Right before the end of 2018, I had the chance to play on Dice, Camera, Action as giff Sergeant Ernest “Thunder” Pakka alongside James Introcaso as Corporal Rufus “Lightning” Derm, Holly Conrad as Strix and Jared Knabenbauer as Diath. Dice, Camera, Action is a livestreamed weekly D&D show featuring Chris Perkins as its Dungeon Master and following the adventures of the “Waffle Crew,” a group of self-proclaimed “suboptimal” adventurers struggling to have a normal and happy life while malevolent misfortune dogs them at every turn.
Oh, and Sgt. Pakka and Cpl. Derm are giff, a race of big, spacefaring hippo-people armed with massive black powder weapons and equipped with every British naval trope in the book. They’re native to the Spelljammer campaign setting, but most recently appeared in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. Every appearance of the giff sparks fan speculation that Wizards of the Coast will soon revive Spelljammer as a campaign setting, and combined with the inclusion of the Spelljammer villains known as neogi in Volo’s Guide to Monsters and the appearance of a Spelljammer helm in Dungeon of the Mad Mage, such speculation is not entirely without merit—despite the insistent denials of D&D’s Senior Director of Global Brand Marketing and Strategy, Nathan Stewart.
But we’ve gotten off track. I love giff, and they’re a great addition to your campaign, even if you’re not playing in Spelljammer or another spacefaring setting. I had the chance to play a giff to the hilt as a player, but let’s focus on DM advice in this article. Even though I had control of a giff as a player, I didn’t have a giff race to play as; I used the giff statblock provided in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. It was more than enough for a two-and-a-half hour-long livestream, but the resources for a giff player character aren’t quite there yet.
Playing a Giff as a Friendly NPC
Giff tend to be neutral mercenaries that obediently serve their superiors in their strict military hierarchy. This means that giff can be loyal allies or staunch enemies, as they are strictly trained to never disobey orders. If a giff has been assigned to your protection, rest easy: they will never willingly betray you. Introducing a giff character takes a bit of creativity, since they are almost all spacefarers. Sgt. Pakka and Cpl. Derm, for instance, were stationed on the Rock of Bral, an asteroid base in the Tears of Selûne, an asteroid cluster in low orbit around Toril, home planet of the Forgotten Realms.
Of course, you could edit out the spacefaring stuff altogether and make giff seafarers or skyfarers with Eberron-style airships. That’s an easy way to incorporate them into a setting without even glancing at science fiction. But if you’re sticking to their spacefaring roots, you’ll want to think of how that fits with your campaign setting. If you’re playing in the Forgotten Realms, just snag the Rock of Bral. Easy! If you’re playing in a homebrew setting, you can use Spelljammer as connective tissue to link your campaign setting to the broader D&D Multiverse. A Spelljamming craft descends from the heavens before the characters, and a hulking, hippo-headed humanoid swaggers out in full military uniform. Silly? Oh, certainly. But we’re here to have fun, aren’t we?
Ernest Pakka was nothing short of a delight to play, because I had the chance to lean into a boisterous, archetypal personality. James Introcaso bought us each a prop monocle and cigar, and we each provided our own ridiculous, blustery faux-British accent. We hashed out a little list of Spelljammery slang (James exclaimed “Phlogiston!” in place of “Curses!” and so forth). And of course, we also stuffed our vocabulary with bits of over-the-top British pomp. Redwall was an unforgettable book series of my childhood, and I channeled the “pip pips,” “wot wots,” and assorted pompous jargon of Basil Stag Hare from the series’ first books with gusto—with a dash of Bertie Wooster thrown in for good measure. I suspect just about everyone has read or watched a character in media with that sort of bluster they can draw upon.
Frankly, the persona is so broadly recognizable that I suspect any player would recognize and enjoy it, even if you’ve never practiced it once in your life. The accoutrements of a bowler hat, monocle, and cigar are hardly necessary, but they certainly help sell the bit.
Running a Giff as a Foe
If your players are facing a giff or a platoon thereof as their enemies, they may have mixed feelings. Surely they’ll be amused by the giffs’ over-the-top bluster, but if you’re doing your job right, they may come to fear their unrelenting doggedness. They cannot be reasoned with—no matter how affable they may be—and they will not give up until their contract is completed. Which means that someone must have put out a hit on the player characters, and hired the most talented spacefaring hippo-mercenaries money can buy.
Giff have a cultural love of heavy explosives. Which means that, with every defeat the giff mercenaries endure, you should be encouraged to up the stakes. The giff in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes already possess a musket and a grenade, but you can pilfer the Dungeon Master’s Guide for even more weapons.
If the giff appear in an airship or Spelljamming craft, consider using stats for cannons, found in the Siege Weapons section of Chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. If the giff’s use of muskets isn’t over-the-top enough, just imagine the running gag you could create by giving your giff increasingly futuristic armament every time they appear. Beat them when they were armed with muskets and grenades? This time they have Colt .45 revolvers and Winchester rifles, using stats for revolvers and hunting rifles found in Chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Beat them with those? Well they’ve got laser pistols and antimatter rifles this time!
Regardless of how you run your giff as villains, they’re actually quite simple to run in combat. On foot, they want to keep a healthy distance from their enemies and blast them to smithereens with the most potent ordinance available. Only in dire circumstances does a giff draw their rapier—killing an enemy with a sword isn’t jolly good fun at all. One’s much too likely to get blood on their uniform, eh wot?
This is unofficial, non-canon content, and is not legal for Adventurers’ League play.
Now, I know people want to play giff characters. I’ve seen it in my Discord channel, on Twitter, and so forth. Unfortunately, there are no official resources for giff player characters, but there’s nothing wrong with a little homebrew. I hope Wizards of the Coast decides to release an official giff race as part of a charity effort, just like they did for tortles in The Tortle Package, but if it ever happens, it will probably happen in conjunction with a Spelljammer release.
In the meantime, here’s a super-duper unofficial giff race. I hope it tides you over for now. Put on your favorite Gustav Holst record, roll up a character, and play your hippo with pride! Here's a link to this race in the Homebrew Races section of D&D Beyond. Please remember to turn on "Homebrew Content" in the Character Builder if you plan to use this race! (Note: a new version of this race has been uploaded since its original release. Please use the latest version.)
It’s easy to spot the giff in a room: a group of 7-foot-tall, hippopotamus-headed humanoids attired in gaudy military uniforms, with gleaming pistols and muskets on display. These spacefaring mercenaries are renowned for their martial training and their love of explosives.
Military Organization. Every aspect of giff society is organized along military lines. From birth until death, every giff has a military rank. It must follow orders from those of superior rank, and it can give orders to those of lower rank. Promotions don’t depend on age but are granted by a superior as a reward for valor. Giff are devoted to their children, even as most of their education is geared toward fighting and war.
Mercenaries Extraordinaire. Giff are in high demand as warriors for hire, but they insist on serving in units composed entirely of giff; a giff hiring itself out individually is unheard of. Giff refuse to fight other giff, and will never agree to a contract unless it stipulates that they can sit out a battle rather than wage war against their kin. A giff prizes the reputation of its unit above its own life. Life is fleeting, but the regiment endures for generations or even centuries.
A Whiff of Gunpowder. Muskets and grenades are the favorite weapons of every giff. The bigger the boom, the brighter the flash, and the thicker the smoke it produces, the more giff love a weapon. Their skill with gunpowder is another reason for their popularity as mercenaries. Giff revel in the challenge of building a bomb big enough to level a fortification. They gladly accept payment in kegs of gunpowder in preference to gold, gems, or other currency.
No Honor in Magic. Some giff become wizards, clerics, and other kinds of spellcasters, but they’re so infrequent that most giff mercenary units have no magical capability. Typical giff are as smart as the average human, but their focus on military training to the exclusion of all other areas of study can make them seem dull-witted to those who have more varied interests.
—Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
A giff’s name is big and pompous, just like the being who bears it. Most giff have a given name and a surname, just like most human beings, also possess a rank and nickname. Giff are assigned the rank of trainee at birth, and are promoted to the rank of ensign upon reaching adulthood. Most giff rise through the ranks as they age, and they are conditioned from birth to defer unerringly to all giff of higher rank. A giff’s nickname is assigned by their peers during their service, and can be a term of endearment, derision, respect, or fear. Most giff amass a hoard of nicknames over their lifetimes, and use them variably depending on the occasion.
Male Names: Alford, Algernon, Alpheus, Alphonse, Bertram, Benedict, Cornelius, Delmer, Ebenezer, Ernest, Eustace, Gideon, Hibbard, Jack, Jeremiah, Methuselah, Theodore, Percival, Rhys, Rufus, Zebulon
Female Names: Abagail, Adelaide, Brigid, Charlotte, Clarinda, Elizabeth, Elmira, Fredonia, Esther, Gertrude, Guinevere, Hermione, Margaret, Martha, Sophronia, Tabitha, Winifred
Surnames: Ainesly, Brownrigg, Byron, Cholmondeley, Cromwell, Cumberbatch, Darcy, Eastaughffe, Finlayson, Gladstone, Grenville, Harding, Leicester, Osborne, Pickering, Pinkerton, Quince, Schuyler
"No objections. Your orders are crystal clear as a Crystal Sphere, sir!"
—Sergeant Ernest "Thunder" Pakka, accepting orders from Major Argus Krux on the Rock of Bral.
Your giff character has the following racial traits.
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2, and your Dexterity score increases by 1.
Age. Giff mature slightly faster than humans, becoming adults at age 14. Most elderly giff pass away around 70 years old, but most giff die in the line of duty or blow themselves up long before then.
Alignment. Most giff are lawful neutral, adhering strictly to the orders of their commanders with little concern for the morality of their actions, as long as it gives them an excuse to deploy excessively heavy ordinance.
Size. Giff stand between 7 and 8 feet tall, and weigh easily 500 pounds, not counting their hefty military dress uniforms. Your size is Medium.
Powerful Build. You count as one size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Giff Weapon Training. You have been trained to wield firearms since birth. You have proficiency with muskets and pistols, and can ignore their loading property.
Headfirst Charge. If you move at least 20 feet straight toward a target and then hit it with a melee weapon attack on the same turn, that creature must succeed on a Strength saving throw with a DC equal to 8 + your Strength modifier + your proficiency bonus, or take 7 (2d6) bludgeoning damage and be knocked prone.
The damage increases to 3d6 at 11th level, and 4d6 at 16th level.
Natural Armor. You have thick, leathery skin. When you aren’t wearing armor, your AC is 12 + your Constitution modifier. You can use your natural armor to determine your AC if the armor you wear would leave you with a lower AC. A shield’s benefits apply as normal while you use your natural armor.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common.
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, the DM of Worlds Apart, and 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 their cat-headed explosives experts, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.