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Goblins!
A Brief Look Back at Goblinoids
James Maliszewski

Last month we saw the release of Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins; plus, goblins (and their ilk) have been recent topics of discussion in both James Waytt's Wandering Monsters and Jon Schindehette's Dragon's-Eye View. And so we wanted to look back at the history of goblins in the game, brought to us again by Grognardia's James Maliszewski!


O ver the nearly forty years of its existence, Dungeons & Dragons has presented countless monsters with which to challenge and bedevil adventurers. Though many of these monsters are unique to the game, many more are drawn from the myths, legends, and folklore of cultures across the globe. One example of the latter type is the lowly goblin. Despite being a very common word understood even by young children as a diminutive monster, the origins of the word “goblin” itself are obscure. It has been suggested that the word ultimately derives from the Greek kobaloi, which are mischievous, shapeshifting tricksters associated with Dionysus. If this etymology is correct, the kobaloi may be the source not just for the word “goblin,” but also “kobold,” which, as we shall soon see, is interesting when looking at the history of these monsters in D&D.

Aside from an illustration by Greg Bell in the first volume of the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons (and which depicts goblins as bearded, dwarflike creatures), the first mention of goblins in the game is in a list of monsters. In this list, goblins -- or, rather, “Goblins/Kobolds” -- are the second foes presented, immediately after “Men,” making them the first nonhuman monsters mentioned. In the fuller description a few pages later, it is noted that goblins “are as described in Chainmail,” the medieval miniatures wargame that preceded D&D. Chainmail says little about goblins except that “they see well in dimness or dark, but do not like bright light” and that they have a “reciprocal hatred” with dwarves and gnomes. Chainmail makes no distinction, not even in terms of game mechanics, between goblins and kobolds, treating them as two names for the same creature, whereas the 1974 edition of D&D treats kobolds as being weaker goblins with only half a Hit Die. Chainmail also makes reference to “hobgoblins,” which are better armed and armored goblins, in contrast to D&D, which calls them “large and fearless Goblins.”

As D&D developed between 1974 and 1977, the distinctions between the goblins, kobolds, and hobgoblins became somewhat clearer. The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes calls hobgoblins “big, powerful goblinoids,” one of the first uses of that particular term and suggesting a “family” of related creatures. The relationship of kobolds to goblins remains unclear, since Dr. Holmes writes that they “behave much like goblins.” The continued confusion likely stems from the fact that, as Gary Gygax explained on an online forum, “I took a good deal of literary license in creating monsters for the D&D game . . . only the name[s] [were] drawn from folklore, and the rest was made up out of whole cloth.” A further wrinkle was added with the release of Supplement I, Greyhawk, in 1975, which included bugbears, described as “great hairy goblin giants.” Amusingly, the first illustration of a bugbear (by the late David Sutherland) shows the creature with a pumpkin head, an oddity not replicated in later illustrations of the creature.

In the early days, the primary distinction between the different types of goblinoid creatures was how much of a challenge they posed as opponents. Goblins were tougher than kobolds, while hobgoblins were tougher than goblins, and so on. If one looks carefully, there is a clear progression of Hit Dice among the various humanoid races. Almost nothing else distinguished them, which makes sense given what little the earliest rulebooks have to say about these creatures.

The appearance of the Monster Manual in late 1977 goes a long way toward distinguishing the various goblinoid races from one another and from other humanoid monsters. Firstly, kobolds were separated as distinct creatures, and they were on the road to becoming the scaly creatures known in later editions of D&D. Goblins are presented as short humanoids with yellow, orange, or red skin who dwell underground and hate dwarves and gnomes -- very similar to their 1974 description. Hobgoblins are taller than goblins (whom they bully), and the Monster Manual introduces an aquatic variety called koalinth. Bugbears get an illustration that shows them as they were described in Greyhawk and notes that they live in the same areas as their “smaller cousins.” Orcs and gnolls -- to cite just two other humanoid monsters -- are presented as being clearly distinct from goblinoids.

More than this, what the Monster Manual adds are details about the society and behavior of the goblinoids. These details help to establish the goblinoids not only as being distinct from other creatures (and each other) but also as being Dungeons & Dragons monsters distinct from their origins in folklore. Whereas previously “hobgoblin” was merely a variant of “goblin,” it came to refer to a unique monster: a bigger, tougher goblin with a penchant for militarism. Likewise, “bugbear,” an archaic synonym for a bogeyman, now meant a bigger, hairier but surprisingly stealthy goblin.

Goblins and their kin featured in a number of Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules, most notably Gary Gygax's The Keep on the Borderlands, which was published in 1980. In that module, goblins and hobgoblins are allied with one another against the orcs of the Caves of the Chaos, while bugbears act as independent agents with their own agenda. The adventure is also noteworthy for introducing “BREE-YARK” as an insulting cry in the goblin language. Goblinoids also featured prominently in 1983's Horror on the Hill (by Douglas Niles), where they are presented as an organized and serious threat to civilized lands. The Orcs of Thar by Bruce Heard, released in 1988, provides rules for playing goblinoids and other humanoid monsters, albeit from a tongue in cheek perspective.

Dungeons & Dragons has made good use of goblinoids over the last four decades. The game has added details to the initially sketchy backgrounds of these creatures and showed that, while they are among the weaker monsters in the game's extensive bestiary, goblinoids still have a role to play.

About the Author

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which was edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes and originally purchased for his father. More than thirty years later, he’s still playing. He works as a freelance writer and blogs about old school gaming at http://grognardia.blogspot.com.

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