This is part of a series exploring some advice on how to use certain monsters in your games–a resource for flavor and occasional combat tips.
Where are they?
I like to think of goblins as being the fantasy equivalent (where possible) of the old slum and street gangs of England and the United States in the late 1700’s and 1800’s. So, I try to have them in numbers, force, and establishment. They’re not “everywhere”, they really only pop up in places overrun by disease, mortality, poverty (in the extreme), prostitution, and low-resources.
Their tribal structure keeps them from having true nations (like the hobgoblins) and is in a constant state of flux. It should feel like, when you run into a goblin band, that you’ve found yourself in a very ugly place where only the very hard choose to live–because nobody else will have them. If a city, it should be the truest slums of the city. Broken temples, half-burned buildings, signs of lots of violence, dead bodies in the gutter, the sort of place where if you round-up a dozen random people they might have two vicious-looking knives and one copper between them all. Your average thief wouldn’t think of going to rob goblins, because gobs don’t have anything and are generally found in places that aren’t inviting or comfortable at all. If in the wilderness, it’s a clannish atmosphere of bare, rocky earth where things don’t grow well and overgrown trees and briars that aren’t good for much more than turning into things to kill or maim outsiders with.
I haven’t had too many parties run into goblins for that reason. They just don’t spend much time in the waste of the world–urban or otherwise. When I have had campaigns that do, I like to make sure goblin-areas feel like truly crappy places–not just a normal fantasy place that happens to have gobs in it. If it’s a cavern? It’s a crappy cavern. Ceilings too low and irregular, prone to cave-ins, slimy overgrowth and mold, rank water and (for good effect) excrement and waste in discreet places (to add some disgust). Why would they live there? Because nobody wants to live there. If in a city, then imagine the worst and foulest of “Gangs of New York”. Death is cheap. Guards don’t go near it–except for the corrupt who manage to put some scare and respect into one or two bands of gobs. Its a place one should expect to be shaken down in.
Mix prison gangs and the highly discriminated against street gangs of immigrants and foreigners of old. Gobs have colors, codes, respect strength and fear, follow whoever gets them paid, fed, and keeps their territory. Any (virtually) creature could lead a goblin band if they’re willing to put up with the low intrigue and deceptions. Gobs turn on each other constantly and for every petty reason from money to food to sex to a favored place to sleep or survival. Any given gob has at least three fellows they dream of stabbing in the back at any given time. It makes them especially dangerous. Where a hobgoblin will stand down or flee (I have them do these constantly, because they’re soldiers and lawful and hardly stupid) when appropriate, goblins are as likely to murder their buddy after dropping a party member because of some old imagined slight.
There is usually a leader, they should be powerful enough to take on half the band by themselves. If you want a goblin band of 20, make sure the leader can take on 10 of them in a 50/50 contest at once. This, as reliable pattern, breeds expectation in the PC’s and players that if they see a small band, their leader is doubtless not too strong, but if they see a small town of goblins they should assume whoever can keep THAT riot from happening can probably put the PC’s on their ass as well.
Goblins should be an impregnable collection of bands that ally up and fight each other constantly. The Black Hammers should be allies with the Skulkers one day and then betray them to the Howling-Night-Killers the next. The constant churn of power between bands should make PC’s wary to negotiate or deal with them. Sure, they cut a deal with the old bugbear to do some dirty works, but by the time they come back, his right-hand-man has killed him in his sleep and taken his place and recognizes no deal. It isn’t evil, it’s just chaos.
Having gobs just be “small monsters” robs the game of something potentially valuable–worry, fear, and/or simple frustration. Gobs should produce the constant moral quandary of “what the hell should I do about them?” When the party stumbles onto them and fights, half the band is likely to bend a knee and pledge service to the badass that killed the other half (because, for the gobs, “f*** those guys anyway, never liked them, was going to kill them myself eventually”). Zone of truth? Absolutely, they’re sincere. They want to follow and share in some riches. But two nights later, for almost no reason, some will try to murder you in your sleep. Just will. Why? Because greed or gain or because in the last fight they saw, you didn’t do much of anything and the other party member really did all the ass kicking and they think you’re done and want to follow him and killing you is a good idea.
Evil, sure. But chaotic and unpredictable. It’s often easier to just slaughter them all and not try to deal with or negotiate with or try to “civilize” or profit from them. But then, that’s a pretty evil thing to do, too.
So, for combats, I like to play up that they’re not stupid. They’re sneaky and vicious and bad, but not dumb. I like to have several stay for range, several rush in for melee, and several try to actively bring a PC down like a mob of angry ants. Goblins are “weak” until you leverage their numbers and an intelligent take on how they’d fight.
Step 01 – Don’t be seen, period. Use that advantage in stealth. They will ambush first. Pick the weakest party member (weakest looking anyway) and have them lie in wait for them to come in range. Then, rush in with 2/3rds of the band. Their goal, one at a time and over and over should be to put the big f***er on the ground. Shove him down, tackle him down, grapple him if need be. Band of 10? 7 “don’t end up on the ground, prone” rolls. That should terrify any PC. Prone sucks. For good measure, have one help another to grapple and drop movement to 0. Representative of a total “pile on”. The remaining, if any still have actions remaining, should start brutally stabbing or clubbing the crap out of the downed PC. Keep hitting the big bastard until he stops moving. If the other party members rush in, have the gobs grab something valuable looking (tear off the cloak, pull off a boot, take the sword or staff, money pouch, etc.) and make off in different directions. The other three gobs shooting the whole time.
Goblins aren’t there, most of the time, to kill–they’re there to survive and plunder. They’re not farmers. This is how they live.
In one of my games, the PC’s came to absolutely hate (hate) goblins. They weren’t too dangerous, they weren’t risky encounters… but they were guaranteed to lose horses or goods off the wagon or a weapon here or there or something valuable and once that gob dashed for cover and hides it’s a pain in the ass to get it back. It only invites more ambushes.
For good measure, should the fight be going in the gobs favor, I have them outright murder the crap out of whoever they took down. Start of next gob turn after someone goes to 0? There’s a 1 in 4 change (toss a 1d4 and on a “1”) that they just keep stabbing and clubbing until the bastard is good and pulpy bits. Sometimes, it’s the only way to be sure. This makes them a non-trivial encounter. Leave it to animals or other monsters to consider the relative merits of leaving the “dead” alone and fighting the rest of the fight. Gobs stand a good chance of just continuing their brutal display until you’re truly gone and dead. If they get you on the ground, on your back, grappled and piled on, you stand a good chance (at low levels) of being viciously murdered.
It should make PC’s wary as hell. And it should mean the proper way for low-level PC’s to handle gob combat is to treat it a bit realistically. Sure, so often in D&D its “You’re prone and grappled” and then “Well, I attack on my turn” rather than “I scramble to get the hell away and blow inspiration dice to shrug them off” in fear. But it SHOULD be that way sometimes. This method of combat helps create that moment, where they chose to swing from their back thinking the consequences aren’t that bad and then end up having their head caved in by three of them after hitting 0.
For added worth, in higher encounters with a bugbear or larger monster and gobs littered about in the combat, this should be especially terrifying as the other party members have a high likelihood of being “occupied”.
For “night watch” encounters, I like to play up their territorial nature. They find the PC’s while they sleep and while half of them call out challenges and prepare for a “war” over the right to be there with ceremony and standard and insults hurled and their leader (or leaders if more than one band) grouped up to issue threats… the other half are in the weeds and bushes ready to do some murder on the stragglers in the back.
Helpful, normal, a little rough and uncultured, bit dirty and unconcerned about spoiling food in the corner. But, flip a switch or give them a reason and its a wolf-whistle and twenty of the bastards showing up out of the shadows to kill or rob you and make off for parts unknown. They hardly know how to lie, but their minds change constantly. They probably don’t hate you, because they don’t know you, they hate their own because that’s how they are.
1 out of 5 goblin interactions should be thin attempts to simply rob the party. Weak as water, almost comical con jobs involving easily discerned lies. 3 out of 5 should be straight up ambushes. 1 out of 5 should be complicated traps to lure the unwary party into a situation where there are definitely going to lose things: i maybe, but items for sure.
I made a variant goblin where their damage was lesser and used only a close knife, but on a successful hit they got to “cut free” or grab anything not hard-fastened to the character (armor, shields that are equipped) or held by them (weapons, spellbooks, etc.). This meant potions and coin purses and belts and hats and whatnot. Lots of choices. Ambush, attack, grab, run in a dozen directions. It made the party start prepping different spells and securing their items explicitly (my coin purse is IN MY armor and whatnot) and threatening random goblins on the street… “Hey, hey… you stay where I can see you, alright?”
Really, anything that you do with them to make them incidental, very difficult to understand or identify with for long, and unreliable monsters will give them a role in your game past the first few levels. A level one party sees gobs as a threat. But, twisting them this sort of way, they become NPCs to interact with and a formidable (even if not a lethal one) threat far longer.