Goblins and Kobolds and Trolls, Oh My

2020-03-24

This is (probably) the last of what I’m calling my “Creatures Reconsidered” series. Here I want to look at goblins, kobolds, and trolls, the creatures that, in most fantasy RPGs and miniatures games, are the howling “evil” hordes that “good” beings, i.e. the PCs, can kill without compunction. (See the post Drow for my problems with that trope.)

Goblins

The term “goblin” has been applied to a wide range of ghosts, evil fairies, small grotesque monsters, and assorted imps and petty demons. The picture below is Goya’s “Duendecitos”, sometimes translated as “Hobgoblins”1. “Duende” in Spanish and related languages also means spirit or ghost. And “animal magnetism” or charm. And a particulary soulful, melancholy, and passionate form of art.

Francisco de Goya’s “Duendecitos”

In the RPG Troika! (again), Goblins consider themselves the bringers of “civilization”; they connect the multiplicity of other Spheres to their vast, trans-dimensional “labyrinth”. (Probably a reference to the 1986 movie). Troika!, as usual, hints rather than defines, but I at least got the impression of a short, somewhat cowardly race that gains a foothold on other Spheres then extends their influence through subterfuge and mercenaries. In the playtest I ran, the PCs stumbled their way through a small segment of the Labyrinth – a maze of twisty little passages all alike – for a job walking blind through a portal.

One of the alternate worlds I dreamed up, but never got to use, was a Sphere that the Goblins had at least partially taken over. That segment of the Labyrinth was an imposing structure, with innumerable entrances that the poor could shelter in as long as they didn’t obstruct traffic. (And, possibly, paid rent.) Within the gloom dwelled Goblin (and Troll) guards, a veritable warren of Goblin grifters and schemers, and a person human authorities regarded as the “Goblin King” but may have been merely a spokesman for said King, or the head of one of the powerful clans, or just an “entrepreneur” who knew how to get things done on the Goblin side.

Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel”

In my notes I posited that all Goblins belonged to one of 216 clans. Their full names included their clan, their personal name (one of 216 officially recognized names)2, and a patronymic (or matronymic?), in that order. All were randomly generated with three six-sided dice, hence the number 216. Goblins weren’t male or female; they were just … goblins.

Terry Pratchett’s Snuff and Raising Steam and Schwalb Entertainment’s RPG Shadows of the Demon Lord, among other works, cast goblins in roles other than Tolkien’s evil hordes and Warcraft’s gearhead mischief makers. Goblins can be whatever the author or game master needs, albeit with a grotesque, shady, and/or sinister twist.

Kobolds

Wikipedia tells us that “kobolds” were Germanic sprites, similar to fairies or goblins. The term was applied to household spirits, mine spirits, and water spirits. They could take the form of child-sized dwarfs, animals, or balls of fire.

Nothing about scaly/furry dog things or tiny cousins to dragons.

Gygax et al. originally used “kobold” for things weaker than goblins. He originally described them as furry and dog-like – which persists in the humorous RPG Kobolds Ate My Baby – but somewhere around 3rd edition they became small reptilian things. “Tucker’s Kobolds” from Dragon Magazine #127, in which the weakest monsters in D&D routed high-level adventures using traps, ambushes, and guerilla tactics, changed them from sword fodder to devious trapsmiths, albeit still prone to dying in direct confrontations.

While the lesson of “Tucker’s Kobolds” is worth remembering, that role for kobolds is starting to become cliche. Other possible interpretations of kobolds that honor the original folklore include:

Trolls

People who play D&D (or Tunnels & Trolls) think of trolls as brutish man-eating monsters whose flesh regenerates at alarming speed. The regeneration part comes from a Poul Anderson fanasy novel, yet it’s what most gamers think of when they think of trolls. (Like how sunlight burns or kills vampires in most movies and RPGs; it’s a gimmick introduced in Murnau’s Nosferatu and reused in Hammer’s Dracula films.3)

Scandinavians might picture something more like this creature from the 2010 movie Trollhunter:

troll from the movie Trollhunter

In fact the peoples of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden (and sometimes Finland) have a variety of stories and legends about trolls, which vary in appearance from towering ugly giants to grotesque dwarfish creatures to seemingly ordinary people who are just a little bit off. The only common traits of trolls is that they live in the wilderness, aren’t Christian, are at best unfriendly to ordinary (Christian) human beings. Some of their myths derive from the Norse jotnar or giants. Folklore from the Christian era has them assuming female form to seduce human men, leaving troll changelings in place of human children, and generally behaving like British and Irish faerie-folk. In Norwegian folklore they’re easily outwitted, and repelled by lightning and church bells. As with dwarfs and elves, one can tap into folklore and recast trolls as protectors of nature or a territorial “elder race”.

*But What About Orcs, Halflings, [insert creature here]?”

Tolkien invented Halflings and Orcs for his Middle Earth in the mid 20th century. Generally, most “little people” and ogres have their roots in European legends of fairies, dwarfs, goblins, trolls, and bogeymen.

Popular creatures like aasimar, dragonborn, and tieflings derive from various angels, demons, spirits, monsters, and gods of various Mediterranean and near Eastern civilizations, filtered through the minds of fantasy authors and game designers. Others like come from myths and folk tales from the rest of the world or from works of fantasy and science fiction. As they added more recently to fantasy role-playing games, they’re far easier to “reinvent”.

Rather than “reconsider” more D&D monsters, I’ll refer readers to various Paizo products like Classic Monsters Revisited, Classic Horrors Revisited, Misfit Monsters Redeemed, Dungeon Denizens Revisited, etc. Also, readers might want to look up4 the original myths, legends, folklore, fairy tales, and fantasy literature that inspired most of the creatures now commonplace in fantasy games.


  1. As a side note, “hobgoblin” doesn’t mean a larger goblin, no matter how Professor Tolkien used it. The prefix “hob”, at least according to Wikipedia, indicated a goblin that might be mischievious but was not malevolent. Christianity and careless usage made it synonymous with “goblin”. ↩︎

  2. If that sounds far-fetched, Romans used only about two dozen first names or praenomina, of which less than a dozen were common. Historians and maybe their acquaintances had to use a cognomen or epithet like “Germanicus” to distinguish them. ↩︎

  3. In the original folklore vampires have a … complicated … relationship to daybreak, but generally daytime weakens or dispels them. Stoker’s Dracula walked around in daylight, albeit weak as a human. LeFanu’s Carmilla needed crypt time in the morning but could feign humanity like a champ by afternoon. ↩︎

  4. In books, not just Web pages. (E-books are still books.) ↩︎