|D&D's Goblins Started Dull
- Annoyance at a mundane direct conflict and head to head combat where the opposition does not and can not bring complex tactics to the fight and where because of their perceptions about the enemy the players don't feel risk or excitment.
- Boredom and frustration created by a the lack of notable or intriguing elements about the monsters to make them wondrous, interesting, exciting or compelling.
GOBLINS ARE BORING
D'Anastasio describes her typical goblin encounter: "The goblins appear, as they always do, in tattered clothes and with knives or maybe little shortbows. They are small, green and pointy-toothed. They are produced in a factory, I think." This likely rings true for a lot of tabletop players - goblins are almost always described in a boring and dull manner and exist only as an after thought on a random encounter table or as a default low threat opponent. There's a lot a good GM can do to prevent this - none of which 5th edition seems to want to clue it's players in to.
A. DON'T CALL THEM GOBLINS - It really is this simple. "Goblin" brings an immediate image to mind for any RPG player, or really almost anyone exposed to popular fantasy since 1974 (see NOTE ON VANILLA D&D below), weak, small, variously ugly and likely green. More importantly though "Goblin" is a name that defines an enemy as weak, easily defeated fodder. I still pretty much remember the goblins stat-line from the 1981 Basic Set and the specific mechanical aspects of a potential foe is the last thing one wants players to be thinking about when they start an encounter. Even for players that don't have the details memorized from past experience, the cultural baggage that the word 'goblin' carries sets one's goblin encounter down a well trodden path.
|They Did Not Improve with Time
This is why a decent GM will never describe a monster by the name in the Monster Manual, but rather describe it in some detail on the first encounter and either adopt a player generated name or something neutral (e.g. little green rat-men) and unrelated to a Monster Manual name upon subsequent encounters. Players shouldn't immediately know the danger they are faced with and descriptions of fantastical beasts should ideally evoke wonder. The Monster Manual descriptions of any creature, especially in 5E, are largely mechanical, and the illustrations usually that profoundly uninspiring lowest common denominator derivative sort of fantasy art. Because of this, and as long as one doesn't stray too far from the mechanical aspects of the enemy in combat, everything else can be changed, modified, reskinned or transformed without serious work. It is a fundamentally lazy and bad Game Master that doesn't figure out how their 'goblins' are different, why they are different and how that effects the game and it's fundamentally lazy and bad adventure design when a published product doesn't do it. This is one of the gripes I have about Lost Mine of Phandelver and other WotC published adventures, they seem to think that an encounter is mostly found in the mechanics of a set piece combat rather then description, wonder and fiction. Referring directly to a monster manual or otherwise reducing an encounter to a line of statistics without some evocative nugget of description is a real waste of an encounter.
Nor is making mechanically simple enemies interesting through description, or even making them frightening especially hard. With goblins all the GM need retain is that they are small fairly weak and intelligent (to what degree is less important) - their appearance and description can vary wildly. There's really very little limitation on how one can describe a "goblin": fey changeling children, blue hairy muppet things, bipedal mole-rats with human hands, pack hunting versions of the Weekly World News' famous "Batboy", spindly fairy tale creatures that steal teeth or broken haunted toys - whatever one likes and whatever best fits ones setting and adventure.
B. SHOW DON'T TELL - As D'Anastasio suggests making encounters hold clues, information and evocative detail can make them more interesting. While the joke of the orc shouting "Gothrog No!" as the party cuts his companion down and the dying orc replying "I'll always love you Goreax!" is a classic in making your players question their murderous approach to everything(and really not a terrible way to explain a passed morale check either) might not be the most meaningful or interesting, something that enlivens a combat (even a bland one) with details and provides a larger meaning is a worthwhile tool in the GM kit.
As suggested above this isn't a matter of having to pick creatures from a Monster Manual that match the biome or feel of the location, almost anything can and should be reskinned with the proper feel. It means giving both intrinsic and extrinsic meaning/interest to the encounter. By intrinsic interest I mean that the encounter itself should have something in it, explaining why had how it happened - goblins for example shouldn't just be 'encountered', they should be doing something: looting a room, drawing crude graffiti (more of which can be found elsewhere), cooking rats on a stick, lost and scared or running from something else. Whatever the intrinsic interest in the encounter it should tell something about the creatures encountered, or the environment, providing clues to what else might be waiting around the next corner. Extrinsic interest is more general - an encounter that reveals a new foe or faction, a clue about the faction relationships
WITHOUT RISK COMBAT IS BORING
The heart of D'Anasatsio's complaint isn't really that goblins are boring - sure they are, but the problem is that fighting them in Dungeons & Dragons is a boring waste of play time. I'd propose that this is because fighting a small group of goblins (such as the paltry gangs in Lost Mines of Phandelver) is nearly risk free for the players. That is a party of adventurers in direct 'Rules as Written' combat (that is without the tactics of 'fictional positioning' such as ambushing the enemy from above, or adjudicating the effects of a novel effort to frighten the enemy by pretending to be a ghost) will massacre a group of goblins without significant risk of injury, depletion of resources or need for attention. This is a dull situation that feels like a chore and wastes valuable game time, but really there's only one way to resolve it - to make every encounter risky in some way. Make every encounter either offer a risky opportunity or threaten something that the party cares about, not necessary the lives of their PCs, but something.
A. GOBLINS DON'T LIKE TO FIGHT - Let's assume that a group of goblins (or similar runty but not unintelligent creatures) knows that it's near the bottom of the dungeon food chain. Why then would such a group of creatures launch itself at a marauding gang of heavily armed, magically potent adventurers? However little goblins value their lives they must place some value on continuing to survive - and engaging in direct face to face combat with powerful enemies seems like something they should know isn't conducive to survival.
This isn't to say that every group of enemies weaker then the party or suffering from feelings of inadequacy should flee immediately, the hungry beast might try to grab a single victim and flee, and the the intelligent creature might engage in a wide variety of behaviors to benefit itself at the expense of the party. What's needed is expanding the palette of encounter options. With 3.5 and 4th edition as it's guides and the school most of its designers learned in 5e often takes the approach of these editions and maximizes the possibility and desirability of combat as the goal of the encounter. Perhaps its having written up specific rules for "CR" or perhaps it's just laziness, but again - goblins don't want to die, and unless they think they can win or are hopped up on some really good mushrooms they do not "Attack Immediately".
In the past reactions and encounters (unless the enemy got surprise) were dealt with via a reaction roll, a test to see what mood the monster was in and how disposed to violence over chat it was. This roll often emphasizes interaction and parley over combat, and it's one reason why knowing monster languages was useful in early game editions. Intelligent enemies (or unintelligent one with certain behaviors) can attempt to do many things other then fight: make noise to draw more dangerous enemies, attempt to bully and rob the party, offer to help the party and lead them to betrayal/traps, try to steal from the party, attempt to encourage the party to fight their enemies, offer to aid the party for money, view the party as rescuers and try to enlist their help in earnest, flee into the darkness, offer maps or other advice in exchange for escape, tell rumors, try to get the party drunk. Really the list is endless, and each of these options is far more interesting then a fight that the party will triumph in without risk after wasting 20 minutes or more of play time.
B. SWORDS ARE ALWAYS DANGEROUS - The use of monsters purely based on their mechanical purpose (and role) became popular with 3.5 edition D&D and carried over into 4th edition with it's carefully balanced tactical battles ('CR') and monster combat roles ('Brute', 'Controller' etc.) and this method of 'encounter design' may function when the locus of play is tactical combat between an antagonistic GM and players, meant to be mediated by strict adherence to the 'Rules as Written', but it feels artificial, clumsy and unsatisfying when playing an exploration game, and when the combat itself is boring, its end virtually predetermined and without any larger meaning. This appears the mechanical gist of D'Anastasio's complaint about 'goblin fights' (entirely independent of issues with initiative), and if one wants to play D&D as a tactical combat game I suppose the answer is to never create a combat encounter without risk for the character.
In the early editions I favor, combat is almost always dangerous to the party and the mechanics very quick and simple. It doesn't matter that much if one is a 6th level and one's enemies are a pack of 1st level goblins, they can cause injury, reduce HP and waste resources. If the weak enemies get lucky and concentrate their fire well they might even inflict serious injury or kill a PC. Of course in this sort of game combat is not rewarded with experience and is almost always considered a failure by players. With these sorts of mechanics, 'goblin encounters' simply don't happen much, and when they do they are over very quickly.
In 5th edition, creating dangerous encounters with weak enemies may be hard. It's a system designed to give even low level characters a great deal of survivability and the ability to dominate combat situations with an assortment of powers. It's also complex enough that even short combats take up a considerable amount of play-time. For a scene based combat-centric game I don't really have a solution, except to throw dangerous enemies at the party in dangerous situations (an ambush on a lava bridge or something) - and with goblins I suppose this might mean taking a page from the wretchedly antagonistic, but creative GMing of "Tucker's Kobolds", and placing weak opponents in advantageous situations. If one isn't running D&D as a series of complex combats, the answers above about demphasizing combat within over-leveled encounters may serve better, but adjusting intelligent enemies (like goblins) tactics also makes sense.
Hopefully a combination of evocative monster description, organic/naturalistic encounters that potentially provide detail about the location, faction play and tactical novelty that creates risk are solutions to boring 'goblin encounters' even for new groups and GMs. It's not hard to be creative about what enemies that party faces, and the world one is building to play in, and this sort of creativity is the core of a good tabletop experience.
|Goblins Never Change - They Should!
While D'Anastasio's article is great to see, both because it shows the growing popularization of D&D and because it suggests that even people playing the most mundane and soulless sort of D&D - the settings and adventures adapted directly from WotC's published materials are thinking about the game, and being creative in their efforts to improve it - the essence of what makes Tabletop Roleplaying fun and interesting. Unfortunately the folks coming to 5E and Forgotten Realms are held back in some serious ways. Above I noted that D'Anastasio has suggestions and wants to make her goblins interesting, but doesn't suggest the easiest step of redefining what a goblin is, reskinning and describing them as something horrible and unknowable. Like many who are new to the game, the lazy implied setting of Forgotten Realms seems a fixed idea.
Goblins are already defined as a pointless fight, a monster that takes up time without meaning, something subject to "grinding" rather then a legitimate element of a collective storytelling game. I'd suggest this is because the idea of goblin has been refined and clarified in the years since the Little Brown Books came out. Popular culture now knows the distinction between orc and goblin, a distinction that in 1974 was esoteric and unclear even in it's source - Tolkien. A lot of this distinction began with the codification in Gygax's D&D, from where it entered the childhood taxonomies of an entire generation of future creators: video games, films, novels, comics and all things fantasy are informed by the collective understanding that a goblin is a 1HD-1 monster with an AC of 6 - an annoyance and the weakest foe on the ladder of true humanoid enemies (kobolds are strange, partially due to the affection they get as little dragon men, partially because of the infamous "Tucker" linked above). This view of the goblin has filtered back into D&D, making the goblin a 'fodder' enemy, something to be ignored and maligned. Vanilla D&D doesn't examine this issue, it doesn't try to interrogate or contemplate the wonder and potential terror that is implicit in a small horrible person/not-person thing trying to kill you with a rusty knife in a dark cave.
|More Interesting Then a D&D Goblin
Vanilla fantasy in many ways robs players of these sorts of moments, in smothers wonder, because it views the game world as set, quotidian and fully comprehensible without complexity. For example, magical healing may be commonplace, but the issues of access to it or its effects on urban growth and mortality rates are never examined or touched on. Vanillia fantasy dumbs down and drains the fantastic of wonder, both by sticking to now cliched imagery and by asking its consumers to passively interact without examining the strange possibilities that it's assumptions generate. Tabletop games, because they aren't per-generated content offer a unique opportunity for their players to step past or through Vanilla fantasy's limitations and to bring in whatever elements they with or can imagine, and this is worth doing, because if one is simply playing D&D as a way to fight goblins in a cave without asking why there are goblins, why there's caves and what these things might look like beyond some vague pastiche of Tolkien and 80's children's cartoons one is missing out on a great deal of fun.