Tabletop Thoughts: Playing Goliaths
Posted on June 8, 2019
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Welcome to our third Tabletop Thoughts post, where we pick apart the racial abilities of playable races in 5th edition D&D and build interesting and unusual race-class combos.
If you’re new to these posts and want to start with the first one (Mountain Dwarves), you can check it out here!
Being a Goliath
Right, let’s get started!
From gnomes to goliaths; tiny to huge; friendly to grumpy; chaotic to lawful.
Goliaths are huge humanoids who tend to live high up in the mountains. How high up, you ask? Well, think of an altitude at which it’s so cold, your breath freezes so you can’t really breathe. Then add another 100ft.
As you might expect, this has had some interesting impacts on goliath culture and society:
- Goliaths live a life of constant challenge. Basic essentials are scarce where they live and most of their time is spent searching for food, shelter or water.
- Self-sufficiency is demanded of goliaths by both their surroundings and their tribe. If you can’t look after your own needs at a minimum, the tribe will abandon you to the freezing wilds.
- Individual skill is highly regarded. Goliath society is fiercely competitive, driven by a constant focus on everyone pulling their own weight.
- Goliaths judge one another on talent, skill and dedication. The sharp distinctions between male and female or noble and peasant that pervade other societies make no sense in goliath culture. The best should do the jobs they are best at, be that leading, hunting, trading or fighting, regardless of age, social status or gender.
- Weak goliaths are cast out by their tribes and permanently injured goliaths are expected to leave the tribe, though minor injuries are tended to by default.
- With this in mind, most goliaths seek to die in battle, or while achieving an important goal, rather than suffering the fate of old age and infirmity.
- Because of this, you don’t tend to see many elderly goliaths, although they can live as long as humans.
As you can see, they’re a pretty friendly bunch! They’re also huge, standing 7 to 8 feet tall. They weigh in at 300-400lbs and have grey, rock-like skin. They are often depicted as bald, tattooed and incredibly muscly. They are far from a familiar sight in the towns and cities of Faerûn and they don’t tend to interact with other groups or races, mostly for geographic reasons. Their size means that other races consider them imposing and slightly intimidating, so they make good guards and bouncers. A goliath shopkeeper might well find that they don’t need to hire any security—a steely glare and an axe mounted behind the counter will do the trick. In spite of all this, goliaths are not generally viewed with suspicion or dislike, though they do have a reputation for being unwilling to help lost or injured travellers who have stumbled into their territory.
Roleplaying a Goliath
The culture, values and general outlook of Goliath society provide a rich seam of opportunities for roleplaying a goliath character. Some options include:
- You keep count of the total number of kills accrued by each of your party members, striving to catch up if you fall behind, or boasting about your high score if you pull ahead (think Gimli and Legolas in LotR).
- You recognise your role in the group and take it incredibly seriously. You’re the party healer? No one is falling on your watch. Expert grappler? Every enemy is getting pinned so your allies can finish them off.
- You might comment on teammates who you feel let the party down. If your leader chooses a poor course of action, perhaps someone else should lead?
- You’re generally blind to race, gender and appearance, which can lead to awkward situations when you confuse dwarves with gnomes, or humans with elves. It’s all much of a muchness to you.
- You judge those you meet by their actions. If someone appears to be inept or bad at their job, you tend to condemn them loudly and obviously. Titles and positions of power mean nothing to you and you are unconcerned about showing it.
- You take care of yourself and resist accepting help from others. Bleeding heavily? ‘Tis just a flesh wound, you’ll battle on!
- Names are completely malleable to you. Goliaths often refer to one other by nicknames, which change based on their most notable achievements—or failures. If your rogue just managed to take down an owlbear single-handed, you might start calling them Bearslayer. If they recently got captured and gave away your position, they are Loudwalker.
- You tend towards Lawful: everyone has a role and everyone should contribute to the upkeep of the tribe.
One thing to note is that some of the traits above could make your goliath character a bit tricky to work with. You should always be mindful of this, since D&D is a social game. If you’re playing a spiky character, remember to weigh up the chance that your actions could actually spoil the game for others. This risk will vary between groups—some will find the fact that you insulted the king and got them all arrested a hilarious twist, others might be angry that you got their character punished, and some might think of ways to avoid taking you on diplomatic missions in future!
Don’t be afraid to have your character learn from their mistakes – perhaps they saw the danger they put the party in and have resolved to do better in the future. If you accidentally did something you can see other players didn’t enjoy, this can go a long way towards making them feel better about it and is a nice form of character development to boot.
The other way to avoid this pitfall, of course, is to play an atypical goliath and flip some of the traits discussed above on their head:
- You believe society should look out for the weak. You’ve seen too many good people turned away from your tribe to their deaths. You never leave a man behind.
- There isn’t enough creative expression in goliath society! Too much time is spent struggling for survival, in your opinion. Why couldn’t your tribe move to warmer, milder climes? It would give you more time to dance, paint and sing.
- Constant competition is tiring. We’re all on the same side: all that matters is that the group succeeds.
- Leaders lead best when they’re not constantly being challenged. The other races have all managed to build huge cities because their leaders stick around for longer: you reckon more goliaths should take a leaf out of their book.
Mechanics of Goliaths
Now that you’ve created your emo, “You’ll never understand me!” goliath backstory, let’s have a look at some of the race’s mechanical benefits.
- +2 Strength – I feel like Goliaths should have +3 or something to strength, instead of any other stat increase. It would make them a bit unique. As it stands, this is of course a good nudge towards a melee-centric character.
- +1 Constitution – Never say no to more HP. Goliaths are hardy! This hardiness is also a key feature of their other abilities (see below).
A huge, muscle-bound race that favours melee fighting? How unusual! Seriously, though, these are solid bonuses for anyone who wants to go toe-to-toe with enemies. Flavour-wise and stat-wise, they work very well with the Barbarian class. No boost to dexterity, though, so you’ll need to think about how you’re going to increase your AC.
Goliaths have some fun racial abilities that start to make them a bit more interesting:
- Darkvision – this is always handy, though very common in 5E!
- Natural Athlete – Athletics as a bonus skill: it’s used for plenty of checks, including jumping, swimming, climbing and grappling. Never going to say no to this. It also makes me eye up classes that wouldn’t normally be able to train in Athletics, or who don’t get many skills, or who might be able to make maximum use of this ability (bonuses to grappling or jumping from somewhere perhaps?). Encourages you to pump strength.
- Stone’s Endurance – This allows you to reduce incoming damage by 1d12 + Constitution. Great! Always useful! If you’ve got a +3 to con, that’s at least 4 damage saved. That’s all the damage most enemies do at first level. Handy for high AC tanking characters to block one of the few hits that gets past their shield AND helpful for taking the opportunity attack damage down if you’re a ranged character stuck in melee.
- Powerful Build – OK, so encumbrance is often overlooked, but with high strength, this means you can lug around an enormous quantity of equipment. Personally, it says heavy-armour wearing pack mule to me. Why else would you need all that capacity?
- Mountain Born – Immune to cold weather and high altitudes. I like this for flavour quite a bit. Encountering cold weather isn’t that unlikely and you can march around in just a shirt like a badass. It’s like summer to you! The high-altitude thing says you’re fine beyond 20,000 feet…! I know that technically means you are fine at any altitude, but I think the intention is that if you’re on a mountain of any height, you probably don’t need to make any checks. Everest is nearly 30,000 feet high and I feel like this ability is meant to cover it. Oxygen density is less than half at 20,000 feet, which implies that goliath lungs are absolutely amazing. I feel like this level of altitude training suggests incredible oxygen transfer efficiency. I would assume that goliaths never get out of breath when they’re at sea level, even when they’re running. Maybe they breathe slower too, or their blood is a much deeper red, as they have a higher density of red blood cells to get that oxygen around. I think this ability should come with advantage on athletics checks that involve strenuous activity, too! But I’ve gone off topic here…
- I considered whether this would synergise well with a Fly spell, or if you could somehow twist this ability to your advantage with any reliability, but if you fly 60ft a round, reaching heights of 6000ft already takes 10 minutes/100 rounds. Open to suggestions!
I think these abilities are all pretty good. They’re broadly useful things – extra skills, reduced damage, extra carrying capacity – they don’t specifically create one clear narrative (except that goliaths are natural-born mountaineers), but they’re useful for any class. I think if you want to go down a melee combatant route of any kind, Goliaths are going to be a safe bet. Stone’s endurance and Athletics training both encourage you to go down a strength and constitution route too, to maximise their impact.
Building our Goliath Character
Where am I going with this? Well, first, the ability scores, using a point buy system (ability modifiers in brackets):
- 16 (+3) Strength (14+2 Goliath Bonus)
- 14 (+2) Dexterity
- 16 (+3) Constitution (15+1 Goliath Bonus)
- 8 (-1) Wisdom
- 8 (-1) Intelligence
- 12 (+1) Charisma
OK, so our guy is huge and fast. He’s nearly 8ft tall and probably weighs 400lb. He’s pure muscle. He’s also quite a presence on the battlefield. You know he’s there and he wants you to know he’s there. He’s not getting top marks in college, but an 8 puts you just slightly below an average human (a commoner is considered to have a 10 in all ability scores), so it doesn’t demand that you play an idiot. Probably our character just finds all that ‘planning’ the rest of the team does to be irrelevant and prefers to march straight in.
He’s also going to spend a lot of his time not even bothering with weapons.
Yep, he carries a sword, but he’s only using it about half the time.
We’re going to wrestling school with a high-strength, grappling-based bard. Ideally from the College of Swords, from Xanathar’s Guide, but to be honest, the Colleges of Valor and Lore work well too, in their different ways.
- Let’s discuss grappling a bit here, before I look at the rest of the class:
- You make an Athletics (Strength) check vs. an opponent’s Athletics (Strength) or Acrobatics (Dexterity) check to grapple them.
- This counts as an attack action – so if you have the Extra Attack feature, one of those attacks can be a grapple.
- If you succeed, the opponent (and only the opponent, not you) is grappled. Their movement is now equal to 0. For now, that’s it. No advantage or disadvantage.
- Once they are grappled, however, two things become available to you.
- You can move them at half your speed, provided you can drag enough weight.
- You can use the Shove attack to knock them prone. Standing up from prone is explicitly banned if you have 0 movement. You have now pinned an enemy who has disadvantage on all attacks and against whom you have advantage on all melee attacks. This does not also knock you prone – you’re pinning them down from a standing position, not lying on top of them.
- Attempting to escape a grapple uses the enemy’s entire action, success or fail, so if they want to even try to get away, they must spend a turn doing it.
- Grappling only uses one hand for you. You can use the other to cast spells or make a weapon attack. Or grapple a second person. Then knock them prone, too.
- Making an UNARMED strike does not require a hand free at all. So you can headbutt your two pinned enemies if you want. It does 1+Strength damage, which isn’t great, but you’re standing on top of two opponents, stopping them from doing anything relevant.
- At level 1 and 2, you have a +5 to Athletics. This is a great start and sets you up for grappling like a maniac.
- At level 3, with College of Swords, you can wear medium armour to maximise that +2 Dexterity bonus AND you can now use a weapon in one hand, since that counts as a spellcasting focus for you. This means that when you’re grappling one creature, you can cast any spell without somatic components or with both somatic and material components. The only spells that need a completely empty hand are ones that have a somatic component, but no material component.
- Additionally, whenever you make an attack with a weapon, you gain +10ft to your movement speed and can use Defensive Flourish to boost your AC.
- Much more importantly, at level 3, you get access to 2 things: expertise, which jumps your Athletics up to +7, and the spell Enhance Ability, which gives you advantage on ALL strength checks. Plus it doubles your carrying capacity again. Congratulations on +7 to your grapple rolls and permanent advantage. If you don’t have space to be a large creature, you can also use Enhance Ability to get advantage too, plus that boosts your carrying capacity. Being large, you no longer need to drag small creatures: you literally just carry them, so you can move at full speed.
- You ALSO get a +2 to damage if you’re only wielding one weapon at level 3, which makes you really good at grappling a single target and stabbing them with a sword in one hand. A grappled person is not a weapon, so the +2 damage still applies.
- Your carrying capacity matters now! As a Goliath, you can drag twice as much. At 16 strength, a goliath can drag 480lb: more than enough to drag two grappled creatures across the battlefield. It’s at half speed, but that’s not a problem. You can double it again to 960lb with Enhance Ability. That’s around the weight of a racehorse, so from 3rd level you could grab and carry a horse without slowing down, if the horse and DM allowed it (size might make it awkward).
- You’ll get hit quite a bit to start with, so Stone’s Endurance is amazing.
- At level 6 you get Extra Attack, so you can grapple and shove in one turn. Perfect!
- You have lowish charisma, but you can take spells that avoid saving throws and attack rolls to mitigate this.
Building our Goliath Bard
So, what do we want to cover when we’re building this Goliath bard?
- Most of the specifics come from the college of swords, so there is a lot of flexibility here, which is nice.
- A few spells are close to “must-haves” to optimise our plans for this guy, but you get them early and can use them a lot:
- Longstrider is a great level 1 spell to increase your speed. Helps you to drag people around. Expeditious Retreat works similarly and has a bigger increase BUT takes a bonus action every turn. You’ll need those more later.
- Shield is great, of course. Shame it needs a hand free, but you can use it as much as you like before you grab anyone, then put your weapon away if you want to keep using it.
- Enhance Ability. You need this at level 3!
- A few other bard spells would make hilarious bonus actions or reactions:
- Feather Fall allows you to slow your fall as a reaction. This means you could in theory grapple an enemy, drag them to an edge, leap off with them, let go of them, and cast feather fall on yourself. Letting go of someone does not use an action. Hopefully, the enemy can fly! Remember that distances over 600ft are still dangerous to you.
- Healing Word lets you heal allies while crushing those stupid enemies into the ground.
- Silence is an amazing spell for locking down enemy spellcasters. Cast Silence on the caster (preventing them from casting any verbal spells), then pin them down with your incredible muscles and watch as the mage has to resort to punching the enormous Goliath wrestler.
- You can use the Bard’s Magical Secrets ability from level 10 to pick spells from any class list.
Things to Watch Out for!
Finally, a few things to watch out for with this build, if you’re keen on the wrestler type:
- It takes you till level 3 to really come to life – you’re GOOD at wrestling before then, but you’re GREAT after.
- There’s a lot you’ll want to do with your actions. It takes two actions to pin someone down to the floor, which is where they are really screwed. This is mitigated a bit from 6th level onward by the extra attack.
- Despite being a huge Goliath powerhouse, you’ll actually be most powerful in a support role. Particularly up close and personal in melee combat, where you can knock prone and grapple two enemies at once, granting permanent advantage to any nearby melee allies!
- When an enemy is prone, ranged attacks against it are made at disadvantage. You don’t have to knock your enemies prone, though: you could just grapple them to prevent them seeking cover, then headbutt them as needed.
- It’s best to grapple just one enemy at a time if you want to be able to deal solid damage too.
To my mind, this class is interesting because it gives you a lot of flexibility and flavour, whilst being an effective grappling build from pretty early on. If you want to optimise your grappling even further, I would strongly recommend The Grappler’s Manual (http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?468737-The-Grappler-s-Manual-(2-0)-Grappling-in-5th-Edition). It dives into Multiclassing and Feats too, so you can really maximise your crazy wrestling moves.
Some Backstory, For Flavour
Now all we need is a splash of flavour to cap off our Goliath wrestling legend. The idea I had in my head was very much of the professional-wrestler variety. I think our guy has been working pretty happily with a performing troupe, maybe as part of a circus or a standalone travelling show. He doesn’t say much, but he loves a good challenge and enjoys whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The shows are good for bringing in money or showing off, but the constant training and practising are where the fun is for this guy. One evening he might be practising new fighting techniques, another he might be trying out ways to work horse-riding or trapeze art into his performance, just to stretch himself. I’d probably give him the Gladiator background as it fits in thematically, though it would be more focused on entertaining than violence.
And why might he take up a call to adventure?
- He’s finally reached the pinnacle he thinks he can achieve in his current team: it is time to move on. He’s heard legends of people wrestling dragons to the ground and he’s sure he can reach the same heights.
- He lets his competitiveness get away from him and ends up injuring several team members during a practise fight. He complains that the others need to up their game rather than considering himself at fault and is kicked out of the group.
- He heads into town to pick up supplies one day and returns to find his whole troupe have vanished. No locals had any recollection that they had visited the town, so he is retracing their steps to find out where they could have gone.
Thanks for reading, as always! Next week we’ll be looking at Red Dragonborn (I probably won’t do one for each shade of Dragonborn, though: I don’t think they’re really subraces as their abilities don’t vary much). Chosen by Louise, with no context except me pointing at her out of the blue and yelling ‘pick a D&D race!’
I’ve also put together a new guild based around an arctic, mountain-dwelling tribe of Goliath wrestlers called the Sheerpeak Wranglers. It includes a new subclass, too! It’s up on DM’s Guild, so take a look! 😊