From ramshackle patchwork barges to the decks of fishing boats and smuggling vessels, riverfolk halflings are found along the greatest rivers of the Crossroads… and some of the less great. The gruff barge pilot in the wide-brimmed hat, predicting a river with near-prescient skill; the singer, stamping out rhythms on the deck while belting out bawdy songs; the charming huckster, swindling the big folk out of their savings for promises and trinkets with a gleam in his eye—all different but all riverfolk and all making their sometimes contentious homes wherever the current takes them.
Riverfolk are, by their own description, not as “fussy” as the courtfolk, bowing in Arbonesse, or their stodgy winterfolk cousins, scavenging in the Rothenian Plains and farther north. Riverfolk laugh more, drink more, fight more, and by their own consideration, have much more fun. They have dark coloring all around, various shades of woody browns from hair to eyes to skin. They blend as well with a dark alley as a ship’s deck. Men and women dress similarly in practical working clothing, mostly tough canvas or leather shirts and pants, and favor hefty, good-quality work gloves. Most riverfolk don some type of hat as a preferred accessory, from the floppy, wide-brimmed to caps bearing jaunty duck feathers. Riverfolk are small, as all halflings, a little stockier although more graceful than most.
Most riverfolk are found along the River Argent, especially around Zobeck and its neighbors, but wherever river routes are good, they go. These halflings have made themselves a home in most every river port where they’ve been permitted to spread. Zobeck, Magdar, the Seven Cities, and even Krakova—riverfolk found they can do a brisk business with the dead if one doesn’t get squeamish—regularly have riverfolk in their ports.
The courtfolk have it that the riverfolk and winterfolk were servitors like them but forsook their oaths following the Great Retreat and lost their connection to the Summer Lands. Riverfolk put no stock in this story; according to them, the riverfolk were once the only type of halfling there was, and most riverfolk now are descended from the ones who didn’t get wooed by elven promises. As to why the elves took interest is a subject seldom brought up to outsiders: the riverfolks’ birthright, an inherent connection to the mysterious ley lines of Midgard.
Riverfolk don’t claim any type of powerful arcane culture, now or ever, but they sense ley lines the way others can sense a storm brewing without a cloud in the sky. Some even learn to follow them, accessing the shadow roads for brisk travel or even last-ditch hiding places. Most take the presence of a ley line as a sign to be cautious and nothing more. That connection, however, must have surprised the elves and maybe even intimidated them—and so they took some riverfolk as favored servants in pretty cages and slowly warped that power into the glamour the courtfolk now possess. Those halflings who fled into their ranks following the Great Retreat regained their ley line connections over time but lost their glamour and longevity. According to the riverfolk, that’s all the proof they need of the truth.
Rough and Tumble
Riverfolk love matching strength and wits against the big folk—and against each other too, if the drinks are flowing. Their favorite competitive game is barrel walking along their decks or on the piers, a display of physical prowess. Riverfolk excel at it, and they’re glad to show off to romantic interests or challenge others, especially if money is involved. If riverfolk have a major weakness, it’s money; they aren’t attracted to luxury comforts so much as their frequent hobnobbing with big folk has taught them that money is the surest way to respect and freedom. This has given them a predilection to gambling, typically unable to resist a card or dice game. While halflings are notoriously lucky, they can push that luck to the limit. Once it runs out—well, there’s more than one reason why riverfolk make a habit of crime.
Riverfolk have shrewd business minds, and they go where the risk-reward ratio is best. Smuggling proved a natural fit for them, especially once they sorted out that few non-halflings could tell them apart. Barges keep complex smuggling schedules that operate primarily through word-of-mouth with illegal cargo seldom being shipped on the same barge more than twice in a row. The patchwork barges the big folk deride as floating eyesores are perfect smuggling vessels: they are infuriatingly hard to search as they go against typical construction layouts and have many hidden pockets and secret trapdoors impossible to distinguish from the main ship. In the time it takes to search one halfling barge that may have no smuggled cargo on it, two more have time to load up contraband and leave.
Few dare suggest the halfling barges be outlawed altogether however. Despite the complaints against smugglers, riverfolk are more notable for their remarkable capability in forging rivers, and few others can with the same efficiency. They’ve been welcome sights in remote areas in need of food and common goods and in the larger cities and kingdoms for the rare goods and news they bring back.
Most barges utilize draft mules to haul their boats upstream, but the going is notoriously slow and tedious. Riverfolk, however, enjoy a knack with animals that persuades their mules to work as part of the team. Riverfolk mules are efficient and determined, hauling their barges upstream faster with less goading and few mishaps. When asked if they use magic to get their animals to behave, riverfolk just shrug and say everyone works better when shown proper respect.
This knack extends beyond draft animals. Riverfolk fishermen enjoy bountiful catches, reeling in fish while big folk swear the river’s gone barren. Birds like to roost on riverfolk boats and homes and tend to bring small gifts when they visit, ranging from seeds to shiny coins. This respect goes both ways; while riverfolk seldom farm or tend gardens, they regard rivers with reverent consideration. Anyone showing cruelty to animals or polluting the rivers with filth or garbage are quickly introduced to the business end of a riverfolk pole.
Some riverfolk explore these bonds further, leaving the hectic river-trade lifestyle for a while and becoming rangers and druids with special interest in river ecology. Stories circulate about a riverfolk barge being helplessly ravaged in rapids, only to have the waters separate around it with one wave from a halfling druid abord, and of greedy fishermen poaching fish in strained areas being overcome by schools of river sharks, the largest ridden by a riverfolk ranger…
Read more of this and other great articles in Warlock, only on Patreon!