Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Ecology of My Goblins or, How to Make Goblins Fun!

An article about how boring goblins are from Kotaku is making the rounds right now and it is clear that the author is missing the opportunity presented by goblins as a monster in an RPG.

They define goblins as stupid automations "produced in a factory" for the sole purpose of a fighting encounter as though they were a video game creature identical to the ones behind them and never leaving their spawn area.

Taunting Goblins by Thorston Erdt AKA Shockowaffel
Goblins have never been brave or even terribly capable fighters, but they have always been sneaky fighters. The author says they aren't "tricksy" or use traps, but even in the old modules goblins would use traps, raise alarms and run for help so they could overrun the party.

The biggest breakdown is in their suggestions on how to make goblins more interesting. One suggestion was an ambush failure because of a lover's quarrel in the goblin ranks. They suggest revealing cultural elements during encounters to make the goblins more sympathetic to the players. This direction is a missed opportunity to introduce the other and make goblins alien to the players.

I'm all for creating villains the party can relate to, but instead of humanizing monsters, why not use humans? Humans can be on the fringes of civilization even more easily than goblins. It makes sense for them to have stockpiles of currency as treasure and they start as relatable so you don't need to build a bridge to them with contrived situations. You can have lawless bandits that are causing trouble for the townsfolk. You can have a resistance group fighting the lawful, yet tyrannical local lord. You can have a chaotic cannibal cult terrorizing the area. You can have camp of refugees from a disaster in another kingdom that has taken to raiding local farms to survive. In all cases the party is dealing with humans who are evil from the point of view of the local population. They can employ whatever solution they want and easily justify it. If they go with combat they still have the problem of what to do with the children. Are the cannibal kids redeemable by society or is it more merciful to kill them? Does the party need to worry about survivors developing into recurring villains? If those are the things you want to deal with in your game, don't go half-way. Use humans.

As for goblins, I use them as scavengers and upcyclers that are close to civilization so they can raid and steal what they need to make things better for their nests. They repurpose all kinds of stuff into ramshackle contraptions that are dangerous and sometimes comical. This use they have for the player characters' society explains why goblins are often the first creature encountered by adventurers as they begin to push into the frontiers.

Goblins by Llaaii
I organize goblins into nests rather than tribes. The hive-like organization explains why so few of them have any ambition for individual achievement (in that they don't take class levels despite being close enough to society to get the resources they need to do so). The rulebooks (in whatever edition) usually have the goblins ruled by a chief with higher hit dice. I give them a queen, whose hit dice come from her immense size. She rules the nest populated almost entirely by her children. The rest include her honour guard consisting of her sisters and her mates. Her bloated form towers above them all as she is at least as tall as a hobgoblin and massive enough to lay the huge eggs.

Goblins in my world are hatched fully grown. They have a certain amount of genetic knowledge passed to them that allows new goblins to start contributing to the nest without wasting resources on developing them. I describe goblin rookeries as something out of one of H. R. Giger's nightmares.

Alien Landscape by H. R. Giger
This lack of childhood and hive organization make goblins different from humans. They are alien in outlook and motivation. They caper with delight as they take pleasure in the sadistic sport of an ambush. They are selfish and cowardly while still putting little value on individual lives. 

They make great opportunists, working with other pack and swarming creatures like wolves, rats and stirges. I love the look on my players' faces when they realize the goblins ambushing them with nets and bows also released stirges to attack.

Goblins need to be sneaky gits to cause the party major grief, but players can also underestimate them because of that. My favourite goblin trap was a shabby wooden construction in the outer entrance to the nest. The party could hear the rats squeaking and scratching in the wooden walls and ceiling but thought nothing of it. Their low opinion of the goblins also caused them to ignore the unstable construction. That made it a surprise when stepping in the wrong place caused the ceiling to fall in and drop a swarm of rats on top of them. The noise brought the guards who raise the alarm and took pot shots at the party while they scrambled and fought their way out of the wreckage. They decided to retreat and come back with a plan.

If you are wondering about hobgoblins, I run them as larger, more martial versions of their smaller cousins and their queens are the size of an ogre! They are organized as warrior cooperatives that value the damage they can do as a group to expand the holdings of the nest. Combat is not a forgone conclusion though. I had a party played by kids find a back door into a hobgoblin nest, kill the queen and then bluff some other hobgoblins into believing they had bought some of the prisoners so they could get directions to where they were held. (B2 Keep on the Borderlands is the gift that keeps on giving!) 

Goblins, like everything else in D&D, are an opportunity to spin your game into something your group will love to play in. Monsters are a place to build your world into something fantastic and different. The darkness surrounding the light of civilization can define the world as much as points of light found in the towns and cities. A great example of that brand of storytelling in the 5e D&D Monster Manual is the aboleth. Although the best example of world building through monsters I know of is the system neutral monster book Fire on the Velvet Horizon. All monsters allow you to double down on the strange and wondrous elements of your fantasy world. Don't skip the goblins because of their low hit die!

What it comes down to is there are as many ways to use goblins as their are DMs. There is no wrong way. If you are happy with goblins as a twisted mockery of humanity that needs to be cut down like the vermin they are in the search for gold and XP, great! If you want them to have a complex society with speech patterns that confuse and confound your players during negotiations and interrogations, great! If you want to give my spin on the goblin a whirl, great! Goblin encounters are what you make of them as a group. Enjoy it!