Putting the Fur in Firbolg: The Evolution of a Character Race – Posts

I love firbolgs in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Their racial traits are weird and mystical and feel like they’re taken right from the pages of a fairy tale. The D&D race straddles the lines of mundane and monstrous, and sweet and savage, creating a dynamic unseen in most D&D stories. Players who want to play a giant character but want something other than a half-orc or goliath barbarian would do well roll up a firbolg.

But for most of D&D’s 40-plus year history, firbolgs were nothing like the red-nosed, gray-furred creatures we recognize from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. They date back to first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where they debuted in the Monster Manual II (1983) as a type of giant. Here’s a look at this unique race and what they look like today, from first edition to their latest touchup in Critical Role.

An overview of firbolgs through the ages

Throughout their existence as a creature of D&D lore, firbolgs have always seemed to come in second place. They reappeared as a monster in second edition AD&D in the Monstrous Compendium Volume Two (1989), the third edition Monster Manual II (2002) as both a monster and a playable character race, and once more in the fourth edition Monster Manual 2 (2009). Even in fifth edition, they debuted as a playable race in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the edition’s second book of monsters.

Firbolgs through the yearsArt is copyright Wizards of the Coast (1983–2009)

Firbolgs have been giantkin since their inception. But where firbolgs in fifth edition are fuzzy, druidic protectors of nature, firbolgs in first edition were mighty, Viking-like warriors. They were explicitly described as the most powerful of the minor giants—presumably referring to giants outside of the ordning, such as fomorians. Even back then, however, firbolgs had the power to shrink in size to appear akin to a normal human.

Classic firbolgs were cautious, crafty, and solitary giants with a predilection for illusion magic, and their shamans possessed an even greater mastery of illusions. While they favored massive, giant-sized greatswords and halberds to defend themselves, classic firbolgs took great pleasure in assuming humanoid size and using trickery to steal from adventurers that trusted them.

This conception of the firbolg remained more or less unchanged throughout early editions of D&D. Some information was added over the years. For instance, the second edition Monstrous Compendium revealed that firbolgs’ affinity for nature and wild forests and hills arose from their distrust of other mortal races. Since they had no desire to mingle with other people, they simply learned to live amidst nature. By third edition, however, firbolgs had lost much of their illusion magic. The only remnant of their original ability to shrink to human size was a spell-like ability that allowed them to cast alter self once per day. The illusionist firbolgs of yore were fading away as early as 2002.

This dissolution of old abilities and lore was made complete in fourth edition, in which firbolgs underwent a major overhaul. The new firbolgs of fourth edition were no longer cunning and reserved giantkin but shamans and barbarians from the Feywild who commanded the Wild Hunt. These agents of neutrality, destiny, and death were mighty warriors and shamans who worshiped three goddesses that together bore some similarity to the Morrígan, a triple goddess of Irish mythology. These three goddesses were the Maiden (Sehanine), the Mother (Melora), and the Crone (the Raven Queen). Once more, in fourth edition, firbolgs were consigned to a book of monsters without being elevated to a playable race, as they had in third edition. 

Firbolgs in fifth edition D&D

Firbolg artworkThe fuzzy-faced firbolgs of fifth edition are, in some ways, a return to form for these proud giantkin. Though the pseudo-Celtic aesthetic of early D&D firbolgs has been scrubbed away and the tie to the Feywild introduced in fourth edition remains, modern firbolgs are once again innate illusionists and reclusive guardians of the forest. They are neither humorless nor aggressive, but their judgment upon those who would defile the woodland is swift and merciless.

Firbolgs largely flew under the radar after the release of Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Even though this was the first time in the history of D&D where firbolgs appeared as a player character race but not a monster, their unusual abilities and vague lore made it difficult for them to find an audience. While they could be played as characters in third edition, their steep level adjustment and Hit Die penalties made them difficult to play in anything but high-level campaigns. Now with no level adjustment or other hurdles, firbolgs were ripe for new players—but even with all of these barriers to entry removed, firbolg characters lacked visibility. That is, until Critical Role got a hold of them.


Critical Role’s take on firbolgs

Warning! Spoilers for Critical Role campaign two lie ahead!

Critical Role did to firbolgs on the small scale what they did to D&D on the larger scale: they helped bring them into the mainstream. In campaign two of Critical Role, Matthew Mercer kicked off a massive outpouring of firbolg love when he created the fan-favorite NPC shopkeeper Pumat Sol, a firbolg enchanter who ran a magic item shop in the city of Zadash. He made a lasting impression on both the cast and fans of Critical Role because of his charming accent and his striking simulacra.

Zadash marketLater in the campaign, two new firbolgs joined the party when guest star Sumalee Montano joined as the firbolg druid Nila, and later, Taliesin Jaffe introduced to the main cast a firbolg Grave Domain cleric known as Caduceus Clay. Both of these firbolgs’ appearances departed from the traditional firbolg design laid out in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a visual distinction heightened by Critical Role artist Ari Orner. Departing somewhat from the iconic gray fur and big red nose, which characterized Tyril Tallguy, Pumat Sol, and the firbolg in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Nila has brown fur, a wide, cow-like nose and floppy ears. Caduceus Clay, on the other hand, has the traditional gray fur and red nose, but with that same cow-like visage and a hot pink, side-shave mohawk.

In the wake of these three characters’ appearances, fans of D&D had refreshingly different interpretations of the firbolg race. And because of how beloved these characters were, countless players have since flocked to create firbolg characters of their own.

Firbolgs in Exandria

By the end of campaign two of Critical Role, the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount solidified the unique take of firbolgs in Exandria. For example, they are described as having thick fur “ranging from tones of earthen brown and ruddy red to cool grays and blues, and even to wild hues of pink and green.” The book also gave players and Dungeon Masters lore that helped place these characters in the world.

Firbolgs typically hail from the icy Greying Wildlands and the corrupted Savalirwood and are a rarity elsewhere in Wildemount. Nevertheless, firbolg adventurers will find their reputations proceed them. Those who journey to the Dwendalian Empire will discover people who believe them to be ruthless killers, owed to ridiculous folktales. That said, citizens of Zadash are more likely to be welcoming of firbolgs, thanks to Pumat Sol. In the deadly wastes of Xhorhas, they are likely to be more welcome. The Kryn Dynasty has brought together all manner of people under their rule, and firbolg communities have cropped up in Xhorhas as a result.

Embark on a journey through Exandria with D&D’s next big adventure! Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep contains seven chapters of thrilling adventure, with all-new monsters to face off against and new magic items to discover! Preorder before the book launches March 15, 2022, to snag preorder perks!

A firbolg of your own

This variety just goes to show that, no matter what kind of character race you’re playing in D&D, you should never feel limited by the information put forth in the rulebooks. Whether it’s art, lore, or (with your DM’s permission) statistics, you should always feel empowered to create a character that speaks to your style of play.

So if you love the old style of firbolgs, don’t despair! There’s room within the fifth edition rules for you to have your greatsword-wielding, vaguely Celtic giantkin. Just do a little bit of reskinning; there’s plenty of images of suitably Irish fantasy warriors with pinkish skin and flowing blond or red hair out there to offer inspiration. And if you love the fuzzy-faced forest guardians of modern D&D, go out and create a firbolg of your own and tell your own unique story with that character! 

James Haeck (@jamesjhaeck) is the former lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two wilderness defenders, Mei and Marzipan. 

Michael Galvis contributed to the reporting for this article.

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