Goblin Fights In D&D Are The Worst

For four decades, players have dutifully sacrificed a large portion of their Dungeons & Dragons games to take turns hitting a goblin with a broadsword. It's time for us to release ourselves from the thousands of collective hours we've spent on D&D's most tedious chore. Let's kill off the goblin fight - or at least make them mean something.

Wizards of the Coast

Here's something I'm betting a lot of D&D players are scared to admit: Fighting goblin gangs sucks and it always has. And yet, a lot of D&D adventures are chock-full of these banal squabbles, impossible to avoid and almost as difficult to stay awake through. Fuck goblin fights.

The goblins appear, as they always do, in tattered clothes and with knives or maybe little shortbows. They are small, green and pointy-toothed. They are produced in a factory, I think. In a moment, they surround your party. They want to fight you. And it's for a good reason:

  1. You entered their territory
  2. Somebody paid them
  3. Their boss told them to
  4. Other

After muttering something incomprehensible, the goblins draw their weapons and your party is obliged to draw theirs. Here's how that goes:

A player: "I hit it with my broadsword. It hits. I do five damage."

A player: "I cast magic missile at it. It does seven damage."

Dungeon master: "A goblin tries to hit you with its knife but misses."

A player: "I hit it with my axe. It misses."

Dungeon master: "A goblin tries to hit you with its knife. It hits. It does four damage."

A player: "I hit it with my mace. It hits. I do five damage."

Repeat ad nauseum until, huzzah!, the goblins have died. Your dungeon master, who is curating this riveting encounter, informs you that have been awarded some experience points. Your party licks their wounds and continues on their journey.

Here's the thing: Goblins are stupid. Everything D&D has written about goblins indicates they're a small step above common alley rats in intelligence. That's why nobody ever feels bad massacring them. That's also why fighting them is boring as hell. They're gonna try to stab you with something or they're gonna run away to a cave. They aren't about to pull some tricksy manoeuvre that forces players to puzzle-solve, because that's above their pay grade. Their stupid fighting methods also means it's a waste to do anything epic in return - Don't waste your cool "Fireball" spell on these guys or you won't have it later when you're fighting the lich king! Isn't entering "rage" mode kind of overkill?

Wizards of the Coast

Goblin fights also highlight a source of great frustration for me as a Dungeon Master: The initiative mechanic. Before combat happens, players roll dice to determine the order in which they and monsters attack each other. It breaks down fights second-by-second and gives everyone a chance to shine. If players are pulling off the combat strategy equivalent of a ballet, D&D's initiative rules offers structure for some crazy ideas. It can also make fighting cannon fodder enemies feel like standing in a cafeteria lunch line.

But Kotaku, a D&D player might ask, with what am I to replace D&D's most cliched combat encounter with? How am I supposed to break up long periods of players developing their characters, puzzle-solving, discovering lore and fighting magical monsters?

I have a solution: Combine the cliched combat encounter with any of those other things. Maybe two members of the goblin horde fell into a lovers' quarrel on their way to ambush players. Perhaps the goblins stole traps from a more civilised culture and laid them out for players. If you're feeling crazy, reveal details about the goblin caste system that might make players empathetic.

Whatever you decide to do, let's all finally agree that there's no reason to waste a drab hour knocking together goblin heads in a game that's sole purpose is to be entertaining.


Comments

    ...or the goblins turn out to be illusory!
    ...or the goblins turn out to be a legitimate law-enforcement unit and fighting them brands you as outlaws throughout the land!
    ...or the goblins are only fighting you because they are hell bent on getting away from a vicious predator and your group is blocking the escape route!
    ...or the goblins request a parlay and turn out to be extremely intelligent and law-abiding. Do you still kill them!?
    ...etc

    Bottom line. Use your imagination, DMs!

      The goblin fight at the beginning of the Rise of the Runelords is actually pretty good. They manage to feel like a credible threat - not so much to the players, but definitely to the civilians you need to save.

        That's Pathfinder though, and Pathfinder's goblins are deliberately designed to be more cunning and dangerous than the dumb pointy-eared little green men of D&D.

      Exactly right any monster is boring if you don't describe it properly.

      You walk into the dilapidated house, and you see Pennywise the Clown standing in the corner.

      If your Goblin Encounter is you walk into the area and there's a bunch of Goblins there, they have knives so roll for initiative. You need a break and some inspiration.

      Goblins in most editions have an intelligence of 10. Wolves with an intelligence of 2 can organise an ambush. They are small and weak, they aren't going to fight fair, don't line em up in front of the fighter, have them come in multiple waves from all directions.

      They are far more likely to shoot than use melee, and if your going to shoot take advantage of the ability to see further than players in the dark and shoot from 100% concealment. That's going to catch players flatfooted. Goblins aren't going to stand and fight they are going to run away

      Finally if you can not make a monster or character interesting don't use them.

      Pretty much this, I've always preferred to play D&D as a game that is about creating an interactive, improvised story first and foremost. With the 'roll dice and kill things' game second... And I've never seen it be too much fun the other way around.

      Besides, goblins are people too! Well, okay, sure they're goblins and not people... But the point is there.

      Episode one of the first season of critical role did a goblin fight well, the goblins were just trying to escape a threat, but the players and an entire dwarven city was the only path.

      One of the players who could talk goblin actually talks with them in the battle.

    Someone is using and running goblin encounters poorly. Or new DMs sometimes just use stock enemies before they realise how to run interesting combat encounters which go beyond the dull exchange of damage.

    There's a good reason the starter set begins with a goblin ambush. They make for a familiar enemy, which in most popular culture is considered to be the "bad guy," as well as expanding on how a goblinoid host looks and plays.

    They're a pretty good jumping off point, for teaching both players and DMs about combat tactics and world-building.

    That's my opinion, anyway.

    As someone that played a chaotic neutral goblin bard trying to become a lawful good paladin, I take offence to this article. Every goblin fight is glorious.

      My poor little goblin monk isn't offended, but does keep getting attacked by goblin assassins looking to punish her from turning away from the tribe. Some of those buggers are nasty.

    Or they could be like the Goblin Level in Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark. They're level 15ish, and they really hurt, and they've planted millions of very dangerous traps all over the place. Trying to steamroll through that like a Typical Goblin Encounter was hazardous to your health.

    Just because you suck as a DM and can't create a decent goblin fight doesn't mean the rest of us can't.

    We had an interesting campaign where one of the goblins we were fighting was so enthralled by how cool the paladin was he decided to join and become his disciple. Actually did pretty well and the party was really investing in not getting him killed every combat

    I tend to run 5e goblins with ambush tactics. If they're fighting, they're always trying to do it on their terms.

    They're weak so they'll rely on range as much as possible. They want to split the players up and take out the weakest ones first.

    If you're fighting on their turf, they'll have trapped it (pits, spikes, bear traps, weight traps). Make them try and lure players into these traps. In caves/dungeons I like to place scaffolding that everyone can fight on and the goblins love to destroy it and cause it to come crumbling down.
    Give the goblins oil, torches, or even nets to let them cause havoc.

    If the goblins are reduced to about 1/4 of their fighting force, sometimes they might retreat. Goblins don't like fighting losing battles and want to live to see another day.

    Regarding initiative, rather than put all goblins under one initiative number, I'll break my goblins into groups. This way they can cause more havoc between players' turns.

    I can't believe there's an article about this! It has been a bugbear (pun intended) of mine for two decades now.
    If the Labyrinth has taught us anything, it's that goblins can be placed in a compelling musical adventure about child theft.

      "'I wish the goblins would come and take you away right now'. That's not hard, is it?"

      It sounds great, but I just don't think I could pull off a good enough Goblin King to really sell it.

        Dude, don't talk like that. You just gots to harness your inner Bowie.
        Let all the children boogie!

    The legend of Tucker's Kobolds is a fun look at overcoming this

    "Tucker's kobolds were the worst things we could imagine. They ate all our donkeys and took our treasure and did everything they could to make us miserable, but they had style and brains and tenacity and courage. We respected them and loved them, sort of, because they were never boring. "

    https://1d4chan.org/wiki/Tucker%27s_Kobolds

    Playing horde of the dragon queen atm and in chapter 5 we've just left behind the mass kobald slaughter fights.

    I had a game last year where the DM used Goblins rather effectively. It was actually with a group of new players (I was brought in to be their experienced aide) and the DM wanted to show them that there's more to D&D than just hitting things and gaining XP.

    So the game starts and we're heading to a farming town that has reported attacks from some unknown source. Upon reaching the town we find no humans, but goblins working the fields. Of course the new players are ready to attack, but I being the high-ranking Paladin order them to halt so as to assess (literally stopping the Barbarian's axe millimetres from the closest Goblin. Upon talking with the Goblins, we learn they had made a deal with the humans. The humans would hide in the caves for protection whilst the goblins fought whatever threat was appearing at night, and during the day would keep the lands maintained so as to not waste the harvest. In return the humans would give the Goblins half of the produce to cease potential raids in the winter. It was surprisingly civilised and it opened the eyes of my party members to the possibilities of the game.

    I mean sure, we did eventually find out that the leader of the Goblins had (unbeknownst to the rest) been the one responsible for the attacks and had locked the farmers away in the cave as a labor force. But we were able to take him out and put a more negotiable Goblin in charge that kept to a more peaceful & symbiotic interpretation of the pact.

    A PC was accidentally killed because their got ambushed by a small group of goblins (who I played as any normal party with roles) and the wizard sprayed AoE magic and hit the PC with low health. Goblins opening a fight by throwing alchemists fire/naptha jars and blow darts is pretty stunning.

    Goblins boring nope your just not using them right. Properly utalised they are player murdering machines

    Remember Tucker's kobolds. A true lesson in how to not only make minor enemies more interesting, but actually terrifying for PCs.
    https://tuckerskobolds.com

    Bad Gm's tend to forget to ask a simple question. Why? Why are these monsters there right now attacking.

    One encounter that my old group was surprised with was a simple first adventure. Farms have been raided, they track the goblins down to a cave in the hills where there have been the odd hit and run attacks to stop them with resistance building the closer the party gets. A large battle at the cave entrance with all the goblin warriors killed.

    The party enters the cave and discovers the goblin families.

    They realise a few things, the goblins were only stealing food from the farms to survive and that they have now left the clan defenceless against both other clans and other monsters.

    An actual ethical choice involving goblins of all things which wont work if your party is a bunch of psychopaths which in my experience of tabletop players is a 70%+ chance haha

    In Rise of the Runelords opening fight I had the goblins attempting to capture and set on fire the village's dogs (as they hate them), while also scampering over rooftops to throw rocks at the PCs, cut down market tents to ambush villagers and run off with the local glasswork's shipments all in the midst of combat rounds.

    Blaming goblins for crappy DMing is just being a poor DM. If anything goblins can be alot of fun with their low HP, ability to improvise and racial fears and weaknesses.

    I'd rather tackle a dozen goblins as an encounter than a single 22AC death knight that tge PCs just chip away at for an hour or two.

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