Thursday, March 24, 2011

Kicking Goblins Back Down The Stairs

Inspired by this post from Anthony of Of Pedantry, where yet another blogger is writing about the cleverness and innovation of goblins, I want to make an argument for the importance of stupid, brainless races.

There isn't anything wrong with Anthony's post; and he is perfectly free to run goblins any way that he wishes.  But I am unclear as to why goblins, of all creatures, have developed the kind of tactics which have only been taught at military schools since the 18th century, or how it is that they have the restraint and the organization to follow orders as a group ... without also developing other higher ideals such as ethics, the rule of law and above-ground architecture.  In short, military science is not something that is developed inside a narrow framework.  The sort of tactics that require different groups to attack with different tools at appropriate times requires also a higher level of motivation than, "we're all evil, let's kill together."

I know there's a perception that primitive tribes of people attack in primitive warfare in astoundingly clever ways, but this is pure propagandistic bullshit invented by people who want you to think koala bears have an even chance of winning against Imperial Stormtroopers, or who want you to think primitive blue 'indians' of a mythical culture can't lose to industrialized miners.  Let me repeat.  It's bullshit.  Military organization has never been accomplished by a primitive culture.  That's why the British in Africa and the Spanish in South America found a few hundred troops could handily manage tens of thousands of tribesmen, even when some of those tribesmen were armed with modern equipment.  Because to stand in military order in the face of the enemy without flinching requires more than equipment; it requires more than a leader with a good idea; it requires decades of steadfast training on the fields of Eton and in the drawing rooms of elder patriarchs.

Correct me if I'm wrong ... goblins don't have higher culture, do they?

I know, I know.  I am failing to get into the fantasy spirit of the thing.  We want goblins to be tougher, we don't want to give them more hit points and so on, so instead we want to bless them with an organizational framework on a level with the Romans.  What is wrong with that?  This is fantasy.

Okay, so am I operating in a world where goblins are the masters of all they survey?  No, because this is fantasy.  Can I count on the various races that have the ability to be mages and illusionist being the equal of goblins on the battlefield in military training?  Well, no guarantees, because this is fantasy.  What about orcs, gnolls, bugbears, ogres, trolls and giants ... do they have the instinctive military training of an ordinary goblin?  Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, it depends on how I feel, because this is fantasy.  So really, this is just a free-for-all, with the DM incorporating any intellectual trait at random into any race regardless of logic or characteristics, isn't it?  Yep.  'Cause this is fantasy.

Heck, why not have giant rats organized along military logic?  These giant rats will bite at the ankles, distracting the enemy, while these will slide down chutes they've burrowed out of the clay ceiling, while these giant rats will form rat-pyramids as attack squads intended to bury intruders in rat flesh, smothering opposition and ensuring plenty of meat for the swarm ...

Or green slime who raid castles, seeping between the stones and attacking at the wooden struts supporting the upper floors of the central keep and the various towers, perhaps supported by rust monster cavalries mounted by teams of rot grub who have built tiny catapults designed to hurl their small brethren at defenders.  Sure, what the hell, it's fantasy ain't it?

Why not green slime that flies ... oh wait, rust monsters that fly and are made of green slime, which teleport at will and co-exist in forty universes at the same time, while cleverly manipulating goblins which are transmuted into streetwalkers that follow parties around and give them green slime STD's ...

Okay, okay, I'm losing it.

Here's a thought.  It's fantasy, so how about one race of fairly weak humanoid creatures who act rather stupidly and provide ready fodder for low-level, quite weak parties who find eight or ten of them pretty hard to kill.  And how about we think of those humanoids as being pretty dumb, so they run straight out without any tactics at all, enabling the parties to develop tactics of their own.  That way, when the parties get tougher and stronger, they can use those tactics on other, smarter humanoids, that are known by different names and have different, more intelligent characteristics.  And what if we call the weaker humanoids "goblins" and the tougher humanoids "orcs," or "gnolls," or other names like that.  And then there could be even smarter humanoids, called "elves" say, who were even harder to kill?

That way, the parties could say, as they were moving onto 3rd level, "Wow, this isn't like fighting goblins," and everyone would understand just what the fuck was being talked about.

But hey, that's just a thought.  Don't pay any attention to it.  Just go back to making goblins into elves, and elves into sphinxes, and sphinxes into titans and titans into black puddings and black puddings into Yorkshire beef cattle and so on and so forth, since there isn't any need at all to keep things straight.  Reinventing is fun and wow does it ever feel like we're making something new here ...

My apologies, Anthony.  It really isn't you.  And yours won't be the last post reinventing the goblin.  Sigh.


richard said...

I understand your urge to found a standard English of roleplaying races, I really do. It's about communication and common expectations and mutual intelligibility and all that.

But goblins in particular are a tricky case to work with if that's what you're after, because the standard stupid ratty goblin is a fairly recent invention (I want to say Tolkien, which means there's bound to be someone before him), and there's a whole raft of other literature in which goblins are the sneakier, more dangerous cousins of elves, or caricatured humans (on which front GURPS Goblins just might be the best Pratchettian RPG supplement ever written), and not simple cannon fodder at all.

Really, orcs were made from whole cloth for exactly that purpose.

I have some urge to ask you to justify your whole primitive/stupid non-Europeans thing, too, but the truth is that I have no will for a protracted discussion on the topic. Maori, Parthians and Hsiung-nu all had tactics at least as complex as those described, though, and V. V. Barthol'd's Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion shows great military sophistication among the unlettered horse-tribes of middle Asia, whom I am pretty sure you'd call primitive and who still couldn't hold a rifle square against Russian artillery.

richard said...

...where I wrote "great military sophistication" I meant "tactics at least as sophisticated as Anthony describes," which keeps us on the point at hand.

These skirmishing goblins would also very likely fall to a company of redcoats with martini-henrys. They might be effective against poorly disciplined cavalry or an enemy advancing impatiently through unfamiliar terrain, though.

Arkhein said...

"Why not green slime that flies ... oh wait, rust monsters that fly and are made of green slime, which teleport at will and co-exist in forty universes at the same time, while cleverly manipulating goblins which are transmuted into streetwalkers that follow parties around and give them green slime STD's ..."

I would pay money for someone to draw that. Not a lot of money mind you, but it would be so awesome, my head would explode.

- Ark

Arduin said...

Goblins, as an aside, are just great in general. I've always preferred the Kobold as the tiny-tenacious-toughs though.

But the reason people "reinvent" the monsters is because they are indeed trying to make it "not like fighting goblins". It's an attempt at a change-up, no more and no less.

Some folks want a persistent, internally logical world, and some folks are already trying to work out how to go with your green slime/rust monster runabout in their game. Can't say I agree with it, but there you are.

Big Rob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Big Rob said...

I needed a good laugh tonight...thanks. I always thought goblins were more like those gremlins in the movie.

Carl said...

"Spanish in South America found a few hundred troops could handily manage tens of thousands of tribesmen, even when some of those tribesmen were armed with modern equipment."

The Aztecs lost for two reasons. They didn't have metalworking and they didn't have horses. It wasn't their lack of military science that lost that war. It was their lack of engineering and beasts of burden.

I've been running random encounters out of the DMG based on the observed terrain type the party occupies for my entire campaign of 162 in-game days. I think it makes for a better game than scaling encounters to match the party.

When I finally do get around to building a model for monster encounters in a hex, I'll rate the hexes for difficulty after I populate them with monsters.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Well, the trouble is, if we keep goblins/kobolds/orcs/gnolls/whatever the same, and use other things to fill the niche we want, then they either feel like smart goblins, in which case the players go "Hey, if we're just fighting smart goblins, why not call them that?", you get a race that should have wiped out or enslaved the (insert humanoids here) years, or you've made a new race and still haven't filled the slot you wanted to fill.

Anthony said...

I'm not offended.

If the Comanches (who originally inspired me) were a stone age civilization in all respects OUTSIDE of warfare, but excellent mounted warriors on the High Plains, I have no problem making goblins good at fighting in the terrain they are most familiar with. Their tactics ARE best applied "against poorly disciplined cavalry or an enemy advancing impatiently through unfamiliar terrain" (again, similar to Comanches). My Indian inspiration had little "ethics, the rule of law and above-ground architecture" in the 19th century and no social organizations above a tribal structure, but were able to organize their horsemen in rotating concentric rings that could advance on an enemy while the closest part of the formation would loose their arrows at their enemies.

So I'm not offended or convinced.

richard said...

The Aztecs lost for two reasons. They didn't have metalworking and they didn't have horses

Also religion, if you take the rather self-servingly colonial white man god myth at face value, and smallpox.

Anonymous said...

I'm voting small pox. Had Native America not gotten so sick it might not have been quite so easy to push aside. Lacking iron didn't help, of course.

But I'd hardly call Meso-American cultures primitive, though. The empires of the Inca, Aztec and Maya are a far cry from some dirty goblins living in a cave. Those empires didn't build themselves.

Alexis, while I sympathize with your basic premise (let the goblins be goblins), the notion that sophisticated military tactics were invented in 17th century drawing rooms is off the mark. You're dismissing generations of western, near and far-eastern military tactics STILL STUDIED in those academies you mention.

Alexis said...

A clarification.

The tactics weren't invented in 17th century drawing rooms. But the character of the men, who staunchly faced odds disastrously stacked against them, and winning, were fashioned in those drawing rooms.

Gentlemen, I appreciate the examples. I think if the effort is made, other examples could be put forward by the gentle reader that demonstrated that tactics are not merely the possession of weapons, but in the larger sense depend upon the entire cultural framework that supports the military.

My argument was only that if the goblins have these tactics, where is the goblin cultural framework that supports their creation?

Anonymous said...

And therein lies the assumption one makes when rendering their game world. In mine (like yours), the goblins are a stupid, numerous nuisance. Perhaps in Anthony's world there's a goblin West Point... or more to the relevant example, a tribe-based social structure akin to certain North American natives. If I was a player in Anthony's game I'd only expect it to be consistent.

Zzarchov said...

From the post linked,

The goblin tactics don't seem very innovative or sustainable for a longer battle. A fairly simple and strong armed leader with no real military culture could dream those up.

Frankly it is the sort of bad long term tactics that were used by disorganized cultures and lead to their defeat.

That kind of fighting may win you the battle (in that you lose fewer than the opponent in a skirmish). But you don't manage to burn down their crops because you flee. They however march up to your crops and burn them down (because you flee).

You may lose fewer people in battle, but when you freeze or starve to death in winter it hardly matters.

Those seem like perfect short sighted, self-preserving goblin tactics to me. Also pretty easy to bypass once the first horse rider comes about.

richard said...

the other thing that occurs to me is that this goes straight to what James Maliszewski says about D&D being a big tent game. I bet this "problem" of reimagining everything in sight doesn't exist in Warhammer (or maybe even 4e) because that's a much more controlled IP sort of setting. I'm with James in celebrating the lack of lock-step here.

Alexis said...

Given that James M. is the Rethinker King, I've no doubt that's his stance.

richard, it reminds me of the farmer that plows his land in march, and april, and may, and june, and july, and august, while never putting down any seed, who at the end screams that after all his work he deserves something.

Carl said...

"My argument was only that if the goblins have these tactics, where is the goblin cultural framework that supports their creation?"

That's a good argument.

I play goblins as more-or-less bipedal rats. They are pests, vermin. No culture to speak of, rudimentary communication skills, minimal if any tool use, organization is 'swarm'. Missile fire would take the form of thrown rocks and/or feces, if it occurred to them.

Anthony said...

You like tomato and I like tomahto. Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let's call the whole thing off.

It's fine to agree to disagree on the cultural context of particular military values.

Son of a Butch said...

"Military organization has never been accomplished by a primitive culture."

Paging Genghis Khan...

Anonymous said...

I've been working on enemies who don't fight to the death, who do break and run to save their own hides, and who do make mistakes in battle, or don't all get their optimal attack each round. It takes some awareness for me to do that after years of standard, rulebook-tactical but maybe not too imaginative gaming.

What that opens up though, is using some plausible numbers for humanoids. Cuz really, what are four small goblins from a larger tribe doing taking on four big humans in chain armor in a balanced encounter? The numbers encourage tactical thinking by the players, while poor morale gives them a fighting chance. And it does present some obvious tactical gambits, but built around ambushes and swarms.

Darnizhaan said...

Green slime has a move of 0 and no intelligence so it will not plot to overthrow a castle. I always wondered what green slime did when it fell on the adventurers because it still couldn't move.