Monday, July 8, 2013

Of Manuals and Goblins

Let's talk about monsters a bit, and more specifically about monster manuals.  Wizards of the Coast has been discussing monsters lately for 5e, but I have my own take on these things - perhaps a retrograde lout of a take, but one of my own all the same.

Monster manuals are great - the AD&D Monster Manual with the Art Brut cover, as $5.00 on sale copy from Kay Bee Toys was my first book purchase for myself.  It provided many hours of joy.  Likewise the Teratic Tome I recently acquired is a fun read.  That said I don't really use much in the way of monsters from books these days, tending instead to make up gruesome things on the fly and wholesale swiping the stats of a few select creatures from the Labyrinth Lord book (such as the bear!) to reskin, and adding special abilities vaguely remembered those long ago summer nights perusing the Monster Manual.

What this means is that I like monster manuals, but don't really have much use for them. I don't think I'm alone in this, and it's not as if I don't find bits and piece of monster design from other people's work inspiring.  I really do, but I steal it and pile it onto my own monsters.  How then to make a monster manual more useful for me?

Below are three versions of a monster with explanatory texts - representing three varieties of the ubiquitous goblin.  The goblin has been chosen because it's a sort of Ur humanoid, representing a creature that can mob a party, and perhaps battle 0-level men at arms one on one.  The goblin also possesses an enormous variety of incarnations - something that helps illustrate my boredom with traditional monster manuals.

The most basic traditional Monster manuals contain a stat-line for a specifically named species of monster followed by a set of mechanical notes. The goblin is as follows, and I've used the version from the Little Brown Books - mostly because it's short and right here.

The 1e AD&D Goblin - bland & effective
Goblins (Pages 3 & 7 of Monsters and Treasure)

No. Appearing: 40 - 400
Armor Class: 6
Move: 6" (as human)
Hit Dice: 1-1
% in Lair: 50%
Treasure Type: 1-6 GP each
"These small monsters are described in CHAINMAIL. They see well in darkness or dim light, but when subjected to full daylight they subtract -1 from their attack and morale dice.  They attack dwarves on sight. Their hit dice must always equal at least one pip."

Alright that's a pretty sparse goblin - and it doesn't even have an illustration - still mechanically we've set the nature of the beast, and established it's key behavioral elements: It always has at least 1HP (silly I know), hates dwarves and doesn't deal well with sunlight. Let's put this aside for a bit with the realization that this is begging for an ecology, or really anything to make goblins more than a token in a wargame.

Labyrinth Lord pretty much follows the early D&D model (slavishly I'd say) so when we look at the 1e-B/X-LL version we get the same creature - except with more stats (Damage, No. Attacks, Save and Morale principally due to system changes).  The main difference is a solid chunk of ecology and mechanics tumbled together in a mish mash:

"A goblin stands 3' to 3 ½' tall. Its eyes are usually dull and glazed, varying in color from red to yellow. Their eyes sometimes flicker red in the dark. A goblinÊs skin color ranges from yellow through any shade of orange to a deep red; usually all members of a single tribe are about the same color. Goblins wear clothing of dark leather, tending toward drab, soiled-looking colors. They spend most of their days underground, and as such suffer a –1 penalty to all attack rolls when in full sunlight. They have a longer range of infravision to 90'. Goblins are archenemies of dwarves, who they hate above all other humanoids, followed closely by their distaste for gnomes.

Goblins often use dire wolves as mounts, and 25% of their number will be mounted 20% of the time. A goblin king is an exceptional goblin, who attacks like a monster of 3 HD, and all damage dealt receives a bonus of +1. A goblin king is always accompanied by a loyal bodyguard, totaling 2d6
individuals. The bodyguards each have 2d6 hit points, and attack as monsters with 2 HD. All goblins in the presence of the goblin king have a morale score of 9. The goblin lair always has more treasure (hoard class XX), and there is equally more treasure when encountering goblins in the
wilderness." (Labyrinth Lord Page 78)
Am I wrong in thinking this is dull and mostly useless - does this make me a bad grognard?  Sure it's nice to know that goblins have mounts and some tougher leaders and champion - but do I really need the statistics for that with percentages?  Assuming I'm not running D&D straight out of the box I might not even want they Tolkien token goblins.  There's a lot of other goblins people like to play with these days: fey goblins full of tricks and whimsy (going as far as copying the goblin muppets from Labyrinth), goblins as debased grey aliens as in ASE, Hobogoblins from Weird Adventures, goblins as self generating bits of dungeon malice, goblins as debased dwarves, goblins as fungal creatures, merrowmen (in my own Apollyon game) or rusticated comical hicks (Wampus County's "mobgoblins"). Problem is that while all of these are likely to use the same statline (as are ratmen, tasloi, debased clones or whatever else you need as a weakish humanoid) all the stuff about goblin fashion choices is useless.  Yet editions after the 1st just increased the amount of lore for monsters.  Sometimes this makes fascinating reading, but frankly it's more limiting then useful to me. I don't want to cram Wizard of the Coast's goblins into my game with thier particular religion and cultural foibles.  I want a statline that works for whatever.  This creates another option - The Monster Template...

Pathfinder Goblin - picked because he's adorable
Medium Monstrous Humanoid

Movement: 60'
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 1 - 1
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: 1d6 or weapon
Save: F0
Morale: 7
XP: 5


Tribal: Have a minimum of organization, and will use tactics, including simple traps, ambushes, feigned retreat, dedicated missile troops, leaders, shaman and champions.  Shaman will be able to work low level magic user or clerical spells, and champions (including chiefs) will be up to several times stronger than normal creatures.

Beast Riders: These monsters are often found mounted on or directing larger beasts.  The mounts are likely to be more dangerous than the average rider, but will lose cohesion and often flee if their riders are killed.

Tinkerers:Adept with mechanical devices, these monsters will likely have an increased armor class (+1 bonus) due to the superior nature of their equipment.  They will also often be armed with technological weapons such as military oil, bombs, siege weapons, war machines or even golem like suits of mechanical armor.

Fey** (Double ability): These creatures are from a realm only tangentially related to the material and have a disconcerting ability to make human magic less effective as well as appearing when they are least expected.  These monsters will surprise on a 1-3 and gain +1 Imitative as they pop and squirm from unexpected spaces.  Fey humanoids also have a natural 30% chance of causing magic to backfire or cause a random effect.  Each 30% above the first to magic magic backfire or behave strangely is an additional special ability.

Fantics:  Drinking strange fungal brews or otherwise hopped up on bizarre substances, these creatures know no fear once they have committed to battle.  If they pass an initial morale check these monsters will not retreat.  Additionally after passing their first moral check (avoiding a 'freak out') fanatical monsters will gain a +1 to all damage rolls.

My own fungal Goblin
Additional Special Abilities might be considered - especially as part of a manual.  Half the manual could simply be a list of special abilities while the monster templates all had suggestions attached.  Frankly this could be useful.  Let setting book design the monster, rather than putting ecology and habits directly in the basic creature manual.  Yet this feels pretty darn cold and boring.  Useful, but lacking anything to goad a GM into being imaginative.  As such I'd suggest the addition of a monster 'seed' instead of ecology.  Keep everything as above - but add a rumor table like so for each major variant of the template.

 The rumors below are designed to replace several pages of ecology - either as seed for GM monster design or simply as rumors, so that when the players hear about "goblins" the local drunkards can say a bit more than "The goblin raiders went that way". 

D20 - Rumors about Goblins – They can’t all be true, can they?
Goblins reproduce by stealing human babies and will trade infants for magic.
Goblins are fungal growths that grow in sealed caves and suddenly burst forth.
Goblins are part of a highly organized empire, unfortunately their leaders are all insane.
Goblins can be calmed and sated with cat’s milk.
Goblins ride forth from their caves on the backs of huge naked mole beasts.
Goblins are startled by sunlight and terrified by the fear of falling into the sky.
Goblin shaman specialize in narcotic elixirs that render the drinker immune to pain
Goblins are all pyromaniacs and worship fire as a god.
Goblins are self-generating from  crawling masses of worms and insects.
Goblins are simply devolved dwarves, which is why they hate them so.
Goblins aren’t evil, they just love practical jokes and as immortal fey they don’t understand death.
Goblins often live in the deep forest where they hatch from cocoons, frequently amongst those of their giant spider pets and mounts.
Goblins are excellent brewers, and their fungal mead will bring high prices.
Goblins are afraid of right angles.  You can tell a goblin lair by its lack of them.
Goblins grow larger as they age, their elders can be huge, and their king is a giant.
Goblins spring up from the blood of elves sacrificed to demons – they are primal imps.
Goblins build machines from ancient memories they don’t fully understand.  This doesn’t stop their devices form being deadly.
Goblins have a hive mind that allows them to act more intelligently the more goblins are present.
Jungle Goblins called ‘Tasloi’ use poison spears and hide in the trees.
The darker a Goblin’s skin and the larger it’s eyes the deeper the cave it crawled up from.


  1. Holy cow, LBB goblins always have 1 hp? The origins of 4e "minions!"
    Yeah, I know they just forgot the "at least" but deliberately misreading the LBBs always produces neat stuff...

    1. I'm not sure if that notation at the end of the goblin entry indicates that goblins always have only 1 HP or if it is to avoid confusing the reader with the idea that some might have 0 HP because of the "1-1 HD". LBB's are odd that way.

    2. @mikemonaco

      I think Gus's post has a typo (which, who knows, may exist in some printing of the LBBs). Mine says:

      GOBLINS: These small monsters are as described in CHAINMAIL. They see well in darkness or dim light, but when they are subjected to full daylight they subtract -1 from their attack and morale dice. They attack dwarves on sight. Their hit dice must always equal at least one pip.

      (Bold mine.)

  2. What, no love for Weird Adventure's hobogoblins? ;)

    I really like what you did, but I think what the write-up needs is dependent on the attention of the product. Wampus snobgoblins, WA hobogoblins, or Harnic whatever they're called need specific ecologies and what not, because they're specific things you either take (partially or in whole) or leave. If a monster manual is a toolkit, that the options approach is definitely the better way. Most Monster Manuals have been written as books within a world (without that world being explicit) rather than toolkits. Hell, there's a lot of world assumption inherent to D&D that only things like ASE, HMS Apollyon, and Wampus Country are beginning to divest it of.

    The day for your sort of MM has come--but I would say the lack of it is less a bug of older MMs and more an unspoken design feature.

    1. I would have included Hobogoblins, but it's debatable if the beasts a goblins or hobgoblins? Fixed that mistake above.

      I agree that Monster Manuals are in world toolkits, but I think they sort of suffer there. My point is that the copious ecology notes don't add much, and that I think most GMs aren't using the implicit Tolkien-land D&D world - or even if they are, take a more LOTFP approach to monsters, making them dependent on scenario and somewhat unique. Ecology and description are better part of an adventure or setting book - but there is still a place for a set of statlines as a reference.

    2. Yeah, I agree. They aren't particularly good at what they are doing.

  3. What each of the three MM entries has (and your table is missing) is any indication that the ecological details are connected to observable game mechanics. I assume they are, that is that some of the rumors are true, and create monster attributes that I'd discover during an encounter. But I'm not sure how, or which ones to use as "true" or "false".

    Now, clearly, you're doing that on the fly, because you're an amazing, super-experienced GM. And that's great! But the way you became a super-experienced GM probably involved reading a bunch of old MM entries, and studying all their good (and poor) attempts to translate behavior/ecology into attributes and dice modifiers.

    What you're doing isn't so much "better" than what the MM is doing. It's the same approach turned into random tables, presumably used improvisationally -- but with no concrete examples provided to either learn from (good!) or to tempt the GM to enforce as a straitjacket (bad!) So for a new GM starting out I still would send them to a MM first, and only tell them to do what you're doing after digesting a good chunk of it and seeing how it plays out in practice.

    1. @ Edward Hamilton
      I suggested this is what "I" - that is the subjective I- would like in monster manuals. If you need 1-30 pages of ecology there are plenty of monster books for you.

      Second the point of the manual entry with a Template and random table is that there's a variety of mechanics to choose from. Depending on the sort of Medium Humanoid one wants, simply apply the various modifiers and run with it. The table, like a lair map/adventure (which is another more useful monster manual addition) provides some context, but doesn't place the GM under any canon that might convince him "goblins are this way".

      In a setting book or adventure I'd fully expect that the ecology of the specific goblin would be fully sketched out, but in a monster manual, it seems counterproductive.