This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Sixteen on 29th June 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.
As we’ve mentioned before, giants have been around in D&D since the very beginning. The original premise of D&D was to do tabletop wargaming but add basic fantasy elements. Since no one was coming up with beholders and mindflayers yet, Gary Gygax and others had to work with what was available in mainstream myth and fantasy.
Anyone alive at the time or who’s looked into the publications of the sixties and seventies can tell you that fantasy had a few basic things without fail. On one side you had wizards, guys with swords, and very, *very* problematically depicted women. On the other side you had dragons, small orc or troll like creatures, and giants. Usually throwing rocks.
The giants in classic fantasy sometimes traced their origins to the giants of mythology, as we’ve discussed already, but it’s equally likely that some of the giants were just large monsters set up to make the hulking barbarians that much cooler. The same general issue is present with D&D, at least in the early publications; there wasn’t much thought given to the origins or history of the giants, they just wanted giants to fight.
By the time you get to the monster manual in 1st edition the individual giants have some habits and identity, but by “some”, I mean “one sentence, maybe two”. There had been some progress, however. The cloud and storm giants had been given alignments to suggest they weren’t always adversaries to be murdered on sight.
Second edition is where giants actually start to become full-fledged sapients. In the first monstrous compendium the individual giants are given a bit more information regarding how they act, where they live, and what their motivations are. In some cases it also mentions how they get along with other giants, though there’s no hint of an overall society of giants.
That wouldn’t come until the book called “Giantcraft”, put out in 1995. Several creatures got in-depth feature books in 2nd edition (such as the I, Tyrant book that focused on beholders), and this one was for the giants. The book had a detailed history of the creation of the giants, their society, the giantkin, gods, and so on.
As far as the research beholders could determine, nothing specific was done with giants in 3rd edition or 3.5 as far as lore shifting, though as with many other species archetypes they got a whole lot more options, with things like dusk and ash giants being added to the original collection.
One of 4th edition’s primary storylines involved the conflict between the primordials and the gods, and the lore of the giants was sort of hijacked to fit into that. Rather than an independent race with its own origins and destiny, the giants were made to be servants of the primordials, with each giant type following the general whims and will of the associated elemental primordial.
Fifth edition pulled the giants back to their roots as quazi-Norse figures with their own independent society. Until recently, most of the lore surrounding giants came from Volo’s guide to monsters, but that book is now considered legacy information. A good amount of lore still exists in the Storm King’s Thunder adventure, however. As it has many times, 5th edition mostly kept the lore similar, but a few things were tweaked enough to make it noticeably different.
We’ll start with the original lore from 2nd edition and note where 5th edition made some changes. Also note this lore applies to the Forgotten Realms, and possibly also Greyhawk.
First of all, the father of all giants is the God Annam, called the All-Father (no word yet on how Odin feels about this). He was supposedly one of the first gods to take an active interest in the planet. Before long he met his wife Othea. Their direct descendants were each the forefathers of their prospective giant race.
At the time, the giants were the only sapient terrestrial race on the planet, and they set up a near world-spanning empire called Ostoria. They basically had nobody else to bother them with one notable exception.
Dragons were also hanging around the world at the time. As the dragons started to get bigger and the giants started making more giants, eventually there was friction. The friction turned into a thousand year war that neither side ever really won, but boy was there a lot of damage.
The war did stop, though how it stopped is a matter of debate. Neither side annihilated the other, because both species are still around. The story that the dwarves tell is that the dragons had to stop because they were about to start up the fight that would split chromatic and metallic dragons apart. A different myth says that Annam sat down with Io and had a nice game of…something…that ended in a stalemate, and that translated to the war. Either way, the practical result is the war ended and most of Ostoria was destroyed, except for the captial and the bits in the frozen lands.
At this point the myth really gets in touch with its Norse roots, including more sordid activities and domestic violence. Those with triggers will want to skip ahead. Putting it very delicately, while Annam was busy trying to support the giants in the war, his wife decided to wander off and get busy with another demigod. The results of that union are where the giantkin races came from.
Annam found out about this and immediately killed the demigod his wife had been seeing. He then demanded Othea give him another son who could lead the giants in restoring the glory they’d lost because of the dragon war. She refused. He got her pregnant anyway.
She worked out a deal with Annam where he would depart from the world in exchange for allowing his son to live. Annam took off, but the giants had a new problem; the demigod’s body was starting to freeze over the land where Ostoria’s captial was. Othea’s sons wanted to get rid of the body, but she wouldn’t let them because of nostalgia. In response, the oldest son poisoned her. That resulted in the baby she carried being born as a runt.
Being only 12 feet tall, he was rejected by the rest of giant kind, despite his father Annam’s intention that he restore their glory. The child, eventually called Hartkiller because of a misunderstanding with a deer, ended up befriending these new “humans” that were all over the place. When the giants started moving in to retake the land they still thought was theirs, Hartkiller successfully fought them back and secured the land for the humans, basically ending any chance of the giants reestablishing Ostoria before it started.
Now the lore from Volos stays mostly the same up until the end of the war with the dragons, when the dragons succeeded in destroying the giant empire.
The lore for 5th edition deviates after the end of the war. Rather than all the messy stuff with Annam’s wife and sons, his wife isn’t really mentioned. Instead, Annam becomes so disillusioned with the giants that he just takes off and tells giant kind “don’t call me until you’ve rebuilt your empire.” Left a bit adrift, the giants adopt his sons as replacement gods.
Given the content of the original stories, it’s not hard to see why Wizards of the Coast may have decided it was a better idea to just drop it.
As far as modern giant society, there is a hierarchy among the so-called true giants, or every being descended from a son of Annam. Stronmaus is the firstborn and patron deity of the storm giants. After him is Memnor, patron of cloud giants. Then you have Surtur for fire giants, Thrym for frost giants, Skoraeus Stonebones for stone giants, and Grolantor for hill giants.
Another piece of lore that didn’t survive out of edition 3.5 was Annam’s son Lanaxis. Lanaxis was formerly the eldest son and his progeny were the Titans. But ever since 3.5 he’s been removed from the lore along with the creatures that he was patron god of.
The birth order of the sons establishes what the giants call the Ordning, or the hierarchy of the giants. Though a lot of their society is based on merit and personal achievement, one of the chief tenets is that the hierarchy of the giants should be respected. It also helps that the hierarchy is reflected physically. The hill giants at the low end of the scale top out around sixteen feet tall, whereas the storm giants can get as high up as 26. The giants all have a size range, so it is possible for a so-called lower giant to actually be bigger than one higher in the Ordning, but there is an upper limit the next highest giant race will always surpass.
The individual giant types are also very distinct in behavior. Stone and Hill giants are largely unintelligent and reclusive, almost mindlessly hunting and harassing anything that trespasses near them. Frost and Fire giants are more intelligent, but brutal and militaristic. Their groups tend to revel in conflict and combat and will actively hunt down and attack other creatures for a variety of reasons.
Cloud giants are somewhat similar to the dragons they once fought. Cloud giants enjoy setting themselves up as protectors of lower creatures – as long as those lower creatures give them appropriate tribute. Cloud giants’ self-worth is tied directly to how much treasure they’ve amassed.
Finally the Storm giants are the odd ones of the giant family. They tend to be isolated and focus all their attention on attuning themselves to the shifting energies of the world, sometimes even fusing with energy from elemental planes. This focus on energy and the world sometimes gives them glimpses of the future or hints of things to come. They often focus so intently on this “big picture” view that they don’t notice smaller beings unless they are directly bothered. And if a lesser being bothers a storm giant enough to anger it, it has the power to eliminate it and the area around it without too much trouble.
The adventure Storm King’s Thunder goes into more details of the Ordning and how giant society functions, and the central theme of the adventure is upheaval around the possible dissolving of the Ordning.
If you don’t want to play Storm King’s Thunder specifically, the lore of the individual giants gives you a lot of ideas. Fortunately each type of giant is different enough that they can fill in as enemies for a lot of different scenarios. If you need random encounters, Hill giants are an easy solution. If you need to have a more organized, intelligent foe for the characters to face, Fire and frost giants fit that bill easily. And a cloud giant can fit in the same niche as a dragon if you want that kind of a story but are weird and don’t want to use dragons. Why would you not use dragons, what is wrong with people?
Cloud giants are a little harder to fit in, but their basic premise sets them up to be a sort of surprise for the characters. For example, they might need information or a clue and an NPC tells them they have to go consult the oracle on top of the mountain. Then when they get there, instead of a woman in flowy robes in the middle of Greek columns, they find themselves face to toe with a twenty-five foot tall giant who may or may not have the patience to deal with them.