This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Thirty Nine on 10th May, 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.
Tortles have a surprisingly long history with D&D. But like Shifters and Warforged, their origins are linked to alternate settings and they’re usually brought into mainstream D&D during a second or third “wave” of content additions.
Quick refresher for those who forgot their D&D real-world history. During the first and second edition of D&D, there was the main publication out of TSR, officially called “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” The reason that was emphasized was to separate it from “Basic Dungeons and Dragons.” Basic was a parallel publication that used most of the same bones of D&D, but the details differed. The two most obvious differences were that the ruleset was somewhat simplified in Basic D&D (THAC0 never showed up, for example), and the main setting of Basic D&D was a world called Mystara, instead of Greyhawk.
The tortles were created as a species for Mystara, first published in 1986 in a resource called “Creature Catalogue”. They were described very briefly as primitive and tribal, living 40-50 years and laying eggs only toward the end of their lifespans.
By 1994, TSR was in the middle of the mess that would eventually see it bought by Wizards of the Coast. In an effort to provide more sellable content, they began porting some of the Basic D&D content to their Advanced D&D ruleset. The tortles were introduced to 2nd edition D&D as part of the Red Steel campaign setting, taking place in Mystara but using the Advanced D&D rules.
When Wizards bought out D&D, they declared D&D was trying to support too many settings, and Mystara (along with Basic D&D in general) was axed. The tortles weren’t touched until edition 3.5.
Many of the older settings, while not officially supported or given sourcebooks for 3rd edition or 3.5, were given supplemental material in Dungeon or Dragon magazine. In Dragon Magazine issue 315, released during 3.5, the tortle playable race was reintroduced. Unfortunately that’s all that was done with them, and they went dormant again until 5th edition.
The supplement “The Tortle Package” was released in late 2017 and reimagined the tortles as natives of an island off the coast of Chult in the Forgotten Realms. While that resource is officially retired, the tortles were included in Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse to keep them “D&D Official.”
The lore of the tortles has remained mostly the same in all resources. Tortles are large, standing six feet tall on average and weighing an average of 400 pounds (1.8 meters and 181 kilos for non-Americans). Originally they had lifespans of 40-50 years but more recently their lifespans were brought in line with humans.
They are mostly solitary and nomadic, rarely establishing large settlements and thereby avoiding homesickness. Toward the ends of their lives, they try to find a mate and lay eggs. The parents try to pass on all their knowledge to the new hatchlings in the year or so remaining to them, after which the tortle children inherit their parents’ possessions and set out on their own.
Mechanically the tortles get a lot of attention because of the way their shells are incorporated into the game. Tortles are unable to wear armor, however their base AC is set to 17, with no penalties or restrictions. That means that any class where armor is not a feature gets a boost if the species chosen is tortle. Instead of the wizard in a robe frantically trying to hide behind a rock to boost their 11 AC, the tortle caster might have an AC better than the cleric’s.
Tortle characters can also provide extra benefits for classes like the barbarian or Monk who get benefits from not wearing heavier armor. Those classes do have alternate calculations of their AC to mitigate the lack of armor, but if you want to do an alternate build not focused on boosting the “usual” attributes, the tortle’s base 17AC can provide a buffer.
So whether you’re desperate to play a spellcaster that actually has a chance of not being hit in close combat or if you just have fond memories of Yertle, the tortle is a unique species option to build a character around.