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.


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.


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.


  1. Nice read RJD20 - Goblins have awaken!

    1. Over time, surely. They're far more interesting now than their Tolkien/Chainmail roots!