Glen Cook’s Goblin Recon (Part 4 of the “Low-Prep, Reusable Scenarios” Series)

Glen Cook’s Goblin Recon

Another Gozzy's random map. See
Another Gozzy’s random map. See

The Scenario in a Nutshell: The realm is at war with vicious enemies who have started sending teams of operatives through a buffering or bordering forest, marsh, or similar terrain. The PCs have been recruited, hired, or press-ganged into running missions in that region. Boots will get muddy, swords will be bloodied, and casualties are expected.

Making It Work: Just as you might with a Nostalgia Crawl or Tarterian Highway, you could get or create a random terrain table. You can also find random map generators online. However, I like to grab real topographical maps by entering “topographical map” into Google Images. Because terrain is fractal, you can always change the scale so that a continent-sized map becomes a small island (or the other way around).

In addition to some sort of map, you need to figure out what the enemy force will be. Grab stat blocks for those creatures and their pets, then make a quick encounter table for enemy patrols and the like. Consider a template like this one:


 2d6 result  Type of Encounter
2 A lone but formidable agent of the other army
3 An adventuring party or elite team from the other side
4 A large unit from the other army, on a mission (see the list of missions below)
5 A small patrol from the other army, on a mission
6 Several members of the local community hunting, hiding, or gathering
7 Farmers or shepherds tending to some kind of local food source
8 A wild beast or creature with no allegiance to anyone
9 A creature or beast allied with the other force (possibly with a handler or rider)
10 A creature or beast or character that is presently neutral but which might be persuaded to ally with the party’s side
11 Escaped slaves or prisoners
12 An allied unit (small or large)


For our own campaign, we put goblins in a jungle setting, leading some players to refer to it as the “Vietgoblin Campaign.” (Disclaimer: When one of my players nicknamed that campaign, he simply meant to convey the sense of grittiness, futility, and claustrophobia often associated with films about the Vietnam War. It wasn’t any sort of commentary on the people of Vietnam.)

Once you have your creatures and setting, choose one of the missions listed below, put some baddies at the business end of it, and send the party to its doom on its way. Common types of missions include the following:

Glen Cook's The Black Company series is widely considered a benchmark for the fantasy military genre.
Glen Cook’s The Black Company series is widely considered a benchmark for the fantasy military genre.
  1. Raid
  2. Ambush (edit: See DMDavid’s excellent advice on running ambushes, which are statistically nigh-impossible to pull off the way most people handle group skill checks — his fix is elegant)
  3. Assassination
  4. Reconnaissance
  5. Sabotage (e.g., take out a bridge)
  6. Rescue
  7. Persuade another force in the area to be an ally (think of the ents in Lord of the Rings)
  8. Persuade the enemy’s ally to stay out of it

You can use the same list of missions to determine what encountered enemy units are doing.

Sources of inspiration for this genre are everywhere: Glen Cook’s Black Company series, any historical fiction about Roman legionaries on missions in hostile territory, anything about the Spartans at Thermopylae. You can also find a list of military fantasy novels here.

The Goblin Recon campaign isn’t as geographically linear or as confined as the other options described above, but the military command structure and the mission assignments tend to ensure some linearity of story. Moreover, the narrow range of likely missions, narrow range of possible enemy stat blocks, and fractal nature of terrain maps (which are darned easy to come by) means you can milk this scenario for a while before you need to worry about it becoming stale. As the PCs climb in rank or significance, they might gain more autonomy, and as they do so, the campaign might shift more toward a Sandbox Campaign in a militarized wilderness setting, with characters even taking a Three Kings style break to loot a tomb they’ve stumbled upon.

Variations on the Theme: A “war” themed campaign tends to bring out some stock settings and character types: fighters, rangers, and rogues sneaking through overgrown forests (echoing Vietnam) or barbarians and rangers trudging through the desert (echoing Afghanistan or Iraq). But you can do the same thing with an all-wizard party assigned to do missions in the frosty tundra. Think Hoth. You can use the ocean as your wilderness and make your party a bunch of privateers. There’s more room in this genre than meets first glance.

Quick Links to Other Parts of this Series

1. The Nostalgia Crawl
2. The Tarterian Highway
3. The Sandbox Campaign
4. Glen Cook’s Goblin Recon
5. The Arena
6. Blending Scenarios & Reading Recommendations

♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content. 


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