This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Thirty Seven on 22nd March, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
In D&D, trolls are something of an unsung victory of the brand. In almost all modern fantasy series, trolls have mostly the same appearance and behavior; they’re larger than humans, usually by several feet; they have wiry bodies covered in skin that looks diseased, loose, oddly colored, or all of the above; they aren’t that intelligent; and they try to eat anything and anyone they come across.
Almost no one thinks D&D invented trolls, and technically they are correct. Trolls exist in multiple mythologies and myths throughout history. However, D&D’s particular brand of troll didn’t come directly from any myth.
Most people’s next thought would be that Gygax and his friends borrowed from Tolkien again, but that’s not really the case either. Tolkien’s trolls were based mostly on Norse mythology (of course) but a lot of their aspects don’t apply to D&D either. According to research done by one Aardy DeVarque, corroborated indirectly by Keith Ammann in his work on the volume The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, the trolls from D&D are based most closely on the version that appears in a novel. Specifically, Three Hearts and Three Lions, written by Poul Anderson in 1961. More significantly, that novel is believed to be the source of the “lawful vs chaotic” division of D&D’s alignments, as well as the basis of the paladin class.
The troll was pulled from the novel and stuck in the very first publication for D&D; the 1974 White Box. Since then, it’s been a staple of the game. Regardless of what the publisher decided to call it, the first publication for an edition of D&D focused on monsters has always included the troll.
As we already mentioned, the D&D troll has also quietly become the staple of trolls in most fantasy games and stories, particularly their appearance, behavior, and the regeneration ability.
D&D’s trolls have barely changed at all since their first incarnation; usually there’s simply an update to statistics so they match whatever edition they’re appearing in.
D&D Trolls average a height of 9 feet (or 2.7 meters), and weigh around 500 pounds (or just under 227 kilograms). Females tend to be bigger than males most of the time. Their skin is a sickly greenish color and rubbery, often with lumps or boils on it that are just features of their appearance, not from any disease. If they have hair, it’s usually on the top of their head and will appear black. They will eat anything but prefer meat, and don’t generally make a distinction about whether the source of the meat was a thinking being or not. However, they don’t specifically seek out or hunt down thinking beings, especially if those creatures know how to use or are actively wielding fire.
Fire, as most D&D veterans know, is the most reliable way to counter the trolls’ most famous ability; regeneration. It’s said that unless precautions are taken, the smallest scrap of troll meat can eventually regrow into a full living troll. Even beheading doesn’t seem to help. Those precautions, by the way, mean killing it with fire or acid. And preferably dousing the whole carcass in one of the two afterward.
The regeneration does mean that dead trolls, or pieces of them, are of interest to magical researchers. Both the blood and the flesh of trolls have at times been studied or used to create various magical items based on their regeneration ability.
Trolls are sapient, but they aren’t considered very smart by most creatures. Most of their existence is focused on simply finding a den or cave to live in with up to 12 other trolls, gathering food, and reproducing. The family groups are headed up by a female who is usually called a shaman. The title is based on the troll female’s knowledge of their tribe or family history and perhaps some stories about their god, not any ability to do magic or commune with a deity.
The god issue is a bit of a scandal, actually. Quick warning that the mythology here is a lot like Norse and Greek mythology: monogamy, loving parents, and basic decency in relationships are not major themes. Skip ahead if problematic family relationships are something you don’t want to deal with.
Most trolls worship a figure called Vaprak, who is a demigod attached to the pantheon of the giants. Vaprak supposedly came about when Annam, the all-father of the giants, was seduced by a rather unattractive ogress, and Vaprak was the result. While Annam was busy directing the war against the dragons, his wife Othea had an affair with Vaprak. The sons of that affair became the ogres and their subraces. The Trolls believe daughters also resulted from that union, and they were the forebears of the troll race.
Now obviously there’s an inconsistency there; how could Annam have been seduced by an ogress when it was his wife’s later affair with the resulting love child that produced the ogre species? In-universe scholars haven’t really been able to clear that up, because the giants who might have insights about it really don’t like admitting that ogres and especially trolls might be related to them in any way. However, most scholars agree there’s a link there, even if the exact chain we described above isn’t how it happened.
Speaking of genetics, trolls are another species where you have a lot of variants. Throughout the editions of D&D there have been almost 20 variants of the troll that got space in monster manuals and compendiums, with probably another dozen or so used as one-offs in various adventures and setting books. Fifth edition currently has 6…ish.
We say “ish” because some of the troll variants aren’t to do with breeding; they’re because of a troll accidentally or intentionally taking advantage of their regeneration. See, a trolls’ body will regenerate by default into a standard humanoid form. However, if the troll finds another troll limb, or even a troll head lying around not doing anything and they stick it on their body near an open wound, their regeneration will recognize the genetic material and incorporate it. Usually this happens because a troll loses a limb, starts regenerating it, and then comes upon the original and decides to grab it and keep that too. So you can have standard trolls with more heads or arms than they should have, and all of them are fully functional.
As far as the actual genetic variants, the Ice Troll is one that thrives in snowy environments and has a cold heart. That’s not a judgement on their character; their hearts are literally super cold, and produce a cold aura around a living troll. However, if you kill an ice troll and make sure it can’t regenerate, the heart joins the list of magically potent and useful body parts that can be scavenged from a troll corpse.
Next up we have the Rot Troll. This is a troll that regenerated most of its body while in close proximity to a potent source of necrotic energy. It looks almost undead, with rotting flesh and exposed innards, but it’s very much alive. Good news; the necrotic energy eliminated the regeneration. Bad news; it instead has a withering aura that does necrotic damage to everything around it. That, at least, can be shut down with fire or acid, just like the regeneration.
Adding another entry to the list of “why you should never use poison damage” is the Venom Troll. This is a troll that was killed-but-not-really by a lot of poison damage and/or died in a huge vat of poison. When it regenerated, its body absorbed all that poison in the same way a corpse absorbs water. So you have a troll with a bloated body pressurized with venom. In addition to the usual troll regeneration, any time someone hits it, the skin bursts and some of the poison sprays out. That’s if the troll doesn’t just do it themselves to hit as many people as possible.
And in the category of “why does this keep getting worse” you have the spirit troll, and this one is on our list of why psionics are bad. If a troll is subjected to an immense amount of psychic energy, they can regenerate or just morph into a spirit troll. They are only partially corporeal, so they can move through objects and attack victims’ minds rather than their physical bodies. Sometimes the troll doesn’t realize that change has occurred, which may or may not be a good thing. Adding to the headache here, the troll still has regeneration, but now to shut it down you need psychic or force damage. Which is why you need to bring the Warlock along to the fights.
We will, as soon as the warlock figures out the meaning of “back ranks.”
Saving the worst for last, you have the dire troll. This type of troll at some point decided members of its own species were fair game for a snack and never stopped. Unlike cannibalism in humans where you get prion disease and die, trolls instead get somehow supercharged; they get physically larger and their regeneration improves to the point where it never really stops. Most dire trolls use that to add redundant and extra organs, limbs, and other things to their bodies, and it means an extra large amount of acid or fire damage is required to ensure the troll actually stays dead when you put it down.
As befits a monster that’s a staple of D&D, trolls are really easy to work into a campaign or encounter at almost any level. At lower levels, they work great as major regional threats and bosses for parties around level 3 or 4, though if you want to throw one at beginner parties it helps to either soften them up first or give the player characters some help. Basic trolls continue to serve well as heavy bruisers mixed into groups as the characters move from levels 5 through 10, and can even be used as basic foot soldiers at the higher tiers.
That fits in with their lore, as well, because it states trolls are often hired by smarter or stronger beings for exactly those jobs. They also sort of fit anywhere you want them to. They’re related to Ogres, so they fit into Dragonlance, they’re part of the general monster population of Eberron and almost literally do the same job, and they are considered one of the staple inhabitants of the Underdark. There’s a hastily scribbled note here saying they don’t work in Spelljammer and people should not play it for that reason but I think I recognize the handwriting so I’m going to say that’s not true.
One note for players and DMs, though. The trolls regenerating and that being shut down by fire is a very well known feature of them among veteran D&D players, and even some that are newer. Players need to make sure they aren’t metagaming by accident when they start yelling for everyone to set the troll on fire. Fortunately that information is actually common knowledge in the game worlds as well, so it’s not impossible for someone to actually know it off the top of their head, like the way everyone knows that deer will not get out of the way if you see it in the headlights.