This is post #9 in a series on hidden goblins in tabletop RPGs. The goblin in the illustration is not even a goblin, it is obviously Smaug the dragon, come on now.
Just in case: this post contains spoilers for The Hobbit.
The quest fantasy genre may not have begun with The Hobbit, but it certainly felt its influence. Tolkien’s tale of a band of plucky adventurers on a dangerous journey across a hand-drawn map to face a big villainous baddie is the template that future fantasy narratives either copied, or reacted against, for many years. However even as it sets up this template, it defies it almost in the same breath, for The Hobbit delivers perhaps the biggest anticlimax in all fantastic fiction.
I’m referring of course to the fate of Smaug the dragon, the fearsome monster whose threat haunts our vertically-challenged protagonists for hundreds of pages, and who springs to fearful life in a series of beautifully-written preliminary encounters as our hero Bilbo Baggins comes face to face with him in his lair under the mountain.
Then, famously, Smaug gets the wrong idea about something Bilbo says, flies off to a different place, and gets killed there by a character we haven’t met before. Bilbo and the Dwarves spend days hiding from the dragon and wondering how they are possibly going to escape him, let alone defeat him. Eventually they find out they don’t need to.
Tolkien swerves the plot in this way to set up a fascinating morality play climax surrounding the fate of the dragon’s treasure, given the various claims upon it by different factions who suffered or contributed in different ways. As a narrative choice, it certainly works, although it has disappointed many readers over the years who were looking for the catharsis of the protagonists overcoming their great foe themselves.
Smaug and Role-Playing Games
Consider the fate of Smaug in terms of role-playing games. If The Hobbit was a game following the characters of Bilbo and the Dwarves, we have a clear hidden goblin moment where Bilbo sneaks into the dragon’s lair, speaks with him, then creeps away again. The GM must decide what to do at that point with this dragon, away from the player’s knowledge, off-screen and hidden from them. The players, reasonably, assume the dragon will come hunting them, and they take steps to protect themselves, knowing that they are in fact hopelessly out of their depth. The simplest decision for the GM is to have Smaug do exactly that, following the obvious path, winding the situation tighter and tighter around an inevitable confrontation.
Imagine what it would take for the GM to determine that the dragon will misinterpret one comment made by Bilbo’s player, and fly away from the mountain entirely to menace another place. What process would the GM be following? Would they be deciding ‘what would reasonably happen’? Would they make some kind of dice roll? Were they already looking for an excuse to get the dragon away, knowing that if it stuck around the characters would all end up dead before long?
And then, on top of that, the GM determines that the dragon doesn’t just fly away – it gets killed by a random NPC there, an NPC the players haven’t even met. How would that result be determined? By the GM’s sense of aesthetics? By their desire to create a more interesting situation for the next game involving multiple factions arguing over treasure? By a series of carefully crafted dice rolls delivering a surprising and unexpected result?
How would this plot twist be perceived by the players? With some measure of relief, certainly, but perhaps also bewilderment. What kind of game are we playing, some might think; what is the purpose of this story? When we battled Strahd in Castle Ravenloft, he didn’t suddenly decide to fly off to another part of Barovia and get staked through the heart by a villager, no, we got to face him down in an exciting and dramatic conflict, and everything before then steered towards that moment. What is this game, where Smaug can get shot in the heart off-screen?
The handling of hidden goblins is ultimately about the kind of experience you and your friends want to create when you play. Smaug is an extreme example, but the principle holds true for the literal goblin crouched in the corner watching the brave heroes defeat his buddies. When the GM starts taking those offscreen elements and manipulating them, the game stops being the story of the player characters, and starts being something else, something more diffuse. Perhaps the GM is using an elaborate system to try and simulate a kind of reality, or perhaps the GM is following a set of principles to make dramatic and interesting choices, but either way the game is pulled away from the players and out of their influence.
The Smaug story also shows how unlikely it is to achieve any true “simulation” in a game. The real world, even the effigy of it we see in popular works of heroic fiction, is a tangled mess of unlikely choices and conflicting ideas. It is hard to conceive of any set of dice tables or indeed any other method of dispassionate chance that could give rise to such an outcome in a game. The behaviour of hidden goblins is always, inevitably, about the choices made by the GM, and the effect they are trying to create, usually for themselves (as the players by definition will be insensible of much of what happens outside their view). There is no way to fully disclaim responsibility for a hidden goblin. A true simulation is a fantasy that cannot be realised, and the GM cannot fully escape an authorial role.
With this in mind, here’s another hidden goblin rule to consider. Call it the Rule of Smaug.
THE RULE OF SMAUG
When an NPC is of sufficient importance that the players start guessing what actions they are taking outside of the players’ awareness, roll a d20.
On a result of 1, the NPC does nothing. Nothing at all. They just sit around procrastinating.
On a result of 2 to 11, the NPC takes what you deem to be the most obvious and reasonable and predictable action. Take note of the ideas expressed by the players and use the most fitting suggestions as inspiration.
On a result of 12 to 15, the NPC takes an action that will affect the immediate situation in a troubling way. Think of a way the NPC could make the situation more desperate and dramatic for the player characters, whether by cunning plan or accidental side effect, and do that.
On a result of 16 to 19, the NPC takes an action that will place another obstacle between the characters and one of their goals. Perhaps a treasure becomes destroyed or unobtainable, or a new guardian is positioned in their path.
On a result of 20, the NPC does something wildly unexpected. They might leave entirely, or change sides, or get religion, or get themselves killed by their second-in-command. Go for broke.
Here are all the Hidden Goblin posts. I think there are… two more? We’ll see.