(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.