The party has spent the last two days hiking through the wilderness of N’gorath on their way to uncover the magical stone of Aor. The GM decides it is time for the encounter table again.
With an evil chuckle that sends shivers down the spines of the player characters, he picks up the dice and glances up from his dungeon master screen one last time to feast on the fear of the players who start to nervously fidget their dice, thinking about the vile creatures that will soon spawn around them.
He rolls. Silence. “Goblins” it says… Goblins.. against a fifth level party. Oh my.
So here’s the challenge:
How can we make an encounter with something so mundane as a small group of Goblins interesting to a party of, say, fifth level player characters (PCs)?
1) You could let them introduce a plot element or clue
These goblins clearly are no match for a powerful group of adventurers, but they may hold a clue to the location of the magical stone the party is in pursuit of.
Maybe they robbed a merchant recently who was coming through the area and who had several manuscripts, once of which points towards a secret location?
Maybe they found cave paintings at a resting place not far from where the encounter takes place and could lead the characters there?
2) Comic relief
Maybe these Goblins are arguing about something. Imagine they found a large catapult in the woods, possibly from a recent siege upon a castle nearby – and now they discuss who will be first to launch themselves into the ruins to grab the riches that are meant to be buried there.
Maybe they make a very clumsy attempt to ambush the player characters and one of them sneezes and gives their position away. Or they talk too loudly while in their hiding positions (“No Kraak, I will give the signal to attack!!”)
Maybe they mistake the player characters for a powerful group of sorcerers (or other evil folks) and ask to join them and pillage some villages together?
Maybe they are drunk and the player characters find them passed out on the road with a few bottles of wine they grabbed from a cart. Maybe the cart of that merchant who got robbed or killed by something else.
.. and maybe that something else that killed the merchant is still around and the PCs and Goblins form an unlikely alliance to defeat it or escape from it? (No doubt the Goblins will try to screw the PCs over at some point).
3) Give the goblins an advantage
They might, for instance, have set up a boulder trap and are about to drop it onto the party once they enter a particularly narrow position somewhere. The boulder will likely do significant damage and the ambush might catch the player characters by surprise.
Maybe the goblins somehow found a trapped dire wolf and were able to put it in a cage – ready to drop the cage (and wolf) onto the player characters from an elevated spot somewhere.
The Goblins could have found a grove of particularly toxic mushrooms and after one or two of the group have been paralyzed by their spores they decide it could make a nice weapon to use against any group of adventurers coming by.
Maybe the Goblins came across a potion of strength somewhere (or something similar) and they drank it before the players come around the corner.
Well long story short, it can actually be a lot of fun to mix it up sometimes! Instead of making sure the monsters challenge rating (or whichever metric you use in your system) matches the players, just change the situation a bit and thereby balance the odds. This makes the game a bit more exciting and also relieves you, the GM, from the burden of constantly having to escalate the scale of monsters in the monster manual. This creates a bit more believability in your world because the threats in an area don’t suddenly scale up when the player characters enter it.
Well, see, we used to only have problems with the occasional pack of wolves and the odd Kobold tribe coming down from the hills in winter to ransack our village – but since that group of adventurers entered the area we have to deal with roaming herds of Tarrasques all of a sudden?!!