Goblin Tactics


I’m going to start with lower-level monsters and work my way up, and my first case study will be the monster that players beginning with the Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition starter set are likely to encounter first: goblins.

Here’s what we know about goblins from the Monster Manual: First, from the flavor text, they live in dark, dismal settings; congregate in large numbers; and employ alarms and traps. They’re low-Strength and high-Dexterity, with a very good Stealth modifier. Their Intelligence and Wisdom are in the average range. They possess darkvision and the Nimble Escape feature, which allows them to Disengage or Hide as a bonus action—very important to their action economy.

Because of their darkvision, goblins will frequently attack under cover of darkness, when their targets may be effectively blinded (attack rolls against a blinded creature have advantage, while the blinded creature’s attack rolls have disadvantage). They’ll also attack from hiding as much as possible, making use of their high Stealth modifier, and doing so in dim light decreases the likelihood that they’ll be discovered, since the many player characters will have disadvantage on Perception checks that rely on sight. (Important note for dungeon masters and players: Darkvision does not nullify the penalty to sight-based Perception checks in dim light. It only lets a creature see in darkness as if it were dim light, without being effectively blinded.) (The description of darkvision on pages 183–85 of the Players’ Handbook is incomplete: it implies that darkvision improves vision only in darkness. It improves vision in dim light as well, allowing a character with that feature to see without penalty.)

A picture of goblin combat is starting to coalesce, and at the center of it is a strategy of ambush.

A typical combat round for the goblins will go: Attack (action), move, Hide (bonus action). Because they’re attacking from hiding, they attack with advantage. Regardless of whether they hit or miss, the attack gives their position away, so they change it immediately, because they can. (The sequence is important. Whenever possible, a goblin must end its turn hidden; otherwise, it’s vulnerable. Move/Hide/Attack would achieve the same offensive result but leave the goblin exposed to retaliation between turns.) Being a Small creature, a goblin has a good chance of Hiding successfully behind the trunk of a mature tree; even if it fails, it will still enjoy three-quarters cover (+5 AC). But since you can’t hide while someone is looking at you, goblins have to use their movement to scramble out of the PCs’ field of view, meaning they have to be close enough for their own 30-foot movement speed to describe a significant arc. At the same time, they don’t want to be so close that a PC could close the gap between them and attack. So the optimal distance from the targets of their ambush is about 40 feet, no closer—and they don’t want to move farther from the PCs than 80 feet, their shortbows’ maximum range for normal shooting.

As long as they can stay out of the PCs’ reach, they’ll use this tactic over and over. Suppose, however, that a PC does manage to close with one of them. In that case, the goblin will Disengage (bonus action) first. Then, depending on how great a threat the PC poses, it will either Dash (action) out of reach—forcing the PC to use a Dash action as well if he or she wants to catch up—or, if it thinks it may be able to finish the PC off, move its full distance to a place of cover, then Hide (action) again, preparing to Attack with advantage on its next turn.

Incidentally, the goblins are not trying to stay together as a group. They’re not looking out for their buddies. Goblins don’t do that sort of thing. They are, however, trying to goad the PCs into splitting up.

Goblins are squishy: they have only 7 hp, which means one good hit will seriously wound them. It will also mean their genius sniping strategy has failed. Therefore, a goblin reduced to just 1 or 2 hp will flee the scene, end of story. But a moderately wounded goblin (3 or 4 hp) is thirsty and will try to regain the upper hand. It will stalk the PC who wounded it, first retreating to a safe distance, then Hiding and moving with Stealth until it can get back to around 40 feet from its quarry, at which point it will return to its Attack/move/Hide sniping tactic. A captured goblin will always surrender immediately and grovel for mercy, counting on its ability to escape as soon as its captor’s attention wanders.

What if the PCs have the good sense to take cover themselves? Goblins aren’t geniuses, but they aren’t stupid, either. They won’t waste arrows on a target that’s behind three-quarters cover, because that would completely negate the advantage they gain from shooting from concealment. Instead, a goblin will stealthily reposition itself alongside or behind its target before shooting and giving its own position away.

A goblin that finishes off its target won’t immediately go hunting after other targets. If another is already in view, it will attack that one. But if not, the greedy goblin will first rifle the body of its victim for anything valuable. A clever and stealthy PC who’s counter-stalking the goblins can exploit this weakness.

So far, the entire discussion has been about ranged attacks. Goblins carry scimitars, too. But they don’t use these out in the open, because there’s no advantage to it whatsoever. The only time a goblin will engage in melee combat is when it has some other overwhelming advantage, such as a combination of (a) numbers, (b) darkness and (c) the ability to flank, which in D&D 5E means attacking from two opposite sides of a target creature. (Front-and-side isn’t enough to gain advantage in D&D 5E. See “Optional Rule: Flanking,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, p. 251.) A goblin’s +4 attack modifier isn’t quite good enough to give it 2-to-1 odds of hitting an armored enemy by itself, but when advantage is brought into play, a hit is almost guaranteed. If three goblins surround a PC in the dark, the chances are very good that they’ll land three hits and not have to worry about retaliation. That being said, if those three hits don’t finish the PC off, the goblins will realize that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, and on their next turn, they’ll Disengage (bonus action), go scampering off into the darkness (move) and Hide (action) someplace where they may later be able to land a surprise hit on a wounded foe.

Also, goblins can tell the difference between a creature that’s lost in the dark and one that also has darkvision. They won’t attack the latter close up if they can avoid it; instead, they’ll prefer to shoot with their shortbows. But in the narrow passages of a cave, establishing a good line of sight may not always be possible, and melee may be the only way to attack. If this happens, they’ll use their knowledge of the cave to tease the party into overextending itself: a lead goblin may Attack with its scimitar (action), Disengage (bonus action), then retreat down the passageway (move) until it comes out into a more open cavern where it and several other goblins can all jump the first PC who emerges. Meanwhile, while the PCs are being drawn forward, other goblins may be shooting or stabbing at them opportunistically from any side passages that exist along the way.

There is one other circumstance when goblins may engage in melee fighting: when commanded to do so by hobgoblins or bugbears, which goblins fear and defer to. They’ll do it, but they won’t like it. They know they’re not good at it. They’d rather be sniping. If pressed into an infantry unit, they’ll fight without coordination and desert at the first opportunity. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t keep attacking if they think there’s something to be gained by doing it their way.

Finally, there’s the matter of alarms and traps. Goblins recognize the value of stealth and surprise, and they’re not about to let anyone get the same advantage against them. By and large, they’re not great inventors, so most of their alarms and traps will be crude: metal junk that makes a racket when it falls, falling rocks, pits (with or without punji sticks), simple snares. But every once in a while, a lucky goblin may get its hands on a hunter’s trap that both restrains its victim and does damage to it. These are prized possessions, and the goblins use them to protect their most important locations.

This has been a lengthy article, so here’s a summary:

  • Goblins prefer to attack from ambush, often under cover of darkness.
  • They position themselves about 40 feet from their targets, and their default order of combat is Attack (action), outflank (move), Hide (bonus action). Whenever possible, a goblin will end its turn hidden.
  • Goblins won’t attack a target behind three-quarters cover. They’ll try to outflank it instead.
  • If a PC closes with a goblin, it will Disengage (bonus action), then Dash (action) and retreat to a distance of at least 40 feet if the PC poses a serious threat, or move 30 feet to a place of cover and Hide (action) again if it thinks it can finish the PC off.
  • A goblin that defeats a foe and doesn’t have another one in sight will spend its next turn searching the foe’s body for food and valuables.
  • A goblin reduced to 1 or 2 hp will flee. A goblin reduced to 3 or 4 hp will stalk the PC who wounded it. A captured goblin will surrender and grovel for mercy, then escape when it gets the chance.
  • Goblins don’t engage in melee fighting except in the dark, in numbers and in close quarters—or if commanded to by a hobgoblin or bugbear boss. They’ll Attack (action), Disengage (bonus action) and retreat (move) to entice their enemies into overextending themselves.
  • Goblins avoid being surprised by setting up simple alarms and traps.

Next: How kobolds are different from goblins.

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32 responses to “Goblin Tactics”

  1. Ken W Avatar
    Ken W

    Nice article, but it appears you’re assuming the optional flanking rules from the DMG are in effect. It might be worth a callout noting that there is no flanking in the base game, to avoid confusing new DMs or players.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Good point. Yes, the rule that gives attackers advantage on flanking attacks is an optional one. My reason for mentioning the opposite-sides flanking rule is more to remind DMs and players who are accustomed to getting flanking bonuses in other games when attacking from the side that flanking doesn’t work this way in D&D 5E. Even if your campaign isn’t using the optional flanking rule, goblins will still attack a target from opposite sides, because they live in a world where some campaigns do use that rule. 🙂

  2. […] or creature’s ability to see in both dim light and darkness. Then, while writing the first article for this blog, I inadvertently led myself astray by relying on the incomplete description of […]

  3. […] an earlier article, I examined the tactics of goblins, which turned out to be significantly more sophisticated than those of your average cannon-fodder […]

  4. […] I started this blog with a look at goblins, I’ll start my examination of Volo’s Guide to Monsters with another look at goblinoids. But […]

  5. Carlos Cox Avatar
    Carlos Cox

    Darkvision allows creatures to see in Dim Light as if it was Bright Light, but it does not make No Light equal to Bright Light.

    A human carrying a torch in darkness sees 20ft of Bright Light, 20ft of Dim Light and the rest is darkness.
    A goblin carrying a torch in darkness sees 40ft of Bright Light and 20ft of Dim Light because of their Darkvision.
    A Drow carrying a torch in darkness sees 40ft of Bright Light and 80ft of Dim Light.
    Dim Light does give disadvantage to Perception rolls to See (reduces Passive Perception by 5) which makes it very hard to notice a creature hiding behind Heavy Cover, but it doesn’t allow a creature to remain hidden without Heavy Cover or Heavy Obscurement (such as fog), unless it’s a character with the Skulker Feat or a similar exceptional ability.

  6. […] Goblin Combat Tactics – Realistico, con la precisazione che per quanto mi riguarda in scontri 2 vs 1 , gli attaccanti hanno un bonus generale di +2, anche se l’avversario riesce a fronteggiarne uno o cmq a limitare l’esposizione. Inoltre al buio la penalità generale è di -4. Quindi 2 goblin vs un avversario che combatta al buio godono di +6 bonus… […]

  7. […] de Goblin Tactics | The Monsters Know What They’re Doing por Keith […]

  8. Joss Simcock Avatar
    Joss Simcock

    Thank you so much for this! As a new DM I sometimes worry that using some enemy tactics could be “cheesy” but these articles help show that the tactics used are an integral part of their CR. I may be splitting hairs, in this article you mentioned that Goblins have no reason to use scimitars in the open whatsoever. I wanted to check this as (although perhaps the poorer strategy) I think Goblins could only use their shields with the scimitar and therefore would only benefit from AC 15 when equipped as such? (AC 13 with bow)

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Yes, that’s correct.

  9. Chris Avatar

    Something that goblins would also use when hunting outside would be high gras and foxholes.
    The goblin in high gras is unseen even if the stealth fails. PCs know the position but attacks are still made with disadvantage.
    Foxholes are a good point to retreat to since medium creatures arent able to follow.

    Besides that, a good goblin crew in hiding should always start with a goblin popping up while dodging. This way all held attacks by PCs are having a high chance of missing. And ranged attackers to lose ammunition for later ambushes.

    1. Josh Avatar

      I have to disagree to that. Goblins being inherently self centered and unequivocally dependent on stealth suggest to me that no goblin would willingly expose itself as bait or a target to PC attacks.

  10. […] original: Goblin Tactics, por Keith […]

  11. Damien Avatar

    New strategy for goblins, hiding grants advantage on attack rolls, which cancels out disadvantage. Id argue that when possible goblins will absolutely attack from up to 320 feet away. They (most likely) know that at this range counter attacks on them are much less likely to hit. Since they are cowards they may prioritize their own safety, rather than get that sweet sweet advantage.

  12. László Avatar

    Thanks for the great artricle, I always wondered how should I play goblins in combat 🙂
    However I couldn’t find in the 5e PHB that Hide and Disengage are Bonus Actions, as I see they are considered as Actions. Or did I miss something?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Yes. The goblin trait Nimble Escape lets them perform these actions as bonus actions.

  13. Edward Harvey Avatar
    Edward Harvey

    Just bought your book and I am enjoying it immensely. How do you feel a PC readied attack with a trigger worded like “when I see a goblin I’ll fire at them” work? From what I’ve read I understand that the PC wouldn’t be able to fire until after the Goblin came out of hiding to attack, but would the PC be able to fire before the goblin does his nimble escape and re-hides?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      First, I’d pedantically point out that “fire” applies only to gunpowder weapons, and that the correct verb for bows is “shoot.” ?

      Then, once they stopped beating me, I’d rule that the following things happen:

      1. A hidden goblin attacks.
      2. The attack—whether a hit or a miss—reveals the goblin’s position, and the PC sees it.
      3. As a reaction, the PC with the Readied action attacks immediately.
      4. After the attack action is resolved, the goblin continues with its turn, which may include Nimble Escape as a bonus action.
      1. John Avatar

        I’m trying to understand the combat utility of Nimble Escape in situations where Goblins are attacking from partial cover because the PHB doesn’t allow you to take the Hide action if you can be seen. And you can be seen from partial cover. I don’t believe a Goblin could shoot from the same level of cover that the Hide action applies to. He would have to exit cover, shoot, and then return to full cover and take the Hide action. But what exactly is the utility of being hidden BEHIND full cover? You already can’t be targeted. I don’t see why the PC would bother searching for you if they already know you’re going to be un-Hidden the next time you emerge. I would imagine that a Readied Attack could target a Goblin that was hidden on the previous turn when that Goblin then exits cover to shoot, yes?

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          You can’t take the Hide action if your target can see you clearly. Also, it’s generally understood that in 5E, a hidden creature that has line of sight on a target can emerge from cover just enough to attack that target without being seen until the attack has taken place.

  14. Adam Avatar

    This was truly inspirational. I have a party of 6 players, mostly newish, who haven’t figured out that tactics matter or that they need to work as a team. (In some battles, some of them will wander off and start exploring the dungeon while the fighting is happening.) I was just about to role-play with them the training they receive upon reaching 2nd level and then send them out on a mission to practice what they learned. I was thinking 5 goblins and a bugbear would force them to work together, think about target selection, and practice tactics like forcing attacks of opportunity and using your allies to gain stealth attacks.

    Having read this, I have a totally different plan. I’m going to put them up against just 3 goblins. It’ll be in a large cavern with enough room and cover for the goblins to maximize their attack-move-hide strategy and just take pot shots at them all day with impunity, as there’s no target to shoot back at. I want to force the party to think about how to regain the upper hand. They’re way more powerful, so if they can come up with solutions and use teamwork, they can easily win.

    I have a couple of rules questions. In dim light, can a goblin hide when he’s 50 feet away from a dwarf with darkvision out to 60? For the dwarf it’s like bright light, so if the goblin shoots runs 20 or 30 feet and then tries to take cover and hide, can he do it? Or does the fact that the dwarf can see him mean he can’t hide? They’ll be in a large cavern with plenty of stalagmites and rock formations for cover, so I’m thinking even against dark vision, they can duck behind something, then move somewhere else and make it to their next hiding spot. The dwarf might have a better idea of the area they’re in than other characters, but they can still hide, given the terrain.

    Also, can a character hold his action so that as soon as the goblin steps out of cover/hiding to take it’s shot, the character shoots back before it can move?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Hiding requires that observers be unable to see you clearly. If visibility is heavily obscured, you can hide anywhere. If not, you need something of significant size to hide behind, like a stalagmite that’s bigger than you are. Once you’re hidden, you give yourself away if you attack, cast a spell or do something dumb like run directly at your target. If you try to sneak up on your target, or dart from one hiding place to another, I’ll sometimes allow that but require an additional Stealth check to determine whether you’re spotted.

      A character can Ready an Attack action to occur when a hidden opponent reveals itself, but it’s usually the attack itself that reveals the opponent, not the leaning out to take the shot. However, you asked whether the character can shoot back before the opponent can move (presumably to a new location), and not only is the answer to that yes, it’s one of the best counter-tactics available when it comes to fighting goblins.

      1. The Disavowed Paladin Avatar
        The Disavowed Paladin

        The Automatic link is incorrect so I am providing an accurate URL.

  15. […] Amman of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing has a fantastic piece on goblin tactics. Even something as simple as making full use of their nimble escape can turn a run of the mill […]

  16. […] more on Goblin Tactics, I highly recommend reading this excellent article by Keith Amman. Following these guidelines will make this goblin encounter truly come […]

  17. Cezar Avatar

    Hi, I like your articles.
    Recently, my group fought against a goblin group and, because of the area and context, it was very hard for the goblins to hide. But saw another strategy for goblins: prone.
    using your guidelines, would be useful for the goblin make a attack(action) – stand up(half-move) – move – knock prone – and hide(bonus action)?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      It depends on the terrain, but usually not, for the reason that standing up consumes too much of their movement.

  18. […] that cross their paths. Just check out Keith’s very first post on his blog, which coincidentally talks about goblins! As you can see, they wouldn’t charge in with their scimitars at all if it’s up to them. […]

  19. […] For further details on how hobgoblins work together, be sure to read Keith Amman’s take on goblinoids from the TheMonstersKnow.com […]

  20. Jon Bupp Avatar

    Yes, I’m compiling info on the goblinoids. WHy do you ask?
    Added to my Blog Database.

  21. […] Source: The Monster Knows What They’re Doing – Goblin Tactics […]

  22. Sylveon Avatar

    Hi, I’m glad how I played goblins is simular to this. I suprisingly have never used them for nmy previous two campaigns, and I found them quite fun. I had a dungeon, and my all human level one party where using produce flame for sight, making them visible from a distance. Using this, the goblins in the dungeon, happy for food other then rats, and only having shortbows for weapons, hid at the end of every tunnel, fired a shot or two, then ran. This infuriated the party consisting of an artificer, a ranger, a warlock and a druid, often doing over half of the players health an arrow. They where not expecting this, having only battled goblins as cannon fodder before. These little guys are rather deadly. I would say goblins in a dungeon they know could challenge level 4 partys.

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