GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week we talked about prep work for summer chronicles and this week we get super basic with Goblins!
Goblins are a pervasive early encounter option for multiple game systems (even Rifts, Shadowrun, White Wolf, and Deadlands can benefit from gobbos). Typically, a comical race of green-skinned little punks that attack you with pointy sticks in a suicidal fashion, goblins don’t often need reworking. With all the GM Tips articles we’ve put out there, I figured it would be fun to see a basic goblin encounter rewritten using some past tips.
Our premise for this encounter is an entry-level game session that follows after any prequels you may have had for your party. The most average and common goblin encounter consists of four-to-six goblins that attack the party while they are on a small dirt road near a town or settlement, and so we will rewrite this. Based on the different styles of storytelling (narrative, uplifting, obstructionist, and experimental) we will inject a little of each style and see how the encounter changes.
So let’s start with a basic scenario laid out before many players: you find four goblins on a road.
Getting Things “Rolling”
It’s early on in the game, so relying on a narrative storytelling path is a good safe spot to begin. Narrative-style storytellers have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end for the players to journey through. Applied to the extreme, and you can railroad your players without any choice—which is needed to start any chronicle. Inside an encounter, you can apply these same railroads by using the environment:
Instead of four goblins on one road, let’s throw them in a runaway cart, racing in a direction.
Before the game session, calculate out that the cart will take something like ten combat rounds before it reaches an unmovable object and crashes. The level one group of adventurers are riding their horse cart when suddenly a group of goblins, two driving, and two with pointy sticks start racing up behind them. Now the encounter gets to add in athletics rolls to jump between carts, there is a definitive end, and already feels more dynamic. Placing the cart on narrative rails also has tactical benefits—should the cart fall off the rails, catastrophe happens to the goblins inside. Launching a campaign with a narrative railroad gives players a focal point to center their imaginations in the world as it expands.
Making Emotional Connections
An uplifting storyteller focuses on the characters themselves and their ties to the world around them. Without investment and buy-in from the characters, the world around them means nothing, and so add a bit of an uplifting style we need to create those connections for the player characters. Either the goblins need to be personally related to the characters or something needs to be at stake for them. A consequence for what happens if the characters suffer failure when the racing kart explodes at the end will work. Since it’s unlikely, the characters have swapped beer’s (plural, not possessive) with the goblins (though don’t rule that out) let’s meddle with the setting.
The goblin’s cart is racing towards the hometown of the player characters. To make matters worse, the little sister of one character should perhaps find herself wandering onto the road, amping up the stakes for stopping the goblins in time.
Now they have a time limit for the encounter, personal stakes, familiar territory, and a personal background tie to make this encounter truly meaningful. But we aren’t done yet.
Dynamite Makes Things More Exciting
An obstructionist style storyteller presents problems in front of the problems to solve. Each problem then unfolds into a larger problem or several other problems, which each cascade into further puzzles until you reach an end. In this way, your world becomes a tad more sandbox allowing your players to dictate the direction of the game that they are curious to explore.
Instead of the goblins going after the party members, the goblins might find themselves trapped on a cart filled with explosive dynamite.
Maybe they’ve lost control of their cart, hurtling to the town, fighting anything they can out of panic, while trying to put out the TNT. Who put that TNT there and why are the goblins held hostage are both obstructive puzzles meant to be questioned later… or entirely ignored.
Up The Immersion
Lastly, while these hostage goblins are freaking out about TNT, and the characters frantically race to save their little sister caught in the cross-hairs—be experimental. Experimental storytellers tend to add out of game elements to the encounter for increased immersion and music that includes the rhythmic beating of hooves from the carts, or a hometown food dish will go well for this encounter.
An open timer that was visible to the players would make the very limited time the players had to act very real. After the encounter, you could gift one player a stuffed animal or necklace that belonged to the little sister before the explosion. The keepsake would carry entirely different meanings if the sister lived or died, but for the rest of the campaign the party will never forget their first goblin encounter.
How would you rewrite the typical goblin encounter? Let us know what worked for you in the comments below!
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Featured Image by: Goblin Boomkeg by Viktor Titov for Wizards of the Coast
Image Credits: Wizards of the Coast
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.