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. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      Small upright horns, no tail...and blue skin are all traits inconsistent with 5e phb tieflings...
      That’s your definition of small? Ok. I can see why you think the way you do.
    1. Zardnaar's Avatar
      Zardnaar -
      Darksun and Eberron had separate cosmologies, at least according to their source material.

      Athas was tenuously connected to the D&D great wheel via dimensional travel. Planescape sorta tried claiming it in their material but TSR had no one directing overall canon and freelancers were doing whatever they wanted towards the end. It's how the got surfing Druids on Athas. Cowabunga.

      Some settings should be kept away from the others Darksun being a prime example.

      In 2E a deities death could be localized so if Raven Queen killed Nerull it's only applied to Nerath. Option B is treat Nerath as it's own thing a'la what you should do with Darksun and Eberron.

      I'm an originalist. If there's contradictions go with the original vs some hacks butchery.

      If you want to get away from TSR metaplot rather than retcon things reboot back to the original printing updating the mechanics.
      Minimises upsetting people and you won't miss freelancers or new editions lacklustre efforts at adaption.

      Doesn't work so well for world's like Krynn that have been blown up a few to many times but Krynn has been awful for a long time now.
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      That’s your definition of small? Ok. I can see why you think the way you do.
      Even with that... absence of tail, blue skin...

      EDIT: Also what do you mean you can see why I think the way I do...

      EDIT 2:

      These, IMO are large horns...

    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      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.
      I'm sorry. You said that I was basing my argument on assumptions, which certainly led me to assume that you had not. So let me help summarize some of what I found.

      MToF: These eight tiefling subraces do not affect or mention any unique appearance of the tieflings. The subraces affect the secondary ability modifier and the tiefling bonus spells. All tieflings presented here have infernal ancestry. The art consisting of two tieflings is consistent with their art in 4-5e. The writers though do not spend much time (or page count) talking about tieflings in this book, as this section is predominately about Devils, Demons, and the Blood War. Dwarves, elves, halflings, gnomes, and gith get more discussion in this book.

      SCAG: Gives the option for variant tieflings in a sidebar. There are four mechanical options. This is less subrace and more alternate racial features. The sidebar says that the appearance can be different, including more Planescape-familiar elements. However, we see no art of this here, and none appears in subsequent publications. Flavorwise, the tieflings are descrbed as having "the blood of fiends" and we are told that not all are of "the blood of Asmodeus." But all have the Mark of Asmodeus and they are described as being of infernal descent, even the non-Asmodeus ones. Their art (pp. cover, 119, 120, 128) is wholly consistent with the 4e art.

      XGtE: I checked Xanathar's Guide, because it's the other book of player splat options and one that many players will see down the line. The tiefling art (pp. 13, 33, 37, 49, 56, 95, 127) is again more reminiscent of 4e and 5e PHB art for the tieflings.

      Saltmarsh: The tiefling art (pp. 19, 49) are mostly consistent with 4e art. There is one tiefling (p. 92) that does not appear to have a tail. Does this tail-less tiefling represent the unbridled seething dissatisfaction and discontentment with the 4e-style tieflings?

      This honestly suggests to me that tieflings have moved substantially towards their 4e incarnation than what they were in Planescape. They are infernal and mostly associated with Asmodeus foremost and other Lords of Hell secondarily. They have pronounced horns of varying shapes, human feet and legs, and a tail (apart from that one).

      Or let's ask this question from another angle: What unique traces of the pre-4e Tiefling are in 5e Tieflings?

      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.
      And are they? But should we construe this as a demand for planescape-style tieflings or a dissatisfaction with 4e tieflings when they are just different flavors of diabolic tieflings? MToF basically just creates one tiefling subrace per ring of the Nine Hells. They're still diabolic, implied to have links with Asmodeus (all roads lead to Asmodeus in Hell), and largely depicted in appearance as they were in 4-5e.

      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...
      There are other websites with fanart, but I nevertheless suspect that your Google image search showed you much the same that mine did: a hyper-majority of tiefling art had them more congruent in appearance with 4e+ era.
    1. Zardnaar's Avatar
      Zardnaar -
      Tieflings art search.

      https://www.google.com/search?q=tief...iw=360&bih=518

      Tieflings the new Drow but worse.

      If you don't stick big horns on them I suppose they look like another elf.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
      Even with that... absence of tail, blue skin...

      EDIT: Also what do you mean you can see why I think the way I do...

      EDIT 2:

      These, IMO are large horns...

      Well, considering in the pic you posted, the horns are almost as long as his head, I'd say they are pretty big. And the color thing, well, whatever to be honest. The tiefling in the PHB isn't that far from a dark blue.

      Let's not forget, THIS was a 2e Tiefling:



      Just as much as any Di Terlizzi art.
    1. oreofox's Avatar
      oreofox -
      I prefer the 2e/3e/PF versions of tieflings (and aasimar) compared to the 4e/5e versions. I know we had a thread about that already. Personally, the more modern D&D interpretation is just a bit too much for me. It screams "edgelord" because every warlock seems to be one, and that class fights with rogue for edgiest of edgelords. Yes I know it is because of the +2 Cha the race gets. This is why I divorced such things from races (all base races get +1 to player's choice, and they get the +2 from their class in an ability relevant to the class, such as barbarians give a +2 to Str or Con, Wizards give +2 to Int or Dex, and so on. Also, PCs cap at 18 instead of 20).

      As for art, I was never really a fan of DiTerlizzi's art (my sister absolutely loves it), but I find it miles better than 2 certain artists from 3e, and quite a number of images in 5e. The Asmodean appearance is just too much, and most of the official art is fugly as heck. Luckily, most fan art I see of people's tiefling characters really only have the tail and horns of some sort, maybe even red skin. But they typically end up looking like the draenei from Warcraft.
    1. Kobold Avenger's Avatar
      Kobold Avenger -
      I don't think most want a Tiefling with a butt on the forehead because of the massive horns that a lot of the 4e and later art has. Even if it's a more standard or common look, I think "Sexy Devil Halloween costume" look is probably closer to what many want.

      The 5e PHB entry did take a small step back from the 4e appearance in what it describes. Though I do realize the 2e's Planewalkers Handbook suggestion of roll 1d4 times on the d100 table of random appearance traits is a probability of producing a Tiefling who's appearance trait matches the PHB entry. That table also had the trait "6 fingers (including thumb)" which could be noteworthy since it might imply having the Demon Lord Grazz't in the bloodline/background.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kobold Avenger View Post
      I don't think most want a Tiefling with a butt on the forehead because of the massive horns that a lot of the 4e and later art has. Even if it's a more standard or common look, I think "Sexy Devil Halloween costume" look is probably closer to what many want.
      Why do you think that? Most evidence i have seen lately suggest otherwise. When I see new Tiefling fan art, it usually mimics 4e/5e. But, that is just anecdotal. I have no further evidence to suggest one way or the other, do you?
    1. gyor's Avatar
      gyor -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Well, considering in the pic you posted, the horns are almost as long as his head, I'd say they are pretty big. And the color thing, well, whatever to be honest. The tiefling in the PHB isn't that far from a dark blue.

      Let's not forget, THIS was a 2e Tiefling:



      Just as much as any Di Terlizzi art.
      He seriously, looks more like an elf then a Tiefling.
    1. gyor's Avatar
      gyor -
      Quote Originally Posted by Zardnaar View Post
      Tieflings art search.

      https://www.google.com/search?q=tief...iw=360&bih=518

      Tieflings the new Drow but worse.

      If you don't stick big horns on them I suppose they look like another elf.
      I thought Shadar Kai were the new Drow?
    1. Tsuga C's Avatar
      Tsuga C -
      This pretty well sums up my attitude towards railroading players into the Asmodeus-end-all-be-all mold:

      Name: Tiefling_Tiff_by_Penanggalan.jpg ► Views: 100 ► Size: 140.3 KB

      Tieflings and aasimar should be whatever the Player and DM agree upon and a choice always beats none.
    1. Psyzhran2357's Avatar
      Psyzhran2357 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Well, considering in the pic you posted, the horns are almost as long as his head, I'd say they are pretty big. And the color thing, well, whatever to be honest. The tiefling in the PHB isn't that far from a dark blue.

      Let's not forget, THIS was a 2e Tiefling:



      Just as much as any Di Terlizzi art.
      I thought the above image was just an elf picture they reused because they didn't have any Tiefling assets loaded into the game for some reason?
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by gyor View Post
      He seriously, looks more like an elf then a Tiefling.
      Frankly, it wasn't until years later that I realized that he was a tiefling. I missed the line in his character sheet. I just assumed he was some sort of plane hopping elf.
    1. PointOfIsnpiration's Avatar
      PointOfIsnpiration -
      Crazy how you guys get so upset over being "railroaded" into some Asmodeus lore when half of you create your own settings to play in and the other half of you make up everything you do and don't play real games.

      Tieflings are pretty popular right now. And I like the homogenized look. And I like that there is a homogenized look. And I like the literary value they have. By giving them actual symbols to attach too aesthetically, you create something of actual artistic value, instead of the "well lol it can look like ANYTHING hehe xd" of 2E.

      Not that it matters. You guys can make them just like 2E Tieflings! No problem! I just don't get the need for ancient grognards from beyond time and space to on something just because it is new. We people who are new to D&D with the latest edition don't need to be told every other tiefling thread how much cooler "ye old planetouched" were.
    1. oreofox's Avatar
      oreofox -
      Quote Originally Posted by dave2008 View Post
      Why do you think that? Most evidence i have seen lately suggest otherwise. When I see new Tiefling fan art, it usually mimics 4e/5e. But, that is just anecdotal. I have no further evidence to suggest one way or the other, do you?
      Because that's the image people are exposed to when looking in official books, and with so many new people into the game, their only exposure is to the 4e/5e tiefling, so they think it must look like that. Same with Dragonborn. 4e they were plain brown with dredlocks, and had kinda beak-like faces. Now they are descended from dragons, and you see art of dragonborn characters that look like humanoid red or black dragons. The same can be shown with kobolds and other monsters. If they look a certain way in an official book, you will get art showing the same.

      Choose a monster. Let's go with the displacer beast. We all know it as a 6-legged panther with squid tentacles sprouting from its shoulderblades. Change it into an 8-foot long oppossum with 8 legs and antennae sprouting from its head. Put that as the official image in the Monster Manual, and you will get new art of a party of adventurers fighting the brand new displacer beast, even though everyone for the past 45+ years knew it as the panther.

      It happened with the kobold (compare 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e, 5e, and even Pathfinder kobolds). It's happened with Tieflings. Aasimar can be added in the 6e PHB alongside the tiefling, and they can look exactly like the planetar, but as a playable race. You will see a flood of aasimar paladin PC art that looks like a planetar in shining plate armor, because that would be the official aasimar and it would be what people will go with.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      @oreofox, IMHO, but how does that argument address the thesis that "I don't think most want a Tiefling with a butt on the forehead because of the massive horns that a lot of the 4e and later art has"? This makes an argument assuming a certain degree of unpopularity with the current tiefling design. If you are arguing that this is because this is the image they are exposed to, then this essentially amounts to arguing "they don't know any better."
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      Quote Originally Posted by oreofox View Post
      Because that's the image people are exposed to when looking in official books, and with so many new people into the game, their only exposure is to the 4e/5e tiefling, so they think it must look like that.
      I agree. I was not arguing otherwise. The post I was responding to claimed people are asking for a different type of Tiefling and was wondering where they get this opinion from. Not really sure what you are responding too.
    1. Imaro's Avatar
      Imaro -
      Quote Originally Posted by dave2008 View Post
      I agree. I was not arguing otherwise. The post I was responding to claimed people are asking for a different type of Tiefling and was wondering where they get this opinion from. Not really sure what you are responding too.
      The fact that WotC created them in 5e to meet ( I would assume, as you are assuming fan art correlates with the origin or appearance people want to/or are actually playing when choosing tieflings in 5e) some sort of demand...
    1. Azzy's Avatar
      Azzy -
      Quote Originally Posted by PointOfIsnpiration View Post
      Crazy how you guys get so upset over being "railroaded" into some Asmodeus lore when half of you create your own settings to play in and the other half of you make up everything you do and don't play real games.

      Tieflings are pretty popular right now. And I like the homogenized look. And I like that there is a homogenized look. And I like the literary value they have. By giving them actual symbols to attach too aesthetically, you create something of actual artistic value, instead of the "well lol it can look like ANYTHING hehe xd" of 2E.

      Not that it matters. You guys can make them just like 2E Tieflings! No problem! I just don't get the need for ancient grognards from beyond time and space to on something just because it is new. We people who are new to D&D with the latest edition don't need to be told every other tiefling thread how much cooler "ye old planetouched" were.
      "Conform gronards or be castigated. My opinion is the right one."
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