This would be my last post regarding adventuring for a time. Good thing, because I believe I am just about out of gas.
Despite what I said about finding the two women or about the tired cliche of finding the lair, destroying the lair, let's presume that this is just what happens. The women are still missing, the party has chanced into the location of the goblin village and they are now free to take action.
At this point there's little to do regarding the set up. The party is champing at the bit - so much so that they're almost certain to do something stupid just so they can get on with things. Hey diddle diddle, right up the middle is almost certainly the tactic the party will employ, because parties are like that. Parties tend to convince themselves that there are only two possible kinds of assault: divide up the party (bad) and attack head on (also bad, but at least we're together).
But . . . we're not responsible for what the party does, or how meritoriously they die. We're responsible for the situation and the information the party has. Regarding this, there are a few things to remember.
Let's consider the village's defenses. The goblins need a wall, certainly - but against whom? Character parties wandering off the road looking for them? Usually, the standard module assumes this is the case, but it's rather silly, as though the goblins have nothing better to do than wait for characters to turn up.. The goblins have not settled here, built walls, given birth to children and accumulated coin and property just so they could be cleaned out occasionally by wandering adventurers. Realistically, the village is hard to find and it's likely been here a generation, perhaps two or three. Does the reader really believe that the goblins are going to have guards standing outside the front gate month after month, year after year, in case marauding strangers appear?
Defending guards do not stand in front of gates! That's confoundingly a stupid place to be standing. The only reason to have guards there is to fleece customers (visitors) entering a town. That is certainly not the situation here.
The U.S. cavalry did not post guards outside its forts. The French Foreign Legion did not, either. We have no reason to believe that people were stupider hundreds of years previously. This is a trope created by Hollywood because it looks pompous and impressive on camera; dump it.
If there is a guard - an issue I'll come to in a moment - then the guard is in a tower. It doesn't have to be a very high tower; a fifteen foot platform over the ground will be good enough. But why would there be a guard? This isn't a military compound; the goblins aren't readying themselves for war. They're herders and peasants, just like any group of humans, working the area to feed themselves. If they were fundamentally hunters and raiders, why would they build a permanent home? Hunters and raiders are much better off with temporary shelters, so they can keep on the move. These goblins aren't moving - because, as they understand it, they're safe.
If there are walls around the village at all, chances are those walls are to keep out the local wildlife. A bear is a greater threat to a village of goblins than an off-road party would be. Bears, wolves and gawd knows what other existing monsters (giant ticks, for instance) would be raiding the village regularly if that wall wasn't there. And because some of those monsters can climb (giant ticks, for instance), it's probable that the walls overhang or are fitted with spikes or some other system to keep the creatures out without there needing to be guards. Alarms, for example.
There ought to be snares, traps, alarms and so on all over the place, set up to capture animals, warn of big things that are incoming and generally to let the goblins know there's something out there. It takes far less time for one goblin to make the circuit of the village traps (fifty or sixty of them) to make sure everything is in good working order than to have half the village standing guard all the time. Moreover, every kid in the village will know where the traps are, so that if they're caught in the woods they'll know exactly where and how fast to run in order to lead a pursuer into a dead-fall or some other surprise.
Oh yes, there will be goblins outside the perimeter, since they'll be hunting for squirrels and deer and what have you. They may be in parties of two or three or all alone - and many of them will be children as young as six or seven. You may rest assured that when the party comes clanking up in their heavy armor and weapons, the six year old goblin that hears them or sees them is going to fade invisibly into the foliage. Being about two feet tall, the party could walk right past the kid without knowing - hey, this kid knows its' home ground!
There don't need to be any guards. The gate doesn't need to be closed and barred. The nearest trees will be cleared because they'll be needed for fuel; the nearest grass to the walls will be cropped by the goats and sheep the goblins keep for meat, milk and fibres. It's not as if the chief has to say, "clear out the area fifty yards from the walls - this will happen naturally.
As the party rolls forward, they're going to change the balance of the forest. A deer is going to appear inexplicably on the verge, bounding left or right, moving in a hurry. A covey of partridge will be put up, the starlings will get agitated, the herd animals will sniff something in the wind. If the party doesn't constantly keep one scout moving ahead, alone, but insists on marching forward in pure military fashion, the goblin villagers will probably know something is up before the party knows there's anything to find. If the first glimpse of the village comes to the whole party at once, it's already too late to send thieves forward to 'surprise' the residents. They've already sent out a scout or two to see what's coming, while calling a meeting of the whole village.
Players and DMs simply fail to recognize what it is like living in the great outback all alone. The wilderness is not 'wild' if you live there. It is predictable, measurable and - most of the time - intensely quiet. Given the right conditions - a clear, calm day - it is entirely possible to hear people galumphing through the woods and talking to each other up to a mile away.
While I'm on the subject of defenses, let me also stress that the homes the goblins live in would be fireproof. It has long been known that if you mix pitch with enough grit, then smear it on wooden timbers, the timbers don't burn. I am so tired of parties that believe everything can be set aflame - as though in three generations of living in the forest the goblins have never faced a forest fire. For the love of goblin marauders in pink petticoats, don't have the village be made of convenient matchsticks.
Fuck the roll of the die where it comes to weapons. The goblins will have accumulated an excellent stock of whatever weapons their intelligence and technology can provide. There will be plenty for all. By the time the party arrives at the village (unless they wisely sent scouts, removed their armor and took precautions such as travelling at night, in properly windy conditions or by magical means), the goblins will be armed and ready for them. Chances are, they won't suffer a penalty for firing at any point inside the verge, since every one of them will have a very clear understanding of how far away is that stump or tuft of grass next to the party - they've all shot hundreds of little animals that wandered into sight.
Think of it like the Battle of Cer, where the Austrians attacked the Serbs on the Serb's artillery practice range.
As with other entries in this series, that I now draw to a close, try to think outside the 'adventure' format. Try hard to imagine what it must be like to be a goblin boy tending the sheep, seeing a group of the adults suddenly appear with two human women in tow. Is that unique or is it something that happens perhaps once a year, before a given festival? Imagine the fascination; the opportunity to see these giant women begging for their lives, seeing the chief strutting before them, demanding that the women be bound and readied for the sacrifice. How cool is that?
Think about the boy's thoughts the next day as he's out hunting squirrels with a knife, like he does all the time, only to see appear a group of humans, dwarves or elves, armed with weapons and so on. He drops down into the bushes; judges his distance from the village; thinks about the best circuitous routes he can use to get back and warn people. Or perhaps how he could move fifty feet closer to the village, shout at the party and lead them right into the patch of bees that swarms around the great dead tree. He might figure he can leap the tree and arouse the bees, then be gone and past them while the bees attack the party mercilessly (I'm stealing chapter and verse from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, but a good idea is a good idea).
Even a tough, high-level party is going to be surprised when they're each stung fifty or sixty times before the goblins attack . . .