Planescape creator David “Zeb” Cook and Colin McComb, lead designer of some of Planescape’s best products, kindly answered questions about Tieflings for this article. For the full transcript of their responses, click here.
Long pointed ears; dusky skin; reddish eyes. The hind legs of a horse. A reptilian tail and a partial carapace, like that of an insect.
Large horns, a thick tail, sharply pointed teeth, and reddish skin.
Lavender skin, elegant spiral horns, flamboyant pastel clothes.
Three distinct variations on an increasingly popular theme: the tiefling.
Fanart, Actual Plays, Critical Role--everywhere you look in the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse, someone is playing or drawing a tiefling. There’s even a successful kickstarter for a tiefling-themed fan magazine. David “Zeb” Cook, the man who created the tiefling race, never imagined they would become such a mainstream part of D&D culture. What he saw as "those things from Planescape" that were “the odd man out in other settings” have now become one of the nine core races, surpassing in popularity even traditional races such as Halflings and Half-Orcs.
Why the tiefling boom? Their abilities matter to an extent -- a +2 to charisma, racial spellcasting abilities, and resistance to fire damage make tieflings good fits for classes that rely on Charisma -- but most attribute Tiefings’ popularity to the roleplaying possibilities they bring to the table. People like playing “the edgy darker character,” “the silver-tongued devil” or “someone who stands out very distinctly,” theorizes Mike Mearls, lead designer of D&D’s 5th edition, in an interview with D&D Beyond.
Yet while tieflings have always been “different” from other humans, their lore, abilities, and physical descriptions have changed substantially over the years, as have their depictions in art. In this article we’ll explore that evolution in lore and art and how it can enrich our games at the table.
In the Beginning….
When they were introduced in Second Edition, tieflings were described as plane-touched, distant relatives of a union between a human and a fiend. Although most such unions were physical, and the fiends in question either devils or demons, the designers left tieflings’ exact origin story purposely vague. Cook, Lead Designer of the Planescape Campaign Setting, explained this decision, saying the designers did not want to put constraints or definitions on a character’s ancestry, as it would “take away from the mystery and make their background a bit more of a rules mechanic as opposed to a role-playing opportunity.”
Instead, 2e tieflings were as diverse as the planes -- and fiends -- themselves. Colin McComb, designer of Planescape’s seminal guides to the fiends, Faces of Evil: The Fiends and Hellbound: the Bloodwar, suggested that a tiefling’s ancestry could originate not only from a physical union, but “via dreams, via thoughts, or pacts/rituals. Such pacts might come with a *memory* of a sexual act, but this could be entirely symbolic of the fiend penetrating the victim's psychic defenses.” Likewise, tieflings could trace their ancestry back to other fiends besides devils and demons, such as "the blessing" of an Ultroloth.”
This diversity is reflected in a series of tables in the Planewalker’s Handbook that players can use to randomly roll their tiefling’s abilities and appearance. While these characteristics clearly trend lower planar, certain features, such as Know Alignment, a hairless body, feline eyes, or a body that casts no shadow, depart from your typical descendent of hell or the abyss.
Tiefling art was similarly diverse. Tony DiTerlizzi, whose art has become synonymous with the Planescape setting, said tieflings’ fiendish heritage would “manifest in various ways: hairless, spikes, horns, tails, cloven hooves, androgynous…When we were developing the look of the tieflings we wanted the fiendish bloodline to manifest in different forms, so not always horns or batwings, barbed tails, etc…” One of his most famous illustrations from the Planescape setting, Factol Rhys of the Transcendent Order, was one such unusual tiefling: she had the hind legs of a horse, a reptilian tail and a partial carapace, like that of an insect.
This slideshow shows a range of DiTerlizzi’s illustrations of tieflings, beginning with the first depiction of a tiefling based on a conceptual sketch by Dana Knutson.
Tieflings in 3e retained their diverse appearance and background, though they remained confined to campaign settings and splat books. Races of Faerun says “tieflings look human except for one or two distinguishing features related to their unusual ancestor,” then suggests features such as furry or scaly skin, cat eyes, bruised blue skin, or a smell of brimstone. It lists among potential ancestors all common fiends, including demons, devils, night hags, and rakshasas.
Fourth Edition brought the biggest change for tieflings, making them a core race in the Player’s Handbook and substantially changing their lore. Whereas their background in 2e was kept purposely vague, in 4e tieflings became descendants of the noble houses of an empire named Bael Turath, who long ago made arcane pacts with Devils in order to save their fading empire. Their appearance began to reflect their infernal influence: large horns, thick tails, sharply pointed teeth, and typically reddish skin.
Tieflings in 5e
5e tieflings largely retain their changes from 4e. Though still the descendants of humans who made a pact with Asmodeus, their description omits all mention of the specific empire of Bael Turath. Lead Designer Mike Mearls describes the designers’ rationale for the change from 3e in the D&D Beyond interview:
We thought it would be more interesting to have a race that could trace an origin back to a bad guy faction in the game. That’s when we decided to refine it to humanoids who have a tie to the Nine Hells. [We] go from tieflings can look like almost anything that’s humanoid to having a very diabolical look, a skin shade that may be a red or orange, horns, a tail.
Mearls also describes how the designers wanted to keep the diversity that was so key to second edition tieflings, but to create a more general category called “planetouched” to describe it:
A tiefling describes a planetouched person who traces their ancestry to the Nine Hells. But planetouched describes in broader terms what in second edition would have been called a tiefling. So this idea that you could have someone whose ancestry is traced to a Yugoloth or a hag, that’s still part of the D&D universe, and tiefling has gone from being the name of that category to the name of a specific portion of that category, and planetouched describes the general thing of a humanoid who has fiendish ancestry of some sort.
Ascent to the Top
While the lore behind the tiefling race has changed throughout DND’s editions, the source of their popularity has not. Like Mearls, McComb says that “tieflings resonate because they're dark and edgy,” adding that as “outsiders and loners...they’re a perfect stand-in for misunderstood youth.” He suspects that some “players are just ready to move beyond...normal high fantasy, and the lure of the planes is too strong for them to resist."
Cook likewise attributes tieflings’ popularity to filling a darker fantasy archetype, saying:
The tiefling falls into a fantasy archetype -- the changeling, the trickster, the cursed hero/heroine -- that hadn't been represented in D&D's characters lineup to that point. D&D's roots were focused on the epic/high fantasy stereotypes (and there is nothing wrong with that) while the idea of the quasi-damned character is more a romantic/tragic/dark fantasy tradition. Therefore, they filled a gap in the choices for the player. Previously, a player could take a half-elf and work them into that role, but it took explanation to show how your backstory was different from the average half-elf and why you should be treated uniquely. With the tiefling you have the immediate identification with that theme which gives everyone at the table a shared assumption.
Tieflings in the Wild (and at the Table)
How tieflings are played at the table and depicted in art reflects the design decisions of the creators. According to D&D Beyond’s statistics for character classes, the tiefling is by far the most popular racial choice for the Warlock class, the two forming a natural combination for players seeking to play an edgy character with a dark secret. Looking at DND media, one of the most popular characters in the actual play “The Chain of Acheron” is a tiefling named Judge, a cool, silver-tongued Illrigger (dark paladin) of Asmodeus. Like the tiefling archetype described by Mearls, he excels at charm and manipulation, but won’t hesitate to get his hands dirty in order to solve a problem.
But others take the traditional dark fantasy trope of the tiefling and flip it on its head. Jester from Critical Role is one such tiefling: a capricious cleric who led a protected childhood and magically manifests a giant lollipop as a spiritual weapon to knock out her foes.
Alex Boake, a freelance illustrator who specializes in tieflings, attributes the desire to subvert standard tiefling tropes to finding “the official 5e manual description of tieflings, and other monstrous races, as tending towards evil to be a little prescriptive. A lot of people, including myself, tend to go against that—making good aligned characters.” Although her clients generally request tieflings with horns and tails, “they don’t necessarily fit a standard infernal mold. Recently I drew a lavender tiefling with elegant spiral horns and flamboyant clothes, all pinks and pastels.”
Making Tieflings Our Own
These less “traditional” tiefling designs bring the race full circle, back to its 2e roots where, Cook says, tieflings “don’t constrain the player about how or what they imagined their character's past and parentage to be.” Canonical lore and standard design options influence players’ choices, but when a DM or player’s idea of their character concept clashes with or goes beyond what’s presented in the standard rules, the DM or player should win.
To that end, DND’s older editions are like tombs to plunder for our current games. And the tiefling of the Planescape setting -- with its attribute table and diverse art -- is one of the richest. In Faces of Evil: The Fiends, McComb writes that, due to their ancestry and the fluid gender of fiends, “tieflings can be of either gender, or none, or both. There’s a broad range of possibilities open to us, and we experiment whenever we can (a story for another time).” The end of 2e and the Planescape line meant the designers never completed this and many other bits of lore. Now it falls to us GMs and players -- those looking to subvert traditional fantasy tropes, add a mysterious element to their character, or explore the nature of gender through the medium of the RPG -- to finish these stories.
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