Battle Brothers is a 2015 video game about leading a mercenary company in a dark fantasy world with a deliciously and balefully old-school, no-mercy, gritty sensibility. And, amazingly, it manages to make a positively terrifying foe out of the humble goblin. Why? Because its goblins fight dirty, they fight smart, and they fight like cowards. They use every trick in the book: poison, traps, immobilizing attacks. It’s all very Tucker’s Kobolds.
Good stuff. Let’s use it.
Let’s try and formulate a vision of goblins taking cues from Battle Brothers but usable at the OSR table. Rather than think of a goblin encounter as a cluster of discrete NPC’s, we can think of it as a situation, an obstacle to overcome. A form of elaborate trap, even. That means we need to keep in mind how to do traps well. Poorly executed traps tend to come across as cheap and as untelegraphed, and very often the problem is a lack of hints and a lack of meaningful ways of interacting with the trap.
The first issue is solvable. Goblins mark their territory. You won’t mistake a goblin-held piece of wilderness for anything else. Bones arranged in warning beacons. The smell of wolf spoor. Wicked runes etched on stones and trees. Goblin country lets you know you’ve entered it.
Goblin territory is peppered with traps and unpleasant surprises. Roll a d6 1d4+1 times below to see what surprises the goblins have laid out.
|1||Bear trap. If it snaps, 1d8 damage and 50% chance of losing a leg, 50% chance of getting stuck between wicked iron jaws. Clue: Discreetly arranged pile of leaves in an open space, hiding the trap.|
|2||Net trap. Return of the Jedi style. Step on the right place in front of the big tree, and the ground lifts up and catches you in a hanging net. Clue: The vegetation on the patch of grounds looks beaten.|
|3||Tripwire. Hidden among some low scrub. Unless detected, characters will be tripped over when moving across the patch. Clue: None of the local animals move across the spot.|
|4||False corpse. Remains of an expired adventurer clutching what looks like a bag of coin. When opened, the bag explodes into a pale and lung-hostile coughing powder. Clue: The arsenic-white, goblin-shaped handprints and splotches on the corpse’s clothes.|
|5||Poisoned spring. A picturesque natural spring with clear, clean-looking water. Actually poisoned; each hours induces 1d4 liver-rending damage on a failed save, or a level of exhaustion (depending on your system). Clue: The number of dead squirrels, birds and other wildlife in the high grass around the spring.|
|6||Fire ant honey. A naturally-occurring substance that’s delicious to certain species of ants; the goblins smear this stuff on the leaves of ferns and other large-leafed plants that intruders are likely to pass. Ants are attracted, and cause considerable irritation and non-lethal pain. Clue: The colony of fire ants close to the ferns, making expeditions to retrieve their sweet prize.|
Each trap overcome brings the character’s closer and closer to defeating the goblins. The goblins, after all, won’t take a fight they’re likely to lose, and assuming the PC’s are keeping eyes and ears open, the chances of the goblins getting the jump on them are slim.
Any trap that successfully activates triggers a goblin attack, as they capitalize on the momentary weakness. Run combat as normal, but the goblins use bastard tactics – most notably, they coat their little arrowheads in poison.
|Fingerfreeze||Save or fingers begin to stiffen and freeze; hands rendered useless for 1d6 minutes.|
|Gibber||Save or be unable to enunciate anything but gibberish for 1d4 rounds. Hated by spellcasters.|
|Feverknock||Save or be unable to sleep or rest properly because of feverish symptoms, lasting until cured by healing means.|
|Colorboo||Save or see the world in black-and-white for 1d10 minutes.|
|Nopotion||Save or be unable to process potions for 1d4 hours; any potion consumed induces nothing but gagging.|
|Garnach Extract||Save or begin to swell like a balloon. Makes movement cumbersome, and induces 1d2 damage for each round where rigid armor is worn.|
If the PCs avoid getting poisoned and put up a fight, the goblins retreat. Any goblins they down should be counted against the original number of goblins defending the territory.
When all traps/obstacles are overcome and the PC’s push on, the goblins make a last-ditch attempt at repelling the invaders. They probably bring a couple of dire wolflings, or throw some enraged badgers at the characters, or other general nastiness. But they do it at their last possible ambush site. If the PC’s get the drop on the goblins, they’ve earned it fair and square.
In the final struggle, the goblins will retreat as soon as defeat seems inevitable, or as soon as their own life is at stake. Remember, goblins are cowards; they want to live, and the best way to live is avoid a fight you can’t win.
If the PC’s win the last fight, either by sheer grit or by outmaneuvering the goblins, they’ve won. Yay! There’s probably some cool loot in the goblin lair. Surviving goblins retreat and make for other holds. But for now, the forest is safe. For now.
To summarize: Present the goblins as a situation. Present a series of traps and obstacles; sprinkle in some attempted ambushes. Have the goblins fight dirty, draining the party’s resources and testing their mettle. Build towards a final ambush. Play it out. Let the PC’s jockey for advantage against the goblins. If they win, let them savor it.