Infusing Myth and Folklore into D&D Trolls

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Trolls as depicted in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons products bear little more than a superficial resemblance to the creature of myth and lore they are based on. Like many creatures from our past they have been compartmentalized and streamlined for the sake of mechanics until they are truly a different creature. While it is in no way meant to be an exhaustive or completely academic article, this exercise attempts to bring back some of the ancient context from whence the troll came.

troll myth D&D

Trolls are a staple of fantasy RPGs and classic mythology found in many cultures. [“Forest Troll” by Justin and Annie Stegg Gerard]

Making and using Scandinavian style trolls for D&D

In general, trolls are monstrous looking humanoids of magic and superstition. They appear in a wide variety of sizes and while most follow similar forms and patterns, there are some like the huldra who are not horrid beasts. Characteristics such as tusks and horns are not uncommon in trolls and seem to occur without pattern or regularity.
All trolls have a cow-like tail, often adorned with ribbons, trinkets and finery and ending in a course bristle of hairs. Most trolls are covered to one degree or another in thick hair and have heads and beards of filthy, vermin-infested hair. Rather than the long carrot-like nose of the classic D&D troll, the trolls of myth are usually described as having particularly bulbous or tuberous noses. Beady eyes and mouths full of nasty teeth are more of the trolls’ shared features. An exception to almost all of these are the huldra, who appear as lovely maidens, though they sometimes have cow-like ears and always retain the cow tail common to all trolls. Unlike the trolls depicted in D&D, Scandinavian trolls are often depicted wearing clothes and while not all wear garments, there are those among the trolls who enjoy them and all their accessories.
Socially, trolls tend to gather in family groups and while there are solitary or isolated trolls, they are the exception.Where there is one troll there are undoubtedly more. Family groups generally center around a mother and father and their offspring. A troll usually leaves its family when it starts or become a member of another family. There are troll lords and even troll kings, gathering many family groups under them and controlling wide swaths of territory. Troll kings are often referred to by some natural element associated with the area where they rule. One such example is the famous Mountain King, a great multi-headed, giant troll who ruled a kingdom of trolls under a great mountain. Trolls prefer to live away from civilization and settlements of other races.
Craftsmanship and skilled labor are uncommon among trolls of myth but when they occur trolls seem to excel, often creating wonderful and magical items. Trolls are often depicted as ignorant but wily though there are cases, like with most creatures, of exceptional trolls of great intellect, wisdom, guile and knowledge. As a race, laziness and sloth are common and they frequently bully, trick or force other beings to perform tasks and labors for them. There are even tales of trolls raising exceptional livestock sought after by kings and heroes or capable of things beyond ordinary beasts of their kind. A troll king might herd nightmares, or cattle of immense size, sheep with golden wool, or perhaps just the best horses in all the kingdom.

Common characteristics of trolls

Trolls are creatures of evil and darkness, caring little for the light of day and harboring great malice in their hearts. They often keep to the isolation of the wilderness, preferring to keep contact with humans and other races to a minimum. An association with nature is also common with trolls and as such they are often grouped together by their preferred habitats. In the context of this article, trolls are not longer considered giants or giant-kin but a branch of the fey family. As such they will speak Sylvan instead of Giant as a base language, though it is likely some crude, trollish variation on the elegant language of the fair folk.

Light vulnerability and sensitivity

Classic trolls turned to stone under the light of the sun, and while this may be a bit too restrictive for use in a tabletop RPG, it does allow a chance to shift their damage vulnerability from that of fire to radiant. As post-Christian beliefs in trolls often associated them with the evil of the Devil, a vulnerability to radiant damage is doubly fitting in the context of D&D where we have divine might being wielded by clerics, paladins and several other classes. Sunlight sensitivity is a good addition to trolls and surely trolls prefer to avoid the sun, even if it may not be lethal to them in your games.

Resistance, not regeneration

Regeneration is not a part of troll folklore, at least not naturally. Trolls as depicted in lore are simply very robust, hard to kill and often possessing magic or magical items, which in the context of a game might allow them to pull off the trick of regenerating. Simulating this toughness can be achieved through the use of resistances to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from non-magical attacks. This will make them harder to kill without magical assistance without turning them into even greater piles of hit points.

Innate spellcasting

Creatures of magic, like other fey, trolls often possess some form of innate spellcasting. While some very base trolls may be found without any magic at their disposal, many will have some basic magic in the form of cantrips, frequently the sorts that allow them utility and mischief. Shapechanging and magic like polymorph is particularly common among trolls and many can mimic the appearance of other races or animals. In some legends they can even assume the form of stones or trees. Like many forms of fey, magic resistance is a good option for this style of troll.

Treasure hungry

Greed and wealth are associated with trolls. Troll kings often often live in lavish halls full of fine goods either stolen or crafted by artisans they employ. Some trolls are too dumb to recognize their wealth, amassing it compulsively while they live in simple caves and dens. Some troll troves rival that of dragons.

Keen sense of smell

All tales of trolls include their heightened senses, notably their sense of smell, which have become a standard part of the D&D troll. There are tales of trolls being able to sniff out those of strong faith (e.g. Christianity), steel, and gold.

Types of trolls

D&D myth

A dryad as seen in the fifith edition Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, can be a substitute for the mythological huldra from folklore. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

Throughout the body of lore surrounding trolls, they are depicted in a number of different forms. This makes the troll an incredibly versatile monster in this construct. Because depictions of trolls often overlap other mythical monsters, it is possible to build different types of troll from existing D&D monsters (including the standard troll) with little difficulty. There are many monsters written for D&D that fall within the various descriptions of trolls and it is easy enough to slot these monsters in as stand-ins for trolls through simple reskinning. Below is a list of troll or troll-like beings from myth and what D&D monsters can be used as a base for them. Simply add the above suggested abilities and remove any abilities that you feel are not particularly trollish.

Trow (xvart): Diminutive trolls that live in the woods, hills, mountain and even among men.

Multiheaded Troll (ettin): Trolls are frequently depicted with more than one head. The ettin can be used to depict a troll with two or more heads.

Hill Troll (troll): The hill troll is close to the troll as depicted in the fifth edition D&D Monster Manual.

Forest Troll (ogre, bugbear, orc, goblin): Forest trolls are common and can be depicted by modifying these monsters to represent the different members of a forest troll family. Bugbears make for great chiefs while the orcs and goblins would make for the smaller, younger members of the family.

Mountain Troll (giant): Mountain trolls can be depicted with these types of giant with hill giants being lesser members of the family and stone giants depicting the leaders. A great mountain king might be depicted by using one of the more powerful giants such as a cloud or storm giant.

Huldra (dryad): The alluring huldra is easily depicted using the dryad. Huldra are commonly associated with the wild hills and forests.

Rock Trolls (galeb duhr): Rock trolls with the ability to change into stones or become indistinguishable from them.

Troll Wives (hags): Folklore is full of powerful, magical, hideous female trolls. Such legends fit very well with hags.

Using Scandinavian trolls in your D&D games

Roles for trolls of this sort can range from everything the D&D monster is typically used for to higher level encounters and even NPCs. Families of trolls can hold sway over regions in ways beyond simple predators, extorting travellers, stealing crops and goods, or making off with livestock. Troll magic can be used to cause grief to local settlements for a number of different reasons. Larceny, spite, or at the behest of some other, mightier being are all good reasons for trolls to break with their normal isolation.

Where trolls serve best as NPCs is in the form of lore-holders, quest-givers, or sources of unwelcome but necessary aid to the party. Trolls often possess masses of treasure that include ancient, powerful, or obscure artifacts. In some cases, troll artisans are sources of well-made items or goods made from materials other folk may not be so willing to use. Their greed, avarice, and manipulation make for great motivations for them to aid or call upon a party. Backstabbing other trolls or wild folk, or tricking a party into removing an enemy or annoyance is not beyond a crafty troll.
The huldra are also known to be guileful and wicked as often as they are known for being sylvan and graceful. An angry huldra will hesitate little at the opportunity to punish those who she feels have slighted her. Any aid given by a troll is likely to incur a price either in uneven trade, personal loss or acts performed on the trolls behalf. Much like hags, who themselves would make a good model for a powerful troll witch, dealings with trolls seldom end in the favor of those they deal with.
One possibility that is counter to the common depiction of trolls, but not outside the realm of possibility within the understanding of the mythical origins of the creatures, is for a Dungeon Master to create a friendly community of trolls who live away from other races but make themselves accessible and available to them. These trolls might be trade allies, friends, even common allies against other foes. At least they could exist in a sort of neutral state with the folk nearby them and might even find themselves antagonized and opposed by others of their kind or as vassals to some distant Mountain King who occasionally pillages their hard work, mocking them for wasting their own time and energy when they could be making others do such things for them.

Hill Troll (sample conversion)

Provided is a creature stat block of the troll from the Monster Manual converted using the guidelines in this article. In this case, the combination of new abilities places the troll exactly in the same CR range as the original troll with its fire vulnerability and its regeneration.

Looking for more?

Inside the pages of Fifth Edition Foes from Frog God Games, there’s tons of new creatures to harry heroes including a take on a couple of different troll varieties including a spectral troll, an undead version of already terrifying creatures whose regeneration persists beyond the destruction of their physical bodies!

Check it out in the Frog God Games store, and use Nerdarchy’s exclusive coupon code usable twice per user. STAY-NERDY-30 gets you a 30 percent discount on anything in the store.

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Follow Eli Arndt:
RPGs , DM for decades, miniatures sculptor and enthusiast, father to gaming children, husband to a gaming wife. The name Elf Bait comes from a running gag carried on since high school where my friends and I joked that our creative ideas were being stolen by tiny little elves that took our ideas to the powers that be. Over the decades this has become something of a badge of pride, knowing that we had ideas that were not only cool to us but deemed cool enough by professionals (not that we think they really took our ideas) for commercial use.

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