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When Is a Goblin Not a Goblin?
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

I n 4th Edition, we included goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears under a general “goblin” entry, which caused our editors some consternation. You see, by doing things this way, the word “goblin” had to do double duty because it meant both the general class and the specific race—genus and species, as it were. When we did this, though, we were also extending a line of thinking that started back in the earliest years of D&D, when these monsters were grouped together into the broad category of goblinoid.

But defining goblinoids is not nearly that simple. The original AD&D Player’s Handbook doesn’t use the term goblinoid, but the book does use the category of “giant class creatures” (in the ranger class entry), defining it to include “bugbears, ettins, giants, gnolls, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, ogres, ogre magi, orcs, and trolls.”

The original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set from 1987 uses the terms “goblin races” and “goblinkin” more or less interchangeably, and the set notes that these terms include “Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, and Hobgoblins. Some sages extend the definition to Ogres, Bugbears, Trolls, and Half-orcs.”

We had some good reasons for grouping the three races together, though. A connection between goblins and hobgoblins is pretty clear just based on their names. Bugbears are described in the AD&D Monster Manual as being giant and hairy, and they are said to be cousins to the goblins. Still, the three races spoke three different languages, and they’re not described as regularly living or working together. (Goblins sometimes have bugbears in their lair, and, as the Monster Manual states, “hobgoblin leaders are sometimes used in bodies of goblin or orcish troops to keep them in order and drive them into battle.”)

Third Edition finally nailed down the definition we use now, introducing a goblinoid subtype that included (in the core Monster Manual) only goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. That book reinforces the idea that larger goblinoids sometimes lead smaller ones, typically by bullying.

Partly because of the emphasis 4th Edition placed on mixed groups of monsters filling different combat roles, the 4th Edition Monster Manual stressed the connections among the three goblin races more than past editions did. It became common to see groups comprising all three races. The mixed group concept is interesting from a gameplay perspective, and it makes for a strong visual image. Imagine disciplined hobgoblin soldiers urging ragtag goblins ahead of them while hulking bugbears range freely around the flanks. But does it make sense in the story of D&D? Is that how D&D players expect to encounter goblinoids?

In the Caves of Chaos, which our D&D Next playtesters have spent a lot of time with by now, the three races live separately. They can be rivals initially, though DMs can choose to have them form alliances after the adventurers start stirring things up in the area. In past editions, I think seeing them act as rivals was the norm. So our first poll question today asks you what you think. When you answer that question, please keep these other questions in mind: Should these races live together? Are they as closely related as we’ve been saying recently? Or are they part of a bigger category as we saw with the “goblin races” or “giant class creatures” of old?

With that brief historical overview out of the way, let’s take a look at each of these races in turn. What sets them apart from each other? What do they have in common? And how are they different from other humanoid races—particularly the orcs and gnolls that we talked about last week?


Let’s get this out of the way first: Goblins can be useful as comic relief. The Snig the Axe miniature from the Archfiends set of D&D Miniatures became a favorite because of his bright yellow skin, his huge axe, and speculation that Snig was actually the name of the axe. Then Keep on the Shadowfell introduced the 4th Edition audience to the goblin con artist Splug, explicitly included to provide the opportunity for some comic relief in that adventure. Small, cowardly, sniveling monsters can be pretty funny, particularly when compared to some of the other threats that even low-level adventurers face. There’s certainly nothing wrong with lightening the mood a bit with a goblin encounter before the heroes enter the evil cult’s demonic shrine.

That said, it’s not wise to underestimate goblins. They’re not much good in a fair fight, so they take care to avoid a fair fight if they can. They backstab when they can, make use of whatever terrain advantages they can muster (blowing dust in an enemy’s face or overturning hot coals onto their foes), and, when all else fails, use their small size to escape into places too tight for larger enemies to follow. They’re stealthy, so they lay ambushes and attack from hiding whenever possible. That stealth and sneaky speed are reflected in high Dexterity scores.

On the flip side, all that Dexterity doesn’t really make up for their low Strength score, low Constitution score (and hit points), and low Charisma score (they don’t really boss anyone around). And though goblins are stealthy, they’re not very good at spotting enemies sneaking up on them, and they’re also not particularly cunning (low Wisdom). They’re not at all brave, so goblins are apt to avoid a battle where they don’t drastically outnumber the opposition, and they flee as soon as they take any serious losses. They also hate sunlight—it dazzles their beady little eyes, which makes goblins less effective in combat during the bright of day.

Goblins live in large tribal groups, making their lairs in caves or underground warrens. They have big common areas where most members of the tribe live and sleep together. Only leaders and shamans have their own quarters. Their tribes include wolves or worgs as pets, and a goblin riding such a mount gains a measure of courage—if only because the mount makes it easier to flee from a battle gone sour.

Aside from the worg riders, exceptional goblins include shamans (or hexers), sharpshooters who are adept at loosing crossbow bolts from hiding, and trained backstabbers who can make the most of their natural stealth. The largest goblins serve as bosses, chieftains, or sometimes self-styled kings—often taking their name and modeling their court in a travesty of nearby human customs.

We’ll call goblins neutral evil. They’re not very disciplined, and they don’t coordinate their attacks very well. They’re not really interested in ruling the world. Instead they focus more on taking what they need from it so that they can survive. But they’re also not a chaotic horde, and they can be wrangled into service more easily than the chaotic orcs or gnolls, particularly under the leadership of the lawful evil hobgoblins.


Let’s look at bugbears next, because in many ways they’re just oversized (“hairy giant”) goblins. Like goblins, bugbears are stealthy (despite their much greater size) and skilled at ambushes. The typical bugbear ambush is a bit different from what you’d expect from goblins, though. While you’re walking through the forest, goblin arrows fly from the bushes and sneaky rogues emerge to jab you with their swords. Bugbears prefer to attack in smaller numbers. They like to jump out to grab you by the neck or bash you with a morningstar rather than attacking at range. Bugbears make use of their greater strength by wielding bigger weapons.

Bugbears don’t suffer from goblins’ cowardice, partly because they have so much less to fear. Most enemies cower in the face of the big, brutish bugbears. Bugbears don’t coordinate their attacks often because they prefer to look out only for themselves. Sometimes they even compete for kills or trophies. A bugbear is unlikely to come to the aid of an ally who’s in trouble. They believe that a bugbear who’s not strong enough to hold its own is one less hand to share the spoils.

Like goblins, bugbears have high Dexterity scores and low Charisma scores. They’re also physically powerful (with high Strength scores) but not quite as smart as their smaller cousins. Because they’re more perceptive than goblins, bugbears have average Wisdom scores, and they have a remarkable sense of smell. In terms of alignment, they’re neutral evil.

Because bugbears live in smaller bands than the large tribes of goblins, they don’t make use of animal pets or mounts—that would be a waste of food. The largest and meanest bugbear leads a band and claims the first share of plunder. Other elite or exceptional bugbears include champions, including those thought to be particularly blessed by the bugbear god Hruggek, as well as stranglers and assassins.


Alignment is just one way that hobgoblins are different from the other two goblinoid races. They are certainly lawful evil, because they are far more organized, disciplined, and regimented than their kin. Hobgoblins might even aspire to create an empire, and they often serve in the legions of power-hungry evil wizards or warlords. When an adventure like Red Hand of Doom needs an evil humanoid army, hobgoblins are the natural choice.

Unlike goblins and bugbears, hobgoblins are not particularly stealthy. Partly that’s because they favor better armor, but they also have no natural knack for stealth the way that goblins and bugbears do, and their Dexterity is merely average. Hobgoblins are much better at tactics and organization than the other goblinoids, and they make the best use of their numbers to coordinate their attacks and defenses. When massed in an army, hobgoblins march in formation, create shield walls, and launch coordinated volleys of arrows. They also make use of catapults and other siege engines, and their lairs can be defended as well as human castles or cities are. On a smaller scale, hobgoblins outmaneuver and outflank their foes, and they team up to bring down the greatest threat first before moving on to weaker opponents.

Hobgoblins are natural leaders, with Charisma scores that put other savage races to shame. Their tribal heads are those with the best leadership abilities, including a grasp of tactics and command, so they are not chosen just due to physical strength and size (though those things help as well, particularly when it comes to bossing bugbears around). A hobgoblin leader or general has lieutenants and sergeants as well, and it organizes the tribe into a strict hierarchy with a clear chain of command. Setting their forces up in this manner makes hobgoblins extremely efficient and helps them organize an effective defense against attack. Some hobgoblins have a talent for magic, but wizards and sorcerers are much more common among them than clerics or shamans.

In addition to leading groups of goblins and bugbears, hobgoblins often conquer and enslave other monsters. They might chain a bulette and drive it into battle before them, or they could force a manticore to serve as a mount. For some reason, hobgoblins have a particular affinity for savage carnivorous apes, and they use these apes as shock troops to sow chaos in enemy ranks before their soldiers march in to claim victory.

What Do You Think?

So now you’ve read a quick rundown on the goblinoid races. As before, here’s your chance to tell us if we’re on target or off base. Answer the poll questions below, and feel free to expand on your thoughts in the comments.

This Week's Polls

 When is a goblin a goblinoid?  
These three monsters belong in a larger category (“giant class” or “goblin races,” for example), with no special connection among them.
These three monsters are related, but that doesn’t mean they live and work together.
These three monsters are all goblins/goblinoids, and I expect to see them living and fighting together.

 How well do the goblins we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D goblin?  
1—I’ve seen garden gnomes that look more like goblins.
2—Well, it’s “oid” but I don’t think it’s “goblin.”
3—You got the small and sneaky part right, at least.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as a goblin.
5—It is everything a goblin should be and more.

 How well do the bugbears we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D bugbear?  
1—I see neither bug nor bear.
2—There’s something there that might be bugbearish.
3—You got the big hairy goblin part right, at least.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as a bugbear.
5—I cower before the ultimate bugbear!

 How well do the hobgoblins we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D hobgoblin?  
1—I think you misspelled “hogboglin.”
2—It has some vague hobgoblinish features.
3—It might be some kind of oblin, at least.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as a hobgoblin.
5—I’d march in that hobgoblin army.

Previous Poll Results

How well do the orcs we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D orc?
4 -- Yeah, I recognize that as an orc. 1530 67.1%
5 -- It is the paragon of orcishness. 509 22.3%
3 -- It's half orc, half something else. 132 5.8%
2 -- It has some vague orclike features. 68 3.0%
1 -- You call that an orc? 42 1.8%
Total 2281 100.0%

How well do the orcs we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D orc?
4 -- Yeah, I recognize that as a gnoll. 1052 42.5%
5 -- Yeenoghu would be proud. 942 38.0%
3 -- I can see gnoll from here. 333 13.4%
2 -- You got the hyena part right, at least. 107 4.3%
1 -- If that's a gnoll, I'm a laughing hyena. 43 1.7%
Total 2477 100.0%
James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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Maybe it's because I've read webcomics like Order of the Stick and Goblins, but I think there should be fluff text for non-hostile interactions with most forms of sentient traditionally evil races, even if it's negotiating a truce.

Also, I think the term "Goblinoid" should be a term like "Humanoid" which could be used to refer to goblins, orcs, ogres, and similar brutish humanoid entities that are still mammalian (so not lizardfolk, troglodytes, kenku, mindflayers, gith...). Goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, blues and other explicit goblin subraces would be "Goblinkin".
Posted By: the_Horc (9/28/2013 6:47:48 PM)



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