On to the more regular topics here, over the weekend I ran the first session of what is going to be an on-again off-again pathfinder game. Basically, I'm GMing and the players (currently only 2) are playing basically when we have time and if we want to. Nothing regular, nothing too indepth, just something to do when nothing else presents itself. This post isn't about that game though, but rather something that happened in the game that really just cements how presentation can change everything.
The scenario for the game is simple enough. The two players (a druid and a ranger) live in a logging village that is on the outskirts of a giant forest called the Elderwood. The Elderwood stretches for miles and miles and miles in all directions, and the village is responsible enough to not just go needlessly clear cutting, but they are making a small dent into the woods. The PCs do a bit of scouting, hunting, and general woodsman-ing for the village. The Elderwood is home to elves, orks, goblins, and a number of other nasty creatures including some bears, wolves, and other wild life.
This being the first session I decided to start small. While out hunting the PCs came across three goblins that were butchering a deer. Goblins being evil, the players ambushed the goblins killing two and one of them fleeing away. Not wanting the goblin to say, get a lot more goblins and cause problems for the town the PCs headed off after the surviving member (I basically based the goblins actions off the grunts in Halo. It seemed appropriate at the time.)
Following the goblin survivor the PCs come across two other goblins and a goblin dog in a clearing. The PCs strike first once again and the ranger shoots the goblin dog with an arrow. One of the goblin immediately runs out and hugs the dog (casting cure light wounds in the process). My players start accusing me of being an asshole and that I'm doing it wrong (all in a joking manner). What did I do?
What I Did
To be up front, I'm one of those people who can find certain depictions of deadly/dangerous/vile things to be cute. For example, I think Kog'maw from League of Legends is cute (at times.) And I think the picture of the goblin in the pathfinder beastiary is as well.
Because of this, and being that I was kind of tired and bleary, I was doing a few things without fully realizing it. For one, I referenced the goblin boot tracks as "cute little boot tracks" or something like that. In my defense, they were small boot prints running from a stream. I've heard parents say the same about kid tracks and some people equate small with cute. Part of how I was having the goblins act was small and adorable in a slapstick method. For example, when one of them got hurt, one of the others just flat out threw its hands in the air and ran. For that, like I said, I blame Halo which I was using as the basis of the action. The kicker though, was the goblin running out to hug it's injured dog. yes, to heal it. but still..
What does all this do? I humanized the goblins. Small, vile, wicked, neutral evil creatures that any adventurer worth their salt has probably killed by the score. I made them sentient living things and my players saw a brief moment of them as something other than Xp sacks. There is a reason that "kick the dog" (WARNING! TV TROPES LINK!) is considered a default evil action, and for a few moments there the PCs were left with the realization that they had just shot someone's dog from ambush and that that dog was loved by someone.
In the end it didn't matter. The goblin was still neutral evil. He abandoned his dog when the fighting got thick because he was a coward. But for a brief moment my players were faced with the fact that, objectively speaking (not considering goblins are evil) they were...well...dicks. Hence the accusations of trying to make them the bad guys (like a GM needs to make PCs the bad guys...)
What It Boils Down To
Essentially, my crime is that I didn't do the stock portrayal of goblins as vile nasty creatures. They're sentient and social. this means there has to be more to them than what we see a lot of the time. The thing is, unless you present that to your players they won't see it. Maybe this is good for your game. If you're running epic fantasy it might not do to humanize the goblins. However, for a dark fantasy game, it can be a good idea to do so. Who knows, maybe your PCs will think twice about just blindly assaulting a village after they see some kids crying over their dead dog and parents. Not for everyone, but it can be worth exploring at times.