I mean, er… 6 Horrifying ways to improve goblin fights!
Look, give me a break. I don’t have anything spooky this week. Bear with me this month and I promise your ol’ buddy Jim will have something sufficiently macabre for you next time.
That being said: Goblin Fights! In case you missed it, Cecilia D’Anastasio with Kotaku wrote a insightful article this past week calling out one of the staples of the D&D game: the goblin fight. It immediately put my back up, because I love goblin fights.
Then I read the article, and here’s the thing: she’s 100% right. If I’d played in the goblin fights she has (and I have, just not necessarily with goblins; usually orcs) I’d hate them too. I felt really bad for her that this has been her experience with goblins. For me though, goblin fights have always been a whirlwind of entertaining chaos, where you never know what’s going to happen. The ‘Chance’ space of D&D, if you like.
So how have I seen people spice up the goblin fight to keep it from getting stale? So glad you asked. (Even if you didn’t ask, I’m going to tell you anyway.)
Goblins really only do two things well: suck and die. So you might as well capitalize on their strengths! A canny goblin chief will find it easy to get his warriors to carry something that will harm the enemy if they happen to get killed. After all, the goblins know they aren’t likely to survive more than a single hit, so it’s not like they’re putting themselves in that much more danger, and there’s nothing to assuage the insult of dying like causing some injury on your way out.
Explodey vests are always fun (a vial or two of strategically placed alchemists fire works wonders). The goblin takes full damage, of course, but feel free to give the same damage with the dice stepped down a tier (d6 to d4 for example) to the bastard that hit him.
Right on the same page are primitive biological weapons. Puffball mushrooms, yellow mold, or any other inhaled poison can easily be put into the same kind of vest (or worn on the head, say, under a bonnet of some type—adventurers love golf swinging goblins). A simple wet rag across the face is usually enough to prevent the gobs from inhaling their own weaponry, but most adventurers won’t be expecting it.
Sticky shirts are another play on the same theme. Goblins covered in mimic glue, or giant slug mucus, can make themselves quite a nuisance! Anyone who strikes such a goblin should make a strength check or find their weapon stuck fast to the goblin. (A penalty of -2 to -4 per goblin is probably appropriate.)
2) It’s A Trap!
It’s a misconception that goblins are stupid. In reality, they’re as smart as people (no, seriously, go check their stats). I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a party nearly wiped out because the goblins they thought they were ambushing were actually ambushing them! Lure them in with a couple of chattering goblins, and while the PCs are distracted with their own murderous greed, spring the jump on them.
Many goblin fights happen inside or underground. If the goblins are prepared for the attack, it’s only a matter of giving the right signal to plunge the area into total darkness. Most adventurers aren’t carrying their own light sources when they’re sneaking up on someone (makes sneaking somewhat difficult), so it’s easy to drop a couple weighted curtains in a passageway, douse any fire the gobs may have going, and with a single round of actions, the fight is now taking place in total darkness.
Goblins are also little bitty guys. What that translates to in almost every version of the rules is a bonus to hiding. Goblins can fit into tiny cracks and crevices, and if they’re setting up an ambush can always take the time to take 20 on camouflaging themselves. When the barbarian charges in to slaughter the two goblin guards he thinks are unaware of his presence, nothing ruins his day like half a dozen attacks of opportunity from the goblins who were hiding in concealed positions along the way.
Like all races, goblins have their champions. Fortunately, most adventurers are racists who assume every goblin is weak, cowardly, and stupid, so it’s pretty easy to trick them into getting too close. A goblin with a few levels of barbarian, fighter, ranger, or rogue can prove to be a nasty surprise for an overly cocky adventurer.
3) No, It’s REALLY A Trap!
Goblins aren’t stupid, but they are desperate. It’s the fact that their evil leaders put the dumbest and most useless members of their tribe on the front lines that leads adventurers to think goblins as a species are basically just scaly rats. The same selfish leadership means that the majority of the race are poor, hungry, and willing to do anything to improve their lot in life.
Fortunately, desperation can breed some diabolical ingenuity. Goblins have no problems evening the odds with a few homemade traps, the more low-tech and sadistic, the better.
A iron bar, or a series of them, makes another simple trap. Set four to five feet off the floor, an iron bar makes no difference to the goblins, who can slip right under it with no trouble (goblins topping out around 3’8”), but that same set of bars is a huge obstacle to adventurers, slowing their movement to a crawl, hampering their attacks, and forcing them to fight the goblins in an environment that favors the little guy. The most destitute goblins can even use wooden poles in a pinch. Of course, the most sadistic goblins coat the horizontal poles in grease, glue, or poison, to further torment their attackers.
One of the best options is the humble pit trap. Set in a dungeon or along a little used road, a 10-15’ pit trap can often take several key members of the party out of a fight. If the whole mob focuses their attacks on the adventurers still above ground, they can easily mop up any of the luckless sods who fell into the hole.
Snake boards are a favorite trap for many smaller species. The idea is simple: take a rattlesnake, nail its tail to a board too heavy for it to move, then put the snake wherever you want. (In a shallow pool of water, a ditch, or some foliage are favorites.)
4) Say Hello To My Little Friend!
Paladin mounts, familiars, druid companions: adventurers have a smorgasbord of domesticated animals as their partners in murderhobodom, so there’s no reason goblins shouldn’t get themselves a little piece of the same pie. Their relationship with worgs might be well documented, but that’s far from the only outside assistance they can get.
Mimics and goblins make great friends. Since a large goblin tribe always has enough unlucky goblins to throw to the monster if it gets hungry, the mimic doesn’t mind sticking around to prey on the tribe’s enemies. (Get it…sticking around?) They can even help supply glue for the goblins, if they’re well compensated enough.
Goblins work way better at range than the do in melee, but adventurers like to confound that by getting up in the goblins faces. One way to counteract that is to give them something else to worry about. Some goblin raiders like to huck a sack full of scorpions, snakes, or rabid animals into a camp before they start opening fire. Larger animals can be stampeded to a similar effect. Even the adventurer’s own horses can be scattered, allowing the goblins to split their focus. If the adventurers try to rally the horses, the goblins circle around and loot the camp; if they fight the goblins, the gobs retreat while a couple of them bring down a tasty horse in the darkness.
Dummy treasure is a great way to get rid of or hamstring adventurers, and creepy crawlies can help with that. A chest full of gold with a poisonous viper sitting on top has killed many a thief. A locked door that needs to be battered down is a nuisance, but when a wasp nest has been built up on the other side, it becomes much more gruesome (and goblins employing such a trick will undoubtedly be wearing thick clothes to protect from stings). Some enterprising goblins have been known to collect discarded potion bottles and fill them with all kinds of foulness, usually sewage or offal but sometimes including parasites such as leeches or huge intestinal worms.
5) Turn It To 11
Most humanoids act out of a sense of reasonable caution and an understanding of consequence. Most goblins do not. With the exception of the very few wealthy, powerful goblins, most members of the species are broke, starving, and just desperate enough to do anything to alleviate the situation. This can lead to goblins doing some truly insane things to try and get one over on the bigger races.
Fires are easy to start. Torch a village, and loot the burning homes while everyone is evacuating? Why not! To the goblin, a perfectly rational plan. After all, you’ll all be dead soon anyway if you don’t eat or pay a tribute to whatever drow, minotaur, or lich thinks you’re his minions, so you might as well go for it.
Goblins like to live in dungeons, which is where all the good magic is, as all adventurers well know. Sometimes a goblin band is lucky enough to find a big ticket item, and just reckless enough to use it. The one guy who uncorks the iron bottle or uses the summoning scroll that’s too high for him might not survive (but he’ll be damn popular if he does!), but it’s sure to give the adventurers something else to think about while the goblins are chopping at their kneecaps.
Very, very patient goblins might learn to follow behind adventurers instead of attacking them. With as many corpses as they leave in their wake, such goblins can eat like kings while they track their intended prey. They might get seen, true, but if they do they can just scatter to the winds and circle back later. Eventually, the adventurers are going to run into one of those encounters…one that leaves them injured, tired, and desperate for a long rest. When they’re sucking fumes for spells and hit points, that’s when the goblins ambush ‘em.
6) The Fundamentals
I don’t have to run over basic combat fundamentals, right? You already know all this, I’m sure.
Goblins fight in mobs. That means they rat-pack the same person (or couple of people), and it means they’re smart enough to flank.
Goblins hit better and do better damage at range. Your goblins are doing everything they can to fight that way, even if it means having a few sacrificial lambs hold the line with spears so the ones with slings or bows can have a chance.
Don’t fight to the death. Goblins don’t have a happy afterlife to go to, and they don’t place value on ‘noble death’ horsecrap, so have them run when things go belly up. Even if they got caught with their pants down, they can always come back later, armed with some cunning tactic to even the odds.
Let’s Wrap it Up
The bottom line is, Cecilia was right: there’s no reason to spend an hour on a boring back and forth combat where the enemies never offer a challenge or any kind of entertainment value.
Goblins aren’t the big nightmare villains. They’re the perpetual underdog. A goblin fight shouldn’t be something that makes your players say “Oh, what character am I going to play next?” (Hint: that’s jovocs.)
What they should be is the wildcard. Goblins live in a world where everything is better organized, stronger, and usually wants to eat them. They survive anyway by being resourceful, bold, and batshit insane. They can easily be the most memorable encounters of your game, if you give them the right tools.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Picture Reference: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/goblins/images/20650336/title/cool-goblins-photo
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.