This month, I’m lumping goblins and kobolds in together because they’re pretty much interchangeable in terms of their world-building role. They’re diminutive but clever humanoids that eke out meager lairs in caves and grottoes, generally underground – hence why they tend to be the default enemies for Player’s First Dungeon. Another reason they make great foes for Player’s First Dungeon is that they’re humanoid enough to have relatable motives (greed, a love of shiny things, the will to survive).
They’re skilled trappers and hunters, and towards evil, but their villainy is somewhat limited in scope. However, when they have time to prepare their defenses and work together, they teach the players not to underestimate enemies based on size alone, and also about the value of teamwork. Goblins make use of basic guerilla warfare, making hit-and-run attacks before ducking back out of sight, while kobolds utilize their strength in numbers through their Pack Tactics trait.
So, we want enemies that require smarts to make the most of their abilities, be that stealth or sheer numbers. We want them human-esque, but suitably monstrous. We want evil, and we want it lurking in an underground warren, the typical dungeon setting.
Lets talk about grimlocks.
What the hell is a grimlock? you might ask. You’d be right to. I’ve never used them. I’ve never seen them used. I’ve never even heard of an actual player encountering one.
Well, the concept of the grimlock is that they’re the evolutionary descendants of underground-dwelling peoples. They hunt by smell and hearing, as they have no eyes. They’re devolved, savage creatures, but they’re smart enough in their primitive mindsets to set up traps and snares, as well as crafting simple tools and weapons. And they’re not picky about what they eat…
This might all sound very familiar to fans of the science fiction genre. They’re effectively clones of the Morlocks from The Time Machine, if you’ve read the book (or seen the movies). Other Morlock clones throughout scifi include the mutants from Pandorum and the ghilliam from Warhammer 40,000, or any other flavor of “devolved underground nocturnal humanoid”.
Grimlocks are ambush predators. Their pebbly grey skin gives them advantage to stealth in rocky terrain – such as the underground lairs where the vast majority of dungeons are set. Their weakness, Blind Senses, means that they can’t “see” if they’re deafened or cannot smell, meaning that cantrips like Prestidigitation-analogues, Minor Illusion, and Thunderclap will all have a lot of utility. This has the added benefit of teaching players to use their abilities in creative ways, and to size up their foes for potential weaknesses that can be exploited. If you want to take this even further, you can make your grimlocks vulnerable to Radiant Damage. Telegraph this to the players by putting a hole in the dungeon’s roof, letting sunlight from above come in. A charred grimlock corpse lying on the edge of the spotlight will say all you need.
If you want to spice up a grimlock encounter with some more variety, you can give them some domesticated beasts such as giant lizards or giant spiders to use as steeds or riding beasts. Grimlocks can use rust monsters as excavators and guard dogs alike – their iron scents allow them to seek out mineral-rich caverns to feast on, and then the grimlocks move into the hollow left behind. The rust monster can also use its sense for metal to warn if surface dwellers are near (grimlocks craft their weapons from organic materials such as wood, bone and leather, so rust monsters pose little issue to them). Grimlock lairs will also be set up with conventional traps such as tripwires, deadfall pits, and breakaway urns containing swarms of insects, along with cultivated clusters of mushrooms such as shriekers and violet fungi.
Grimlocks have no naturally occurring spellcasters, so any magic-users will be those who have gotten ahold of magic items looted from dead adventurers. These grimlocks are also likely to act as the chieftain of the tribe they lead. They won’t be able to use any items that require attunement, and the rust monsters will have eaten anything metal. Unlike with most monsters, glitter or shine holds no interest to the blind grimlocks – they prefer things with interesting textures, smells or sounds, such as Bags of Tricks, Dust of Sneezing and Choking, Eversmoking Bottles, nonmetallic Figurines of Wondrous Power, Oil of Slipperiness, Pipes of Haunting, and any manner of Potions.
Next week, we look at the staple of the wilderness encounter – the wolf.