The humble goblin: small, green, and usually little more than a speed bump on a low level party’s journey to their first dungeon boss. These “small, black-hearted humanoids” are probably Dungeons & Dragons’ archetypally “easy” enemy.
Through multiple decades and editions, goblins have remained a staple fixture of D&D in pretty much all its forms. In 5e, goblins are not only one of the game’s most common low-level foes but, thanks to Volo’s Guide to Monsters, are also a playable race with some powerful features and abilities.
More importantly, perhaps, playing a goblin character is definitely an opportunity for a unique and (hopefully) fun roleplaying experience.
In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at goblins – their culture, history, physical characteristics, the mechanical benefits and drawbacks of playing one, and which classes the humble goblin is best suited to.
You can jump to any of those sections using the table of contents below, or just dive right in with a short note on why you need to stop thinking about goblins as goblins, and start feeding them after midnight…
Goblins Are Gremlins; and other humble suggestions
As a DM, I love goblins. There’s something about their smallness, their propensity to gather in large groups to survive, thrive, pillage, and plunder – not to mention the cartoonishly evil way they’re presented in the source material – that reminds me of Gremlins.
Not only do gremlins hit a lot of the same visual beats as most people’s conception of a goblin (short, green-skinned, probably cackling), but they present a fantastic avenue for making goblins a more memorable threat than your average low-level mook.
There’s already a lot of overlap between the gleefully psychotic, murderously merry pranksters that descend upon the town of Kingston Falls on Christmas eve, and the way that goblins are presented in D&D 5e.
“Goblins are small, black-hearted humanoids that lair in despoiled dungeons and other dismal settings. Individually weak, they gather in large numbers to torment other creatures.”Monster Manual, pg 138
It’s worth noting that the way that 5e presents goblins as both irredeemably malignant little monsters and thinking, feeling creatures, reads as kind of problematic.
Maybe decades of treating goblins as disposable cannon fodder in the DM’s arsenal has led to an unsympathetic perspective even within the objective rules. Just look at the way in which goblins are positioned within their own racial taxonomy.
“Goblins belong to a family of creatures called goblinoids. Their larger cousins, hobgoblins and bugbears, like to bully goblins into submission. Goblins are lazy and undisciplined, making them poor servants, laborers, and guards.”Monster Manual, pg 138
Honestly, if I’d been enslaved by a bugbear, I’d probably be a little surly when the time came for me to do its tax returns.
When it comes to putting goblins in your world, I think DMs have roughly two routes you can go down, and both have really interesting implications for how you interact with goblins in your world and represent one as a playable character.
First, you can really lean into the injustice inherent to the representation of goblins as both sentient creatures with their own societies and cultures, and a maligned species that most other races view as being little more than vermin in need of extermination.
This approach offers some fertile ground for roleplaying as a goblin player character, but if that’s not your cup of steaming hot mushroom tea, then might I suggest doing a bit of tinkering with the fundamental nature of goblins?
Goblins are gremlins. If you want to take this suggestion at face value – and are a fan of the Joe Dante and Chris Columbus film – then rule that goblins in your setting are what you get when you feed a halfling after midnight.
If you want to be less whimsical, how about goblins are what you get if you feed a halfling demon blood?
The idea of goblins as warped reflections of a traditionally “good” species positions them somewhere between gremlins, orcs in Lord of the Rings, and zombies, and makes an outbreak of goblins in a sleepy halfling community a very real, very creepy threat.
You could even take this one step further and make hobgoblins and bugbears the result of applying the same process to humans and orcs, respectively. Very spooky stuff.
Speaking of spooky, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what’s probably my favorite form of goblin creation, courtesy of Swedish apocalyptic black metal RPG MÖRK BORG.
In MÖRK BORG anyone who is even attacked by a goblin (hit or miss) is infected with the goblin’s curse. If the offending goblin isn’t tracked down and killed within d6 days, your mind is paralyzed and you turn into a goblin yourself. How’s that for a way to turn a low-level baddie into an enemy that can give a level 20 character cause for concern?
Then there’s the way I run goblins in my own campaign. Much like gremlins (not to mention Orks in Warhammer: 40k) goblins aren’t a species: they’re a plague.
No one knows exactly how goblins are born; they just start crawling out of the woodwork, stealing food, burning down houses, overrunning local bars, hijacking snow plows (you get the idea).
They spring fully-formed from dark, rotten corners of the world and multiply exponentially so long as one of them remains alive. It’s pure nightmare fuel, and my players loved it.
They loved it so much, in fact, that one of them decided they wanted to play a goblin as their next character (after their old character was, ironically, torn apart and devoured by goblins).
As this was not an evil campaign, the idea of adding a malicious little hellraiser to the party obviously made everyone a little nervous (or annoyed).
Therefore, I humbly submit my solution for reconciling a world in which goblins are a chittering, chaotic plague or evil little black-hearted backbiters (something which is true whether you’re using my ideas above or the rules as written) with the addition of a goblin to your party: The Green Madness.
The Green Madness might be a curse, or an evolutionary trait, or the result of some bizarre sorcery gone wrong. Whatever you prefer, it’s a psychological effect that manifests itself in goblins whenever you put more than one of them in close proximity to one another.
A solitary goblin is, in just about every respect, a measured, thoughtful, rational creature (as much or as little as other humanoids can be thought of as such), but put them together and the Green Madness starts to take hold.
Affected goblins become cruel, spiteful, gleefully mischievous – gremlins, basically. Even two goblins together are more of a handful than either one by themself. A horde of goblins several thousand strong is a chittering, swarming nightmare.
Not only does this let goblin player characters exist within your world, but it creates some interesting potential drama, as a group of goblins spirals out of control to the point where – someone will surely argue – they’re past the point of being able to save.
However the goblins in your world differ from those in the rules as written, those rules are still a rich vein that you can use to help you get to grips with a goblin character if you choose to play one.
Despite its overt contempt for goblins, the rules of D&D 5e also make it clear that there’s more to goblin culture and history than initially meets the eye.
Goblin Culture and History
While a lot of modern thinking in D&D seems prone to characterizing goblins as lovable scamps with a murderous streak, the rules and history of the game make it perfectly clear: goblins are murderous little opportunists who exist on the fringes of society, stealing cattle, taking humanoids as slaves whenever possible, and will likely be the first to sign up whenever an evil wizard or warlord takes up residence in the local abandoned castle.
They’re almost universally viewed as mean-spirited, lazy, stupid, and easily led. Goblin gangs are often ruled over by stronger or smarter creatures (other goblinoids like bugbears and hobgoblins tend to be the most common culprits) but are likely to spend their time plotting ways to assassinate their leaders and stage some sort of coup.
However, there’s more to goblin society than that. Goblin societies are (somewhat begrudgingly it would seem) fundamentally structured as a kind of hybrid between kratocracy (rule of the strong) and feudalism.
They’re organized into a rigid caste system with a boss on top and several stratified layers below. Skilled goblins – tacticians, spellcasters, healers, priests – make up the next layer, called “lashers”. Below them are the “hunters” – a warrior caste defined and limited by their sole skill for bloodshed.
Then we have the “gatherers”, who farm, trap, kill, and cook anything edible within the vicinity of the goblins’ camp. And last we have the “pariahs”, seen as the weakest, dumbest, most contemptible members of goblin society, and typically given the worst jobs in society.
If you want to play a goblin that has rejected their society, having been born as a pariah makes for a good motivation if you’re looking to explain why they’ve forsaken their own people for an adventuring life.
Breakdown: Goblin Abilities, Features, and Traits
Let’s take a look at the racial abilities, features, and traits that goblins get access to as a playable race in Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Ability Score Increase: Your Dexterity score increases by 2 and your Constitution score increases by 1.
Age: Goblins reach adulthood at age 8 and live up to 60 years.
Alignment: Goblins are typically neutral evil, as they care only for their own needs. A few goblins might tend toward good or neutrality, but only rarely.
Size: Goblins are between 3 and 4 feet tall and weigh between 40 and 80 pounds. Your size is Small.
Speed: Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Darkvision: You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Fury of the Small: When you damage a creature with an attack or a spell and the creature’s size is larger than yours, you can cause the attack or spell to deal extra damage to the creature. The extra damage equals your level. Once you use this trait, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.
Nimble Escape: You can take the Disengage or Hide action as a bonus action on each of your turns.
Languages: You can speak, read, and write Common and Goblin.
Honestly, this is one of the better selections of racial traits available in the game.
A +2 to Dexterity makes you a great candidate for any ranged or Dexterity-based class; goblins are ideally positioned to be Fighters, Rangers, and Monks – but more on that in a minute.
You also get a boost to your Constitution, which is never a bad thing, especially if you’re going to be getting up close and personal with your enemies, which you should absolutely be doing because of your Nimble Escape.
The ability to take the dodge or disengage action as a bonus action is something typically reserved for Rogues, and is going to make you a decidedly slippery customer in a melee.
However, it’s worth noting that, while 5e is very good about making just about any race/class combination at least somewhat viable, your ability bonuses and racial traits do mean that you won’t really feel any of the goblin’s natural benefits if you take them down the route of a caster.
If you do want to do this, however, the Custom Lineage options in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything are probably your best bet.
Playing a Goblin
When it comes to choosing a class for your goblin character, anything with the potential to be Dexterity-based can be extremely powerful.
This class fits the goblin’s natural traits and abilities like a glove. Dexterity and Constitution are perfect for any Dexterity-based fighter builds (a goblin fighter dual-wielding shortswords is a classic) and your Nimble Escape makes you a fantastic hit-and-run combattant – or help you with all-important positioning if you choose to go for a build that focuses on ranged combat.
While no bonus to your Wisdom is kind of a bummer, spellcasting is by no means the be-all and end-all of a Ranger. You get a good bump to your Dexterity and Constitution, Fury of the Small synergizes really well with your Hunter’s Mark, and Mimble Escape helps keep your enemies at a distance.
There’s also something really thematically satisfying about taking a goblin down the route of a Gloomstalker, leaping from the darkness to inflict massive damage with teeth (and knives) bared.
This is a really interesting thematic choice for a goblin – perhaps speaking to a lifetime of focus and dedication to overcome the effects of the Green Madness, or just generally nasty goblin urges. As always, Dexterity and Constitution are a great fit for a Monk, and Nimble Escape helps feed into your class’ natural mobility.
Roleplaying a goblin is definitely going to be an interesting experience. You’re likely going to be viewed as a menace by any locals who are probably more used to hiring adventurers to kill goblins than hiring a goblin adventurer.
You might be refused service in taverns, turned away by guards at the city gate, and generally treated as a second-class citizen.
The flip side of this is that, when you get a little farther away from the “civilized” world, your monstrous origins might end up paying dividends. A gang of wandering orcs are more likely to skewer a group of humans on-site than give them the time of day, but a goblin probably has a halfway decent chance of being invited to join them for a meal or getting some half-decent directions at the very least.
You are probably going to end up feeling more at home in the places where your party adventures than your allies, so lean into it. Enjoy thriving outside of other people’s comfort zones.
Going Green: A Guide to Goblin Aesthetics
Goblins are small, with greenish, brown, yellow, or orange skin and wiry frames. Most goblins from the same tribe tend to share a single or similar skin tone palette.
They have flat faces with red or yellowish eyes, large bulbous noses, and pointed teeth. Goblin societies supposedly have a distant relationship with hygiene, and they supposedly tend towards being filthy, clad in rags and unwashed animal pelts.
Thanks to both their rigid caste system and tendency to be subjugated by other races, goblins adore status symbols, from trinkets to armor and exotic pets.
They have a natural affinity for wolves and rats, and a goblin with a dire wolf or warg mount is much more likely to be able to lord it over their peers. Tattoos, piercings, and warpaint are also a great way to signify a goblin’s tribal loyalty and status.
It’s worth thinking about how a goblin who has left their tribe behind might view their old status symbols. Do they still wear them with pride? Do they try to hide them in shame or fear of reprisals by their old comrades?
Goblins tend to take their tribe’s name as part of their own, which may be named after its current ruler – there’s a great random table generator here.
When it comes to first names, they like to favor harsh, one or two-syllable sounds with a fondness for hard consonants, ‘V’s and ‘Z’s, and tend to differ between masculine and feminine – although probably not in any way that a non-goblin can distinguish.
Goblin Tribe Names: Cragmaw (from the Lost Mines of Phandelver), Batir (from the lands of Chult), Stonefoot, Moonpaw, Ratskull, Sword Tooth, Boneswarm, Ragsnot’s Raiders, The Black Sun Gang, Grotter’s Mouth Frothers, The Snotlings.
Goblin First Names: Rarzofi, Leebofz, Wrunk, Drak, Greelik, Zit, Zraz, Morras, Jochok, Cradgig, Sollilk, Nejug, Mite, Slime, Shrillleg, Grubtooth, Toadwart, Mogwai.