Wednesday, 28 November 2018

D&D Monsters: Merfolk

Merfolk are, like centaurs, one of those races that a very common in fantasy settings, but that seem to be present in RPGs largely because they feel like the sort of thing that ought to be, rather than because actually anyone uses them much. Mythically, they are an ancient concept, appearing in tales dating back to the very dawn of civilisation, although, naturally the details vary across time and culture.

Fantasy worlds in literature often include merfolk, although they are often only mentioned in passing. They exist, for example, in both the Narnia and Harry Potter books, and they have become somewhat more popular of late, often in horror films. Some of these versions are inspired by the relatively benign folk of Hans Christie Andersen's The Little Mermaid, while others reflect humanity's ambivalent relationship with the sea, and our perception of fish as 'ugly'. Earlier myths often do a bit of both, with a particular theme being that mermen are ugly and wont to drown sailors, while mermaids are sexy and seductive.

While in myths, merfolk are sometimes the outcome of some specific magical curse on a previously normal human, they are quite often seen as a race, such that both males and females exist, even if particular stories tend to focus more on one than the other (mermen in the myths, mermaids in more modern fiction, although there are plenty of exceptions).



1E

Originally, merfolk are depicted very much as counterparts of regular humans, only living in the sea. They have no tendency to any particular alignment, have the same intelligence as a regular human, and their basic warriors are roughly as skilled as a 1st level human fighter. In terms of their statistics, the only real difference is a superior armour class, which may just represent that they're agile and difficult to hit, rather than a leathery hide.

The picture shows a fairly classical merman from legend, although without the beard that many classical depictions include. They are human from the waist up, but with gill slits at the base of the throat, and webbed hands. There's no indication that skin and hair colour are any different from those of regular humans. The tail is fish-like, with scales and a caudal fin, and that's about it. Like seals in the real world, they have difficulty hauling themselves about on land due to their lack of legs.

We're told that they live in communities averaging around 300 individuals, which usually consist of no more than a collection sea caves. They apparently don't wear clothes (and, indeed, why would they?), but are adept enough at tool-making to produce crossbows as well as spears, nets, and tridents. Males and females are equally common, and, as is pretty much universal in 1E, the females don't fight. Indeed, the race is referred to as "mermen" in this edition, likely by analogy with Tolkien's use of "Men" to refer to our race, as opposed to elves or dwarves.

They are omnivorous, and evidently live in waters shallow enough to make gathering seaweed a sensible proposition (so 200 metres, at the very most), as well as herding fish, which has no such limitation. As one might expect, they have their own language, and they don't typically learn that of humans, implying little cultural contact between the two.



2E

The 2E version is even closer to the classical look of merfolk, lacking the visible gill slits, as well as making it clear that, in keeping with common artistic convention, the caudal fin is horizontal, rather than vertical, as it is in true fish. It also turns out that, even if the males wear no more than jewellery, the females at least wear bikini tops. The text description seems to imply that merfolk are always caucasian in appearance (they now live only in temperate waters, rather than 'warm temperate and tropical'), while we learn that the tail can be either silver or green.

Merfolk culture is also elaborated on. It turns out that their villages can be three times the size previously stated, and that their leaders are (as one might expect) more skilled than the usual tribesfolk. A few even have priestly magic, although there are no wizards, presumably because writing is going to be difficult underwater unless you want to carve your spell book into a piece of monumental masonry. It's also confirmed that the culture is "heavily patriarchal" with mermaids essentially confined to their homes.

Oddly, while 2E merfolk are obviously capable of breathing air as well as water, they die if kept out of water for long, with a survival time of about three hours being typical. This isn't retained in later editions, and it's not entirely clear why it would be the case, since you'd think they'd be as resistant to dehydration as, say, a seal. Perhaps it's partly a magical effect, tying them to their element.



3E

The image here makes it clearer that merfolk no longer have gill slits, as they do in 1E. The lower body has a long dorsal fin and at least one other fin, in addition to that on the tip of tail. The upper portion remains human-looking, except for blue hair, and what are probably small pectoral fins on the shoulders, but could arguably be jewellery of some sort. They no longer have webbed fingers. Finally, while 2E merfolk are less than six feet in total length, the 3E sort are said to be eight feet long, which fits with the proportional length of the tail shown in the picture.

It's in this edition that the name switches from 'merman' to 'merfolk', and there is no longer any hint of a patriarchal culture in the description. They are described as playful, and living in semi-permanent settlements rather than in (presumably permanent) caves as previously. In terms of their abilities, they are slightly fitter and more physically agile than humans, but it turns out that their warriors do, after all, wear 'leather' armour (shark-skin, perhaps), which explains the apparently tough skin of earlier editions. While priestly spell-casters still exist, bardic magic is now more common, and its practitioners tend to be the community leaders.

Where the previous versions tamed barracudas to use as guards, this one associates primarily with porpoises - albeit not presumably for the same purpose. In line with the reduction of the number of languages generally seen in 3E, merfolk no longer have their own tongue, having adopted that of water elementals.



5E

While the stats of merfolk remain similar in this edition, allowing for relevant changes in the rules,  both physical appearance and culture have changed significantly. The mermaid in the picture is blue-green, although we're told that they have a wide range of different skin tones, just as humans do. More significantly, she has a vertically arranged caudal fin, double pelvic fins, and highly webbed fingers, in addition to the dorsal fin on the tail. The pectoral fins are now on the lower arm, rather than the shoulder, and there are particularly odd fins below the greatly elongated ears and on the top of the hairless head. 

Merfolk also appear to have barbels projecting from their foreheads, which may be sensory in nature, although, at least within the granularity of the rules, merfolk senses are similar to those of humans, so that they need to carry light sources when venturing deep. For some reason, the one in the picture is wearing a skirt, which seems impractical. 

Culturally, merfolk are far less technically advanced than previously, and they certainly don't have crossbows. There's no indication in the core rules that they can still use magic, but that hardly proves they can't. We're told that they don't even have the know-how to 'shape stone' to make buildings, although the next paragraph states that they can 'carve rock' for the same purpose, so that's all right (?) In any event, the great majority are now nomadic tribes, with the settlements of the first two editions now being rarities, though not unknown.

They apparently deal more with humans than in previous editions, since they typically speak the Common Tongue alongside their native Aquan.



While most fantasy RPG settings do seem to include mermen, or something similar, they necessarily have limited contact with land-dwelling races, and so are usually little mentioned in core books. In the Forgotten Realms they are settled enough to have long-lasting kingdoms and often associate with other marine races, such as aquatic elves. In Mystara, at least one group are closely allied with one of the human nations, trading with them and sharing naval/military defence. In Golarion, in contrast, they are generally deeply xenophobic, hostile towards other aquatic races as much as to surface-dwellers. In Eberron, they aren't mentioned at all, but do apparently exist, and are as varied as humans.

Since they are such a common mythic concept, similar races exist in many other fantasy RPGs, too. In the default Savage Worlds fantasy bestiary, for example, they are hideous shape-shifting monsters, partly inspired by the Sirens of Greek myth. In Yrth, the default setting of GURPS Fantasy, they are a widespread tribal stone-age culture, capricious and aloof. They are specifically said to reproduce in the mammalian manner, and can survive at depths of no more than about 100 metres without difficulty. In Glorantha, there are multiple different races that fit within the broad 'merfolk' category, with one of the most significant having the lower half of a dolphin, rather than a fish; like dolphins, but unlike most classical merfolk, they can stay submerged for extended periods, but have to return to the surface to breathe.


Merfolk Biology

Let's turn to the question of how merfolk might work biologically. To start with, there is the physical shape. Most depictions, in D&D and elsewhere, show the tail fin as spread out horizontally, not arranged vertically as it is in typical fish. This implies an up-down swimming motion with the tail, as used by dolphins and porpoises, rather than the side-to-side motion of fish. Some pictures show a dorsal fin, which would help with stability, but, while webbed hands might help a little with propulsion, the arms would mainly be used for steering. It's harder to see why the arms would have fins on them, as they often do.

In terms of the skeleton, merfolk are typically shown as having hips, which means that they must have a pelvis, but all that's behind this is a long tail formed from the backbone. (Some artists give a shape to the tail that implies human leg-bones, with knees and so forth, inside them, like an actual woman in a mermaid costume. But most go for a more piscine form).

The most significant question about merfolk biology however, is how they can breathe both air and water. Even those real-world fish that can extract oxygen from the air aren't as adept at it as mermen are said to be, but there is one species of living lungfish that does have both fully functional lungs and gills (the other species lack gills as adults, only breathing air). So it's clearly not impossible.

That arrangement - having both lungs and gills - is clear in the 1E merman, and also described in early depictions of 'aquatic elves', but not so much in later versions. Such a merman would presumably breathe as a fish does, regularly swallowing oxygenated water through the mouth, and pushing it out through the gill slits in the throat. The narrow and short human neck means that these gills must be small, and so probably far more efficient than those in real-world fish. The merman would have to close off his trachea and redirect his internal bloodflow to the relevant respiratory organs at the same time, but, again, Australian lungfish can, in fact, do this.

Merfolk, however, are frequently shown without visible gills. This leaves us with two possible mechanisms for their breathing. Firstly, their rib cage might actually contain gills, not lungs, remaining full of water while on land, but still breathing through their nose. That would help them resist the bends after diving, and maintain themselves under high pressure, but implies a magically effective means of transferring oxygen from air to water at the larynx while above the surface. They'd also have to snort water out of the nose whenever they surface, to keep the upper respiratory passages free (they couldn't speak in air otherwise), which seems unlikely.

The alternative is that, while underwater, they breathe through their skin. Which would at least fit with them wearing such minimal clothing, although that would weigh them down underwater anyway, which is reason enough to go near-naked. This would also, it has to be said, require a magically effective means of transferring oxygen into the body, since the skin doesn't have a large enough surface area for this to work on the scale of a physically active merman, and, anyway, it's mostly human-like or scaled, which wouldn't be much use as a respiratory membrane. They'd also need some means of avoiding the bends, as gases in the lungs create bubbles in the blood when the external pressure drops, but this is something that dolphins, whales, and seals can all do perfectly well in reality.

Speaking of which, how deep can merfolk dive? The GURPS figure, as we've seen, is about 100 metres, which means that merfolk can only reach the bottom in coastal waters, and a few, particularly shallow seas, such as the North Sea in the real world. Elsewhere, they'll have to float about in open water, if they wish to visit at all. Most D&D merfolk, however, appear to be able to go much deeper than this, something that might be possible for short periods of time, as whales attest, but would likely require some sort of magical adjustment if they can prolong it for more than a few hours. (Of course, it wouldn't be an issue if they naturally evolved at greater depths, but then they'd have the opposite problem on surfacing - it's the wide range of survivable pressures that's the issue here).

3E gives merfolk Low Light Vision, which makes sense given that the light is dim under even shallow depths of water, but, like humans, they do need at least some light to see. Other editions don't have this level of granularity - it's Darkvision or nothing - which is likely the only reason it's absent in 5E.

This brings us to the question of merfolk reproduction. Here, the evidence seems stacked in favour of a mammalian system. Certainly, we can see from their upper bodies that mermaids are mammalian. Most images also show merfolk having navels, which means they must have an umbilical cord, and hence, aren't born from eggs or fish spawn - merfolk pregnancy is therefore surely similar to our own. This would also explain the wide, human-like, hips that mermaids usually seem to have.

That implies a similar female reproductive system which, in turn, at least makes it likely that the male system is also similar. The necessary parts must be hidden in some kind of fold in the hind portion of the body, as they are in dolphins. Indeed, aside from the scales and rayed fins, it's plausible that the internal structure of a merfolk's tail resembles that of dolphins more than it does that of fish.



Modelling D&D style merfolk in other systems that don't already have something suitable requires accounting for their slow movement on land, and a slightly raised agility, stamina, and probably charisma (or equivalent), but few other changes beyond their ability to breathe both water and air. In general, they are supposed to be the aquatic equivalent of humans, with the same variety of personalities, skill sets, and cultural foibles as we have.

While some other aquatic races from the setting are capable of surviving for extended periods on land, however, the lack of terrestrial mobility of merfolk makes them unsuitable as PCs outside of highly specific scenarios.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

D&D Monsters: Troglodytes

Having looked at the lizardfolk a few months ago, I'm going to (more briefly, I suspect) look at the other low-level race of reptilian humanoids in D&D: the troglodytes. Like lizardfolk, troglodytes have no real counterpart in mythology or legend.

Having said which, the term, which literally means "cave-divers" in Ancient Greek, is an old one, and was used to refer to a purported human tribe by Herodotus back in the 5th century BC, and by other authors since. It's often used to refer to cave-dwelling subterranean races, such as H.G. Wells' Morlocks, and even has its place in modern taxonomy as a part of the scientific names of a number of creatures (most notably chimpanzees and wrens). But none of these things have any real connection to the race described by Gygax, for which, so far as one can tell, he simply borrowed the name.


1E

Troglodytes, as described in the original Monster Manual, are a reptilian humanoid race distinguished from lizardfolk by a number of features. Their feet are more digitigrade (that is, they stand on their toes, but not on their heel), their tail and snout shorter, and their head more rounded. They are also slightly shorter, but more heavily built, and have a large crest on their head supported by a row of spines - while lizardfolk now have a head-crest as well, this did not appear until 3E, making it perhaps the most obvious physical difference at the time.

They live only in subterranean caverns, as one would expect given their name, and hate all human life. (From context, this probably means mammalian humanoids in general, rather than humans specifically). They have a similar intelligence to the more bestial lizardfolk, and don't wear any form of clothing or armour, with only a few belts to carry their primitive stone tools and weapons. Despite being chaotic, they live in communities averaging a hundred or so individuals, with chieftains and other leaders, but perhaps little in the way of formal organisation or customs. 

Females are just as common as males, but, as so often in 1E, they are physically weaker and seemingly don't leave the tribal lair to go hunting as the males do. Like lizardfolk, troglodytes lay eggs. Presumably, they have language, but this isn't stated, and one assumes that it isn't terribly sophisticated.


2E

In this edition, while the statistics (as usual) remain similar, the physical appearance of troglodytes changes dramatically. The new version is noticeably less humanoid, and has a particular resemblance to monitor lizards - the group that includes the largest real-world species. Their hips are low down on their body, with the sprawling gait typical of real lizards, rather than the more mammalian arrangement seen in lizard men, and the long toes on a narrow foot also echo many monitor species. The tail is longer, dragging on the ground, and the body slimmer, with smaller scales, while the head crest, which we are now told is only found in males, has a different form.

Their culture does not appear to have changed much, and there is relatively little clarification on the details (presumably because there's precious little to say). We do know that troglodytes are exclusively carnivorous, something that's typically, but not universally, true of monitor lizards. As with most such races, males are physically stronger than females, and the latter have only a subordinate role in society, not, for example, joining hunting parties. Since female monitor lizards are, indeed, not much more than half the size of males this is, for once, not wholly unreasonable.

In this edition, troglodytes do have their own language, but are specifically unable to speak any others.


3E

The change in physical appearance is less significant in third edition. The individual shown is slimmer than the 2E one, but that might not be a universal trait. It has are a series of linear bands along the ventral surface, as the 1E version does, but the 2E version seems not to (hard to tell for certain, though, given the pose). The eyes are larger, as befits a nocturnal/subterranean creature, and the jaw more prognathous and, unlike most real reptiles, the heel of the foot is held clear of the ground. The text says the eyes are black, but the picture shows them as gold. In all, while they still look generally reptilian, the changes are enough that the 'monitor lizard' look has largely gone. 

Now that we can see their more detailed statistics, troglodytes turn out to be rather unimpressive, equal or inferior to untrained humans in most respects other than combat skill and physical resilience. They are more intelligent than before, although still pretty dim - the same as orcs, but no longer truly bestial. They are now slightly shorter than humans, rather than of similar height, but females and males appear to have a similar build (again, distancing them from real-world monitor lizards). At least a few are actually able to use magic, and they no longer have a unique language, being able to readily communicate with lizardfolk and kobolds, among others.


5E

Fifth edition sees another shift in the look, with a powerfully built torso and a much more humanoid/mammalian gait than before. Their eyes are small again, and the crest has been replaced with a row of thick heavy spines. There are also, for no obvious reason, blunt spines on their elbows, which you'd think would be more awkward than anything else. It's not obvious from the text that they are even reptilian, although they are presumably supposed to be.

As implied by their physical build, troglodytes are now stronger than humans, but their intelligence has dropped back down to its original, near-bestial, level. Their skin, previously said to be as tough as mail armour, is now merely leathery (which makes more sense), and, while their combat prowess hasn't really changed, their hit points - normally higher in 5E than in earlier editions - haven't either, making them less impressive in relative terms. They are said to have difficulty fighting in full sunlight, which is new, and their language is once again a unique one. 


Given that they are just violent bestial foes, troglodytes receive little detailed mention in most sourcebooks. They are generally described as one of the races inhabiting the Underdark, or equivalent subterranean realm beneath the sunlit world, and aren't organised or intelligent enough to be more than a local nuisance. One of the few variants are the Xulgath of Golarion, an intelligent form of troglodyte living miles beneath the surface and more formidable than their degenerate common relatives.

Troglodytes are, in most D&D sources, clearly reptilian, and it is usually stated that, like most reptiles, they lay eggs. In most respects, then, there is little to say about their biology that wouldn't be equally true of lizardfolk.

Unlike lizardfolk, however, they have the ability to change the colour of their skin to match their surroundings, typically giving them a bonus to Stealth rolls or the like. This doesn't seem to be described as anything more dramatic than that of real-world chameleons, and so is biologically plausible. One might question why a creature that habitually dwells and hunts in complete darkness would need such an ability, but it seems to work on Darkvision, too, and pretty well everything they're like to come across has that.

More significant is the 'signature power' of troglodytes, which is their ability to exude a staggeringly foul stench. In the early editions, this is due to an oily secretion, that is produced whenever the creature is angry or frightened, as they surely must be whenever they are in combat. This doesn't take the form of a spray, and so likely oozes from pores or scattered scent glands in the skin. It apparently breaks down rapidly on contact with air, as the effect is of limited duration. In the first two editions, this stench affects only humans and other "good guy" humanoid races, but in 3E it, more reasonably, affects anything with a sense of smell and no inherent immunity to chemical attack.

In 5E, however, the stench adheres permanently to the troglodyte, which doubtless makes them inedible to larger underground monsters. One would think that this would rather counteract the stealth ability imparted by their natural camouflage, since surely one could smell them coming from some distance away, long before the stench has any physical effect, but there you go.

The exact effects of the stench on the victims vary with the edition, especially once more universal rules for 'conditions' come into being, but the implication is that it's no worse than a bout of extreme nausea, temporarily weakening the subject.

In terms of other systems, the D&D troglodyte would come across as a humanoid with near-bestial intelligence with abilities little different from a competent human warrior, focusing more on strength and resilience than speed or agility. They usually have a particularly tough hide, although it's hard to see why. The main challenge is modelling the stench, which should prove merely inconvenient, without posing any risk of permanent damage. In GURPS, for example, it's clearly the Nauseated Affliction, while in more fluid systems it could be a temporary attribute loss or a flat penalty to skill rolls.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

D&D Monsters: Lizardfolk

The idea of reptilian humanoids is one that's quite common in science fiction, but rather less so in fantasy literature, at least in its early days, presumably because they don't have much in the way of mythical antecedents. H.P. Lovecraft referred to a reptilian race in passing in his 1921 short story 'The Nameless City', while Robert E. Howard introduced a race of serpent people as antagonists in his own writings starting in 1929. Since Howard and Lovecraft were friends, later works considered these two instances to represent the same race, and they became part of the Cthulhu Mythos, and, eventually, the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

Although beings with a mix of humanoid and reptilian features do exist in some mythologies, none have much resemblance to lizardfolk as they exist in D&D, and it seems plausible that Gygax had something like Howard's race in mind when he created them. (Having said which, reptilian humanoids did also exist in SF at the time; Doctor Who's Silurians pre-date D&D, for example, but seem an implausible inspiration).

Monday, 28 May 2018

D&D Monsters: Centaurs

This series of posts doesn't exactly have a large audience, but I have nothing else to do this morning, so let's turn to a race that's a staple of fantasy in terms of its existence, but that, in my experience, is rarely seen in actual games: the centaur.

Centaurs, of course, originally appear in the myths of Ancient Greece, from whence they were borrowed by the Romans, and, later still, often seen in medieval bestiaries. (Similar creatures do appear in some other mythologies, but the true centaur that we're talking about here is the Greek one). They have regularly appeared in fantasy literature, with the Narnia and Harry Potter series being perhaps the best known examples. In the myths, they are sometimes wild and uncivilised hunters, and sometimes wise and noble teachers, reflecting their dual human/bestial form; novels have tended more towards the 'wise' version.

While the very earliest Greek depictions of centaurs varied somewhat in which bits were human and which bits horse, the classic look that we're familiar with today was already in place by about the 5th century BC, so it has a long pedigree, and unlike, say, goblins, there's strong agreement on what centaurs are supposed to look like. Both the human and horse parts are often said to be physically attractive for their species, and, while female centaurs appear only rarely in myth, they have been reasonably common in artwork even as far back as the Greek period.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

D&D Monsters: Kobolds

Having recently looked at the toughest of the five standard "evil tribal humanoids" of D&D, it's time to complete the set by looking at the weakest. The kobolds of D&D have, it's fair to say, generally been treated with ridicule. That's not because they're particularly silly (although there are enough examples of creatures that are), but because they're so puny: one of the very few creatures that are likely to lose to first level characters, even when they have them outnumbered. The intent may be to have even first level characters appear heroic by defeating larger bands of foes; the result has mainly been to make those foes laughable.

The word "kobold" is German, and refers to a sort of capricious or malevolent sprite, similar to goblins in English folklore. They are often household spirits, but are, perhaps, better known as evil spirits haunting mines and bringing rock collapses and toxic vapours down on hapless miners. It's almost certainly this conception that Gygax used as inspiration when he devised the race for the earliest edition of D&D.

Friday, 16 March 2018

D&D Monsters: Gnolls

Continuing my look at some of the standard monsters of D&D, and continuing with the theme of the "evil tribal" races, it's time to turn to the gnolls - something that's particularly appropriate right now, given that they've recently been used as antagonists on Critical Role.

Although it has also been borrowed by other works, such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, the term "gnoll" is not one that's native to folklore or legend. Gygax borrowed the word from a short fantasy story by Lord Dunsany, in which it is used to describe sinister woodland beings. Although Dunsany never described what his "gnoles" looked like, Gygax has stated that he took the word to mean that they were supposed to resemble a cross between a gnome and a troll, which is as plausible an etymology as any.

By the time of the 1E Monster Manual, however, he had already switched to the "hyena man" look that they have kept ever since. This appears to be original to D&D.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

D&D Monsters: Hobgoblins

Last time, I looked at the history of goblins in D&D; now it's time to look at their larger cousins, the hobgoblins. Of the five standard "evil tribal humanoids", hobgoblins stand out in that they appear, from the earliest illustrations, to be rather more civilised than the others. In my experience, a number of campaign worlds, home-brews included, have therefore included relatively sophisticated hobgoblin nations, rather than leaving them solely as barbarian hordes, as is more commonly done with orcs.

The term "hobgoblin" is a part of traditional British folklore, referring to a particular sort of goblin that's usually seen as less malevolent than the normal sort - albeit capricious, and often dangerous pranksters. Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a hobgoblin of this sort, showing that Shakespeare, at least, thought of these beings as mischievous, but not actively evil. The original meaning of "hob" is unclear, although there's nothing to suggest that it originally meant "larger".

Tolkien is the first to use "hobgoblin" in that sense, using it, briefly, to refer to larger orcs in The Hobbit, in distinction to the regular "goblins". Gygax presumably borrowed this for D&D, and seems also to have been influenced by the uruk-hai of The Lord of the Rings, which share a number of traits with 1E hobgoblins.

Monday, 1 January 2018

D&D Monsters: Goblins

Following on from my earlier ponderings on the development of orcs in Dungeons and Dragons and related franchises, I am now going to focus on a very similar creature: the goblin. Goblins have, perhaps, changed less than orcs over the years since their first introduction into the game, but change they have, and they are a very common low-level opponent, one that's generally intended to be marginally weaker than a starting player character, and thus a threat in large numbers without being a complete walk-over when encountered in smaller groups.

The term "goblin" is, of course, an ancient one in English, referring to a (usually) malevolent magical being that is typically small and misshapen; a sort of evil fairy. As with orcs, the more modern conception of goblins comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, Tolkien uses the word as simply another word for "orc", mainly as the term that hobbits use for that race. The fact that the word therefore ends up being used more frequently in The Hobbit, in which these particular antagonists seem less of a serious threat than their counterparts in Lord of the Rings do, likely combines with the original folklore meaning of the word to produce the "like orcs, only weaker" idea first used in D&D.


1E

Goblins appear in the very earliest editions of D&D, at first without much in the way of description. By the time of the "Advanced" edition, they are part of a distinct hierarchy of five evil tribal humanoid races, forming the second step on the chain, one slot below the orcs. Statistically speaking, they are extremely similar to orcs, but just marginally weaker: they are slower, have one less hit point, a 5% lower chance of landing a blow on an opponent, and inflict, on average, one less point of damage when they do so. In practical terms, this doesn't make a huge difference, but it could be just enough to turn the tide in an otherwise close battle (as is likely at low level).