Sunday, May 15, 2011

I like my goblins wicked... and smart!

The following digression was inspired in part by this short (and original) description of goblins from the Platemail Monster Manual “Teaser”:

Goblins are small (average 120 cm) green-skinned humanoids, with long heads, pointed ears, and long, tapering fingers. They are proud, intelligent, and crafty. They are infamously strict about keeping any promise, even one made under duress (though they are crafty and perfectly willing to twist the intent of a pact). Magicians are relatively common among goblins, and their leaders are generally the cleverest among them rather than the strongest. They have uneasy relationships with their larger, stronger (they would say, stupider) cousins, hobgoblins and bugbears. Small breeds of orcs are sometimes referred to as goblins; in fact, there is no relationship between the fey, temperamental race of goblins and the brutal, savage orcs. Actual goblins find this mistake insulting. Most goblins live as members of tribes living in cave complexes and similar underground settings.
I’m aware of the criticism surrounding D&D/Pathfinder excess (or redundancy) of humanoid races and I find it peculiar that it never really bothered me… with the exception of goblinoids and orcs.

I can’t explain why but I was found the presence of both races extremely annoying in my settings.

Maybe it was my introduction to fantasy through the works of Tolkien. Middle-Earth’s orcs always sounded to me sufficiently versatile and varied to remove the need for three entire goblinoid races, whose description easily matched that of the orcs (in my mind, goblins were just poor copies of the brutish servants of Sauron).

I must also pinpoint a curious linguistic problem. I don’t know the reason, but some key terms of D&D were never translated to Portuguese when the first books were released here in the 90s. The words “goblin” and “ranger” are probably the greatest examples.

Because the name of the race was never translated, many of us at the time saw goblins just as another fanciful name for “ugly humanoid” (in other words: orcs). The goblin connotation with older legends (folklore and fairy tales) was thus never made here.

The Portuguese word for “goblin” is “duende”. Since it never entered the hobby’s terminology, if you describe to the typical brazilian player that his warrior is facing a gang of “duendes”, he’ll probably laugh at you, imagining some Disney or childish band of creatures (duendes and gnomes are practically synonymous in this regard).

With the coming of Warcraft and the “redemption” of the orcs as a fully heroic race, the position of the goblin in our fantasy games here became even more strange (without resorting to the mad steampunk inventor cliché – also a Warcraftian concept).

That may be one of reasons why goblins always sounded redundant to me: they’re just another type of orc. In fact, this impression was reinforced years later by settings like Dragonlance and Birthright, where you got goblins but no orcs (although Birthright does have the very flavorful orogs).

As a result, it was easier for me to imagine goblins and orcs as of the same race. At least in old books like Monster Mythology or the Forgotten Realms Grey Box I got the impression that orcs were originally just another kind of goblinoids (if I remember correctly their pantheons in the Great Wheel cosmology were originally the same, even inhabiting the same plane).

All this rambling rant is because, in my recent and short-lived Swords & Wizardry game, I started to make some general notes about a campaign setting equally influenced by the Dying Earth genre and the mash-up fantasy from the LBBs. I called it Ealdgard (“Old World” in very bad Old English).

In Ealdgard I'm suing elves as fey creatures from another dimension that can’t reproduce without stealing human children (the classic changeling legend). Most elven kingdoms were sealed centuries ago by the last Great Human Empire and are just now coming free. I already had an idea for orcs in this setting, but goblins – as usual – were without a definitive position.  I knew that I wanted to use all the original monsters of the LBBs, so I had to find a way to introduce goblins without letting them become just “more orcs”.

That was when I remembered the fact that goblins are “duendes”, fey spirits. Due to almost 20 years of D&D, I saw them just as ugly yellow barbarian humanoids. I forgot their traditional description from folklore (like that found in this delightful book).

With some difficult (generated by the misconceptions above) I decided to make of  my Ealdgard goblins a type of anti-elf race. They would also be creatures from another dimension and racial enemies of the elven kingdoms, sealed with them during the apex of their multiplanar war by the human magic-users.

That was a radical change for me and – until reading the excellent Platemail description that open this post – I was at a loss of how detailing them. Currently I feel that my design decision for a more “classic” goblin was a good call. Smart, crafty and able magicians… goblins now sound a lot more interesting and diverse to me, perfect to spice up my S&W proto-setting.

I just wish I could find some players…