Thursday, September 11, 2008

Grognard's Grimoire: Goblins as a PC Race


One of my mantras is that "D&D is always right," which is my way of saying, "Don't screw with stuff just because you don't understand why it's there." As should be obvious by now, I tend to believe that, while D&D's faddish popularity in the late 70s and early 80s was a happy accident, its design, by and large, was not. There were reasons why this was done rather than that and why one thing was included rather than some other thing. That's not to say that I'm opposed to tinkering, house ruling, and generally mixing it up -- those are the essence of old school play, after all! However, my first instinct is to work with what we've been given by Gygax and Arneson rather than change things too radically. It's also my opinion that the foundation laid by OD&D is both strong and flexible enough to accommodate many different interpretations and play styles. Neophilia has been the bane of the hobby from the beginning and I'm not keen to contribute to that vice.

That said, I don't like halflings and never really have. Oh, I've always allowed halfling PCs on the rare occasions when people wanted to play them, but I always felt somewhat "dirty" about it. The reason, I think, is that, moreso than most of the other hood ornaments ripped from Tolkien and bolted onto the pulp fantasy chassis of OD&D, halflings (né hobbits) are just too idiosyncratic to Middle-Earth. That is, it's hard not to think of The Lord of the Rings whenever halflings come up, which is why I avoid using them whenever possible. On some level, all gamers know this. Heck, even game designers do, which is why pretty much every game or setting that includes halflings has made an effort to disguise these guys' origins, often to the point where you have to ask, "Why even bother including them?" My feeling is that, if you're comfortable with the notion of halfllings in your campaign, then let them be what they are rather than calling them halflings and then portraying them as nothing like their literary origins.

Me, I'm just not all that comfortable with halflings anymore, especially in any setting that's heavily inspired by pulp fantasy. Dwarves and elves I can take, since there are enough variant interpretations of these two races from myth and legend -- not to mention pulp fantasy literature itself -- that I have enough leeway to make them what I wish. I don't really have that luxury with halflings, which are so obviously the Professor's creatures that they simply don't admit to alternate portrayals, if one is being honest with oneself.

And so it was that I decided to exclude halflings from my next campaign. Now, there are other reasons I wanted to exclude them. For one, I didn't have a good rationale for their existence. I intend in my game world for Mankind to be the children of the gods, brought into being to strike a balance between Law and Chaos. Elves, as I already mentioned, are the degenerate descendants of the Eld of Areon. Dwarves are minor earth elementals, given sentience by Mother Earth to defend her against the depredations of the Eld (thus explaining the antipathy between dwarves and elves and why there are no female dwarves). I like pig-faced orcs, so I decided that orcs are boars given evil intelligence by Eldritch magic, whichn then opened up the possibility that many humanoid species could be the result of the Chaotic sorcery of the Eld during their ancient reign of terror. This way I could provide an explanation for hobgoblins and bugbears, since each is clearly a mutant strain of goblin. But then the problem arose: where do goblins come from?

I had no answer to that question -- and still don't. I quickly realized, though, that goblins were obviously one of the "ur-races," which is to say, the stock from which other races of creatures descend. Given that I'd eliminated halflings as a PC race, couldn't goblins occupy a similar "niche?" That is, couldn't they be the doughty little guys with a knack for getting into places they shouldn't? The idea grew on me over time and I'm pretty firmly committed now to the notion of goblins as a potential PC race. OD&D says they hate dwarves and don't like sunlight, so that means they're almost certainly subterranean creatures, thus limiting their appeal. Still, I find the notion of goblins as a not necessarily inimical species to be a compelling one. They probably won't be nice by any reasonable definition of the term, but I'm thinking that, like Mankind, they're not natively aligned to Law or Chaos (while hobgoblins and bugbears are).

In any case, I'd give PC goblins the following attributes:

Favored Abilities: Strength or Dexterity
Classes Permitted: Assassin (if permitted), Fighter, Thief (if permitted)
Racial Abilities: Goblins possess the ability to note certain features of stonework: sloping corridors, traps made of stone (in particular: falling blocks, rigged ceilings, and tiny arrow slits designed to release poison gas or darts), and moving walls. They are also very talented at hiding in shadows and moving silently while in a subterranean environment and can see in the dark without the need for illumination.
Racial Drawbacks: Because of their subterranean heritage, goblins suffer -1 to attack rolls while in direct sunlight.

19 comments:

  1. Simplistically Brilliant!

    I LOVE this idea!

    Halflings/Hobbits are too Tolkienesque, and although I DO like the works of the esteemed Professor, I really dislike how pervasive his works have become - as if you can't have a fantasy game/story without his iconic creations.

    Goblins, by folklore definitions, were more mischievous and not specifically evil, although certain strains, such as Red Caps, were/are.

    I've been working on some 'stuff' lately that takes another look at the core races of OD&D in particular ... I'd LOVE to include elements of this idea into my 'stuff', if you don't mind.

    JM.

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  2. James, you do understand that you've just neatly recapitulated that neophilia that you were so down on earlier in your post? :)

    I understand the desire to exclude halflings, and goblins do have an existence beyond Tolkien. That having been said, your line of reasoning is exactly what led many early GMs to come up with their own races, etc. Just look at Runequest and Arduin and T&T through this lens - the choice of races involves exactly this kind of "thinking through" to reach a different conclusion that what's in Da Original Rulez.

    It is usually at this point that someone says, "but you're not playing D&D anymore!" which would be wrong. However, you are modifying the game in a way that you seem to be objecting to earlier, fine reasoning aside. And that kind of modification is okay - practically every referee did that from 1974, starting from the moment they opened the three little booklets. (And maybe I'm missing something - if I am, let me know).

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  3. James, you do understand that you've just neatly recapitulated that neophilia that you were so down on earlier in your post? :)

    What I call "neophilia" is chasing after the Zeitgeist, trying to keep the game "relevant" and "contemporary" and all those other buzzwords that get thrown around whenever someone just wants to dissociate themselves from the past out of vanity or ignorance. I'm not sure that there's much similarity between that and what I've done here -- at least no more than there would be if I'd decided to eliminate clerics as a playable class or excised orcs from my monster list. I despise the Cult of the New not because it's changing an ancient verity so much as because it rarely bothers to understand what it's dispensing with.

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  4. I'd LOVE to include elements of this idea into my 'stuff', if you don't mind.

    Ideas are cheap, so feel free to use anything I create here with my blessing.

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  5. I once toyed with the concept of allowing goblins as a playable race. Got to the point of figuring out the attribute mods and racial benefits and drawbacks, but I stopped for a very selfish reason.

    I like goblins too much and wanted to keep them on my side of the DMs screen. I have a criminal amount of fun using goblins as the heavy in an adventure. I tend to play them as "hit and retreat" style guerilla menances while they have the upper-hand. My players hated goblins because they were deadly little vermin.

    Of course, once the party got the upper-hand, the goblins would disintergrate into cowardly and sometimes comedic foes, providing the release of tension the party needed.

    I really liked Paizo's Classic Monster Revisited, because they captured the way I've been running them for so long. Not a big fan of the new goblin look (being too much Lilo & Stich - which they admit as an influence), but the idea of goblin babies as nasty little critters kept in cages and a danger to fingers and toes if gotten too close to, was a new spin on goblins that I'm most definately appropriating for my next goblin lair.

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  6. You have excellent taste in Orcs, James!

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  7. You have excellent taste in Orcs, James!

    And gnolls and skeletons and slimes and ... :)

    If I had more money, I'd be buying up your entire line of miniatures. I absolutely love what you're doing -- and I've never been a huge fan of minis.

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  8. Couldn't Goblins just be Halflings with a different name?

    Same rules, different appearance.

    Not very pulpy, but think about the bad faeries in the movie Legend...

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  9. Dear James - I see your point about neophilia as something different. As you (and others) have pointed out, the genius of OD&D was that it was open-ended inviting additional creativity on the part of the user, while having a framework to use for that work. What this suggests to me, though, is that there is a "hinterland" of sorts - creatively speaking - that needs to be recognized. "How far can you change things and still call it 'D&D'?" - that's the way this question has usually been asked, and I'm not sure that's the right formulation - and your goblin example here shows that quite clearly.

    Playing at a kind of epistemological cartographer here, I'm going to reject the "purity" measure so often advanced in the past - at least the "slavish adherence to the rules" kind of purity that was the semi-intended outcome of AD&D 1st Ed. Given that, this means our Terra Incognita has lots of room for creative additions (All the World's Monsters, Arduin, anything in A&E, The Wild Hunt, etc. being fine example of this). But somewhere out there, there is a border that, once crossed, puts you in the realm of Something Else - maybe RuneQuest, or what became the Rolemaster system. And I'm sticking with fantasy, even if games like Classic Traveller echoed the format of OD&D in their initial presentation. Chivalry & Sorcery, Tunnels & Trolls, and Empire of the Petal Throne clearly straddle that boundary but still have territory in the realm of the Original Game.

    So how can we talk meaningfully about this stuff without falling into neophilia, and avoiding the wearying debates over purity? I'm not talking about any sort of "GNS model" - that's a totally different subject. It's more of a discussion about that creativity that any referee brings to their game to make it their own.

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  10. Same rules, different appearance.

    Of course. That's a very solid approach and one I've seen put to good use on several occasions.

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  11. But somewhere out there, there is a border that, once crossed, puts you in the realm of Something Else

    Very much agreed, as you know.

    So how can we talk meaningfully about this stuff without falling into neophilia, and avoiding the wearying debates over purity?

    There are several possible avenues of discussion, but the one that I now see as most fruitful is intention -- what did the creator of this variant or that house rule intend when he did so? Granted, this criterion is "fuzzy" as well, but it does have the advantage of being falsifiable in many cases, because we know when folks were trying merely to make an OD&D variant and when they were striking out to create their own games.

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  12. "So how can we talk meaningfully about this stuff without falling into neophilia, and avoiding the wearying debates over purity?"

    That is an awesome question!

    "There are several possible avenues of discussion, but the one that I now see as most fruitful is intention -- what did the creator of this variant or that house rule intend when he did so?"

    The answer however, makes me think that the question is somewhat impractical and the answers equally so.

    I get what you're saying, but the inherent fuzziness of intent that you refer to makes me reluctant to fully agree. As you said earlier, people can have a different frame of reference when they house rule something. For instance, what would it mean if a GM replaced halflings with goblins as PCs for no other reason than that some one wanted to play a goblin and everyone else simply didn't like halflings, and didn't ponder any other implication?

    Is it the first step of a whole new game or is it just a stand alone variant? The burden of proof is like recognizing an obscenity, you only know it when you see it.

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  13. Quite frankly I'm still mystified by the whole old school dichotomy of "D&D is always right" vs. "the core of D&D is innovation and the freedome to tinker with the rules/setting, etc."

    I've never yet seen a satisfactory answer here. Do you really see D&D as an open-ended system that should allow for the creativity and input of the DMs/players or do you see it as a very specific way to play a given type of game (pulp fantasy) under specific conditions which is violated at the user's peril?

    It often seems to simply boil down to personal preference of the GM which hardly seems the basis for a universal definition of 'old school' to me.

    Saying a game is designed to be house-ruled stands diametrically against "the core game is always right."

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  14. Saying a game is designed to be house-ruled stands diametrically against "the core game is always right."

    When I say "D&D is always right," what I do not mean is that every particular element of the game is an eternal truth that cannot be changed. What I do mean, though, is that any would-be creator of house rules or variants ought to think carefully about the how and why of the things he's changing/replacing. The principle is intended as exhortation to study the game and its history before taking an axe to it.

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  15. For instance, what would it mean if a GM replaced halflings with goblins as PCs for no other reason than that some one wanted to play a goblin and everyone else simply didn't like halflings, and didn't ponder any other implication?

    That kind of "naive" variant is, I think, perfectly consonant with the do-it-yourself spirit of OD&D. I don't see it as necessarily a harbinger of anything dire, although, if you pile up enough such changes, you do eventually house rule yourself into a different game entirely.

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  16. As a kid reading fantasy in the 90s, I guess it never occured to me to seperate Tolkien in my mind from the "pulpy" stuff I read. I guess it was all just fantasy to me.

    I see nothing wrong with an adventuring party consisting of Bilbo Baggins, Conan, the Grey Mouser, and Cain from Kung-Fu. In fact, it feels pretty right.

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  17. Personally, and you know this since we talked about this at some length, I think the Goblin makes the better player race than the halfling. The goblin is such a staple of fantasy, that is should be a playable race. Heck in my old games, I did just that.

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  18. I see nothing wrong with an adventuring party consisting of Bilbo Baggins, Conan, the Grey Mouser, and Cain from Kung-Fu. In fact, it feels pretty right.

    It most certainly does feel right! I would argue that, in some ways, that's the essence of D&D's genius right there: to provide a structure in which lots of different ideas of fantasy can exist side by side. To do that, though, requires that those different ideas be mediated through something and I would argue that that something is pulp fantasy. Pulp fantasy provides a superstructure that enables that party of disparate adventurers to meet in an inn and plan to go raiding a dungeon together. Eliminate that superstructure, though, and you might well have a game that's capable of supporting them all, but it'd be a very different game than the one I call D&D.

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  19. Heh, just tripped over the blog on a Webcrawl for "good AD&D modules" as I struggle with the Gawd-Awfulness of 4E...

    In any case, I banished halflings from my AD&D campaign years ago (like, probably 15 or so) for much the same reason. I kept gnomes though, those felt right and had a place. Recently, after looking at the various players who have little or no sense of D&D of any stripe, I started calling the "gnomes: "halflings" - the name made sense, but the inclusion of hobbits was homage taken a step too far...

    Nice blog, I'm enjoying reading it. Keep up the good work.

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