Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Are Goblins Just the Worst?

On Monday, Kotaku published an article by Cecilia D'Anastasio entitled, "Goblin Fights In D&D Are The Worst," in which the author argues just that--that in D&D, goblins are just low-level mooks arrayed before low-level characters just so that the characters/players can have what is essentially a no-risk fight and means of gaining experience: "Repeat [to hit rolls] ad nauseum until, huzzah!, the goblins have died. Your dungeon master ... informs you that you have been awarded some experience points. Your party licks their wounds and continues on their journey."

She claims that these goblin fights are boring, standing as stagnant interludes between moments of what the game is really about, i.e. (asking ironically), "How am I supposed to break up long periods of players developing their characters, puzzle-solving, discovering lore and fighting magical monsters?" It's strange to me that D'Anastasio doesn't see that goblins are magical monsters, and doesn't conceive of the possibility that the presence of goblins and whether they fight might be a means of puzzle-solving ...

My attention to this article was directed by David Rollins at blog Searching for Magic in his post "The Ecology of My Goblins or, How to Make Goblins Fun!" He takes issue with D'Anastasio's characterization of goblins, and I agree wholeheartedly with his rebuttal.

But I must admit--I do actually agree with D'Anastasio to a large degree. Battles without stakes are boring, and I don't play D&D just for the visceral joy of seeing dice roll across the table--I play for the visceral joy that a character's survival depends on that die roll! If goblins are being used by a referee just to be a no-risk fight, and I'm forced to slog through every round of it, and the goblins fight to the death, and none of it matters, I tune out. I've played in games like this; I played in a Pathfinder game where my paladin was blinded, but I refused the possibility to have him cured and had him run into the vanguard of every fight against Orcs just to test how far the referee would bend the rules not to kill him (he survived every fight; the absurdity was the only reason I was entertained).

This article piqued my interest because the last two games I've run in my Greyhame Dungeon Game have both involved goblins (Expedition 16 and Expedition 17; I haven't yet written up the latter). Expedition 16 involved what was basically a massacre of goblins; the characters entered the dungeon with a veritable army of wardogs and hirelings, and all together slaughtered some thirty goblins--but this was not "I miss," "I hit," "I miss," "I hit," ad nauseum, this was a running battle with groups of goblins panicking from bad morale rolls, running to the next goblin post for reinforcements, and/or going through side corridors in attempts to outflank the party. Nothing worked--the goblins were just too weak.

Expedition 17, meanwhile, involved only a couple of characters and their few hirelings and wardogs. During their first entrance into the dungeon, the party was overwhelmed by a large number of goblins, and after both dogs and one of the hirelings were killed, the party had to retreat. Outside the dungeon, they regrouped with a couple more dogs; then, going back into the dungeon, they were ambushed by the same large force of goblins. Another dog and the other hireling were killed, and it looked like the survivors would soon be goblin-arrow pincushions; but to my surprise, the two characters and their last dog fled downstairs to the next level of the dungeon, only escaping by lighting oil on fire behind them on the stair. After that, it was only by good luck that they found another exit from the dungeon so that they didn't have to face the goblins again.

I recite these examples as clear counterexamples to D'Anastasio's claim that goblin-fights are the worst. Both of these games were exciting--for different reasons!--and both involved goblins.

a couple of Free Goblins

So I agree with D'Anastasio in a general way that pointless fights are boring--but on the point of goblins I completely disagree, because the presence of goblins do not a pointless fight make. Goblins can be as boring as the Orcs that my blind paladin fought in that Pathfinder game, or as interesting as Rollins' weird hive-goblins, Jeff Rients' goblins with their goblin-doors (I keep forgetting to use these), or my own goblins who are certainly easily routed cowards, but who can also overwhelm and kill foolhardy adventurers (and they can cast magic and do other things too ...).

The relevant question to ask is not "Are there goblins?" but "Why are there goblins?" If the answer to the why of goblins is just to have no-risk fights for low-level characters, then fighting them is bound to become boring (but honestly, if that's the goblins' only point, if you're playing D&D, the game of tactical infinity, why don't you avoid fighting the goblins?).

What if the goblins are the type that steal children, and the fight
against the goblins determines whether you save the kids or not?

But in my game (and in Rollins' game, and in Rients' game, etc. etc.) goblins have probably been chosen because they specifically interest the referee. I know in my game, that's the case. I use goblins for a variety of reasons: goblins kidnap children (adventure hook--save the children!); goblins are the friends of wolves and werewolves (another hook in the monsters they associate with); goblins are either the slaves of Elves (and maybe sympathetic to the PCs?), or Free Goblins (both a player class, and a further adventure hook in that goblins hate Elves); higher level goblins cast weird magic (including goblin doors, probably); goblin kings are strange and powerful and as beautiful as Elves (or at least David Bowie); and let's be honest, fighting goblins in an old school game where a referee is willing to see characters die is just not boring!

the Goblin King

Goblins are great! Use them, please, in great numbers and in great varieties. Make them interesting, and make sure interactions with them (fights and otherwise) matter.

Goblins are incredibly versatile monsters, by the way; I've seen lots of different goblins in modules, including fungus-goblins (Tomb of the Serpent Kings) and blue goblins (Mortzengursturm the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak) and Batiri jungle goblins (Tomb of Annihilation); and don't forget the goblins of other media, especially Labyrinth, and even Blix from Legend.

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