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18 September 2020

How to Play an Archdevil in D&D


One of the most vicious varieties of villain are archdevils. These manipulative fiends also serve as warlock patrons in countless Dungeons & Dragons settings, plots, and campaigns. But what is an archdevil, exactly? In many worlds, it’s an immensely powerful entity able to shape reality and command legions of devils in the Nine Hells of Baator. Most archdevils rule over a single layer of the Nine Hells, from Avernus to Nessus and answer only to the god of devils and Archduke of Baator: Asmodeus. As a villain, a patron, or an ally, how should you play these conniving and thoroughly evil masterminds?

Outlined below are how I play archdevils in my world, and how I think you can bring them to life in yours. This article covers everything from the pillars of archdevils to advice on how to forge a unique one. Prepare to embody an archdevil.

Defining Archdevils


To play an archdevil, you need to define what a devil is. Generally, a devil is a denizen of a plane of existence who is law-abiding, evil, and always prepared to advance in power. The following sections define the typical devil and archdevil with respect to these three pillars.

Archdevils are Law-Abiding


A devil knows its place in the grand scheme of the multiverse. It understands who or what ranks above it, when it’s time to listen to orders, and when it’s lawful to scheme against its superiors. The usual devil follows a strict code enshrined by the greatest devil of all: Asmodeus (in most settings). Abiding by that code, line by line, is how the devil advances in rank and becomes a reputable member of its fiendish society. 

An archdevil also understands where it ranks in the supreme order. However, as opposed to other devils, an archdevil is cognizant of how it can twist the law and others to work in its favor. Of course, some powerful devils may be able to achieve this as well, but an archdevil soars an order of magnitude above their understanding. Play this fact up. An archdevil should be able to outsmart any one else in the room when it comes to legal matters of the multiverse, even a less intelligent one. It knows when someone breaks a law, perverts a custom, or talks out of turn. Better yet, an archdevil knows when it can get away with committing all these unlawful acts and still stay within the bounds of its innate alignment.

Play an archdevil like a master lawyer. It knows the laws of the multiverse because it embodies law, albeit perverted and vile.

Archdevils are Evil


All devils are innately evil. Dissimilar to creatures of the mortal world like humans, orcs, elves, goblins, and halflings, devils are denizens of the Outer Planes and are creatures of pure alignment. Most have no true form. In actuality, they are all clouds of evil given shape by fiendish masters. They embody evil because they are created by it. The typical devil revels in the destruction of others, the manipulation of anything, and the enslavement of the weak and strong. It feeds on and uses the souls of mortals as currency. This evil permeates the form of every devil across the multiverse, no matter how minuscule or massive the devil might be.

Art from Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus.

An archdevil, like a devil, is innately evil. However, evil does not pervade it — it spews evil. Dastardly deeds and vile words flow from the mouth of an archdevil. It feels no regret or remorse for its actions, it only seeks to pursue its desires: power, wealth, status, and respect. In its pursuit, it will commit any crime, kill any foe, and cross any line, as long as it stays within the bounds of (or is able to maneuver around) infernal law.

Play an archdevil like a despicable despot. Its thoughts, actions, and pursuits are evil incarnate because an archdevil represents all that evil is.

Archdevils are Power-Hungry


Every devil begins as a lowly lemure in the Nine Hells — the weakest form a devil can take. As it feeds on the evil of its plane, pursues devilish desires, and impresses its superior, the devil is promoted into new forms. Lemures become imps, imps become spined devils, spined devils become bearded devils, and so on and so forth. Take note: only Asmodeus himself can promote a greater devil like an ice devil or pit fiend into an archdevil. However, no matter how high a devil climbs, its ambition is never fully satisfied.

Even an archdevil is hungry for power, arguably the hungriest of the entire devil hierarchy. This is because every devil, especially those at the pinnacle of infernal society, yearn to steal the title Archduke of Baator from Asmodeus. Even Asmodeus himself will never be satisfied until the entirety of the multiverse is contractually his.

Play an archdevil like Alexander Hamilton. An archdevil will never be satisfied and will always try to usurp its superiors (lawfully and secretly, of course) and grow in strength and reputation.

Advice on Famous Archdevils


There are quite a few famous archdevils in D&D canon. Here’s some advice on how to portray each of them in your D&D games.

Zariel is dissimilar to most other devils. A recently instated archdevil in D&D lore, she relies on unbridled fury and skill in combat to overcome her foes, not sheer intellect and genius manipulation. Though the previous ruler of her layer of the Hells, Avernus, a devil named Bel, serves as a general in her army, his previous strategy of logistical superiority is not used by Zariel. Play Zariel like a frenzied berserker, only sated by bloodlust, gains in power, and the unwavering loyalty of her lessers.

Art from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes.

Dispater is a master of secrets and a seller of arms. His lust for discovering the secrets of the multiverse drives him forward, and his mining and forging operation across the plane of Dis fuels that desire. Armor and weapons forged in Dis are found across the multiverse; Dispater is proud of that fact. Regardless, Dispater is a deeply troubled creature. He trusts no one yet yearns to discover secrets in every corner of every world. This peculiar dichotomy leads the archdevil to a draining paranoia that, one day, could be his downfall. Ensure you play Dispater as a devil desperate for secrets who is terrified of something going wrong. He doesn’t like surprises; showcase that.


Mammon is a greedy and grubby profiteer. In all his actions, he only cares about making a profit in gold. Whether he is trading a soul, battling a demonic invasion, or urging a mortal to join the ranks of the Hells, gold is always top of mind. Mammon’s obsession for monetary treasure is so great that the infrastructure of his entire layer, Minauros, is dilapidated and sinking into the layer’s muck. It matters not to Mammon as long as his coffers are full, and he remains the richest being in the multiverse. Play Mammon like an avaricious CEO; all that matters to the archdevil is his bottom line.


Fierna is a brilliant archdevil, her charisma second only to the overlord of the Nine Hells. Though she rules the fiery domain of Phlegethos beside Belial, she’s in constant contest to be the supreme lord of the layer. She is a sweet talking seductress who knows how to corrupt any mortal’s soul. In an instant, she can suss out every desire one seeks and devise a way to twist it into her favor. Play Fierna like a genius seductress who can manipulate words like an airbender can shift the wind.

Belial, in many ways, is the opposite of Fierna. He is cold and calculated, relying on law to rule his judgement over himself and others. He runs the legal system of the Hells (the Diabolical Court is based in Phlegethos, after all) and, like that system, he is rigid and lawfully manipulative. When you include Belial in your campaign, play him like a diabolical judge; he knows the law and how to make it bend to his will.

Art by Eric Deschamps.

Levistus is the oddest of the known archdevils, for he is trapped in impenetrable ice. From his frozen domain of Stygia, he focuses not on conquest or battle in his stationary form, but on the corruption of mortal souls from afar. He reaches out to those in need of escape, a sadistic request of Asmodeus (the one who trapped him in the ice). Thus, all manner of criminal seeking freedom flock to Levistus, rising him to the status of the second greatest crime lord of the Hells (more on that soon). Play Levistus like an immovable gang leader, who, despite his circumstance, is able to get all manner of creature out of difficult situations.


Glasya, the criminal mastermind of the Nine Hells, is also its jailer on the layer of Malboge. The supposed daughter of Asmodeus, Glasya didn’t begin her stint in Baator as an archdevil: it was a punishment, her promotion. With the duties of an archdevil, she could no longer roam the Hells and swindle all other devils, at least not as much. Even with this position, she plots near-criminal schemes, just inside the bounds of the law. In fact, like her father, she has mastered the law, especially when it comes to contracts. She helps her followers find ways out of binding agreements — infernal and not — as quickly as Asmodeus can. Similar to Levistus, play Glasya like the ultimate criminal mastermind, except she plays on the fine line between law and chaos.


Baalzebul is a traitorous archdevil who specializes in lying. Cursed by Asmodeus to become a giant slug whenever he lies to a devil because a sinister betrayal in the mythic past, he focuses on corrupting mortals who seek redemption. The archdevil lures them in with promises of renewal and reinvention, before ultimately tricking them into becoming a puppet for his endless ploys for power. Play Baalzebul similar to a merciless liar who, for all his strength and intelligence, will likely never be promoted again after his betrayal of Asmodeus and all other devils.


Mephistopheles is one of the most talented mages in all the Hells and perhaps the multiverse. His primary duty is to defend Nessus — Asmodeus’s layer of the Hells — from outsiders. To accomplish this, he’s constructed a magical, icy wasteland of sorts out of his home layer, Cania. When he’s not researching new arcane weaponry or safeguarding Nessus, the archdevil binds the souls of wizards and other spellcasters across many worlds to his service. Play Mephistopheles like a cruelly efficient and intelligent archmage who is immortal. He has unlimited time to hone his craft.


Asmodeus is the greatest orator in all the multiverse. He believes the Hells are the key to achieving utopia across all realms, realms that he would eventually preside over. The leader of all devils, Asmodeus resorts to battle only when necessary; every time he can, he strings charisma, logic, and law together to demonstrate his point, though it almost always ends up pursuing an evil end that contributes to his endgame vision of the multiverse. Don’t play Asmodeus like a commander, play him like a president or prime minister of near-limitless power who wishes to command every single soul in existence.

Art by Eric Deschamps.

Archdevils as Warlock Patrons


Plenty of warlocks make fiendish pacts with archdevils; that might be the primary way archdevils appear in your campaign or world. This might be your chance to show your players how archdevils work in your world. You can highlight their lawfulness, their sheer evil, their ambition, and any other unique traits you decide to weave into your archdevils. 

Even as patrons of a character in the campaign, archdevils pursue evil ends. Don’t forget that. Just because an archdevil is working with a PC does not mean the archdevil is a good entity. The archdevil may ask the PC to perform vile acts or pursue terrible deeds. If they refuse, their power might wane or the archdevil might punish them in other ways. It's important, though, to ensure this remains fun for the player. Here are a few ideas about archdevil warlock patrons.
  • The character was forced into a pact with an archdevil to save a family member. Their soul is tied to the archdevil unless they give up the soul of their saved family member.
  • The character was tricked into a pact with an archdevil. The archdevil posed as a helpful, angelic creature before revealing its true nature.
  • The character willingly formed a pact with an archdevil. However, the archdevil’s demands have grown more and more evil and diabolical as time has passed.
  • The character accidentally formed a pact with an archdevil. They believed the archdevil to be a genuine ally before realizing its infernal ties.
  • The character was saved by an archdevil and formed a pact with it. At any moment, the character may break the pact with the archdevil and their soul will leave to its proper afterlife.
  • The character formed a pact with an archdevil as their parents and grandparents did before them. The archdevil presides over this family and might even be the character’s true parent.

Archdevils as Villains


As entities of pure evil and ambition, archdevils are perfect villains for typical D&D campaigns. If you want to run a campaign whose villain is purely on the side of evil but their motivations have structure, use an archdevil. With an archdevil, you can begin a campaign at first level with their cultists rampaging across a tiny farming village and conclude it at twentieth level as they invade their the archdevil’s domain in the Nine Hells. Here are a couple ideas on how to use an archdevil as a villain.
  • An archdevil corrupts an entire nation’s populace into fodder for the legions of the Hells. In secret, it puppeteers the nation's leader and brings doom to the land...all for the greater purpose of battling the hordes of the Abyss.
  • An archdevil lusts for one of the party members and does anything it can to bring them to the Nine Hells.
  • An archdevil connives its way to the mortal world and seeks to establish a dominion of its own on the world’s fertile soils.
  • An archdevil loses its rank and its ensuing fit of rage turns the devil to the Abyss, where it becomes a demon lord.
  • An archdevil takes Asmodeus’s title and power, becoming the god of devils and Archduke of Baator. However, its approach to absolute order in the multiverse is wildly different than Asmodeus’s...

Archdevils as Allies


When an alliance serves them, archdevils might reach out to your PC's and offer assistance or insight. Using an archdevil as an ally is a great way to surprise your players and make them question their ally’s every move. However, if they play their cards correctly, they might forge a powerful bond with one of the strongest lawful evil entities across the planes of existence. Here are a few ideas of how you can use archdevils as allies in D&D.
  • In an attempt to save itself, an archdevil reaches out to the party and asks them to eliminate a rival.
  • Greed overtakes an archdevil as it considers making a considerable offer for a magic item in the party’s possession.
  • An archdevil holds the soul of an individual the party must speak with. The archdevil will give them the soul, but only if they retrieve an artifact stolen by demons in ancient times.
  • Asmodeus threatens to demote a certain archdevil if they don’t complete a near impossible task. The archdevil contacts the party and requests assistance in exchange for a plot of their layer of the Hells.
  • An archdevil realizes one of the party members is its spawn. The archdevil wants to establish a relationship with that particular party member — a positive one.

An Archdevil of Your Own


The archdevils famous in the regular D&D multiverse need not be the ones of your world. Perhaps the normal ones do exist, but they are fallen and disrespected like dethroned archdevil Geryon. I encourage you to create an archdevil or two of your own. It’s exciting to mold an entity of immense strength that’s not all-powerful like a god. 

To create an archdevil, you need to conjure a few important foundational blocks. First of all, ensure it fills a niche not already taken by one of the other popular archdevils. You don't want to make slightly different version of Mammon, for example, that covets silver instead of gold. Next, you need to build a rich history for the archdevil. Even Zariel, the newest addition to the host of archdevils in D&D canon, boasts an involved and interesting backstory. Your archdevil should be the same. Asmodeus isn't going to promote a random stranger to the Hells, but he will promote someone who has proven themselves and become a pillar of infernal lore. Finally, give them an interesting and exciting personality. Archdevils are flamboyant characters who stand out amongst even the most powerful beings in the multiverse; ensure your creation achieves that as well!

Here are a few new archdevils I’ve created for my world. Use them in your world or as starting points for archdevils of your own design! I created them using my supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I. Check it out if these infernal masterminds are interesting to you.

Art by Eric Deschamps.
  • Garvlath is an archdevil who phases in and out of existence. Demoted by Asmodeus long ago, the archdevil roams the layers of the Hells, a rebel devil, consuming all in his path. He is a scourge on the Hells and Asmodeus longs for his destruction, but can’t quite manage to rid of him, not matter the course of action he takes. It’s rumoured that Garvlath is of another world entirely, promoted by Asmodeus out of fear; some posit the archdevil longs to return to his home, or turn the Hells into a replica of that distant place. Dispater, master of secrets, believes the key to Garvlath’s destruction lies in the creature’s origins.
  • Lariza is an archdevil who leads Avernus’s infernal legions alongside Zariel. In many regards, she is Zariel’s opposite: she is a pure devil, she enjoys planning, and she is intrigued by the politics of Celestia. Lariza connived her way into Zariel’s bed through sheer charisma, and was promoted to archdevil status after helping Zariel strategize multiple key victories against the hordes of the Abyss.
  • Omglat was a demon lord in ancient times who nearly conquered the Nine Hells of Baator. In a last ditch effort to save them, Asmodeus persuaded Omglat to leave the final few layers of the Hells alone and turn its eyes to the Seven Heavens of Celestia. Together, Asmodeus and Omglat would conquer the Heavens. Omglat fell for Asmodeus’s trick, attacked the Heavens, was driven from the Hells, and betrayed by its own kind. In respect and hope for the demon lord, Asmodeus shaped the fiend and transformed it in a devil and, eventually, an archdevil. It would lead no layer of its own; instead, it would serve by Asmodeus’s side forevermore, bound to the Archduke’s will.
  • Tiefomoth, also called Asmodeus in my world, is the patron deity of all devils and lawful evil incarnate. He is the architect behind many of the most important laws that rule the universe, both good and bad. Most impactful of all are the Supreme Pact and the Blood of the Baatori. The former governs how deities may interact with the mortal world. The latter dictates the breeding between devils and mortals and brought about the existence of tieflings. In addition, he is one of the original Incarnations of alignment, molded by the gods when they first created life other than themselves. He is, of course, the Incarnation of Lawful Evil; in canon, he's called the Incarnation of Baator.

Lessons Learned


While there is no set strategy on how to play an archdevil in D&D, there are plenty of pillars you can base your archdevil persona on. Remember the following.
  • Archdevils are lawful. Play them like your favorite prosecutor or criminal attorney.
  • Archdevils are evil. Emphasize their vile darkness and sinister values.
  • Archdevils are power-hungry. Ensure they always want more, they are never satisfied.
  • While there are many archdevils that already exist in the D&D multiverse, feel free to make your own!
  • Many archdevils are excellent and diabolical warlock patrons. Even as a patron, they can serve as an antagonist to the party, asking the warlock to commit dastardly deeds.
  • One of the most common campaign-long villain types are archdevils. Their cultists might spread their words in an dilapidated tavern in session one, and the party might infiltrate their infernal citadel in the Hells in session sixty.
  • If you want to surprise your players, have an archdevil approach them with a deal or a request for assistance. Nothing will surprise them or put them more on edge than a devil in need.
For further reading on archdevils and the Hells as a whole, check out Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes! It was a stellar resource when writing this article.

Until our next encounter, stay creative!

Related Articles:

I recently released a supplement on the DMsGuild titled Villain Backgrounds Volume I. The book aims to assist Dungeon Masters in creating compelling villains using the background system laid out in the Player’s Handbook. Grab a copy and leave a review if you enjoy it!

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Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email.

First piece of art: Art by Caio Monteiro.

15 September 2020

An Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden Supplement - Abominable Adventures



Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden hit the shelves on September 15, 2020. Wizards of the Coast’s summer 2020 adventure module encompasses the rise of a sinister threat around Faerun’s frozen northland civilization: Ten-Towns. Over the course of a Frostmaiden campaign, adventurers overcome burying blizzards, hunt a magical moose, and rid the snowy region of Auril the Frostmaiden and Goddess of Winter. Alongside the published module, a plethora of content creators have released and are continuing to release supplements to assist players and Dungeon Masters exploring Icewind Dale.

Abominable Adventures - An Encounter Guidebook in the Frozen Tundra is one such supplement.

Its creators kindly provided me with a review copy which I had a splendid time reading; outlined below is my review of it. This review includes a broad overview of the supplement, what I see as its best bit, and an area where it could be improved upon.

Before you make your decision on the buy, please take your time and read over everything herein.

Overview


Abominable Adventures is structured similarly to many encounter books before it, but the supplement includes a healthy variety of situations (12) with the right amount of structure. The encounters presented within are unique and open to interpretation, building on the three pillars lionized in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons: combat, social interaction, and exploration. DMs can easily use the encounters as written, flavor them for their own purposes, or simply take inspiration from them.

For example, the supplement includes an encounter in which the adventurers stumble upon a vicious combat between an adult white dragon and an adult silver dragon. While three approaches to the situation are provided, there exists a stellar framework for making the encounter your own. What begins as a brilliant fight-to-the-death in the icy wastes between two dragons may become a focal point of your Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign. Besides, a white dragon could make a formidable foe and a silver dragon a trusted ally.

Most of the supplement is mechanically sound as well. The authors make note that the encounters are engineered for a party of five tier one (levels one to four) characters. Some of the fights, such as the dragon battle described above, rely on clever manipulation of the foes the characters might combat. For that particular encounter, both dragons are injured and unable to fly. In addition, an appropriate amount of treasure and treasure inspiration is provided as well. The rewards are flavorful: a silver dragon scale is a +1 shield; an ivory craftsman can make any common item out of the material; a flame tongue in a region of frozen darkness.

© Toly Kivshar.

The supplement’s layout is respectable. It replicates that of the book it seeks to be used alongside, showcasing light blues and snowy whites. The art is woven together with each page beautifully, each piece being relevant to the content it visualizes. The writing style mimics general WOTC releases as well, but the grammar and word choice within could use improvements. The supplement concludes with a welcome inclusion: an appendix of all the monsters used inside the book, including customized stat blocks for ice goblins, wounded dragons, and more.

I’d like to highlight two pieces of the supplement before stating my final opinion on it.

The Best Bit


After reading over the supplement, I can conclusively say the encounters are its best bit. From run-ins with maniacal creatures spouting gibberish and grand battles with wounded dragons, to polar bear races and starving killer whales, this read is filled-to-the-brim with great ideas. If you decide to run Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, each of the encounters within will make excellent additions to that adventure, and if you are building a homebrew campaign in a frigid northland, they can just as easily be dropped into your own world. I am certain I will use the wounded dragon battle in an upcoming session, it is too awesome to not steal!

An Area to Improve


While the mechanical and narrative content is solid, the writing could use some assistance. Some of the boxed text does not flow well, there are punctuation errors scattered throughout, and the word choice can feel repetitive. Of course, this is D&D and the words inside a book merely provide inspiration for what one says at the table, but in a professional product, I expected excellent grammar. This can easily be fixed in future releases with an editor, and I cannot wait to see what the authors come up with for WOTC’s next massive adventure module.

Verdict


Overall, Abominable Adventures is a great companion to the new Icewind Dale book. The encounters within are inspired, providing unique opportunities for parties to fight, interact, and explore the icy reaches of the Forgotten Realms northern land, and its layout stands alongside Rime of the Frostmaiden itself. What it lacked was a careful editor’s eye, which does take away from the professional atmosphere of the supplement, but does not come close to ruining it.

I fully recommend picking up Abominable Adventures - An Encounter Guidebook in the Frozen Tundra to either use alongside Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden or your own icy adventures. It is well worth it.

Grab it on the DMsGuild right now if the supplement sounds intriguing, and let me know what you thought about it in the comments below.

Thanks to Alberto Camillo, Bryce Sheppard, and Daniel Rose for providing a complimentary copy of the supplement. It was an awesome read and an honor to review it.

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email.

First piece of art credit: © Lekso Tiger.

11 September 2020

The Case of Screen v. Screenless


It's Tuesday night. The companions of the Caught in Galen campaign are split across the community of Vorici’s Rest. My notes are laid bare before me for tonight’s session. Luna walks the stone halls of a temple, unknowingly moving closer to a beholder-like beast. Flux jogs toward the Azure Graveyard, the bloodstone he needed to dispose of tossed in a nearby alley. Roy stalks toward the Faded Ember Inn with Skraw before coming face-to-face with a humanoid made of twinkling stars and eyes like radiant suns. 

Meanwhile, Jason and Ignis harry two warforged desperate to detonate the necrombombs in the cemetery. From the shadows, Jason expertly twirls bolas at one of the warforged’s feet! I roll to save: 4! The table cheers. With his pact-formed longbow, Ignis rains eldritch blasts on the other warforged. The disabled warforged attempts to remove the bolas: 1! The table cheers. Jason rushes to the fleeing warforged, stepping between Ignis’s booming blasts. The on-the-ground warforged tries to free herself: 3! The table cheers. The fleeing warforged reaches the cemetery and dashes beneath its grove. Alas, Ignis breaks through the trees and meets him in melee, while Jason pounces from the darkness. The tied-up warforged tears at the bolas again: 1! The table cheers.

Jason and Ignis surround the solitary warforged and spar with him for a moment, before Jason knocks him out with the pommel of his dagger. The prone warforged struggles still: 4! The table cheers and the warforged submits to her new home on the ground.

Why the Scene Worked


The scene described above unfolded spectacularly. Roll after roll, this poor warforged could not rip the bolas from her legs (sadly she had no weapons). My players thoroughly enjoyed this simple interaction and it made my night. Lots of cool encounters occurred (A beholder-like creature tunneled to the sewers in a temple!) but the suffering of this poor warforged tops my list of favorite moments.

Oddly enough, the source of this memorable scene is derived from a decision I made long ago: I do not use a Dungeon Master screen when I DM.

Forgoing a DM screen opens up the table and allows players a clear view of the dice a DM rolls. Some say this takes away from the drama, the intrigue, and the fun at the table. I disagree. At least for my players, the ability to watch the dice leave my hand, scatter across the space in front of me, and land on a number augments the experience. They love witnessing a critical failure and they moan when a tiefling wight scores a critical hit.

The scene of the warforged struggling to free herself from the bolas worked partially because my screen was gone. Sometimes, it does not matter how well you narratively describe an encounter: your players look to the sky, scour their character sheets, or, worst of all, open their phones. When dice physically hit the table and roll in front of them, they are more likely to pay attention and be engaged in the moment, especially if their character is absent or it is not their turn.

This is a difficult truth, especially for those who prefer to DM with a screen.
 

The Argument for Screens


Grimy lizardfolk assault a wooden raft, tearing apart poor adventurers using it to cross the misty mere.

A massive alligator breaks the mere’s surface and, mouth agape, tries to bite into the injured elf wizard. As the DM, you roll a critical hit. Quickly, you do the math in your head: this bite will spell the elf’s death, even if you roll minimum damage. Her player just started playing D&D, this is her first character, her first adventure. She tried to convince the party to ally with the lizardfolk instead of slaughtering their guards and stealing their raft, too! Now, her character is about to die. Her doom could lead to many possibilities: she could create a new character, decide D&D is not for her, desperately try to convince the party to save her character, et cetera. However, you know her. You know she will likely quit. She is attached to this elf wizard, she does not want it to die, especially after arguing against this course of action earlier. Luckily, you use a DM screen and can fudge the dice.

The alligator snaps at the elf wizard, but she’s able to narrowly duck below its maw! Moments later, the battle turns as the lizardfolk encounter a slew of bad luck. The adventurers barely escape with their lives and successfully cross the mere.

Utilizing a DM screen allows you to fudge the rolls. In the example above, the fudging favored the players, though you could fudge in the monsters favor as well. Many DM’s do this; I have in the past.

The screen also allows you to obscure your notes (on-the-spot down scrawling, important maps, and character cards), reference important, D&D-specific information located on most screens, and ensure the game stays fun. If the players experience a never ending string of bad rolls, you can force the monsters to join in. If a battle is taking too long, you can decrease the enemies’ hit points. If a boss fight is too easy, you can magically roll a few critical hits. The only requirements are that your players do not know you are fudging rolls and you do not do it often.

Sadly, it is a slippery slope.

Art by Nika.

Succinctly, a DM screen gives the DM cover for their notes, a shield to fudge dice rolls behind, and a concise layout of important D&D mechanics and in-session inspiration.

The Argument Against Screens


Without a screen, you are more connected to your players. There is no barrier between you and them — which is what the screen was originally designed to be. You can roll your dice in the open and your players can witness their results, which keeps them engaged in many situations, from combat to exploration. If you are worried about your notes being in the open, talk to your players. Ask them to avoid looking at the notes. After all, what’s the point of D&D if you know what might be upcoming?

Referencing maps is more difficult without a screen — that’s the only time I’d hop behind one. When using a map, pull out a screen, but only to hide the map!

Onto the main point: DM screens encourage a dangerous and unimaginative behavior: fudging.

D&D is a game about chance. There are plenty of deterministic and divergent paths in it: social interactions with friendly wizards, delves into ancient ruins, and vocal spars between companions. However, when everyone willingly decides to use the dice by entering combat, engaging in skill checks, or participating in some other chance-driven event, respect the dice.

If there is no need for the dice, do not use them.

If you use them, respect them.

Your game should remain fun no matter what the dice say. If you need to change the outcome of the dice for the game to continue to be interesting, something is wrong. There are plenty of methods to rig your game behind the scenes that avoid fudging completely. Design stronger monsters. Drop in reinforcements for either side. Introduce a new element to the encounter. Get creative with the story — do not fudge the rolls!

If you do, it might be hard to stop.

Fudging begins innocently. You want to save a player from death or make a combat more interesting. Yet, over time, you will discover yourself fudging more and more. As this use grows, the randomness of D&D disappears and it becomes a story you’re telling with the help of your players and their random elements. Effectively, you are railroading the game by not respecting the dice.

If you do not want to live by the dice and be forced to innovate, then only use them when necessary or play another RPG that does not rely on dice and randomness as a key storytelling element.

Fudging does not make you a worse person, player, or DM; it's a technique used by many. However, I think it does hinder and erode creativity. It can be used as an easy crutch, especially in situations when the game risks becoming a slog. With clever tactics and on-your-feet thinking, though, fudging becomes an unneeded endeavor.

True fudging can only happen behind screens. Remove the nudge to fudge by going screenless.

Leaving a DM screen beside the table removes a barrier between the DM and the players and lets dice be rolled in the open, thereby preventing fudging and forcing innovation.

A Mix of Both Methods


Of course, both methods can work in actual play. Keep the screen up if you want, hide your notes, maps, miniatures, and anything else you want to behind it and roll in the open. It keeps the best of both worlds: your players aren't snooping through your notes and you are rolling across the table, allowing everyone to see. Some people, like me, prefer the all or nothing gameplay of a screen or no screen, but whose to say you cannot appreciate both styles at once?

Lessons Learned


As you can probably tell, I am not an advocate of using a DM screen or fudging, but both have their benefits. People are free to use a screen at their table and fudge the dice. Let me be clear: it does not make you any less of a DM when you fudge the dice. It's just not how I prefer to play. 

Let’s recap both arguments:
  • Using a DM screen obscures notes from prying eyes and allows the fudging of rolls or other pertinent information like monster hit points. Use a screen if you want to ensure the game remains fun no matter what the dice say.
  • Not using a DM screen lets the players see your dice rolls, ensures the game remains based on randomness when it's supposed to, and forces you to innovate and introduce new ideas to the story if something goes wrong. Do not use a screen if you want your players to be more engaged at the table, you want to respect the dice, and be forced to innovate and create.
  • If preferable, mix both methods. Hide your notes behind a screen and roll in the open.
The art on DM screens is wondrous indeed, but they are the source of much trouble. Drop the screen. Open up the table. Stay creative.

I just released my first product on the DMsGuild. Titled Villain Backgrounds Volume I, it's a supplement dedicated to helping Dungeon Masters build layered foes with just as much personality and drive as the player characters. Check it out here!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email.

First piece of art credit: Art by Titus Lunter.

04 September 2020

Goblins: Greater Than Generic Gabblers



A cry of anguish echoes through the streets of the small town. Immediately, armored guards rush to the east gate where a woman lays beside a child. His face is pale and his mother’s tears stream down his puffy cheeks. The guards pull the woman away; she struggles — she’s strong — but not strong enough to shake them. One of the guards splits from his companions and kneels near the child’s...corpse, his face a grimace. He reaches his hand into the boy’s swollen mouth as the gathered crowd looks on and the woman wails. The guard pulls his hand out, a bloody rock in his palm. “The Rockeaters,” the guard murmurs. Another guard steps up and begins to take the child from the gateway as the wailing continues. “The goblins will be no more. This is the last child I’ll bury,” the guard whispers, a tear curling down his cheek.

Typically, goblins are the go-to enemy during the early levels of Dungeons & Dragons. When players first start out, they’ll likely battle spear-wielding goblins and their wolf companions, encounter goblins in an abandoned mine, or race down snowy hills chasing goblins riding their circular shields. Goblins are malleable foes who can be used poorly, utilized as fodder, or be interesting foes to face.

Their history is rich, their lore is old, and they can be molded to fit any campaign world, including yours. They don’t always need to be the grubby, chaotic creatures they’re thought to be.

When I first used goblins, showcased in the story above, they were exactly that: murderous little buggers. Since then, I’ve changed how goblins are viewed into my world and molded them to be far more compelling. I always look forward to portraying a goblin nowadays. 

Goblins are the perfect tropey D&D foes, yet their use cases are numerous and varied. Give goblins respect. Learn about them. Don’t waste them.

The History of Goblins in D&D


It probably won’t surprise you that goblins date back to the earliest days of D&D. In fact, goblins existed in the fantasy predecessor of D&D: Chainmail. These goblins were inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with one key difference: goblins were not orcs.

After Chainmail, the goblin appeared in the D&D white box set. They weren’t described in detail. Instead, the authors refer to them as small monsters. Goblins were some of the first non-human creatures D&D characters fought. Just imagine: the first game of D&D, everyone is around the table, and these green little buggers with spears and shortbows attack with unbridled fury, only to flee when one of them drops dead. It’s a compelling image.

Art from the first edition Monster Manual.

Moving to AD&D 1e, the goblin was included in the first Monster Manual. The manual expands on goblin lore, albeit briefly. Instead of small monsters, it describes them as creatures who lived in tribal societies in which the strongest ruled. 

Surprisingly, it floats that goblins might be related to kobolds! A far cry from today’s D&D, but many do believe original D&D goblins were not only based on Tolkien’s works, but on kobolds from Germanic folklore. The manual also connects them to other goblinoids and wolves: it mandates a 20% chance for 2-12 bugbears to be in a goblin lair (described as a dismal setting) and a 25% chance that any goblin force would have 10% mounted on huge wolves. The nilbog, a magical goblin that cannot be killed by traditional means, surfaces in the manual as well.

In AD&D 2e, goblins were shown in the Monstrous Compendium Volume One and outlined as a playable character race in The Complete Book of Humanoids. Oddly enough, the latter notes that a goblin could not become a wizard. The former details their appearance in great detail, stating:
“Goblins have flat faces, broad noses, pointed ears, wide mouths and small, sharp fangs. Their foreheads slope back, and their eyes are usually dull and glazed. They always walk upright, but their arms hang down almost to their knees. Their skin colors range from yellow through any shade of orange to a deep red. Usually a single tribe has members all of about the same color skin. Their eyes vary from bright red to a gleaming lemon yellow. They wear clothing of dark leather, tending toward dull soiled-looking colors.”
The compendium also builds on their tactics in combat, the structure of their society, and their ecology. Importantly, it states that goblins enjoyed weapons that required little training like spears and maces, that only leaders have separate living spaces in their lairs, and they are decent miners who will eat carrion if they need to. I genuinely love the style of this 2e book: it’s light on lore, but rich on what you need to use a creature and shape them for your world.

D&D 3e — the rebranding and refocusing moment for D&D — placed the goblin in the first Monster Manual, in addition to a variety of other books. A highlight: the creatures were expanded on in the Psionics Handbook, in which the blue goblin is present. D&D 3.5e built on the number of goblin types, molding the air goblin, the aquatic goblin, the dark goblin, the desert goblin, the forestkith goblin, the jungle goblin, and the snow goblin into the ruleset. Yes, it appears like most of these were simply reskins for different biomes across a generic world, but it was a good thing. Sometimes, Dungeon Masters are set in their ways; they think that a monster, say a goblin, can only appear in caves in a grassland. When official material says otherwise, it opens up their minds and breaks barriers.

In typical 4e fashion, a large number of mechanically different goblins were included in the first Monster Manual of the edition. The manual establishes the following roles for goblins: blackblade, cutter, hexer, skullcleaver, sharpshooter, and underboss. Each of these roles imbues various goblins with a set role in combat, but does little to expand on their lore. Of course, Dungeon Masters had been doing this for decades, but 4e helped those stuck using the generic goblin over and over innovate their home games. It’s a part of 4e that stuck with me and should stick with you for your D&D5e game. Giving monsters more actions or roles/subtypes is a great way to spice up combat and inspire their lore. I must say: I did not love the aesthetic design of typical goblins in 4e. All of them were green-skinned and wore skulls. I much prefer their earlier and latest interpretations: they’re scrappy and varied in shape and appearance.

Art from the fourth edition Monster Manual.

We are in the present! D&D 5e features goblins in the edition’s first Monster Manual and in its first starter set: Lost Mine of Phandelver. Fundamentally, the goblin is unchanged. In both books, the monster remains its weak, cowardly, evil self. The manual reads that goblins live in tribes, are led by goblin bosses or creatures superior in strength, and fight with crude weapons. Not a far change from their 2e selves! In a stellar, and possibly largest, addition to goblin lore, goblinoid culture as a whole grows in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (a great read about goblins), where the creatures are also featured as a playable race. Volo’s wraps the goblin in a strict society of four castes: lashers, hunters, gatherers, and pariahs, while further explaining their connection to Maglubiyet, their new god, and Khurgorbaeyag, one of their old gods. Finally, it introduces a new variety of goblin spellcaster: the booyahg (booyahg means magic in the goblin tongue), which can derive magic by wizardry, sorcery, items, or a patron willing to make a pact with a goblin. 

Meta and mechanically speaking, that’s the story of these generic gabblers. In-world, though, what defines them?

The Typical Goblin


The typical goblin is defined many times across many tomes of lore. We can easily define it in a sentence.

A goblin is a small, feeble humanoid whose greed drives its actions and whose strength lies in cowardice and numbers.

For those of us who enjoy numbered lists, let’s break it down. The typical goblin is:
  • Small and humanoid
  • Generally evil
  • Greedy
  • Cowardly
  • Ridiculous in victory
  • Abusive, even wicked to lesser creatures
  • More powerful in greater numbers
  • Subservient to strong creatures
  • Okay at fighting with crude weapons
  • Desperate to survive
  • A tribal creature
  • A humanoid with dark green to bright yellow skin, pointed teeth, and crude clothing
  • Afraid of light, comfortable in darkness
  • A creature who lairs in dark & dismal settings
  • Masterful at carving out complex, trapped lairs
  • Likely to keep animals, like wolves or giant spiders, to ride
  • Related to other goblinoids called bugbears and hobgoblins
  • Keen on enslaving those weaker than it
  • A member of a strict caste society
  • Eager to rise in power
Art from the fifth edition Monster Manual.

Delving a bit more into goblin culture, we discover they worship a god named Maglubiyet. He dominated all of their original gods and left one alive: Khurgorbaeyag, the Overseer, enthralling all goblins beneath him. Called the Mighty One, the Conquering God, or the Lord of Depths and Darkness, most goblins worship Maglubiyet not for the strength he might imbue them with in battle, but for fear of what vile punishment he might impart upon them. In fact, many of them don’t look forward to joining the Mighty One in the afterlife. 

This could be because goblins are afraid of him, which is the common belief, or because goblins are afraid of death in general. As stated in every passage involving goblin lore, most flee at the first sign of trouble; most falter as soon as they’re outnumbered; most give in to the demands of greater creatures at a moment’s notice. Goblins don’t like to lose and death, to many, is the ultimate loss. This is the epitomic trait of the goblin. Goblins play to live, not to win. If retreating, resorting to unfair tactics, or groveling to masters lets them live another day, they’ll do it. Of course, there are goblins who break this mold. Terrible tales speak of horrific goblin lashers and hunters who refuse to back down from a fight, and with the blessing of Maglubiyet or Khurgorbaeyag, miraculously achieve victory.

These brave goblins, however, are not typical.

Goblins in Different Settings


Not all goblins are the same. Of course, many share the characteristics defined above. Throwing out what you like, adding exciting new traits, and reworking existing facets, you can easily create goblins that are unique to your setting. 

Previously, I defined what the typical goblin in the standard D&D setting, the Forgotten Realms, might be. Let’s avert our gaze from the Faerunian goblin and peer into the goblins of another popular D&D setting. Then, we’ll craft our own.

Eberron


Keith Baker and the team at Wizards of the Coast set out to create a unique setting with Eberron. They succeeded, especially with the creatures we’re researching. Goblins in Eberron are atypical in the D&D multiverse. While their culture definitely pits them against humans, elves, dwarves, and the rest of the common races, goblins aren’t innately evil in Eberron. There’s no Maglubiyet. The Overseer doesn’t exist. They are lawful beings — practical and thorough. Their people were driven from their homes by humanity. Many are honorable and many live among humanity in the present.

In essence, the goblins of Eberron (split into three types: the Dhakaani, the Ghaal’dar, and city goblins) are as far away as the typical goblins of the Forgotten Realms as one can get.

Goblins in Your World


I’ve given you mounds of information about the goblin across D&D’s lifetime, from the Forgotten Realms to Eberron. If you’re satisfied with what you’ve read, keep it — use it. If you’re not, shape the goblin how’d you like. In D&D, the monsters are yours to toy with, especially if you’re not playing in an official setting. With that being said, many players will expect goblins to be creatures to be interrogated and killed. Volo’s works on this, building on goblin culture, but more can be done if you’d like. Your goblins can be more like the goblins of Eberron. However, make sure to communicate this to your players. If you don’t, they’ll expect the goblin camp a combat encounter or a chance to interrogate, not a multi-faceted scene that can play out myriad ways.

Here are a few ways to make goblins unique in your world. Feel free to build on these in the comments.
  1. Goblins are nearly extinct. The last bastion of goblin civilization stands tall in a shadowy forest sacred to their people.
  2. The god of goblins walks the world, empowering his people. He journeys from tribe to tribe, imbuing them with divine might and his divine favor.
  3. More cunning than bugbears and hobgoblins, goblins engineered a system to rule over the stronger goblinoids. Hobgoblins and bugbears serve the goblins, not the other way around.
  4. Led by a cabal of crafty nilbogs and booyahgs, goblins dominate a large island. They constantly appeal to nations for recognition as a sovereign state but fail every time.
  5. Ages ago, a goblin rogue teamed up with a band of heroes and ended up saving a continent from damnation. Since their victory, goblins and other humanoids have lived together in relative peace.
  6. Goblins only eat the flesh of dwarves. Their war with the folk of the deep is eternal.

Eldar


Goblins in my world, Eldar, absorb characteristics from Eberron, Faurun, and pure imagination. In Eldar, goblins are native to the continent Garthuun, but appeared on the continent Aphesus after a terrible arcane storm that ripped across both continents and tossed swaths of land and people to either land. While the goblins of Garthuun were honorable, law-abiding folk who practiced the respected way of the samurai, the goblins who arrived on Aphesus were mind-boggled and broken by the arcane storm. In the thousands, they spread across the continent, battling for territory. Some took to mountains, digging holes in their grand peaks. Others sneaked into forests, competing against wood elves for territory beneath the trees. These goblins were furious and desperate, the storm had twisted them, leaving their honor back in Garthuun. Over time, the world grew and the Aphesusian goblins exponentially spread. Most are greedy buggers who ally with ogres, bugbears, and giants to fight humanity. Some, though, have returned to their honorable roots after learning about their origins from studied scholars or actually meeting a Garthuuni goblin. The discovery of their barbaric, distant kin was a sad day for the goblin cultures of Garthuun. During this period of growth of goblins on Aphesus, the first hobgoblins appeared; these goblinoids were half-goblin and half-human or half-elven. Even today, hobgoblins are no where near as prevalent as goblins and they are only found on Aphesus, no other continent.

The largest goblin cultures Eldar are the Neshkalen, the Kaa'grian, the Singoni, crag goblins, and blue goblins. The former two hail from Garthuun and the others roam across Aphesus. The Neshkalen goblins are the original goblins of the world, beings of honor and law who established civilization to protect themselves from the fierce wilderness of Garthuun; they forged the way of the samurai. The Kaa'grian goblins started as a splinter faction of the Neshkalen, blazing a path into the Subterrane to discover a new world; they ended up becoming a culture of innately magical (still honorable) goblins, utilizing booyahg foraged from the eerie beauty of the underworld. Crag goblins are the descendents of the thousands of goblins who survived the arcane storm that whipped goblins from Garthuun to Aphesus; they take on the traits of typical goblins. Two of their own, Maglubiyet and Khurgorbaeyag, fell to become demon lords of Uruk, the Infinite Abyss. Blue goblins are tricksters from the Feywild, blessed with fey blood and the ability to shift between the mortal world and the Feywild with relative ease; they're more chaotic than Garthuuni goblins but not as greedy and savage as Aphesusian goblins. Finally, the Singoni goblins are crag goblins who have rediscovered the path of their kin across the ocean. Many of them live in civilized society alongside other cultures of dwarves, humans, elves, and halflings. They rebuke their angry, bloodthirsty kin on Aphesus and wish to bring them away from the barbarism imbued into them from the arcane storm and the demon lords Maglubiyet and Khurgorbaeyag who oversee them.

Art from the fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide.

Since my initial inclusion of goblins in my world as foes, I've used them twice: both times they've been allies to the player characters. The first was in The Frozen Expanses of Iskryn. Boarhead, a goblin who contracted wereboar lycanthropy, was saved by the party. He became the group's guide, leading them through the dangerous tundra and into the home of his people who were dominated by a frost giant werebear. Boarhead became the comic-relief member of the party and lasted until the campaign's end. 

The second exists today in the Caught in Galen campaign. One of the party members, Flux, is friends with a goblin named Xing. The goblin is a seller of monsters in the city, but he specializes in rust monsters. He adores the metal-loving bugs and is training one for Flux to use as a familiar! Looking back, I am surprised I haven't used goblins as enemies since the initial sessions of my second campaign. They still work as foes in my world, with many taking on a similar demeanor as Eberron's goblins: they are pit against humanity, but not unequivocally evil. I enjoy playing goblins as allies & companions, rather than villains & enemies, in the present.

Goblin Ideas


After all this discussion, let’s glance over a host of NPCs, locations, plots, encounters, and monster combinations involving these tiny gibbering creatures.

Goblin NPCs

  1. Yichawk: a goblin weapon master who specializes in dwarven mining picks. No matter the difficulty of the battle, he always leaves his foes full of holes. Of particular value is his sonic pick which radiates with the power of sound. When he deals a critical hit in battle, a wave of thunder booms out from it, cracking stones and skulls. Yichawk’s goal? Craft a replica of his sonic pick. To accomplish this, he’ll need a renowned dwarf forgemaster. It’s a good thing Yichawk has a small army of goblins, ogres, and war boars at the ready.
  2. Fengo: a goblin Horizon Walker who protects fey crossings in a wondrous twilit vale. She rarely interacts with others, preferring to stick to the shadows and speak with nimble animals. If someone dares threaten fey, the folk that saved and raised her, their life ends swiftly. Those who show kindness to fey, however, receive her trust and perhaps her guidance through the beautiful vale.
  3. Veng: a goblin pale master who has a pension for raising fallen monsters. Nothing pleases Veng more than dancing atop a smoldering battlefield. A dire bear here, an elven warrior there, all the more to add to Veng’s rotting army. Plenty of folk think he’s crazy, but some claim he’s blessed by the goblin goddess of death. Who knows? It’s probably true.
  4. Liinto: a goblin monster merchant who buys, sells, and trades exotic monsters like owlbears, otyughs, perytons, and umber hulks. Interactions with the goblin are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Liinto shouts, cries, moans, waves his hands, and always brings one of his sellable pets with him to a meeting. Care not to enrage the goblin with insults to his collection: he can easily command them to eat you.

Goblin Locations

  1. An abandoned well renovated to be the lair of a goblin tribe that rides massive, trained wurms.
  2. A dilapidated wizard’s tower claimed by a goblin boss who discovered the dead wizard’s stash of magical potions.
  3. A cavern system beneath a fishing pond that serves as the lair of a goblin who has contracted lycanthropy from a wererat.
  4. An old warehouse in a bustling city where a group of street rat goblins meet to conduct fights between their sniveling animal companions (rats, snakes, roosters, and fire toads).

Goblin Plots

  1. A goblin tribe threatens the water source of a nearby village after they move into the caverns below it. The goblins infect the water with some strange disease that causes the skin of villagers to turn yellow, begin to puss, and slowly rot. Will the village be saved?
  2. The fate of a large town is at stake when a goblin warlord unites a host of goblin, ogre, and bugbear tribes using the power of a legendary, sentient longsword. If the sword were to be stolen, the warlord’s grip on the horde would be lost. Of course, the warlord oft keeps to the skies atop its wyvern mount. How will the goblin be defeated?
  3. A mighty deity dies but his divine soul reincarnates in the body of a diminutive goblin. Power-hungry forces from across the land seek him out as brave adventurers and servants of the fallen deity rise to protect the poor goblin. Can the god’s soul be saved?
  4. Thousands of years ago a horde of goblins miraculously overcame mind flayer masters and stole their dimension-shifting vessel. Since then, they’ve raided a plethora of peoples and places across the multiverse, growing in size, strength, and renown. Now, they’ve come to the player characters world, ready to pillage, plunder, and add to their mighty hoard. Can these plane-shifting, super-powered goblins be stopped?

Goblin Encounters

  1. A band of courageous goblins rides a hill giant into battle. From its shoulders, the goblins sling stones, loose arrows, and taunt their ground-based opponents.
  2. Six crazy goblins assault a party traveling through a forested pass with giant spiders. They pounce from above, tied to the giant spiders, leaving their hands free to loose arrows or dual-wield. This also allows them to ride the arachnids while upside down with ease!
  3. Sneaky goblins defend their cavern lair from tiny nooks that parallel the main entrance. Tiny arrow slits dot the nooks, allowing the small creatures to crawl into these spaces and blow darts or launch arrows at invaders. If necessary, the goblins also rigged a collapsible mass of boulders above the cavern's entrance. Using that is a last resort!
  4. A great tree-home whose trunk has been hollowed out by crafty goblins. Perched on all its limbs, goblins can easily defend their home, retreating into tiny carved out holes if necessary. To prevent attacks with fire, they’ve gathered lots of buckets of water to douse any blaze from afar!
Art from Volo's Guide to Monsters.

Twelve Goblin Combinations

  1. Goblins who ride giant spiders
  2. Four goblins strapped to an ogre
  3. A goblin boss with a vorpal longsword
  4. Thirty vampiric goblins under the command of a vampire lord
  5. Goblins who ride giant bats, crows, or vultures
  6. A booyahg with a nasty lich as a mentor
  7. A goblin shaman who wears a circlet of intellect
  8. A goblin tribe infected with lycanthropy (werebat or werewolf)
  9. Goblins who train and ride giant crocodiles
  10. A goblin boss with a pet basilisk
  11. A goblin boss dominated by an intellect devourer
  12. A booyahg with an ancient night hag patron

In Summary


The goblin is an iconic D&D monster. From its beginnings in Chainmail to its evolution in fifth edition, it has not changed much. That doesn’t mean we can’t continue to innovate goblins in interesting and exciting ways. We can flavor goblins for our world and design fascinating goblin encounters for our campaign. Remember:
  1. Goblins are one of the earliest creatures to exist in D&D. They originated in Chainmail and have been included in every edition since.
  2. Goblins started as generic evil creatures with little lore. In fifth edition, they are fleshed out and rich in history. Read the lore, especially from Volo's Guide to Monsters, and use what you want.
  3. Goblins in your world can be different. Take inspiration from the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and my world, Eldar.
  4. There are a plethora of use cases for goblins. Though they’re go-to monsters, especially for low-level games, they can be used in limitless encounters in inspired ways. Try out goblins riding giant bats or a goblin who has mastered the grappling hook in combat!
Goblins are greater than generic gabblers. They are stellar foes and comedic (in the right campaign) allies. Don’t waste them.

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First piece of art credit: Art from the second edition Monstrous Compendium Volume I.

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