Thursday, January 12, 2017

Goblins, or Why Use Humanoids

(Note: this post contains spoilers for my Sunday morning game.)

The first time I ever played D&D, I took a piece of graph paper, sketched some rooms on it, and stuck a few goblins in them. Two players went through them, beat the goblins, got the treasure and some XP. I've enjoyed goblins ever since.

I feel like there's a particular prejudice against using default humanoids in OSR games. I think that two points from Bryce Lynch's review standards sum up the reasons why.
  • Non-standard monsters.
    • The party should not know what to expect. What are it’s attacks and weaknesses? Mystery, wonder, and fear!
  • Go light on the humanoids, or even replace them with normal bandits, etc.
    • If all it’s going to do is swing a sword and die then it can be a human. People can do can pretty disgusting stuff.
I've actually tried using this approach in my games for a while, and switched between humans and odd monster races (beastmen, Selenites and others) for my main monsters. But I keep going back to goblins. Why? Well, frankly I don't think a gang of bandits is necessarily a better match than a horde of goblins, and having the option to use either makes the game a bit richer. Sure, the bandits might eventually say "Stand and deliver," but I feel like they're possibly more of a cliché in my game than goblins are.

(As an aside, I'm not picking on Bryce; I like his reviews and I think his standards are good, I just find them a useful statement of an attitude I see in a lot of places.)

When it comes to humanoids, I think the key is to focus on a single type of monster. In my Sunday AM game, there is an influx of goblins in the Fazren Hills, so they'll be a piece of the low-level games. I don't intend for the goblins to act as a step on the cursus honorum before the PCs get to orcs and hobgoblins etc, but rather to use them as one of several factions in a larger sandbox.

For the goblins in the Fazren Hills, what the PCs will find out as the game goes on is that the goblins who are now pushing into human territories have been exiled from the Fae realm. Many of these goblins have links to that realm, and one of the things I need to work up is a chart of minor effects of this exposure – minor illusions, short-range teleportation, conjuring minor items, strange features, and so on.

I particularly want to play with this idea because I love the notion that goblins are really bogeymen, in the old fairy-tale sense. There was an element of this in the bugbear, but there's a reason that we talk about ghosts and goblins, and bugbears was a vocabulary word until Gygax decided to make each thesaurus entry into a monster.

I think a sandbox game needs strong factions, and ruling out humanoids cuts off a whole category right off the bat. The problem with most humanoids in D&D is that they're just an entry in the monster zoo, the ordered thesaurus that the PCs have to kill to get the treasure. I'd say that a good faction in an adventure or sandbox campaign has the following:
  1. A strong hook
  2. A tangible goal in the game
  3. Something that distinguishes them from other factions
Overusing humanoids and overusing humans alike make #3 more difficult. My feeling is that one of any given type of monster makes it easier to do #3 both in terms of the factions, and in terms of making it stand out. If everything is special and different, then it all goes into a kind of sameness. Taking an established monster and tweaking it is a good way to make them stand out but still keep the game familiar and grounded.

At the end of the day, I just like goblins. But I do think they can fit into creative old school play in a way that I don't think is properly acknowledged.


  1. You do a good job of explaining why Goblins are cool. I use humanoids all the time for a variety of reasons, but undeniably one reason is because it's trendy to be rude about having Goblins in adventures, and the very fact that people are telling me *not* to do it encourages me to do it!

  2. Making goblins a bit different or more interesting is cool. But I would add this consideration for even "standard" goblins: Strange is good, but if EVERYTHING is strange, then the strange loses some of its strangeness, if that make sense. Or strangeness itself then becomes tiresome. I suppose it's similar to why you should put empty rooms into your dungeon. Sometimes an empty room is just an empty room and a goblin is just a goblin. That's a feature not a bug, at least if your dungeon or world is interesting enough in sum.

    1. "If everything is special and different, then it all goes into a kind of sameness." It's almost as if I thought of the same thing. :)

    2. Sorry. I'm currently multi-tasking. The advantage of sometimes not reading something as closely as it deserves is that I can pretend to have original thoughts. :)

  3. I like the idea that you are weaving backstory into tangible actions and events the characters can witness. Let them hear some monologue from a sage when they start questioning why these goblins are blinking around or whatever they end up doing--once they are interested in your monsters. In a five to ten minute combat, you can do more for your world than ten pages in a campaign synopsis.

  4. Wayne---You'd like what Moldvay did with Goblins in his CH1 The Morandir Company adventure. It's too much to transcribe for you, but shoot me an email reminder and I'll bring copies of the monsters home when I'm in NJ next (or, will you be at GaryCon this year?).



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