Part three of a series. Goblin illustration by D.A.Trampier, from the 1977 AD&D Monster Manual.

In previous instalments, we’ve discussed the problem of the hidden goblin. Simply put, it’s the question of how a Game Master handles non-player characters when they are no longer near the player characters. Let’s take a look at the most famous hidden goblin in D&D: the terrifying Strahd von Zarovich from the adventure I6 Ravenloft.

Goblin vampire

If you haven’t encountered this infamous adventure from 1983, by the creative team Tracy and Laura Hickman, the premise is the adventuring party is trapped in a small land dominated by the vampire Strahd. To survive, they must confront Strahd in his castle, which is lovingly mapped in enormous detail. Unlike other adventures before then, Strahd is specifically described as a dynamic enemy. He doesn’t sit waiting in the final room until the adventurers kick down the door and fight him. He can strike at any time, and his great power means he is a deadly threat. Ravenloft quickly acquired a reputation as a very dangerous challenge to any D&D group.Strahd is a villain who stays far away from the adventurers for long periods of the game. He is a hidden goblin! Not a weak and scared one, though – he is a deadly threat who means to wreak havoc. That gives us a different lens to think about how we deal with the hidden goblin.

What does Ravenloft actually say?

We’ve previously seen that the core rules for (A)D&D have had very little to say about how to manage NPCs and enemies when they are off-screen. In the Ravenloft adventure, Strahd gets a full page to himself right at the start: “Who he is and how to play him”. here’s an excerpt. (Um, spoilers for Ravenloft.)

The entire adventure centers around the vampire. Always keep in mind the motives of the vampire, how he moves about, and what his cunning plot is. You must play Strahd in the same way the players play their characters.

Although Strahd can be encountered in many places, he is always encountered in the place indicated by your Fortunes of Ravenloft results, unless he has been forced to his tomb.

Strahd has a variety of spies and servants. They report to him four times each day (at dawn, noon, dusk and midnight). There is a 60% chance that Strahd knows the PCs’ location at these times If Strahd knows their location, he attacks the PCs – wherever they are – within two hours. Strahd chooses the time and method of his attacks carefully.

Strahd is supposed to be a genius, play him as one. Whenever he is aware of the PCs positions, he is allowed to make an attack how and where he wants. His attacks must be timed to be most advantageous to him. To do that, Strahd must move around during the adventure.

Threaded through this advice are some useful points:

  • Overall, it is clear the DM must maintain some existence for Strahd when he is hidden from the adventurers. The DM must play him as a genius even when there is no-one around to see it.
  • The chance of “spies and servants” informing on Strahd is set at the start. This means the DM can deal with other “hidden goblin” situations using the spotlight technique; as soon as they are out of range, forget about them, their potential influence is accounted for by this chance of Strahd being informed.
  • When Strahd is informed, he activates for two hours of game time. During these two hours, Strahd will make attacks on the player characters. In some sense the DM must account for Strahd in this period of time.
  • After two hours pass, the DM is relieved of duty and doesn’t need to account for Strahd at all, as he will not attack in this period.
  • Importantly, this advice doesn’t go so far as to actually instruct how to manage Strahd when he is activated. It is up to the DM whether they “juggle” him through this period, or use him as a “card up the sleeve”.
  • However, note that Strahd will always be found in his key location (which is determined at the start of the game). This is somewhat incompatible with the technique of “juggling” Strahd – the DM must be willing to revise any decisions about where Strahd is, in order for him to turn up in the key location as needed. (Of course, if the encounter falls outside the two-hour activation window, no problem arises.)
  • Strahd is also found on the random encounter table for the castle. Again, this is incompatible with “juggling” Strahd during those two-hour activation periods.

Note that the instructions say “he is allowed to make an attack how and where he wants”. That’s a curious piece of game text. Let’s dig into it a little, by asking two questions:

  1. Who is wanting?
  2. Who is allowing?

Who is wanting?

The DM advice says to play Strahd the same way players play their characters. We can guess that the adventure authors intend the word “want” to express the internal point-of-view of Strahd. Just the same way players invent and act on the desires of their characters, the DM should invent and then act on the desires of Strahd.

This means Strahd can attack the characters anywhere they are in the castle, however he likes. Nothing is off-limits to Strahd. Also, it means Strahd is not required to attack the characters if they are in a place where they would have the advantage. Like the players, the DM should have Strahd make his attack at the most strategically potent point.

Except… how does Strahd know? Well, he just does. The text of the adventure does indicate this, although it isn’t clear. He hears the location of the adventurers at a reporting time, and he can then attack the PCs “wherever they are” for two hours after that. So the adventure assumes that when the adventurers are spotted, they keep being followed for two hours, whereupon Strahd’s minions lose the trail.

Does this tilt us more towards a “card up the sleeve” or a “juggling” technique? It could go either way.

  • A DM using the juggling technique could imagine Strahd’s disembodied awareness tracking the adventurers through the Castle, and preparing to strike based on their movements – “they are about to enter the torture room, Strahd would like to ambush them as soon as they see what lurks in there… oh no, they changed their mind, they’re going back to the stairs. Strahd can meet them there…”
  • A DM using the card-up-the-sleeve technique wouldn’t bother with that. They’d just allow inspiration to strike as and when. “Oh yeah, it would be really fun if they couldn’t retreat from this situation. I know, Strahd can appear at the top of the stairs to cut off their escape!”

Who is allowing?

An even more interesting question is that of “allowing”. The text could say “Strahd can attack how and where he wants”, but it doesn’t – it says “is allowed to” instead. Even though Strahd is a being within the fictional world of Castle Ravenloft, we are not meant to interpret “allow” as referring to another force within the fiction. What we are glimpsing is actually the rules of the adventure – the hand of the creator, speaking to the DM about how to manage this character. What we have is a direct instance of hidden goblin instruction.

I interpret “allowing” in this instance as a kind of reassurance to the DM. Go for it. Make Strahd a badass. Make him terrifying. You can have him turn up whenever you like and if he kills an adventurer, that’s what Ravenloft is all about.

There’s another level to this too – if the “allowing” is being done by the game, then it implies the “wanting” isn’t just Strahd’s in-character desires, either. The DM’s role as the animating force of Strahd is invoked. The DM is allowed to make the attacks they want, too

But this raises a new question: why would the DM need reassurance in the first place?

D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players!

The invocation above appears in bold text in the Moldvay edition of D&D. The full paragraph, appearing in a section titled “Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art”, runs as follows:

It is important that the DM be fair, judging everything without favoring one side or another. The DM is there to see that t he adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game. D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players! The DM should do his or her best to act impartially when taking the part of monsters or handling disputes between characters.

Along with the need to be flexible, being fair is presented as the most important aspect of being Dungeon Master. But in Ravenloft, what does that even look like? If you are playing the part of Strahd von Zarovich, deadly vampire genius, who wants to murder the player characters and can attack where and how he likes – what does “fair” even mean?

Strahd of course wants to be unfair, to gain and use every advantage he can. So is the DM forced into a kind of double-think, where they must fairly represent the unfairness of Strahd? Keep in mind that Strahd is a genius – and the DM probably is not. How can the DM fairly represent a genius who is willing to cheat? To play fair, do you need to know where Strahd is at all times? Do you need to commit to an action and follow it through even if the players never see it? Is it unfair to use Strahd as a card-up-the-sleeve, or to use fiat instead of chance to position Strahd in a certain place?

These questions aren’t just theoretical, as anyone who watches D&D message boards will know – friendships have ended and gaming groups collapsed over accusations of unfairness. More frequently, and less dramatically, many players lose faith in a game if they feel the DM is not honouring this principle of “fairness” – however they happen to interpret it.

With all of this in mind, look again at that word “allow”. I read it as a DM’s justification to go right up to the limit of whatever they see as “fair” – to ride that boundary. If a player is upset, the adventure text itself provides an explanation. In fact, I’d suggest that that word “allow” has had an outsize effect in giving Ravenloft the reputation it enjoys, as a very dangerous module – because it (and whole page around it) encourage the DM to handle their hidden work differently in this case. DMing Ravenloft is not like DMing other adventures – and that is the thing that really scares people.

So, going back to that original advice: “he is allowed to make an attack how and where he wants”. I might reword it like this, directly acknowledging the hidden work of the DM:

“Strahd is a genius who knows how to use every nook and cranny of his castle to his advantage. You can have Strahd attack where and how you like. Strahd is smarter than you and he doesn’t play fair, so don’t hold back.”

And if I was going to directly address the hidden goblin problem, I might add a “card-up-the-sleeve” instruction:

“While Strahd is hunting you don’t need to track his movements. He turns up wherever he needs to be in order to cause the most trouble. As soon as the PCs lose track of him, you can forget about him, until the next time you identify a good moment for him to strike.”

Ravenloft addresses some of the questions around the hidden work of the Dungeon Master and points at some of what’s at stake, for example the idea of “fairness”. However, even though this adventure is from 1983, it did not mark a sudden turning point when this hidden work began to be addressed – on the contrary, it still stands out as an exception.

Nevertheless, many other RPG publications had their own brushes with the hidden goblin problem, and addressed it in some interesting ways. Next time we’ll take a little tour through game publishing history and see what we can discover.

(To be continued…)

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