A sample with "Professor Gobby says:" (the shaman is wearing a washboard/academic cap): "As a Shaman, you prime attribute is wisdom. To be a shaman, you must have a minimum WIS of 9. As a Shaman, you may wear armor attuned to the god you worship."

Those Pesky Goblinz by Justin LaNasa

Hot off the presses, the nuTSR group (TSR LLC, Dungeon Hobby Shop Museum LLC, Justin LaNasa) has released a “new” product… weeks ahead of the opening for pre-order date, by listing it on Amazon via their Print On Demand service. It is unclear why they opted to do both print-on-demand and a pre-order bulk print system… but that’s the least of the problems.

The product is, in summary: an playable mess of useless gibberish that radiates contempt for creators of role-playing games, for people who enjoy role-playing games and that mostly showcases the inadequacies and insecurities of the creator. It’s also an interesting study in when a rip-off reaches the point of copyright infringement through being an unauthorized derivative work.

David Flor has done a great job in breaking down many of the failings in a Twitter thread here, and Tom has done a feature.

So I wanted to talk about some of the more complex issues that don’t fit into 280 characters or reasonable sized videos (let me know if you think I should do a Noah Caldwell-Gervais style essay).

Redundant

The book’s greatest sin is that it has been completely redundant for about forty years. It presents mostly as a poor rip off of Men & Magic, the proto-type Players Handbook in the Dungeons & Dragons White Box – though adds rogues and few elements that weren’t available until later editions. The “twist” is “what if evil goblins” which is generally the first thing that springs to mind for an edgy teenager wanting to act up without getting in trouble.

On top of that, goblins are perhaps one of the most beloved and iconic creatures in fantasy… there are countless games around playing a goblin (or a kobold) and it has even extended into the computer game format with a wide variety of goblins… ranging from rat people, to a bald murderer, to a terrible goose.

This video itself is a better and more enjoyable treatise on goblins that Those Pesky Goblins will ever be.

This, however, is a game that pretty much completely fails to embrace the joy of going goblin mode -mostly through wild variations in tone. The cover depicts them as thieving little scamps, the warrior entry depicts them as taking joy murdering people in their sleep, the shaman entry and the module suggest they’re networked in with “evil” – playing cards with undead and making deals with cults, and the module also suggests they see funeral pyres as sort of buffet – and one of the random items of “loot” is a baby.

Much more practical alternatives include:

  • If you personally just want to be a little shit… see the Polygon video above
  • If you want to play the underdogs getting revenge: Revenge of the Kobolds (4E)
  • If you want silliness of inept little monsters trying so hard: Kobolds Ate My Baby! (Store)
  • Just make your own homebrew using the monster entry for goblins as a guide

Unplayable

The game is, simply put, not a game if you treat it as a self-contained product. If you are unfamiliar with Dungeons and Dragons from prior to 3rd Edition, this product will be incomprehensible. Even if you are familiar with those products, you will not be able to play it without having them on hand to refer to and in fact, using them in lieu of the book.

Justin, above with the AD&D Monster Manual, seems to have check AD&D books during the playtesting of this game and hence forgot to include the rules in the game.

Perhaps the funniest and best example of this is the Shaman class and everything that relates to it – so I’ll be using it as my general go to and featuring examples.

Incomplete

There is are only eight pages of core rules, and that space is squandered on complications that are added, but never elaborated on, mostly in the form of tables that are completely incomprehensible without referencing other books by other publishers who definitely did not give Justin the right to use their material, or have any desire to be associated with him.

The Shaman class is significantly defined, both in fluff and in rules, by their connection to goblin gods and their ability to “befriend undead”. Neither of these is even vaguely well explained to any useful degree.

The Befriend Undead table is pretty transparently the Cleric vs The Undead Table from Men & Magic with the axis inverted and the names of the creatures reduced to two letters to enable it… but without knowing that it’s incomprehensible and it still somehow uses the T and D reference. There is nothing about if the undead are really your friends, swayed temporarily by magic, etc. Quite the oversight considering there are story relevant undead with clear backstories in the module.

The "You vs The guy she tells you not to worry about" meme with the Befriend Undead table ("use 2d6") "Level" "SK, ZO, GH, WI, WR, MU, SP, VA" and the numbers being in the reverse pattern to the "Cleric vs Undead Monsters" table which includes the full names "Skeleton, Zombie, Ghoul, Wight, Wraith, Mummy, Spectre, Vampire" with instructions on how the 2d6 work and a key for other notes.
From: Those Pesky Goblinz (2023) page 12 & Men & Magic (1974) page 22.

The only immediate reference to their god, is that that can only wear armour “attuned” to their god… there is nothing about what that means, what limitations there are – so if you rolled the Sentry background you could be in the third best tier of goblin armours anyway.

Later in the Goblin Magic section, it also clarifies that the Shaman must make blood sacrifices (creatures with souls) ever New Moon but does not clarify which creatures have souls, or what happens if a Shaman fails to do so… or even what the sacrifice must entail (is the altar you can create via a spell necessary?) or if different goblin gods have preferences etc. This is a lot of missing information and ambiguity for a “must” aspect.

At least you will get to kill someone right? Maybe not. Sure you have a stick you can hit them with… and you can befriend some undead… but like… x of the NPCs have an Armor Class of “?”. So, I guess we can assume there was no playtesting of this module in its current state, which is probably how they overlooked giving every NPC an adventurer class including a ones with no goblin analogy, such as monk.

Low quality

The layout sucks, the overall composition of the document sucks, its full of oversights and there are basic spelling, grammar and communication errors everywhere. There is also this weird gimmick where sometimes they use a z for an s, but not consistently.

A simple example is if you roll 17 for your background, you will be issued a slur for the Romani people that begins with G (you know the one), an additional “1 hex per day” movement (this is never explained and the map included has no hexes) and essentially the equipment you see on the iconic shaman – a staff and a “holy relic (turns undead as 3rd level cleric, 2D6 times before disintegrating)”.

Or if you roll a 1… you can get two traitz… and then a 1 again… 3… you’re probably thinking that’s not an issue because that’s a 1 in 400 chance but it does raise the issue of what if it happens after you tell someone to make their character at home, or what do you do about it if it does?

But believe it or not, it actually gets worse. Looking through the matter, you might notice that your level cap is 8 – unlike every other class that has a level cap of 10, and only 3 of the 8 undead you can supposedly “befriend” (or “turn” if you have that relic) appear in the dual purpose Encounter Table/monster listing (zombie, skeleton and ghoul… there are shadows but no “befriend” score).

Looking to your magic it quickly becomes more absurd with the introduction explaining material components for Wizards and then “The only item for a shaman to cast his spell is the holy symbol of his god.”. But once you read the listings, a staggering 12 of the 25 Shaman spells require material components with some being things like unicorn or dragon blood. The “Raise Monster” spell also uses a 9th level Shaman as an example… even though the levels stop at 8.

At this point, you may also discover that “Control Undead” is top level spell… and be confused why you would bother or what the benefit is over the “Befriend Undead” ability – and you’re just going to have to use your imagination to work that out because the book won’t tell you.

Now to talk about the “loot” system and how it’s just, shit… like for a game where you’d expect a lot of it to be ransacking there’s mostly just a generic list of magic items which seem to include references to Justin, Ernie and Duck. It’s so completely unsuitable for the starter module, the module comes with it’s own loot table which is also shit.

So, you’re out there on the quest for the sexy magic beer “stine”… yes spelled like the famous author.

Three images in a row "Sexy Stein", a historic and very elaborate beer stein with classic Roman legend type figures on it. A photo of RL Stine holding up "Goosebumps, Slappy Beware! by R.L. Stine" and a photo of a young womanw ith dark hair and similar glasses to him in lingerie, "Sexy R.L. Stine."
Sources: Bridgeman Images, R.L. Stine on Twitter (@RL_Stine) and ❤ JVD on Twitter (@JennVanDamsel)

Picture it… you break into a house, and there’s skeletons – the rotted remains of the residents who’d been locked in there when they succumbed to a magic curse/plague, having withered away to mere bones. Your companions run but you stand your ground an befriend the undead. Now safe, you loot the house, your GM rolls the d100 to see what you get. Possibilities include: a small puppy dog (7), a lovely squash (47), a poisonous snake (60), a piglet (68), a pack mule (69), an excellent sheppard’s pie (91), a cow (93), or… a tiny baby sleeping in a crib (89).

Cannibalism issues aside… imagine being the GM who has to spin a lore explanation for this.

Better be careful though, ’cause this tiny village spawns infinite random encounters. But not the standard random encounters… of which there are 30 equally likely possibilities… no clarification on how you’re supposed to roll that unless you’ve got a d30…. guess the table was made by noted nuTSR writer and creator of the “Official D30 System”, Dave Johnson.

Nothing to do

Okay, so you’ve set up your character and you’re going to go on an adventure? Probably not.

The example module, aside from being incomplete and a recycling of another bad product, is both incredibly boring in that it has nothing to provide any sort of narrative hook or even be consistent with the supposed theme of you being an “exceptional” goblin. You’re sent with a bunch of regular goblins to raid a dying town, steal whatever you can and particularly the “stine” which… has the ability to detect orcs and glows red if they’re lady orcs.

The "Tonight's Episode: The Writer's Barely-Disguised Fetish"/Police Squad meme image.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

There’s no way or reason to engage with the cult, and no information about what kind of adventures you might plan to make for yourself as goblins other than become the goblin king…. who is apparently always a rogue/wizard (I’m sure it’s a coincidence that suggests he’s a Pure White goblin) so is that really a good aspiration for a Shaman? What about the rest of the party.

There’s no gods for you to win the favour of… the only named gods in the whole thing are Thor and Odin. No expectations set about starting your own tribe, or becoming an overlord or expanding the territory of goblinkind. It tells you that you’re exceptional… but gives no real goal to aspire to… can you become a cult leader? A goblin god? A demon?

You just have to write that part of the book for yourself – because the only possibilities that seem to be explored in the material are “raid villages” and “become goblin king”… and I think by the time you’re a max level shaman you should have higher aspirations and be able to outsource the raiding stuff.

Worst path to everything

When you buy a role-playing game product, there is a kind of unspoken expectation that what you are paying for is not just the idea (which you can get by looking at the cover) but the hard work and expertise in doing the drudge work so you can do the fun bits. There is an expectation they’ll work out a good way to do the system, a foundation for you to build your stories on and do playtesting or at least calculating to lower your barriers to enjoyment. Not so with Those Pesky Goblins. In fact, quite the opposite.

Literally everything in this book suffers from a weird fetish with taking on the most annoying aspect of old school Dungeon & Dragons to make things overly complicated. Rather than simply use to hit bonuses, it’s got ThAC10’s that are sometimes listed inline, sometimes need to be calculated based on the hit dice – and most “encounters” have “special” that will require the GM to crunch things and invent rules for themselves… thus defeating the point of having an easy table.

"Die roll to score a hit (use 1d20)" Table which is a complicated mess of trying to combine all the possible AC from 9 - 0 with all the class levels, regular goblin and "Opponent HD"
Columns are not clear, and there are not part shading guides to make it easier to navigate the tables.
Most old school players agreed “The tables were unnecessarily complicated.”, Justin said “Hold my beer.”

There are Treasure Types available, but its unclear if you’re supposed to use the D&D types or just improvise… and you’d have to break up the tables yourself because magic items table is intended to be rolled 1-200, not within the sub categories that make it suitable for different treasure types.

NPCs in the module are given adventurer levels, with no explanations – but randomly generated loot that can range from magic items to babies, so the GM is going to have to improvise basically everything important and difficult stuff but gets some mediocre fantasy names that could have been easily generated on the fly. But then then Justin would not have been able to include his inept attempt at spiting Don Semora in there…. and he would probably have had to write a module for himself.

There are constant ambiguities in it that mean the GM either needs to re-write, or do extensive lore creation to justify even a background roll. For example, if your shaman rolls “Noble” how does that effect their standing as a Shaman? Why do they have a horse if goblins fear horse blood? Should the horse be replaced with a worg or other monster mount? If so, how do you balance that?

And just to be clear, these kind of things can be fun and people might even like to have them in there for purposes of fiction writing and exploration but you don’t really get a say in any of it, you’re just told to roll on a table and if your character comes out complete gibberish it’s your job to sort it out for the GM.

If you rolled the Barkeep background- doesn’t the presence of a bartender with “fine spirits” in goblin society indicate a certain level of sophistication that is inconsistent with them crawling out of caves to raid villages? (If it doesn’t… Alchemist and Engineer certainly do) Does it indicate its a family profession? Do they work the bar between raids? How do goblins ranging from vagabond, to bartender to noble all end up in one raiding party? How big is the tribe to sustain all these positions?

There’s a further issue of the issues the traitz raise themselves. Rolling a 1 gives you an extra trait, but some traits are mutually exclusive. “Unnaturally Strong” and “Unnaturally Weak”, “Shorter” and “Taller”, “Pure White Goblin” and “Pure Black Goblin”. The Pure White Goblin specifies they’re tasty, so most other beings want to eat or attack them… but like… does that apply to elves?

All these issued raised by the “background” being a random roll and the “traitz” being a random roll as well could simply be resolved by letting players pick traits and starting kits to best fit their idea for their character. Instead what you have is a mess that creates confusion, unbalance and may be novel the first time you do it but will quickly become tedious and lead to massive issues between characters as well as between players when someone is “just lucky” with their rolls nobody sees.

Rip Off

There is very little original content in this book, and what little there is – is bad – it has approached ripping off other products and materials with the same energy a competent creator might approach exploring a new idea, and that’s entirely predictable for Justin.

Men & Magic (Book 1 of III in the original White Box)

The book is similar in production – being the introduction to the product and existing primarily around the creation of characters up to 10th level, with information on equipment, abilities, spells, etc. available and even the same table relating to undead… just with flipped axis. Why? Probably for a claim that this is the “pure” form of D&D but also so that, like Stephen Dinehart, he can deflect criticism by claiming people “just don’t know how D&D started”.

One notable point though is that Men & Magic, despite being a rushed prototype into a bold new genre of games, is a much, much more complete and coherent document. It tells you what your character will be when they start, what they might become, and general guides to how to think about them. Everything it adds, it explains – unlike Those Pesky Goblinz.

It was also written to be one of three books you would use to play the game, with the other two being for the DM to work out how to create adventures and have an inventory of monsters and treasures available.

Basic Dungeons & Dragons

D&D history fans will remember that initially there was not thief/rogue archetype – it was just Fighting-Man, Cleric and Magic-User. So they’ve had to dip into the Basic Dungeons & Dragons box, for a few things and it shows. Due to laziness, Justin didn’t bother to check all the abilities and simply announced that they were rolls a d100, seeing that many of them were % signs.

However, in basic… Hear Noise was rolled on a d6 (it changed to standard percentage in AD&D), and the rules specified… Justin didn’t, and so has created (as David pointed out) a species of deaf goblins.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition

However, not being content with having ripped off two historically significant texts – Justin delves into the realm of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for no other reason it seems other than those were the books that were in front of him on the day.

This obvious first in the area of attributes – where Original D&D and Basic D&D were very simple, AD&D has many extra sub-attributes that spawn from your original attributes. Constitution doesn’t just dictate your hit points, but also your odds of being raised from the dead or surviving going into shock. So too in Those Pesky Goblins… well theoretically.

Like, the entries are there on the tables, but he hasn’t bothered to explain.

Similarly, he seems to have tried to import the spellcasting system from AD&D for unclear reasons. For the uninitiated, AD&D famously did it’s absolute best to drown spellcasters in administration. Spells suddenly had added both a casting time, and components. Components were straight forward and I’ve already covered, but casting time is where got nightmarish.

They would roll initiative (1d6 for the party, 1d6 for the monsters) then apply modifiers for that round so you would then have to work out:

  • What segment (1/10th of a minute) you started casting
  • If there were any modifiers to the casting time (such as retrieving a material component from a backpack)
  • What segment you finished casting (and if it went into the next round)

Why? So that parties who would take their actions between when you started and when you finished would have the opportunity to move, die or interrupt your casting by doing damage to you (thus preventing the casting of the spell, and making to forfeit the slot).

None of this is elaborated on in Those Pesky Goblins, but with no elaboration on it the work or exploration into how this would impact gameplay…. is life not hard enough for a goblin wizard?

Speaking of goblin magic, while the intro is unique and the stats for duration, components etc are different… the descriptions… well.

  • Fire Fingers uses an abbreviated version of the text for Burning Hands
  • Sense Magic used the first two sentences of Detect Magic (Cleric)
  • Fools Gold is an extremely abbreviated but functionally identical version of the same spell
  • See History of Magic Item is a clumsy, abbreviated version of Identify with one sentence added to justify the title of the spell
  • Open essentially has the same description as Knock
  • Magic Lock essentially has the same description as Wizard Lock
  • And so on and so forth…

Basically it’s AD&D spellcasting but with a much more limited list that has lots of errors.

Cult of Abaddon

The module provided at the back is largely copy-paste of the original module donated by Vincent “The Evil DM” Florio for publication… which doesn’t appear to ever have been widely distributed to those who pre-ordered (I got my copy from Vincent during the brief window he was undercutting their sales via offering pdfs of the module… it’s also not very good).

Modifications seem to be creating a random encounter table… that essentially means there are infinite enemies spawning in this small village that is dying of a curse, giving all village members adventurer class levels, the sexy stein and making one of them a pathetic attempt to mock Don Semora of Wizard Toward Games.

Now, from a intellectual property perspective this is minimally important, since Vincent has gone on the record that it was “donated” and clearly doesn’t want to challenge anything – but it speaks to the sheer laziness and low standards that they didn’t even either remove or engage with the story of the original.

So what “Original Content” is there?

There are bits and pieces of original content such as Justin’s weird foreword, the introduction, the traitz table, the little mini-fics to introduce the iconic character for each class (never mentioned again), “Professor Gobby says” bits, and the “Goblin Magic”

The write up for Goblin magic is kind of original, though unworkable (as covered above) and the spells are generally all either extremely similar to or, at best, substantially different versions of D&D spells. In a forty-eight page book, there’s probably not even twenty pages of original content.

Admittedly the claim that it uses “pivot points” to achieve “Gygaxian gameplay” and encourage your evil goblin to be heroic is pretty original. True fans know real Gygaxian gameplay is hiding a secret door in a pit trap, and killing off party members because you think it’ll be funny (or you just are tired and don’t want to run any more of the adventure).

So is it illegal/actionable?

Maybe.

Now it is true that systems and the basic data in those systems cannot be copyrighted, just like an art style cannot. This seems to be a think that Justin is aware of, but does not understand.

Wizards of the Coast cannot copyright any of the systems used to reach outcomes in D&D, they can’t copyright the concept of goblins and they can’t copyright the concept of a spell that lets you detect if an item is magical, another that tells you how it is magical and another to open a door so you can leave with the item.

But, what they can own is the substantial body of work that goes into expressing the system – the text explaining how the game is played, the summary of what a goblin is in this particular instance, the wording in the spell.

A situation like this would involve a complicated legal analysis by copyright lawyers, looking into the specific case law as it applies to their jurisdiction, so the following is the broad strokes.

Probably a derivative work

Based on the heavy referencing to D&D in it, the use of identical or near identical terminology and that the game is essentially unplayable without a sound knowledge of D&D my first thought is there is a fair chance that this is an unauthorized derivative work, and hence, in breach of copyright.

Derivative works are a very complex issue and one that is, every day, more commonly being misunderstood as people try to justify stomping out what meagre earnings artists obtain through replacing them with AI, and then mocking them for being poor.

But, in summary, it directly lifts heavily from Dungeons & Dragons with no proper purpose, with the intention on creating a work that will essentially be competing in the market. That alone gives Wizards of the Coast a sound basis to raise it as a breach.

There are a few ways I see them escaping liability for it though, none of them flattering though.

It may lack sufficient substance

Given that the game is essentially unplayable, it could be argued that the use of D&D to make it playable is just an assumption and that since the bits used are mostly just generic terms, and technical descriptions – there is not actually enough of the creative material in there to warrant unauthorised use of the work.

After all one of the points they are correct on is you can’t just copyright a couple of words together like “hit points”, “armour class”, “system shock”, etc and given the book doesn’t include examples of play, or anything beyond technical statements – its areas on gameplay etc may not be a substantial enough portion of the work.

For example, Roy Lichtenstein’s WHAAM! has been published countless times with no consultation of DC Comics or Irv Novick simply because devoid of the rest of the context of the story, it was considered to be outside the scope of a copyright claim.

It may be too shit

Closely following the possibility that it is too insubstantial is that the court may agree that Justin is attempting to copy classic D&D but is failing to such an extent that he has not created a work that is substantially similar enough to warrant a breach of copyright.

That is to say that if any reasonable person were to look at it, they would not consider it to be either a D&D product or even something that could infringe on their market or reflect on the brand.

And I mean, if you think about it… they wouldn’t be wrong. Nobody is going to look at this product and think it’s a suitable replacement for D&D, particularly since they want $15-$20.00 for it and you can buy the basic D&D set in pdf form for $5 or just use the SRD 5.1 to make you own goblin game for free.

Redundant

After Justin decided to escalate his lawsuit from the trademark office (where all that was at stake was a few trademarks) to federal court (where everything is on the table), Wizards of the Coast sensibly decided to go after his rip-off company for everything its worth and ever will be worth… so any damages they could recoup via copyright action would be the same money that they’re getting via the other legal action, but at the cost of extra court fees.

That is, honestly, probably the biggest factor that’s likely to make them refrain from taking action – they have already won, Justin just doesn’t know it yet.

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