-90% of the population of medieval Europe. A Song of Ice and Fire is a story about all the rich people in Westeros dealing with rich people problems, for the most part. No one from The Lord of the Rings comes from humble beginnings except possibly Samwise the Gardener. The story of the serf is the story of medieval Europe, and those weird things the nobles were up to honestly should barely warrant a footnote in comparison.
So piecing together the culture of the medieval serf has comprised most of the lore details I have for halflings in my setting. A lot of it is lifted directly, but most of it is still heavily modified to be more fantastic and exotic. Remember that my gnomes were inspired by the Netherlands, but they still live in giant mushrooms in caves and eat glowing rocks or whatever.
So here are some details about Pechs:
- First I'll dispel a little myth I see pretty frequently around medievalist studies: that serfs only had to work 3 days a week, seemingly getting a ton of time off in the year. Well, yes, they were required to only work 3 days a week for their lord's benefit, but they still spent another 3 days each week growing stuff for themselves. So yeah, serfs work a lot, including pechs.
- However, on their day of rest (the Sabbath day for humans) they take not-laboring very seriously. There are few emergencies serious enough to get them to work on that day. If grandma has a heart attack that day, then that's as good a day to die as ever you'll get. I bet lots of old pechs even save their death for that day, because it's the ultimate form of rest. Spiritual practices and worship are instead incorporated throughout the rest of the week.
- The afterlife that Pechs believe in is a land of plenty called Cockaigne, where the sky rains cheese and alcohol, the buildings are made of cake, and laziness is treasured. Fuck Heaven.
- Their relationship to the human faith and the religion of the gods of heaven is weird. They believe in all that, but they don't necessary practice it or think of themselves as the subject. Like, they know they aren't the chosen people. They appease as necessary but treat the gods of heaven not unlike how they treat humans: masters, but not "one of us."
- They do bury their own dead, but they do it in next year's fields so they can use their dead as fertilizer. To cast a "speak with dead" spell on a pech spirit, you have to find one of the plants that grew from their corpse and cast it on that.
- Instead of candles, they use rush-lights. If they need to ward off evil, then they'll sacrifice a turnip for a lantern and make a jack-o-lantern. Although these are more commonly set up at important spots to ward monsters away, rather than carried by hand.
- "The Last Harvest" is done at sunrise the morning following Halloween, when dew-covered cobwebs have accumulated atop all the wild fields and are ripe for gathering. Clothing made with this thread has some kind of magical property connecting it to the spirit world/vale of shadow. I dunno, maybe it lets you hear ghosts if you wear it.
- One of the primary roles of pech clergy is actively fighting back against the demons of pestilence. You see, illness and bad smells are one and the same, and cities fucking stink to high heaven. A pech farm smells fucking awesome, though, and that's intentional. Melted beeswax on linen, baked bread, fire pit smoke, wildflowers, clean air, and any of the other scents that a pech priest intentionally spreads around the community. A bad crop is usually attributed to a plague from demons, which is probably literally true. Unlike the inaccurate beliefs of medieval people, pech immune systems actually are based around scent. They get physically sick if they spend too much time in nasty cities or stinky swamps. Oh, also, pech clerics always wield a shepherd's crook.
- Lastly on the subject of religion, they have three major gods. 1) Gentle Nintu, goddess of childbirth and children, security and diplomacy (pretty straightforwardly their main patron). 2) The Green God, a god of nature and crafts and fey stuff and whatnot, except the pech variation treats him as a domestic god of the hearth and the roots of the earth. 3) A variant of Saint Celather who they call "Sinceltha" (looks Welsh, doesn't it?). Saint Celather is already the god of agriculture and warfare for humans, so obviously he's important for pechs. But they reinterpret his sky chariot to instead be a "lightning plow" that he rides around on, pulled by the Thunder Ox.
- Speaking of warfare, obviously pechs don't fight a whole lot. However, one of the designated roles a serf can take on for their lord's estate is that of a monster-hunting knave. They're less like a brave Conan-type adventurer and more like a methodical exterminator and can't handle anything too much, but it's a good gateway into being an adventurer.
- Pechs have designed combat variants of every farming tool, and some decently respectable combat styles to get the most out of each one. If you play a pech, I would grant you the same proficiencies to be able to use simple or martial weapons or ranged or whatever, but you have to substitute the standard European weapons for scythes and sickles, forks, spades, trowels, rakes, hoes, wood chopping axes, saws, shears, grain flails (a personal favorite), whip, clubs, mattocks, pruning hooks, and even kitchen knives.
- Remember that part in Mad Max: Fury Road where they referred to bullets as "anti-seed?" It stuck with me. Pechs famously are really good at throwing rocks and, even better, using slings. The big end-of-summer tournament for sling throwers at the harvest fair has a very specific number of rounds, contestants, and shots made, exactly equal to the number of seeds planted that year in that community. For every seed you sow, you can later shoot one rock. And if you use your sling in defense or are an adventurer, you keep a bag of seeds on the opposite side of your belt from your bag of anti-seed, so that you can later plant the right number of seeds along the trail for every enemy you killed. Even if it's illegal for you to plant on that land.
- This ties into a greater philosophy that pechs have about theology. They think of the opposite of violence being eating. The destruction or accumulation of life, respectively. Food is such an immeasurably important part of pech culture than most humans can't quite appreciate it. I don't even insist on the chubby, hedonist hobbits of Tolkien. The majority of my pechs may well be malnourished, but that doesn't change the significance of food for them.
- A big part of every single day is preparing food, which they work hard at. Grounding stuff down in a mortar and pestle, frying something over charcoals, potting some veggie mush, baking bread, smoking bacon, churning butter, etc. Participating in pech kitchen work is among the most sacred parts of culture. When outsiders stay as guests, they are better put to work doing chores. Helping prepare food is trust, and it's a space where lots of cultural secrets are shared. Family tales, ancestries, rumors, etc. The primary meal of the day is eaten at noon, preferably right on the dot. Don't forget that serfs eat the "lower quality" grainy brown bread, since the "pure" white bread is for the nobility.
- Beer is pretty important, to say the least. They begin drinking it from the age of 5. The fourth, secret god of the pechs is the Satyr, the patron of alcohol, making merry, fertility, and, actually, knaves. A human might never know which pechs in their village are the heads of the local Satyr cult, but it's gotta include the brewers. Not only is it an important institution for pechs culturally, but its customs and holidays are also the primary determinant of the beer industry, and these customs are meant to help also keep the more hostile and barbaric knaves from ravaging the farmlands.
- You know how I have Potent Potables? Pechs make their own ones, except these are magic seeds, because magic seeds are fairy-tale as fuck.
- Pechs have no great wizards, but they do have food-mancers. They wear Barretinas. Instead of spellbooks, they cast spells from enchanted foodstuffs that are consumed when cast (because you have to eat it). Milk, butter, cheese, and every kind of vegetable. Squashes, roots, shooters, bulbs, etc. As in Knave, they always take up a full spell slot because they're huge. These are the first prize-winning squashes, you see.
- Why not spellbooks? Why, because pechs are totally illiterate. They can learn to read, but it's so unlikely and unneeded in their society that even a pech who comes into some position of great privilege will likely never bother. So traditional magic is right out. However, they do love riddles. This is stealing from Middle-Earth a little bit, but I was actually inspired by the tradition of Anglo-Saxon Riddles. This is one of the few things I've found which can help justify including a few more riddles in your adventures, since they're thought of as a staple trope despite being so weird and arbitrary. Well, if pechs are involved, now you know where to stick one. I would likely use it as a barrier for the PCs to learn secret pech lore/gossip/superstitions.
- An idea inspired by Willow: petrification seeds. You throw the acorn at something and it turns to stone. Oh, and a cultural detail to steal from the same movie: giving someone you love a braid of hair for safety and luck.
- Let's talk about actual farming. Each halfling can speak to their own raised animals, who are treated as their second family. Pech sons and daughters have animal siblings. Cattle, geese, pigs, dogs, cats, etc. For the Sylvan speakers, yes you can talk to farm animals. However, domesticated animals only ever whisper and respond to whispering.
- Every single unit and measurement is based on practical application and never on anything scientific. An acre is 1 day of work for 1 pech. Thus, acres vary greatly in size based on where you are and how shitty or flat the land there is. 1 furlong is the amount of land an ox can plow without rest. Bushels are the main unit of volume, for anything. The calendar is based on weather and the change of seasons, so the number of days in a month is not fixed at all. You can literally have a "long winter" since May Day doesn't come until the first blossom. A good example of this on a micro-scale is the moment, a unit used to pace their work throughout the day. A foot is literally the length of the measurer's foot. A league is the distance you can walk in an hour. The barleycorn is the closest thing there is to a base unit for both length and weight. One of their most obscure is a word to describe the distance one can hear a dog bark from in still air (inexplicable to most humans, but is an important measurement for certain superstitions).
- A murderer caught among pech society is usually given a "Ragwort Death," where they are magically bound up like a scarecrow filled with ragwort, but left to live a slightly-exiled life. Ragwort is a hay crop weed that's poisonous to mammals and smells awful. So a pech that has a layer of ragwort skin not only smells horrible (as a warning to other pechs) but is living in diseased agony for their crime.
- So sometimes a pech goes feral in the fields and becomes a mole-like little dirt monster (not unlike a woodwose. But grosser). Treat this as vampirism/lycanthropy for pechs. To be cured of this, they must be baptized in a ritual involving water and ash+pig fat (soap) dedicated to the Gray Baptist. A full pig must be sacrificed for this, so it's kind of a big deal for pechs to commit to this cure. Thus, the dirt-monster state makes them very pig-like, wallowing. Maybe there's a belief that their soul has been switched with a specific pig and the right pig needs to be found. Identifying the right pig is a big ordeal (remember Spirited Away?).
- Pechs have a perfect aversion to politics. Like, there is never a situation in which a decision must be made for the community's benefit. They already know what to do. For everything. Oral traditions have a contingency plan for every conceivable thing in serf life and beyond. It oftentimes prescribes folk cures, like making offerings and whatnot. But pechs are the experts at solving pech problems, and never need leaders or votes or debates or whatever. All the policy was decided long, long ago and no one questions it.
- This is inspired by an experience I had in Cuba once. There, I met a woman who was the subject of a documentary called Tierralismo. She explained to me an emerging philosophy there which emphasizes the importance of agrarian life. Cuban society has always been colored by political ideologies: imperialism, capitalism, communism, etc. But she and the others in their co-op reject capitalismo and communismo in favor of what they called tierralismo ("land-ism," basically), which places food and environmental harmony above anything having to do with power. Of course, they've taken this path in a very political manner: they united and appealed the government to allow them to do this, and very much have goals in mind. But the idea of rejecting conventional political ideology in favor of the land itself, and especially the emphasis on sustainable farming practices, both seemed extremely pech-like to me.
- Speaking of their relationship to human society, every year at Yuletide, pech serfs are invited into the manor to celebrate with the lord and the humans and whatnot, and they get free beer. They gotta provide everything else, though. It's one of the few times that nobility and pechs interact. Every year there's culture shock.
- I wish I had something better for this, but I think they must have some weird magical relationship to coinage. Maybe it burns them or something. Obviously serfs don't use money (or at least, not very frequently), so it only makes sense to me that, for pechs, this would be stylistically heightened to spiritual aversion. In my mind, if a human PC wants to buy something at a pech market, but they aren't a member of the community who swore fealty to the lord and gets the whole tit-for-tat feudal package... then the only way to pay is by bartering with other goods or by doing actual labor. Like, if you want to buy eggs from a serf, then you have to agree to work in the fields for one of their family members for a number of hours equal to the price of those eggs.
- Halfling rangers are literally their diplomatic core to other races and societies. They exist on the borders of the halfling realm and that of all others, except for the human masters. It's a common vocation for pechs who have an adventurous spirit.
- You know how serfs are distinguished from most other slaves because they're bound to the land on which they live? So you can't trade serfs, you can only trade land. And the serfs come with it and can never leave for their entire lives. One of my players came up with a loophole: serfs whose land to which they are bound itself moves. Specifically, they live on giant turtles and work the fields of crops growing atop its shell. I think the turtle itself is the lord who owns them and the crops and whatnot.
- In my setting Underworld, the Underworld is pretty important. It is the place from which all non-human races come. For dwarrow, it's that classic Mine Cart Carnage aesthetic. For elfs, it's more like Alice's Wonderland deep underground. For many races, it goes from subterranea near the surface to Hell itself and other mythic underworlds near the bottom. But halflings seem the closest to humans and the surface world of all the races. But don't be fooled. Remember how halflings build their houses into the sides of hills when they can? See, for pechs, "indoors" is a significant enough departure from the surface world that it counts as a mythic underworld. The agrarian lifestyle keeps you out in the sunlight so much that anything else feels less "real" by comparison. Pechs almost only ever go indoors to sleep and to sometimes create, and really only very artistic things (crafts and whatnot. Or to have sex, which counts as a type of artistic "crafting"). For this reason, indoors/underground is regarded as a "land of dreaming" while the outdoors is the waking world, because indoor activities spring from the imagination while outdoor activities are all about the physical form.
- The last ingredients of serf culture I never figured out a solid way to work in: weaving, wool, rosaries, horns (like, the ones you blow into), and gloves. These all seem like they'd be good for magic items made by pechs, so do with that something creative.
- Lastly, if I were a better blogger, I'd have made a table of halfling rumors, halfling superstitions, halfling legends, and halfling secrets for you to steal. As is stands, I tend to use stuff like that more as story motifs to keep on standby. Instead of pre-generating a bunch and rolling for random ones later when I'm making the adventure, I have a habit of sitting down to write the adventure and only then coming up with the rumors and legends and whatever. The ways I'll be using my motifs, specific to that one adventure and its context. So just keep that in mind: if you throw your PCs at a pech community and want them to get all up in their drama, then don't forget to seed those four elements in great abundance.
I've been slowly putting this one together for months, mostly with it sitting around not gaining progress. But I wanted to put it out in time for Labor Day, my favorite holiday and the favorite holiday of all halflings.