Of all the creatures to gain a new lease on life in the 5e era, the one I’m most interested in is definitely the firbolg.
Partly, it’s because they came as such a surprise. They’re not like, say, tieflings and draconians, who have always been fan-favourite “exotic” choices; it often felt like only a matter of time before those became core PC options. But firbolgs? Who even really remembered them? And which version did they remember—are they just big dudes with red hair? Do they turn into bears? Are they blue? Are they giants? Are they fey? Personally, they would never have been on my radar if they hadn’t suddenly popped up with a fresh new look that was genuinely their own.
I understand that while Volo’s Guide to Monsters got the basics in, it’s the popular web series Critical Role that should get credit for completing the unique “sexy cow daddy” design that effectively exploded their popularity. (I’m wicked jealous, by the way—imagine coming up with such a great look that it near instantly reshapes the appearance of a whole species! Truly the loftiest of character designer goals.)
Now, firbolg do exist in 4th Edition; the Monster Manual 2 introduces them as the “creators and keepers of the Wild Hunt”, which is an interesting role, but hardly one that needs to be tied to race. It’s also very unlike the design that has now become popular, and not exactly conducive to making player characters. For those reasons, I’m going to set it aside, and focus on creating something with the same appeal as the 5e bolg. (But if you do want something better suited to represent the existing 4e monster, may I suggest the Skies of Escarnum jotun as a good fey giant pick?)
Why not use them for Escarnum?
Before we begin, I’m going to talk briefly about why I haven’t made firbolg “core” to my Skies of Escarnum setting, if I like them so much. There are a couple of reasons.
- Variety. I’ve tried to avoid reusing the same origin/type/size combo as much as possible, to help all the heritage options occupy a mechanical and flavour space that feels unique. I already have “furry giant” and “fey giant” as two of Escarnum‘s new and unique heritage options (equitarn and jotun), so “furry fey giant” would be playing into a space that’s already fairly full.
- Origin. It’s not a hard rule, but in general, the anthropomorphic animals of Alm are always associated with the material plane. It’s not a crucial part of the setting design, but I like the materiality it associates with them; beast-kin are made of meat, undeniably of the physical world in a way that the more ethereal fey, shadow and immortal creatures are not. Firbolg being fey and anthro would muddy this theme a little bit, so I’d rather not bring them in when first introducing the setting.
- Name. Presenting “firbolg” and “felbraug” in the same chapter isn’t a choice I would recommend to any designer. But felbraug have been a part of my group’s games for twenty years or so—and originally named by my partner, not me—so I’d really rather not change their name to accommodate a late arrival. With the other reasons already providing an incentive, it’s much easier to present the firbolg as a supplementary option.
With that in mind, I’ve also detached this firbolg from the world of Escarnum. Obviously any creature can work in any setting with a little favour tweaking, but I wanted to make it extra clear that this one isn’t attached to any existing location or culture. As long as you have a feywild (or equivalent) they’re ready to go.
So, what do we want to capture with the firbolg? Here are the key concepts that I think are important to the 5e/critically-rolled version, as presented:
- Fey Origin. This one is very straightforward; this creature definitely wants to be fey. In fact, I really like the idea that unlike elves and eladrin, firbolg haven’t adapted to the material plane, so they are rarely seen outside the feywild.
- Connected with Nature. Fortunately, 4e has no place for race/class restrictions, nor does it expect us to deal with messy ideas like spell-like abilities or race-based spellcasting. But I don’t want to just ignore the nature connection, as it’s a fun and flavourful hook.
So, for this I’m going to adapt their ability to talk to plants and animals. I don’t think this is a particularly powerful mechanic, but it’s very rich in flavour, so I think it’s a perfect trait to embody this connection. I’m even going to make it less restrictive than the 5e version, since it will be less complicated and I really can’t imagine it breaking a game.
- Shy. The 5e firbolg feels like a very classical “fair folk” type of fey—powerful but secretive, sturdy but ethereal. It’s that “giant recluse” idea that I think really defines the firbolg mechanically, so I’m going to try to capture that as best I can.
This seems like the best theme for a heritage power, which I can use to set them apart from jotun and equitarn. Fortunately, avoiding damage is as good for Defenders as it is for fragile characters, so I should be able to make an ability that is useful regardless of mechanical role.
- Big, but thoughtful. Often, the joy of playing an eight-foot-tall character can be summed up as “big strong justice himbo”. However, I think the charm of the 5e firbolg is more about the combination of being big and strong, but also calm and wise (the “daddy” part of “sexy cow daddy”, if you will).
To realise this, I’m definitely going to choose Wisdom as their primary ability score bonus, and back it up with the conventional “strong guy” stats as secondary choices. I’m also going to give them an Arcana skill bonus, since they’re supposed to be a bit magic by nature, but their stat options won’t support that especially well.
Putting it all Together
With all that in mind, here finally is my interpretation of a 4th Edition firbolg:
I can’t consider it completely finished right now, since it lacks a good selection of heritage feats to flesh it out. However, if you’re excited to play a fuzzy firbolg in 4e as soon as possible, be my guest!