Sunday, May 12, 2024

G Monsters at the Opera (Part 3)

A B C D Demon Dragon E F G1 G2 G3 H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Fret not, my dear Mr. Wasteland. Today's show is brought to you by the letter G. We still have a while before we reach the Puking and Pulling monsters.

Credit: Yoshitaka Amano


I have used goblins more times than orcs, skeletons, and dragons combined. I know that I can't claim any kind of special affinity for goblins, since, y'know, everyone loves goblins. They're too popular for any one person to assume the title of Goblin King. But the goblins can certainly lay claim to me.

The thing about goblins is that they're easy. As a GM, they just come naturally. They're not like other fantasy monsters. With other creatures, you gotta, like, learn the lore. Remember things during play. Use the details like puzzle pieces. Worry about inconsistency, about incoherence. But goblins? They transcend that. They're just... a mindset. A feeling. Once you key into it, everything else falls into place.

Goblins are mischief. They are trickery and disruption and gleeful violence. They're everything you underestimate until it's too late. They're the first, worst idea that pops into your head when you're on the spot. And there's nothing, nothing easier for a GM to run on the fly than that. I know it's a goofy meme but there's literally a dictionary term for it.

The platonic ideal of the goblin was first encountered in 1984 when Prometheus stole Gremlins from the gods and gifted it to man. For the life of me, I still have no idea 1) why both TSR and WotC have rejected this divine revelation, instead committing to 50 years ongoing of bland, joyless, forgettable slop primarily defined by their fucking Hit Dice, and 2) how it was that in 2007 someone at Paizo re-discovered gremlins independently, seemingly completely inoculated from a generation-defining cultural landmark because they had been too busy, I dunno, deciding how they wanted to assign their skill points??

Full credit to both Wayne Reynolds and the Pathfinder team for, yes, finally making D&D goblins good. From one blog post they've built an entire gaming empire, a feat worthy of respect. But I'm just saying... no innovation was needed. The correct answer had been sitting there for decades.

How do we like our goblins? You already know the greatest hits. Green skin, big ears, big noses, big heads, big swarms. They sing, they plunder, they skitter, they laugh, they set things on fire, they steal babies. Goblin raiders, goblin pyromancers, goblin pranks. Goblin city, goblin king, goblin bureaucracy. It takes a goblin mind to make fresh goblin lore.

I can't and won't and shouldn't try to write over all that and reinvent goblins. But in the grand tradition of "here's how X race looks in my campaign setting" blogging, I'll offer here and now a personal take on goblins that might have some juice you've never tasted.

Firstly, I like my goblins to be monsters. But I also feel like something is wasted if they're made too gruesome. Putting bad taste aside, why make them totem pole worshipping savages when they could instead be zany tinkerers accidentally blowing themselves up?

More abstractly, my own goblins revolve primarily around stuff. They make stuff, they break stuff, they wear stuff, they want stuff. Dressed in garbage for clothing or kitchenware for armor, jury-rigging contraptions out of whatever they can find, constantly clanging on stuff to make noise.

I like the theme of focusing on stuff because I find it has a way of always making goblins a big part of the players' business, whether they like it or not. A random encounter that just tries to kill you, whether to eat you or take your supplies or money or whatever, doesn't do enough to invite trouble. It's too clean.

Yes, my goblins will ambush you. And yes, they'll be ready to torture and injure and kill you in all kinds of awful ways. But their main routine is to confuse you, dart between your legs, snatch your shiniest belongings, and get out of there as soon as possible. There needs to be a reason for adventurers to follow them back to their horrible goblin lairs and run into their horrible goblin traps.

When they aren't taking your stuff, they're breaking your stuff. Commoners struck by goblins lose their milk and eggs and dogs and sheep. But adventurers? They don't attack you with spear formations or sword fighters. Their preferred attacks will clear out your inventory slots. Fire that burns, bombs that shatter, slime that soils, and bug swarms that devour. At their worst, they domesticate rust monsters to sic on you. They're allergic to iron, after all. Natural allies.

But the necessary corollary to all this destruction is the Goblin Market. A source to replace your stuff. 

Credit: Kinuko Y. Craft

Goblin Market has the distinction of giving my group the one and only fun and interesting shopping session we've ever had. That alone is an innovation greater than XP for Gold, the West Marches campaign, or the Hazard Die.

The Goblin Market is underground. It's only open when the moon is out, and it changes locations every night. But it's somewhere deep in the woods, entered through a secret door in an old tree. Listen for the sound of goblins singing, find them all lined up, marching single file, giddily descending into their trade fair. Only monsters are permitted, so you better bring a disguise. The market is lit by hanging jack-o-lanterns, filled with monstrous people of all kinds, echoing with the sounds of goblin vendors hard-selling goblin goods.

The goods are always weird. Don't make regular adventuring supplies available here, lest it loses its charm. Sell the players magic items. Potions of sleep, fruit of lust, pumpkin bombs, enchanted beans, fairy scissors. Implements of mischief.

The prices are always strange. Maggots and monster slime, eggs and ears. A lock of hair? Pretty cheap. The live sacrifice of an innocent? Awfully expensive. Can I talk you down to, say, taking my shadow?


Unlike a lot of mythological creatures in D&D, there's not actually an "original story" for the golem. The most famous is the tale of Rabbi Loew making a golem to protect the ghetto of 16th century Prague, but there's not even a canonical version of that narrative. Golems have been a thing in Jewish folklore for well over a thousand years (at least!) and have always been a fairly plastic idea. So by all means, play around with it and do something different. But also... maybe don't just ignore the wealth of details and themes that have accumulated around it?

Ben especially is extremely annoyed by the fact that D&D, and nearly all modern fantasy fiction by extension, reduces the golem to just a generic word for a magic construct. When you put an "iron golem" in your adventure that just looks like an animated suit of armor, in what sense is that a golem? Why not just call it something like a "robot"? It would be like if every animal-headed humanoid in D&D were called a "kitsune" or if every undead boogeyman were called a "wendigo."

A good place to start would be fixing the ridiculous notion that golems are made by wizards. Wizards should be making homunculi. Clerics make golems, duh.*
*Ben says they should be made by necromancers, actually. Pick a side in the comments.
Anyway, I'm moving forward with examining the D&D golem, which is essentially just "magical construct created by wizards, in varying materials." If you need to substitute the word "golem" for "robot" or "automaton" or "animate" or whatever to be more comfortable, be my guest.

More sister art

Let's do this in order of increasing weirdness.

Clay golem. Even though this is, y'know, the golem, the "true" golem, it wasn't one of the original golem types described in 1974 OD&D. Back then, they just had flesh, iron, and stone. Maybe a sign from early on that the creature was a "golem" in name only. But they finally got a writeup in Greyhawk, so somebody somewhere must have remembered right.

Anyway I don't go for the sludgy uncast clay version, like Clayface from Batman. I much prefer a proper cast statue. If you're looking for something different, maybe something like a Chinese terracotta soldier.

Stone golem. Probably the most popular "golem" in fantasy fiction? I think it's deserved. Iron golems are closer to the textbook robot, and might edge a little too close to sci-fi for some. "Autonomous stone man" is in the perfect sweet spot for fantasy-feel yet still lets you play with as many robot tropes as you want. So yeah, I approve of wizards breathing life into statues or animating a big pile of rocks.

Iron golem. Except also I'm not afraid to just straight up do robots in my fantasy. Dude I will use so many robots in D&D. They don't have to look like an iPhone. Just make it look like the Tin Man or Tik-Tok and it fits right in.

Flesh golem. I know that D&D needed to fit Frankenstein in somewhere but I would just feel like a hack if I straight up copied that. Frankenstein's monster isn't a "type" of creature. He's a character. Something unique.

On the other hand, Castlevania once again comes through. The flesh golem in Aria of Sorrow made a very strong impression on both Ben and I. Just a big pile of loose, bloody, dripping meat shambling towards you. Proper nasty. You can see it in the opening seconds of this video.

Wood golem. Highly underrated. Wooden boys are great. Talking puppets, fighting nutcrackers. Also the one golem type that would feel the most right as a playable race, if you ask me. D&D has always been scared that a true construct would be too powerful to play as, but "vulnerable to fire" seems like a perfect balancing tradeoff.

Bronze golem. Why not an iron golem? Simple: style points. I'm talking bout some Hephaestus-made goons. Some Talos-looking robots. This is the golem you need when you're in the ruins of an ancient super-advanced civilization. You know, like Atlantis or Hyperborea. Or China.

Bone golem. Probably the worst thing you could do is make this literally just an animated skeleton. That's already a monster in D&D. It's called a "skeleton."

If you want to make a construct out of organic material, why not a flesh golem? If you want to animate some bones to be your servants, why not just animate some skeletons? I guess this makes sense if you luck into a big pile of free bones but they're from an assortment of incomplete skeletons. Just mush 'em together into something that moves. I'm a fan of bone monsters but this one is a stretch. The one in Castlevania has a pretty cool design, though.

Amber Golem. What the hell? It's not just a specific material, but a specific design. This had to have come from one particular early D&D adventure, I think. They're not in OD&D, AD&D 1E, or AD&D 2E. The earliest reference I can find is the 1981 Expert D&D module X2: Castle Amber, which were then later included by Mentzer in his 1983 revision of the Expert rules. This would make sense as the source, since the adventure is filled with anything and everything being made of amber.

Anyway once again Warren D. had the best idea ever, which he commented on a post by Patrick Stuart. See more of Patrick's thoughts here. Good work, blogosphere.

Courtesy of my sister, I give you the Porcelain Golem.


Ben, like a dweeb, refuses to give this monster a fair shake on account of two lame grievances: 1) it stole the medusa's rightful name (which admittedly is very dumb but who the fuck really cares) and 2) it stole valor from the catoblepas. If you ask me, this is clearly an improvement on the catoblepas. Just take it for what it is and you have a good-ass monster.

In fact, I can prove this scientificially. "Metal / robot bovine" has way more cultural traction than the catoblepas does. Behold:
  • Khalkotauroi, two fire-breathing bronze bulls from Greek myth forged by Hephaestus himself.
  • Hadhayosh, a brass ox with six horns and a mane of fire from Persian myth / Zoroastrianism.
  • The Golden Calf, the idol of the faithless Israelites from the Book of Exodus.
  • The Brazen Bull, a torture and execution device allegedly designed in Ancient Greece. 
  • Goht, a robot bull boss fight from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask.

Green Slime vs Grey Ooze

How far has D&D fallen? Abandoning the lovely, creepy, radioactive green slime in favor of the dull, laughable, visually-indistinct grey ooze. The basic bitch low-level slime doesn't need to also be the boring slime, y'know. Look how much mileage Dragon Quest has gotten out of its humblest of slimes. Once upon a time, even the lowliest of 1st level adventuring parties was still likely to stumble into horrors both strange and captivating.


Coming up with original aberrations instead of just stealing Lovecraft's? Good. Just mashing together tentacles and brains and stuff and calling it a day? Not so good. Send it back. In fact, here's a rule: any design that features a brain that prominently is required to be psionic somehow.


The only problem with the grick is that it's usually on the facing page with the grell, a similarly-named eyeless, beaked aberration. Otherwise this rules. Normally I come down pretty hard on monsters that are just a big bag of HP and attacks, but any monster that I've used to kill multiple PCs tends to go way up in my rankings. Recommendation: replace the beak with teeth. People teeth.


Ben and I are both huge griffonheads. Own all their records, have all their merch, seen them live six times, even got their autograph. Truly one of the finest monsters.

They're a good example of a monster that's kind of just a "wild animal" found in nature, yet also magical and powerful and rare. Hunting a griffon isn't merely an expedition. It's a proper quest. Riding a dragon is a bit much for me, but a high level PC work towards getting a griffon mount is absolutely something I can get on board with.

Then again, griffons also gain a lot by being made into a character, like in Alice in Wonderland. They have a great fairy tale whimsy to them. Talk to a sphinx, they tell you riddles. Talk to a naga, they trade magical knowledge. Talk to a griffon, they're very patrician and proper, barking orders and judgments.
Ben prefers the spelling "gryphon." I cannot sanction this rampant, shameless nerdery.



  1. That Flesh Golem video is gone, but here's another:

  2. I'm of the opinion that all golems need magic writing on/in them. They must act in a way that follows this "prompt" that magically animates them, and it also serves as a sort of weakspot. Erase or disfigure the writing and the golem goes crazy or immediately dies. Maybe you could also make the writing the classic scroll in the mouth, but I prefer a big "KILL" or "GUARD" carved on the outside. Each material of golem then becomes a puzzle: How to you work bone vs wood vs clay? I have a very idealized version of a combat-puzzle encounter thing with one of every golem but have never had an opportunity for it. Yet.

  3. Fun fact: Tik-Tok (the character not the app) actually predates the coining of the term "robot".

    1. What I'm hearing is that we should be calling generic magical constructs "tik-toks" rather than "golems."