How to Run Goblins

An arrow flies out of a nearby bush, surprising the group’s navigator and bringing him to his knees. A barrage follows before the travelers can move to react. Some manage to raise their shields or catch the projectiles in their armor, but not all are so lucky. They push their backs together, wildly scanning the surrounding forest for any sign of movement. Whatever is out there is intelligent, cunning, and ruthless. A branch rustles and two warriors turn in reaction, only for arrows to impact from multiple other directions. Somewhere within the shadows, a band of goblin hunters all smile.

With our list of 10 goblin encounters complete, it’s time to really get into the gritty details of a goblin clan. Specifically, we want to cover how to make the best use of goblins within your campaign’s world, and how they differ from kobolds and similar races. How do they operate? How do their camps function? What tactics should they use in battle? Many of these questions might seem obvious at first but answering them in realistic and cohesive ways can make the difference in campaign immersion. Goblinoids are their own race and people, and players should see that.

Goblin Bigrock (night banner)
Be sure to check out our 10 Goblin Encounters for examples of how to use everything we talk about. Each encounter is designed to be unique and demonstrate different ways to use the classic creature type.

A quick disclaimer is necessary before we continue. As with every race and creature in any world, it is totally fine to play goblins however you want. It’s your game, your story, so write it your way. My brother once ran a world in which dwarves were nine-foot-tall masked bodybuilders; there’s no problem with that. Goblins often function as an industrious and mechanically-minded race, particularly in steampunk or magitech settings. Our examples will focus on the more standard, fantastical settings as they tend to be the most popular. They also tend to reduce goblins to mindless, evil little gremlins. We will still make an effort to describe the process of answering the necessary questions. Hopefully, you can take the same approach and adjust it to your own needs.

Who Are They

The first step to planning any race or the characters within it is to identify their defining traits. Look at any official sources and identify how they describe them, as well as their abilities. This information should help you create a foundation to expand on. So let’s look at the goblin. In the most recent edition, goblins are small, neutral-evil humanoids. They have below-average strength but above average dexterity, making them individually weaker but quicker than a regular human. Their intelligence also matches a human’s, though they have lower wisdom and charisma. The latter should not be surprising.

But what does this all show us? For a start, their small size and physical statistics mean that they must rely on speed to engage larger targets, which includes most other humanoids. They benefit from holding a numbers advantage and are quick enough to use it effectively. Likewise, they are smart enough to know it. While they do not have keen eyes, their darkvision can give them an edge over other races, meaning they would prefer to hunt at night or under cover. The same goes for their bonus to stealth, owed again to their size and speed. Finally, they are not stupid. Goblins have the intelligence to craft, build, and congregate and strategize, though lower wisdom might lead to them acting brashly. If a situation does not go their way, though, they have the awareness to retreat.

When it comes to a race forming and functioning as a group, their alignment can tell us a great deal. Goblins are neutral-evil, suggesting that they are self-serving and have little regard for victims, though they may not be as murderous or vicious as chaotic-evil orcs. That is reserved for the bugbears and ogres that accompany them. These larger races are the battle-seeking warriors of the goblin clans, acting as their front-line muscle. They live to raid, battle, and succeed. And then we have the hobgoblins. As larger, lawful-evil goblinoids, the hobgoblins hold to a simple code formed around skill in battle. They may raid and ambush but there is a sense of honor in their actions. This, along with their mental and physical strength and abilities, also makes them well-suited as leaders.

These brief overviews should build the basis of your goblin encounters and communities. Almost every detail should tie back to these factors to explain why it is the way it is. This works to link everything in a realistic, believable way. Your goblins should feel seamlessly integrated into a living world that accommodates and reacts to their presence. Once you understand these foundations, it’s time to dive deeper…

Out of combat

Your detailed planning can be divided into two basic categories: how they act IN combat and how they act OUT of combat. The first is primarily an understanding of their battle tactics and diversifying the units in your goblins encounters. The latter tends to be more involved, as much of it operates in the background and requires more nuance than the sometimes game-y planning of encounters. It is the understanding of how goblins interact with each other and the world. We will begin with this latter half, as creating and understanding how the clan operates can help in planning their capabilities and motivations. Remember, goblins are clan-oriented and intelligent. Their hunts and ambushes are almost always for the betterment of themselves or their community.

Camps and Castes

Dungeon Room Builder Demo
Custom dungeon tiles let you easily set out a space that has been stripped clean and then occupied. You can find with our Dungeon Room Builder here, and keep reading for more…

We will start by planning the very center of their goblin clan. While often nomadic, moving as they consume an area’s resources, goblins tend to congregate in a central camp or outfitted ruin. This is where their non-combative populace will usually stay, with enough defenses and guards to keep them safe. Traps will protect its outskirts, while walls and guards will surround the camp itself. It should also display their lifestyle and outlook. Goblins focus on survival in a hostile world, with little regard for conservation of that world. They will do and take anything that can help the clan. This could mean encroaching on humans’ land, occupying an existing structure, or directly attacking travelers and deliveries. The worst of it comes from their proclivity for taking slaves and captives as a temporary, expendable workforce. All of this should be visible in the camp itself.

Faces of Note

A good idea is to identify the groups that exist in your goblin clan and determine what they would need. The first would be a leader, given a larger, more central tent or hut. This would often come with an open area outside or close by, where the same leader could address their people. Trophies that show the leader’s accomplishments could adorn the meeting place, much like those set outside the camp to dissuade visitors. Try to use this area to demonstrate the leader’s character. A bugbear warlord’s personal quarters shouldn’t look the same as that of a wizened witch doctor. Doing this shows their significance and influence, as well as informing the party about the leader, should they find it. The leader’s influence will bleed into the rest of the clan, both in actions and appearance.

One step down from your goblin clan’s leader is any lieutenants, sages, or notable characters. These would be the ‘minibosses’ for your party, with their own unique and distinguishing abilities and appearances. Their domiciles will be smaller than the leader’s but serve the same purpose. A player should be able to see a goblin warlock’s hut and quickly ascertain an idea of its owner. This could mean drying herbs, visible alchemy equipment, or even evidence of magical construction. A powerful hunter’s tent could have the pelts of large, monstrous beasts, while an ogre’s shelter might be as simple as a bed and a pile of food scraps, with a large weapon resting nearby. These houses should be close to the group that they oversee, or the leader’s hut.

Assigned Roles

Moving away from the more unique individuals, we come to the goblin clan’s soldiers and hunters. This is where you should keep in mind goblins’ intelligence and similarity to other humanoid races. Their fighting force will likely live in their own homes but require the necessary areas for training and places of elevation to guard their walls. A clan situated in a ruin or similar location will also have patrol paths, both open and hidden in tunnels. These spaces are unlikely to be next to living areas but should be close to any craftsmen. They may not have a barracks, per se, but should have an area for the creation of weapons and armor or storage for those that they have looted. Likewise, any goblin clan that breeds beasts such as wolves or worgs will need a kennel and personnel to oversee it.

Next, you have the non-combative groups within the clan. These include the gatherers and farmers, as well as any children. They will primarily exist within and around their homes, with small farms for whatever can grow locally and quickly before the clan moves again. Gatherers that venture out of camp will still remain within the borders set by scouts and soldiers, and may even go with protection in case of aggressive fauna. The clan will likely have some dedicated cooks for everything hunted and gathered, with an appropriate station near the camp’s center. Finally, children will run and play within the vicinity of their home, as any human kid would. Their parents might not like them leaving the walls but some will stray out when possible.

The last consideration is the goblin clan’s slaves and captives, determined by their availability and the goblins’ behavior. This will depend primarily on the leader and their advisors, referring back to the alignments we mentioned. Slaves will be kept far away from the unarmed populace and under constant guard. They may be forced into cages or tied to posts when they are not needed. This area should show the obvious squalor they are kept in, with piles of refuse and rotting food (unless the leader is a particularly honorable hobgoblin). When they are required, it will be for physical labor that goblins aren’t suited for, such as clearing tunnels or cutting trees. Their supervisor will likely include one of the lieutenants, as well as a group of guards, who will never leave the captives unattended.

The World Around Them

Once you understand how the goblins act within their society, it becomes easier to see how they interact with the world around them. Everything they do is to maintain their camp and clan, at any cost. This will generally lead to a particularly hostile influence as they hunt, raid, and drain natural resources. The strategies they employ, particularly in terms of aggression, will vary depending on clan and leader, of course.

The Immediate Vicinity

The first point is simply how the goblin clan affects the landscape they inhabit. As we mentioned, goblins will take and use any resource they can find. This will lead to notable effects on the environment, such as clearing areas of forest, diminishing local wildlife from hunting, as well as the scraps left behind once the clan moves on. All of these are great ways to show players that the goblin clans have an effect on the world, thereby letting players have an effect through their interactions with the clan. These factors can also act as clues to the party, indicating how powerful and numerous a camp is, as well as how long it has remained in the area. Investigating their past camp locations could also provide clues about their behavior.

Roadside Forest Tokens Page 1
Visible logging efforts is a simple way to show a goblin clan’s presence. You can do this with our Roadside Forest Tokens, found here.

Goblins will also outfit the area surrounding their camp in ways that benefit them. The simplest is traps. This could be pitfalls under long grass, swinging log traps, falling nets, or intentional rock slides. They will depend on the terrain and the clan’s capabilities. The real focus should be on ambush groups, who will do whatever they can to give themselves an advantage over their prey. Trees might block roads or a fake robbery scene might be set up as a lure. A forest might have perches in the trees for goblin archers. Perhaps their most effective tactic, primarily underground but also in other areas they control, is to dig tunnels. Small hiding places can allow goblins to move without the risk of being seen or pursued by larger creatures. They can move into flanking positions or simply to take potshots.

As always, you should pay some mind to how the world reacts to the goblins. Nearby towns, settlements, and roads will usually be aware of a goblin clan’s presence and take measures to avoid them. Players should be able to notice an increase in guard presence or detour roads set up to bypass ambush spots, as well as people moving less freely in and out of town. Locals will warn travelers, either in person or with signs along the road, of the danger and where the clan was last seen. Keep in mind that, while goblins are low-level player threats, they are still extremely dangerous for regular people. Militias are unlikely to provoke a goblin clan, only striking back if their people are taken. Most people will favor defending themselves or even striking a deal with the clan in hopes that they will move on.

Towns that fall prey to goblin attacks are likely to offer payment for protection or retaliation. This is one of the reasons they are so popular for starting an adventure. If you do this, be sure to have characters inform your players of the dangers of attacking the clan’s camp directly. A lone goblin is an easy kill, but their power scales exponentially as they outnumber the party, especially in their own territory.

Leaving Camp

Goblin clans always have a number of scout and soldier parties. These groups will be the ones to go out and claim territory for the clan, ensuring that they can secure resources and that their gatherers can move safely. They will set up an area surrounding the camp that they deem as their own. This will often include a secluded but popular road or even a village. Their aim, beyond a secure camp, is to have the ability to ambush and steal for extra resources. Aggressive clans will even see to raiding nearby settlements. The specific details will come down to the clan’s leadership and, more importantly, their location, but the general idea can be broken into two groups with different goals.

The first is scouts and hunters. These are the units that will act in tandem with attack groups but rarely engage in combat themselves. Scouts’ jobs are to investigate the local area quietly and cautiously, identifying any landmarks and points of interest in the camp’s vicinity. They will plot out the area that the goblin clan can control, as well as watching the roads when it comes time to ambush travelers. Scouts should dot the area surrounding the camp. In the case of dangerous animals or meddlesome adventuring parties, they will report to the soldiers and hunters. The hunters themselves are simple: they hunt for food within the camp’s territory. Obviously. They are rarely equipped to fight other humanoids, only doing what they can to escape. Both of these groups will tend to be regular goblins, owing to the need for speed and stealth.

The soldiers are stronger and more aggressive. They will make up the fighting and raiding force of the clan and include the likes of hobgoblins, bugbears, ogres, (dire) wolves, and worgs. These will be the best-equipped and most ready and likely to encounter the party in combat. The purpose of them is two-fold: to strike and to protect. The former will depend on the clan’s behavior, with some aiming simply to ambush passersby and others raiding towns. As always, keep in mind their intelligence. A clan will test a settlement’s defenses before making an all-out attack and are not there to take anything and everything. They are not ambushing or attacking for ‘shinies’. They want resources and captives, even if it means making smaller, more careful attacks each night. Likewise, there will always be groups patrolling goblin lands, especially close to and within the central camp.

Caves are some of the most defensible camp locations and are easy to construct with our gallery of maps and assets…

In combat

Moving on from the more general questions of how and why the goblins act, we come to planning what this means for your game. You’ve set the scene and know what is happening in the background, but about when the players get involved? Once again, we’ll divide this into two sections: the units, and their tactics. The first will cover how to make goblins themselves interesting in combat, by creating variation and uniqueness within their ranks. The second is how they will act in combat and interactions. These should, as always, stem from your chosen motivations for the goblin clan, its leader, and the soldiers themselves.

Units, Ranks, and Skills

The most straightforward way of making encounters more interesting, aside from the maps and traps, is in creature variety. This is why we mention the larger goblinoids and pets, as their existence serves not only the lore and realism but also your combat. Having only regular goblins quickly becomes tedious and predictable. Instead, throw in some bugbears and ogres where necessary, give hunting groups wolves and worgs to command, all with the occasional hobgoblin leader. Giants, ettin, and trolls can also help give identity to a goblin clan. Mix these up to try and make each encounter unique in appearance and strategy.

Beyond choosing creatures, you should also seek to diversify their abilities. The quickest way to do this is by taking generic, class-based creatures and reskinning them or giving their features to your goblinoids. A leader unit might have a bandit captain’s multiattack and Parry ability. A druid could work as a shaman or magical beastmaster. The most powerful of goblin casters could be a mage. Remember, of course, to maintain the features of the race they are being changed to, such as their size, darkvision, and Nimble Escape. You may also wish to edit them to fit their new size, in the case of goblins. Lower their strength score by two and raise their dexterity by the same amount. If you wish to go further, reducing a creature’s size would normally also lower their hit dice (d8s to d6s, for medium creatures becoming small).

An important note for planning your creatures is to make them identifiable. Players should have the opportunity to recognize a mage before it sets them on fire. Make a descriptive note of the unit’s armor, weapons, visible spell components, and any other small details. A caster might carry a spellbook or be covered in talismans, while a leader should have gear of a higher quality. Minor additions like these allow your players to get an idea of what they are facing without breaking immersion or giving away secrets.

A fight against memorable units should take place on a memorable battle map! The Goblin Bigrock is a great location for goblin rituals or meetings. Find it here.

Another way to enhance your creatures is to look at the abilities of similar classes and enemy types. This is a lot more open-ended but can help with developing an identity for your goblin clan. It can also elevate them beyond the usual archetypes. The first way to do this is simply by giving them levels in player classes. This works best for smaller groups of much stronger opponents, as it can quickly sway the balance of an encounter. Abilities such as the fighter’s Action Surge, ranger’s Colossus Slayer and Horde Breaker, or an evoker wizard’s Sculpt Spells are great ways to demonstrate deadly, experienced opponents. Your players will quickly realize that the clan lieutenants are not to be trifled with.

You can also take abilities from other creature types. These can be admittedly difficult to find, so we will provide some examples. More aggressive, warmongering goblin clans might have troops with Pack Tactics, a gnoll’s Rampage, or even a sahuagin’s Blood Frenzy or clay golem’s Berserk. A clan led by a warlock in the worship of demons or devils might have been granted an imp’s Devil’s Sight and even Magic Resistance. A particularly militant leader could possess a knight’s Leadership. Be sure to integrate these into your goblins’ personalities so that they make sense and don’t feel like unexplained difficulty spikes. Speaking of which, be careful with applying extra abilities en-masse. They can quickly promote the creature’s threat level, making balance difficult. Think about how each one can affect your specific party and tailor it towards your game.

Battle Strategy

Hillside Altar battle map, color
Goblins will always look for advantages, like cover and elevation. Our Hillside Altar battle map has both of these, for an ideal roadside ambush. Download the map here.

With every other aspect covered, we finally come to the most direct and mechanical section: how your goblins will act in combat. If done right, this should be the culmination and display of almost everything you have planned leading to this point. Their character, motivations, and abilities should all shine through.

At the most basic level, goblins are ambush fighters. They are quick and sneaky but lack the durability to take a group of players directly. This is primarily facilitated by using their shortbows in conjunction with Nimble Escape. A regular goblin will use its turn firing from a hidden position, therefore at advantage, before spending its bonus action to hide again, all the while moving to avoid being easily found. This would never work for a lone unit but becomes an effective strategy when attacking in a group. It also serves to divide and direct their prey. Small tunnels, elevation, and cover allow them to control the combat’s movement, aiding their larger friends or pulling opponents towards traps.

Hobgoblins and bugbears act as the most common close-range units and the ‘tanks’. They will begin combat in the same way as goblins, making use of a surprise round and the bugbear’s Surprise Attack. After that, their job is to hold the party’s attention while goblins strike from hiding. Hobgoblins, in particular, will position themselves to make use of their Martial Advantage and to push players towards any nearby traps. They are intelligent enough to read the battlefield, issuing orders to goblins and other units. This means they are also effective at range, using their longbow from an elevated position. If a particular player is causing significant damage, maintaining concentration, or attempting to heal, a hobgoblin would likely be the one to call them out as a priority target. The same applies for tactical retreats.

Wolves and dire wolves will do as they are trained. This usually means fighting to the death or until their master recalls them. Their speed and Pack Tactics mean that they are generally released after the surprise round and once the melee units have moved in. The dogs then surround the enemy, cutting off movement options, attacking at advantage, and potentially knocking them prone. Their goal (and the reason we pay attention to balance!) is to put the party into a death spiral. Worgs’ intelligence elevates them, giving them greater ability to make judgments, select targets, and retreat for self-preservation. It is also common for goblins to use their animals as mounts, the mechanics of which are covered in the rulebook.

Ogres, ettin, trolls, and the like all act as supplementary units to the other groups. They are relatively unintelligent but are not beasts to be easily controlled. This means that they will follow simple orders such as ‘attack’, ‘retreat’, or ‘kill that one’ but should otherwise act as per their usual behavior. An ogre should lumber and strike the nearest target or the last to hurt him, an ettin’s heads might argue and splits its multiattack between two targets. A troll will act more ferociously but be deterred by those with the ability to negate its Regeneration. These all act as the ‘meat shields’ and sources of flanking for more intelligent units by taking the focus away from the ambush’s leader.

Your use of traps, while a minor point, is one that distinguishes goblins from kobolds. Goblins are focused on fighting and ambushing. They will use traps within these tactics as a way of restraining or damaging opponents but they are not the type to sit back and let a hallway of tripwires deal with their prey. This is also due to the fact that a common motivation is the capture of slaves. Your focus should be on the creatures, with traps as a compliment when appropriate.

Dungeon Trap Tokens, preview 1
Goblins will not focus on traps but they are smart enough to use existing ones. Our Dungeon Trap Tokens, found here, can help spice up a goblin dungeon crawl. Just don’t use them too much; save that for kobolds!

A Tactical Retreat

You might notice that we constantly mention the goblins retreating. That’s because they should. Once again, they are intelligent and organized creatures motivated by the survival of themselves and their clan. An ambush squad will not sacrifice itself to the party. Any of the humanoid or giant creatures will pull back upon reaching a quarter of their total health, trolls being a possible exception. This will rarely happen for goblins without them dying outright, so consider also having them retreat if they also lose half of their units.

This should not look like a switch is flicked in the goblin hive mind. Show them adjusting their strategy as others die by beginning to fall back and focus on ranged attacks. They should begin to account for what is doing the most damage and work to either prevent or avoid it. This could mean taking cover, keeping out of a fighter’s range, or swarming a mage to quickly eliminate them. When it does come time for them to leave, pets and other expendable, mindless units might be left behind to cover their escape. Goblins will retreat through the same cover and tunnels they have been using, while medium-sized creatures may call on a mount for its speed. Should the party pursue them, the goblins will lead them through traps to slow or even kill the players, all while beelining for reinforcements.

A possible addition to your retreat criteria is one I have used several times in my own games: a measure of the creatures’ confidence. This will require a little more math and note-keeping on your end, so you should only incorporate it if it will make your game more fun and interesting. Keep a running count of how much damage the enemies have dealt to the party, compared to the damage dealt back. This helps you track whether the goblins might believe they have a chance at success and if they are willing to take the risk. It could even require a wisdom check (judgment) or save (to not become fearful) from the leader. Ultimately, this should only act as an augment to the above system in the cases of the clan being more malicious or animalistic, or if players are becoming frustrated with fights never ending in total success.

If your players are in the clan’s territory, it is likely that the hobgoblins and other leaders will carry warhorns. These can act as a way to issue orders and to alert nearby patrols. Consider having them call for assistance some time before they need to retreat, forcing players to resolve the encounter and move on before more arrive. They will do the same as they escape, with patrols calling in response. For the goblins, this serves as a way to ensure victory by calling in reinforcements, scaring the players off, or securing their escape. It also demonstrates the clan’s dominion over the area.

Conversations and Negotiations

Wonderdraft Map Icons, tokens
Using a regional map is a great way to plan the goblin clan’s area of influence and then show it to players. Our Wonderdraft Map Assets (designed for the Wonderdraft map editor) can make this a little bit easier and can be found here.

When players elect to or are forced into conversation with the goblins, it is important to maintain their motivations. Naturally, the specifics of these conversations will depend on context and the characters involved. Your focus is on using a single or small number of characters to represent the entire goblin clan. For a start, refer back to the alignment of the creature they are interacting with and build from there, depending on their rank and position in the clan. Leaders will flaunt their authority through intimidation and displays of power. A hobgoblin might do this by showing their control over others, while a bugbear will flex its personal strength and fury, and a shaman leader could tease power over magic and the elements. None of these will respond well to intimidation attempts, especially when in front of their clan.

Negotiation requires an understanding of what the other side wants. This is why we covered the groups and needs of goblin clans, to give a basis of what they seek. They care little for anything outside of themselves, meaning that offers from other groups must directly benefit the individual or clan. Players will find it hard to bargain, for this reason, on the rare occasion that a clan is willing to talk. What can they offer when the goblins already take anything they need? Give your party control in the approach they take while maintaining the domineering personality that a clan leader requires. It is their job, and therefore yours, to speak for the entire clan.

All of this extends beyond just the party. The same interactions will occur any time a goblin clan comes into contact with a town, opposing clan, or other force. These will mostly occur ‘off-camera’, which does give us some leeway. In these instances, negotiations will often boil down to shows of strength and again depend on the leader. A hobgoblin-led clan won’t attack a weaker town if the very threat of attack suffices, though a bugbear warlord might revel in the crushing of those weaker than its clan. Your main concern is actually thinking about the reactions of the other side and their options. Can a village call in reinforcements? Are they simply stronger than they seem? When two goblin clans clash, who comes out victorious? Is a hobgoblin smart enough to beat a bugbear’s strength? What is their plan for the losing clan’s people?

Having this many questions can seem daunting, but it is why we emphasize the leader characters. In any settlement, it pays to use a smaller number of characters that represent and speak for a larger number of people. If there are multiple viewpoints in a goblin clan or a town, position a mouthpiece character for each and have them argue. Their people’s beliefs should show through them, and theirs through the people. Players can more easily recognize and attach to a named character, making the situation more immersive and understandable. It also streamlines your job, both in planning and execution.

Poacher's Crest RPG Town Map, banner
Many of the same strategies for designing towns can be applied to goblin clans. If you’d like more advice, you might be interested in our ‘How to Design a Town‘. We cover the ideas of mouthpiece characters, realistic development, as well as how to simplify your campaign and session planning.

What’s Next

This marks the half-way point in our coverage of goblins and kobolds. Next will be a set of encounters dealing with our favorite little reptiles, and what makes them unique and different from goblinoids. The combination of these articles (coming in a single PDF!) should help you distinguish the two from each other and run them both effectively. While you wait, please feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts and stories! Is there something we missed? How have you used goblins in the past? Is there another creature type you’d like to see us cover?

And if you’re enjoying our written content and would consider supporting the author (for some bonuses, of course!), please check out my Patreon.

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