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The section of the Monster Manual on hobgoblins (page 185) says under the "Strategic Thinkers" section that hobgoblins:

hate elves and attack them first in battle over any other opponents, even if doing so would be a tactical error.

But why do they do this? What is the lore reason why they hate elves and prioritize attacking them?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I assume the quoted lore (and thus this question) is somewhat specific to the Forgotten Realms setting... \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 26 '20 at 2:12
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They have diametrically opposed cultures

Hobgoblins, though generally opposed to most other races besides their fellow goblinoids, have been described as having a specific hatred of elves since the earliest editions of D&D, with the 1e Monster Manual noting that:

If elves are nearby, hobgoblins will attack them in preference to any other troops because of the great hatred they bear.

The MM doesn't go into any further detail to explain why this is the case, but the 1982 Dragon #63 article "The humanoids" features a brief examination of the cultures of some of D&D's humanoid 'monsters', including hobgoblins. Of their relationship with elves, it says that:

It seems that much of the dislike hobgoblins have for elves comes from the latter’s “heretical” emotional displays as well as the elves’ diametrically opposed alignment. Hobgoblin shamans emphasize the revolting, un-warriorlike aspects of elven life as often as they can, and preach about what a shame it is that elves should be allowed to run loose like they do.

Essentially, the repressive martial culture ascribed to hobgoblins directs them to avoid external displays of emotion as unbecoming of warriors. D&D's elves are generally described as being quite openly emotional and prone to revelry (in excess of most other races), which is considered taboo in hobgoblin society, and the religious leadership of the hobgoblins use them as a specific example of behaviour to be avoided and a common enemy to rally against.

Also, elves are the most significant race that are stereotypically chaotic good, which is directly opposed to the stereotypical hobgoblin alignment of lawful evil. The article notes that while hobgoblins are also opposed to dwarves (due to the latter's... "innate goodness"...), they do have some grudging respect for them, since dwarven society trends to the lawful and dour, which aligns with hobgoblin culture.

These aspects of hobgoblin society, having been established in the very early days of the game, appear to have reliably persisted through subsequent editions. The 2e, 3e, and 5e Monster Manuals (or equivalents) all note that hobgoblins hate elves and will attack them in preference to any other enemy; the 4e MM notes that they especially hate elves and eladrin, though unlike the other texts it doesn't specify that they will always preferentially attack such enemies. (The usual disclaimer that ascribing culture and alignment to an entire race in the way that D&D likes to do is problematic and racist applies, of course.)

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The enmity between elves and hobgoblins is largely a meta-element, owing to D&D's inspiratory borrowing from Tolkien's works. It has never really been fleshed out as part of any edition, being intended to be more something that DMs determined the cause behind for their own worlds. And the few cases where it has been described have always been setting specific.

For example, in the Nentir Vale (4e's base setting), hobgoblins hate elves because their oral traditions teach them that they once held a massive empire, but when they attempted to extend their conquering reach into the Feywild, they were defeated by the elves so thoroughly that their empire fell apart, leaving them the scattered people they are today. This is made worse by the fact that these same traditions assert that the elves did not defeat them "honorably", but through "trickery" and "deceit".

Another example is that, in the Golarion setting of Pathfinder 1st and 2nd edition, which is D&D-adjacent, hobgoblins hate elves because they were a largely-completed attempt by an ancient empire that was at war with elves to mutate ordinary goblins into super-soldiers. Whilst the elves managed to stop the experiment before it could be completed, the newly created race was left with a lingering compulsion to hate and kill elves.

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