A Short History of Tieflings


Cover detail from Fire in the Blood by Erin M. Evans, courtesy of Wizards of the Coast

Erin M. Evan’s Fire in the Blood is out this week. It’s a new adventure featuring the tiefling warlock Farideh. But what is a tiefling, you might ask? They look like devils. Are they evil? Good questions, all. Now let’s see if I can answer them:

The tiefling began as an infernal spark in the mind of legendary game designer David “Zeb” Cook, who among other things was the lead designer of the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Several changes had occurred in the transition from first and second edition, some good and some bad. Like everything, it’s a matter of perspective. One of these changes had been the creative decision to exclude devils and demons from the rules. It seems silly now, but for a brief time in the eighties a small but very vocal contingent of worrisome busybodies declared that D&D was satanic, and more than likely responsible for all manner of social ills.

TSR decided to err on the side of caution and banished the fiends from the rule books. Well, they weren’t exactly banished: They were still there, but like participants in some kind of fiendish witness protection program, they had assumed new names: baatezu and tanar’ri.

Demon? Devil? Verboten!

Forgive the German, but it plays a part in the story. Call it foreshadowing.

Anyway, after the second edition of AD&D was put to bed, Cook started working on another project: a new campaign setting called Planescape. Unlike the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Al-Qadim, Planescape wasn’t set in the “Prime Material Plane”, which was what we D&D fans call the regular world: The place where all of the elves, dwarves, halflings, and humans dwell. Instead, Planescape was set among the Outer Planes: The Abyss, Elysium, Gehenna, Limbo. All of them were accessible through portals scattered around a mysterious city called Sigil. Located centrally to all of the planes, Sigil was a cosmopolitan place where beings from across the multiverse gathered for business and intrigue, and largely got along. They had to, because otherwise, they could be banished… or worse.

It’s a great idea, really: A home base from which characters could explore adventures anywhere in time and space, as long as they found the right door. A new campaign setting like this required new options for player characters. New races, among them. Sure, you could still play an elf or dwarf, but why not go with something a little more exotic?

Cook had an idea for a race of humans whose bloodlines had been tainted by devilish or demonic blood somewhere in the past. These outcast heroes would bear the physical signs of their heritage – horns, red skin, sharp fangs, perhaps – but unlike their fiendish ancestors this new race would be free to choose whether or not to embrace evil. It was a great idea, but what to call them? Demons and devils were no longer a part of D&D canon. Hell didn’t even exist in the Outer Planes. Stumped, Cook contacted fellow TSR designer Wolfgang Baur, now the owner of Kobold Press.

Baur remembered it well when I reached out by email.

“Cook was writing the Planescape campaign setting, where the tieflings first appeared. He wanted to name them after the lower planes but without being too obvious, and without necessarily tilting to the side of law or chaos,” said Baur, “so he asked me about them, whether there was a German word that might be a useful root for Hell or the Abyss.”

Baur suggested “tiefling”. Using the German word for Hell might be a problem for grammatical reasons.

“Hell has an umlaut in German,” said Baur. “I told him that the word he wanted would be something like ‘tief’, which is German for ‘deep.’ Maybe a ‘tiefling’, a creature from the depths.”

A new race was born. A creature from the deep.

Here’s how Cook described the Tiefling in the Planescape campaign setting, published in 1994.

“Part human and part something else, tieflings are the orphans of the planes. They can be described as humans who’ve been plane-touched. A shadow of knife-edge in their face, a little too much fire in their eyes, a scent of ash in their presence – all these things and more describe a tiefling. No planar would mistake a tiefling for a human, and most primes make the mistake
only once. Tieflings live with both pride and shame of who and what they are. They have no culture of their own, and most are loners, which fits their background. Some slip into the edges of human society, becoming poets and artists who describe the corrupt fringes of the respectable world. Adventurous types often spend their years probing the unexplored edges of the multiverse, be it to survey strange lands or experiment in the forgotten niches of magical science.”

These devilish humans became a popular choice for players, and when it was time to roll out the third edition of D&D (This time under Monte Cook at Wizards of the Coast) the tieflings came with it. This time, though, the tieflings were part of the Monster Manual. Gamers looking for a playable tiefling would have to wait until the 2003 release of Heroes of Faerûn, a sourcebook for D&D’s Forgotten Realms campaign setting. The tieflings were back, and now they were part of the Prime Material Plane.

When the fourth edition of D&D was released, the game’s Player’s Handbook included Tieflings alongside the elves, dwarves, halflings, humans, and other standard options. The in-game mythology expanded to accommodate them, suggesting that they were the descendants of a nation of evil humans who made a pact with the devils of the Nine Hells. (Devils and Hell had returned in third edition – the busy-bodies had moved on to other things by then.) The tiefling proved to be just as popular, and were perfect matches for the game’s warlock character class. Warlocks draw their power from pacts with various supernatural powers – including devils.

Fiction has always been a part of the D&D experience, ever since Andre Norton’s 1978 not-exactly-official D&D novel Quag Keep. Over the years, a number of iconic fiction characters had gained significant followings among reader: Drizzt Do’Urden, Elminster, and others. Fourth edition brought a new iconic character into their ranks: a tiefling warlock named Farideh – the star of the Brimstone Angels Saga. Farideh, like other tieflings, looked sinister but was free to make her own way. She was a hero, although having a cambion – a half-devil – as a patron made things tricky. Farideh gained a following among readers. The first novel, Brimstone Angels, was followed by a second, Lesser Evils. Farideh then appeared in The Adversary, a book in the multi-author Sundering series.

Farideh was to tieflings as Drizzt was to drow elves: An exemplar and role-model. The tiefling’s journey from Outer Plane oddity to mainstay of D&D was complete.

We’re on a fifth edition of D&D now, and while many things have changed, tie flings aren’t one of them. They’re in the player’s handbook and ready to play. Farideh is still continuing her adventure, too. The most recent, Fire in the Blood, was released this week

What does the future hold for D&D? I don’t know for sure, but I bet whatever it is, tieflings will be a part of it.

Read an interview with Erin M. Evans here.

Take Five with Erin M. Evans!

Want Farideh to make an appearance in your own D&D game? Check out Wizards of the Coast’s official NPC write-up here!

Special thanks to Wolfgang Baur, who is running an awesome kickstarter here!