Todd Kenreck: Tieflings can be some of the most fun and nefarious creatures to play in the D&D Multiverse. That's why I talked to Mike Mearls about their origins and what he likes most about them.
Mike Mearls: Tieflings are an interesting case. There is the game design side of the story, which explains why they're in the game and how they've changed. Then there's the in world side of the story. I'll start with the boring real world earth origin of Tieflings, which they appeared in Planescape. The original box set. It was when they were made as playable characters. I can't remember if they appeared before that.
Originally Tieflings were anyone who had any sort of fiendish blood in their ancestry was a Tiefling. We've since refined that, because one of the fun things about a Tiefling was your character could have a very wide range or appearance because you could say my ancestor was a Yugoloth. My ancestor was a Rakshasa. Whatever you wanted. I don't think Rakshasas were fiends back then, but whatever, right? You could have a lot of different appearances. We thought it would be interesting to have a race that was more in tune with, okay they could trace an origin back to a bad guy faction in the game.
That's when we decided Tiefling to refine it and focus it a bit more, to being humanoids who have a tie to the Nine Hells. That's where you go from Tieflings can look like almost anything that's humanoid, to having a very diabolical look. A skin shade that might be a red or orange, horns, a tail. You look at them and think, "Oh like diabolic devil person." That was the intent there.
Now the way we think today is 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 the Tiefling. This idea that you could have someone who has an ancestry that's tied to a Yugoloth or a Hag, that's still part of the D&D universe. Tiefling has kind of gone from being the name of that category to being a name of a specific portion of that category and planetouched describes the general thing of a humanoid who has fiendish ancestry of some sort.
I actually think Tieflings are really fun because you have that sort of diabolic background. You get to play this sort of edgy, darker character and you can get away with it. I think they also lend themselves well to character classes I enjoy playing, like rogues, warlocks, wizards. You know that combination of being crafty but also convincing, the silver tongue devil kind of thing, right? Where it's like the devil's really calculating and also very charming, and that's why you end up in a contract maybe you didn't want, right? Everyone knows not to make a deal with the devil, but the devil's so persuasive and he makes such good points, right? That's why I like about the Tiefling and that's what I think is really fun about them.
We categorize in the Player's Handbook as less common than elves and dwarves and halflings. The idea behind that being is we like this feel that if a Tiefling walks into a tavern in sort of a smaller village or town it stands out. Maybe people in the tavern have never seen a Tiefling before. They know of them but they have not met one before. It also adds to that sense if you want to play a character like, if you like the idea of being a foreigner, someone who really stands out very distinctly, as opposed to say, "Well I want to play a character from Calimshan and I am adventuring in the Dalelands where like I'm a foreigner culturally but I'm human, right? People know that I'm a person. I just happen to dress differently and have a different accent because I grew up far to the south and west.
I think especially in the Forgotten Realms, unless you're in open war with another human realm, most human realms get along pretty well because you're not going to make a distinction based on nationality when there's distinctions being made on what cosmic world are you from. There's bigger fish to fry in terms of like ongoing, long-term feuds. That's with the Tiefling, that's what you kind of tap into. You can walk into that and go to Shadowdale and people will think, "Oh, I don't know if we trust this person."