I’ve spent some time considering the role of goblins and kobolds in D&D worlds, but stopped short of making decisions as they pertain to my own setting of Cobrin’Seil. It’s interesting that the idea of dispensing with both cultures was never really on the table, and I think part of that is because they do serve such a rudimentary purpose that dropping them wastes a lot of pre-existing material. It’s not like ignoring Duergar with their awful name, which drops maybe five instances of useful monster design across all editions; goblins are used in a lot of spaces and just the presence of them is a useful, handy thing for a lot of encounter designs. If you need a low-level threat, goblins are great.
What I want to do is address what they are. It’s not enough to just go ‘they’re a monster race,’ because that… doesn’t make any sense at all when you look at Cobrin’Seil and its approach to the world. I jettisoned the dwarves entirely because they don’t do anything (did I ever write about that?), so what are goblins as a culture.
Thing is, if goblins have this mechanical need — they serve as a general kind of combat encounter — then whatever they become as a culture needs to at least not contradict that. If goblin bandits are raiding caravans in a lot of scenarios, and I want to use them for my own plots, making goblins into full communists with no conception of property, while fun and good (and Fox did something like that in her setting, Amn), does contradict the purpose they’re put to. So whatever I need to do, I still need reasons for goblins to show up as these antagonistic forces that aren’t necessarily always going to be reasonable in the face of complaints like ‘please stop stealing shit.’
What I did to work on this problem was I wrote down a list of ‘goblin traits,’ to grapple with the question of how the goblins are perceived in the world and why they’d show up where they do. The list I got was:
- Goblins are small
- Goblins smell funny
- Goblins are numerous
- Goblins are cowardly
- Goblins work easily with other people
That’s what people say. How do we expand that list and make it more than just a simple ‘small green stinky bad.’
Goblins are Small
Okay, yep, that’s easy. This is going to work with other details later. Goblins are physically small, and that means that from a goblin’s perspective, resources look different. A hut that a single bugbear may need for herself, her gear, and her sleeping and security may represent to a goblin an enormous amount of living space. Food needs for a large hunter-gatherer is very different for a small omnivore. So, Goblin size means that they have lower societal and infrastructural needs in the societies where they integrate.
Goblins Smell Funny
I don’t know why goblins living in trash and smelling funny is so weirdly consistent. Like if they have a fort out in the woodlands why would they live in trash? It’s still a recurrent theme, though and if it’s going to be there, we’re going to have to look at how. The easiest example of ‘why does this thing live in a place that smells bad,’ the answer is ‘because it doesn’t smell bad to them.’ Goblins aren’t bothered by human trash smells, since let’s face it it’s humans writing that sentence down. But goblins aren’t commonly ill, so it seems likely that goblin senses don’t detect disease or unfitness of food the same way we do. In fact, that ties into another point…
Goblins are Numerous
Almost nowhere do you find a goblin. You may find a lone goblin player character, but most places where you see a goblin, you see one of a number. Goblins tend to move in groups, and they tend to congregate. This also presents them preferring team tactics, which ties intooo…
Goblins are Cowardly
Goblins will avoid conflict where they can, and when confronted with superior forces, they will avoid them. This is something you may recognise as ‘smart behaviour,’ but because humans are writing the books and they’re goblin-racist, the goblins get called ‘cowardly’ instead. But that also makes sense with what we’ve got so far. Goblins don’t want goblins to die, at least, themselves, and that makes some degree of sense.
Goblins work Easily with other People
Okay, none of this is confusing is it? You have a small people. Their resource needs are different to those of most people around them, which means they can probably make use of other stuff that they don’t need. If they live in your junkyard, they’re probably getting stuff out of your junk that you’re not. That isn’t to say that they’re necessarily your friends or anything, but it means that they can make a parallel economy.
When I looked at orcs, I drew the comparison between orcs and neanderthals. A human cousin culture, a group I referred to as ‘made of meat.’ Goblins are also made of meat, I don’t need them to be mystical or ethereal. Their origin therefore needs to be similarly meaty, andi f that’s the case, they’re probably a people that evolved. Now, in our world, sapience evolved in one space we’re aware of and didn’t seem to do a lot to further your life, but in D&D worlds, we have a lot of things to nudge things over the line. The actual reason why goblins evolved isn’t the important thing.
What’s important is that goblins are a sapient race that demonstrates ideas of community and cohabitation. That means they’re a social species and that probably means that they’re keenly aware of their material differences.
What I want to suggest is that in Cobin’Seil, goblins are social symbiotes.
If you give a goblin a space or a system, that goblin will find ways to find their level in the space. Now, a lot of goblins get marginalised by racist human communities, because that’s a thing humans do for much less reason than ‘you are four feet tall and green.’ So from a goblin’s perspective, human communities are hostile environments, and so their symbiosis takes on a parasitic form — taking stuff and maximising life for goblins. But in an environment where the other people around them aren’t driving the goblins out, the goblins are going to hang around, take advantage of things they can use and the other people can’t; disposing of waste or maximising yield on things.
Goblins are also clearly communal. If they have team tactics, they clearly have a recognition of different and distinct skills. If they’re biological and don’t care about smells the same way humans do, it might be that goblins don’t have the same keyed simplicity to their sense of smell. In Cobrin’Seil, a goblin’s sense of smell is really good, but also doesn’t key into the same immediate responses. Like, your reaction to smells is something that happens before your thinking brain gets involved – that’s why some smells can make you vomit, because your body isn’t sure it trusts you to get the gross smelling thing away from your mouth.
Now, a thing I love about this is this is actually a thing that humans have encountered before.
The anthropological evidence for it is a little bit of an outline, but the idea of a socially symbiotic creature that shows up, provides a service, then becomes part of our culture has already happened, especially when you factor in that it’s smaller than we are and it’s relatively independent.
Goblins aren’t vermin.
What does this mean for the goblins in the world? Well it means they’re definitely products of their society (me blame society). They’ll speak pidgins of the cultures they fall into; they’ll probably be invested in the perpetuity of that culture, so whatever that culture is doing will appeal to goblins. If you don’t get rid of goblins somehow proactively, if your environment isn’t violent against goblins, they’ll find a way to fit in.
Which means, like, goblins get to rise to the level of the community that accepts them. In a city, where goblins are given the protection of law, they may be a bit weird (like look at all this basement space!) but would happily comply with laws and find work that people want. They’re not stupid, they’re not harmful, but they don’t see inherent value in fictions like nation and culture. The second the space they’re in is not compliant with their continued survival, they’ll just leave or change their priorities. If there’s a town, where the people aren’t treating goblins terribly, that town may well have a small community of goblins who do jobs and have interests that the other people of the town don’t do.
There are entire goblin communities where there are no other cultures, just enough goblins in one space to make a large, self-sustaining community. These communities probably would want to have some access to things that might be a byproduct of more structured societies. Like, they probably work metal, but they probably don’t have steel mills. I definitely see goblins as being into projects where if you give them time and leave them alone they will cooperate their way into solutions. Maybe you wouldn’t get refineries and industries, but that might just be because any given goblin can always compare an oppressive life where they are, with ‘what if I move into the nearby culture’s space instead?’
If you make a goblin character, then the question is not so much ‘what are goblins like’ but ‘where are your goblins from.’