Welcome back to the Zurn blog! Today we're looking at giants, and how you can use giants more effectively in your games. Giants take many forms across mythology, but unfortunately in most games they get reduced to a small number of stereotypes. Today we seek to change that.
As we always do, we will start by looking at what a giant is across various mythic traditions, and then we will consider ways that you can vary your giants and make them more interesting in your world.
I. What Is a Giant?
To start off with, there are many kinds of giants across mythologies, history, and fairy tale literature, and while we have a stereotype in our heads, in truth there are few shared characteristics between giants.
We'll get the first one out of the way, though, and that is that giants are big. Note that I did not say that giants are tall - I said that giants are big. They are tall, but that height can vary from 1-2 feet taller than a man to taller than a house, so I think the better term to use for them is that they are big - imposing to the average person.
In earth's history, for example, we have skeletons of people who were up to 7-8 feet tall, and that makes them giants compared to us, but if a man were to put his arms up he could almost reach the top of the giant's head, so it's not that much taller. But some giants are far taller than that: in the anime show Attack on Titan we have titans - giants - that are taller than a wall that is many stories high, so large that your average human can fit easily in their mouths.
On a related note, giants are generally heavy. You can typically hear them coming from far away due to their mass as they step on the ground. This is something to think about: in an icy location a giant would not only leave tracks in the snow that could be easily seen and hard to fill, but would also crack through ice where it walks. This could be a good way to signal to the party that a giant is near: they see an imprint in the frozen river, tracks along the mountain pass, etc.
And finally, giants are always presented as dangerous. You never have a fairy tale, myth, or adventure story where a giant is presented as an easy target to strike down or a casual foe that crosses your path: they are always presented as a threat. So you want to insure that your giants are scary, as that is quintessential to their nature.
Beyond this, though, the mythologies vary. Some portray giants as dull-witted, with Jack and the Beanstalk being a great example of this. In Norse mythology they are cunning, plotting and scheming against the gods in the sagas. In Tolkien's Middle Earth they are portrayed as independent, not bowing to Sauron or the Free Peoples. And if we include the titans of Greek mythology like Prometheus, we have innovative and creative giants. So from an intelligence perspective there is no true consensus: giants are varied in their cunning and critical thinking, and that is healthy.
Tolkien portrays giants as generally evil in character, but with some exceptions (as Gandalf notes that there is one giant that he knows who is of a good sort, and might be convinced to close off the passage to Goblin Town after Thorin's Company passes through). The Norse sagas portray them as generally evil, as does Attack on Titan. And then you have Rumblebuffin and Wimbleweather from Narnia who are good alongside evil giants in The Silver Chair. So for alignment we have a mixed bag of examples: giants can be good or evil.
In terms of setting, Greek mythology presents the cyclopses as island herdsmen and craftsmen under Hephaistos, so you get a pastoral, coastal backdrop for some of them and an underground, industry-centric lens for those who serve the crafting god. Norse mythology gives them their own realm, with a lot of variety between the types of giants that dwell there, typically tied to elements. Harry Potter places them in large forests near mountains, mostly so that humans don't see them when they walk around. So the setting for giants is as varied as the giants themselves, giving you a wide range of freedom for your games.
All of this is good: it helps to flesh out and deepen the possibilities of our giants in our games. So toward that end, let's discuss a few ways we can make giants more interesting.
II. Rethinking Giants
First off, as we've noted above, choose a consistent height range for your giants. If you are using a D&D system or one of its variants, perhaps the height of the giant is equal to its Strength or Constitution score, and thus you could have some 8 foot giants, or maybe even shorter than that, but probably not exceeding 20-30 feet in height. Keep in mind that the height of your giants determines the height of the buildings they live in, so plan accordingly.
Second, think about what this size would do for a giant: their mass would be huge. This means your giants should be hard to move, and generally (if not assisted by magic) they should be poor at sneaking up on things. So perhaps you go the route that Lewis and Tolkien do where giants throw rocks or use other ranged weapons so that they don't need to close the distance with people they meet. Can you imagine the sheer firepower of a crossbow fired by a giant? This is like scorpion siege weapon levels of power being generated by a single crossbow in the arms of a giant.
More size also means more blood running through their veins, probably at a faster speed. So the ability of a giant to close its wounds would be higher, and if you add some latent magic to the mix, a regeneration ability is also not a bad call. Think about how quickly your body stops bleeding from a paper cut, and now assume that you are 2-3x larger, and that cut is a drawing cut from a sword. The sheer number (and size) of platelets that could float in giant blood to suddenly close a wound is mindboggling, so healing quickly from a wound is not beyond the realm of belief.
The ability of a giant to shrug off damage goes a long way in making it seem more dangerous, and that's the big thing we want from these guys.
On a related note, the ability of a giant to naturally purge poisons and diseases from its body is both believable (imagine how many antibodies this creature can create) and useful. The venom of a blue-ringed octopus is fatal to a human, but to a giant? I'm sure it would hurt and would disrupt him, but I don't think he would die from it.
Greater size could also mean the giant generates more heat, so consider making it harder for a giant to suffer effects from the cold, how horrid a giant's perspiration would smell, and how far that scent would waft. If someone was being pinned and held in a giant's armpit (or still worse, stuffed in their pants), would that person risk passing out purely from the smell? There are whole aspects of the size of a giant that we commonly gloss over that will make an encounter with a giant more interesting.
Think about the nature of your giants, and consider the use of elemental giants in your games. Naturally you have this in games like D&D, and this is how they tend to do giants, but think through what this would actually mean. Are your fire giants always on fire, and how would that affect how they build their homes (always using stone or metal, no wood)? If a frost giant grapples someone, could they numb their bodies, causing the target to drop their weapons or have trouble fighting back due to the chills running through their bodies? Can an earth giant make parts of his body more sandy, allowing weapons to pass right through without much disruption, and then suddenly harden so they are locked and stuck, hard to remove and useless for damage?
Don't just use elemental aspects to change their damage types and resistances: find ways to use the element more effectively in shaping the image and danger of the giant. In Celtic mythology you have the Fir Bolg, an elemental giant that is heavily tied to the earth, and while it is touching the earth it is very hard to defeat. Is there a tactical aspect to these giants, where separating them from their element will make them weaker or less powerful?
For setting, consider putting giants underwater: if giants are slower in your world, being underwater will apply a slowness to their enemies too, only these giants don't need to come up to breathe, and perhaps have flatter fin-like hands for cutting through the water with greater ease. Perhaps these giants use long spears instead of axes and hammers to reduce drag (and extend their already greater reach). Change the setting and give the party something they do not expect to find there, and suddenly the perceived danger level rises (which is what we want).
Think about adding unique biology to your giants. In Greek mythology we have the hecatonchires which have 100 arms, which they used to hurl boulders in a thick and heavy salvo. Do they have multiple heads, making it harder to kill them? Anything that you do to change their biology from being humanesque to monstrous will make them more interesting and more dangerous (even if only in perception).
In the anime Seven Deadly Sins, we have giants and giant demons, and both have unique biology. For the giants they mostly look human but they can use their earth magic to change their physical makeup to be more metallic or rock-like, improving damage and resilience. For the demons things get even stranger (and more dangerous), with extra limbs to catch and kill things, multiple hearts that need to be destroyed in order to kill them, and the ability to regrow body parts in a phantom state, allowing them to use these ethereal body parts in physical ways even though they are not physical (and are basically immune to further damage or destruction).
And this brings us to the last thing to consider: what is the origin for your giants? Did they descend from titans? Were they made/descended from a pantheon on gods? Are they from a completely different world and then they crash landed on this one? How would their origin and history change the way they interact with others in your world? What special powers would this give them?
The options for your giants are almost limitless. If you are planning to use giants in your world/story/roleplay campaign, consider reading up on old fairy tales, myths, and works of literature that have giants in them to get new ideas for how to make your giants more interesting and engaging to the players. And when in doubt, go big or go home - it's what your party wants to see, even if it terrifies them.
Until next time,