A question online:
And an easy decision for me: No matter the edition, my favourite monster is the goblin.
Whaaat? The most pedestrian, boring, lame standard enemy with zero special extra powers?
Why the goblin?
The goblin, if we drill down to its core (philosophically, not physically! Only goblins would do that!) is a warped and twisted version of a human. And this closeness to us gives goblins their special appeal.
I will explain after some tangential thoughts.
Tolkien wrote that orcs (and orcs are the same as goblins in Tolkien’s work) are a warped version of elves. Not “tortured elves” in a simple “Jimmy the Elf got tortured” sense, but masses of elves tortured and twisted out of their very being by a GOD! (Morgoth. Née Melkor.)
For a god does not torture and twist individuals on a rack. A god tortures and twists concepts as a whole. So orcs are the twisted mirror image not of Jimmy the Elf, but of the concept of elvishness.
The elf as such is gifted, called to greatness (even if he may fall short), musical and artistic, highly intelligent and civilized; conversely the orc is cursed, and called to evil (if he can fall “short” of that is in the hands of the table), he cannot create well and feels more inclined to cower and follow orders than to stand tall and think for himself.
No, Tolkien’s orcs were not mindless, they had debates and feared giant spiders etc., so they were still individuals, they were just drawn towards destruction.
The elf is a maker; the orc is a despoiler. Both are, in principle, archetypes of human behaviour: One an ideal to be regarded as an example, the other the low-life whose ways ought to be rejected, but either way: with the human in the middle, capable for either extreme.
The Warhammer orc & goblin
The Warhammer orc is different; stripped of its deeper philosophical meaning, and more of a war machine, awesome and impressive. The Warhammer orc is its own species, a life form, not a concept or archetype. And the Warhammer orc is clearly not the same as a Warhammer goblin: Warhammer goblins are weak and crooked, have spindly legs and flappy ears and bulging eyes, they are faster and more cowardly than the brutal and primitive Hulk-like orcs with their massive jaws and gigantic hands, so they are usually abused and kicked around by them, or utilised as mounted archers to harry the enemy flanks.
Species and concepts
This, or at least a similar distinction has seeped into popular perception and thereby also into RPGs: goblins and orcs are different kinds.
I am fine with that, it has its advantages (variety!), even though it also has drawbacks: loss of understanding of the orc as a concept; more straightforward interpretations of the orc as a physical people, almost a proto-human, maybe neanderthal-like, or even a warrior culture – they get humanized, away from the monster, towards a green barbarian.
The Size of Life
I am not fond of Supers, Superheroes, world-shaking magics, demigods and Chosen Ones. Or Dragon Riders who wipe the floor with helpless armies.
So when I open a comic and see Superman use his heat vision to melt an avalanche as it threatens a train in the Alps, I am not fascinated. It is Superman. He can do such things. Why is that avalanche even there? Where is the challenge?
Someone who has a list of mighty powers to use for punching through all his problems – that is not interesting. Someone who must overcome scarcity and disadvantage – that is where it is at. And that is also valid for the bad guys, and what makes a goblin way more interesting than a Balrog.
So now, back to the goblin as a favourite:
I return to my thought about concepts. Splitting the goblin from the orc, the orc is the opposite of the elf – destroyer to the creator – while the goblin is the opposite of the human: The lesser version of the orc versus the lesser version of the elf.
A better goblin may run with the orcs.
A better human may be respected by elves.
The goblin is not the world-shaking master villain. He is a low-life scum and outcast, a fantasy-version of the street thug, the drug dealer, the switchblade robber. Like them, the goblin is cowardly alone, ready to flee when the po-po turns on its lights, but he is sadistic in groups, a loudmouth harrying frightened children in dark alleyways. He is a concept of all the worst traits of humans.
At the same time, again like the humans, the goblin is versatile.
Like humans, goblins can settle in any climate, any environment. They can sail ships, live in caves, erect tents, roam the rain forests or the deserts, and nobody would be surprised to see a goblin tribe packed in furs in the arctic.
And they are like humans in the way that they have ideas to make up for their lack of power. Humans are slow, naked, with no teeth to write home about and no sharp claws. Ergo they had to invent weapons, build houses and defenses, and sew clothes to make up for their weakness.
Goblins tend to be fast and have teeth, but otherwise they are just like a lone human in the cold, wide world: Weak, vulnerable, afraid. So like humans they have to be imaginative if they want to succeed.
A twisted mirror: the same and the other, combined
In the form of the goblin we find a peculiar mix of the familiar and the weird. Their behaviour and motivations can be any mix of the “normal” and the “alien”.
They do not have to praise honor – a concept befitting for warriors like orcs and hobgoblins, but not for weaklings with 1HD-1, or 1/2 HD – just like a “zero-level” human. Goblins are weak and have to make up for that. That also makes them social beings – like humans. A lone goblin will not survive long. A lone human has the same problem.
But while they are very much the same, they are also very clearly the “other”.
They are NOT humans. Their greed cannot be sated, their desires not quenched. There can be no treaty with them. As a warped and twisted version of us humans they make for a great externalisation of the baser instincts of humans, as our own darkness come alive as enemies. The goblins as non-humans have the freedom to be inhuman, as they do not have to struggle with the same morals and qualms that tie our hands.
And we, as players, have the freedom to kick their asses. We don’t have to consider their loving mothers or their innocent children, because their mother doesn’t give a damn about them, and their children are every bit as bad as they are.
Yes, it is possible to play them not like that. They can be portrayed just like green humans.
But if they are played like green humans, you could just as well take humans to begin with.
If a cool, friendly goblin appears, it is best to use them sparingly, as rare exceptions.
Low Power, high Chaos
The classic goblin stands for underhanded tricks, foul traps, sly murder without remorse, a bully in superior numbers. He stands for capricious attacks on impulse, the use of primitive tools used in weird ways, shrill and crazy, and yet beatable – because of the generally low morale of the weakling.
The goblins are everything we don’t like about our own kind. Evil humans dialled up to 11:
The chaotic side of humankind made stringy, hate-fuelled flesh.
Main Photo out of GURPS Goblins, Steve Jackson Games .. even though that book is more about England than about Goblins in the traditional sense. Other pictures from Games Workshop via Wikipedia, from the retroclone Labyrinth Lord and of goblin miniatures from the Heroquest boardgame.