Monday, November 28, 2011

My bit about Tieflings

(This post may draw inspiration from arguments and ideas that are a few years old. Keep in mind, I'm relatively new to D&D, even by Type IV standards, so take this with a grain of salt).

So Tieflings (a devilish humanoid race from D&D) are apparently pretty unpopular.

This was first brought to my attention at Dueling Grounds when I went to buy a few miniatures for my players.

Me: "Have any dragonborn minis?"

Sales Guy: "Nope. They're all sold out across Ontario"

Me: "Wow, really? Damn"

Sales Guy: "Yeah, they're the most popular D&D race to play"

Me: "Huh...really? Ok, well, have any tieflings?"

Sales Guy: "Tons. Tieflings suck, man! Nobody plays as a tiefling. They got ruined!"

I hadn't heard this before, but after doing a bit of research online about the race and player's current thoughts on it, the sentiment seemed to be shared by a great deal of people.

A bit of history

Tieflings first made an appearance in D&D around 1994 with the Planescape expansion. Planescape tieflings were simply humans who had a demonic or devilish ancestor. They appeared mostly human, with one or two random tell-tale additions to their bodies. This included things like horns, extra fingers, pointed teeth, etc. For the most part, tieflings seemed and looked more recognizably human. They were, however, distrusted by most other races, and viewed as devil worshipers.

Tieflings in Type 3 and 3.5 D&D remained similar to their Planescape ancestors, but weren't a staple playable character race the way half-orcs, gnomes, and drow eventually became. They did, however, appear in the Monster Manual and other supplements.

With Type 4 D&D, tieflings became a starting race in the Player's Handbook, right alongside dragonborn (Many other additions were made to 4e from Planescape, such as the ring-world city of Sigil, and the Lady of Pain). Their appearance, however, was radically altered to appear much more like a devil's. Apparently this is the change that upset longtime D&D fans.

Why are Tieflings unpopular?

(Image courtesy of Penanggalan from Deviantart)

A few reasons. First, the race's appearance was changed from something subtle and alluring to most players, to something a little more striking. Like any other group of people, old time D&D fans don't seem to like things to change; especially things they like.

Second, the fluff written for Tieflings often describes them as villains more than anything else. Their race is tied to the Nine Hells, and they're predisposed to being Warlocks. Plus, in almost every instance of them being used by Wizards in any supplement, live game, podcast, or event, they're portrayed as being evil, malicious, or villainous. I guess it's easier to make a players hate a stock bad guy when he's got devil horns and red skin.

Third, in Fourth Edition, they play counterparts to Dragonborn. Wizards has described Dragonborn as being honour bound warriors who make being self-sacrificing and morally just part of their very being. This is directly opposed to the devilish Tieflings, who are supposedly their sworn enemies. One is clearly intended to be a 'good guy' race, and the other is a 'bad guy' race.

So which do you think kids are gonna latch onto? The scaly, fire-breathing, heroic dragon-people, or the off-colour ram-horned devil-freaks? Yeesh.

Yet here I am...

Right from the very moment I opened my first Player's Handbook, I decided that tieflings were the race for me. More than any other (though dwarves hold a special place in my heart), tieflings seemed like an ideal choice for an adventurer. Unlike a lot of others, I wasn't put off by their ram-horns and tails. In fact, those devilish additions only made my heart grow fonder for these Asmodeus-aligned archetypes. I was smitten with all of the artwork depicting devilish women acting as rogues, or horned men plundering ruins.

My first big NPC is my first real campaign as a DM was a tiefling, and she became invaluable to the party.

So here's why Tieflings appeal to me, and why they might appeal to you...

They are the consummate underdogs.

Like so many other D&D players, I grew up feeling marginalized, undervalued, and cast-aside by most people, and certainly the popular culture. It's kind of a thing that most geeks appropriate as part of their identities, for good or ill. No matter what, I always seemed to gravitate towards the underdogs in life.

Growing up around Toronto Maple Leafs fans, I was a Montreal Canadiens fan. Kids down the street played Sega Genesis, I had a Super Nintendo. Pokemon became the biggest craze, well, I was more into Patlabor. Everybody plays warlocks and wizards, me, I'm most content playing a bard. I began to understand that I just happened to like things that were bad. More than anythign else, though, I rooted for the underdog.

That's where Tieflings come in.

In their current iteration, they are the biggest underdogs of the D&D world (next to the Drow, of course, but they have entire book series and board games about them. It's hard to be an underdog when you've sold out). Tieflings are universally reviled by most society for the sins of their ancestors. They're predisposed to living a life of evil and devil worship. More than anything, they're painted as the evil counterpart to a race of monstrous looking dragon men, who get a free ride in the D&D lore because they're described as being like Klingons, but with all of the stupid removed.

Yet Tieflings can be heroic. They can be valiant, kind, adventurous, and charismatic if you play them that way. They can deny their hellish heritage and take up the life of a hero.

This is the silver lining in much of the fluff that accompanies their stats in the D&D books. Tieflings are born into evil heritage and are contempted by society, but they can rise above that. They start the game with a significant social handicap, but are given the Charisma to overcome it.

They're Charisma/Intelligence based

In terms of statistics, Tieflings gain a bonus to Intelligence or Constitution and to Charisma. While some of these are often considered the 'dump stats' of D&D (abilities unrelated to combat are often thought of as useless by many power gamers), they prove essential to creating magic users or compensating for higher ability scores in other areas.

If you dump all your ability points into strength, dexterity, and constitution (as most martial min/maxed characters often are) you're probably left with a score of 8 in charisma, giving you a -1 penalty to any charisma based roll.

This might not seem like such a big deal, especially if you make your character with combat in mind, but eventually you'll be faced with a situation where Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate will be necessary. It's inevitable.

Tieflings can give you that ability score bump, putting your charisma score at a 10 instead of an 8, using their silver tongues to get you out of a disadvantage. They may not be designed with martial prowess in mind, but they're excellent at covering a martial class' weaknesses.

Plus, Tieflings make fantastic wizards and warlocks.

They're relatable characters when roleplaying

Okay, giant ram horns and tails aside, Tieflings are more approachable from an RP perspective than you might think.

For many, playing a character who has had a tough time growing up, or who is looked down upon by society, makes a much more relatable roleplaying experience. No matter what your upbringing, almost everyone can relate to feeling left out of the group at one time or another. Their backgrounds allow for a variety of sympathetic characters, or hard-asses who've grown up mean on the streets, as it were.

Plus, because of tiefling's devilish ancestory, it's not unthinkable for them to have daddy/mommy issues at all. Having parents who want you to follow in their footsteps ("what do you mean you don't want to take over the Asmodeus cult?!"), or aren't proud of you for the decisions you've made ("No daughter of mine is going to be a paladin!") is common feeling among a lot of young people. Nobody really wants to turn out to be like their folks, though sometimes it's inevitable. That kind of situation is pretty relatable.

At least, from my perspective, much more relatable than "You're an enormous dragon-man from a long-forgotten culture, whose purpose is to stamp out evil, despite any feelings to the contrary".

So those are tieflings. They're an underappreciated D&D race, and I happen to like them quite a bit. I hope I've at least helped convey why I like them so much, and maybe piqued your interest a little.

Let me know in comments what you think, or if you have any of your own stories about Tiefling PCs or NPCs to tell.


  1. What people don't like is that, as half-demon, they are obviously set up to be "cool" in a very obvious way.

    Now some people can and do choose to own that. But that's the rub. Same reason people don't like Vampire.

  2. @Zak

    Makes sense. They do kind of have that post-R.A. Salvatore Drow feeling about them.

    Which, when they reintroduced Drow again in 4e, made them a little redundant. Though that might just be me.

  3. I think what drew me to them in say, Planescape, and what turned me off in 4th ed. was that before, they had a lot more variation-- there were random tables to determine their appearance, and even minor quirks and powers.

    This makes sense, as they're the fucked-up bastard offspring of weird, random demonic entities and god knows what else. The uniform look of 4th ed., and their identity as a discrete race rather than a loosely-connected category of freaks with demons in the family tree made them a whole lot less interesting for me.

    1. Agreed. You could also invent interesting backgrounds for their lineage. Whether that included rape or clandestine romances. You could even throw in subplots about them meeting their progenator (if of devil descent) or any sort of demonic mishmash you wanted. Now, as a set "race" they're unflavorful, look almost like a World of Warcraft succubus knockoff and are frustratingly irritating to play since instead of being able to feasibly hide fangs, yellow eyes and scales on your back now you're a freaking hulking red monstrosity that nobody can mistake.

  4. Too many non-human races in general.

  5. I actually try and include tieflings in noble professions as NPCs as often as I can. I think they are the perfect race to be trying really hard to beat the stereotypes. They all look devilish because of some decisions their ancestors made a LONG time ago (back in the conflict with the dragonborn, which is a great plot seed) so they have to prove something.

    My players are in epic tier and wandering the Astral Sea and I have intentionally included some tieflings as exalted in the realms of good gods because I see the potential in them.

    They make a pretty cool race with some interesting background ideas to work with. I've even been crafting a homebrew campaign setting where the nations that were at war (Arkhosia and Bael Turath) both turned to exterior forces, Arkhosia to the heavens birthing the Deva race and Turath to the hells birthing the Tiefling. Tying the two together and giving them mutual responsibility for the destruction of the human nations struck me as much more interesting than the DragonMen fight the DevilPeople.

    Great article. I'm glad the Tiefling race has stuck out to you like it did to me. :)

  6. I just started playing D and D a couple of years ago. We played 4e, my first character was a tiefling, and I have to say I had a lot of fun with it. He was kind of goofy, so it was a fun contrast that he looked like a supervillain but tended to fall down a lot due to many, many botched stealth rolls. I was playing with a bunch of my co-workers who were mostly animators, so we drew our own pictures of what our characters looked like without too much concern for the drawings in the book. Just illustrations, after all, no need to be married to them. Although I like what Mr. Duncan says up there about tables with random appearance quirks, that would be pretty fun.

    I wouldn't have figured Dragonborn for most popular. Me, I picture a Dragonborn in my mind's eye, I just see a big iguana with an axe. Sounds cool, but it doesn't suggest much in the way of character. You don't think to ask yourself about his relationship with his dad, for example, like you might with a guy who looks like a devil.

    Anyhoo, I was actually pretty surprised when I got into the game enough that I started looking on the internet for resources and discovered all the bad blood involving 4e in general and tieflings in particular. Me and my lost innocence, gently cradling my tiefling mini...

  7. The new novels "Brimstone Angels" by Erin Evans is all about what you just wrote about. I like Tieflings myself and when I jumped back into DnD after a long absence they were the first character races I played. I am now partial to my Kenku Monk but that's another story...and another new novel (The Last Garrison...I am not plugging novels...LOL). I am glad that WOtC is making more stories with these other little used classes.

    Great article!

  8. If you read through all the 4e Tiefling lore(a lot now), it is stated that they don't have to be red devils. they can have any skin tone of a normal human or be red. they can also have horns small enough to hide under a hood or hat, though they must have horns and tail. The info isn't presented as openly as it should be, but it is there.
    You could feasibly make a Tiefling whose only real noticeable feature is his eyes(if attempting to blend).

  9. I made a Tiefling Bard, and it is the most bad ass character ever. I took the swordmage multiclass feat, so I get all these intelligence bonuses

  10. I've played more Tieflings in 4E than any other race so far. I have a female Tiefling cleric of Avandra (the goddess of wanderers and travelers) and currently playing a female Tiefling cavalier/paladin of Pelor. I like playing characters that are charismatic, even though I don't always get it across as well as I'd like in RP.

    The first character I ever created for 4E was an early version of the cleric. I made her a Tiefling partially because I wanted to play a feline sort of character and I figured that a Tiefling with a bit of Rakshasa in it would work. Rakshasa after all are a type of devil that managed to become Native Outsiders in most worlds.

    I decided early on with my cleric to forgo a racial bonus on Wisdom for the bonus on Charisma and Constitution. And she's not some namby-pamby Pacifist Healer, she uses Blessing of Battle to keep the Defender going and takes advantage of her racial Bloodhunt to lay into any foe who has gotten bloodied to help finish them off. I play her on the theory that I'm to help the party win as quickly as possible so I don't NEED to do as much healing. And so far she hasn't lost an ally yet. She's an orphan raised by an Avandra priestess who decided to follow the faith, despite her despicable heritage she's a devout believer in one of the Goddesses of Light, and she uses her Tiefling heritage including her Infernal Wrath to support her good works.

    I don't mind that they made the Tieflings more uniform, after all they were an extremely rare race originally and now they are fairly common, the side-affect of this being that they "evolved" into more uniform and recognizable forms. I like that 4E decided to add some decidedly inhuman races with the Dragonborn and Tieflings as initial offerings. D&D has always been a sort of high-fantasy setting where the core races were just humans with slightly strange features like pointed ears or a short and broad build - with the less human races being included only as "optional" races that you needed DM permission to play. Now many of the oddball races like Minotaurs are core races and that's cool. :)

    I've dug the Tieflings ever since they included Neeshka the funny and gutsy rogue in NWN2. Listening to her and Khelgar the Dwarf trade insults (with him always loosing) is a laugh and a half. :D