You find yourself in a barely-lit cavern far beneath the earth. The smell of rotting meat and moist flesh wafts up from the tunnels below. A gibbering madness echoes off of the gore-splattered walls. The sound grows closer. The goblins are upon you! Roll for initiative.
We've all been there. We've all been a part of those low-level Tolkienesque adventures. Kill the evil goblins, loot the corpses, gain XP and move on. Wash, rinse, and repeat until something interesting happens a few levels later.
We've all been there.
Dungeons & Dragons, like all role-playing games, is only limited by your imagination. You're not beholden to anything that has come before. Lore be damned. It's your game. It's your game.
Let's take an alternative look at a few common low-level enemies:
GOBLINS: I've never liked the idea of an entirely evil race. Unless they are specifically bred or altered by dark magics it just doesn't make sense.
A common misconception is that goblins are stupid. According to the Monster Manual they have an Intelligence score of 10 which is the normal human average. They are weak though, so wading into battle isn't the best idea.
Interestingly, “scavenger” appears as an occupation in the 1911 Census of England and Wales. They were workmen employed by local authorities to clean the streets and remove refuse. They were essentially garbage men. Goblins could be used in a similar fashion on battlefields. After the battle, the goblins wade into the carnage scavenging for food, weapons, armor and other miscellaneous items that they might find useful.
There could be goblins who cobble together new creations from discarded and damaged weaponry. A particularly clever goblin might collect used magic items to sap and store their remaining power. The players may need one of these re-purposed items and have to strike a deal with the goblins which could lead to further adventures. The goblins may have taken an item of importance that needs to be regained. This line of thinking opens them up as a race without removing them as an adversary.
HUMANS: Stop and think about all the problems that we face as human beings. The things that make us different. The cultures, beliefs, and social issues that we all deal with. These ideas can also be applied to humans in D&D.
The local rogue's guild is a standard low-level enemy. Violent crime is spiraling out of control and the town council has hired the party to dispatch the offenders. Turn this around. Think about it not from the perspective of the town council but through the eyes of the guild. Why are they doing what they're doing?
In reality, the townsfolk are being driven out of their homes through force and starvation. The council wants to redevelop the city and the commoners have banded together to defend themselves. This revelation puts the party in an interesting position: Do they side with the town council and strike down the commoners who are, admittedly, committing criminal acts or do they stand up against the actions of the council who are guilty in their own way? What do you do when everything is a shade of gray?
Now, instead of carving through just another trash-mob, your players have found themselves in a political, social and physical battle that could have far-reaching consequences for all sides.
SKELETONS & ZOMBIES: The undead are the most “played-out” monsters in sci-fi/fantasy. These things are everywhere and that has really lessened their impact. One way to revitalize the idea is rethink reanimation.
While Druids aren't able to cast the Animate Dead spell, nature-based Clerics don't have that restriction. So with a quick re-skin, these creatures could be powered by natural forces instead of being driven strictly by necomancy.
The party tracked the cleric Neriosis to her lair. She has used her victims as fertilizer for her gardens. Roots and vines wind through their rotting bodies. As the party approaches, the corpses lurch from their beds...supported by the plants that devoured them.
Don't worry if your ideas aren't "groundbreaking". Mine aren't. But sometimes adding a new twist to an old idea will surprise your players and introduce fun game-play opportunities. That's really what's important.