The Trouble of Playing a Tiefling
Sep 10, 2021

Article by Tory Tedeschi

Locket with portrait of a young woman

Artist: Suzanne Helmigh

“So, we’re in agreeance?” I asked, sliding the coin purse towards her. “The duke’s son cannot inherit his father’s land. He must disappear.”

She sat across the table from me, leaning away from the candlelight. Her eyes caught the small dancing flame as a cat’s does. I swallowed the lump in my throat.

“You think of me as a monster for hire.” She smirked. Her gaze flicked to the purse for the briefest moment, showing little interest. “If the boy’s ascendance would be such a disaster, I do not need coin. I’ll do as you think best. In return, I only have a favor to ask.”

The red skin of her hand slipped into the candlelight. She placed a golden locket on the table between us and prized open the clasp with her long black claws. She waited. Tentatively I picked it up. Inside was an aged portrait of a young human girl.

“Who is she?”

“That is exactly what I would like you to find out,” the devil muttered. “She’d be much older, now. I think she’s my mother.”

* * *

The devil goes by many names. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer is an anarchist who denies God’s will by setting up shop in Hell. In Goeth’s Faust, Mephistopheles is a beguiling contractor who never fails to read the terms and conditions. In the Rolling Stones number one hit, the fiend simply hopes you guess his name. Whether Geryon, Titivillus or Bael; devils are an expression of evil incarnate.

While the keepers of the crossroads scheme in the shadows for millennia, their brood carry the brunt of their infernal legacy. Introduced as a mixture of humanity and “something else” in the Planescape Campaign Setting (1994), tieflings are a race beholden to a generational legacy. Somewhere in your lineage, your ancestor has made the ultimate pact with the devil. This very decision courses through your veins. It is in every aspect that creates your hideous visage. It is in every scale etched across your body. It is even in your charming smile, which is framed by sharpened fangs. Your very being is infused with the knowledge that you hail from hell.

But how do you roleplay a child of the Prince of Darkness? Well, the devil is in the details.

Tiefling Cultists cast magic

Artist: Elizabeth Peiró

You Look Like Hell!

Typically, tieflings look like hell (no, really). Tieflings bare the indelible stamp of their infernal heritage, often sporting curled horns, non-prehensile tails, and cloven hooves, to name a few. Players can simply flip through a monster grimoire and point to the limb of any creature of their choosing to garner inspiration for their devil’s mark. While the mark of the beast might manifest a mouth of fangs or forked tongues, these unearthly qualities can also be subtle. Perhaps your tiefling exudes a sulphureous odor in tightly knit spaces, or you leave commoners with inexplicable feelings of dread wherever you wander? These unsettling features can be as prominent as bat-like wings or as understated as a particularly disturbing goatee. Not all tieflings are made equal: one player character’s (PC) red-skinned monster can be another’s slime-ball lawyer.

Fiend wielding two swords

Artist: Israel Laborda

It’s Not Easy Being Red

Whether Hellboy 2.0 or the personification of corporate greed, tieflings often exist on the fringes of civilization. Typically reviled by polite society, the tiefling’s infernal inheritance means they’re often suspected to be charismatic deceivers, thriving thieves or members of a cult passing around the Kool-Aid. Supposedly, the evil of your heritage corrupts your soul as well as your face. But to play devil’s advocate, this perception is likely more exterior than interior. The nature of the tiefling simply suggests that they carry cosmetic indicators of their abysmal genetics. In fact, a +2 modifier to charisma turns your forked tongue into a silver one: your words melt like butter in the ears of all who hear them. You exude a presence that is as alluring as it is unsettling. You could be as cunning as Mollymauk from Critical Role, or as excitable as Jester being plied with pastries. Either way, most eyes are on you when you enter a room, whether you like it or not.

Like half-orcs who are similarly reviled for their monstrosity, tieflings are rarely accepted among the masses. While tieflings provide an apt allegory for xenophobia, this discrimination is foregrounded on a moral basis. The point isn’t simply that you look different; rather, you’re a moral question made manifest. Are you human or monster? Kin or creature? Effectively, you are a bit of both. You live in the middle, exuding ambiguity that is as appealing as it is dangerous. After all, we all fear what we do not understand.

*

“A confronting creature, tieflings. Not quite a monster but certainly not a commoner. I’ve only met one in my lifetime but read many manuscripts with conflicting details. In truth, I know not what I would do if I were hired to kill one, whether to consider myself a monster hunter or an assassin.”

*

Given their bonuses to charisma and intelligence, tieflings fit seamlessly into each arcane class. Having the thaumaturgy cantrip emphasizes your supernatural proclivities. Doors rattle after you enter a room, your footsteps triggering soft tremors. Candles are immediately snuffed in your presence, so it’s a good thing you’re equipped with darkvision (how else will you see the fear in your victim’s eyes?). Whether trekking across realms long forgotten, journeying through the thick of Etharis or simply meandering in your own homebrewed invention, players might like to think about how magic is perceived in these parts. Is magic so ubiquitous that your very soul is manifested into a spirit animal as in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Or will locals deem you a witch with a single glance before arming themselves with pitchforks? The answer to this question will determine whether your character is more chameleon or pariah.

Let’s Shake on It

A fiendish contract

Artist: Klaher Baklaher

This connection to the supernatural allows players to weave their infernal background into their class and spellcasting. Perhaps my all-time favorite PC was Isolde: a tiefling warlock who bargained with Asmodeus. Isolde was tied to her “father” through a dark (and somewhat deceitful) pact. In an effort to revive her husband who was struck down by the plague, Isolde made a deal with the envious Asmodeus; who saw opportunity in her grief. He agreed to revive her husband, if only she would sacrifice her most compelling power: her beauty. Thinking a bad haircut was a price worth paying for true love, Isolde agreed and shook the monster’s hand. Immediately, a shooting pain seethed through her arm and her skin bubbled from her bones. Her flesh flayed from her body, exposing the sinuous muscle beneath. She resembled a devil’s image.

Luckily, Isolde had “The Mask of Many Faces” as an eldritch invocation, which gave her the opportunity to hide her galling visage in plain sight. However, in moments of exasperation, Isolde’s concentration waned, and her fiendish appearance flickered beneath her skin to expose an insect-riddled skull. Fusing Isolde’s spellcasting to her fiendish background allowed for greater character building and even proved an apt intimidation tactic for many a surly merchant.

As readers will no doubt notice, Isolde deviates from the typical definition of a tiefling given that she – rather than a foolhardy ancestor – made a deal with the devil herself. Luckily, my GM allowed such a transgression to slide, of which I am thankful. Such indiscretion gave Isolde license to be intimately connected to her hellish inheritance and raised the stakes of her identity crisis. Isolde was naught but skin and bones due to her own hand, rather than through the sins of the past. When her newly recovered husband realized the extent of her pact, he promptly abandoned her to become a God-fearing paladin. With her husband out of the picture, Isolde’s purpose was reconfigured. She was no longer fighting for her husband, but for herself; using her curse as both means and motivation to do so.

The Magic Touch

A magical mask

Isabel Gibney

As mentioned, tieflings can also make compelling sorcerers and wizards. The magic that is passed down to a tiefling from their ancestor is needed to reshape their appearance. While there is no sorcerous origin specific to fiends, there are plenty that provide suitably evocative ways for your magic to manifest. There are many places where devils reside that are filled with smoke and shadows, making a tiefling sorcerer that wields such power an ill omen for unfortunate mortals that offend them. Equally, a fire-themed sorcerer with a draconic bloodline could effectively represent a fiend’s descendant that wields the power of brimstone and hellfire. The wretched bloodline featured in Grim Hollow: The Players Guide frames the magic passed down from a devil for what it truly is: a curse. The wretched bloodline twists a PC’s appearance from the very beginning, making their frame hulking, their eyesight nocturnal, or their body rotted like Isolde’s. This helps you roleplay the narrative of your tiefling’s hellish façade, complete with mechanics.

Tieflings inherit more than their ancestor’s charisma and appearance: their labyrinthine intelligence makes them excellent scholars. A child born to a family with no memory of their forebear’s misdeeds may be driven to search for answers as to why they found themselves the victim of a devil’s mark. They spend centuries pouring over ancient texts searching for the name of the one who cursed them, learning many forbidden and eldritch magics in the meantime. A tiefling may instead aspire to their progenitor’s reputation, desiring to learn how to ensnare mere mortals in contracts of their own. They study the laws of magic, learning to twist it to their will to impose their own definition of order upon the world.

A Class Act

While warlock, sorcerer and wizarding classes are popular choices for tieflings, they are certainly not bound by these categories. For example, choosing to be a paladin provides the perfect amalgamation of good versus evil: to atone for the sins of the past by encompassing the virtues of the present. The paladin swears an oath that with great power comes great responsibility – no matter where that power originates – and promises to use it wisely. The tiefling paladin is a recipe for a great antihero: add a sprinkle of self-loathing and the promise for a better tomorrow.

tiefling bard playing cards

Artist: Ona Kristensen

Equally entertaining to roleplay are tieflings that choose the life of a professional artiste. Tiefling bards can be either flamboyant or frightening, fitting both molds perfectly well. Perhaps your devil’s mark has manifested in ways that exhibit an otherworldly beauty, which commoners can’t help but flock to see. You influence an army of adoring fans who ensure you are never without comfort wherever you roam and are perhaps eager to petition you for pacts of their own. Alternatively, you hide your appearance by keeping to the shadows and whisper in the ears of passers-by. Your dark and beguiling influence allows you to spread rumors laden with fear and mistrust. While you guard your true name as secretively as your devilish ancestor, your destabilizing influence is felt throughout the realm.

Why Choose a Tiefling?

Whether you’re atoning for a predecessor’s sins or your own, tieflings are the perfect personification of a guilty conscience. Their very existence anchors them to their past of which they cannot escape. Every reflection recalls their misdeeds; every whispered remark recounts their trauma. Despite their scaly façade, forked tongues and cloven hooves, tieflings speak to the human condition because they speak to our fallibilities, imperfections, and flaws.

When I choose to roleplay the tiefling race, it’s not because the devil makes me do it. It’s because the best monsters are the most human of us all.

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