Goblins: The Fungal Body Politic

Goblins: how do they work?

Okay, maybe this isn’t the Great Question of Our Time, but this is my airspace and I can write about goblins if I damn well please.

Goblins are a standard fantasy setting element deriving from folklore and more proximately (as with many other standard fantasy setting elements) from Tolkien.  Tolkien abandoned the term “goblin” after The Hobbit, though, preferring “orc.”  Goblins as gamers recognize them today spring largely from Gygax et. al.’s use of the species in as a common enemy for low-level players in Dungeons & Dragons.  The archetypical low-level D&D adventure features a handful of player characters sallying forth into a goblin warren to kill goblins and make off with goblin gold.

D&D has traditionally viewed goblins as fast-breeding humanoids, evil by definition, who salt away treasure and present an ideal target for adventuring parties looking for experience and gold.  This vision has a whole bunch of terrifying racist and colonialist implications, which others have critiqued in fictional form.  But what if we’ve been wrong about goblins all along?  What if evidence suggests goblins are much weirder than we thought?

Trawling around the internet last week, I found an old Daily MTG blog post about the creation of the Jund shard, a sub-world in Alara block and a bunch of you aren’t even reading this any more, you just see a string of “nerd nerd nerd” all along the screen.  Well, you’re the one who clicked on a link about goblins and fungi, so who’s the nerd now?

Still me, probably.

Anyway, I find worldbuilding in Magic: the Gathering interesting, so I read the article, and about halfway down the page, found the following quote:

High ground is bad; low ground is good. Dragons are aerial predators, and usually hunt at high elevations. Most goblins, who actually revere the thought of being eaten by dragons, live up on the mountain peaks, welcoming the draconic attention. Smarter prey species, such as humans, live in the relative safety of the bejungled valleys and lowlands (where they’re picked off by viashino and carnivorous plants instead).

Emphasis mine.

I hadn’t run across this particular piece of MTG lore previously, and it threw me.  Goblins don’t just revere the thought of being eaten by dragons, which would be weird enough—they’ve built an entire civilization on mountain peaks, the better to be so devoured.  What kind of even semi-intelligent organism would live in its apex predator’s habitat for purely ritual reasons?  Remember, we’re not talking about an occasional Moses-like quest up to the mountaintops to meet glory in a dragon gullet.  The article says “most goblins.”  And there are a lot of goblins!  That’s one thing goblins do: have a lot of themselves.

You can’t even explain this away by claiming this weird cultural quirk dooms goblins to extinction.  For one thing, cultures rarely doom themselves—the most obviously self-destructive ritual movements, like Shakerism, tend to be subcultural.  For another, the world in question, Jund, is described as being ruled by raw natural selection.  Nothing even slightly weak survives.  This is a realm of warrior kings and alligator men, carnivorous plants and enormous rhinoceroses.  So, if goblins exist here, it’s because they’re frighteningly well-suited for this environment.  And part of their being well-suited for this environment must involve being eaten by dragons.

Nor is this vision of goblinhood unique to this sub-sub-universe of the greater Magic: the Gathering cosmos.  Goblins exist in as many realms as elves, which is to say basically all of them, because elves are the meth of fantasy—an addictive chemical substitute for real excitement and novelty.  (Seriously.  Elves.  Not even once.)  (Except in Tolkien.  And Swanwick.  And dammit I’m just gonna pull a Whitman on this one, claim my right to self-contradiction, and return to my original argument.)  Wherever goblins appear in the Magic: the Gathering cosmos, they fit the same profile: insanely numerous, aggressive, and self-destructive.  Let me give you an example:

You don’t even need to read the text to understand what this card does: the chirurgeon is sawing off one goblin’s leg, while another goblin waits on crutches for his new leg.  The card lets you sacrifice goblins to help other creatures (the other creatures don’t even need to be goblins!)—which is a decent deal for a goblin player, because she’ll always have more goblins.  Or consider this card:

This one’s a little harder to understand just from the picture, but it isn’t that much harder.  Some goblins are trying to throw a comically huge Spy vs. Spy style bomb using a slingshot.  That’s a dumb idea, you may say.  The bomb could go off at any time!  And in fact this is true: when Goblin Bangchuckers tries to, you know, chuck bangs, you flip a coin, and if you lose the flip, the Bangchuckers kill themselves.

How is this a reasonable way to run a military?

Oh, they’re just goblins, you may say.  If you want artillery that works, call the dwarves!  Being bad at stuff is just a Goblin thing.  I mean, look at what happens when they do archaeology:

That’s an even less expressive picture, but, spoiler alert, goblins are horrible at archaeology.  A goblin archaeologist, presumably trained in the profession, stands a fifty percent chance of destroying whatever object he’s trying to unearth, a 50% chance of straight up killing himself, and a 0% chance of doing anything that you or I would call archaeology.  That’s even worse than Indiana Jones, who for all the justifiable criticism thrown his way has a 50% chance of actually retrieving the artifact he sets out to retrieve, and a 16.7% chance of getting it to a museum.  (Based on observable evidence from movies that actually exist, which is to say, RaidersTemple, and Crusade.)

How on Earth, any Earth, do creatures evolve that are so bad at everything they do?  You could say that goblins didn’t evolve—but Word of God, which is to say, Word of Designer, indicates that natural selection does in fact apply in at least some Magic: the Gathering universes.

I propose: a species like the goblin will only arise if its evolutionary strategy is dramatically different from that of a mammalian scavenger species (e.g. us).  In English, which I do speak occasionally: goblins only work if what would be bad performance in mammalian scavenger species is in fact good performance for them.  Some aspect of goblins’ evolutionary dynamic must force them to self-destructive behavior.

Perhaps goblins have huge clutch sizes, or fast reproductive cycles.  That would explain their aggressive behavior, since a rapidly reproducing species needs more space, and expansion will bring them into conflict with their neighbors.  But this theory doesn’t justify individual goblins’ self-destructive behavior.  Nor does it explain the relative absence of competent professionals among goblin ranks.  If the best even a professional chirurgeon can do is kill one goblin to save another, if an archaeologist stands a fifty percent chance of killing himself whenever he plies his trade, we’re either dealing with a species that is predetermined to be Bad at Stuff, or one with some reason not to regard death as a big deal.

Which brings us to fungi.

Mushrooms and the like reproduce sexually and asexually, using spores released from the fruiting body of the fungus.  Asexual reproduction means the fungus doesn’t have much reason to care for its individual survival: its clones endure alongside its children.  The fungus is primarily concerned, to the extent anything concerns a fungus, with the question of spore dispersal.

Let’s ponder, for a moment, the kind of culture an ambulatory fungus might construct.  Individual fruiting bodies would probably seem, to us, utterly unconcerned with their own survival when confronted with large-scale dispersive destruction.  Struck with a fireball, or blown up by your own bomb?  No problem!  The force of the blast spreads your spores over the battlefield.  Chopped up by a surgeon to patch up some other creature (not necessarily a goblin)?  Great!  The new creature will carry you around for the rest of its life, dispersing your spores on the way.  Killed in battle?  Your spore-laden blood sticks to your adversary’s boots—and when she washes off in the nearest river, the current will carry your spores to unknown lands.  Eaten by a dragon?  Best of all possible worlds.  Assuming that your spores are resistant to a dragon’s intestinal juices, which is not implausible, being devoured by a dragon is a one-way ticket to dispersal throughout the plane—or even to other planes, if you’re very lucky, since some dragons have magical powers, including in some cases the power to shift from one universe to another.

Such an organism might even have a dramatically different sense of what being “good” at a trade might mean.  We want our doctors to heal us so we can continue our daily business, with an eye toward eventually reproducing in safety—an ambulatory fungus wants a doctor to help it disperse.  Our bombers want to survive; for an ambulatory fungus of the sort we’re imagining here, dying in a giant explosion is a good outcome.  The fungus we envision does not sow or reap.  It fights because battle is an efficient reproductive strategy.  Whatever it does, it does in a way that maximizes its potential spore dispersal.

This species sounds an awful lot like the goblins described above.  And Fungus Theory explains some other oddities of the species—for example, the fact that Magic: the Gathering goblins lack obvious primary or secondary sexual characteristics, and that a search of Gatherer, the database of all Magic: the Gathering cards, reveals a single nominally female goblin, the Goblin Matron, whose card art conveys no biological gender markers whatsoever.  “Matron” might be a purely social role in the Goblin community, that of an enabler of goblin reproduction.  Much more sensible if goblins are fruiting fungal bodies.

Seen in this light, rather than a designated target for “virtuous” adventurers engaged in campaigns of extermination and colonization, goblins become a complex, practically immortal species radically alien from the hominidae they regularly fight.  Goblins obviously wouldn’t be forthcoming about this difference—their long-term reproductive strategy relies on humanoids treating them as humanoids.  To a goblin, the human birth-death reproductive cycle would seem crude and disgustingly slow, the human insistence on throwing themselves into battle without promise of clone-resurrection borderline psychotic.  Goblins’ role as fantasy cannon fodder serves to spread their species to undreamt of realms and alien shores.  Who knows how many million goblins have spread to strange new worlds as a spore in an adventurer’s boot, as a growth on dragon fewmets, as a dried speck of blood on a planeswalker’s trouser cuff?

Consider the perspective of the goblin, suicidally immortal.  Humans build their tiny cities, dwarves delve, elves frolic in treetops.  But goblins thrive everywhere.  They always have been, and will always be.

Or don’t, and enjoy your Designated Antagonist Species.  I like my option better.

Thanks to Daniel Jordan, for the critical logical leap underpinning this essay.

Also: looking for a good Halloween read?  I just finished Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which is delightfully creepy, and contains some cool theory-of-mind loop-de-loops to boot.  Many folk seem to find Watts’ vision bleak; I don’t, which maybe means I’m more cynical than I thought?  Anyway.  Give it a shot, especially if you’re interested in science fiction as the realm of the Big, Old, and Weird.

38 Responses to “Goblins: The Fungal Body Politic”

  1. elizabeth

    the best goblins are ursula vernon’s. go read nine goblins. it’s short – I’ll just wait here.

    • max

      Evidence of my foolishness: I did not know Vernon did prose fiction as well! Digger’s one of my favorite comics of all time; I’ll have to scuttle off and read her books now.

      • Mary Beth

        She self-published Nine Goblins under the name T.A. Kingfisher, along with a new collection of short stories, Toad Words and Other Stories. Highly recommended!

  2. Ricardo Alves Junqueira Penteado

    Great article!

    This was one of the best ways I’ve seen it explained, but it’s not a new idea.

    I believe you would really love to get acquainted with Da Boyz:

    • max

      Excellent! I’ve only ever operated on the periphery of 40k space; Django Wexler mentioned this on Twitter a few minutes ago. I love the consensus reality psychic powers (of course yellow rockets go more boom!). I think there’s a sliver of daylight between the Orks and what I’m describing above—mostly in that orks seem to have a slightly more traditional relationship with death, compared to the functional immortality of the goblins I’m describing above—but the 40k ecosystem makes a ton of sense, and captures most of my objections to the traditional goblin. Neat!

      Do you know if the fungal spore earth-womb ecosystem detail predates Tyranids and the Creep? I know 40k is pre-Starcraft, but I’m wondering about that specific setting element.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Ricardo Alves Junqueira Penteado

        I just checked it now to make sure and, from what I’ve seen, the timeline is Orks as funghi, ‘Nids and Zergs’ Creep.

        There are some slight differences, such as the spores that create orks also being responsible for “orkforming” planets, creating a whole new fauna and flora, and orks seem slightly – very slightly! – less ok with the idea of dying.

        The BL novel “Imperial Glory” shows orks’ reproductive cycle very well if you’re interested… and that is the kind of thing I’d never thought I’d write.

        But all in all I really liked to see the way you proposed the idea, and am sure to work it as a speech by an Inquisitor in my next WH40K RPG campaign. =)

        Thanks for answering!

        It’s always a pleasure reading both your books and blog!

        • max

          I’ll have to check out that novel—how do you think it rates on the Mohs “comprehensibility for someone without much 40k exposure” scale?

          Thanks for reading!

        • Ricardo Alves Junqueira Penteado

          I may not be the most well-suited person to answer that, but if you know what a lasgun and a commissar are, you’ll have no problem.

          Hope you enjoy it!

  3. Mary Beth

    I don’t play MTG or D&D, and have rarely ever thought of goblins before, but this was a delightful read. Star Wars is bees, goblins are fungi–what next?

    • max

      Everything is everything else! Kidding aside, Django Wexler and I were tossing back and forth the concept of adventurer-ness as being a symptom of a toxoplasma gondii-like parasite—watch this space!

      • Zynischer

        Ah. You got here first.
        I like this idea, too.

      • Mary Beth

        T. gondii reproducing only within the intestines of cats makes a great deal of sense too, if the parasitic version of goblins reproduce only within the digestive tract of dragons. I see your point about the other self-destructive tendencies though!

  4. Paul Weimer

    Goblins as fungoids. This is scarily brilliant, Max.

    • max

      I can’t claim sole credit—my initial thoughts, on reading about the goblin-dragon relationship on Jund, was either extreme sexual dimorphism in a hypothetical (goblin-dragon) umbrella species, or some sort of toxoplasma gondii-like parasite. Friend Dan proposed a more generalizable “fruit theory,” which was expanded to the current fungus theory during conversation with Ian McLean, who pointed out that for the theory to be persuasive it needed to take into account goblins’ general penchant for self-destuction.

      • Someguy

        It’s well thought-out, but it’s lampshading the root of this “behavior” when it comes to MtG: Goblins were a creature-type that were based on the mechanic of sacrificing their card for a desired effect. You could have renamed them “Lemmingoids” and had the same discussion, since this behavior is largely limited to MtG.

        • Matt Morgan

          No; there is a serious logical problem in D&D, for anyone who might stop to think of it (which is silly of course), which is: why are all these things fighting us, against such long odds? Why don’t they just run away when the heavily armed and armored party of adventurers threaten? Often, for D&D to work and be fun, the adventurers have to face a lot of battles, each of which individually they can win, but in sum are difficult.

          This solves that problem; goblins pursue violent death because it’s part of their life cycle. Doesn’t totally explain why they fight, however (but maybe they wouldn’t mind getting the gold for their spore offspring in the process).

  5. BSD

    This explains why they pile up those hoards of gold. Hoards of gold attract dragons and adventurers alike and, in the latter case, get spread around quite quickly. Exploding messily in the treasure room is a great reproductive outcome for a goblin.

  6. Zynischer

    Makes me ponder parasitic behavior – which could have some very interesting affects on the dragons… (if you are playing in a flexible enough system, or storyline an anomoly, etc…)


    • max

      Yes! Toxoplasma gondii is relevant here, as are the various cordyceps. This would be an immensely fun game to play.

  7. mordicai

    The print book about Alara is really worth picking up; I’m not a Magic: the Gathering guy but I am a worldbuilding guide, & it is a good display of the craft.

  8. Cyril Germain

    Actually I disagree with the idea than the MTG/Jund Goblins isn’t a viable evolutionnary strategy. In a world where absolutely everything (dandelion included) can kill you, being on high ground, where the only predator are the dragons, may cut the losses by a fair amount. They “just” need to outbreed the dragons appetite.

    • max

      That’s a good point—though, as you note, it depends on the comparative rate of goblin reproduction to loss to dragon appetite. If dragons have the metabolic load we’d expect for flying, fast-moving, firebreathing megafauna, they’d probably eat a *lot* of goblins. Then again, it’s possible dragons just don’t *like* eating goblins very much. Maybe the reason being eaten by a dragon is such a badge of honor for goblins is that dragons hate the taste of goblin, and as such any goblin annoying enough to cause a dragon to eat him (or her) must be a great goblin indeed! Or perhaps dragons have a lower than expected metabolic load, don’t eat more than one goblin at a time—and as such a goblin who sacrifices himself by forcing a dragon to eat him (thereby sparing the rest of the clan) is a self-sacrificing hero.

      I still think fungal goblin theory has the advantage of explaining goblins’ self-destructive tendencies—but you do have a point that there may be other explanations for their opting to live near dragons on Jund.

  9. brandon

    It’s a shame you’ve just missed BAHFest 2014.

  10. Elizabeth Bear

    The mountain-top thing dragon also makes sense if they’re just *infected* with a fungus that co-opts their nervous system to make them render themselves up to be eaten. Like the zombie insect fungi.

    • max

      Yes! *Cordyceps goblinii*! I really need to write that Player Character / Intestinal parasite essay.

      • Intellectus_Speculativus

        Although one then has to wonder how it becomes a global, and indeed cross-planar, infection, since goblins across (virtually?) all the planes MtG has explored so far share the same death-embracing tendencies

  11. Kevin Kelleher

    Since Alara there have been other instances of “female” goblins in MtG: Mad Auntie and Wort, Boggart Auntie. [http://magiccards.info/query?q=mad+auntie&v=card&s=cname] [http://magiccards.info/lw/en/252.html]

    • max

      Good point. While this is a bit of a stretch, I think my reasoning re: Goblin Matron still applies, I think—we don’t see many biological gender markers on either card. We’re drawing conclusions based on dress—which might be misleading.

  12. joeinformatico

    I found this especially amusing, since my main MtG deck right before I stopped playing the game a decade ago was a red/green deck stacked mostly with goblins and thallids–the sentient fungi of Alara.

  13. Max Saltonstall

    Lovely use of fewmets…

  14. Bill in San Francisco

    Sir Terry Pratchett did a good job with elves. They’re nasty, brutish, and short.

  15. Fizban

    I think you may have missed the cart art for the Fallen Empires version of ‘Goblin Warrens’, which shows a pretty female looking goblin in terms of chestiness.

  16. Lazy Reading for 2014/11/02 – DragonFly BSD Digest

    […] Goblins: The Fungal Body Politic.  Fun if you are the right kind of nerd.  (via) […]


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