Spicing Up Boring Goblin Encounters
When you’ve been DMing for as long as I have, there are certain iconic enemies that begin to feel a little ho-hum. How many parties of adventurers have I pitted against kobolds, goblins, or orcs now?
In my ongoing Rappan Athuk campaign, I decided to use the hook of having one of my party members ‘inherit’ a goblin-held castle.
While I have a lot of love for the Rappan Athuk campaign, the castle itself felt a little bit underwhelming. The writer clearly put effort into trying to make this fun. There’s a room in which the goblins have been donning a broken pair of spectacles and throwing rocks at a chessboard to play ‘chess’. Similarly, the banquet hall has been set up in a parody of high society dining.
The problem with this set-dressing is twofold. Firstly, unless the party is super stealthy, they’ll never actually see it. If they’ve raised the alarm, the goblins are prepared for them, which takes away that fun element.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is no mechanical difference. As soon as initiative is rolled, these goblins effectively become 7 hit points with scimitars and short bows.
That’s fine for one or two rooms, but it begins to wear thin over a dozen or more rooms with slightly different set dressing.
So, how do you use these iconic enemies without it just becoming a matter of “ADD MOAR GOBLINZ”?
The simplest way to spice up your goblin encounters is to make sure you’re employing them to the best of their abiltiy.
Keith Amman of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing has a fantastic piece on goblin tactics. Even something as simple as making full use of their nimble escape can turn a run of the mill encounter into a high-paced battle on the run. Goblins dart too and fro, attacking from darkness and then disappearing back into it. Others fire arrows from afar before dashing to ensure they aren’t caught.
Then there are traps. While kobolds are perhaps more famous for their love of traps, I have always liked to imbue my goblins with their own sense of murderous mischief.
Goblins aren’t especially bright (intelligence 10), so they won’t build anything too elaborate. Swinging logs, crossbows rigged behind doors, pit traps (with poison smeared spikes), and the like are going to work best. Goblin Punch has some fun goblin trap ideas.
Looking for more awesome traps? Check out Nord Games’ Treacherous Traps.
If you’re familiar with Pathfinder, take a look at their goblins as well. The Paizo team’s love affair with goblins has translated into them getting a lot of love in the form of allies, variants, and tactics. It is well worth a look, even if you don’t subscribe to their cartoonish brand of evil.
When it comes time to spice up your goblin encounters, you might notice that the official source books aren’t exactly flush with options
The Monster Manual includes the slightly stronger goblin boss, Volo’s Guide has the amusing nilbog, and the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica has the goblin gang member.
Two of these (the boss and gang member) are essentially higher hit point variants on the original. The goblin boss does have the fun redirect attack reaction to simulate their cowardice, but that’s it.
Thankfully, there are mountains of third-party products that flesh out your goblin stocks nicely.
- Creature Codex: Kobold Press make amazing monster resources, and the lavishly illustrated Creature Codex is no different. You’ll find the chaos spawn goblin, shadow goblin, and dust goblin chieftain in this time.
- Nerzugal’s Dungeon Master Toolkit 2: If you aren’t already familiar with this terrific resource (and its predecessor), you should be. Both tomes feature monster variants, encounter tables, mini-adventures, and pre-built dungeons. In this book you’ll find the aptly named pitiful goblin and the hulking goblin brute. This one is currently pay what you want on DriveThruRPG!
- Nerzugal’s Extended Bestiary: Another creation from the devious mind behind the DM’s toolkit, the extended bestiary fleshes out a lot of existing monsters. In this case, it comes in the form of zoblins (zombie goblins) of three varieties. This one is currently pay what you want on DriveThruRPG!
- Tome of Beasts: Another Kobold Press creation, the Tome of Beasts contains the dust goblin variant.
- Ultimate Bestiary: Revenge of the Horde: A must-have if you’re running games with goblinoids of any kind. You’ll find more than two dozen goblin variants in here, as well as bugbears, hobgoblins, orcs, trolls, and more.
As if the above selection of goblin variants weren’t enough, there is also the terrific Monster a Day subreddit, in which you’ll regularly see goblin variants popping up.
Another way to spice up goblin dungeons is to make use of the many allies (or overlords) goblins are likely to have.
Bugbears, hobgoblins, gnolls, and orcs all make terrific bosses for a goblin horde. They’re not only tougher and harder hitting, but allow you to employ your goblins with a bit more intelligence.
If your players have become used to dealing with the hit-and-run tactics of goblins, having a tide of them descend with a ferocious bugbear or hobgoblin shouting orders can be a nice change of pace.
I’ve also found that an ogre howdah (from Volo’s Guide) can be a fun platform from which to have goblins fire arrows and stab with long spears.
Goblins regularly keep wolves and worgs as pets or mounts, so you can also spice things up with a few of these as well. Hell, what’s to stop them from having more exotic pets? Dump a load of venomous snakes on players or have a carrion crawler or otyugh living with them in a kind of symbiotic relationship.
Build Your Own!
If the above goblin variants and tactics aren’t what you’re looking for, it is perilously easy to design your own goblins.
You could adapt something from Pathfinder’s goblin lore or get really inventive. After all, goblins are social, intelligent creatures – so what’s to stop them from having alchemists, warlocks, pyrotechnicians, and cavalry in their employ?
How to Build a Goblin
If you’re looking to build your own goblin variants, there are a few steps to bear in mind:
- When adjusting hit points, try to stay true to goblins. They’re dexterous and can be tough, but avoid the temptation to throw a 20 Strength or Charisma in there.
- If you’re building a spellcaster, be sure to update its Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma.
- Be sure to keep their Nimble Tactics trait.
- If the DMG’s guide to calculating CR is too much, try a CR calculator.
Some Goblins I Created Earlier…
For my own running of Castle Callelan, I wanted to spice things up with some of my own goblin variants.
In addition to an ogre howdah, a gnoll paladin of Orcus, and an Orcus worshipping goblin cleric, I introduced the four following goblin variants of my own creation.
The goblin hog rider absolutely terrorised my party in the tall grass outside the castle. With reduced visibility and their free action dash (granted by their mount), they were a super mobile hit-and-run force.
I rarely had them engage in melee, so the charge and tusk weren’t used, but flung nets and spears were a real threat even to a level 3 party.
Three goblins in plate mail started as a joke suggested by one of my players, so I just had to include it. The image of three goblins teetering and tottering towards the party, swords lashing out from knee joints and helmet visors, was too good to resist.
Did he last very long? Not even a little bit.
Did the players get a kick out of him? You bet.
I didn’t get to run my goblin coprimancer (aka Shit Wizard) against my party, but I wish I had.
They were used to low level goblin spellcasters, so having one that stinks and can quite literally make them shit themselves would have been a blast.
You can find rules for his unique spells in the link at the end of this article. I’d pair him with his foul-smelling waste golem (also in the link) for a truly revolting encounter.
The goblin pyrotechnician is not exactly a new idea. Pathfinder has made the image of an explosive flinging goblin alchemist pretty iconic.
I positioned a pair of these guys (as well as a leveled goblin rogue) in a window overlooking the castle courtyard. This meant sneak attacks and explosives raining down from on high to glorious effect.
The first time the party encountered this combo, they fell afoul of a red hot firework that killed their rogue. The second time, their sorcerer misty stepped into the room and then used burning hands to detonate the whole shebang.
While not strictly within the rules, I felt like it made sense that a lot of fire delivered directly to a goblin laden with fireworks would have an explosive outcome.
If you want to get your hands on the above goblins, three new spells, and the ghastly waste golem, you can get them here.
How do you spice up your goblin encounters?
Is there another low-level D&D monster that you love to tinker with in order to subvert your players’ expectations?