How to Role-Play a Goblin
Originally found in European folklore, goblins were small, grotesque humanoids, known for causing trouble for everyday humans. They are famous for their tempers and greed, obsessed with collecting shiny objects, especially gold. Associated with demons or devils haunting the countryside, goblins were said to lair in the mountains and emerge at night to steal jewelry, gold, and other shiny items from travelers. Goblins in Dungeons and Dragons are very similar to European mythological goblins in all of these regards.
Dungeons and Dragons envisions goblins as small, pointy-eared humanoids with red, yellow, orange, or green skin, small fangs, and piercing eyes. Goblins come in at an average of three to four feet tall and 40-60 pounds, the perfect size for tossing. This height also allows them to be naturally stealthy, easily hiding behind small rock formations and blending into cave walls. Goblin fighters tend to wear worn leather armor, while non-combatants wear rags and re-purposed clothing.
Goblin tribal society is known for its aggression and greed, with individuals achieving power through violence. Wars are commonly forged between goblin tribes, kobolds, orcs, and other underground races, with goblins falling under the control of bugbears, hobgoblins, and hill giants.
Goblin society is primitive, with male-led tribes fighting over territory, and female goblins devoting their lives to childbearing.
Goblin tribes subsist primarily by stealing from human villages and travelers, or taking the property of other tribes defeated in wars. This lifestyle plays into the greed that goblins are known for.
With a tendency towards neutral evil, goblins care primarily for their own survival, and have no moral qualms with murder, thievery, or even cannibalism, if they are required for self-preservation. Because goblins are raised from birth to value their survival and aggression above all else, goblins are slow to trust and view others as rivals rather than potential friends or allies. When making a choice, goblins always choose what seems most beneficial for them, even if it means taking a payout now and double crossing their allies later.
When investigating a goblin lair, characters may discover piles of humanoid and animal bones, which have been thoroughly gnawed on. Dirty cubbies within the lair are normally occupied by female goblins and their children, dressed in rags. Goblins usually leave some of their male fighters behind to guard non-combatants, while others are out fighting or patrolling the area.
Goblins tend to fight in groups and try to ambush characters if possible. Goblins will attack from range using their bows, and use their Nimble Escape to hide behind terrain or other objects as their bonus action. If engaged in melee combat, goblins attack with their scimitars, and use their Nimble Escape to disengage if the battle is no longer in their favor.
Valuing their lives, goblins will flee or surrender if they find themselves to be outnumbered or if their companions die quickly. This is unless they have a leader, such as a hobgoblin, forcing them to fight to the death.
Some goblins have developed unusual battle tactics, such as the Batiri goblins of Chult, which use a battle stack during battle. Each goblin in the battle stack wears an elaborate mask designed to intimidate enemies. In combination with the height of their battle stack, they attempt to scare enemies into fleeing or surrendering.
Creating Goblin NPCs
While goblins tend to be evil, aggressive, and greedy, there are goblins which rise above their evil tendencies and go on to be heroes, or at least functional NPCs. Nott from Critical Role is a great example of a goblin who has become heroic, with great emotional and social depth. Though she still suffers from the inherent greed of goblinoids, it manifests as kleptomania that she struggles with and becomes an interesting character flaw, rather than an unplayable detriment.
When creating NPCs, think about goblin faults as interesting character quirks, similar to how Sam Riegel created Nott with kleptomania. A goblin’s natural aggression and ruthlessness may fuel a goblin Commander’s rise to power. After her approach to battle strategy was rejected by her tribe, she left them behind, travelling to Hillsfar to begin a new life. Being sworn into the guard, she became famous for ruthlessly cracking down on crime, fueling her rise to high commander.
Imagine another goblin, whose tribe was decimated when she was a child, and she narrowly escaped by hiding among a pile of bodies. Growing up alone in the wilderness, she drew on her inner strength to survive. A wounded boar that she befriended taught her to forage and fight ruthlessly, as her people had for generations before her. This goblin ranger fights to defend herself and her ilk of the forest from intruders, using her fierce battle skills only to protect that which she loves.
How have you incorporated goblins into your campaign, while making them stand out at the same time? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if your'e looking for a free one-shot that features some memorable goblins, check out our free one-shot, Mini Quest #1: Clucks of Despair!