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.