Make Your Goblins Unique: Thinking in Depth about Monsters and Factions

I have recently enjoyed watching Baron de Ropp’s YouTube videos about fantasy geopolitics, and it got me thinking about how we can do so much more with the monsters and factions in our games. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this post is ‘geopolitics’ per se, but that’s certainly part of it.

I think this approach works well for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it adds verisimilitude to our world-building: our worlds feel richer, deeper, and more alive as a result. Secondly, it helps us take a more situation-based approach to our games and see through the eyes of our villains.

I came up with a simple system you can apply to any monster or organization you can think of. I’ll go through it first and then apply it to a few examples. I hope you find it useful! Constructive feedback welcome.

Here’s the process:

  1. Flavour
  2. Motivation
  3. Ethics and morality
  4. Psychology
  5. Geography
  6. Power
  7. Tweaks

Let’s go through it. By the way, I tend to refer to ‘monsters’ throughout this guide, but the advice works equally well for NPCs and even organizations. I will do an example of each at the end.

1. Flavour

When you’re thinking about a monster’s place in the world, start by reading its flavour text. Highlight or bullet-point the key details. It’s your world remember – throw out what you don’t like! – but the Monster Manual is a great starting point for us.

Optional: if you want to do a really ‘deep dive’ here, have a look at previous editions, which are often much more specific than 5th edition.

2. Motivation

What do monsters want? As a starting point, think about creature type. Fortunately, the inimitable Keith Ammann has already got this covered. Bookmark this post.

To crudely summarize:

  • Aberrations: something weird that doesn’t make sense
  • Beasts: food, territory, survival
  • Celestials: purging evil
  • Constructs: to follow instructions
  • Dragons: food, territory, treasure, domination
  • Elementals: varies by subtype:
    • Air: to scatter, create disarray
    • Earth: to entomb, solidify
    • Fire: to burn angrily
    • Water: to carry things off
  • Fey: something dreamlike, emotional, aesthetic, personal
  • Fiends: corruption
  • Giants: rivalry within the Ordning
  • Humanoids: ideology or social goals
  • Monstrosities: food, territory, survival
  • Oozes: food
  • Plants: survival and self-propagation
  • Undead: compulsions (hunger, hatred, megalomania)

3. Ethics and morality

We’ve got an overview of the monster and a sense of what drives them – now let’s think about their moral compass.

My favourite website for this is easydamus.com. There is a page here for each of the nine alignments and an excellent breakdown of how these alignments behave and their philosophies. For a particularly thorough analysis, I recommend the page on ‘real’ alignments, which offers a more nuanced understanding of what different alignments want.

Another great place to go is TV Tropes, which also has a page for each of the nine alignments.   

Alignment, of course, is not a straitjacket. I like to think of it as a shorthand for ‘how a creature acts most of the time’. It can be fun to think about possible exceptions to their moral compass – reasons why a lawful dwarf might reject tradition, for example, or why an evil creature might show benevolence.

4. Psychology

Next, let’s look at the mental ability scores for the monster. (Perhaps I should call this ‘psychological capacity’ rather than ‘psychology’.)

Here, anything below 10 is ‘low’ and anything above 11 is ‘high’, although there’s obviously a sense of scale here. The solar (the most intelligent creature in Monster Manual) is considerably more intelligent than, say, a sahuagin, a wraith, or a medusa, all of which have Intelligence 12.

I’m paraphrasing what comes next from the 3rd-edition Player’s Handbook:

  • Creatures with high Intelligence might be curious, knowledgeable, or prone to using big words. Creatures with low Intelligence, conversely, might mispronounce or misuse words, have trouble following directions, or fail to get the joke.
  • Creatures with high Wisdom might be sensible, serene, ‘in tune’, alert, or centred. Creatures with low Wisdom, conversely, might be rash, imprudent, irresponsible, or ‘out of it.’
  • Creatures with high Charisma might be attractive, striking, personable, or confident. Creatures with low Charisma, conversely, might be reserved, gruff, rude, fawning, or simply nondescript. (Note: Charisma is not physical attractiveness. A character can be beautiful but utterly charmless, and the inverse is equally true.)

If you’re looking at organizations, you might consider a typical member of that group. The Emerald Enclave, for example, tend to be druids and nature-worshippers, so we would expect them to have a high Wisdom. Alternatively, you might consider the group’s leader. The Xanathar Guild is led by a beholder, for example.

5. Geography

How is this creature influenced by its environment? I’m only dipping my toe in the water here, but a few aspects of geography that we ought to consider:

  • Climate. Temperate or subtropical climates will see higher population levels than arctic ones. An arid climate is more likely to result in desert, while a humid climate is more likely to contain forest or marsh.
  • Rivers and coastlines. Waterways provide a natural means of transport and communication as well a means of subsistence.  
  • Topography. Plains and rolling hills are easier to farm than mountains, but mountains are also more likely to contain veins of ore and provide a natural border.  
  • Resources. A territory rich in resources is going to see more growth and trade. Conversely, an area where resources are scarce will push more of its inhabitants into raiding and banditry.
  • Settlements. To some extent, geography determines settlement size. You’re not likely to find a heaving metropolis in the middle of a glacier, for example.
  • Territory size. How far does rule extend? Is this a city-state, a kingdom, an empire?  
  • Ecology. Some D&D monsters are more likely to inhabit certain areas than others. Green dragons like forests; red dragons, volcanoes. Previous editions can be great here for looking at what a creature’s neighbours might be.  

One tip here: don’t forget the fantastic. Sure, in our world, a glacial metropolis seems ridiculous. But in D&D, there could be a magical, planar, divine, or monstrous explanation.  

6. Power

What is this creature’s efficacy? Crudely, this corresponds to challenge rating. An ancient red dragon (CR 24) has enormous power compared to, say, a troll. But it’s not all about challenge rating, and the previous steps should be considered, too. For example, a lich ruling over a desert wasteland might have far less influence than a boy-king in the capital city. A lawful organization might be more united (and therefore effective) than a chaotic one. And so on.

7. Tweaks

At this point, put everything together and change what you don’t like. Maybe in your world orcs are ancient defenders against extraplanar incursions (as in Eberron). Maybe your dragons are less intelligent and more animalistic than the mighty wyrms of D&D.  

Three examples

As promised, let’s apply this approach to three examples: a monster, an NPC, and an organization.

First up, the humble goblin.

  1. Flavour. The Monster Manual describes goblins as ‘black-hearted’ and selfish’, noting that they gather in ‘large – sometimes overwhelming – numbers.’ They are ‘lazy’ and ‘undisciplined’, motivated by ‘greed and malice’, and ruled by the ‘strongest or smartest among them.’ They are bullied into submission by hobgoblins and bugbears.
  2. Motivation. We already know that they are malicious and greedy, but as humanoids, goblins might justify their greed and malice because of their tribal identities or their fearful worship of Maglubiyet the Mighty One.
  3. Ethics and morality. Goblins tend to be neutral evil. This means goblins are ‘out for themselves’ and ‘do what they can get away with’. A neutral evil goblin society might be a brutal dictatorship ‘marked by bloody coups’.
  4. Psychology. The goblins of the Monster Manual are not particularly wise or charismatic. We might present them as reckless or impulsive and sycophantic or vulgar.
  5. Geography. The flavour text notes that goblins lair in ‘caves, abandoned mines, despoiled dungeons, and other dismal settings.’ This sets us up for a society of raiders and bandits, probably hunting in packs at night.
  6. Power. Goblins are only CR ¼, but a large group might threaten a village or even a small town.  
  7. Tweaks. I try to move away from racial determinism in my games, so I don’t like the idea that goblins are ‘inherently evil’. If they are about as intelligent as humans then shouldn’t they have the same moral range? Perhaps goblins have been forced to the fringes of society because of prejudice and superstition, or because they are afraid of sunlight. Perhaps goblins originally evolved from a fey creature and this isn’t their home world.

Now an NPC. Let’s do . . . Acererak (Tomb of Annihilation).

  1. Flavour. ‘Acererak,’ the adventure tells us, ‘is an archlich who travels between worlds and is known to take sick pleasure in devouring the souls of adventurers’ (which are also his nourishment). He underestimates his enemies’ resolve and, like all liches, is probably ‘scheming and insane’ (MM 202).
  2. Motivation. Undead aren’t so much motivated as compelled. Acererak does what he does that is what every essence of his being urges him to do. It is an irresistible impulse.
  3. Ethics and morality. Like our goblin friend, Acererak is neutral evil. At the risk of being lazy . . . see above.
  4. Psychology. All three of Acererak’s mental ability scores are extremely high. He is insanely knowledgeable (literally), almost supernaturally in tune with his surroundings, and utterly dominating in personality.
  5. Geography. Acererak has no fixed abode but feels compelled to build killer death dungeons. This would imply that he has few living allies – perhaps he surrounds himself with constructs, other undead, and summoned fiends.
  6. Power. At CR 23, Acererak’s existence threatens the very multiverse itself.   
  7. Tweaks. I like Acererak a lot, but as written, he seems very two-dimensional. If I ran him again, I might invent more of a backstory for him. Why would someone transform themselves into a lich? Why does Acererak take such enjoyment from killing adventurers?

One more: an organization. Let’s do . . . the Arcane Brotherhood.

  1. Flavour. According to Forgotten Realms Wiki, the Arcane Brotherhood are a mysterious wizard guild shrouded in secrecy, whose goal is political and economic control of the North.
  2. Motivation. Most of their members are (presumably) human, so I like the idea that this is predominantly a political organization.
  3. Ethics and morality. I would say that being neutral evil, the Arcane Brotherhood are driven not just by power but also a sense of social Darwinism: that, as powerful mages, it is their natural right to take control over those weaker than themselves.
  4. Psychology. If we take the archmage (MM 342) as a typical example of the organization, these wizards are highly intelligent, persuasive, and strong-willed.
  5. Geography. The Arcane Brotherhood is based in Luskan, the City of Sails, once a bustling city but now partially ruined. It is at the very edge of civilization, so its sphere of local influence might include Neverwinter to the south or Mirabar to the east.  
  6. Power. If most of the Order are mages and archmages, even a small organization could wield great influence. I would envisage the Arcane Brotherhood as an international threat with the potential for influence beyond the Material Plane.   
  7. Tweaks. I wonder whether we could add our own lore here about a ‘bigger fish’ behind the Brotherhood. Perhaps the Brotherhood is itself a pawn in the hands of an abolethic enclave, or perhaps there is a forgotten god (Vecna?) who whispers to the mages in their sleep.

How do you run monsters and factions in your games? Do you find these steps useful? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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