Tieflings. Fifth Edition D&D Design for the Malazan world
The Tieflings of Dungeons and dragons are loved by many and hated by a few. They started their history in Dungeons and Dragons as people who had in some way been affected by demonic forces. Perhaps someone who had sold their soul for power or decended from someone touched by the influence of the demonic. In the years of 5e D&D they are currently a whole race of people who allied themselves in some way (depending on your setting) with the demonic and are now their own true race. What they are not is their own culture, at least not that I have found in most settings. Because of this they tend to lack a strength of character which I think is why some DM’s don’t like them in their worlds. They are just the purview of people who want to be dark and edgy and they don’t tend to have the richness that the other races do. They have plenty of potential, but they require more work from the player.
But There Are No Tieflings
Within the world of the Malazans created by Steven Erikson and his friends there are no analogies for Tieflings. When they started playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons there was no Tiefling playable race and as such they found no home in their campaign setting. For most people attempting to make a Malazan game then they would of course not include them at all in that case. I however have been trying to not to create a perfect rendition of the stories, but instead a Fith Edition Dungeons and Dragons experience inspired by the books many of us hold dear, and for those people who have never heard of the Books of the Fallen, give you a game that turns things on its head. With that I wanted to find a home for every one of the Player Handbook races to allow everyone to play the state blocks they wanted with as few restrictions as I could manage.
A First Consideration
In my previous article I mentioned how I had originally looked at the Tieflings +1 intelligence and fire resistance as call to re-skin them as the Moranth. A tall race of secretive alchemists never seen without their insectoid looking armour. I threw this out when I thought about what most people would want to play if they had read the books and wanted to be a Moranth. A fighter. One of the Black Moranth military. In that case a race with no bonus to strength would not be the best fit, not to mention their secretiveness and mystery being spoiled by a player being one. I left the Moranth and considered how else I might fit the horned and colourful Tieflings into the Malazan world.
So What Now?
I made them daemonic refugees living alongside Cloud Forrest, home of the Moranth, and part of the feud they have with the Barghast, who despise the Moranth for conspiring Daemons.
It is from this time that the idea of creating the Tieflings as a visually identified culture developed. Some months prior to this project I had come across the amazing illustrations by Russian artist Phobso who goes by the twitter handle @Phobs0. Phobso’s illustrations of Tieflings wearing long patterned clocks, bodies bedeck in jewellery, shared motifs of triangles across both cloths and face paint, result in a stylistically cohesive race of people that I could not help but fall in love with. They are a true people. Not just that one family in your village touched by the demonic, but their own civilisation with a rich culture and history that allows for a vast amount more roleplaying potential than is normally there for a Tiefling player.
I envisioned them as refugees from another Warren (the MBotF equivalent to the planes of D&D) who lived on the borders of cloud forrest. Hiding their otherworldly heritage they wear long cloths and both men and woman cover their faces while in the company of strangers. Their horns, covered in ornamentation and hidden beneath long cloaks or turbans, most would mistake them for a cultural ornamentation, a belief that they would strongly encourage.
An Aside- Players Playing Against Convention, Just Because
I am righting this some time after having developing the campaign. As such I have in fact had one trifling player already. I explained how his race cover their faces at all times in order to hide their demonic looking appearance, passing off their skin tones (for those who aren’t used to say the blue skinned Napan) as face paint. That they only take the viel off while in the company of close friends.
What is the first thing he did? Told me that he is different from the rest of his race and walks around bare headed revelling in his appearance amongst the humans. Chaotic Neutral Warlock that he was, he decided to scare the Hood out of some people in the first few sessions and build up his reputation while people screamed Daemon at him. We were early into the game and he wasn’t too invested in the character, so I felt he needed to unlearn some bad habits. He ran off on his own forgetting he was the caster. Scared more people. But those who stuck around attacked him. And then stabbed the Hood out of him while he was down. I normally avoid sobbing unconscious players while they are down at early levels. But terrified people who want to make sure the daemon stops breathing don’t care that you are low level.
His next character was still a massive Edgelord, but what can you do? He at least learnt to be a bit more carful and play with the party more.
Issues in Execution
There was a strong issue with my plan however. It required a lot of work to fit the race into Genabackis. How would they effect the story of the continent and how much presence would they have in the continent as a whole? Also what Warren would they come from, and how much knowledge would that bring to a player from that race? The nature of daemons and the Warrens is something I want players new to the world to learn slowly over time. But a race originally from another Warren, unless it was a very long time ago, would come with a lot of their own knowledge.
I hadn’t gotten my head around them enough for my first play-test, so both the Dragonborn and Tiefling stat blocks were off the menu for my players. This is a group of old school D&D players, where we cycle though various different RPG games, so the smaller restriction on races was not a problem to them.
While continuing to work on the problem of the Moranth I came to realise that the Dragonborn with their pre-existing colours made perfect fit for the Moranth, the whole story of which you can find on their blog post. But what this left was an opening. I had previously stollen the islands and people of Umryg, as the Dragonborn home. With the reptilian race converted to beetle armoured people I had the option of moving the Teiflings homeland. Never heard of the Umryg, even if you are a Malazan fan? I’m not surprised, they appear so far only in Return of the Crimson Guard and Assail from the series writen by Esslemont. I haven’t yet read Assail, but I am hoping by the time I get to it I will have created nothing so concrete that I can’t change it latter. We learn very little about them.
Here is an extract from the Malzan.Wiki on them:
“Umryg was an isolated island kingdom ruled by long-lived Primogenitrix Timmel Orosenn. Its thaumaturgs were organised in a group called the Circlet of Umryg and led by Circlet Master T'enet. The kingdom also maintained a standing army.
The interior of the island featured mountains and a valley of burial caverns interspersed with ancient earthworks.
Despite being an island, Umryg was "no sea-faring state." The Primogenitrix's ship Supplicant was slow and ungainly, supernaturally tall, top heavy, and likely run by magical means.
Umryg's location in the Malazan world has not been revealed. “
If you have read Assail and anything I have made up here is massively conflicting with the book, then you can help me come up with some interesting ways of drawing it all together at a latter date.
So now I have an island kingdom that makes a heavy use of magic and that has little connection with the rest of the world. This means that I don’t need to worry about stepping on any narrative toes, throwing them into the mix. It also means that I have no need to change anything about the way Tieflings work mechanically, I’m already pushing my luck with the amount of small changes I have made to the other races. So having someone that I can say “the Umryg? I just uses the Tiefling stat block as normal, I’ll just explain a little bit about who they are,” helps keep things easier.
It was a very simple step to simply wholesale move the Tiefling refugees from cloud forrest to Umryg and name them accordingly. I kept the culture, the views and beautiful style I was inspired to create from Phobso’s work, but now they had an age and depth which allowed the average player character to be freely ignorant of the vast history that exists in Eriksons worlds. Like most peoples their histories are long forgotten. But with the thaumaturges and other details there are lots of opportunities to develop them.
So Where Do My Umryg come from?
But just because the race has forgotten its history, that doesn’t mean that I should forget them should I?
In which case where did this horned and colourful skinned people come from? I could move away from the normal Tiefling narrative and simply have them as entirely their own race, developed naturally in the world. But I felt their racial magic and moving too far from the expectations of players might be pushing it too far. While contemplating this problem I was also working on my lexicon of demonology and monsters. What daemonic creatures from the Malazan world would be the simplest re-skins for D&D and which would require more work?
This is where I read again the description of the Kenyll'rah, daemons of Aral Gamelon, the Warren of Daemons. These lovely giants appear on several occasions throughout the books and importantly have horns. Though huge in size, in a world full of magic it is not unreasonable to say that some ancient descendants of the Kenyll'rah have either evolved to be much shorter or have thanks to magic interbred with humans.
With the Umrgy looking so Indian in style with their colourful cloths and saris it makes for an interesting way option of transforming the Kenyll’rah, reimagining them into blue (or other colours) creatures similar in appearance to Indian gods or daemons. Complete with the fine cloths for the ruling class and weapon styles to match.
Notably to keep them in them with both their demonic heratige, and to not look even more out of place with the Malazan races than they already are, the Umryg have no tails. This also helps to stop those players who want to try and make attacks with them or pickpocket people their their tail.
Where I go from here with them has a lot of different avenues. Questions like, “Why all the triangles?” Something I feel has potential is the Against the Giants I recently read in Tales from the Yawning Portal. It involves a rather sinister cult and a triangular motif that I can build upon. I’m planning on re-skinning the Giant stats as Kenyll’rah making Attack the Giants a possible foray into the warren of daemons for my players. Why did the race come here and what about the Jaghut hints (don’t worry I am very aware of them) and how can I work them in latter? Do they worship the human gods or do they have their own set?
With their vast number of mages that players will create what will a warrior look like? I’ve got that question covered with yet more amazing art that I found from Concept Artist Ariel Perez. I’ve had this image saved to my Pinterest folder for a long time and I think this is a wonderful chance to use it. I’m normally a fan of more practical arms and armour but this is far too cool to be a purist in these matters.
What’s To Come
I’ve nearly finished laying the groundwork for my games so I can start talking about more current developments in my game plan, as well as tell you about some of the adventures of my players! Not to mention uploading more of the art I’ve produced for the online campaign. But there is one last thing to cover first. Gnomes. Where in Hoods name do I fit Gnomes into the world of the Malazan? A very under appreciated race of short people who are often as disliked in DM’s campaigns as the Teifling and Dragonborn.
I’ll be covering my exploits with the short little magic people in my next blog post, hopefully I’ll be able to get around to it sooner and it won’t be such a long weight next time. Trust me, I’ve had a really good plan with the Gnomes, and unlike all the others this will be my first foray into creating a whole race and culture from scratch rather than redesigning one of the existing peoples.