How to Play Hobgoblins like Perfect Soldiers
“These tracks are in four rigid ranks,” the fighter mused, looking at the boot prints dug into the mud. Her brow was creased deep in thought as she wracked her brain for scraps of disjointed knowledge from her studies of military history at the academy, years ago. “And each soldier marched in perfect lockstep. Each footfall landed in the step of the soldier before them…” Her eyes widened and she took a sharp breath. “To hide their numbers.”
She whirled to face the rest of her party, a shadow of fear hanging over her face. “Hobgoblins! Our enemy isn’t fielding their own soldiers, they’ve hired hobgoblins!”
“Mercenaries?” the ranger scoffed. “The Black Spider has grown desperate indeed if he’s resorted to sellswords to fight his wars.”
“Not mercenaries,” the cleric growled. He turned and affixed the ranger with a solemn, piercing gaze. “In these parts, hobgoblins are more than mercenaries. They are crusaders. They fly the iron-fisted banner of Maglubiyet, and love only the thrill of battle in his unholy name. Every drop of blood they spill advances his evil schemes.”
The bard winced at the cleric’s words. “So much for my usual plan, then.”
“No, I doubt seducing their warlord will do much for us this time,” the fighter said, laughing. “The only thing these warmongers listen to is the sound of steel. We need to hurry to Phandalin and set up a perimeter—and fast. Ranger?”
“I can get us there faster than those hobgoblin slugs,” the ranger said with a cheeky grin. “Hope you’re ready to run.”
Individually, a hobgoblin is mere cannon fodder, scarcely better than a common goblin. When unified in a battalion, however, every single hobgoblin soldier is refined by their martial training into an efficient killing machine. A battalion headed by a captain is further transformed by their leader’s masterful tactics and commanding presence.
Hobgoblins are simple foes, but they exemplify a defining trait of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons: even high-level characters can be challenged by low-CR foes when faced with a sufficiently large army. Hobgoblins are a creature whose mechanics flow perfectly into their lore: they live for war and amass large and perfectly regimented armies to wage their beloved wars on any who might dare oppose them. They march in the service of Maglubiyet, god of goblins, and seek to die on the battlefield so that they might join the eternal war on their god’s home plane of Acheron.
Unlike chaotic evil orcs or goblins who do battle in chaotic hordes, hobgoblins are lawful evil creatures who follow a rigid, military hierarchy. Their wars are won not through sheer ferocity alone, but through the genius tactics of charismatic warlords and their ability to coordinate an army that fights with perfect precision. While the combat features of individual hobgoblins are relatively simple, a Dungeon Master who intends to challenge their players with hobgoblins must be prepared to essentially play a war-game, using different hobgoblin units to perform different functions on the battlefield. It’s also a perfect opportunity to use non-standard win conditions in your battles, as simply routing a massive hobgoblin army may be a tactical impossibility. Instead of wiping out their foes, you can encourage the characters to aim for the serpent’s head and assassinate the hobgoblin warlord, or disrupt their vital supply chain by setting loose their horses or burning their trail rations.
More on battle conditions later. Let’s look at the different types of hobgoblins you can use to crush your players' characters.
Units in a Hobgoblin Army
There are three classic hobgoblins presented in the Monster Manual, the rank-and file hobgoblin soldier, the hobgoblin captain, who may command a small force of up to 50 soldiers, and the supreme hobgoblin warlord whose power and charisma can control an entire army. A warlord is subservient only to mighty rulers such as dragons, manipulative clerics, and the Great One himself: Maglubiyet.
In addition to these three martial units, Volo’s Guide to Monsters provides two additional specialists: the war-mage hobgoblin devastator and the stealthy hobgoblin iron shadow. Devastators are the artillerists of a hobgoblin army, whereas the elite iron shadows fill the role of spies, assassins, and even secret police within communities occupied by hobgoblin armies.
Hobgoblins also train beasts to fight alongside them, including worgs and carnivorous apes. These creatures fight alongside common soldiers, though one could easily reskin a hobgoblin captain as a hobgoblin houndmaster with two worgs under its command.
Fighting as an Army
Now that we have a handle on the five main hobgoblin monsters, let’s look at each of their roles in a military unit.
Hobgoblin: These CR ½ monsters are well-armored with 18 AC, but have a pitiful 11 hit points. Their longsword attacks don’t do much damage on their own, but hit like a truck when paired with their Martial Advantage trait, which deals an additional 7 (2d6) damage to any hostile creature that has one of the hobgoblin’s allies within 5 feet. This includes allied beasts and other non-hobgoblin allies. Basic hobgoblins are shock troopers that fight in large numbers, deal massive damage, and fight to the death. They’re hard to hit with melee attacks, but are vulnerable to effects that require a saving throw, like burning hands or fireball.
Hobgoblin captain: This CR 3 commander is in charge of a single unit of soldiers within a larger army. Most of its abilities are similar to its rank-and-file soldiers, but it possesses the Leadership action. By using this action, it enters a state of martial focus for the next minute, during which it can shout a command (no action required) whenever an ally it can see within 30 feet makes an attack roll or saving throw. If that ally can hear it and understands the Goblin language, it can add a d4 to that roll. In essence, this is a highly specialized, very powerful version of bless. Because of its ability to buff all of its nearby allies, the captain likes to stay in the middle of the fray, but protected from enemies by a phalanx of loyal soldiers.
Hobgoblin warlord: This CR 6 boss commands entire legions, and likely has several captains at its disposal. It is mechanically similar to the captain, with a few extra traits, such as a shield bash which can knock enemies prone and the ability to parry melee attacks by using its reaction. While the Leadership traits of multiple hobgoblin captains and their warlord can’t overlap, they can use their traits to buff multiple segments of their army across a large battlefield.
Hobgoblin devastator: At CR 4, this magical artillerist wields incredible area-of-effect and single-target spells, and its Army Arcana feature allows it to sculpt its AoE spells around its allies, while its Arcane Advantage feature essentially grants it the Martial Advantage feature that normal hobgoblins have, but affecting its spell attacks. Note the wording here: it only affects spell attacks. Not magic missile bolts, not fireballs. Only spell attacks, which include: ray of frost, shocking grasp, Melf’s acid arrow, and scorching ray, which can trigger this ability three times on a single casting, thanks to its three rays!
Unfortunately, this caster has the staying power of wet parchment. If a 4th-level fighter gets in this creature’s face with their greatsword and the Great Weapon Master feat, it’s not unlikely that it will die in a single Attack action. (This assumes both greatsword attacks hit, dealing about 12.5 damage each, plus 20 extra damage from Great Weapon Master.) It has methods of eluding melee fighters, such as fly and gust of wind, but this does little to protect it against sharpshooters and other ranged combatants.
Finally, hobgoblin iron shadows specialize in sneak attacks—though it lacks the Sneak Attack-like Martial Advantage trait that other hobgoblins possess. Played cleverly, an iron shadow assassin can emerge from cover, hurl a barrage of three darts, and then use its Shadow Jaunt action to disappear from sight. It can also use its spells to confuse enemies on the battlefield, such as using disguise self to pose as an enemy soldier to get in position from a sneak attack, or silent image to create the illusion of a small host of hobgoblin reinforcements charging at an enemy fortification. Amidst the chaos of battle, it will be hard to notice that the illusion isn’t actually screaming a war cry. (I’d recommend requiring a character to make a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check to notice the lack of sound over the roar of a chaotic battlefield.)
Deploying Hobgoblin Units
If you’re deploying an army of hobgoblins to fight an adventuring party, you need to be careful to not just throw wave after wave of cannon fodder at the characters. That’s not really fun. It’s just tedium. Your goal is not for your players to roll the corners off their d20s, but to present a challenge that tells a story, with rising action, a climax, and a heroic victory—or a crushing defeat. In a dungeon, you can do this by facing the characters against progressively more challenging enemies, and giving them downtime to loot the room, make a decision of where to go next, and then present another fight, trap, or challenge.
You can do this in an all-out war scenario, too. Each skirmish is like a dungeon room, except the rooms can be a thousand feet long, if you wish. Hobgoblins are perfect soldiers, which means it’s in character for them to follow the orders of their commander exactly as they command, engaging with enemy units in coordinated, regimented formations.
If you want to create a battlefield scenario with hobgoblins, consider those three story elements mentioned earlier: rising action, a climax, and resolution (be it victory or defeat). Divide your rising action into three parts: introduction, a challenge or trick, then a reward. If you follow those with a climax and then a resolution, we can transform these things into—have you guessed it?—a five-room dungeon! Here’s a sample five-act hobgoblin battle you can tweak to fit your home game:
Act 1: Sortie
The heroes and their allies, if any, attack the hobgoblin legion.
Combat. The characters fight a Hard-difficulty encounter comprised of hobgoblins, some of which are mounted upon worgs, led by one or more hobgoblin captains. This battle is in conditions favorable to the PCs; flat terrain, no positions of ambush.
New Information. After overcoming this challenge, the characters or an ally of theirs assesses the strength of the hobgoblins and imparts grave news: the hobgoblin force is immense. Too large to take down. Their only hope is to break through the hobgoblin line and take out their warlord, who is leading from behind.
Decision. The characters are faced with two main courses of action. The main bulk of the hobgoblin army is crossing an open plain. The fights there will be deadly, but the path is tactically simple: just carve a path straight to the enemy. Alternatively, the party could travel through hazardous terrain like a dark forest, a rocky mountain pass, or an underground geothermal cavern in order to avoid the bulk of the army and reach the command area.
Act 2: The Journey
The heroes travel into another battle, this one even more challenging than the last, to reach the enemy commander.
Combat. The characters encounter another group of hobgoblins, this time with a new unit type, such as hobgoblin devastators or hobgoblin iron shadows. If they chose to travel across the open plain, this encounter should be beyond Deadly, but the terrain will be simple. If they chose to travel through the challenging terrain, the encounter should be between Hard and Deadly, but the terrain should give an advantage to the hobgoblins, such as affording them high ground that requires the heroes to climb or use spells to reach, places to launch sneak attacks from, or spiked pit traps that the characters can fall into mid-battle.
New Information. The characters learn the exact location of the warlord’s command post, and may even learn about its defenses, such as if it is a stone fortress or a command tent surrounded by palisades.
Decision. The characters have the option to take a short rest and recover their strength before the final battle, or press on before enemy scouts can alert the warlord’s command post of their approach.
Act 3: Treasure
The heroes’ latest battle has afforded them the spoils of war!
The enemies in Act 2 had some treasure that they were guarding, or magic items that they were using in combat, and now the characters can loot them and outfit themselves before the final conflict. Provide one uncommon item (or one rare consumable item) per character –1, and one rare item (or one very rare consumable). If this item requires attunement, it may drive the characters to take a short rest so that they can attune to it.
Act 4: Climactic Conflict
The heroes’ arrive at the hobgoblin warlord’s command post and prepare to strike a lethal blow to this army.
This act can be an entire session (or more) to itself, depending on the size of the warlord’s command post. If it’s a stone castle, then a sessions-long dungeon crawl may be the best approach. If it’s a fully stocked and outfitted war camp, then a stealthy infiltration might be in order. If it’s a simple command tent with a small honor guard and a few big beasties surrounding it (like war mammoths, perhaps?), then a head-on attack might be the most fun situation.
Combat. Regardless of how the characters arrive at the final battle, it should be a Deadly fight. If the characters allowed the scouts from Act 2 to report their advance, then the fight should be beyond Deadly, by as much as 100% of your XP budget, depending on how powerful your party is. If there are special hobgoblin units or allied beasts you haven’t used in the previous acts yet, bring them out. This is an explosive finale.
Ideally, the hobgoblin warlord should have lots of allies that can benefit from its Leadership trait, which will give you ample opportunity to roleplay its bloodlust, its cruelty towards its own kin, and the cult-like adoration its minions nevertheless show towards it.
Act 5: Resolution
The heroes prevailed! Or maybe they didn’t. Either way, it’s time to show them the consequences of their actions.
If the heroes defeated the hobgoblin warlord, really let them savor that victory. Show panic spread throughout their ranks as the entire army topples like a house of cards. In a strictly hierarchical society like the hobgoblins’, removing the kingpin can cause the entire system to devolve into chaos—until a new despot arises and solidifies their brutal rule. For now, though, let the players enjoy a moment of satisfaction. Some better treasure is in order, too! A handful of rare magic items, with maybe even a single very rare piece of loot in the mix.
If the heroes failed… things could go a lot of different ways. Failure takes many forms, and a TPK is only one of them. The characters could be captured and forced into slavery until they can find a way to escape. Perhaps they fled from the fight and fled through the forest to evade capture—but at the cost of their allies losing the larger battle. Regardless, it may be wise to avoid driving home just how badly the characters lost here, at the risk of turning a frustrating session into what Matt Colville calls a slog.
Pick up the devastation next week. Give yourself (and your players) some time to imagine what terrible things could be happening on the world at large as a consequence of their defeat last week. Find a way to turn that defeat into a new story.
Unique Battlefield Objectives
Earlier in this article, I talked about different win conditions. I mentioned that hobgoblins often attack in numbers too great to achieve a victory by merely routing them. Defeating their commander or capturing their stronghold is one way to secure victory, but it’s not the only way. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the end of this article, but unconventional win conditions is such a meaty topic, it could make a fine article of its own.
Hobgoblins are a fascinating foe, because so much of their power comes from numbers and tactics. Their stat blocks are only a fraction of the story they tell in combat—and the D&D books have precious little advice to give on how to make a jack-booted legion of fantasy stormtroopers memorable. Sometimes—and bear with me here—violence isn't the only answer. As Obi-Wan said, when faced with unstoppable odds, sometimes "You can't win. But there are alternatives to fighting."
Come back next week. There’ll be another story to tell.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two untamable worg whelps, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.