Saturday, March 11, 2017

Volo's Guide: A Reviant (Review/Rant) about Firbolg

The newest published book by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is "Volo's Guide to Monsters", it takes a anthropological look at six classic DnD monsters in its first chapter, a summary of monstrous player race options, and then some classic style monster manual entries for new monsters.

I'm going to write some more of these Reviants on some other parts of the book later, but today I'd like to talk about one of the "new" playable races: the Firbolg.

A People's History of Firbolg

The Firbolg makes its first entry into the D&D-sphere in the AD&D "Monster Manual II", and they are consistently presented as a sub-race of reclusive hunter gatherer giants through 3.5 Edition. Come Volo's guide they are introduced to a new generation of roleplayers as a race of nature loving fey related humanoids.

The Firbolg entry caught my eye on my first skim through because of where we get the name of the Firbolg: from Celtic myth. This is the race that inhabits Éire before the Gods of Celtic myth (the Tuatha Dé Danann) migrate to the island and whom they fight for dominion of the island on the Magh Tuireadh, the Plain of Towers (which is a super bad ass name). These are two of six mythic races said to have inhabited Ireland at different times with waves of invasions and exoduses. The Firbolg here are described as a race of giants who themselves migrated to Ireland from Greece, though they are given little other description. Their name may directly translate to "bag men", with fir=man and bolg=bag or belly.

Why did the writers find and use the Firbolg in the First Edition Monster Manual II? I'm not sure, but based on the texts their interpretation seems at least some what coherent. In the same boat are the Fomorians, a monstrous race of giants from under the sea/underground also from Celtic myth; they are also relatively well translated into an early D&D monster.

Firbolg as depicted in T. W. Rolleston's "Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race"

From the Monster Manual II, AD&D

Their description from AD&D's Monster Manual II:
"Of the minor races of giantkind, the firbolg is the most powerful. They are cautious, crafty, and have considerable magical power. They have learned to distrust (and fear) humans, and will be found only in remote and wild places...
...These human-looking giants will not always greet strangers with open arms, but usually firbolgs will not try to kill them (unless given provocation, of course). They do, however, enjoy appearing as little people and duping humans out of their treasure."

From the Monster Manual II, 3.5 Edition

Their description from 3.5 Edition's Monster Manual II:
"Firbolgs are reclusive giants who tend to avoid contact with humanoid races and even other kinds of giants. Unlike some of the more brutish giant kin, firbolgs do not depend heavily on raiding for subsistence, nor do they rely solely on force to resolve problems.
A firbolg looks like a 10-foot-tall human and weighs more than 800 pounds. Its skin is a fleshy pink color, and it can have hair of almost any shade, although blond and red are the most common.A firbolg of either gender wears its hair long, and the typical male sports a great, thick beard."

Annnnd in Volo's Guide to Monsters, 5th Edition

Their description from Volo's Guide:
"Firbolg tribes cloister in remote forest strongholds, preferring to spend their days in quiet harmony with the woods. When provoked, firbolgs demonstrate formidable skills with weapons and druidic magic.
Firbolgs love nothing more than a peaceful day spent among the trees of an old forest. They see forests as sacred places, representing the heart of the world and monuments to the durability of life.
In their role as caretakers, firbolgs live off the land while striving to remain in balance with nature. Their methods reflect common sense and remarkable resourcefulness. During a bountiful summer, they store away excess nuts, fruit, and berries. When winter arrives, they scatter everything they can spare to ensure the animals of the wood survive until springtime.
...Firbolgs who become druids serve as stronghold leaders. With every action the tribe takes, the druids weigh not only the group's needs, but the effect each action will have on the forest and the rest of the natural world. Firbolg tribes would rather go hungry than strain the land during a famine.
As caretakers of the land, firbolgs prefer to remain out of sight and out of mind. They don't try to dominate nature, but rather seek to ensure that it prospers and survives according to its own laws.
Firbolgs use their magic to keep their presence in a forest secret. This approach allows them to avoid the politics and struggles of elves, humans, and ores. Such events concern the firbolgs only when the events affect the forest.
Even in the face of an intrusion, firbolgs prefer a subtle, gentle approach to prevent damage to their territory. They employ their magic to make the forest an unappealing place to explore by temporarily diverting springs, driving away game, stealing critical tools, and altering trails to leave hunting or lumber parties hopelessly lost. The firbolgs' presence is marked by an absence of animals and a strange quiet, as if the forest wishes to avoid attracting attention to itself. The faster travelers decide to move on, the better.
If these tactics fail, the firbolgs take more direct action. Their observations of a settlement determine what happens next. If the outsiders seem peaceful, the firbolgs approach and gently ask them to leave, even offering food and other supplies to aid their departure. If those who insist on remaining respect nature, take only what they need, and live in harmony with the wood, firbolgs explore the possibility of friendship with them, as long as the outsiders vow to safeguard the forest. If the settlers clearly display evil intentions, however, the firbolgs martial their strength and magic for a single overwhelming attack."

Firbolg as a Case Example of the Shitty Way Folklore is Diluted and "Nature" is Depicted in D&D

So other than being much more verbose than is probably necessary, the above quoted text from Volo's Guide highlights some things that bother me about the depictions of certain themes and ideas in D&D: creatures from folklore and nature/ecology.

So I write about different folklore on this blog. I don't think it is bad or not creative or appropriative (necessarily) to borrow ideas from many traditions and use them as inspiration. What bothers me is when the kernel of weird genius gets lots in the sanitizing process of writing RPG material. My preferred format is a candid presentation of the source material and then an interpretation and application to RPGs, like when I wrote about the Blue Men of Minch or adventures based around Scottish wedding traditions. Its like citing your sources, just tell us who came up with this thing so that we can interpret as we see fit.

While I don't really mind the first two experts above, I don't think they are especially interesting either. Sure its not far off from how Firbolg are presented in legend, but you could have also just called them Forest Giants or something and changed nothing else but the name. The whole point of invoking an obscure reference to some myth is because that myth is interesting and awesome and you want to ride that thunder a little. In a way this is part of how these stories and ideas are continuing to breath and grow through time, as they did in their original incarnation as oral traditions. Don't settle for sanitary boring corporate crap, let them breath.

Get yourself a copy of this book if you can, I highly recommend it to the novice (like myself) with an interest in Celtic myth

Now to the part that really gets my goat. I am a forester by profession, a field of applied ecology focused on the management of forest ecosystems. Its hard to read the passage from Volo's Guide above because my eyes keep rolling.

Forests, like all ecological systems, are dynamic. There is no harmony. There is no peace. There is only a shifting and flowing equilibrium that experiences flux at the whim of weather, climate, fire, wind, geologic events that occurred epochs ago, interactions with wildlife, and intervention by humans. The fir, a shade tolerant group of trees, does not take its place in the forest canopy for granted. Given the chance it would, and does, shade out its shade intolerant competitors the pines.

Now I am not arguing that I want to have D&D accurately simulate or describe forest ecology, I don't think that's especially interesting. What I am arguing for is a more complex look at nature oriented races/classes. Arnold K does a wonderful job of taking this complexity and nuance to a useful place with his re-imagining of Druids.
Oo, this druid is EVIL because he likes fire! Fire isn't part of a healthy forest landscape in some regions of seasonal rainfall!

In summary: Nature, like folklore, is depicted in a reductionist way in most published D&D material. That's bad, because nature is an absolute font of inspiration that should be taken at face value and not romanticized or sanitized.

**Disclaimer: I like Volo's Guide, I really do. Its a cool new way to look at monsters and is actually breaking ground with its first chapter instead of keeping the formula of creating endless Monster Manual iterations with more and more generic monsters.**


  1. Holy shit, yes, all of this!

    As an anthropologist there is nothing about mainstream RPGs that annoys me more than their determination to flatten out folkloric/mythic complexity and interest into a pastel quasi-European medieval vibe.

    Like, failing anything else, the original treatment is just straight up more characterful/interesting and more gameable.

    5E firbolgs are written so they have no reason to leave the forest or interact with anyone ever except parties of Evil characters. The 2E version come with a built-in encounter, as well as plenty of possibilities for using them in interesting ways.

    Now what I really want to see is your take on the 5E firbolg, drawing on the reality of ecology and making them something the GM can use...

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yeah, it's frustrating, isn't it?

      And noted, I may write something up then...

  2. Man yes.

    I remember throwing my party for an utter loop when they met a mad Druid who was attempting to stop a road-building crew from demolishing a path through the forest.

    The thief threatens to throw burning oil and light the entire forest up....

    Druid just laughs at him. "You city folk really don't know anything about forests, do you?"