I’m going to start with lower-level monsters and work my way up, and my first case study will be the monster that players beginning with the Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition starter set are likely to encounter first: goblins.
Here’s what we know about goblins from the Monster Manual: First, from the flavor text, they live in dark, dismal settings; congregate in large numbers; and employ alarms and traps. They’re low-Strength and high-Dexterity, with a very good Stealth modifier. Their Intelligence and Wisdom are in the average range. They possess darkvision and the Nimble Escape feature, which allows them to Disengage or Hide as a bonus action—very important to their action economy.
Because of their darkvision, goblins will frequently attack under cover of darkness, when their targets may be effectively blinded (attack rolls against a blinded creature have advantage, while the blinded creature’s attack rolls have disadvantage). They’ll also attack from hiding as much as possible, making use of their high Stealth modifier, and doing so in dim light decreases the likelihood that they’ll be discovered, since
the many player characters will have disadvantage on Perception checks that rely on sight. (Important note for dungeon masters and players: Darkvision does not nullify the penalty to sight-based Perception checks in dim light. It only lets a creature see in darkness as if it were dim light, without being effectively blinded.) (The description of darkvision on pages 183–85 of the Players’ Handbook is incomplete: it implies that darkvision improves vision only in darkness. It improves vision in dim light as well, allowing a character with that feature to see without penalty.)
A picture of goblin combat is starting to coalesce, and at the center of it is a strategy of ambush.
A typical combat round for the goblins will go: Attack (action), move, Hide (bonus action). Because they’re attacking from hiding, they attack with advantage. Regardless of whether they hit or miss, the attack gives their position away, so they change it immediately, because they can. (The sequence is important. Whenever possible, a goblin must end its turn hidden; otherwise, it’s vulnerable. Move/Hide/Attack would achieve the same offensive result but leave the goblin exposed to retaliation between turns.) Being a Small creature, a goblin has a good chance of Hiding successfully behind the trunk of a mature tree; even if it fails, it will still enjoy three-quarters cover (+5 AC). But since you can’t hide while someone is looking at you, goblins have to use their movement to scramble out of the PCs’ field of view, meaning they have to be close enough for their own 30-foot movement speed to describe a significant arc. At the same time, they don’t want to be so close that a PC could close the gap between them and attack. So the optimal distance from the targets of their ambush is about 40 feet, no closer—and they don’t want to move farther from the PCs than 80 feet, their shortbows’ maximum range for normal shooting.
As long as they can stay out of the PCs’ reach, they’ll use this tactic over and over. Suppose, however, that a PC does manage to close with one of them. In that case, the goblin will Disengage (bonus action) first. Then, depending on how great a threat the PC poses, it will either Dash (action) out of reach—forcing the PC to use a Dash action as well if he or she wants to catch up—or, if it thinks it may be able to finish the PC off, move its full distance to a place of cover, then Hide (action) again, preparing to Attack with advantage on its next turn.
Incidentally, the goblins are not trying to stay together as a group. They’re not looking out for their buddies. Goblins don’t do that sort of thing. They are, however, trying to goad the PCs into splitting up.
Goblins are squishy: they have only 7 hp, which means one good hit will seriously wound them. It will also mean their genius sniping strategy has failed. Therefore, a goblin reduced to just 1 or 2 hp will flee the scene, end of story. But a moderately wounded goblin (3 or 4 hp) is thirsty and will try to regain the upper hand. It will stalk the PC who wounded it, first retreating to a safe distance, then Hiding and moving with Stealth until it can get back to around 40 feet from its quarry, at which point it will return to its Attack/move/Hide sniping tactic. A captured goblin will always surrender immediately and grovel for mercy, counting on its ability to escape as soon as its captor’s attention wanders.
What if the PCs have the good sense to take cover themselves? Goblins aren’t geniuses, but they aren’t stupid, either. They won’t waste arrows on a target that’s behind three-quarters cover, because that would completely negate the advantage they gain from shooting from concealment. Instead, a goblin will stealthily reposition itself alongside or behind its target before shooting and giving its own position away.
A goblin that finishes off its target won’t immediately go hunting after other targets. If another is already in view, it will attack that one. But if not, the greedy goblin will first rifle the body of its victim for anything valuable. A clever and stealthy PC who’s counter-stalking the goblins can exploit this weakness.
So far, the entire discussion has been about ranged attacks. Goblins carry scimitars, too. But they don’t use these out in the open, because there’s no advantage to it whatsoever. The only time a goblin will engage in melee combat is when it has some other overwhelming advantage, such as a combination of (a) numbers, (b) darkness and (c) the ability to flank, which in D&D 5E means attacking from two opposite sides of a target creature. (Front-and-side isn’t enough to gain advantage in D&D 5E. See “Optional Rule: Flanking,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, p. 251.) A goblin’s +4 attack modifier isn’t quite good enough to give it 2-to-1 odds of hitting an armored enemy by itself, but when advantage is brought into play, a hit is almost guaranteed. If three goblins surround a PC in the dark, the chances are very good that they’ll land three hits and not have to worry about retaliation. That being said, if those three hits don’t finish the PC off, the goblins will realize that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, and on their next turn, they’ll Disengage (bonus action), go scampering off into the darkness (move) and Hide (action) someplace where they may later be able to land a surprise hit on a wounded foe.
Also, goblins can tell the difference between a creature that’s lost in the dark and one that also has darkvision. They won’t attack the latter close up if they can avoid it; instead, they’ll prefer to shoot with their shortbows. But in the narrow passages of a cave, establishing a good line of sight may not always be possible, and melee may be the only way to attack. If this happens, they’ll use their knowledge of the cave to tease the party into overextending itself: a lead goblin may Attack with its scimitar (action), Disengage (bonus action), then retreat down the passageway (move) until it comes out into a more open cavern where it and several other goblins can all jump the first PC who emerges. Meanwhile, while the PCs are being drawn forward, other goblins may be shooting or stabbing at them opportunistically from any side passages that exist along the way.
There is one other circumstance when goblins may engage in melee fighting: when commanded to do so by hobgoblins or bugbears, which goblins fear and defer to. They’ll do it, but they won’t like it. They know they’re not good at it. They’d rather be sniping. If pressed into an infantry unit, they’ll fight without coordination and desert at the first opportunity. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t keep attacking if they think there’s something to be gained by doing it their way.
Finally, there’s the matter of alarms and traps. Goblins recognize the value of stealth and surprise, and they’re not about to let anyone get the same advantage against them. By and large, they’re not great inventors, so most of their alarms and traps will be crude: metal junk that makes a racket when it falls, falling rocks, pits (with or without punji sticks), simple snares. But every once in a while, a lucky goblin may get its hands on a hunter’s trap that both restrains its victim and does damage to it. These are prized possessions, and the goblins use them to protect their most important locations.
This has been a lengthy article, so here’s a summary:
- Goblins prefer to attack from ambush, often under cover of darkness.
- They position themselves about 40 feet from their targets, and their default order of combat is Attack (action), outflank (move), Hide (bonus action). Whenever possible, a goblin will end its turn hidden.
- Goblins won’t attack a target behind three-quarters cover. They’ll try to outflank it instead.
- If a PC closes with a goblin, it will Disengage (bonus action), then Dash (action) and retreat to a distance of at least 40 feet if the PC poses a serious threat, or move 30 feet to a place of cover and Hide (action) again if it thinks it can finish the PC off.
- A goblin that defeats a foe and doesn’t have another one in sight will spend its next turn searching the foe’s body for food and valuables.
- A goblin reduced to 1 or 2 hp will flee. A goblin reduced to 3 or 4 hp will stalk the PC who wounded it. A captured goblin will surrender and grovel for mercy, then escape when it gets the chance.
- Goblins don’t engage in melee fighting except in the dark, in numbers and in close quarters—or if commanded to by a hobgoblin or bugbear boss. They’ll Attack (action), Disengage (bonus action) and retreat (move) to entice their enemies into overextending themselves.
- Goblins avoid being surprised by setting up simple alarms and traps.
Next: How kobolds are different from goblins.