Reimagining the Goblin

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Let's face it, other than the Kobold the Goblin is the low man on the totem pole.  You need a humanoid for your low level party to kick around?  Goblins fit your need perfectly.  They aren't all that dangerous, none of their abilities will frighten even a first level party.  So unless you've plan on throwing a small army of Goblins at the party, don't expect them to put up much of a fight. 

To my mind this is really kind of sad.  Goblins are a central monster in a lot of folklore, and though interpretations vary widely in those tales Goblins are usually portrayed as both scary and possessing supernatural powers.  The Goblin in D&D and other fantasy RPGs get's neither of those characteristics.  In fact they are more akin to cattle being brought to slaughter than their supernatural predecessors.  As I said, this is a damn shame.  I think it is time we got back to basics and made the Goblin a monster again and not some weakling to be kicked around with ease.

Scared?  I thought not.
Things didn't start off well for the Goblin.  In White Box D&D they warranted little more description than that they were little monsters.   Monsters evokes feelings of fear, but by describing them as little it takes away a portion of that fear and makes them seem less formidable (though obviously the fact that something is small doesn't mean it isn't dangerous).  

Later works including the Orcs of Thar and the AD&D Complete Book of Humanoids gave the option to have the Goblin as a playable race.  This kind of familiarity makes it even less likely that an adventuring party would view a small group of Goblins as a real threat, and increases the likelihood that Goblins would be looked at as just another race of people, much the way they are presented in World of Warcraft.   This isn't what we are trying to accomplish here.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.  We want to make the Goblins monstrous, to dehumanize them to a point where one wouldn't stop to chat with a Goblin, they would either run like hell or try to kill it before it killed them.

We get no help in our quest from second edition.  Hell they also present an option to play a Goblin as a PC in the Player's Option: Skills & Powers book.  Third edition humanizes Goblins even more and makes them an even less formidable threat to a party, and 4e goes even further.

So it seems we will get no help from D&D on this.  It looks like we are on our own.  In my mind that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  I think monsters are one of the things that GMs are least likely to put some of themselves into.  They buy the Monster Manual and pick monster out of the book and plop them right into their games as is.  Despite coming up with their own campaign setting, their own adventures, and their own NPCs, GMs will just use generic monsters time after time.  I think this is a habit we as Gamemasters need to break.  We put too much of ourselves games to shortchange them by using the same old creatures time after time.

Silly tinkerer Goblins?  No thanks.
Just to give an example of the same old monsters getting stale let me tell you a story about my own gaming group.  For years and years we played only 3rd edition D&D, whoever ran the game used only monsters from the Monster Manual (Usually just the first one and not the four ridiculous ones that came after) and eventually everyone became very familiar with all of the "usual suspects" like Goblins.  One of our members, Bear, seemed to know the MM backward and forward and would point certainly facts about the monsters that would drive other members of the group (especially The Professor) out of their minds.  He wasn't doing it on purpose; for him it was just a reflex action.  He had been fighting the same monsters so long that he knew them inside out.

When we switched the new edition of Hackmaster it was like hitting the reset button.  Goblin stats were different and no one was all that familiar with them, but they still seemed to be Goblins in most of the same respects.  They were still the same cowardly miniature creatures that we had seen in D&D, though the insane damage dice in conjunction with the exploding dice (called penetration dice) that Hackmaster uses meant that they were far more dangerous.  That's half way there, but the Goblins still acted much as regular humans do, not in a kind of monstrous way divorced from human understanding.  So even Hackmaster isn't going to get us where we need to be, it's time to branch out on our own and create a whole new breed of Goblin.

The 1st Ed. Goblin
Let's recap our goals for this little project:

  1. Unfamiliar - Familiarity doesn't only breed contempt, it breeds comfort and that leads to a lack of fear which is something we would like the party to feel.  Goblins are monsters and monsters should be scary.
  2. Dehumanized - Goblins that act like humans basically are human and their differences are more or less cosmetic.  I have no interest in rehashing the moral dilemmas that come with basically seeking genocide against a race because their skin is different.  Those kinds of ideas have been done to death, see  Paladin and the Orc babies for details.  These Goblins should be treated as less than human because they are less than human, no moral dilemmas about it. 
  3. Dangerous - I'm aiming to make a Goblin the equal of a Dragon, but I want them to pose a danger to the party.  As these Goblins are being made with Hackmaster in mind, this shouldn't be too difficult.  The penetration dice make you wince when you get hit with even the lowly dagger (2d4p damage).
  4. Supernatural - These are monsters after all, so I want their origins to be supernatural.  Again, I'm looking for them to be outside of the natural world and apart from humanity.  
  5. Powers - In Folklore Goblins have powers.  In D&D the Goblin's most effective power and running  away screaming (sometimes called the French power).  Ironically, even at this Goblins are hopeless as their short legs usually mean they get caught and butchered anyway.   So the aim here is to give them some powers beyond the mortal man that make them more dangerous, versatile, and unpredictable than the run of the mill RPG Goblin.  
  6. Balanced -While balance isn't our primary objective (See Game Balance & the Conformist Utopia) it is something to be considered.  We want our party to be challenged by Goblins not wiped off the face of the earth.  They should be dangerous, but not too dangerous.

A little more mean looking, but still not quite it
With our objectives clear we are ready to proceed with our Re-imagining of the Goblin.  First we should considered the Goblins origins.  The major religion of the campaign I want to use this Goblin in his a strong religious element to it that is a fusion of several real world religions including Judeo-Christian elements such as demonology.  I think setting the Goblins roots somewhere in that Demonology could be the beginnings of a great Goblin.

How about this?  ...The very first Goblins were unbaptized children of early man who were led into temptation by Demons.  They were lured away from their families to caverns which led deep under the earth.  Once there the Demons tore out their unprotected souls and gave their bodies over to lesser demonic entities for possession.  The Goblins then were left on their own to multiply by abducting other children in the dead of night and carrying them off to lairs beneath the earth where they practice their dark ritual and create more of their kin. 

I like it.  It really fits the campaign setting, piggybacks off of real world folklore, and fulfills goal #2 to dehumanize the Goblins.  Now they aren't human or any other race of being they are the bodies of children that have been taken over by Demons.

Though their bodies were originally human they are now warped and deformed past recognition.  Their skin has become a sickly gray/green color, their eyes a solid dark gray near black.  They have razor shape teeth much like the way Demons are depicted in Renaissance art and they have elongated claw like hands with razor sharp talons on the end.  These natural weapons help to make the Goblins dangerous and thus fulfill #3.  The fact that they don't use forged weapons also helps with #2 as people would wonder where they got weapons if all Goblins were seen to carry them around.  Bite and Claw attacks will work well and I think damage somewhere between a dagger (2d4p) and a short sword (2d6p) will work perfectly.

We have already made the Goblins Supernatural (#4) by making their origins tied with Demons.  We can go further, and fulfill #5 (Powers) by giving the Goblins some supernatural abilities.  First to make them creepier I think I'll give them the ability to sound like the innocent children they were made from.  So an unsuspecting party might hear children crying or calling our for help only to find they they have been set up by Goblins.  Secondly, since I don't think that leaving dead Goblin bodies lying around is conducive to goal #1 (Unfamiliar) we will have their bodies melt into a viscus liquid after they die.  The liquid will seep back into the ground returning from whence the Goblin came.  Traces of the liquid might be left on the weapons used to slay the Goblins and I think the liquid should be slightly corrosive which could lead to weapon damage.  Goblin Ichor will be a potentially powerful component for spells and potions, making saving some before it seeps into the ground a valuable, if perhaps hazardous, venture. Finally, as these Goblins are creatures of darkness they would never willingly enter light of any kind.  A party holding a light source is sure to hold Goblins at bay (#6  - Balance) but Goblins have the ability to dampen and even completely suppress smaller lights.  For example, a party carrying a torch encounters three Goblins.  Kept at bay, the Goblins remain on the outer fringes of the torch light but slowly the torch light dims until it is the light of a candle.  After a few moments four more Goblins join the original three and the torch goes out completely.  Now the party is in trouble.  Alternately if a Mage is in the group and is using his magic to create light he may find the power of his spell fading as the group encounters Goblins.  The more join the fray the more difficult it is for him to keep his spell shedding light (In game terms he needs to keep pumping spell points into the light spell to keep it active).  Clerics might have to win constant turn checks to their any magical light they are producing shedding light.  The party might just find itself in a precarious position, fighting in the darkness against creatures born of darkness, all because of a simple supernatural ability. 

Scared now?  You better be!
Already we have worked on the six goals stated above and have a cool, unique Goblin who poses a significant threat to the party and who has a cool origin story steeped in campaign lore.  The Goblin is a classic and iconic creature, but it can be versatile as well.  There is nothing wrong with the standard Goblin if that is what you like and fits in your game, but if it doesn't it only takes a little work and consideration of the six above points for you to have a custom Goblin with an air of mystery and danger to challenge your players and shatter their expectations when they come across one.  

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 07, 2011 at Thursday, April 07, 2011 and is filed under , , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


I like what you've done here. I like it a lot.

Couple of thoughts you should probably consider:

(though the answers might differ between GMs and game styles - which fits your "creatures are templates for us to mold" concept)

1. If a party manages to capture a goblin and Exorcise the demonic presence, what happens? Is it possible to redeem a goblin?

2. I'd add the ability for lone goblins to mimic children completely - both in sound and looks. For balance purposes, this ability would break under strong light, the presence of other goblins, any dispels, or even very close inspection.

Otherwise, I really like the concept of taking goblins back to their roots.

April 7, 2011 at 12:59 PM

Kevin - I really like the idea of a powerful cleric exercising a Goblin, but as the Demon has already torn the child's soul from the body the best the party could hope for would be to return the now untainted body to the grieving family for a proper burial. Not an ideal solution, but one that a good aligned party might risk a great deal to accomplish.

April 7, 2011 at 1:36 PM

I see a campaign where the "terrible and horrible truth of the evils of goblins" is finally realized.

Soon a quest into the very abyss is considered. The goal: to discover just where (and why) the souls of the children are held... can they be released?

April 7, 2011 at 1:57 PM

I love the idea of the players delving into the mysterious past of the Goblins. I'm sure not many know their true demonic origins.

An epic quest to find the souls of all those the Goblins have stolen away sound both epic and awesome.

April 7, 2011 at 2:15 PM

So the next question might be: How does the reimagined goblin affect the hobgoblin?

April 8, 2011 at 9:46 PM

I wrote 4e statblocks directly based on your ides, adding a disease and a goblin shaman to the mix!
Here they are!

May 9, 2011 at 7:34 PM

Those are great RAF, thanks for sharing

May 10, 2011 at 12:23 AM

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