Monday, 1 January 2018

D&D Monsters: Goblins

Following on from my earlier ponderings on the development of orcs in Dungeons and Dragons and related franchises, I am now going to focus on a very similar creature: the goblin. Goblins have, perhaps, changed less than orcs over the years since their first introduction into the game, but change they have, and they are a very common low-level opponent, one that's generally intended to be marginally weaker than a starting player character, and thus a threat in large numbers without being a complete walk-over when encountered in smaller groups.

The term "goblin" is, of course, an ancient one in English, referring to a (usually) malevolent magical being that is typically small and misshapen; a sort of evil fairy. As with orcs, the more modern conception of goblins comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, Tolkien uses the word as simply another word for "orc", mainly as the term that hobbits use for that race. The fact that the word therefore ends up being used more frequently in The Hobbit, in which these particular antagonists seem less of a serious threat than their counterparts in Lord of the Rings do, likely combines with the original folklore meaning of the word to produce the "like orcs, only weaker" idea first used in D&D.


Goblins appear in the very earliest editions of D&D, at first without much in the way of description. By the time of the "Advanced" edition, they are part of a distinct hierarchy of five evil tribal humanoid races, forming the second step on the chain, one slot below the orcs. Statistically speaking, they are extremely similar to orcs, but just marginally weaker: they are slower, have one less hit point, a 5% lower chance of landing a blow on an opponent, and inflict, on average, one less point of damage when they do so. In practical terms, this doesn't make a huge difference, but it could be just enough to turn the tide in an otherwise close battle (as is likely at low level).

Physically, goblins appear rather more humanoid than orcs, but are only around four feet tall. They have broad, flat noses and large teeth, and both their skin and eyes vary from yellow to red. They seem to wear only regular leather armour, but their armour class is the same as that of orcs, presumably because they're harder to hit, being smaller, and possibly more nimble. Their preferred weapons are spears and shortswords, although some (as in the illustration) carry spiked clubs, and a few are apparently specialist slingers, only striking from a distance.

Like orcs, they are demoralised in full sunlight, and they are even more likely to live underground. Also like orcs, they are marginally less intelligent than humans, but are nonetheless always fluent in five different languages. Because of their subterranean habitations, we are told that they have a particular hatred for dwarves and gnomes, rather than for elves, as the orcs do.

They are described as "lawful evil", living in communities with an average population of a little over 500, plus an unspecified number of slaves (likely captured human peasants or the like). They are fond of torture, although, unlike orcs, at least they have no interest in mating with other races. As with orcs, about one in six are tougher than usual, being the leaders and wearing superior armour. Males outnumber females by five to three, with the latter being incapable of fighting, and presumably holding a subservient position in society, although this isn't specified.

They have also domesticated wolves, which, in a nod to Tolkien, they use as riding animals. They also cooperate with bugbears, to which they are said to be related, but not with hobgoblins. Oddly, there is no indication at this early stage, beyond the similarity of names, that goblins and hobgoblins are even related, although a relationship to kobolds is hinted at - surprisingly so, given that the latter are obviously reptiles. (Most likely, this is because, in the real world, the words "goblin" and "kobold" are thought to be etymologically related).


As is usual, 2nd edition AD&D expands on the description of goblins, rather than drastically changing their nature. The only real difference in their statistics is that their intelligence is said to be lower than before, making them stupider than orcs, as well as weaker. They do, however, retain their fluency in multiple languages. In terms of their physical appearance, they are now much scrawnier, and have larger ears, and possibly a somewhat upturned nose. Their eyes are said to be simultaneously "dull" and "gleaming", whatever that may mean, but the colour scheme remains the same.

Since the first edition, the relationship to hobgoblins has been made explicit, although there's still no indication that the two races really cooperate. Indeed, goblins are now said to be cowardly, which probably means that they would run from hobgoblins if they encountered them in equal numbers.

Their society is described as very hierarchical, based solely on combat ability - something that confirms the idea that females, being non-combatant, must be at the bottom of the pecking order. We're also told the size of their (non-goblin) slave population which turns out to be considerable, with over a hundred in a typical tribe. The number of immature individuals is double what it was previously, suggesting that they breed fast and have a high infant mortality rate. A small, but unspecified, number of goblins now have some magical ability, making the tribe a more serious threat than before.

All of this supports the "lawful" descriptor in their alignment, and their society is clearly communal. They are, as before, good at mining, but apparently have very little ability to make much in the way of material goods, beyond clothing and leatherware, somehow stealing all their weapons and tools from elsewhere. There is no mention of their love of torture, but they do kill for the pleasure of it, and will occasionally eat human flesh. They also seem to be disease resistant, living in filthy conditions and able to consume carrion without ill effects.


With 3E, goblins undergo a significant change in their role, although much of the descriptive text remains very similar. Unusually, there doesn't appear to be any notable change in their appearance at all - they look just the same as they did in 2E, except that their eyes are now simply "dull", rather than "dull and gleaming", and they are significantly shorter, averaging just over three feet tall, rather than four. However, the old step-wise hierarchy of evil tribal races begins to break down in this edition, as goblins cease to be smaller versions of the combat-hungry orcs, and instead become focussed on stealth and subterfuge.

Although they are still, overall, rated as a weaker challenge than orcs, in many respects, goblins have now become their equals. Although they typically wear inferior armour, the new rules system means that their smaller size and greater agility actually make them harder to hit. They have the same hit points as orcs, and, while still strongly subterranean/nocturnal, have lost the fear of sunlight that orcs still retain. They have fully human-level intelligence, reversing things from 2E by making them the smarter of the two races, accompanied by a natural aptitude for sneaking about. The multi-lingual nature of earlier editions has, however, gone, with most goblins only being able to speak their own language.

The main weakness, compared with orcs, is that they have merely human-level strength, and, since they also use smaller weapons, therefore tend to inflict less damage on their opponents. This would, realistically, be at least somewhat offset by the greater likelihood of them striking from ambush (they seem to be good at tactics, but poor at larger scale strategy).

Beyond this, their culture seems to have changed very little. They are now much more ready to ally themselves with hobgoblins, at least temporarily. There is no mention of the females being non-combatant, with the clear implication that they are just as strong and capable as the males, while at least some tribal leaders are more valued for their cunning than for their physical prowess. In fact, craftiness and a willingness to fight dirty seem key traits in their society, something that's likely behind their shift in alignment from lawful to neutral evil; they are clearly not any kind of well-oiled fighting machine.


Goblins in this edition have relatively elongated skulls, projecting, pointed, noses, and exceptionally long ears. They also have a muscular build, closer to that of 1E than to the scrawny physiques of 2 and 3E, although they appear to be about the same height as in the latter edition. Despite which, they are notably weaker than their former counterparts, counterbalanced by an even higher agility, with a greater affinity for stealth and swiftly escaping from danger. They prefer scimitars to shortswords, and bows to slings, but employ the same leather armour and wooden shields as in previous versions.

While they do, in fact, have more hit points than in earlier editions, it's still a remarkably small number by the standards of 5E (only half that of orcs), marking them out as particularly puny, and emphasising that they are really only a threat in large numbers. Since they are now not just cowardly, but lazy with it, it's clear that they really rely on those numbers to achieve any kind of success in the larger world.

Socially, a few new points are made about their culture. In addition to wolves, they have also partially domesticated rats, apparently simply to use as pets. We're specifically told that females are as likely to become leaders as males (although, as is common with such races, there don't seem to be any pictures of females anywhere in the books...) Their underground lairs are said to be protected by multiple alarms and hidey-holes, and the larger tribes occupy several different ones, rather than all living communally. Goblins are once again said to love torture and "other wickedness", but on the whole seem to be regarded as a bit of a joke by the other inhabitants of their world. There's no indication in the core book that any of them can use magic.

The overall trend then, has been for goblins to become more distinct from orcs, first by emphasising the advantages of their smaller size, and then by turning them into a race that's more of a nuisance that a genuine danger. On the other hand, they have become smarter and more agile than orcs, even if they don't use this for anything much worthwhile.

There is also an increasing trend for them to be ruled over by hobgoblins; in 1E, there is (initially) no indication that they are even related, and, by 5E, a high proportion of goblin tribes have hobgoblin masters. In some settings, such as Eberron, pretty much all goblins live under hobgoblin dominion, with all the great tribes being of mixed race. In Mystara, while goblins are more likely to be independent, a number do live under hobgoblin rule, and the two races are able to cross-breed.

In Forgotten Realms, the default setting of modern D&D, goblins are regularly enslaved by hobgoblins, who use them as skirmishers and scouts, keeping even their leaders in menial and subservient roles. Where goblins are free from their larger kin, they have a stratified caste-based society that leans towards the lawful - their continual infighting is probably what prevents it from actually being described as such. They are also, as humanoids tend to be in FR, very religious, although this is more accurately described as a sort of superstitious dread, since they are more terrified of their deity than anything else, and don't seem to have clerics. Volo's Guide does reveal that they do, in fact, have some spellcasters, but that they are relatively weak, and always small in number.

The goblins of Pathfinder look quite different from their D&D inspiration; they have greenish skin, long ears, and disproportionately large heads that look as if they might almost snap their necks. They are even more agile than the 3E sort, but are otherwise fairly similar. Some notable points about their culture include the fact they have a particular hatred for gnomes, but not especially for dwarves, and that they now actually prefer to eat the flesh of humans and similar races - this was not mentioned in 3E, and was said to be an unusual occurrence in 2E.

Modelling D&D goblins in other game systems depends somewhat on the exact vision of the race that you have, based on its variations down the years. In general though, they are physically weaker, but more agile, than humans, and probably have some natural Stealth skill or the like. Their intelligence varies, as does their constitution/endurance (or equivalent); the latter may be balanced by some limited disease resistance if it's otherwise low. If Cowardice is a specific trait, they likely have it, and they typically seem to be sadists, too. Their combat ability is typically portrayed as rather low, but, in many other systems, their low strength alone may be sufficient reason for that.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Evolution of Orcs

Orcs are perhaps the quintessential low-level D&D monster, and one that has been adopted by a range of other RPGs and computer games since. Unlike my earlier ponderings on D&D fantasy creatures, I'm not here going to focus much on what orcs might be like biologically; they're pretty clearly anthropoid beings that, some minor features aside, are broadly similar to humans. Instead, I'm going to look at some different conceptions of them down the years, focussing mainly on D&D itself.

Orcs, in the modern sense, are, of course, the invention of J.R.R. Tolkien. He borrowed the word from Old English, in which it's usually translated as "monster", and is possibly just a less common alternative word for "ogre". But it was Tolkien who introduced the concept of the orc as an evil race of humanoid beings, from which Gygax obviously took his inspiration when writing D&D. Tolkien's orcs are the result of twisted experiments on elves, and are typically described as sallow-skinned and misshapen, although there does seem to be some variation among them. They exist primarily as the foot-soldiers of more powerful evil entities.


Orcs appear in D&D right from the beginning, in which they are an evil, tribal, race of often subterranean humanoids. In 1E (that is, the 1977 "Advanced" edition), they are one of five evil tribal humanoid races, which form a distinct game mechanical hierarchy of increasing physical prowess. Orcs are the third step on this chain, the mid-point against which one could argue that everything else is measured. With no special powers, beyond the ability to see in the dark (which almost everything has) and exactly one hit die, they're pretty much equivalent to starting humans and are about as "default" a monster as one could wish to find.

Physically, 1E orcs resemble resemble humans with the heads of pigs, including a long snout, prominent ears, and distinct tusks. They have brownish skin, often with a greenish tint and bristly hair (or none at all, judging from the picture). They typically wear reinforced leather, carry wooden shields and use a variety of weapons, with axes being the most common. A significant proportion of them, perhaps as many as one in six, are two to three times tougher than the regular sort, acting as leaders and their bodyguards. Like Tolkien's orcs, they are nocturnal or subterranean, and have difficulty fighting in bright sunlight.

They are described as "lawful evil". The latter half of that designation is justified by, among other things, a love of torture and a habit of eating humans. The "lawful" designator implies a hierarchical society, something that's supported by their regular use of slaves, and what seem to be reasonably well-organised tribes that number a little over 400 on average (including infants). Female orcs, out-numbered two-to-one by the males, are used solely as chattel and breeding stock, and are essentially incapable of fighting. All of this seems to be at least consistent with Tolkien's limited descriptions of orcish culture, and is clearly based on it.

Orcs are said to be slightly less intelligent than humans, despite which, they are all apparently fluent in five different languages, including their own. We don't know such things as how their physical strength compares with that of humans, although they are about the same size (Tolkein's orcs are shorter, and hunched with it) so there may not be much difference.


In most respects, there is little change in orcs between 1E and 2E. Partly that's because the rules systems are very similar, but also there seems to have been a strong impulse not to change the monsters too much, and to make them recognisably the same thing. Nonetheless, the physical appearance of orcs does change dramatically in this edition.

Their skin is now a sallow grey-green, instead of brown, the start of a trend that will see them become bright green in many non-D&D properties. We're specifically told that they don't look like pigs, in an obvious attempt to distance the 2E version from its predecessor, which somebody presumably thought was a bit silly. They do, however, retain a noticeable snout, complete with tusks, and have a sloping forehead with "wolf-like" ears. Unlike the earlier version, they are also habitually hunched over, although they would be still be human-sized if they could stand up properly.

Since the publication of 1E twelve years prior, various supplementary sources had expanded on orcs and their society, and some of this worked its way into the base description in 2E. Some notable expansions on the original description include a tendency to rebel against their masters, weakening their "lawful" descriptor, although perhaps not by much, since their communities can now sometimes reach populations of several thousand. A small number of them also have the capability to use limited magic, putting them on more of a par with humans in a world where combat magic seems to be very common. Their original special enmity for elves has expanded to include dwarves as well.

In other respects, they are slightly toned down. For instance, they do still eat the flesh of humans, but only as a last resort, much preferring regular meat. Their love of torture and (implicitly) rape is no longer mentioned, perhaps in an attempt to make the game seem more kid-friendly. They do, however, remain able to speak five different languages as standard, although it's now clarified that they're not actually very good at most of them.

In terms of their gender relations, they do now have something resembling marriage, although quite what this means is unclear; it may be that it could be more accurately described as servile concubinage. Certainly, the females remain incapable of meaningful combat; it's unclear whether they are still outnumbered by the males.


Significant changes to the system between 2E and 3E mean that there are several changes in the numbers used to describe them, but the basic concept of orcs remains unchanged. Even so, there are some further changes that move them further from their 1E roots. First, there's the appearance. While the text once again uses "pig-like" as a descriptor, the snout has gone, replaced with a broad, flat nose and a jutting jaw with large tusks. The skin remains grey-green, but orcs are now slightly taller than humans if we ignore the stooped posture. Their favoured weapon has changed from axe to falchion.

Differences in the rules editions means that we can now compare orcs with humans across a wider range of parameters. Compared with the earlier version, these have a slightly lower intelligence, and the great majority of orcs no longer speak multiple languages. But we can also see, which we couldn't previously, that they are much physically stronger than humans, which has some effect on their combat prowess. Proportionately speaking, their leaders are much tougher than they were before, being able to take advantage of regular character classes, and typically reaching a much higher level. This is partly due to a general inflation in character ability in 3E, but also allows orcs to remain as effective foes for longer as characters level up.

Orcish culture, with its emphasis on perpetual conflict and territorial expansion, remains much the same as before, but they are now classed as "chaotic evil", implying a lack of organisation that seems somewhat at odds with their ability to form large, at least vaguely functional, communities. Females and males are now equally common, but, uniquely among the five "evil tribal humanoid" cultures, males remain exclusively dominant, with the females as non-combatant slaves only (likely using the "commoner" character class, although this isn't stated).


Being a close variant of 3E, Pathfinder does not significantly change the statistics of orcs, although, in line with its increase in the range of abilities that everything possesses, they do gain the ability to fight on after sustaining injury that would otherwise knock them out. Pathfinder orcs do, however, have explicitly green, rather than grey-green, skin, and are heavier than humans of the same height. The text description emphasises their evil side, making them lazy and unreliable, brutalising their own kind when they can get away with it, and regularly inflicting torture and "humiliating physical violation" on their defeated foes. Females remain weaker than males, and are consequently used as punching bags; presumably, they're not effective in combat.

So, no, not very nice.


Skipping over 4E, 5E sees further rules changes, perhaps the most significant of which for orcs is the general hit point inflation that sees them, for the first time, given two hit dice instead of just the one. Overcome with bloodlust, they can also sprint towards their enemies more rapidly than other humanoids can.

The hierarchical scheme of evil tribal humanoids seen in 1E began to weaken in 3E, but here breaks down completely, with the linear progression gone, and orcs becoming one of the tougher such races, rather than the median one. This is reflected in the fact that orcs remain only slightly taller than humans, but are now much heavier and more muscular. In terms of their base statistics, they are now even stronger than in 3E, more agile than humans, by far the most physically resilient of the tribal humanoids, and have the highest scores in their mental stats - apart from intelligence itself, which has dropped a further point. Despite which, they are once again fully bilingual, although the multiple languages of the earliest editions have now gone.

In terms of their physical appearance, their face has become flatter, and their nose the most human-like yet, although they have large tusks, an elongated jaw and skin that has now fully evolved to a solid grey colour. Compared with the previous versions, they have lost their fear of bright sunlight, making them a more formidable foe even if humans can choose the timing and location of a battle. Their favoured weapon has reverted to being an axe.

Culturally, orcs have lost their desire for territory, becoming a rampaging horde that consistently moves on and rarely establishes any kind of base for long. Although numbers are never mentioned, this presumably rules out the orcish cities mentioned in 2E, and perhaps fits better with their "chaotic" designator, with everything in a constant state of violent flux. The eating of their foes is not mentioned at all, and nor is the taking of slaves for forced labour or torture; in fact, the most brutal thing they're described as doing is hacking off a dead foe's head. Not particularly pleasant, to be sure, but not beyond what you'd imagine some human warriors doing.

For the first time, females aren't mentioned at all, with the implication being that they're just as strong (and numerous) as the males, and, given the violence-is-all nature of their society, treated as equals at last.

The overall trend then, has been for D&D orcs to evolve from an attempt at emulating Tolkien (limited by the nature of the game system) to becoming more their own thing. They have become slightly larger, and certainly stronger, as iterations of the game have moved on, as well as changing from the original brown to greenish to the current grey. The nature of their evil has also changed to some extent, as well as the emphasis that different editions have chosen to place on it. On the other hand, the females do seem to have become more emancipated over time, not that that's anything to do with the race as a whole becoming any "softer".

But now, a quick look at how orcs have been dealt with in a partial selection of D&D and D&D-inspired settings:

Mystara orc
Forgotten Realms has long been the default setting of D&D, and, ever since 2E, the base description of orcs has always included some description of the orcish religion of that world, as if it were a universal feature of the race. Indeed, as described in Volo's Guide to Monsters (5E) orcs are a deeply religious people, albeit with a religion that largely revolves around kicking the crap out of things. We're told that their society is surprisingly structured, with individuals assigned to rigidly defined roles based on their aptitude - something that doesn't seem to me terribly "chaotic". There is, however, some nice elaboration on the "loot carts" of the first two editions, making them part of the standard picture of the race.

It's clear here that the females are, indeed equal to the males, and there isn't really any sign that the society is patriarchal, as the Monster Manual suggests. Surprisingly, given the versions in earlier editions, it turns out that FR orcs have a cultural taboo against non-consensual sex with other races. From a game-play point of view, this is a sensible thing to add, since it removes something that most players are going to find uncomfortable, and it's probably part of the broader aim in 5E of making the game more female-friendly. But it does make one wonder why a chaotic evil race would have a cultural taboo against... well, anything really.

Midnight (3E) portrays a world in which the local analogue of Sauron has won, and thus, while humans are still very common, orcs are arguably the dominant race in the world. In a twist on Tolkien, the local orcs are descended from the magical degradation of dwarves, rather than elves. They have dark grey to black skin, but otherwise have a physique that fits the 3E standard look, and are inherently resistant to cold weather and magical attacks. As shock troops of the dark lord, they seem to be quite organised and capable of forming garrisons and the like, rather than just roving bands of marauders. Unusually, they can cross-breed with dwarves, but not humans. They're actually matriarchal, led by a cadre of magic-wielding priestesses.

The orcs of Mystara physically resemble the 2E sort, and are organised into large and brutal legions with strict military discipline. They regularly associate with the other tribal humanoid races, and some of them have built a civilisation of sorts in a previously abandoned subterranean city. They don't seem to be able to cross-breed with humans, or, indeed, anything else that isn't an orc.

The orcs of Eberron are perhaps the most radical interpretation, a dying race of green-skinned barbarians following a naturalistic religion and mostly just wanting to be left alone. Mention also has to go to the orcs of Warhammer, asexual hairless green-skinned humanoids that are actually composed of a sentient fungus that continually buds off more individuals.

The orcs of HarnWorld come in five different types (also a feature of some other settings, such as Kalamar) but are generally hairy, almost ape-like creatures that are generally smaller than humans. Living in isolated mountain ranges, they are prone to bursting out of their refuges when they run short on resources, descending on the local humans in a ravaging swarm. Females are extremely rare, laying large numbers of eggs at a time, which incubate in dung piles. Given their alien natures, half-orcs, unsurprisingly, don't exist.

Converting the D&D concept of the orc to other game systems should be straightforward enough. They have high strength, low intelligence, and are otherwise broadly human-like, save for a particularly poor temper (often a Disadvantage/Hindrance/etc. in other systems). Apart from combat, and probably survival, the only skill they seem to be particularly adept at is Intimidation. Perhaps the only thing that might be difficult to model directly is their aversion to sunlight, which should provide some actual penalty, but even then, an arbitrary statement of "-10% to combat skills in bright light" (or equivalent value) should suffice.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Some Thoughts on Ankhegs

Whip scorpions also spray acid
...but out of their other end
Giant insects - and other invertebrates - have been a common feature of fantasy role-playing games since the early days. The majority are based on real-world invertebrates expanded to much larger size. The ankheg, which made its debut in first edition AD&D, is unusual in being entirely fictional. Indeed, it is an original creation of the game, with the name being made up because it sounded good, rather than deriving from some mythological or other pre-existing fictional basis. Thus, it seems a good starting point to examine the question of how giant insects in general might actually work.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Some Thoughts on Gorgons

In Greek mythology, the gorgons were three monstrous sisters whose visage turned people to stone. Detailed descriptions vary, although they typically had snakes for hair. In D&D, however, these beings are known as "medusas", from the name of the specific gorgon slain by Perseus. The creature known as a gorgon in D&D is therefore, something else entirely, an essentially original creation, albeit still with the power of petrifaction, and perhaps partially inspired by the bronze bulls from the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Some Thoughts on Displacer Beasts

Actually a photoshopped jaguar...
Like their supposed enemies, the blink dogs, displacer beasts have been present in every version of the Dungeon & Dragons game. Apparently based, at least in terms of their physical appearance, on an alien creature featuring in the works of early science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt, their signature power is nonetheless original to the game. They are among the few standard D&D creatures not to be included in the Open Game Licence, so that they are distinct to that game and not to any of its clones/adaptations, such as Pathfinder. But we're not restricted by that here, since we're just providing a review of the thing. So what can we say about them?

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Some Thoughts on Blink Dogs

In Basic Edition, blink dogs were said to resemble dingos
Blink dogs are a relatively well-known creature for the D&D game, being entirely original to it, and having been present in every edition since the very beginning. Compared with some other signature creatures, though, there doesn't seem to be much written about them. So let's see what sort of a take I can make on them.

As always, let's begin by seeing what the primary source material has to say about the creatures, using an admittedly incomplete sampling of various editions:

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Some Thoughts on Owlbears

No, I'm not very good with Photoshop...
Owlbears are arguably the most distinctive of the "mundane" animals of the standard D&D menagerie. Of course, that's taking a very broad definition of "mundane", referring solely to the fact that they possess no magical powers or particularly unusual abilities. To the people of the world they live in, they're presumably no stranger or more to be feared than tigers, alligators, or rhinoceroses are to us.

In our reality, though, they couldn't exist, since they mix and match mammalian and avian features in a way that doesn't happen in natural evolution. Even in the world of D&D they're usually said to be the creation of some long-dead wizard, rather than something natural - although it's worth noting that other hybrid creatures, such as griffons, aren't regarded in the same way. Still, it's at least interesting, for someone like me who writes a lot about real world animals, to consider how such a creature would work if, somehow, it really existed.