Saturday, 28 February 2009

Warhammer Goblins

One thing that the Warhammer designers did really well was to come up with a unique spin on goblins. The iconic fantasy creatures in 'standard' D&D are really rather staid and boring, probably from overuse - and goblins are no exception. In most campaigns they're just low-level mook creatures for the PCs to kill, with barely a second thought. "Oh, look, it's a goblin. Hand over the 15 XP..."

Warhammer goblins have something about them, though. They have style, for one thing. From the night goblins, with their black capes, pointed hats and moon motifs, to the Tupi-Indian pastiche forest goblins, there is a unified look to the Warhammer breeds. I especially like the night goblins: cartoonish it might be, but their demented rumpelstiltskin shtick is far more effective than D&D's rather drab little mini-orcs.

More importantly, though, Warhammer goblins have personality. The night goblins are maniacal drug-addled loons who dose themselves up on fungus before a fight and go running towards the enemy lines swinging ball-and-chains as big as themselves; they herd giant fungus-creatures called Squigs which they sometimes ride to battle; their favourite weapons are weighted nets and tridents which they use to capture their foes. The forest goblins inject themselves with hallucinagenic poisons and ride around on giant tarantulas. Others strap themselves into giant ballistas and hurl themselves at their enemies, kamikaze-like: they are happy to die if only they can have an entertaining death. Warhammer goblins are crazed, absurd, and very, very weird.

My favourite goblin war-method is undoubtedly the Squig Hopper. Imagine a kid on a space hopper. Now imagine that instead of a kid it's a vile, green-skinned, yellow-eyed murderous goblin. Then imagine that instead of a space hopper, it's an orange ball of flesh with a mouth which takes up half its body, giant horns, and two massive feet. Then imagine it bounding across the battlefield towards you with huge, ten-yard leaps while the goblin clings on, waving a cleaver over his head. That's a Squig Hopper. In Warhammer Fantasy Battle the things move entirely randomly, leaving destruction wherever they land (often in the ranks of their own side), and dying in droves. But the concept is just so phantasmagorically cool.

I wish people would give goblins in their D&D campaigns unique flavours like that. But so often they end up being, well, bland.


  1. Totally agree. The word "goblin" smacks of primordial black-forest magic
    mischief in a way that the Games Workshop people seem to have truly appreciated.

  2. Interestingly, one of the first articles in the 4E Dragon Magazine is , which describes a goblin tribe using weird alchemy. Not quite Warhammer goblins, but it looks like Chris Sims was inspired by them.

  3. I rather enjoyed the sadistic urchins spin Paizo gave goblins, but that's still a pale shadow compared to the technocolor weirdness of the Warhammer critters.

  4. Argh! Goblin Fanatics... I've had several battles where the front rank of a unit I can't afford to lose stands there sweating bullets while the little spin psychos hover right next to them and decide whether to change direction or not. Your ass is grass and they're the lawnmower...

    I agree, though. In both milieus, Fantasy and 40K, they're some of the funniest stuff happenin'.

  5. I love this article! Of course I am always game for learning a new way to handle goblins. I wonder if you can by hoppers that look like that? I could see roving gangs of these things forming a 1%ers club and terrorizing the masses.

  6. Zak: I think the black humour of Games Workshop games suits goblins very well. I've always loved the suicide units, like the doomdiver.

    Anders: Sounds like fun. I haven't read Dragon Magazine in so long that I've completely lost touch with that sort of thing.

    trollsmyth: I never really read anything Paizo puts out. Is that a Dragon article?

    BigFella: It's been a long time since I've played Warhammer Fantasy Battle; do people still send cheap units of Kislevite horse archers to draw out the fanatics?

    RipperX: The Squig Hopper Elite? I like it!

  7. No, the Paizo goblins were a post-Dragon development, and made there debut on the cover of the first Pathfinder book. Later art has only played up on that theme.

    Paizo even printed a song for the goblins sing when they're running amok:

    Goblins chew and goblins bite,
    Goblins cut and goblins fight,
    Stab the dog and cut the horse,
    Goblins eat and take by force!

    Goblins race and goblins jump,
    Goblins slash and goblins bump,
    Burn the skin and mash the head,
    Goblins here and you be dead!

    Chase the baby, catch the pup,
    Bonk the head to shut it up!
    Bones be cracked, flesh be stewed,
    We the goblins—you the food!

    Lovely little buggers, huh? ;p

    I'd point you to the Paizo blog, which had a lot of stuff on goblins way back when, but the poor thing is nearly unsearchable.

  8. I'm an avowed, um, Goblin fanatic. I even have a signed print, #1 of 50, of the art from the Goblin Piledriver card from Magic: the Gathering (I like Goblins, I like choking people, and my last name is Driver so ... never mind).

  9. What exactly is unique about Warhammer? The Warhammer world always seems like a third-rate ripoff of everything else, certainly the most unoriginal setting that there is. Slam Moorcock & Tolkien together and voila! Warhammer.

  10. Unique? Only the blend.

    The Warhammer phenomenon is an odd thing, a triumph of marketing. It's a wacky blend of the 30 Years War, high fantasy tropes, black humor and dark pessimism that just clicks with some people, sometimes in a surprisingly powerful way. I myself find it oddly compelling for reasons I have trouble articulating, even though I've never played any of the games.

    In the worlds of RPGs, it's very much a hybrid beast like Shadowrun: the perfect mix of the familiar and the unusual. It's got all the standards like elves and orcs and dwarves and Chaos we know and love, but with spins that feel both new and engaging. Where most fantasy RPGs strive to be Tolkien/D&D redux, Warhammer does its own zany little thing.

    I suspect, before too much longer, that someone's going to strike the same sort of gold with Sword & Planet RPGing.

  11. I suspect, before too much longer, that someone's going to strike the same sort of gold with Sword & Planet RPGing.

    I'm cautiously optimistic about Pixar/Disney doing an acceptable (read: not butt-stinking awful) job on their planned PG-13 version of John Carter of Mars ... if that takes off, I wouldn't be surprised to see a licensed game. Paizo?

    I'd far rather see a fully realized Barsoom game than, say, WotC doing a "take" on S&P.

  12. SheMeows: No way is it less original than Krynn or the Forgotten Realms! As Trollsmyth says the blend is unique, but I think that does the writers and designers a disservice. There's a LOT about Warhammer that's unique - in the details. Sure Chaos might have been ripped off Moorcock, but Moorcock's idea of chaos is very, very different to what it became in Warhammer. And Warhammer orcs became a very different beast to those in Tolkien.

    Scott: I just don't think Pixar and Disney are capable of making anything with the correct tone. But you never know.

  13. I like to take my goblins past the point Tolkien left them-- if LotR goblins (orcs, Uruks, whatever) are the burgeoning industry & horror of WWI...well lets make them the exaggerated military industrial complex up to WW2.

  14. In my current campaign I'm playing them against type. Having the god of slaughter and all that be looking for a new Avatar and some Goblins are gonna be the best canidates. They're berserkers and barbarians in the strictest sense.

    Whenever I want to run some mischief chaos mini-monsters I always use redcaps!