The Evolution of Tieflings in D&D: Interviews with Zeb Cook and Colin McComb
  • The Evolution of Tieflings in D&D: Interviews with Zeb Cook and Colin McComb


    D&D Planescape creator Zeb Cook and designer Colin McComb graciously answered my questions for the following article about the evolution of Tieflings from 2e to 5e. The article also links to the full text of our interviews, where they share their insight into the race and the design decisions behind developing it.

    I had a lot of fun researching and writing this article, and was beyond thrilled that these gentlemen took the time to answer my questions. I hope you enjoy.



    Comments 104 Comments
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by doctorbadwolf View Post
      Druids are in the PHB, and yet they're pretty low on the list of most played classes. PHB status doesn't explain it by itself.
      Possibly but in general Druids being in the PHB means they are more than likely, from exposure alone, going to be more popular than a class regulated to a single campaign setting which is what Tieflings were in 2e or a splat book which is where they were found in 3e...
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kobold Avenger View Post
      But chances are they'll still be more popular than Artificers or Psions even after those classes officially come out. Being in the PHB really does matter for exposure.
      Sure, but it hardly erases how it seems that players in 5e mostly enjoy the version that essentially carried over from 4e. Did they offer variants later? Sure. But the fanart and current version seems strongly influenced and increasingly locked into the 4e-brand tiefling, much in the same manner that kobolds began moving towards being mini-dragons with 3e. These things happen as the game evolves.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      Possibly but in general Druids being in the PHB means they are more than likely, from exposure alone, going to be more popular than a class regulated to a single campaign setting which is what Tieflings were in 2e or a splat book which is where they were found in 3e...
      But not always. I seem to recall from D&D Next polls that some of the PHB classes included in 5e were actually beaten in popularity by some of the classes that didn't. (Sadly most of the articles from this time were taken down.) The same is also true now when looking at PF2. There are classes that will be in the PF2 PHB1 that were out-stripped in popularity by later introduced classes of PF1 (e.g., Witch, Oracle, etc.).
    1. Kobold Avenger's Avatar
      Kobold Avenger -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      Sure, but it hardly erases how it seems that players in 5e mostly enjoy the version that essentially carried over from 4e. Did they offer variants later? Sure. But the fanart and current version seems strongly influenced and increasingly locked into the 4e-brand tiefling, much in the same manner that kobolds began moving towards being mini-dragons with 3e. These things happen as the game evolves.
      But it's because they weren't presented with anything else back in 4e, unless something becomes too much of the wrong direction to bring back in the edition change from 4 to 5 (such as Warlords) every non-niche general thing from the 4e PHB came back in the 5e PHB.
    1. Azzy's Avatar
      Azzy -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I am not a huge fan, but I did have a younger player start playing a tiefling in one of my home games. It has good role play potential, and she does a great job with it. Of course, I run in Greyhawk, so I had to fit them in. I ended up just tying them to Iuz and the Greyhawk wars, which seemed an easy way to explain their lack of history in the setting.
      I played a tiefling in Greyhawk, but mine was a scion of House Naelax in the (former) Great Kingdom.
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      Sure, but it hardly erases how it seems that players in 5e mostly enjoy the version that essentially carried over from 4e. Did they offer variants later? Sure. But the fanart and current version seems strongly influenced and increasingly locked into the 4e-brand tiefling, much in the same manner that kobolds began moving towards being mini-dragons with 3e. These things happen as the game evolves.
      You're assuming alot without much to back it up. I find your assertions interesting when contrasted with the fact that WotC has at this point published 10 subraces of Tieflings (plus the PHB main race) to date... The first of which in Sword Coast was basically an addendum to the Tiefling race stating that they didn't have to be of the blood of Asmodeus or look like the Tieflings in the PHB (Even if they have the PHB abilities)... if there was widespread preference for the monolithic Tiefling why expend the resources, page count and time to expand te race like this?
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I am not a huge fan, but I did have a younger player start playing a tiefling in one of my home games. It has good role play potential, and she does a great job with it. Of course, I run in Greyhawk, so I had to fit them in. I ended up just tying them to Iuz and the Greyhawk wars, which seemed an easy way to explain their lack of history in the setting.
      Which is exactly how Ghosts of Saltmarsh presents tieflings in Greyhawk. Servants of Iuz. Great minds and all that.

      Quote Originally Posted by Wrathamon View Post
      Considering how popular tieflings became in the 4e & 5e era. I think the change was a success.
      And, really, how popular is that actually? Aren't tieflings about as popular as gnomes? As in, virtually no one plays except a tiny slice of gamers who are REALLY passionate about the race? I've never even seen so much as a suggestion of playing one in any game I've sat in on. Wasn't it somewhere around the bottom of the pack in the D&D Beyond polling?
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kobold Avenger View Post
      But it's because they weren't presented with anything else back in 4e
      4e was in print for 4 years, it didn't have any kind of monolithic, inertial influence on the shape of the game just by being the only thing for a long time - that was the game of the TSR era.
      unless something becomes too much of the wrong direction to bring back in the edition change from 4 to 5 every non-niche general thing from the 4e PHB came back in the 5e PHB.
      Circular logic, at best, and irrelevant to Aldarc's point.

      5e offers a range of Tiefling images, current fans gravitate maybe towards the more diabolical ones? Well, 5e's growing rapidly, lots of new fans are just gravitating towards the things they like from what 5e presents, where it may have been presented before notwithstanding.
    1. doctorbadwolf's Avatar
      doctorbadwolf -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      You're assuming alot without much to back it up. I find your assertions interesting when contrasted with the fact that WotC has at this point published 10 subraces of Tieflings (plus the PHB main race) to date... The first of which in Sword Coast was basically an addendum to the Tiefling race stating that they didn't have to be of the blood of Asmodeus or look like the Tieflings in the PHB (Even if they have the PHB abilities)... if there was widespread preference for the monolithic Tiefling why expend the resources, page count and time to expand te race like this?
      The design team loves planescape. like, a lot. To the point where they decided, without any survey data to back it up, to make planescape the canon of all 5e dnd. Even to the point where they had to come up with a weird explanation for why the cosmology and history of certain races are different in Eberron. It's a mind boggling decision, IMO, but that ship has sailed into the space between crystal spheres.

      Apperently, we're supposed to care about the status or Greyhawk Nerule when determining whether to keep The Raven Queen's origin the same or completely change her entire character to the point where it simply isn't the same entity in any way, even though she doesn't exist in Greyhawk. Because planescape, therefor all the worlds share a cosmology to some degree. There aren't enough emojis for how lame this is.

      So, of course they include weird options for the race from planescape that had a ton of different ways to look.

      And yet, nearly all fan art for the race is still pretty much the default aesthetic.
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by doctorbadwolf View Post
      The design team loves planescape. like, a lot. To the point where they decided, without any survey data to back it up, to make planescape the canon of all 5e dnd. Even to the point where they had to come up with a weird explanation for why the cosmology and history of certain races are different in Eberron. It's a mind boggling decision, IMO, but that ship has sailed into the space between crystal spheres.
      Hasn't this been (in a broad sense) the canon for every edition of D&D since 1e (excluding 4e)? I mean Eberron just like Dark Sun and Ravenloft are variant settings why would any of their cosmologies be the canon for D&D (and yes that includes Nentir Vale) and why would you expect there not to be changes to accommodate them?


      Quote Originally Posted by doctorbadwolf View Post
      Apperently, we're supposed to care about the status or Greyhawk Nerule when determining whether to keep The Raven Queen's origin the same or completely change her entire character to the point where it simply isn't the same entity in any way, even though she doesn't exist in Greyhawk. Because planescape, therefor all the worlds share a cosmology to some degree. There aren't enough emojis for how lame this is.

      So, of course they include weird options for the race from planescape that had a ton of different ways to look.

      And yet, nearly all fan art for the race is still pretty much the default aesthetic.
      Funny when I googled 5e Tiefling this is the 2nd fan art piece I got... It looks nothing like the default... More importantly when I look at the art being used to represent tiefling characters on websites, blogs, twitter, etc. they seem to be be pulled from a wide range of Tiefling interpretations. Why are we only looking at fan art as a metric vs. what those playing tieflings in 5e are using to represent their characters?

    1. doctorbadwolf's Avatar
      doctorbadwolf -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      Hasn't this been (in a broad sense) the canon for every edition of D&D since 1e (excluding 4e)? I mean Eberron just like Dark Sun and Ravenloft are variant settings why would any of their cosmologies be the canon for D&D (and yes that includes Nentir Vale) and why would you expect there not to be changes to accommodate them?
      It has never been canon in a way that required changing settings that were canonically disconnected from other worlds. Expecting a situation like Nentir Vale having to make the Raven Queen not have killed Nerule because he's alive in Greyhawk is both new, and completely bonkers.




      Funny when I googled 5e Tiefling this is the 2nd fan art piece I got... It looks nothing like the default... More importantly when I look at the art being used to represent tiefling characters on websites, blogs, twitter, etc. they seem to be be pulled from a wide range of Tiefling interpretations. Why are we only looking at fan art as a metric vs. what those playing tieflings in 5e are using to represent their characters?
      We don't have any data on what the majority of player's characters look like, outside of indexes of what people are drawing and linking in terms of character art. It's imperfect, but it indicates trends. And I've searched for teifling art/fanart several ways, and not one search result turned up a page where 90+ percent of the art wasn't within the description of the phb. I only found the image you posted in two searches (5e and blue), and in neither was it higher in the results than 10th.
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      (and yes that includes Nentir Vale)
      Just a quibble: Nentir Vale was just a place, a pretty small place, really, that could be dropped in many a generic fantasy world. Not a setting in the sense of Planescape or Greyhawk or anything like that.
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by doctorbadwolf View Post
      It has never been canon in a way that required changing settings that were canonically disconnected from other worlds. Expecting a situation like Nentir Vale having to make the Raven Queen not have killed Nerule because he's alive in Greyhawk is both new, and completely bonkers.
      Wait... didn't 4e introduce changes to the FR, Dark Sun and Eberron? But changing a single deity is off the table in 4e's setting? Why?


      Quote Originally Posted by doctorbadwolf View Post
      We don't have any data on what the majority of player's characters look like, outside of indexes of what people are drawing and linking in terms of character art. It's imperfect, but it indicates trends. And I've searched for teifling art/fanart several ways, and not one search result turned up a page where 90+ percent of the art wasn't within the description of the phb. I only found the image you posted in two searches (5e and blue), and in neither was it higher in the results than 10th.
      Why aren't you searching for 5e Tieflings and looking at the art that pops up which is probably more representative of both the edition we are talking about as well as the race? Actually why is this even being presented as evidence...I'm failing to see how Tiefling fan art gives us any value when it comes to what D&D players are actually choosing to play in the game. It just seems silly to have even been brought up.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      You're assuming alot without much to back it up. I find your assertions interesting when contrasted with the fact that WotC has at this point published 10 subraces of Tieflings (plus the PHB main race) to date... The first of which in Sword Coast was basically an addendum to the Tiefling race stating that they didn't have to be of the blood of Asmodeus or look like the Tieflings in the PHB (Even if they have the PHB abilities)... if there was widespread preference for the monolithic Tiefling why expend the resources, page count and time to expand te race like this?
      What do the prevailing narrative elements of the tieflings in 5e entail? Are tieflings descended from yugoloths or demons in SCAG or other publications? Are they plane-touched anymore? How do they look in subsequent 5e publications? How do the subraces in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes alter the appearance of the tieflings? What's the cultural impact of these "popular" alternate tiefling options from SCAG in the current Zeitgeist? Do we see this represented in the art to a significant degree?

      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      Funny when I googled 5e Tiefling this is the 2nd fan art piece I got... It looks nothing like the default... More importantly when I look at the art being used to represent tiefling characters on websites, blogs, twitter, etc. they seem to be be pulled from a wide range of Tiefling interpretations. Why are we only looking at fan art as a metric vs. what those playing tieflings in 5e are using to represent their characters?
      I was not aware that a single piece of counter evidence disapproved the prevailing trend? When I googled the "tiefling fanart," which is a certainly a wider net than "5e Tiefling," I did not get that picture. Most of the pictures fall along the lines of the 4/5e tiefling fairly closely. Skin colors will vary, as they do in 4-5e. Horn shapes will vary, as they did in even 4e. Almost the entirety have feet instead of hooves or faun-legs or tails. Not that many look like some of the more common depictions of tieflings from 2e Planescape or 3e Forgotten Realms.

      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      And, really, how popular is that actually? Aren't tieflings about as popular as gnomes? As in, virtually no one plays except a tiny slice of gamers who are REALLY passionate about the race? I've never even seen so much as a suggestion of playing one in any game I've sat in on. Wasn't it somewhere around the bottom of the pack in the D&D Beyond polling?
      From an anecdotal perspective, I usually have one tiefling per group in 5e.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      /snip

      Huh. Big, back sweeping horns, blue skin. How is this not the default 5e tiefling? No tail I suppose.

      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      /snip

      From an anecdotal perspective, I usually have one tiefling per group in 5e.
      Heh. Fair enough. As I said, I've never actually seen one in play.
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      What do the prevailing narrative elements of the tieflings in 5e entail? Are tieflings descended from yugoloths or demons in SCAG or other publications? Are they plane-touched anymore? How do they look in subsequent 5e publications? How do the subraces in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes alter the appearance of the tieflings? What's the cultural impact of these "popular" alternate tiefling options from SCAG in the current Zeitgeist? Do we see this represented in the art to a significant degree?
      Seriously?? I'm not going to break down what each of the 10 subraces are, what they look like count artwork pieces in various WotC books or anything else you're asking for here. Again I am interested in the player base and whether they are choosing to play either in appearance or ability selection the base tiefling vs. the variants. Fan art, doesn't give me that info... the fact that WotC with the data they have (which I'm pretty sure is more rigorous than the amount of fan art from a google search)published alternate tieflings in not just 1 but 2 of the limited sourcebooks they've put out for 5e tells me that they were pretty sure there was demand for them.

      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      I was not aware that a single piece of counter evidence disapproved the prevailing trend? When I googled the "tiefling fanart," which is a certainly a wider net than "5e Tiefling," I did not get that picture. Most of the pictures fall along the lines of the 4/5e tiefling fairly closely. Skin colors will vary, as they do in 4-5e. Horn shapes will vary, as they did in even 4e. Almost the entirety have feet instead of hooves or faun-legs or tails. Not that many look like some of the more common depictions of tieflings from 2e Planescape or 3e Forgotten Realms.
      And fan art you googled doesn't give us any data about the prevailing trend of what's actually being played in D&D... as I said earlier it's just silly, it could even be influenced by your browser history and preferences...
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Huh. Big, back sweeping horns, blue skin. How is this not the default 5e tiefling? No tail I suppose.
      Small upright horns, no tail...and blue skin is not a trait of 5e phb tieflings...
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Huh. Big, back sweeping horns, blue skin. How is this not the default 5e tiefling? No tail I suppose.
      Small upright horns, no tail...and blue skin are all traits inconsistent with 5e phb tieflings...
    1. doctorbadwolf's Avatar
      doctorbadwolf -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      Wait... didn't 4e introduce changes to the FR, Dark Sun and Eberron? But changing a single deity is off the table in 4e's setting? Why?
      This makes it look like you didn’t read what you were quoting. 4e didn’t change anything to fit a common unified cosmology. The worlds were still separate. You’ve completely misread or ignored what I said.

      Why aren't you searching for 5e Tieflings and looking at the art that pops up which is probably more representative of both the edition we are talking about as well as the race? .
      I literally told you that I did so. Seriously read posts before replying to them.
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by doctorbadwolf View Post
      This makes it look like you didn’t read what you were quoting. 4e didn’t change anything to fit a common unified cosmology. The worlds were still separate. You’ve completely misread or ignored what I said.
      Seriously I'm the one not reading? Nunerous changes were made to various settings to bring them in line with the world Axis cosmology... Quick question... Did Dark Sun have a Feywild in 2e? It does in 4e. That's changing the cosmology


      Quote Originally Posted by doctorbadwolf View Post
      I literally told you that I did so. Seriously read posts before replying to them.
      So you did, and I am reading the posts... funny how we searched the same things and got different results...
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