This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Eleven on 18th May 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.
Like flumphs, dragonborn, and a completely useless system for ranking monsters, tieflings are another thing that’s only become a staple of D&D in recent incarnations, despite being present in D&D as a whole for a long time prior.
The tieflings ironically got their name and their start because of the fallout over the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
For those who aren’t aware or need a refresher, there were several incidents, most notably the suicide of an adolescent, that had negatively linked Dungeons and Dragons first edition with satanism and demon or devil worship in the United States during the 1980s. As a result, when TSR began publishing 2nd edition, they took great pains to remove any explicit references to demons, devils, or anything overtly satanic in their materials. The 2nd edition monster manuals even eliminated the terms devil and demon, referring to them as Baatezu and Tanar’ri, respectively.
Tieflings’ creation in publication is due to the Planescape setting. Apparently Zeb Cook and others on the design team figured that if various beings from other planes were able to more easily get to each other, there would be some interbreeding between the species. They mostly came up with the term Tiefling for any humanoid creature that’s half-human and half devil or demon, but eventually it became a catchall for any half-human half weird creature that might be encountered. They were also the sort of “opposite race” of the aasimar.
Their role in D&D expanded through the 3rd editions. At first they were still just monsters that could be encountered or fought. Then the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, released in 2000, made them an optional playable race. Now, we should note this wasn’t as big a deal back then as a new playable race is now. In 3.5 in particular, having 8-10 new playable races for each book release was kind of commonplace. Seriously, you could play as almost anything back then. Anthropomorphic Toad was a real option.
Their shining moment hit in 4th edition, though. Along with the Dragonborn, Tieflings were promoted, as it were, to a mainstay playable race. Based on information from Chris Perkins, they wanted to present an obvious race for players who wanted to roleplay a redemption arc but didn’t want to choose a drow. Drizzt Do’Urden was still one of the most well-known and popular D&D characters at the time, and the ‘climb back from darkness’ trope was a popular background and player goal. Cue a flood of tiefling warlocks entering 4th edition campaigns.
4th edition also explicitly defined tieflings as humanoids with devilish heritage stemming from influence of one of the archdevils of the Nine Hells. Originally it was only Asmodeus, but other options snuck in as time went on.
They also did, and still do, present as a character option with a bit more kick. Tiefling racial features always included the built-in ability to perform some kind of magic, something usually not present in the starting racial options for 4th or 5th edition.
Physically, tieflings are a highly diverse race. First of all, the majority of tieflings have a reddish skin tone, but the hue can vary from almost blood red all the way to caucasian. Usually they stay within those bounds on a red spectrum, but various resources and art has also suggested blue and even green skin tones are possible, if very rare. The next obvious deviation is their horns. These can be almost any type of horn seen in nature, from small goat horns to curling ram horns or even spiral antelope-type horns. The only ones that aren’t commonly seen are forward-facing or wide spread bovine-type horns like minotaurs have.
Next you have their eyes. Art is inconsistent on this, but based on all current lore, tiefling eyes are a solid color, usually either black, gold, or white. Also their teeth tend to be pointed and they have prominent canines like vampires, though they don’t ingest blood.
Finally there’s the tail. All tieflings naturally have a tail roughly half again as long as their legs. They have muscular control of the tail but only in the same way a dog does; they can move it in a particular direction and sometimes involuntary nervous tics will move it. It is not prehensile, so they can’t curl it like a cat and they certainly can’t use it to manipulate things or support their weight like monkey tails.
It should be noted that the descriptions above are the legacy of the 4th edition standardization of tieflings, which has been carried over to 5th edition. 4th edition basically erased the idea that tieflings could be half human/half whatever. They also aren’t “half” anymore like half orcs or half elves. *Now* if you have a child where one parent was human and the other was a devil, the offspring is a cambion. Getting a tiefling requires a little extra work, or at least extra planning. There are three primary ways one is created.
The easiest way is to start with a tiefling being one of the parents. Their blood takes precedence over anything else; if you have a tiefling parent, you get a tiefling child most of the time.
Option two is to find one of those cambions we mentioned earlier and get them to be one of the parents. As long as the other parent is a full-blooded human, the offspring should be a tiefling. It should also be noted that because of how cambions are by their nature, this is probably not a pleasant process.
Finally you have the old-fashioned way, which is believed to be the origin of the tieflings as a species; be a human and make a deal with an archdevil as part of a magic ritual. Asmodeus is a favorite, but recent lore says that any of them will do. Note that turning into a tiefling is usually not something the human in question requests. It’s usually added as what I’m sure the devil says is an “added bonus” or something.
While tieflings are one of the original options for playable races in D&D, in lore they are not common, making up a decided minority of the population. Part of this is that tieflings in general get racially stereotyped and profiled worse than almost any other race in D&D. Totally ignorant individuals will assume they are some sort of fiendish creature, sometimes killing them on sight. Those with a little more knowledge of the race’s history are sometimes worse. They will assume any demonic influence or incidents that arise in an area are the fault of local tieflings, often inciting purges or round-ups. The general negativity also means that few people will offer help when things like slaving raids take tieflings as victims. The Red Wizards of Thay for a time were known to seek out tieflings specifically as slaves, often because they got less ire for removing them from wherever they happened to be.
Apart from the incidents themselves resulting in reduced populations, the treatment also pushes many tieflings into hazardous lives. Many are angry at their fellow sapients and will become criminals or mercenaries as a way to get respect, the ability to defend themselves, or vengeance. Others simply succumb to the hardships of living away from cities or helpful neighbors, having been driven out of such societies. And finally you have those that despair of putting offspring through such hardship and opt not to have children at all.
All of that means that tieflings have never formed more than perhaps a small village of their own kind, and any such attempts are often shut down for all the reasons covered above. 4th edition made a big deal of the nation of Bael Turath. It was an empire that existed about a thousand years before the current timeline. The empire was human, but they came into conflict with a dragonborn empire and began losing the resulting war. They appealed to Asmodeus for help and ended up being turned into tieflings and losing their empire anyway, though they took the dragonborn empire with them in the process.
Apart from that there is no cohesive or notable history for the race as a whole; each tiefling will have their own story and it is likely to be bleak. But as with all other sapient races, each is an individual and their experiences may be nothing like that at all.
It should also be noted again that the tiefling lore presented here is based on the 4th edition incarnation, which carried onto 5th. If you go back to the original definition, where tiefling was the catchall term, tiefling appearances and creation was even less uniform. You had tieflings that could pass for human with a little makeup all the way to tieflings with scaled skin and armored heads. With Spelljammer coming back and hints of Planescape showing up more and more, it’s possible the old definition could become a thing again.