Thursday, October 17, 2013

DnD Next: Goblins and Kobolds in Your Game.

This week’s Wandering Monster column is out and James Wyatt is covering two of my favorite little bad guys: Goblins and Kobolds. In particular he’s looking to establish when a Goblin or Kobold should be used by the Dungeon Master in designing their dungeon.

The group over there at the Wizards of the Coast offices were listing off the distinguishing characteristics of each race within the confines of the game:

  • Goblins ambush; kobolds lay traps. (That's a pretty subtle distinction.)
  • Goblins pal around with wolves; kobolds live with rats and drop you into pits with scorpions or centipedes. (Plus they might live near a dragon.)
  • Goblins live in abandoned dungeons or natural caves. Kobolds carve out their own warrens, even if they're living in a dragon's lair. They might even tunnel down under human towns and raid the cellars. (The Little Guys by James Wyatt)
My list of differences between the two races is similar, but with differences.

  • Ambush powerful groups to use their numbers and the environment to their advantage
  • Use swarming techniques when attacking to make it harder from more powerful foes to win.
  • Raise wolves, wargs, and dire wolves for use as mounts, guards, and in a pinch, food.
  • Will eat most anything when hungry.Masters at junking (crafting something from junk and getting it to work just long enough)
  • At constant odds with the Dwarves as the two often vie for the same territory.
  • Constantly expanding their territory as their numbers expand at a rate second only to orcs.
  • Often times nomadic as they exhaust all the resources in one area before moving on (like locust).

  • Sets traps to weaken their opponents before confronting them with an ambush.
  • Master craftsmen, second only to Dwarves in their workmanship.
  • Industrious creatures building the expansions and protections they need rather than using others remnants.
  • Raise giant centipedes, giant weasels, and the like for protection and food.
  • Content to survive off vermin, but hesitant to eat one and another or similar species (lizardmen, dragons, et al)
  • Often living near Dragons for protection.
  • Rarely nomadic unless circumstance demands.
  • Intense hatred for Gnomes.
The biggest difference between our two lists is my view of Kobolds as a proud race and their view of them as vermin. Or as James put it,
“. . . That last point got us thinking about kobolds almost like vermin. What if an innkeeper in town calls up some adventurers and asks them to go down into his cellar and kill not rats, but kobolds? I'm not sure how I feel about the phrase, “I've got a case of kobolds," but thinking about them as cockroaches that scurry into hiding when you turn on the light is sort of intriguing . . .” (The Little Guys by James Wyatt)
I don’t mind the phrase ‘we’re dealing with a bad case of Kobolds,’ but I don’t like using them as another form of vermin that just barely matters in the grand scheme of the game. In second edition the Kobold was a cruel little bastard that vigorously fought against the human and demi-human races for space. In third they were industrious mother fuckers who were just asking for you to fuck with them. While in fourth they became these cowardly little piss ants that worshiped dragon (cause why not).

Why are we going from a race of little bastards that could be a real fucking danger to our players and towards a race that is nothing more than a joke? I do not understand this mindset.

Comic Relief
“. . . Both goblins and kobolds have elements of comedy pretty much inherent to them. It's hard to take too seriously a monster that is so weak, even when they're mobbing you in a dark dungeon. But we talked about how they're different in that respect.

Goblins are sort of darkly amusing. They're used to being bullied around by hobgoblins and bugbears whenever the bigger goblinoids are around. So when these larger creatures are not around, the goblins take on the role of bully themselves. But that means they have to find someone weaker than they are to bully. This leads to an almost Three Stooges-like relationship in any group of goblins as each one tries to prove itself the strongest of a weak group.

That attitude can take a grimmer turn, too. Although hobgoblins might lay siege to a human town or city, goblins will raid an outlying farm. Then they take the unlucky farmer, tie him to a stake out in the field, dress him up like a hobgoblin, and throw apples at him . . .” (The Little Guys by James Wyatt)
I absolutely hate this version of the goblin.

Why make them something so fucking worthless. Hell, we could look at the the Skaven from Games Workshop and see a model for reworking the goblin while still keeping this comical aspect if you're really married to it; or instead of making them a joke we could make them a villain that matters to our games. Make their very presence terrifying to low level characters and threatening to higher level ones. Make them aggressive, smart, and dangers. Make them something that you fear as a Dungeon Master. Make them into the sort of monster they deserve to be, not the joke they've become.

Hell, it's not that hard. 

I've been making goblins the most terrifying thing you can encounter in my games since 2004. All it takes is ten minutes and not giving two damns about what you're supposed to do as a goblin.
". . . Kobolds are deathly serious themselves, but still sort of comic because of their weakness. If they're like cockroaches that hate being seen, maybe some kobolds in any attacking group make it a priority to extinguish the party's light. So you might see a couple of kobolds working together to haul a bucket of water that's almost as big as they are, while the others are mobbing the party. Or, if your sense of humor runs darker, maybe a kobold sets itself on fire while trying to smother a torch.

Maybe it's twisted, but I particularly like the idea that I can use kobolds in such numbers that it doesn't matter if a couple kill themselves or each other in a fight against the adventurers. They're so weak that a few more or less aren't going to tip the balance of the encounter . . ." (The Little Guys by James Wyatt)
We can again look to the Skaven for a way to do this in a meaningful manner. Hell, even the goblins in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are more worthwhile than this.

Having these creatures act like this makes me wonder why they should even be in my game!

Goblins and Wolves
". . . Goblins ride wolves. But if goblins are such pathetic creatures, it seems like their mounts are more fearsome than they are. But maybe they're not—maybe they're domesticated wolves (really dogs) that are just as much bullied and mistreated as the goblins themselves are. Skinny, mangy, and whining, just like the goblins . . ." (The Little Guys by James Wyatt)
You know, last week (you can read more at DnD Next: You Got Science in My Fantasy) we're looking at Tolkien as the central figure to our fantasy world view and this week we're completely ignoring him to make the point that Goblins are useless fodder for leveling. It's just so very frustrating to look at a creature that should be worth fighting and constantly seeing it as no more important to our game that getting wolf pelts are to World of Warcraft. 

We're playing Dungeons and Dragons over here, not fucking WoW.


  1. Before 3E, kobolds and goblins were about as strong as the PCs. Especially when encountered in large groups, they were never a joke. I remember PCs being killed in encounters with a single goblin. Making them useless and comical only detracts from the game.

    1. Even in Third Edition they were still dangerous. It was Fourth that really made them a joke as they were so often minions with 1 hp.


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