Monday, February 4, 2013

Goblins just wanna have fun

Last week, Evan Dahm drew a picture of a goblin every day on his tumblr, declaring it to be 'Goblin Week.' It got me thinking about goblins, and specifically, why I like those nasty little monsters so much. Goblins are as necessary to a good fantasy setting as dragons, elves, and dwarves. After all, those are the races that made up The Hobbit, besides hobbits and humans. But, while dragons, elves, and dwarves frequently feature on the covers of fantasy games and novels, goblins are treated as set dressing. Usually, they serve as Baby's First Monster: a stepping stone for first-level adventurers to cut their teeth on before moving on to tougher enemies. I think that's a waste of their potential, and a good goblin can make a campaign more memorable.
D&D goblins: CR 1/3. Likes tribal stuff, I guess?
I'm sure we all recognize this guy above. He's the Goblin from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster's Manual. Goblins are an integral part of D&D. The most cliche background for a D&D hero is that his or her village was massacred by goblins, and you can bet that any good starting village has a goblin lair within a few days' ride. For all the village-massacring these guys do, though, the goblins in Dungeons and Dragons rarely have much personality to them. They're treated as weedier, wimpier orcs. They're a rung on a monster ladder: player characters start off fighting goblins, then orcs, and finally hobgoblins and bugbears.
Lately, the dragon-focused folks of Wizards of the Coast have been steering away from goblins, preferring kobolds for low-level adventurer fodder. Kobolds are small, vicious, and cruel, like goblins, with the added advantage of being aligned with dragons. When you consider that most Dungeons and Dragons players are pretty tired of fighting goblins, you can see why WotC prefers using kobolds. Also, kids love dragons.
Pathfinder goblins: Love fire. Hate dogs.
Which is why I prefer the goblins found in Paizo's Pathfinder setting. I read a great article on Paizo's site called "Reinventing the Wheel" that discusses the origins of the Pathfinder goblins. The author describes how Wayne Reynolds, the artist of the above image, was told to "Make our goblins look almost as cute as they are scary." They hate dogs, fear horses, and adore fire. What's not to love? This is where the spirit of goblins comes alive.

Warhammer goblins: Love mushrooms. Hate dwarves.
We all know that goblins love raiding human farms and villages. The average goblin is smaller than the average human, though, which raises the question: why are goblins still a threat? The answer is: they are vicious, cunning, sneaky, and more than a little stupid. Whereas most humans are happy with a boring life farming the land, cutting trees, making wares or baking food, all goblins love fighting and get in fights as often as possible. Though they may be small, they attack suddenly and under cover of night, with every underhanded trick they can muster. Finally, goblins do fail. A lot. They get stopped by militia, chased by soldiers, routed from their lairs by adventurers. There's always more goblins, though. They breed like rabbits, and they never learn. They'll be back.
Goblins may be typical of a sword-and-sorcery game, but you can plop them into virtually any roleplaying setting that involves some form of magic. Just imagine a crew of goblin pirates, knives in their teeth, clinging to the rigging of their ramshackle airship as it sprews black smoke into the sky. Or, strolling down the streets of an interplanar city's crowded market, a goblin merchant crying his wares and offering sculptures made of teeth and twisted wire. In a city of gray skyscrapers under overcast skies, a steel door under a flickering light in a cage leads down to a smoky den, where shouting goblins jostle for a good view of the rats fighting in pits below.

One piece of advice I give myself when starting a new RPG, whether a computer game or pen-and-paper, is to play as the guy who is having the most fun. In a fantasy game, that can often be the goblin. While the fighter may be after gold, and the wizard lusts for power, while the paladin won't rest until his family is avenged, the goblin can be having the time of his life right from level one. So long as he's stabbing things, stealing things, and setting things on fire (or, better yet, a combination of all three), he doesn't have to worry about long-term plans.

Gobbers from Privateer Press's Iron Kingdoms setting. These are from the Infernal Contraption card game

Like roleplaying games themselves, goblins can be humorous, scary, or both, and many other things as well. No matter which way you portray them, I think that a little madness is essential in spicing up goblins. Whether they're eating psychedelic mushroom like in Warhammer Fantasy Battles, creating alchemical super-science machines that are on the verge of exploding in Iron Kingdoms, or stabbing, stealing, burning, and singing off-key in Pathfinder, goblins should be unpredictable and unusual. Goblin magic, goblin inventions (or goblin 'improvements' on others' inventions), and even the goblin pantheon (if there is such a thing) will feel more "goblin-y" if they have at least a chance that things might go wrong. And if things seem almost guaranteed to go wrong, well, there's a good chance the goblins will be having too much fun to notice.

The Goblin Bangchuckers card from Magic: the Gathering. You can read the story behind the image on Wizards' site.

No comments:

Post a Comment