Content warning: This article discusses war. While I try to remain detached, and don’t describe details, it’s still a discussion about warfare.
Ah goblins. The bottom rung of the enemies ladder, a staple of the GMs tool kit for newbie friendly adventures, XP piñatas,… they have many and varied names. Across the fantasy TTRPG spectrum however, they generally have at least a few things in common, one of which is that they are cowardly. But is this really the case or are we simply looking at them the wrong way, from our own preconceptions of valour and courage? Thinking about “monsters” in different ways has been a bit of a pass time for me for a while now, indeed my first adventure was about helping goblins set up a mine rather than clearing them from it. However, even in this case I treated them as cowards, unable to clean the mine out themselves. Now of course this was in part because otherwise there wasn’t an adventure, but fundamentally I was still working on that basic assumption, and it didn’t really cross my mind to question it.
This was shaken up however when I read a recent blog post on the ‘Universal Warrior’ by Dr Bret Devereaux. While I’ll be presenting the salient points below, the blog (both this specific post that I’m working from here and the rest of the blog) is about so much much more and I highly suggest reading it in its entirety. To answer the question ‘are goblins truly cowards or simply misunderstood?’, I’ll be first looking at how we describe goblins, before presenting another way of considering their actions drawn from my reading of Dr Devereaux’s blog. Finally I’ll attempt to apply my reading of the blog to the description we have of goblins, and then examine how this works within the larger concept of goblinoids in D&D, and for other fantasy races.
Before we dig into the post itself, I need to talk first about stereotypes, and what I will be covering here and what I wont. A lot of different fantasy species are based, for better or worse (generally worse), on various stereotypes that exist in the world. I’m going to trying to avoid delving too deeply into those aspects in this post. I’m focusing on the perception that we have of goblins being cowardly and lesser fighters. In doing this I will be comparing their way of fighting and waging war to real world societies. This is a comparison of their warfare, not all aspects of their culture, even if the two are linked. I also won’t be touching on the origins of the goblins current stereotypes, and where they come from and why they can be harmful, as this post is already going to be long enough and that sort of examination requires not only its own post to do it justice, but also someone much better acquainted with the subject than myself.
Portrait of a goblin
I’ll be basing most of our discussion here on the depiction of goblins in Dungeons & Dragons, mainly because of its current predominance in the market but also because of its historic influence within the genre. However, it’s worth pointing out that D&D is far from on its own here. In the Warhammer universe, goblins are the weaker, diminutive cousins of orcs. They lack the mighty fighting prowess of their larger relatives, have low leadership making them flee easily, and rely on their numbers and cunning to win a fight. While in Tolkein’s Legendarium there is no difference between orcs and goblins, they are still much closer to our stereotypical goblins: individually cowardly and weak, especially compared to the uruk-hai. In Warcraft, or Harry Potter, goblins aren’t necessarily described as cowards, but retain much of their traitorous and scheming descriptions, with the addition of associating them with finances and banking, activities that are generally not held in high regard by those that believe in a “warrior ideal”. Pathfinder is an interesting case to examine, directly spawned as it is from D&D. Here again, goblins aren’t described directly as being cowards, indeed they are quite protective and willing to fight to defend their friends and allies, and even if they are more often associated with alchemists and rouges, they are almost natural adventurers. This is an interesting distinction and one that I’ll be coming back to later in the conclusion.
These different examples show goblins as diminutive and weak, generally relying on guile to win a fight rather than force. If they are not directly described as cowards, they are generally shown as being sneaky and backstabbing, preferring ambushes to a direct confrontation, and always trying to find some sort of advantage with no care to having a fair fight. These are however very superficial descriptions, so let’s now dig down into the description of goblins and goblinoids specifically in D&D 5e. Before looking at the lore, the stat block itself is pretty telling. A Dexterity of 14 compared to a Strength of 8, a +6 bonus to Stealth as well as Darkvision, and the Nimble Escape ability which allows a goblin to “take the Disengage or Hide action as a bonus action on each of its turns”. From this alone we can being to see that they are best adapted at ambushes, peppering their opponents with arrows and trying to keep at a distance, rather than rushing into a melee. This is reinforced by the flavour text, describing that they like to gather in large numbers, that they use the twisting and difficult to navigate tunnels in their lairs to surprise their enemies and to allow them to flee easily, and that they use hit-and-run attacks when they have access to wolf mounts. As Keith Ammann writes on his blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: “A picture of goblin combat is starting to coalesce, and at the center of it is a strategy of ambush”.
If we dive into the larger description of goblinoids (goblins, bugbears, and hobgoblins) described in Volo’s Guide to Monsters we can flesh out this description even more. The first line of this description is as follows: “Maglubiyet is truly the Conquering God. He stiffens the spines of cowardly goblins.” In the second sentence of the description of the entire goblinoid host, we already have a reference to goblins being cowards. Later on we’re reminded that they’re weak, and “flee from opposition that seems too daunting”. If we compare this with the descriptions of the other goblinoid species, bugbears are also stealth ambushers, and are also likely to try to escape if faced with a superior force, though in this case it’s justified more by them being lazy and wanting to avoid work than actual cowardice. For hobgoblins on the other hand “war is the lifeblood of the hobgoblins” and “cowardice is more terrible to hobgoblins than dying”. While still being described as cruel and brutal they also get a pretty positive overview: honourable in war, with a civil society that farms and builds rather than simply living off what they can steal from others like the bugbears and goblins. Hobgoblins aren’t ruled by the strongest or the most cunning, but those that have achieved glory, primarily in battle. Hobgoblins are, you might have guessed if you didn’t know, at the highest ranks of goblinoid society, with the other species below them. They are the “natural leaders” of this large mix, by the divine right of Maglubiyet, the conquering god that united them.
So we have a society with the hobgoblins at the top, thanks to their discipline, honour, and courage, and with the cowardly, sneaky, weak goblins at the bottom. The structure of hobgoblin society gives them the edge, allowing them to train, to build infrastructure, and above all to wage war. Is this a fair description of their societies however? Are hobgoblins really more courageous than goblins? Or does that only appear to be the case when viewed from the perspective of our own societies? To answer these questions, we need to understand what it means to wage war, and for that we’re going to look at what someone that actually knows what they’re talking about has to say.
War… war does change, actually
Before digging into this, I’m going to advertise the blog that I’m pulling this section from, because it only seems fair. A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry is a blog by Dr Bret Devereaux from the Department of History at North Carolina State University. He has a PhD in ancient history, and his blog is focused on studying the history of battle and war (as well as their links with society at large), and notably how these elements are depicted in popular culture. His past blog posts have looked at Game of Thrones, 300, Dune, Assassin’s Creed, and Lord of the Rings, among many, many others. They are a great collection of posts to read both for the general information that they contain and for the information that can be extracted for your own worldbuilding and writing.
The post that I’m mostly going to be pulling from is a recent series about the idea of the ‘universal warrior’. Now I am not by any means a history scholar, and know very little about military history (which is why I’m relying on someone else’s posts about it), but I’ll try and summarise what parts of the series that I’m working from here as best as I can and hopefully not mangle it too much. I really suggest that you give the whole series a read (since I’m focusing on an almost tangential point here), but I’m going to base most of this section on Part IIa “The Many Faces of Battle”, as it’s the most relevant to what I want to actually talk about.
The post details three (or possibly four, but that’s a debate that is for actual military scholars and not me) ways of war. The first and oldest way of war is the ‘cutting off’ system (a term apparently from the Native North Americans, according to W. Lee “The Military Revolution of Native North America” in Empires and Indigenes, ed. W. Lee (2011)). To quote the blog post “The goal of such warfare was not to subjugate a population but to drive them off, forcing them to vacate resource-rich land which could then be exploited by your group.” The aim was to gain land and resources, generally through surprise raids intended to inflict maximum damage while taking the least amount of risk possible. Actually fighting a battle was to be avoided as much as possible, as actually fighting the enemy increases risks, while offering no tangible reward.
The second system developed as a necessity of siege warfare. War became about controlling fixed points (towns), which meant being able to lay siege to them as they were protected from raids by walls. This means larger numbers of troops, which means that stealth is also mostly lost, leading to a much higher chance of actual pitched battles, as these were the only way to see off a besieging army. This is generally what we think of when we describe war, large armies facing off against each other in battle to decide the outcome of states.
Finally, the third system (sometimes described as the Modern System, see Biddle’s Military Power, 2004) came into play when the firepower available to armies became so great that pitched battles are impossible, as an army would be destroyed by artillery fire or aerial bombings before it could actually achieve anything. In this system infantry require cover and concealment to avoid being destroyed, and use fast moving mechanised offensives where possible, so as to be able to attack before coming under too much fire. As mentioned previously, there might be a fourth system, based around out current technology of drones and cyber-warfare, but again, that’s a debate for actual scholars, and in any case is unlikely to be very helpful in a discussion about how goblins fight in a medieval setting.
By now you’re probably wondering what this discussion of different methods of warfare has to do with goblins. Don’t worry, I’m nearly ready to meander back to my point, but there is a reason for all of this discussion I promise you. I should however note here that, despite what my clumsy above presentation might lead you to believe, these systems aren’t simply chronological. One system doesn’t come along and move the older ones out of the way entirely, they can hang around and shift depending on the region and the society, and again that you should read the whole post from the “acoup” blog which explains it much better. Now, back to goblins.
Different strokes for different folks
These systems all have different functions and aims, and require different methods. More importantly to this discussion however, they all have diametrically different views of courage, so estranged from each other in fact that what is courageous in one system is detrimental to another. When most of us think of war we imagine either the second or third systems, so lets start there.
Imagine, if you will, a foot solider in the second system. Their job is to remain on the field of battle, holding their spear, as the enemy force rushes towards them. We evaluate their courage by the fact that they hold, along side their comrades, rather than fleeing. Imagine now the foot soldier in the third system facing, as we mentioned before, not a charging adversary but artillery fire, or machine guns. Holding in this case is not courageous, but foolish. In the third system, the foot soldier ducks for cover and waits it out, perhaps for days, whilst remaining ready to fight off the eventual attack once the incoming fire stops. This undoubtedly requires courage, but it’s not the same expression of courage as in the first system.
It differs still from the first system. In the third system, our foot solider ducks for cover but they remain in place, waiting to repel a future attack, rather than fleeing. In the first system, it is expected that the foot soldier runs away. The aim of the first system is to minimise risk while maximising rewards. Standing to fight or charging the enemy is a very risky activity that is not likely to result in success. The courage in the first system is in the raid, the stealth assault and ambush, and in returning with bounty. The aim here is not to say that one system is better than another, or that one form of courage is better than any other, simply that it is subjective. There is no universal concept of what is courageous, despite what we might believe at first glance.
You can probably see where I’m going with this by now, but this wouldn’t be a long winded meandering diatribe if I didn’t spell it out clearly. D&D is, in most cases, a medieval European style setting, with feudal or early modern states. As it’s a game primarily around the individual actions of adventurers, rather than a wargame, we don’t get much description about how war is waged, but we can pretty safely assume that in most cases we are looking at something that uses the second system we described. In Eberron, or other magic heavy settings, it might possibly be the third system that is the norm with magic replacing artillery fire, though it seems more plausible that we’d be seeing something closer to the Napoleonic Wars rather than the World War One (and therefore, still the second system). In either case, our player characters (the heroes of our adventures) are generally from sedentary species, living in towns and villages, and therefore the first system is not really within their frame of reference, as it isn’t for the players, who also live in towns and villages and cities in the modern day.
This is not the case however for goblins. As stated in the lore on goblinoids, while hobgoblins might build and have agriculture, this is not the case for goblins or bugbears, who are nomadic in nature, living off the land and from what they can acquire from others through raids. It seems more than plausible that they use a style of warfare much closer to the first system we described, where ambushes and raids are preferred over a pitched battle. To a goblin, escaping to be able to fight another day is a much more useful, and indeed braver, act than charging headlong into a fight and getting yourself killed or captured. In this context, it is easy to start to see how what we might consider as cowardice, is in fact for others a sign of courage.
This also explains the disdain that hobgoblins have for the rest of goblinoid society. Hobgoblins have a very clear notion of what is brave, and that is holding the line and acting as part of your unit. This is necessary as hobgoblins are more sedentary than the rest of the goblinoid empire (engaging in agriculture, and generally being much closer to how most human societies are portrayed) which means that defending a fixed point is important. This is contradictory with the way that goblin and bugbear societies function however, who prefer asymmetrical engagements and escaping to be useful in the future, as they aren’t tied to one spot and therefore do not need to ensure cohesion in the same way hobgoblins must.
Where we stand, and which way we face
At the start of this post, I asked if goblins are truly cowards or simply misunderstood. I think I can happily conclude that they are not cowards, at least not if we use their own evaluation of what is honourable or brave. It is our perspective that is skewed. We evaluate bravery based upon our own perceptions of what it is to be at war and to fight, but that is highly dependant on what our society values. We can see this disconnect within goblinoid society itself, where the different species and cultures don’t value the same things, and therefore fundamentally do not understand how the other functions.
Beyond simply concluding that goblins are brave however, what does this tell us more widely about how our conception of society, and our classification of what is a good or bad virtue, influences our perception of fantasy species, especially those that play the role of opponents to beat?
Firstly, sticking with goblins to begin with, what happens when we can play as goblins? Does that change how we view them? Luckily for my ability to answer this question, we can play as goblins in both D&D (with Volo’s Guide to Monsters) and Pathfinder. Let’s start with D&D, since we’ve spent most of this article talking about it. In D&D, goblins are monsters first, and a player option second. We’ve already looked at the monster side of things, but what changes when it becomes open to players? Well, to be honest, not a lot. Apart from what you’d expect from the goblin stat block, you also gain the “Fury of the Small” ability, where you can deal extra damage if you attack something larger than you. So to make a goblin into a player option, they have tacked a damage bonus on to them, which seems in no way reflect anything in particular about their lore except that they’re small. No where in the lore does it suggest “fury” is a common characteristic of goblins, but apparently it is for when the player is a goblin.
So what about Pathfinder 2nd edition, where goblins exist right from the start as player characters options, and only as opponents secondly. Here, goblins lack the cowardly attributes associated with them in other settings, though they retain their “chaotic” nature. While we do learn that they still “flock to strong leaders” this doesn’t seem to be as a way of signalling that they are looking for the protection of others as they are weak. In fact, it appears that the opposite is true. Goblins in Pathfinder are apparently very protective of their friends willing to fight “tooth and nail” to defend them from danger. There is no suggestion here that a goblin would flee from battle if things go against them, but very much that they will maintain cohesion with their fellow fighters in order to help defend them, a notion of courage much better suited to the second system we described earlier than the first system, where individualistic attitudes are more expected.
It appears that when goblins are options for players, even when they already have a pre-established lore within the setting, they need to have attributes that are closer to what most people expect from an adventurer: to be willing to fight and to stand by their allies. This is in part understandable simply for the nature of the format: an adventuring party full of people that should run away when faced with danger would be rather frustrating. However, it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t at least in part because of our own societal values and mores, and the need to make characters that are easier to connect with.
What can we extrapolate from this about the other species within D&D, or indeed any TTRPG? I think it’s always important to remember than when we write, or talk, about anything, we’re always doing it from a certain perspective. We can look at the Monster Manual and think that it’s written objectively, a simple description of the creatures in it. But even while we can try and write something as objectively as possible, we are still people that exist, and therefore we have ideals and virtues and, fundamental, ways of thinking that aren’t universally shared in time and space. We all stand somewhere, and we all face someway, and that simple fact of existence implies that we are always taking some form of position.
So next time you read the Monster Manual, or Volo’s, or any description of an opponent, take a while to think about things from their perspective. It might not change how you play them at the table, indeed if you’re describing things from the perspective of the player characters it probably shouldn’t. However, it might make you think about new tactics, or indeed new plot lines or quests that your adventurers might face. Are the goblins they are hunting down a threat, or simply trying to survive? Are the Grung really highly aggressive to outsiders, or are they just desperate to make sure that you don’t pollute their precious water sources that they need to live and breed? Do Lizardfolk have no notion of good or evil, or is it simply the case that their moral system does not follow our rules? Sometimes, you might be proved right in your assumptions, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll find your next adventure in there.
Until next time,
TTFN and be more kind,