Putting the Fur in Firbolg: The Evolution of a Character Race

I love firbolgs in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Their racial traits are weird and mystical, and feel like they’re taken right from the pages of a fairy tale. Their appearance is both cute and intimidating, and their lore and mechanics support this characterization—and more than anything, they're just different from any other character race we've seen in D&D so far. Their inclusion in the game as a race that straddles the lines of mundane and monstrous, and sweet and savage, creates a dynamic unseen in most D&D stories. Players who want to play a giant character but want something other than a half-orc or goliath barbarian would do well roll up a firbolg.

But for most of D&D’s over-forty-year history, firbolgs were nothing like the red-nosed, gray-furred creatures we recognize from Volo’s Guide. They date all the way back to first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where they debuted in the Monster Manual II (1983) as a type of giant.

In fact, throughout their existence as a creature of D&D lore, firbolgs have always seemed to come in second place. They reappeared as a monster in second edition AD&D in the Monstrous Compendium Volume Two (1989), the third edition Monster Manual II (2002) as both a monster and a playable character race, and once more in the fourth edition Monster Manual 2 (2009). Even in fifth edition, they debuted as a playable race (though not as a monster, for the first time!) in Volo’s Guide to Monstersthe edition’s second book of monsters.

But we’ve gotten a bit off track. See, for most of D&D's history, firbolgs looked like this:

Art is copyright Wizards of the Coast (1983–2009).

Firbolgs through the Ages

Firbolgs have been giantkin since their inception, but whereas firbolgs in fifth edition are fuzzy, druidic protectors of nature, firbolgs in first edition were mighty, Viking-like warriors. They were explicitly described as the most powerful of the minor giants—presumably referring to giants outside of the Ordning, such as ogres and fomorians. Even back then, however, firbolgs had the power to shrink in size to appear akin to a normal human.

Classic firbolgs were cautious, crafty, and solitary giants with a predilection for illusion magic, and their shamans possessed even greater mastery of illusions. While they favored massive, giant-sized greatswords and halberds to defend themselves, classic firbolgs took great pleasure in “duping humans out of their treasure” by assuming humanoid size and using their illusions to pull one over on credulous adventurers.

This conception of the firbolg remained more or less unchanged throughout first, second, and third edition. Some information was added over the years; for instance, the second edition Monstrous Compendium revealed that firbolgs’ affinity for nature and wild forests and hills arose from their distrust of other mortal races. Since they had no desire to mingle with other people, they simply learned to live amidst nature. By third edition, however, firbolgs had lost much of their illusion magic. The only remnant of their original ability to shrink to human size was a spell-like ability that allowed them to cast alter self once per day. The illusionist firbolgs of yore were fading away as early as 2002.

This dissolution of old abilities and lore was made complete in fourth edition, in which firbolgs underwent a major overhaul. The new firbolgs of fourth edition were no longer cunning and reserved giantkin, but shamans and barbarians from the Feywild who commanded the Wild Hunt. These agents of neutrality, destiny, and death were mighty warriors and shamans, and worshiped three goddesses that together bore some similarity to the Morrígan, a triple goddess of Irish mythology. These three goddesses were the Maiden (Sehanine), the Mother (Melora), and the Crone (the Raven Queen). Once more, in fourth edition, firbolgs were consigned to a Monster Manual without being elevated to a playable race, as they had in third edition. 

Modern Firbolgs

This means that, perhaps surprisingly, the fuzzy-faced firbolgs of fifth edition are actually a return to form for these proud giantkin. Though the pseudo-Celtic aesthetic of early D&D firbolgs has been scrubbed away and the tie to the Feywild introduced in fourth edition remains, modern firbolgs are once again innate illusionists and reclusive guardians of the forest. They are not humorless, nor are they aggressive—but their judgment upon those who would defile the woodland is swift and merciless.

Firbolgs largely flew under the radar after the release of Volo's Guide to Monsters. Even though this was the first time in the history of D&D where firbolgs appeared as a player character race but not a monster, their unusual abilities and vague lore made it difficult for them to find an audience. While they could be played as characters in third edition, their steep level adjustment and hit die penalties made them difficult to play in anything but high-level campaigns. Now with no level adjustment or other hurdles, firbolgs were ripe for new players—but even with all of these barriers to entry removed, firbolg characters firbolgs lacked the visibility for all but dedicated players to notice them.

This was in part due to a lack of art. No firbolg characters appear in any fifth edition book—not even Storm King’s Thunder—and only one official piece of firbolg art exists: the key art presented with their race in Volo’s Guide. An additional piece of art was created by D&D concept artist Shawn Wood for the series Force Grey: Lost City of Omu for Dylan Sprouse’s somewhat less-than-serious character Tyril Tallguy (pictured above).

Other than Tyril, players who might have otherwise been drawn to play firbolgs by their unique and charming traits simply weren’t exposed to this offbeat race. With no NPCs in the books, characters in the novels, or major characters on-stream, how would anyone learn of firbolgs?

Critical Role

As luck would have it, Critical Role did to firbolgs on the small scale what they did to D&D on the larger scale: they made them visible and brought them into the mainstream. In Critical Role season 2, Matthew Mercer kicked off a massive outpouring of firbolg love when he created the fan-favorite NPC shopkeeper Pumat Sol, a firbolg enchanter who ran a magic item shop in the city of Zadash. He made a lasting impression on both the cast and fans of Critical Role because of his charming accent and his striking simulacra—there were four separate Pumat Sols tending his shop!

Later in the campaign two new firbolgs joined the party when guest star Sumalee Montano joined as the firbolg druid Nila, and later Taliesin Jaffe introduced to the main cast a firbolg grave cleric known as Caduceus Clay. Both of these firbolgs’ appearances departed from the traditional firbolg design laid out in Volo’s Guide, a visual distinction heightened by Critical Role’s main artist Ari Orner. Departing somewhat from the iconic gray fur and big red nose, which characterized Tyril Tallguy, Pumat Sol, and the firbolg in Volo’s Guide, Nila has brown fur, a wide, cow-like nose and floppy ears. Caduceus Clay, on the other hand, has the traditional gray fur and red nose, but with that same cow-like visage and a hot pink, side-shave mohawk.

In the wake of these three characters’ appearances, fans of D&D now have three refreshingly different interpretations of the firbolg race. And because of how well-performed all three characters were, fans of the show have created dozens of pieces of fan art depicting their own interpretations of these characters—and countless players are also flocking to create firbolg characters of their own. With just this level of high-profile representation, one can only imagine what the fan reaction would be like if firbolgs were as widespread in fantasy as elves and dwarves, with countless different stories and character archetypes represented among the members of that fantasy race.

Art by Ari Orner (@ornerine)

Your own Firbolgs

This variety just goes to show that, no matter what kind of character race you’re playing in D&D, you should never feel limited by the information put forth in the rulebooks. Whether it’s art, lore, or (with your DM’s permission) stats, you should always feel empowered to create a character that speaks to your style of play.

So if you love the old style of firbolgs, don’t despair! There’s room within the fifth edition rules for you to have your greatsword-wielding, vaguely Celtic giantkin. Just do a little bit of reskinning; there’s plenty of images of suitably Irish fantasy warriors with pinkish skin and flowing blond or red hair out there for you to find inspiration with. And if you love the fuzzy-faced forest guardians of modern D&D, go out and create a firbolg of your own and tell your own unique story with that character! The way I see it, the more stories we create about the unusual and exciting races of D&D, the richer and more interesting our gaming culture will become.

James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two wilderness defenders, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.


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