Since I started this blog with a look at goblins, I’ll start my examination of Volo’s Guide to Monsters with another look at goblinoids. But first, one observation: In my original analysis of goblin tactics, I stated that they’d Disengage when an opponent closed to within melee range. This was based on their Nimble Escape feature, which allows them to Disengage as a bonus action. However, while composing my later post, “Dodge, Dash or Disengage?” I learned that orderly retreats are risky moves that require discipline, a trait that goblins aren’t known for. So how do they possess this ability as a feature? I conclude that they’re innately slippery enough that they can scamper out of an opponent’s reach too quickly for the opponent to react. It’s not a disengagement in the true, military sense, just an ability of theirs that happens to have the same effect, from a game-mechanics perspective.
As it turns out, my analysis of goblins hit pretty close to the mark. Volo’s goes into more depth about goblin behavior and social structure, but the basic ambush principle holds. There’s a greater emphasis on traps, suggesting that encounters between player characters and goblins not led by more formidable goblinoids should often begin with the PCs walking into one of the goblins’ traps (or avoiding them in the nick of time). The “Goblin Lairs” section provides a nice scaffold for building a series of goblin encounters on if the PCs decide to go hunting goblins themselves, rather than vice versa.
The one truly new thing, from a tactical perspective, is the booyahg booyahg booyahg, the rare goblin gifted with magical ability. Of course, the goblin has little control over this ability: although it uses the mage stat block, supplemented by darkvision and Nimble Escape, it’s actually a wild magic sorcerer, with a wild magic surge accompanying every spell it casts, including cantrips.
It turns out that the basic principles of mage combat—always have a way to escape, avoid taking damage, do the greatest damage to the most enemies with each spell—suit goblins well. However, there is one significant difference: goblins, lacking a trained wizard’s intelligence, may not fully appreciate the value of mage armor. Their understanding of combat revolves around being nimble and stealthy and doing damage from a distance. “Defense,” to them, means dodging or running away; making oneself more durable is an abstraction that may escape them. Other than that, the mage’s combat heuristic works nicely for a booyahg booyahg booyahg. And, of course, the wild magic surges should be played for maximum comedy.
Volo’s also validates my initial analysis of bugbears, as sharing goblins’ strategy of ambush, relying on high-damage surprise attacks, and lacking intelligence and discipline. However, I speculated that a captive bugbear would be humiliated, traumatized and willing to do anything to stay alive, based on the Monster Manual’s contention, “A wounded member of a bugbear band . . . might help pursuers track down its former companions if doing so saves its life.” Volo’s disagrees: “When a superior force tries to intimidate bugbears into service, they will try to escape rather than perform the work or confront the foe.” Threading the needle, let’s say a bugbear might make the aforementioned bargain, offering to help track down its former companions, without ever intending to keep its word, and planning to decamp at the first opportunity.
The characterization of hobgoblins as intelligent and disciplined soldiers holds and, if anything, is reinforced by Volo’s. One thing that’s conspicuously missing, though, is any mention of hobgoblins’ loathing of elves. Not a single word about it. On the one hand, it’s so out of character for hobgoblins as they’re otherwise described, it makes sense to decide that no such preoccupation exists. On the other hand, it’s a potentially exploitable weakness in an otherwise strong and relentless foe, easily capable of wiping out low-level adventurers. My own tendency as a dungeon master is to want everything to be explainable, if not necessarily explained, and I don’t see any compelling reason to have the sight of an elf upend everything else that hobgoblins have evolved to be. On this matter, I stand with Volo’s over the MM.
The section of Volo’s describing the composition and fortifications of goblinoid hordes is terrific. The subsection “Reluctant Little Tyrants,” however, casts doubt on my own assumption that subjugated goblins would desert whenever they got the opportunity. Apparently they suffer from a sort of Stockholm syndrome: “Goblins that are conscripted into a host resign themselves to their fate.” With that assumption gone, there’s no longer any reason for hobgoblin commanders of goblin troops to hang back behind the front line, as I assumed they’d do in order to watch out for deserters. Instead, they’ll be right up front, fighting alongside their little minions.
Finally, Volo’s introduces two new varieties of hobgoblin: the Devastator, a battle wizard, and the Iron Shadow, a rogue-monk-mage. Analyzing spellcasters takes a lot of time and verbiage, so I’ll address those in my next post.