"There! That will do it for the big lug!" the fighter exclaimed. She beamed, and wiped her blades against moss that carpeted the floor of the cave as the now-headless troll toppled to the ground. "That means it's your turn, thief. Let's pop open those chests it was guarding."
"I don't think that's such a good idea," the rogue stammered, backing away slowly from the fighter.
"Oh, why the long face, lightfingers?" the fighter laughed, putting her hands on her hips. "It's dead, I killed it myself. That thing ain't gonna hurt you now that he's dead. So why don't you go ahead and—"
"Get down!" bellowed the wizard. The fighter turned just in time to see the troll, now standing again, screw its severed head back into place and take an earth-shaking step towards her.
"What in the Nine Hells..." she gasped. The troll swung its wiry arm straight at her, and its dagger-like claws dug deep into flank. The fighter swore loudly and raised her swords again, breathing hard through the pain. "Okay, you big hunk of meat. You want to go again?"
"For the love of Mystra, I said get down!" the wizard snarled. The fighter listened to her companion this time, and hit the floor. The wizard summoned a mote of sickly green energy into his palms, and mimed holding a bow in one hand and drawing its string back in the other. An arrow of thrumming green energy formed in front of him, and whizzed through the air when he released his invisible bowstring. The arrow struck the troll with a wet, slippery burst, and droplets of neon green acid splashed all around the troll, eating holes through moss, stone, and flesh alike. The troll roared and hissed and wailed in pain and horror, then fell down to the ground, first incapacitated, and then, as the lingering acid of Melf's acid arrow dissolved its flesh, dead.
Trolls are one of D&D’s most iconic monsters, because of their horrific powers of regeneration. Though trolls appear in countless European folkloric traditions, none possess the remarkable abilities that make D&D trolls so iconic. How can you leverage these powers of regeneration to make trolls deadly and terrifying foes for your characters to encounter?
The Power of Regeneration
Trolls in D&D are tall and lanky, with leathery green skin covered in horrific pustules and cancerous growths. Whenever a troll is wounded, its skin begins to stitch back together at an incredible pace. Even more frightful, a troll’s limbs regrow after being lopped off—and sometimes, these limbs can act with a mind of their own, or even grow an entirely new troll from a single severed limb! Only the cauterizing power of fire and acid can staunch a troll’s regenerative abilities for a time, and a slain troll can only be truly killed if its corpse is torched or dissolved after the beast is dead. Otherwise, this horrific survivor will continue to rise even from death’s door.
While trolls don’t possess this remarkable regenerative power in Scandinavian or English folklore, Gary Gygax did not imagine this ability into existence on his own. He was inspired by Three Hearts and Three Lions, a 1961 fantasy novel by Poul Anderson—a novel still proudly listed in Appendix E: Inspirational Reading of the Player’s Handbook. The troll Anderson’s hero battled in Three Hearts was the direct inspiration for D&D’s trolls, complete with a lanky frame and uncanny regenerative properties. If you want to enhance your narration when your characters fight a troll, consider turning to the original source and stealing a few lines from Anderson’s inspirational novel.
Standard Troll Tactics
Trolls aren’t intelligent creatures. Unless your troll is an exceptional creature that has studied under a magical tutor or a masterful warlord (both interesting ideas, by the way!), you should avoid making keen tactical decisions when pitting a troll against your players. A troll in combat is a frothing berserker that fears neither death nor injury, for its body can recover from any wound. Its only fear are those elements that can prevent its regenerative abilities from saving it from death: fire and acid. Thus, it charges heedlessly towards its foes’ back ranks to eliminate the wizard in an iconic robe and pointed hat.
If combat has just begun and your party has a wizard or sorcerer that doesn’t outwardly appear magical, you may consider having the troll attempt to make a successful DC 15 Intelligence (Arcana) check with a –2 penalty to identify which characters in the party are capable of casting spells. Even if the troll fails this check, it will probably figure out which character is capable of dishing out fire or acid damage as soon as combat starts.
Ferociously attacking magic-users and foes that wield fire or acid is the extent of a troll’s tactical prowess. Beyond this, it may move around the battlefield erratically, provoking opportunity attacks seemingly for no purpose, just to attack the creature that has angered it the most. Even though trolls aren’t particularly intelligent, they know that dividing their attention between multiple opponents isn’t a sound strategy. Unless they have backup, a troll will typically focus all of its attacks in a single turn against a single foe, until that enemy falls unconscious. A troll that is taunted or seriously wounded may turn its attention to a new enemy.
Trolls in a Group
Trolls are chaotic creatures. Though they may serve evil humanoids, giants, and goblinoids as mercenaries, their masters should be aware that trolls ultimately follow the orders of only one creature: itself. Hobgoblins rankle when working with such lawless creatures, but will reshape their battle tactics around the troll’s erratic fighting style, using their Martial Advantage trait to opportunistically overwhelm whatever creature has earned the troll’s fickle ire.
Orc warbands love press-ganging trolls into acting as the vanguard for their hordes. An incensed troll can crash into an enemy line, forcing the orcs’ enemy to waste precious time hunting for flames and acid flasks while the orcish horde exploits the chaos of the troll’s attack to crush their enemies.
Whether they are being used by chaotic or lawful groups of evil creatures, trolls are always a wild card. They are engines of destruction to be unleashed and then acted around. Even evil wizards who wield fire can only keep a troll as a servant for so long, before the troll’s fury overwhelms its good sense and it tries to tear its captor apart.
Trolls regrow in strange ways when they regenerate. Some trolls adapt to new surroundings with almost elf-like malleability, creating many different troll variants. Some of these unusual trolls are:
Some trolls have fairly simple mutations. A four-armed troll appears in Horde of the Dragon Queen (and a five-armed variant appears in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage), and a two-headed troll even appears in Out of the Abyss. These trolls don’t have improved intelligence or significantly different tactics than their unmutated kin, but they do attack with even greater ferocity, thanks to their improved offensive abilities.
Dire trolls are the ultimate expression of a mutant troll. These beings grow cancerously to immense size, and even attempt to graft other limbs onto their body to bolster their offenses. Even worse, their bulk allows them to partially regenerate even when wounded by fire and acid, making these trolls truly terrifying opponents.
Trolls exposed to potent elemental forces, or even just to severe climates, can take on certain elemental traits. Some are as simple as the ice troll that appears in Rise of Tiamat; its only unique trait is that it’s immune to cold damage.
A more extreme example is the venom troll, which is not only immune to poison, but is also covered in pulsing, venom-filled pustules that explode when it is attacked. This venom-infused troll rushes into the heat of battle, not to pick off back-rank stragglers, but to get as close to as many foes at once, so that its venom can explode onto as many targets as possible. Some creatures, like kobolds or goblins, may take advantage of such a troll, and use their usually ineffectual slingstones to burst its venomous pustules while it’s fighting adventurers too powerful for these kobolds to fight on their own.
Likewise, the rot troll is a vile creature so suffused with necrotic energy that it loses its ability to regenerate. It is still a frenzied berserker that relishes surrounding itself with enemies, so that its Rancid Degeneration trait can wreak as much havoc as possible, but it is constantly searching for an escape route in case its situation gets too dire. These trolls work especially well with creatures like undead or constructs that are immune to necrotic damage, so that their Rancid Degeneration only affects their enemies, and not their allies.
Finally, a spirit troll is a troll that has been psychically evicted from its physical body while it was regenerating. It continues to exist as an incorporeal being, free from its former weaknesses while still possessing all of its deadly strengths. This incorporeal form has, however, granted it a few new weaknesses. Rather than its powers of regeneration being stymied by fire or acid, it is now arrested by psychic or force damage. Still, this fearsome incorporeal form positions the spirit troll as a powerful leader of lesser trolls, and troll hunters prepared with the fire and acid necessary to defeating its minions may be put into a bind when they are forced to contend with the unusual weaknesses of their ghostly leader.
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 feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.