Trolls can take many forms … depending on who you ask.
Probably the most popular image is of the lumpen, brutish thing that lives in dark places and dines on people and livestock as they pass by. These have their origin in North European (mostly Scandinavian) myth and are lesser kin of the giants, similar to ogres. Some are little more than semi-sapient predators, whilst others are bestial but intelligent (and often quite skilled in magic). Sometimes this varies by gender, and sometimes not. Often these trolls keep to dark places because the touch of sunlight turns them to stone - sometimes permanently but sometimes only for the duration. For those less affected by daylight, the underside of bridges is a popular haunt, where they can prey on travellers more or less at will.
The fantasy troll is a spin-off of the primal Scandinavian kind - often it loses the sunlight vulnerability and instead gains the power of regeneration. Fortunately these trolls are rarely, if ever, skilled in magic or they would be impossible to get rid of.
Another, more divergent fantasy troll (mostly Mr Pratchett's) is permanently stoney - a being of living stone with a completely different biology to most beings. Under most circumstances these trolls fit the "stupid" aspect of traditional trolldom fairly well, but are otherwise not much different to any other society.
Somewhat unhelpfully the Scandinavian "troll" also includes some very divergent types indeed. Perhaps in the same way Southern European myth tends to blur the boundary between hags and fairies, or ogres and fairies, so trolls can also be blended into the huldra - the wild spirit folk of Scandinavia who are, basically, the fairies of the North. On many occasions a Scandinavian myth will describe as a troll something which sounds a lot like a fairy in English.
Occasionally these sort of trolls (and sometimes the less human type as well) would cross-breed with humans: the results could vary, and might pop up after generations: one legend tells of a pair of twin girls, one a normal, beautiful human woman and one, essentially, a she-troll with formidable magical powers.
Trolls also appear on the Internet. There too they are not always easy to identify1, dwell in dark places beyond the reach of daylight2 and prey on passers-by3. They also frequently possess the power of regeneration4
The Maori maero is somewhere between troll and ogre, perhaps tending towards the troll in that it was said to remain alive when chopped into pieces and be capable of self re-assembly thereafter.
Game and Story Use
- Language difficulties are great for overconfident PCs:
- "Nah, no trolls in here, just some ugly bitch with a cows tai…"
- "What do you mean troll? And how come she turned us into toads? Since when do trolls do magic?"
- But playing it straight also works - as do folklore references: troll with a goat-phobia anyone?
- Troll-blood could explain all sorts of supernatural powers for a character in the right setting, especially the painfully ugly sorceress or the stupid, hairy beserker with supernatural healing powers. The troll-twin might also be an interesting concept - two PCs, one human, one troll as siblings.