Ah, goblins! The canon-fodder staple of many a D&D campaign. For most of gaming’s history, goblins have been little more than low-level XP sacks for beginning characters. I feel that goblins didn’t really come into their own until Paizo re-skinned them into the psychotic, fire-loving menaces they are in the Pathfinder RPG. So wonderful is that re-imagining, when I came back to playing D&D it was hard for me not to keep playing them in the same way.
But I needed a way to bulk up the number of fey creatures in my campaign. Goblins have historically been considered part of the faerie-realm, whether as a stoic race of crafters akin to D&D’s dwarves or as vicious creatures of the dark fey. As the foot-soldiers of the stronger fey races in my campaign I can use goblins in a number of ways the players might not expect. Low-level mooks, sure. But they can also appear as arcane artisans, skilled smiths, monstrous spell-casters, sneaky assassins, or vicious warriors. A lot of their effectiveness, at least to start, is going to come from playing against type. Imagine your players’ surprise when what they assume to be stupid, low-level fodder actually turn out to be competent and effective warriors. Hilarity ensues.
To heighten the fey aspects of my goblins, I give them low-powered arcane abilities. Randomly assigning each goblin a single cantrip is a good way of reinforcing their connection to faerie and making them more interesting in combat without making them too powerful. I also give my goblin leaders and chieftains slightly higher-powered magical abilities, like first- or second-level spells. In fact, that is how goblins determine who will be in charge; only a handful of goblins gain increased magical powers, and that allows them to take charge over their weaker kin.
But whatever your campaign, try to make goblins fit in with some aspect of your world instead of using them as generic grunts. Playing against your players’ expectations with monsters they’ve previously encountered is a great way of immersing them in your campaign. And it just makes the game more fun overall.
How do you use goblins in your campaign? Let me know in the comments.