Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Goblin Worlds

Today I stared at the W&W prompt list and felt... well, a little at a loss.


I am, of course, reading along with The Goblin Emperor (which I'd clean forgot I owned until kindle until the start of this). One book I know of with goblins. I posted an image of the Father Christmas Letters by Tolkien, which is another. And of course I've read The Hobbit. I tried to love Pratchett's Snuff but couldn't and... have I named every book with actual goblins in I've tried to read? Not orcs, or approximations, but goblins? I once leafed through MacDonald's classic The Princess and the Goblin in a bookshop, does that count? No. Wait! I can actually reach five. The Worm Ouroboros! A whole five!

Yet despite this scanty list I can tell you all about goblins and not in their folkloric thing. Small, vicious, powered by low cunning and high insanity levels; they're like my cat except nowhere near as cute. Often green, frequently lean, almost always mean, don't trust their machines.

All of this I learned from games - computer games, miniature games, roleplaying games - and their worlds. There's very few authors' worlds I've spent more time in than these. Therefore, today's blog post is about some of these worlds - and the goblins in them!

5) Golarion Pathfinder, Paizo

Pathfinder is a game based on D&D's mechanics and style that even managed to steal the old king's crown for a considerable period of time. Part of the credit is due to the gameworld they invented for it, Golarion. The one defining feature of Golarion compared to the slew of legendary worlds invented to serve D&D is that Golarion tried to do it all. Horror? There's a region for that. Steampunk? There's a region for that. No longer did gamers have to buy different supplements for Ravenloft or Eberron. Not only was this quite useful practically speaking, it also created an enjoyably whacked out kitchen sink vibe. Golarion's not always the most coherent or deep world, but it's rarely uninterestingor dull.

Iconic of that was the Alchemist class, a Pathfinder staple based on magic potions, blowing stuff up, and Mr Hyde-ing the crap out of the unfortunate. It's a great example of how Golarion added to the stereotypical fantasy world. And right there in the second rulebook is a Goblin Alchemist called Fumbus as one of their main characters, because who wouldn't want to put explosions on explosions? It's an inclusion that speaks a little of Pathfinder's approach. Yes, most goblins are the cowardly, destructive borderline parasites we've come to love and know, but guys like Fumbus are more than just that. Irredeemably evil races are out. Well. At least here they are.

4) Tamriel The Elder Scrolls, Bethesda

Home to some of the finest computer RPGs seen over the last twenty years old, Tamriel is the result of somebody taking a D&D world and then pouring crazy on it. There's maybe-cyborg time-travelling crusaders, there's shouting people to their deaths, there's floating prisons, cannibal elves and druggie catfolk and there's... there's the 36 Sermons of Vivec for crying out loud. Read them. They're mental, the result of long hours reading the Mahabharata then deliberately twisting it into something confusing and crazy. It's not just a weird and wonderful world but also deep once you get into the lore and the huge number of books left lying around the world, combining a long mythology with scandal-filled histories and realpolitik.

There also goblins. Sadly, they're not nearly as fun as the rest of Tamriel, having been more of a side addition in recent games. But they're getting more and more play recently, with there being more differences shown between the tribes and a goblin called Gogh being a follower option in Skyrim. They're probably not going to make playable status in the next game (although I'm sure there's some mods out there offering the option), but they should be interesting enemies.

3) Immoren Warmachine/Hordes, Privateer Press

Two linked games in one, Warmachine and Hordes (aka Warmahordes) is a skirmish-size miniature wargame with huge rampaging monsters/golem-like warjacks backing up poor bloody infantry. It's ruleset rewards aggressive play, and that plays into into a world background a full of ambitious warlords, religious zealots, and general bloody mayhem. Yet it's also full of a sense of progress - frequently the most absent of concepts in fantasy worldbuilding - in which new weapons and technologies have changed the course of history. It's also led to the nations feeling very different. Cygnar and the Llaelese Resistance are full on steampunk; the likes of Cryx and Everblight are fuelled by dark magic and supernatural taint; while the Circle Ouroboros are just full on lycanthropic barbaric murder-hippies.

There is no Goblin nation, but Gobbers are everywhere and for once, they're not evil. Small, green, and inventive, yes, but gobbers are happy acting as mechanics and alchemists. They fight alongside the good guys (and sometimes the less good guys). The most famous in game is a speculator named Reinholdt, a clever little fellow whose schtick is using his various toys to help the general and never actually fighting. It's a fun partial inversion of what goblins are everywhere else. 

2) Creation Exalted, White Wolf

If Tamriel is mythic crazy poured over a D&D game, Creation is mythic crazy poured over the deliberate inversion of D&D. It is a mix of mythology, anime, Swords & Sorcery and the nastier side of history (the sourcebook Manacle & Coin is considered one of the stronger looks at trade and slavery in an RPG). The titular Exalted are demi-gods tied to great elemental powers, reliving feuds and betrayals from their past lives, armed with magic powerful enough to parry mountains, actually solve red tape, and tear Creation asunder. Creation itself is a magical place, a beacon of reality torn out from the Wyld and secured by the great elemental poles of Water, Air, Wood and Fire; terrain and weather is dictated by how close a place lies to the poles.

And in the Wyld itself? There are the Fair Folk, the Raksha, the terrifying nobles and their hobgoblin servants. This is a take on goblins far closer to the mischevious magical spirits of old, for the Fair Folk are all creatures of boundless possibility and whim. The hobgoblins might be the least of their kind, the commoners and guards, but no less varied and full of magic than the others. It's one of my favourite takes on goblins in one of my favourite worlds, and might have been number one if not for...

1) The Old World Warhammer, Games Workshop

The game world of Warhammer has mutated many times and often looks a great deal different in RPG form to wargame form but there is a constant. That constant is they took the base ideas of D&D, hollowed it out and inserted a stuffing of Gothic-inspired Moorcock worship, then rolled the whole thing in Blackadder-esque humour. The Old World can be a surreal, almost stupid place at times (particularly in Blood Bowl rulebooks) but it equally capable of bleakness, of the bittersweet beauty of a light against the dark or corrupted nobility.

Nobody will be surprised to hear the goblins here are far more the former than the latter. That description of goblins up top? Drawn mostly from here. They ride around on wolves and giant spiders. They drink halluogenic mushroom juice and go spinning around battlefields with giant metal balls until their bodies give up. They strap pointy helmets to their head and launch themselves at their enemies, because when life is short and brutish and nasty, why not pay it forwards in a moment of aerial glory? Yes, I salute all the attempts to show goblins as more than purely evil conniving cravens. But there's just something about the classic recipe done perfectly and this is it. My favourite goblins.

(the author would like to confess to remembering Harry Potter and the odd goblin here or there is appears only about halfway through this article but nevertheless, believes his point stands; goblins are a mainstay of games and a rarity in the pages) 

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