A goblin is a small, often malicious humanoid from European mythology (although similar creatures crop up in other cultures) much employed by fantasy writers. The actual characteristics of goblins can vary quite widely dependent on the source - in some, they are the evil version of dwarves, acting as the technically skilled part of the evil faction, in some they are just mini-orcs and in others they cleave close to the typical source legends as unseelie fae. Traditionally they are petty thieves and backstabbers, rarely a match for a human in a stand-up fight but deadly enough in assassination and ambush - they will also frequently be skilled in poison, alchemy and various mechanical crafts such as trap-making, with some kinds being quite talented engineers in a variety of fields. The unseelie fae variety can also be capable of significant magic, although rarely in a good cause. Sometimes they are shown as little more than lackeys to the orcs (or any other suitable power).
Appearance will vary from small and ugly humans, to little green skinned critters to vaguely humanoid things with a variety of animal-like characteristics and size from a few inches in height to several feet. Shape changing is not unknown, especially amongst the fae types.
The relationship of the goblin to the hobgoblin is variable. In traditional folklore, they were smaller, more annoying goblins; but Tolkien's brief mention of them in The Hobbit suggests that they were larger, more intimidating ones. Dungeons & Dragons likewise portrays hobgoblins as orcs on steroids.
- J. K. Rowling's goblins are misanthropic, self satisfied and avoricious, but skilled craftsmen and scrupulously honest bankers.
- Rumplestiltskin from the eponymous fairytale was able spin straw into gold … amongst other things.
- The goblins of Games Workshop are small, vicious, fungal things related to orcs.
- J. R. R. Tolkein uses the terms orc and goblin almost interchangably at times, indicating that they may be closely related.
- Christina Rossetti's goblins, as found in her Goblin Market, are small, animalistic and possibly metaphorical drug-dealers.
- The goblins from George MacDonald 's The Princess and the Goblins are ugly and mishapen with highly sensitive toeless feet. They are incapable of making up rhymes and so they hate poetry. Even bad doggerel is enough to repel them.
- K. G. Lethbridge's goblins - as seen in The Rout of the Ollafubs and suchlike, are malicious and spiteful but not especially competent, dangerous or clever. And prone to dissolving into a pool of snotty tears.
Game and Story Use
- As with any other highly variable species, make sure your PCs are aware of the state of goblins in your campaign world - or at any rate what their characters think is true - the fantasy default is two legged vermin, but if they have a reputation as skilled but antisocial craftsmen or powerful, malevolent wizards the player ought to know.
- If, on the other hand, goblins have a reputation as two legged vermin but are actually something else, it's entirely fair for players to only know the public rep until someone shows them differently.
- The Palladium fRPG used goblins as highly degenerate fae … most were little more than two legged vermin, but the occasional throwback (know, for some reason, as a cobbler) demonstrated significant magical ability and malign intelligence.
- It would not be unreasonable to have Goblins heavily involved in the Black Market in a suitable setting - and even in a pre-industrial fantasy setting they could be likely sources for darker materials and magics.
- An alternative interpretation might be that the goblins are corrupted versions of other materialised craft spirits like brownies or shoe-maker elves: their corruption is the result of the oppression of the craftsman culture by industrialisation, making them embodied spirits of the mill and the sweat-shop. Wherever people are dehumanised by labour, goblins form. If, by grand irony, those goblins are then enslaved in the same premises that created them in the first place, they may thrive (or at least proliferate) and become somewhere between a slave-race and a lumpenproletariat. Of course, like red-caps, they have lost much of their fey magic in the process of losing their iron-bane, but there may be occasional throwbacks as well, who could potentially be goblin popular heroes (or, more likely, class-warrior monsters that stalk and murder humans by night).
- Again, for pre-industrial (or the margins of an industrial revolution), there may have always been corrupt craft spirits, dealing with the perversions of engineering that make ingenious poisons and torture devices. They may also be related to those rather seedy fairytale dwarves that can do all sorts of technical and magical wonders, but are still distinctly immoral if not always entirely evil.
- Perhaps goblins can also embody crude and careless industry - their work is always ugly and looks (and probably is) shoddy and monkey-made. Their work pollutes more than it should and the finished article probably has hidden sharp edges, toxic paint and other safety issues - they are the masters of the cheap, pirated knock-off that breaks quickly, and if anyone is diluting milk and then hiding the fact with toxic compounds that throw the protein test out, it will be goblins. Having said that, if you want something genuinely malicious (if not entirely user friendly) the goblins will provide it and it will work better than you expect … electrical torture device? Horrifically effective, but poorly insulated and somewhat dangerous to use. Date rape drugs? Full points for disinhibition and memory blocking … and the permanent brain damage they cause makes it harder for the victim to testify. Cheap gun? Cheap, and kills just as well as an expensive one … but may explode unexpectedly on firing. Just remember that the goblins have you on CCTV and are prone to blackmail…