Goblin Culture (4e Other)
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Goblins are a staple creature in D&D. They have been shown in every edition, and appear in more adventures than most other creatures. Used as fodder for low-level characters, these creatures are nevertheless portrayed as cunning, violent, and warlike. This article gives explanation to them according to one of many possible interpretations.
Goblins exist on a tribal level. A tribe is a social group that exists outside of or before the development of states. The governmental systems are rudimentary and the rules are usually simple. Goblins typically are led by chiefs, whose tribes occupy a certain territory, but they do not have borders and control land in the same way a state would. Tribes arise out of common bonds of related or united families, which in turn coalesce to form an identity with a common history. This has the potential to make a tribe a very tight-knit social structure, if a very exclusionary one.
The main disadvantage to a tribal existence is the lack of sophisticated social mechanisms needed to developed advanced technology. The only driver of innovation in goblin tribes is that of survival, rather than creativity, scientific curiosity, or profit motive. Hence, a tribe's customs, weapons, tools, religion, and magic are heavily tied to the environment around them. This, combined with the goblins' small size, makes them a very backward enemy to deal with, and they are rightfully considered targets for less experienced adventurers.
Goblins' small size, omnivorous diet, and high multiplication rate play a role in shaping their culture as much as anything else.
The most powerful aspect of biology which impacts goblin society is their small size. A small size means they are less dominant in their environment than larger creatures in a one-on-one battle. This has created the necessity of fighting in groups, and necessitating the use of stealth, traps, ambushes, and other equalizing factors in a fight. Adventurers who fight goblins ought to know that the traps and tricks used against them were not necessarily devised with the sole purpose of stopping them; they developed for a reason beforehand. Another implication of small size is that each individual goblins uses up fewer resources in a given area; a section of forest which could sustain 100 humans could sustain at least twice as many goblins. This plays into the other factor of biology for goblins... numbers.
Due to their small size, short lifespan, ability to live off of relatively little, and their high mortality rate, goblins have had to multiply more in order to survive as a species. While the specifics differ from tribe to tribe, goblins generally set up their society in such a way as to maximize the reproductive potential of their females, and to keep the females out of combat unless necessary; females with magical skills or superb combat abilities are not typically barred from combat, although it is a rare tribe that would be foolish enough to risk the beings who are responsible for replenishing their numbers; like all males, goblin males can beget more children over a given period than a female can bear over the same time, so losing male warriors is typically not as painful as losing child-bearing females.
A tradition is a belief or custom taught by one generation to the next. In tribal societies such as those of the goblins, tradition is as binding as a code of laws is to a civilization. With few goblins able to write anything and a literary culture next to nonexistent, goblins have been unable to write down their laws, record precedent, or even keep track of their population in a written census. Thus, they fall back on a set of beliefs and practices which develop organically, that is, they go with what practices work, dump the ones which fail them, and elevate the working practices and beliefs to the level of custom. The problem with this is that over time, traditions can become rigid and inflexible, especially if a tribe is used to a set of circumstances for a very long time. If conditions should suddenly change, the tribe might be unable to adapt to it, dragged down by obsolete customs.
These traditions vary from tribe to tribe and include, but are not limited to, manhood rituals, fertility rites, holidays, offerings, religious ceremonies, art, music, stories, methods of warfare, food acquisition and preparation, clothing, and cultural taboos.
Few cultures exist in complete isolation, and it is all but inevitable that a society will be impacted by other groups, either by trade, religious missions, conquest, or some other form of communication. Some goblin tribes have assimilated aspects of other, more advanced groups, while some have clung stubbornly to old traditions. Generally, the tribes who adopt new technologies are the ones who survive the best, while the ones who shun those technologies specifically because they didn't invent them are less likely to survive and prosper over the long run. Some examples of technology available to other races that goblins have had to import include crossbows, cast iron, plate armor (a great rarity among goblins for sure!), paper and parchment (another great rarity), many garments, and map-making skills.
In addition to technologies, other cultures can impose their will over goblins by means of enslavement or coercion. Dragons are well-known to do this, and those huge beasts that employ goblins usurp or overtake a position of great power in the tribe, either by placing themselves where the chief would otherwise be, or by establishing himself as a power above the chief. This can lead to worship otherwise reserved for goblins deities being directed towards the dragon or other power that controls the goblins. Adventurers can also influence the development of a goblin culture, especially if the goblins in a certain land have a long history of being preyed upon by adventuring parties. This development can lead to tribes coming up with newer and more fiendish traps, as well as higher-powered magic and more skilled warriors than a tribe normally would have.
Goblins have only the most rudimentary of economic systems. Barter is the most common means of exchange, with money only being used in areas where goblins have come into contact with more advanced races. Goblins generally produce enough food and clothing for themselves, and they are loathe to trade for more, even if this means they have to eat wild grain and wear rags, they would rather do that than surrender their independence. When trade does occur between goblins and other groups, it tends to be for items that goblins cannot furnish for themselves, such as glass vessels or metal alloys.
Besides foods, weapons, clothing, and basic tools, goblins also produce religious items, materials needed for making huts, simple utensils (knives and the like), basic jewelry and sometimes, very simple musical instruments. The quantity and quality of such items varies greatly from tribe to tribe, although the main determinant of what gets made is the resources that are available to the tribe at a given time.
As stated earlier, goblin tribes are run by chiefs. The specifics of how this rule is administered varies from tribe to tribe, but it is generally a form of primitive monarchy, with checks or balances on the chief's power being quite rare. When such counterbalance does exist, it is usually in the form of a warrior council or a powerful mage or cleric. Frequently, the chief is a powerful mage or cleric.
Since each tribe is its own political unit, goblins have no unified nation-states, no centralized empires, nor feudal kingdoms. The closest thing to a central authority is a "high chief" who may appear to unite a group of tribes when great danger arises. This event is quite rare, as it requires the appearance of a powerful and highly charismatic chief to appear at such a time that the tribes CAN be united, which usually necessitates a threat great enough that the goblin tribes in a certain region come to the conclusion that they must band together or be collectively destroyed by the approaching threat. When a high chief emerges, the first thing he does is to form a horde out of tribal levies, use his new army to eliminate dissent from the ranks, force recalcitrant goblin tribes to join up, and then, once his power is consolidated, use his forces to deal with whatever opponent or threat that the horde was formed to oppose.
Such a status as "high chief" rarely outlives the first one in a line, as it would take a very capable heir and the continuation of the conditions under which the horde formed in the first place in order to maintain it. Furthermore, most goblin tribes are very independent, and will break often try to break off from the horde if the great leader who formed it had died.
Goblins generally use their entire adult and adolescent male population to fight. This contrasts greatly with many civilized realms, which often restrict access to weapons to a small class of fighters, such as a standing army, mercenary groups, or feudal retainers loyal to specific lords. In a sense, the goblins use a militia to fight with, as there is generally little distinction between a farmer and a warrior, or someone who works and someone who fights. Female Goblins fight when they have to, but are generally left at home to raise more young; this is not necessarily done out of sexism, but necessity, as Goblins always have to replenish their numbers given their high mortality rates and lack of individual strength relative to most other sentient species.