We played our first D&D game in about three weeks last Wednesday night. The Pub hasn’t been updated in that long, either. Last Wednesday’s game didn’t really give me any material for a post either, but I do have thoughts on a D&D creature that I believe has been underutilized.
I’ve only seen hobgoblins used a few times in D&D campaigns. It seems to me that they are always played as tougher orcs. That might have been the case in AD&D. I don’t know how hobgoblins were handled in D&D 2E, 3E or 4E, but in 5E, hobgoblins have some great traits that can make them particularly brutal. In particular, I like the Martial Advantage of hobgoblins.
Hobgoblins use Martial Advantage to inflict extra damage when they hit a target and an ally is within 5 feet. Hobgoblins inflict this extra damage because they are disciplined soldiers who stay in close support of one another. The extra damage is a way to reflect the mass effect of a disciplined hobgoblin unit.
The question is—how should this play out on the tabletop?
The lazy way…that I have been guilty of in the past…is to just roll to hit, and when a blow connects, to tell the player “and the hobgoblin rolls an extra 2D6 for Martial Advantage.” Sure, this might be technically correct, but it doesn’t add to the immersive environment that an RPG session should be.
And to be brutally honest, the last two times my players have encountered hobgoblins, I have actually forgotten to use the Martial Advantage bonus. <heavy sigh> Now that the players have fought them without that modifier, the players think that hobgoblins just roll regular damage when they hit. Forgetting to use the modifier actually made me think hard about how to get the modifier into the game without making the players feel like I was stacking the deck against them. I think I have a solution.
I think one way to reflect the close-quarters discipline of a hobgoblin unit would be to have one of the hobgoblins act as the unit leader every time they are encountered. This would not necessarily be the captain or warlord as presented in the Monster Manual. This would be more like a hobgoblin corporal or sergeant—an NCO. He would probably have high hit points for a hobgoblin, and maybe also some fighter class features such as Second Wind, or a fighting style. This hobgoblin should always be barking out orders to the others. Players who speak goblin understand the hobgoblin leader to be saying things like “Dress up that line!” or “Too loose on the left! Suck it in!”
When my players encountered the hobgoblins, there was no such hobgoblin fulfilling that role. Therefore, it would be easy to say since the hobgoblins had no NCO, they didn’t get the Martial Ability bonus. I think it might even be fair enough to play it out all the time that way. If the NCO goes down, the hobgoblins could lose the Martial Advantage bonus unless another hobgoblin steps up to the plate. Maybe when the NCO goes down, the remaining hobgoblins make a morale check to determine if another takes over the unit. Better, more experienced units are more likely to produce a leader this way.
I think this reflects training that military units get in real life. Some armies are very dependent upon central command, and as units take losses, they tend to disintegrate as leadership losses are taken. Typical orc armies are like this.
Some armies train their troops so that each soldier is prepared to take over for the next two levels above their own rank. Corporals need to be ready to take over the squad if the sergeant goes down. Sergeants need to be ready to take over the platoon if the lieutenant goes down. These armies maintain their fighting effectiveness even after taking leadership losses, and I believe this is how hobgoblins should be played.
Hobgoblins played this way will rise above the typical player-fodder trope of the faceless hordes there for the slaughter. Hobgoblins could rise to the level of one of the most respected and feared opponents your players will ever see.