(Google + threw this together in about half a day. Good job, weird community.)
Halfling city. Not The Shire but like a whole city (not a village) of, for, by, halflings. What's that like? Do they just run around stealing from each other? Is it Munchkinland? What's the deal?
Lots of parallels to Republican Rome-- you've got this tension where they really want to identify as simple no-nonsense homespun plainspoken gentleman farmers, but through conquest/trade they've had a taste of the luxury and sophistication of the otherplacians and they're not giving that up anytime soon and the halfling language is simple and pure and honest but it's not what you use for talking philosophy or poetry or art. Strong reactionary element that laments contemporary morals and calls for a return to the simple stark values of a semi-mythical past but goddammit the kids are plucking their foot-hair and writing parodies of time-honored pastoral poetry in Elvish.
So assuming they went through their Roman phase ages ago (copying elves, but being militaristic about it) and then keep going until they get all stylized like feudal Japan after it stopped copying China. What's that like?
You have a lot of agriculture-based rites and rituals and public offices that are purely symbolic and so ornate and stylized that they're almost unrecognizable as such. Clans and extended families are hugely important to the point where you are basically no-one if you're not part of one-- citizenship is dependent on being formally adopted by one of these.
Laid out in crop circles?
Laid out in Venn-Diagram terraces that map family relations So when families marry, their estates are redrawn to intersect and the newlyweds build a house on the overlap
They're assigned to it. There's a bureaucracy in charge of demarcating these things that is thoroughly riddled with corruption and under constant pressure of violence, blackmail, bribery, etc. from the families/individuals involved to draw things up in their favor. This is so common that halfling has a whole vocabulary to refer to it, but it's considered shameful to use such words or admit their existence in the presence of outsiders.
You can trace family relations by noticing styles in the architecture. Like iron railings with spheres at the corners means the Sockeye family is in there somewhere.
APPLES AND OWNING STUFF
Every piece of land, even if completely useless for building/agriculture/industry is owned by someone. There is no public land, strictly speaking. That park over there is owned by a consortium of families and those desiring to use it without harassment must negotiate a web of favors and petty shows of compliance and submission.
So if you want to go out for a stroll, you basically have to go visit everyone whose land you're strolling over (at minimum) and bring gifts. So if you want to just wander around on a summer day you leave the house with this hilarious pile of wine bottles, apples, chickens and distribute them to people (or kids they send to retrieve it) as you cross their property.
As this might cause you to lose face, there is the implicit understanding that such gifts, if not presented immediately, will be forthcoming -- perhaps dropped off with a client of the family after dark, or the person is tacitly agreeing to owe the family a favor at some unspecified time in the future.
You therefore propose to a girl by standing under her window for a week without giving her anything
And naturally your youthful roguish burglar-types are trained at circumventing the rules by dodging quickly from property to property via alleys, clotheslines, storm drains, etc.
What visitors take to be quaint, charming displays of courtesy and good manners are carefully nuanced coded messages that are only fully understood by other halflings. Human visitors have attended banquets at which accusations are thrown about, vengeance sworn, and 100-year feuds begun without being any the wiser.
Burglary is weirdly ritualized like Aztec Flower Wars.
CUSTOMS AND ENTERTAINMENTS
Halfling streets are tidy, orderly, and free of litter. There are no beggars in halfling cities as the clan provides for all of its members and disowned halflings are exiled on pain of death.
Also incredibly tidy and fastidious in appearance. A halfling with hair/clothes/etc. even slightly dishevelled or out of place is assumed to be in mourning.
Will go into freak out/paranoia mode if offered something for free. They experience culture shock bordering on nervous breakdowns when first arriving in human cities.
What about gigantic rabbit dens? A la Watership down.
Social life revolves around tea time and croquet. Anything conflict that can't be resolved by forcing the participants to sit down to the elaborate tea rituals ends up in a high stakes croquet game.
Gentlemen prefer smoking pipes and playing baduk* (not chess mind you, too constrictive and not imaginative enough). An occasional pint is also part of this afternoon ritual.
Ladies prefer gardening. While a bounty of vegetables is a staple in every halfling home, ladies prefer to engage in floral gardens of intricate patterns. The competition among them is immense. Nearly every year a story will circulate of a jealous rival taking some shears and a spade to a more skilled neighbor's garden in the middle of the night.
Such skill and efforts in these floral gardens are widely appreciated by many races. Tales are not uncommon of halfing women enticed by human nobles seeking their knowledge and abilities to foster similar gardens on their estates. Such women typically return after a year with a chest of gold in tow. As for the elves, few of them will freely admit their envy at the horticultural skills possessed by these smaller folk.
When a halfling goes on an "adventure", it's not a quest for gold and glory, or whatever, it's a stress test for the hearth and home (the familial society). However long it takes the society to absorb and redistribute property and belongings indicates how important (honorary/functional) that halfling was to the society as a whole.
Awesome stuff. But if we're riffing on a "decadent Rome" and "everything is owned" vibe, where are the slaves? Especially, the ancient Gnomish burial rites, where slaves fought for the honor of the deceased have become enormous public games. Human and dwarf fighters are prized for their ferocity and made to fight with caricatured interpretations of their "native arms". Occasionally, for special occasions (like election season) wealthy clans bring in more exotic creatures like ogres and giants or even flailsnails. Halflings attribute their fine gardens to the blood spilled.
Courtesy, civility, and hospitality are valued above all, especially by the elite. In a crowded space where reputations are made and broken and honours are insulted, it is not uncommon for a duel to break out.
Halflings duel not with swords, but with hearths.
In a halfling duel, the insulted party ("defender") invites his opponent ("offender") to be his guest indefinitely. To decline to is considered an act of the utmost vulgarity, but to accept is to risk one's reputation -- and possibly more. The offender then lodges with the defender, and the defender is expected to be as gracious and welcoming a host as possible. Slight oversights, such as uncomfortable accommodations, a fireplace left cold, a meal served too late, grouchy servants, undusted seats, understocked larders etc. are unpardonable. The offender must also be a most excellent guest, providing his host with good company and stories, keeping clean, respecting the home, minding his please-and-thank-yous, helping bring the tea to the garden, and taking care never to insult his hosts.
There are a number of ways to end a duel:
1. A party dies. Note that for either party to take actions that would bring about the other's death is an unpardonable sleight, and so death must be due to natural causes (age, illness, etc.). Given that some duels have been known to last decades, this end is surprisingly common. The survivor maintains his honour.
2. One party admits that the other is an okay guy. This is basically a form of surrender and constitutes an admission that you were wrong to begin with. It is highly embarrassing and ruinous to one's reputation.
3. Both parties realize that they've forgotten why they're dueling. This is pretty much a draw, but happens from time to time.
4. One party is no longer able to fulfill their duties and admits defeat. Because hospitality and politeness take priority above all, it is unpardonable for either party to go to work, attend a funeral, or do anything but stay in and keep each other company for the duration of the duel. Duels that go on for too long are known to destroy families and households. If the defender can no longer afford to have his guest, or else if the offender must take leave on some urgent business, that person loses.
Halfling novels grow out of hearth duellists writing extensive detailed legal notes of the courtesies paid and not paid by their hosts. They read like Jane Austen on Adderall.
Resolved duels have even reignited in the form of literary one-upsmanship. The entire halfling newspaper industry is the city's longest running feud with the worst remembered reasons for starting.
METAL AND WHEELS
I always saw halflings as anti-city rurals. So if they've fallen to living in a city, I'd envision it as an industrial, sweatshop-filled nightmare. Little black-lungs and gin everywhere.
Yeah I am kind of wondering about the resources for these densely urban, urbane and wealthy halfling. Where do they get food and teapots? Even in a shire like rural halfling space manufacture and large scale farming seem necessary. Since they aren't magic the labor must be performed by a huge underclass. Every goodnatured tea full of jammy biscut is at the expense of a dozen drudges or slaves.
In a city, where are these toilers? Farming in distant prison style thorps? In lightless warrens beneath the city?
Who keeps the workers down? Halfling taskmasters and grim pretorians? Brutal moronic halflings sports grown to the size of giants? Minotaur mercenaries?
Urbanisation either doesn't agree with halflings, or they take to it splendidly, depending on your point of view. When some bright spark got his watermill hooked up to a giant dough mixer, and the rival mill down the road got to mass producing pie crusts, halfling industrialisation and urbanisation was inevitable. Massive pie-mills are surrounded by back to back terraces and grotty tenements, music halls collide with gin palaces and sweetshops, vast amounts of food are carted into town by rail, yet still most of the populace go hungry and the rodents run scared.
The wealthy millowners have colossal bacon waistcoats and beef jerky corsets, dress mainly in a combination of liquorice and meringue and have to be lugged around by reinforced sedan chairs and juggernaut sized carriages made of gingerbread. Flat capped proles that dare to drool in their presence are taken up alleyways by blue uniformed rozzers (whose tall hats conceal a meat pie, for emergencies only you understand) where they are beaten senseless with truncheons made of a special black pudding that has iron filings instead of oatmeal in the recipe.
The only way to keep the grub flowing inwards is to make the rural hobbits dependent on mass produced ready meals, so home baking has been made illegal and hit squads led by huge snooted 'Cooksniffer Generals' roam the countryside. If they detect the aroma of fresh baked bread and meat pies they have the miscreants toasted (on a fork (and after extensive sampling of the evidence of course)).
As a result of all this processed food urban halflings have begun to mutate, becoming green skinned, diversely proportioned and liable to asexual fission. In fact they are now becoming goblins.
We mustn't let ourselves be fooled by Tolkien's hobbits. Though the Shire was a rural setting, the hobbits we got to know best were property-owning elites who epitomized bourgeois values. (Bourgeois literally, town- or city dweller.) Conservatism, civility, civic-mindedness, conformity, frugality -- these values would be right at home among the burghers of any free town of medieval Europe. So that's your model right there.
Medium sized visitors might not be able to see the ground, due to all the pipesmoke hovering at waste level.
Chris Tamm 107 PM
Kids book fatipuffs and thinifers - art of steampunk fatties with luxury and food everywhee, millitary trenches shaped for fat ppl with pillows and snacks etc - book has war of fat vs thin - labour saving machines, pillows and snacks everywhere.
While you'd think they'd be wiped out immediately by larger foes, a city built at half scale is actually a pretty formidable defense all by itself--every door is effectively a murder hole every window an arrow slit, every alley a crab trap.
Unlike most the cities of most races, where living high up is a luxury, halfling real estate is most expensive at the lowest levels. The poor have to huff and puff up and down stairs every day, while the well-off stay close to the ground. Only the richest can afford traditional hole-dwellings.
Well, naturally, since the higher-up people are the newlyweds, with homes built on top of the more established families lower down..
In order to preserve hillside real estate, buildings tend to get piled on top of hills. Cities end up looking like a bunch of mounds of buildings with grassy valleys in between. Each mound ends up functioning like its own little neighbourhood, with well-money leaders at the bottom.
(Alex attached a drawing which I can't get the link to work).
Actually... higher levels have more significance than just wealth. Halflings are well known for their accuracy with thrown weapons & slings - so a higher window is a military advantage. Much like in Renaissance Italy, if two families have a rivalry, one will add an extra floor to their tower, to put them above their rivals, allowing them to shoot downwards. Their rivals (if they can afford to) will then increase the height of their building, and so it escalates.
During peaceful times, these higher floors are given to the newlyweds, should other rooms not be available, or to those of lower standing.
You can tell the neighbours that have had historical conflict from the teetering towers marking their borders.
This poses a particular problem for those that are rich, overcrowded, and need to extend. If they have good relations with their neighbours, adding another floor will almost certainly sour that relationship. Thus, the only option is to covertly arrange for their neighbour to create a situation demanding that they respond, allowing their response to be another floor on the building, before making peace again. Sometimes this is tacitly acknowledged, with two firm allies both insulting each other, building new floors, and making peace within the span of a week.*
Those rich enough to own a large amount of land don't have this problem, as they can build new levels to their central buildings without threatening their borders. (But those rich enough to hold that much land will often build on their edges, secure in the knowledge that they cannot be easily challenged.)
Due to all of this, the city has areas of high buildings, and other areas with only very low buildings. It's quite schizophrenic in that regard.
Poorer families that can't afford all the construction sometimes have low buildings with one or two tall towers.
*Or they just arrange a wedding.
Indeed. Weddings are great political tools.
Often, weddings are so useful, that assassinations are also needed to "free up" a family member for another wedding.
Most assassinations, of course, are conducted via poisoned food. Assassination knowing exactly what food to poison to get the target, and only the target, is recognized as an art.
It is also shameful to hire an assassin to kill a rival family member - a member of your household needs to be the one to do it.
Anyone caught poisoning food is likely to create a political uproar, both because it's obvious who is involved, since the assassin is a direct relative, but also because... well, despite the death sentence, a well-to-do hobbit is unlikely to actually get executed. Instead, political favours, bribes, and promises of alliances & weddings will be exchanged, until things are smoothed over. At great cost to the family that attempted the assassination.
The halfling legal code is extremely draconian and harsh in its charges, arrests, and sentences. But all halflings know the proper technicalities, lobbying, and bribes to diffuse almost all situations. Big people from far lands shout their protests as they're executed for minor crimes like littering, and their halfling executioners look on aghast that the poor fool won't just file the right complaint to have their sentences commuted.
Especially when, even if they don't file the right complaint, a simple gift would be enough to allow the halfling to accidentally misfile the charge, allowing the visitor to be set free. Often the halfling is so eager to help out the poor foreigner that they'd accept any triviality as the gift. And yet these foreigners either refuse to do even these simple, obvious steps to help themselves, or they are so insanely insulting that they call it a "bribe", forcing the socially-conscious halfling to have no choice but to refuse the "bribe" and prosecute the visitor.
It's very frustrating for the halflings, but how do you explain the problem to foreigners while still being polite? Remember, Jeremy pointed out that, while there is a whole vocabulary around this, it's shameful to explain, or even admit the existence of it, to outsiders.
Well, of course. Explaining it would imply that you thought the visitor was ignorant or unintelligent, which is just plain bad manners. Even worse than the embarrassment of well-meaning agents of the court forced to carry out unpleasant duties on hapless foreigners are those savvy halflings who make the necessary gifts and pull the necessary strings in order to gain the implicit (but definitely required) return favors of a new ally, only to see that ally say "thanks", offer some pittance of a gift (which must be accepted) and then try to go about his business! Such shunned halflings make extremely tenacious and vicious enemies.
But the worst thing about the situation is, should you be shunned in that way, your only recourse is to offer a duel. As Alex Chalk points out, the duel involves inviting the enemy to live as your guest indefinitely. The foreigner is often so ignorant that they then reject the duel!
So not only do they have a tenacious and vicious enemy, but they are under the mistaken impression that this enemy is actually an overly-helpful halfling who keeps pressuring them to accept gifts and hospitality.
... and then they eat something that just so happened to be poisoned, and die never knowing what they did wrong.
CURSES, RUDENESS, COUPS, AND FAT GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS
Cursed items - you would expect these to be a problem for halfling society, as a halfling cannot politely refuse a gift. But, due to this, the cursed item can then be re-gifted with equal ease. This means the items cycle through multiple hands so rapidly that their curses rarely have time to take effect. It is, of course, polite to warn someone that your gift is cursed. Strangely, it is not considered impolite to give a cursed item as a gift.
Foreigners, especially ones who have offended a halfling in the way +Jeff Russell just mentioned, often find themselves the "lucky" recipient of one of these gifts. Depending on how offended they are, Halflings sometimes "forget" to mention the curses.
Other times, the halfling gifts a foreigner with a cursed item, warns the foreigner that it's cursed, and then is aghast when the foreigner refuses their gift.
Halflings don't have a word meaning "rude" - the closest word they use is "exile" - to a city-dwelling halfling's mind, there is no conceivable way that someone can be impolite and still be part of society.
Rudeness, of course, does not get you exiled. The halflings just don't have any other way to express the concept.
There is a story of a coup, where one disgruntled family riled up mobs of halflings, marched on the government, and overthrew it. They then installed themselves as the new rulers of the city.
However, since travelling through other halfling's property obliges you to give them a gift, and so many halflings marched throughout the city during this coup, the new rulers were so beholden by obligation that, in repaying all these new debts, they ended up bankrupting their family, and had to sell off their newly-gained government offices.
Although there were some changes, most of the original officials got their positions back, and not much changed. There has never been another attempt at a coup. The halflings claim this just proves that their social structure is superior to the chaotic, violent, politically unstable societies of humans.
This event may or may not have actually happened. Although it is well documented in a number of historical records, the records don't agree on which family instigated it, or what year it happened.
Tax collectors don't exist. The entire government & civil services are all run by "volunteers" - and halflings go to a lot of trouble to gain political positions, often paying large amounts of money to buy their way in.
Due to the rampant bribery, Halflings in government positions unofficially make a significant profit. This means that the lower-level government positions are more eagerly sought out than the higher positions, because they afford more contact with the citizens, and therefore more bribes.
Higher government positions are used to help out the halfling clans or for playing politics, rather than for personal profit via bribes.
Although there are theoretically elections for each government office, no election has been held in living memory. In practice, positions are passed from the previous holder to their chosen successor. In the case of untimely death, government positions are distributed the same as other belongings.
Many halflings who hold government positions also hire bodyguards, as it is not uncommon for them to be blackmailed or physically assaulted. Not all halflings use bribes to coerce an official to swing things in their favour.
This has led to the halfling phrase "bought the wrong job" - which is used much the same way as us humans would say "bit off more than he could chew" (Halflings would never use a phrase implying that overeating is bad.)