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The goblins in my world are classical fantasy goblins. They aren't too smart, have primitive technology, live in tribes, and use tamed boars, wolves, and other wild animals. They usually have a boss, who runs the show because he is so nasty, convincing, strong or intelligent that the others respect him. The goblins raid or to extort income from nearby communities. They like to consider themselves great rulers.

However, I don't want them to build big and complex empires. Nothing more complex or closer to a state than their extortion scheme territory. Additionally, they are supposed to be extremely unreliable allies, whether they forge an alliance with their kin or other races. Additionally, their tribes are supposed to remain small, never bigger than 500 goblins.

The best explanation I could come up with is based on Dunbar's Number. For them it is larger, the 500 goblins per tribe I mentioned, but they are unable to trust someone who they don't know personally. They can develop trust in new people, but they tend to act paranoid and violent around those who they don't consider members of their tribe.

Is this a good and believable way to achieve my goal here? Are there alternative/better approaches?

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    $\begingroup$ They don't have to act violent around those they don't know. It's enough they don't cooperate with them—try to cheat them, steal from them, never help them, don't share with them. Such group won't function and will end up splitting. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Feb 16 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ Note that Dunbar's number for humans is approximately 150, yet we are still capable of forming societies of multiple millions of members. And consider the paranoia of countries. "They're not us. We're good, so they must be bad!" $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Feb 17 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ @CJDennis but humans have to start using formal laws and law enforcement to do it, we can't use our instinctual interactions anymore. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 17 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @CJDennis It could be argued that we aren't forming stable societies. Countries the size you're describing are a relatively new phenomenon, and don't inspire confidence in our long term ability to keep it all going. There are a host of new and bizarre mental illnesses that one might conclude were the results of our scaling problems. $\endgroup$ – John O Feb 17 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO Human societies of over 150 members have been around for thousands of years. Do they need to be stable for thousands of years for the story or would even decades suffice? $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Feb 17 at 20:02

14 Answers 14

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Dunbar's Number is believable

I believe that Dunbar's Number is a very believable approach although it needs a slight twist.

Think about Goblin (or any other) society as a connected graph of who-knows-who. There is a vertex for each member of the society and there is an edge between vertices if and only if the two members know each other.

Then, the Dunbar's number, let it be $k$, is the upper limit on edges that originate in a vertex. Assume that this limit is saturated and each member knows exactly $k$ other (the graph is $k$-regular). It turns out that the expected distance between two arbitrary vertices in the graph is a $\Omega(\log_k N)$ (see 1) where $N$ is the size of the graph (the number of members of the society). That notation means "at least". Solving the equation $x = \log_k N = \frac{\log N}{\log k}$ where $x$ is the bound on distance for $N$ (see 2) gives $N = k ^ x$ (unsurprisingly :-P).

Now let's think about how to interpret this. The Dunbar's number $k$ is clear, that's how many meaningful societal connections can a member maintain (or rather an upper bound on it but you can assume Goblins are close to it since this should happen in densely packed, nomadic and warrior societies).

The distance $x$ can be thought of in terms of cohesion of the society. More developed societies form more abstract hierarchies and concepts of inter-personal relations. When the size of society grows beyond acceptable interpersonal distance, the society splits.

I would guess that Goblins would not trust anyone more distant than a friend-of-a-friend whereas you are pretty much willing to trust me that I will not kill you even though we do not have any friends in common that would vouch for me. Now, assuming that Goblins are much more primitive than people, let's say they have Dunbar's number $k = 25$. (Or, actually, they need not necessarily be that more primitive, this number might grow super-linear or whatever, check Dunbar :-) The upper limit on Goblin society with $k = 25$ that operates on the friend-of-a-friend basis is:

$$ N = k^x = 25^2 = 625 $$

Pretty close to your $500$. Remember that these are all upper limits; not every Goblin has all $25$ friends and it is not all perfect such that there is always a friend in common. I am sure you could come up in your settings with something like $25$ being slightly larger than average band of Goblins that sets for raids together. Or, if you want, the other solution is e.g. $k = 8$ and distance $3$ for $8^3 = 512$ with smaller units (families?) of goblins and slightly more complicated societal structure (what about families keeping together on maternal lines through mothers and grandmothers of a clan?), also $5^4 = 625$, just larger the distance the harder it will be to saturate that upper bound.

Just if you are curious, for people it gives:

  • distance 2: $150^2 = 22\,500$
  • distance 3: $150^3 = 3\,375\,000$

Hope I did not mess this up at some point.


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    $\begingroup$ Wow, great answer and great first post as well. Graph theory is an interesting approach I like a lot. Looking at the friend of a friend human maximum, that's only somewhat above to the point where I feel "community" ends and anonymous city begins. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Feb 17 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ Note you need to account for overlap, which would significantly drop things. If me and alice both know 25 other people, but we have 15 in common, we friend-of-a-friend with alice is only adding 10 people to my graph. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Feb 18 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ +1. But this approach appears to assume that a society is no longer tenable if the expected distance between two vertices is even infinitesimally higher than the maximum trust-distance $x$. In the friend-of-a-friend goblin model, I can see a graph with EV of 2.1 distance still being stable. I think a safer assumption would be that the EV can't be any higher than something like x+1. $\endgroup$ – Bridgeburners Feb 18 at 19:42
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They Lack Sophisticated Agriculture

Goblins spend a lot of time raiding and extorting villages because they are always on the edge of starvation.

Hunter-gatherer populations are never very large: the absolute largest were the indigenous tribes of northwestern North America, who had villages of up to 400 due to the abundance of the salmon runs. The Plains Nations who hunted buffalo from horseback had bands that varied in size, but never got particularly large (For reference, 2,000 Lakota Warriors was considered a massive number at Little Bighorn).

So your goblins are essentially hunter-gatherers, maybe primitive horticulturalists who are just scraping by and must work hard to sustain themselves because they have been pushed into the least productive land and to gain a large population is an unobtainable dream

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    $\begingroup$ In simpler terms, a very large goblin group wouldn't be able to sustain themselves on just raiding nearby communities. So, their population remains reasonably low by either being killed off by angry villagers or by the tribe splitting due to lack of food and discontentment. Larger tribes of goblins could exist near cities but, of course, then they would be more likely to be killed off by soldiers. $\endgroup$ – Tarius Feb 16 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe their "agriculture" has evolved to farming slime molds... :-) $\endgroup$ – nomen Feb 19 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ This is a much more sensible reason for them to keep low population numbers than the accepted answer, imho. $\endgroup$ – Hankrecords Feb 21 at 13:27
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Because they don't want to turn into a dragon.

Dragons are created when a group of about 800+ goblins get together in a single community. After a few years of that, something happens, and all the goblins die, except for the one that turns into a dragon, absorbing the memories and knowledge of the entire community in the process. Little is known about why this happens, but the goblins have figured out that 500 members is safe. The only groups that get bigger are the ones trying to turn into a dragon, and they don't stick around.

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    $\begingroup$ WHAT THE HECK?! $\endgroup$ – Varad Mahashabde Feb 17 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ Look, it's a fantasy novel. If you're not doing something weird, then what's the point. $\endgroup$ – user3757614 Feb 17 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ Fantasy only works when the logic is internally consistent, else suspension of disbelief fails, sometimes spectacularly. $\endgroup$ – arp Feb 17 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ @VaradMahashabde Dragons represent what you want them to represent. I've certainly seen fantasy worlds where dragons were metaphors for sins like sloth, pride, greed, wrath.... Having them be in someway noble is really a recent invention. $\endgroup$ – Ben Barden Feb 17 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to exclude the "Goblins turn into a dragon" part, but keep the goblins AND the dragon, you could just rule that more than 500 goblins produce a smell/ aura/ disturbance in the power that attracts dragons. From an exterior point of view, one day you have a cave filled with goblins, and the day after, just a dragon. Hence the "goblins turn into a dragon" legend ! $\endgroup$ – Don Pablo Feb 18 at 10:19
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The more crowded it is, the more goblins run amok.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Running_amok

In a typical case of running amok, an individual (often male), having shown no previous sign of anger or any inclination to violence, will acquire a weapon (traditionally a sword or dagger, but currently any of a variety of weapons) and in a sudden frenzy, will attempt to kill or seriously injure anyone he encounters and himself.[10] Amok typically takes place in a well populated or crowded area.

Culture bound syndromes of sudden unprovoked murderous craziness are found in other cultures - the original "wendigo" might have been something like this. Current American society offers another painful example.

Goblins have this tendency and the more of them there are the greater the tendency. In big groups you can pretty much count on one or more goblins going into a crazed fury from which there is no return. No-one likes that. It makes it hard to get things done. The goblins avoid bunching up.

I like this too because it offers more narrative grist for the mill: as opposed to boring Malthusian principles, spectacular and bloody consequences when there are too many goblins in one place.

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    $\begingroup$ Or grasshoppers becoming locusts... $\endgroup$ – Journeyman Geek Feb 17 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ Dwarves are also well-known for exhibiting this behaviour if you don't let them claim an appropriate workshop. $\endgroup$ – user253751 Feb 18 at 16:06
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From personal experience, I can tell you that goblins are fairly moralistic creatures, and their societies are governed not be a central authority, but by patterns of social rewards and punishment that emerge based on the all-important trade-off between the egalitarianism and meritocracy.

Unfortunately, the system is imperfect. For starters, if the tribe gets too big, the goblins lose track of whose-who and the process of altruistic punishment is consequently frustrated by issues of imperfect information. Nepotism and familial favoritism can also sometimes undermine the system, leading to unjustifiable distributions of privilege and social standing which ultimately harm the tribe. Since smaller tribes tend to be more cohesive and less prone to the petty squabbling engendered by bonds of kinship and loyalty, this too creates pressure for smaller tribes.

Although goblins are typically peace-loving, the process by which a tribe fractures in two is fairly conflict ridden, and all-out war between the two fractures is not wholly unheard of. The tales of the fierceness of goblin warriors are not exaggerated; when the lives of your loved ones themselves are at stake, there can simply be no compromise, in peace or in war.

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    $\begingroup$ I see what you did there, goblin. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 at 10:42
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A reasonable explanation could be that tribes larger than 500 would be too hard to self govern, or be ruled by a single ruler.

Self governing tribes without a ruler could fall apart like you describe, when the members don't know and can't trust one another. The way how could be as described below.

For tribes ruled by a single ruler, this would cause internal strive when a younger ruler with different ideology pops up and gathers a following. They could question the older ruler and spike a civil war. They could either kill the opposition or be wiped out, significantly reducing the overall population.

If you don't like the violent option, they could instead split off from the tribe and form their own. The rate at which this occurs would increase significantly the larger the tribe, setting a feeble balance of around 500 members.

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    $\begingroup$ If I hadn't found this answer to upvote, I'd have had to write it. Direct monarchies can only work when everyone interacts directly and personally with the leader. Get above about 500 individuals, and you can't run the thing without delegating -- and then the delegated officers tend to get ambitious. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Feb 17 at 13:33
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Goblins only respect strength. A goblin captain can command about twenty ordinary soldiers, each of whom he has personally beaten in a fight, and who knows him well enough to know he could do it again. A goblin chief can command twenty captains the same way. You can't have a third level, because goblins don't get that tough. This allows 421 adult goblins, who will typically have about 79 children with them.

The idea of legitimate authority by appointment, election, ancestry or wisdom just doesn't fit in their minds.

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    $\begingroup$ I wanted to answer exactly this, its just too fitting. And maybe an older ruler has earned enough trust by his 12 second-in-command so that they let him stay a bit overdue (if only to duel it out with each other beforehand), so you can have that old-wise ruler sometimes, but its rare $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Feb 17 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ This also allows for the legendary goblin crusades of old, where thousands of goblins marched up on the kingdom. - They basically had one very very very special king who could hold his own against 30 or more tribe leaders, creating this one-in-a-million horde $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Feb 17 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ Anime agrees. Death Matches in which the weaker party survives results in strong bonds and respect :P $\endgroup$ – Varad Mahashabde Feb 17 at 20:10
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logistics and sewage

  • Your goblins are unable to scale up their economy/food production, they can't produce enough food(goblins are usually depicted as hunter/gatherers and not farmers) and goods to support a large number goblins
  • They they live in tight, cramped spaces and don't know not to shit in their drinking water and have rampant diseases culling their numbers, this kept happening in real life until people (john snow) figured out that feces in the water is a great way to kill off your population with cholera and started building modernized sewage system, your goblins are not aware of sanitation.
  • Sanitation in general is a very limiting factor on population growth, the larger the population living in poor sanitary conditions the larger the chance for a plague outbreak and goblins are not immune to disease
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't that weird? You add no more than a single "h", and suddenly Jon Snow gets to know something this important. $\endgroup$ – Zachiel Feb 16 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Zachiel the ExtraHistory folks got a lot of milage out of that joke: youtu.be/TLpzHHbFrHY $\endgroup$ – Morgen Feb 16 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Morgen thats the only reason i remember his name, ExtraHistory explained it pretty well (also Bismark had a plan...) $\endgroup$ – Nullman Feb 16 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ The more crowded it is, the more goblins run a[ muck]. Literally. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Feb 17 at 4:19
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Goblins are incredibly social.

Goblins adore interacting with other goblins. The more goblins there are the more goblins they want to meet and talk to and hang out with. Eventually it gets to the point where a goblin's day is entirely taken up by social interactions with other goblins. They don't have any time for any other... activities. They're too busy partying to get busy and make little goblins.

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  • $\begingroup$ So like the toxic slime which turns everything it touches into toxic slime, but when it's too big, it can't touch? $\endgroup$ – Varad Mahashabde Feb 17 at 18:19
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Goblin disputes (which are common) are solved by the chief favoring his relatives.

If a goblin isn't one of the chief's relatives then he's better off helping to create a new tribe. At much more than 500, there are too many non-relatives who would benefit by a change in leadership.

This can be the tribe splitting or the chief being overthrown (i.e. a civil war).

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All of my goblin knowledge from DMing the "We Be Goblins" Pathfinder campaign tells me that there are a few reasons as to why their populace might be limited, but here's my top 3 theories:

  1. Goblins are highly superstitious. These superstitions result in a variety of things, such as persecuting any goblin found to be writing, using writing, or in any way trying to learn. Often times, this will involve killing (usually violently) a lot of goblins as part of a judicial system. Because of their superstitions, there might be a reason why a certain goblin population refuses to go over 500 goblins, maybe because they think 500 (or some number below that) is unlucky, so they will send other goblins away or sacrifice them so that they don't reach that. This works as well as a theological reason (i.e. Their God doesn't like 500 goblins all together.)

  2. Goblins kill each other, kind of a lot. Goblins are inherently evil creatures and have no semblance of morality, especially when it comes to claiming valuable objects from other goblins. It's only every so often a goblin tribe will find something valuable and go to war in order to take it, culling their numbers in the process.

  3. Because of their incredible ability to be obnoxious, dangerous and war-faring, many other civilizations, especially humans, take notice of an exceptionally large goblin hoard, and commit goblin-genocide.

Some combination of all three of these factors is almost definitely a possibility.

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The more goblins, the more ways the loot will have to be split.

You have said your goblins survive by extorting their nearby neighbors. They do not provide for themselves. If there are more goblins in the camp, they will need to split whatever resources they split more ways. Many reasons could contribute to it never getting greater than 500:

The leader wants more loot for him/herself. The more minions the less the leader gets to take home.

The rest of the camp/tribe wants more for theirselves. The more tribemembers the less loot for each individual!

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Isnt a simple answer "they do get larger, but then something happens that will split the tribes"?

Lets say you get bigger than 500 members and now have to raid, pillage and extort for those extra members, which no part of the lands they live in can sustain. This can have varied effects. The tribe could start starving causing members to drop until it is sustainable again (similar to how nature does it with apex predators), or the tribe is forced to attack more lethal targets like walled cities directly to get what they need, losing more members until they are at 500 again, or the scarcity of loot and food causes discontent and a portion of the tribe will assemble around a new leader who will either instigate a bloody fight for dominance or simply leave the tribe with promises of better loot and food.

Even if the land can sustain it such a society could be large enough to cause a second cunning, vicious or whatever leader to stand up and either fight or peel off a portion of the tribe to start a new one.

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The goblins reproductive system are modeled after ants, they have a queen who gives birth to all the goblins and none of the others do so. Untill. . . The colony reaches the size of 500 individuals (this seems a bit tiny in my opinion) when this population is reached all the resulting goblins instead get a new queen, and they go off to found a new colony.

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