This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Twenty Three on 31st August 2022.
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.
Genasi are one of the more esoteric playable races in D&D, which is saying something given that giant frog and tortoise people are options.
Like a number of the more unusual racial options in D&D, the genasi came about once planar travel, and Planescape in particular, became a major fixture of D&D. Possibly due to the gender makeup of TSR in the late 80s and early 90s, it was apparently assumed that if people were able to find exotic beings from other planes, one of the first orders of business would be to…how shall I put this…test biological compatibility.
In 2nd edition, if a human got together with a fiendish creature, a tiefling was the result. However, if someone decided their first wish when encountering a genie would be “sleep with me”, there’s a good chance you end up with a bouncing baby genasi.
Just to quickly recap a Short Rest we did a while ago, in D&D “genie” is actually a broad category that includes four distinct species: Dao, Djinn, Efreeti, and Marids. Those had affinity for Earth, Air, Fire, and Water respectively, and were native to the matching elemental planes. Associating with any of them is risky at best as they tend to not like creatures from the material planes and view them as inferior. And any genie actually imprisoned and required to grant wishes is likely to be royally ticked off at the situation. Which was appropriate since those tended to be what were called “noble genies.”
However, as mentioned, apparently the assumption is that some sort of inter-species collaboration was arranged at some point. Technically any purely elemental creature would be a viable candidate for producing a genasi, but genies were the more frequent parents, and the reason for the “gen” part of the name. However the 2nd edition resources did note genasi were supposedly very rare.
As best as our research beholders were able to determine, the first major appearance of genasi was in a 2nd edition resource from 1996 called “The Planewalker’s Handbook”. This was a Planescape supplement book and included both new material and things gathered from other sources like Dragon magazine. Genasi don’t seem to have been mentioned in any of those, but either way the Planewalker’s Handbook was the first bound print resource where players had the option of choosing them.
By 3rd edition and 3.5, WotC had taken over and stripped out a lot of the extraneous settings D&D had from 2nd edition. Planescape was one of the ones to get the axe. However, Ed Greenwood (who also did a lot of work on planescape and the related resources) adopted most of the features of Planescape for the Forgotten Realms. For 3rd edition, the “races of Faerun” book brought the genasi back. Fortunately that book’s late publication date and the nature of the content within meant that most of the content translated to 3.5 without much of an issue, and that included the genasi.
However, up to that point genasi were kind of a niche race. They were an option for players who wanted a really weird character or wanted to go well off the beaten path. 4th edition changed all that.
One of the major lore conceits of 4th edition is that the Forgotten Realms had been massively disrupted by the magical merging of Toril, the main world of the Forgotten Realms, and Abeir [ay-BEER]. Aebir was Toril’s sister planet, separated by weird magical things we won’t get into here. The important thing right now is that one of the main features of Aebir is that instead of humans, orcs, dwarves, and elves, the major races inhabiting Aebir were Dragonborn and Genasi.
Genasi became a player race option with the publication of the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide in 2008, which was near the beginning of 4th edition. That bumped up their recognition since they were one of the first new playable races available outside the ones from the Player’s Handbook. They were also just plain new for people who hadn’t been into Planescape or grabbed the extra Forgotten Realms material from 3.5 or 3rd edition.
However, that slight popularity boost didn’t really make them mainstream. They didn’t make the cut for main playable races in 5th edition and until recently they existed in this odd limbo of partially recognized content. Officially, the genasi as a playable race debuted for 5th edition in the “elemental evil” pdf supplement that went along with the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure. That resource was superseded by later resources like the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Volo’s guide to Monsters, but the genasi weren’t reprinted in either. However, their inclusion in the pdf meant they were made part of the 5e SRD. It wasn’t until the recent release of Monsters of the Multiverse that Genasi returned to print in an official resource.
As far as the lore goes, the genasi are a race that has gone through a lot of revision through the different editions.
One of the things that has remained consistent is their ancestry; as mentioned, almost all the sources say the majority of genasi come from the union of a human and a genie, though they also breed true; a genasi breeding with any other human is going to have a genasi child, which is possibly the only reason the species hasn’t died out.
Side note; apparently in some cases an elemental god can cause the same thing. So if a divine being that’s very on fire shows up and says they’re giving you a child, you are not going to be the mother of fire Jesus.
Another edge case: In some resources there are genies and elemental beings that belong to the “mixed element” environments like the plane of ice that forms the border between air and water or the plane of magma that merges fire and earth. In those resources it is sometimes suggested that genasi can be birthed manifesting those elements. Even if that is possible, however, those genasi are vanishingly rare.
The resulting being inherits traits of their elemental parent. In almost all cases this translates mechanically to an automatic ability to cast some spells that match the element, and sometimes a bonus to use other spells that also match the element. Something that has gone through some changing and upheaval through the editions is the genasi appearance.
In their first incarnations all of them were described as humanoid but with some obvious, noticeable differences. Each different type of genasi had a list of 4 to 6 traits they may exhibit marking their nature (air genasi might have light blue skin, for example, or earth genasi would have totally black eyes). However if they happened to have some features that were disguisable they could pass for human.
By 3rd edition that was very much luck of genetics. Air and Water genasi were said to be able to pass for humans in certain circumstances or with some minor disguise work, but fire and earth genasi had bodies so obviously different that they couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.
4th edition changed everything up again; 4th edition genasi were not tied to a particular element and could manifest and draw on one of the major 4 elements as a matter of preference (it was a once per day decision for player characters). However, they were also the living equivalent of RGB keyboards. All genasi had lines covering their skin that would glow with a color that matched the elemental affinity they were exhibiting. Their hair color and skin tone and texture would also change to match whatever element they manifested. As you might imagine, that pretty much ruled out passing for human except at a distance.
With 5th edition there is a lot more variation that’s possible. Genasi can’t change their elemental affinity at will anymore, but they also have a wider range of appearance. Each type of genasi can either be very obviously affiliated with a particular element, or they can easily pass as a human.
As mentioned, the pattern in D&D has been that genasi on the whole are a minority population. The only exception was during the 4th edition merger of Abeir and Toril. In regular terms, at least as far as the forgotten realms are concerned, seeing a genasi would be a rare occurrence, on par with encountering a native Inuit in the real world today.
However, up until 5th edition it was also the case that most people didn’t want to meet them. Along with the magical affinity for an element, all genasi were said to inherit genie’s assumptions of being superior beings. They tended to adopt haughty attitudes and considered almost all other races beneath them for various reasons. Fire, earth, and water genasi also had an edge of bitterness because most of them were said to be abandoned by their parents and either raised themselves or had to be taken in by members of other species (some water genasi would end up being raised by kuo-toa, for example.
3rd edition mellowed them out a bit and would acknowledge that they recognized merit in some other races such as elves who had an affinity for nature, but the sense of superiority still remained.
They also had personalities that matched their elements. Air genasi were flighty with an insatiable wanderlust, earth genasi were patient and stubborn, fire genasi had short tempers and fearless attitudes, and water genasi were indepentent and took the long view of anything they did. By 4th edition these characteristics were downplayed since the genasi were switching back and forth from element to element, though it was suggested some of their personality might shift to match their manifestation. However, all suggestion of personal characteristics tied to an element have basically disappeared from 5th edition.
Even more so than tieflings, there are rarely enough genasi in one place in the multiverse for them to establish any kind of society or long-standing history. Lore of previous editions always suggested that genasi regarded each other as distant cousins. That meant they were better to associate with than any other species, but each individual genasi would still believe they were superior to others of their own kind. As you can imagine, this did not encourage long-lasting relationships.
In earlier editions, outside of the forgotten realms and planescape, genasi are almost nonexistent except as a footnote. Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, and Eberron’s initial incarnations all locked them off from the larger multiverse where genasi originated. Players, of course, had multiple homebrew solutions to make them fit, but there weren’t any official resources that supported it. In later editions, particularly 4th where genasi were more established, there were suggestions for how genasi might fit into Dark Sun and Eberron, but as Spelljammer and Dragonlance never got reprinted for that edition, no effort was made to officially include them.
At this point the genasi are here to stay, however, and it’s likely whatever new setting shows up will have suggestions and lore on how these elemental scions fit into the setting.