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What Color Is That Goblin?
Dragon's-Eye View
By Jon Schindehette

Y esterday, James Wyatt talked about goblinoids in his Wandering Monsters article. As you know, the lore is just part of the picture. In this case, I mean that literally. He talked about the characteristics of the critters, plus the society and their behaviors. Now, let’s really dig into the “look.”

If you’ve been reading about the way we do creature development on the artistic side of the house these past few weeks, then it probably won’t be a surprise to you when I say we did the usual process when we started digging into the goblinoids:

  • We looked at the legend and lore of the critter.
  • We pulled together references from past years.
  • We compared the images to the lore.
  • We determined whether things were “broken,” could be “adapted,” needed a “refresh,” or were good to go.
  • We created the assets needed to support an entry for this critter in the world bible.

Got it? That’s the process. Now let’s dig into nitty gritty of what we’ve been up to. Cool?

Goblins are described as being small, stealthy, cowardly, weak, agile, and beady-eyed. Doesn’t sound like an inspiring creature, does it? This brings up a really interesting discussion point. When I’m thinking about depictions of the world and its inhabitants, there are two ways I can look at them.

  • I can look at them in the meta-world view.
  • I can look at them in the in-world view.

What’s the difference?

Meta-World View: A goblin is small, stealthy, cowardly, agile, weak.

In-World View: Describe the goblin from an in-world point of view . . . from the point of view of a goblin, a human, a dragon, or a host of others. (I’m not listing adjectives here because I have an exercise for you that I want you to enjoy!)

For example, a goblin wouldn’t see itself as being cowardly. Goblins would talk about the wisdom of overwhelming their foes with numbers, about being crafty and opportunistic, and about finding opportunities to take someone out or bolt for reinforcements.

Do you see that there can be a significant difference when looking at a creature from a meta-world view when compared to an in-world view? I put some of the descriptors that James highlighted in the graphic for the goblin. When I look at the concepts, I don’t really think the image looks all that “cowardly.” Sure, he looks a little devious with his hunched posture, but I certainly wouldn’t expect someone to describe the image as depicting someone “cowardly.” In fact, there’s an interesting data point, and it leads me to the exercise I mentioned above: Take a moment and look at the fleshed-out pencil drawing. Using only adjectives, describe the personality or character of the being depicted. We’ll get to your list in a moment.

I made a list of attributes as well, and I worked from an in-world view rather than a straight pick-up of the meta-game flavor text. I tried to imagine how the goblins would show up in the world to other monsters and civilized peoples. I pondered how the descriptions could be expressed through height, bulk, posture, attitude, anatomy quirks, and a host of visual expressions that help solidify a relationship between lore and visual rendition. Words help create the pictures.

When we were working on the goblinoids, we took into consideration how those words created the picture of the creatures. As much as I would like to explore the entire goblinoid family, I’m going to limit today’s discussion to just the goblins. Why? Well, to be honest, I still have questions around the other members of the family.

The goblins went through a number of visual changes. Rather than bore you with process talk, let me give you a quick overview of the discussions and decisions that went on and get your feedback on the direction that we ended up taking things.

We had several discussions about the “intent” of the goblin in the world. Although they have played the foil or comedic sidekick at times, that is not their intent in the world from a lore perspective. Although a goblin running around by itself might be kind of humorous and slightly annoying, a pack of them could get downright dangerous. With that in mind, we decided the goblin shouldn’t fill a role of “world fool.” Certainly, specific goblins could fill that role, and several goblins have done just that through the history of D&D, but to cast all the goblins in that role would undermine the rich culture that surrounds goblins.

With that in mind, I took on the goblin with a more serious mindset. I ditched all the ideas of a goofy little green guy running around and being a bumbling fool. Instead I dug into the lore that the R&D guys pulled together, had lots of conversations, and chased an idea of a little guy that really fulfilled the vision of the lore.

I also wanted to give the goblin a sense of culture. They don’t just clothe themselves in rags and run amok; they have communities, cultures, hierarchies, religions, and so on. So I wanted to give them some structure and sense of culture. It’s limited and simplistic, sure, but it is culture nonetheless. I wanted to give them a physical presence that removed any visible indication that they were noble or wise. So I hunched them over a bit and sloped their forehead. We played with their anatomy so that they didn’t share human proportions. This helped them to appear more “monstrous” and less evolved.

I tried to hit some visual indicators that would make you think these guys would be good at moving quickly and with some agility. Although they weren’t powerhouses, they did have some wiry strength. That meant that they probably wouldn’t be real powerful or dangerous on their own, but they still had the ability to serve as able-bodied henchmen, and they could be a force to be reckoned with when dealing with a group of them. I wanted them to have manual dexterity so they could create traps, do some simple manufacturing, and perform rituals (all things that tie to their lore and cultures), so I gave them a look that matched that thought.

Remember that list you made earlier? Please pull it out and see if your list looks anything like the intent I took into the development of the goblin. If I did well, my intent and your list are looking kind of similar. If they aren’t, then I need to hear about it.

 The goblin matched my list . . .  
Exactly! You must have been reading my mind.
Pretty darn close. Most of the items were the same.
Somewhat. You hit several of my items.
Not a lot. You matched only a couple of my items.
Am I looking at the wrong image? We didn’t match at all.

Previous Poll Results

Does the visual rendition above match with the written description, as presented in the Wandering Monsters article that described gnolls?
Yes 2254 91.6%
No. 208 8.4%
Total 2462 100.0%

If you could change one thing about the gnoll to make it match the written description better, what would you change?
Nothing. I like the gnoll just the way it is depicted. 927 36.2%
I'd make the gnoll look even more evil and depraved. 474 18.5%
I'd make the gnoll look more agile. 457 17.8%
I'd change the gnoll in some other way. I'll explain in the comments. 323 12.6%
I'd make the armor look more pieced together or cruder. 197 7.7%
I'd make the gnoll look stronger. 143 5.6%
I'd make the gnoll look dumber. 41 1.6%
Total 2562 100.0%
Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.
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