Friday, 16 March 2018

D&D Monsters: Gnolls

Continuing my look at some of the standard monsters of D&D, and continuing with the theme of the "evil tribal" races, it's time to turn to the gnolls - something that's particularly appropriate right now, given that they've recently been used as antagonists on Critical Role.

Although it has also been borrowed by other works, such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, the term "gnoll" is not one that's native to folklore or legend. Gygax borrowed the word from a short fantasy story by Lord Dunsany, in which it is used to describe sinister woodland beings. Although Dunsany never described what his "gnoles" looked like, Gygax has stated that he took the word to mean that they were supposed to resemble a cross between a gnome and a troll, which is as plausible an etymology as any.

By the time of the 1E Monster Manual, however, he had already switched to the "hyena man" look that they have kept ever since. This appears to be original to D&D.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

D&D Monsters: Hobgoblins

Last time, I looked at the history of goblins in D&D; now it's time to look at their larger cousins, the hobgoblins. Of the five standard "evil tribal humanoids", hobgoblins stand out in that they appear, from the earliest illustrations, to be rather more civilised than the others. In my experience, a number of campaign worlds, home-brews included, have therefore included relatively sophisticated hobgoblin nations, rather than leaving them solely as barbarian hordes, as is more commonly done with orcs.

The term "hobgoblin" is a part of traditional British folklore, referring to a particular sort of goblin that's usually seen as less malevolent than the normal sort - albeit capricious, and often dangerous pranksters. Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a hobgoblin of this sort, showing that Shakespeare, at least, thought of these beings as mischievous, but not actively evil. The original meaning of "hob" is unclear, although there's nothing to suggest that it originally meant "larger".

Tolkien is the first to use "hobgoblin" in that sense, using it, briefly, to refer to larger orcs in The Hobbit, in distinction to the regular "goblins". Gygax presumably borrowed this for D&D, and seems also to have been influenced by the uruk-hai of The Lord of the Rings, which share a number of traits with 1E hobgoblins.

Monday, 1 January 2018

D&D Monsters: Goblins

Following on from my earlier ponderings on the development of orcs in Dungeons and Dragons and related franchises, I am now going to focus on a very similar creature: the goblin. Goblins have, perhaps, changed less than orcs over the years since their first introduction into the game, but change they have, and they are a very common low-level opponent, one that's generally intended to be marginally weaker than a starting player character, and thus a threat in large numbers without being a complete walk-over when encountered in smaller groups.

The term "goblin" is, of course, an ancient one in English, referring to a (usually) malevolent magical being that is typically small and misshapen; a sort of evil fairy. As with orcs, the more modern conception of goblins comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, Tolkien uses the word as simply another word for "orc", mainly as the term that hobbits use for that race. The fact that the word therefore ends up being used more frequently in The Hobbit, in which these particular antagonists seem less of a serious threat than their counterparts in Lord of the Rings do, likely combines with the original folklore meaning of the word to produce the "like orcs, only weaker" idea first used in D&D.


Goblins appear in the very earliest editions of D&D, at first without much in the way of description. By the time of the "Advanced" edition, they are part of a distinct hierarchy of five evil tribal humanoid races, forming the second step on the chain, one slot below the orcs. Statistically speaking, they are extremely similar to orcs, but just marginally weaker: they are slower, have one less hit point, a 5% lower chance of landing a blow on an opponent, and inflict, on average, one less point of damage when they do so. In practical terms, this doesn't make a huge difference, but it could be just enough to turn the tide in an otherwise close battle (as is likely at low level).