gres, trolls, minotaurs . . . well, let’s go bigger, shall we?
Giants have been a fixture in D&D since the G series of modules back in 1978: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (G1), Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (G2), and Hall of the Fire Giant King (G3). Each adventure featured one of the races of evil giants, mostly omitting the giants that are at least sometimes not evil: stone, cloud, and storm.
So six types of giant are firmly established in D&D lore. Lots of others have cropped up from time to time (mountain giants, fog giants, jungle giants, reef giants, and so on), but for this column we’ll focus on the classics.
These six races of giants are sometimes called “true” giants, as opposed to lesser races of “giant-kin.” In the mythology of the Forgotten Realms setting, these six races are each associated with one of the six sons of the gods Annam and Othea: Stronmaus, Memnor, Surtr, Thrym, Skoraeus, and Grolantor. The birth order of the six sons corresponds to the hierarchy of giants, which all true giants recognize even if they don’t like it: storm giants are at the top, followed by cloud, fire, frost, stone, and finally hill giants.
Besides a common ancestry, the six races of giants share a common religion, culture, language, and history. They are an ancient race—some legends hold that they warred against dragons while primitive humans cowered in their caves. And just as the different races are organized in a hierarchy, each race of giant has its own way of ranking its members from the greatest to the least.
Exceptional giants might have the abilities of fighters or barbarians, but they also have spellcasters, who might be runecasters, skalds, or shamans. Giant spellcasters are masters of environmental effects, particularly when working in concert: As the frost giant horde marches to war, their spellcasters create terrible blizzards to pave their path.
Giants are enormous (I’ll let Jon talk about just how big they are in his column tomorrow), and they have Strength scores and Constitution scores to match. In classic D&D lore, the Strength score of a giant rises with its position in the giant hierarchy, with hill giants at Strength 19 (just a peg above ogres) and storm giants at a prodigious 24 (just short of the mighty titans). Most of them employ their tremendous strength to hurl boulders against enemies at range (with devastating effect) before closing to attack with their giant-sized weapons.
Besides their physical characteristics, giants have pride to match their size. In general, giants believe they are vastly superior to any smaller humanoid. This arrogance can lead them to underestimate smaller enemies, brazenly walk into ambushes, or otherwise fail to notice a threat from a small foe until it is too late. Giants’ arrogance isn’t just about size, though. They are an ancient race, and the tales sung by their skalds recall the days of the world’s youth. Why should such a creature of legend care about smaller, younger races?
The largest, strongest, and overall most powerful of the true giants are the storm giants. More than any other giant, they remember and brood on their race’s glorious history. Secluded in their towering castles, situated on mountain peaks, living deep underwater, or ensconced on the clouds themselves, storm giants muse on the vagaries of fate that reduced them to their current state while vermin races such as elves and humans took over the world. They are not malicious—their alignment is generally chaotic good—but neither are they particularly interested in the affairs of the world. Some would call them self-absorbed.
Storm giants are at the top of the giant hierarchy, but they see themselves as outside it or above it. Alone of the giant kinds, they don’t have individual rankings within the race, viewing such efforts as being pointless in this era of decline. In their fatalistic worldview, the effort to prove oneself better than another is hardly worthwhile.
Storm giants are the most magical of the giants. While other giants throw rocks, storm giants hurl bolts of lightning. Every storm giant, not just a shaman or runecaster, has some control over the weather, turning a clear sky into rain and thunder with but a moment’s effort of will. They are resistant to lightning, can breathe water, and can levitate through the air.
Storm giants are the smartest giants as well as the strongest, but they are not particularly wise. In terms of allies, they choose silver or bronze dragons, ride rocs, and keep griffons or sea lions (the monster, not the mundane animal) as pets.
Second in the giant hierarchy, and more than willing to fill the gap in leadership left by the reclusive and fatalistic storm giants, are the cloud giants. They are a divided race, unlike every other giant kind—roughly half of the cloud giants are good, and the other half are evil. Neutral cloud giants are rare, since they face great pressure to choose one side or another. Good giants trade with civilized folk to acquire fine items, while evil ones raid and plunder to the same end.
Good or evil, cloud giants are cultured and refined, collecting fine art and exquisite treasures in their mountaintop or cloud-built castles. They dress in rare silks and wear elaborate jewelry, and they enjoy gourmet food and sophisticated music. They delight in unusual magic items such as singing harps or talking mirrors, and they engage in extravagant bets or contests of skill to acquire these items from each other. Cloud giants are ranked according to wealth and etiquette.
Though not as magical as storm giants, generally speaking, cloud giants can magically levitate and create clouds of billowing fog. They have more spellcasters than most other giants, and these casters mimic some of the magic inherent to the storm giants: controlling weather, bringing storms, and steering wind. Their magic enables them to mine silver from the clouds and sustain gardens of giant fruit trees near their secluded homes.
Cloud giants are not as intelligent as storm giants, but they often make up for it with high Charisma scores. They also have a keen sense of smell and can discern the scent of intruders in their homes. Good cloud giants tend to keep dire lions and griffons as pets and guardians, while evil ones are more inclined to have owlbears and wyverns.
Fire giants make up the third rank of giant kind, and they are the most likely to aspire higher, chafing at their low position relative to storm and cloud giants. Lawful evil, they recognize the power inherent in rank and seek to improve their station within the hierarchy, not to overthrow the hierarchy itself.
As suggested by the title of the classic adventure G3, fire giant leaders often style themselves as “kings” even if their so-called kingdoms are small. Each king is a tyrant, enforcing his will on his inferiors without any tolerance for insubordination. As a group, fire giants dominate the lands around their home, taking captives as slaves or ransoming them back to their families, and they conscript local monsters such as trolls and red dragons into their service. Among themselves, fire giants rank their numbers based on their skill in crafting weapons and armor, with skill measured by the gear’s practical utility, not its aesthetic qualities.
Fire giants are impervious to fire, and they build their homes in hot places such as volcanoes. They dwell in fortresslike castles, sometimes freestanding and sometimes carved into the mountain behind an elegant façade, similar to dwarven construction. Like other giants, they throw rocks, but they tend to keep stockpiles of good throwing rocks among the coals of their fires, making them hot enough to burn anyone they don’t completely smash. They hate the cold, and they don’t dwell near frozen mountain peaks unless there’s a steady source of geothermal heat to warm them.
Fire giants are disciplined fighters and fine strategists. They are strong and hardy, but very bulky and not particularly agile, stealthy, or fleet of foot. Exceptional fire giants include accomplished smiths who wear and wield unusually effective weapons and armor, as well as spellcasters who can use and manipulate flame. Their mightiest kings are comparable in strength and size to average storm giants.
In addition to subdued dragons and trolls pressed into service by the threat of fire, fire giants use hell hounds as guards, war companions, and pets.
Fourth in the hierarchy of giants, frost giants sit just below the middle. Rather than aspire to a loftier position, as fire giants do, frost giants make up for their comparatively low status by boasting about the status and power they do possess. Actual achievement is less important among the giants as one’s ability to brag of one’s accomplishments, real or imagined. That said, frost giants value mettle and bravery, and they prove themselves by entering single combat with terrible beasts such as white dragons or remorhaz. Giants who emerge victorious from these combats wear the hide of their enemies as a mark of pride, and they talk about the accomplishment at every opportunity. Frost giants do not back down from a fight, though they prefer single combat that allows them to speak of their personal prowess and accomplishments.
Frost giants are neutral evil, lacking the fire giants’ rigid discipline and urge to domination. Like fire giants, they subdue dragons they don’t kill, using them to guard their glacial homes, and they take slaves from surrounding humanoid populations. They ally with yetis and use winter wolves as pets and hunting companions.
Frost giants are unaffected by even the most frigid cold, and they dwell on or in glaciers or ice caves. They are not inclined to construction, but they do carve out homes from the ice where no natural hollows are available. They throw rocks or jagged chunks of ice.
Frost giants are as strong and hardy as other giants, but not as intelligent as the more powerful giants. They are skilled at using snow and ice to conceal their presence so that they can set ambushes against trespassers or prey. Their rulers, called jarls, are skilled as leaders as well as accomplished boasters, and they are nearly as strong as cloud giants. Their shamans are masters of cold and ice, causing snowstorms and avalanches as well as blasting their foes more directly.
Stone giants are almost the weakest giants, near the bottom of the giant hierarchy, but that doesn’t seem to bother them in the least. They are particularly reclusive, just wanting to be left alone in their mountain lairs to play their rock-throwing games and pursue their artistic stonecraft. They award pride of place among their own numbers according to creative and artistic ability, as demonstrated primarily through carving.
Alone among the true giants, stone giants are neutral, neither beneficent nor cruel. They resent intrusion into their territory, however, and issue stern warnings (usually in the form of hurled boulders that just miss their target) to those who wander too close. Those who ignore these warnings are likely to find themselves buried in a rock slide arranged by the giants.
It is difficult, but possible, to negotiate for passage through a pass or cavern complex held by stone giants—if one can find something the self-sufficient giants want in exchange. Their most common demand is for a period of service, which usually involves hard labor in a place that is hard for the giants to enter because of their size. Sometimes the giants will require the aid of adventurers in rooting out orcs or other vermin from their caves.
The most notable ability of stone giants is their expertise in both throwing and catching large rocks. They are known to play games of tossing boulders back and forth between mountain peaks, particularly during storms when the booming of thunder complements the pounding of rock against rock. Stone giants occasionally hold rock-throwing competitions, and typically they carve their boulders with elaborate designs in preparation for these events.
Stone giants have thick, rocky skin that protects them as well as armor does, so they tend to dress in little more than a fur draped over a shoulder and around the waist. Their stony skin also helps them hide and blend in among the rocky terrain they favor. Elders among the stone giants have magical control over stone, shaping and transmuting it according to their will, and drawing on the wisdom of the earth in divination.
Stone giants keep cave bears as guards and companions. They do not readily ally with any other creatures except their own kind.
The weakest of the giants, hill giants are really too stupid to care. They’re smarter than ogres (which is not saying much), but easily tricked by clever humans nonetheless. They dwell in spacious steadings in remote, hilly lands, or in caves if those can be found. Renowned for their gluttony, hill giants rank themselves according to their performance in eating contests. A hill giant can eat a pig in one bite or a cow in two, and many hill giant raids on civilized land are for the express purpose of stealing livestock for consumption.
Hill giants are slow and lazy, preferring to find allies to do their work for them whenever possible. They often keep ogres around to do their heavy labor, and they can be persuaded to avoid the effort of combat if promised a hearty meal instead. Their chiefs are unusually clever for their kind, and they are also champion eaters and have the paunch to prove it.
Not only do hill giants lack any magical ability of their own, they actively hate magic, go out of their way to kill mages if they can, and sometimes destroy obviously magical items they capture in their raids.
Dire wolves are the favored pets and companions of hill giants.
Titans are not true giants, but they are closely related to both giants and their gods. Titans are demigods. They are usually the offspring of one of the giant gods, and they share some characteristics of their divine parent. Some titans (particularly those with the blood of Stronmaus or Annam in their veins) are noble, beautiful creatures of towering size and godlike intellect. Others are raging elemental monsters, such as the offspring of Surtr, whose hair and beard are made of living flame and whose blood is molten rock. Each titan is unique, but all of them are more powerful than the strongest storm giant. They are often mercurial, even whimsical, but prone to violent fits of temper.
This approach to titans, by the way, allows us to keep both the godlike titan of early editions of D&D and the elemental creatures of 4th Edition in the game as titans—an inclusive approach we’re trying to take with most of our monsters.
What Do You Think?
And there’s a rundown of the six races of giants, plus their godlike kin. How did we do?
How well do the giants we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D giant?
Previous Poll Results
How well do the minotaurs we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D minotaur?
|So-so -- the curse sounds right, but maybe it happened a long time ago and established the minotaur race.
|Awesome -- this is how I will use minotaurs in my games.
|Insufficient -- I like the way 4E combined three approaches to minotaurs into one race.
|Pretty good -- I like the story here, but I would tweak it in specific ways. (Comments!)
|No good -- savage minotaurs should be a natural race in the world.
|Too far from the source -- I want the singular Greek minotaur in my game, not some bizarre Baphomet cultist.
How important is it that you can create minotaur player characters?
|2 -- It's OK for some people, and confining it to 'Krynn minotaurs' is fine.
|3 -- I would like to see a Medium minotaur variant as part of the normal minotaur race and play it as a character.
|1 -- I don't want it.
|4 -- I must be able to play a Large minotaur character.
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.