the ecology of the goblin

August 14th, 2012 by paul

Wizards has an article where they talk about how they differentiate the goblinoid races - the goblin, hobgoblin, and bugbear. I think those creatures are actually reasonably well differentiated, compared to some humanoid races. You know what races really need differentiation? Goblins and kobolds. They both fill the same role:

  • They're weak, and go down in one hit.
  • They prefer ranged combat to front-line combat.
  • If you catch one, it will probably snivel and beg.
  • They like traps. If the monsters are deadly, it's because they have death traps in their lair.
  • They hate light and like sneaking around in the darkness.
  • They are sometimes used as cannon fodder by powerful creatures.
  • First level characters kill them by the dozen.

    Now, how are goblins and kobolds different?

  • They have slightly different appearances.
  • I guess kobolds like dragons?

    I decided that, in my game, I needed to add some flavor to make goblins and kobolds distinct from each other. I started with the goblin. Here's what I decided to add:

    Goblins are producers.

    Goblins aren't scavengers. If all the other intelligent races disappeared, goblins would like that just fine. In fact, they may be trying to hasten that end. Goblins are sort of like dwarves: left to their own devices, they mine and hoard money. Like dwarves, they make food by some obscure process that may involve rats or mushroom farms.

    Goblins have twisted treasure.

    I like the idea that goblins are just as avid miners and crafters as dwarves. There's fantasy traction for that idea, from Warcraft to Harry Potter. However, it's weird if a level-1 monster has oodles of treasure. So I thought that, maybe, goblin treasure comes with a price.

    More so than the other humanoid races, I decided, goblins are fairy creatures. They are masters of trickery and illusion. 2/3 of the coins and gems in a goblin horde are worthless or dangerous: not actually treasure but poison beetles, shards of glass, rat skulls. The treasure changes when exposed to sunlight. (You can cheat people in midnight transactions with stolen goblin gold.)

    Furthermore, goblins make artistic, but hideous, magic items, mostly weapons. Goblin magic weapons and armor are covered with horrifying but well-rendered details. Every goblin tribe has a handful of warriors armed with +1 magic items. In fact, goblin weapons might be the most common type of magic item in the world.

    Goblin magic weapons are worth far less than other types, though, because goblin magic is powered by pain, sacrifice, and hate. Every +1 item confers on its owner a minor curse. Here are some typical goblin magic items:

    Roll 1d4:

    1) Biting Mace: The goblin champion who fights with this weapon never retreats and never takes prisoners. There's a toothy mouth on the side of this +1 mace, and another one on the handle. If you roll a natural 20 with an attack, it bites your enemy, doing 1d6 automatic damage per round until the enemy escapes. However, if you stop fighting or drop the mace while any foes live (including prisoners), it bites your hand for 1d6 per round until you escape.

    2) Club Foot Truncheon: Goblins are the only creatures who make magic clubs. This one, like most goblin weapons, was made as a cruel joke. Anyone who carries this +1 club walks with a distinctive limp, taking a penalty to speed of 10 feet per turn. The limp is also painful, although this has no game effect.

    3) Corruption Sword: These weapons are often wielded by misshapen, giant goblins with inflated Strength scores. A corruption sword is a short sword +1 with jagged, acid-chewed edges. Every time you score a critical hit, you do 2d12 extra acid damage. However, at the same time, one of your arms or legs becomes grossly oversized and muscular. For each oversized limb, you gain a +1 bonus to Strength and a -1 to Dexterity and Intelligence. If all four of your limbs are affected, you gain one of the forms of insanity from the 1e Dungeon Masters Guide. All symptoms are cured after a Remove Curse or six months without scoring a critical hit with this weapon.

    4) Mocker Shield: The champion who wears this shield can always be located by following the sounds of hideous, hysterical laughter. Whenever this +1 shield's wearer doesn't make an attack during a combat round, a jeering, laughing caricature of the wearer's face appears on the shield on the next round. Instead of attacking the wearer, enemies can attack the caricature. To hit it, they must roll 6 on 1d6. On a hit, the wearer takes double damage from the attack - and the caricature laughs and laughs.

    Goblins have their own leaders.

    Although goblins are occasionally enslaved and made to serve as foot soldiers, that's a role more often taken by kobolds or orcs. Goblin tribes are usually self-governing and have the following leaders:

    Goblin King: The biggest and toughest goblin, the goblin king, is nearly always armed with a magical goblin weapon. He's usually about as tough as a third level fighter.

    Goblin Nobles: The goblin king is usually surrounded by big goblin champions, who are as tough as second level fighters, and often magically armed as well. Alternately, you can use hobgoblins for goblin champions, if your campaign world doesn't have place for a separate goblinoid Roman Empire race.

    The hobgoblins-as-nobles scenario makes goblins into a feudal race, parallel to medieval human civilizations, with a pretty good spread of combat ability to provide increasingly difficult fights as the PCs venture deeper into the goblin lair.

    Goblin Smith: The goblin smith's works in gold, silver, and iron are as detailed and skillful as those of any dwarf, but are horrifyingly ugly. Goblins value the work of their smith. They usually cripple him so he can't leave the tribe.

    Goblin Shaman: As wizard magic requires study and discipline, the magic of the goblin shaman is powered by pain and death. The health and lives of captives and weak goblins are spent to fuel goblin spells. The goblin shaman has illusion spells to disguise traps and to create goblin gold, and enchantment spells that endow a goblin smith's weapons with their cursed magic.

    Goblin Rabble: The rest of the goblin tribe are considered expendable by the goblin nobles - especially those who have been crippled by goblin shaman magic.

    Soon I'll write up the changes I made to kobolds.

  • 16 Responses to “the ecology of the goblin”

    1. James says:

      great article

    2. This is good stuff! I did a slightly-similar “My Goblins Are Different” thing for my most recent D&D campaign. I really like what you’ve done here.

    3. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

      Heh. I’ma steal this. Future characters yet unrolled will curse the name of Sir Roger de Coverly.

    4. paul paul says:

      That’s what I want. Opprobrium!

    5. paul paul says:

      Come to think of it, Opprobrium is a good name for a goblin axe. Whenever you kill someone with the axe, your hands become stained with blood. The blood can only be removed with a Remove Curse.

      The blood might actually stay wet, so that it leaves prints and stains gloves.

    6. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

      Now I wish I’d had a chance to develop my Kobolds more. As Paul has said earlier, MY Kobolds aren’t little dragon dudes, they are minor earth spirits found inside deep mines – Kupfer Teufelen – Copper Devils. There are no kobold ‘pups’ or females; Kobolds are born from human fears made manifest in the primal magical places deep underground… the crack of shifting rock, the slither of gravel when there is no-one in the cave but you, the murmur of not-quite-voices, the shadow that shouldn’t be there. In a world with a high ambient magic field like Discworld, if belief alters reality, then such creatures will inevitably appear.

    7. SAROE says:

      I just did a post with Goblins as a by-product of Wizardry. Somewhat like Michael’s kobolds, they just come into being.

      Haven’t really addressed Kobolds yet. Not sure if they are still vulnerable to the ol’ “Get the ball, Get the ball. Where’s the ball?” tactic.

    8. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

      What’s that?

    9. LS says:

      This is fantastic! I love your details.

      I solved this problem in my own games by modifying Kobolds rather than Goblins. In my games, Kobolds are more of a neutral creature, rather than an evil one. They have no great love for goblinoid races or other monsters, but they’ve often been treated as evil creatures by the humanoid races (especially gnomes) so they’re none to fond of them either.

      I’ve got a handful of posts about Kobolds laying around somewhere.

    10. Jim says:

      Well done. Excellent article. Thanks for sharing!

    11. Jason says:

      These goblins actually sound a lot like kobolds. Traditionally kobolds are the reclusive miners!

    12. [...] I mentioned that I have trouble playing kobolds and goblins differently. Two undifferentiated weak, trap-setting, underground cannon-fodder races is too many, so a while ago, I came up with some new quirks for goblins. [...]

    13. [...] recently read a great article by Paul over at the Blog of Holding about “the ecology of the goblin“. It got me thinking about posting up my own personal view of the Kobolds and I thought I [...]

    14. SteelDraco says:

      Interesting take on the goblin race. I do like the idea that they’re mostly self-determinated, though the race of demons that looks like a goblin (barghests, I think?) might suggest demonic influence somewhere.

      I agree with an above poster – I modified the default role of kobolds more than I did goblins. In my campaign setting, kobolds are the weakest of the draekoth, a race created by the dragons to interact with humanoids. They’re the commoners of the race, meant to be workers and miners (thus their tendency to mine). Unfortunately, they also have a tendency to try and escape. Kobold colonies are thus escaped slaves (or their great-grandchildren).

      Goblins in my campaign are either civilized goblins, which have a role more like the Star Trek Ferengi, or wild goblins, which are mostly pygmy headhunters with flavor like Paizo’s goblins.

    15. [...] other day I stumbled upon a pair of articles titled The Ecology of the Goblin and The Ecology of the Kobold on the Blog of Holding. It reminded me that once upon a time I had [...]

    16. Eduardo says:

      This article is very interesting. I’m trying to collect all the informations about the race of Dwarfs; Goblins and Kobolds are old dwarfs’ enemies! :D

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