Why do we have both?
Content Warning: Mentions of genocide.
When you look at most D&D settings, there’s a lot of the world that makes sense because of its primary purpose as a game experience with a world that follows that. If you look at monsters in the world, especially monster cultures, it becomes evident that some of these cultures that exist in fraternised space are much more about providing texture and variety to combat encounters with visually distinct types than it is to necessarily represent a vibrant multicultural space or anything like that.
The Goblin, as presented in most D&D books is kind of a weird space-filler that lives in other cultures as both something fundamentally combative, but also somehow capable of long-term collaboration with numerous other cultures that don’t demonstrate any respect for them. It sometimes starts out as ‘goblins,’ but in most D&D, goblins tend to expand their ranks with Hobgoblins and maybe Bugbears, until the Bugbears and Hobgoblins and Orcs and Trolls are the bulk of the enemy force and the goblins remain as the packing peanuts of XP. They absolutely serve a role, too.
As combat entities, goblins complicate battlefields without pulling focus. They are tool using, so they upgrade naturally as the loot upgrades along with players. They’re also not very threatening, so goblins can be used to signal unimportant things that encourage players to recognise the ‘important’ parts of a combat.
Culturally, they’re really interesting. They’re low-infrastructure people who do a lot of things that infringe on player spaces. They attack and raid, to acquire stuff, or they populate spaces that are unattended and encourage more dangerous problems.
There’s also this super weird way that goblins are kind of this harbinger of other, more complex threats – which gets us into the uncomfortable space of ways that D&D can be genocidey.
There’s this phrase, from many different periods of genocide, in English, of nits make lice, which is the justification used for murdering children and infants. It’s a dark thing in our culture, and it’s used a lot – it’s been used in genocides of Native Americans and Mormons and Indians as well. It’s something that stands out to me when I think about the way that goblin culture tends to somehow integrate other cultures as well. The way bugbears and hobgoblins and orcs and all follow, eventually, on the heels of Goblins. The implication is that as a low-level adventurer, stopping goblins from becoming too entrenched is protecting the area from larger, future threats — a mindset that implies the smaller goblins are the nits that become lice.
Thinking about it, though, I really like goblins as a culture that somehow, seemingly, has this like, satellite cultures. What does it imply that they have these other cultures they can hang out with so readily? Do goblins and bugbears and hobgoblins have symbiotic relationships? Are they materially flexible or ring species? Are they all ‘goblins’ and they’re just being named different things because nobody’s asking them? I don’t know.
I find the fantasy notion of a culture of small people who are fundamentally capable of integrating into other social spaces easily and gracefully is pretty interesting. If goblins were cute like cats, and they were also the social glue of these pluralistic communities of lower-tech regions, that could be really interesting.
Still, that’s not what they’re for and we know it. Goblins are there to be the low-level fodder enemies you can blow through and they’re there to salt-and-pepper into encounters as you level up.
Kobolds are kind of the same thing.
Kobolds are small, combat packing peanut monsters that show up in areas they usually have trapped, and tend to be connected to some degree of magical power, often with the implication of dragons in the same space. Some settings treat kobolds as a type of dragonkin (though Magic: The Gathering doesn’t, which is rude). Sometimes kobolds are fuzzy and doglike and sometimes they are scaly and chirpy.
When you look at what goblins and kobolds bring to the game, to the world, you don’t get a lot of variance. They’re both small, non-threatening loser cultures that are meant to be early game opponents that primarily signal the importance of later-game opponents. They tend to have swarm tactics, some tricks like traps, and spellcasters like shamans and sorcerers.
They’re very similar. They ask a question of settings and worldbuilding: Like, where did these come from, and why are they so similar?
It’s a project to think about, more, without it necessarily being a problem. I think the goblins open up an interesting opportunity, with that cat comparison, and I think they can be made different. But by default, goblins feel like a species that just gets to show up, because… they’re always here.
And kobolds who are goblins by another name, but they have a dragon schtick. Maybe that schtick is what keeps them separate – and well, that’s good branding, baybeeee.