Goblins are much on my mind lately. This staple of fairy tale villainy is the focus of an adventure I am designing.
There is a duality about goblins that is hard to capture on paper.
In one way they are the purest, more vile, of menaces. They are skulking creatures, who emerge in roaming bands from the shadows of fey forest and craggy highlands to do murder upon innocent, unsuspecting folk. I’ve always thought the 1985 Ridley Scott film “Legend” correctly conveyed this aspect of goblin nature with a spine-tingling revulsion and fascination.
But goblins are also misfits. When they attempt to cooperate on anything other than kill from dark corners, their efforts unravel in hijinks and humorous misfortune. There are many adventures that do it well, Jon Sawatsky’s “The Impregnable Fortress of Dib” for Prepared! is a recent addition to the canon. The makeshift goblin fortress is a delight. Despite the absurdity of the situation, the goblin threat is always there with hot oil, spear thrusts and sharp teeth that gleefully sink into human flesh.
What’s hard to nail down is goblins’ legendary cowardice — and how it works with these two aspects. They murder in secret because they are afraid. That fear is born from knowledge: Goblins know their small stature and fragile bodies make them poorly suited to a stand-up fight. Poison and a blade in the dark do the work just as well. And no matter how they plan or execute an assault, even when they are mounted on fearsome dire wolves and wargs, fleeing in the face of a capable combatant is their first instinct.
The thing is this: Done well, goblins never cease to be a fun and engaging opponent for a roleplaying encounter. Born with cruel, murderous natures, they cannot be redeemed. For the adventuring party, there is only one answer: They must be slain.