This is post #4 in a series on hidden goblins in tabletop RPGs. This goblin is from the D&D 3rd edition Monster Manual (2000), by Sam Wood I believe (even though he isn’t named in the illustration credits, that SW is a bit of a giveaway.)
We’ve been considering the hidden goblin problem for several posts now, but I haven’t yet nailed down exactly what it is. So:
The “hidden goblin problem” is this: how should a game master handle pieces of the fiction that are hidden from players?
Across the history of roleplaying games, comprehensive answers to this question are vanishingly rare. Every GM has to infer and develop their own way of answering this question. I also doubt any GM could come up with one single answer to apply in all situations – so in fact each GM must develop a range of techniques, and learn when to switch between them for different games, differing groups, and different circumstances.
This is not to say games are silent on the question entirely. Many games approach this question from a variety of angles. Here are some of them, in eye-catching listicle format!
(Note: I’m sure there are many other great games that could have a place on this list, but these are the ones I have on my shelf. I’m exercising shelf-bias!)
1. Heroquest (Milton Bradley, 1989)
This legendary mass-market board game wasn’t strictly speaking a role-playing game, but it was very, very close. It also took an unusual step to ensure the hidden goblin problem wouldn’t be an issue for anyone playing.
The game consisted of a series of missions within a dungeon environment. Whenever the player characters opened a door or turned a corner on the map, the GM would place monsters (and furniture!) according to a secret map. But if the adventurers moved away for any reason, the rules were quite clear: all opened doors would stay open, and all revealed monsters would stay on the map.
As a result, there could be no hidden goblins in Heroquest. Everyone playing would know the location of every revealed goblin throughout play. (Monsters were also forbidden from opening doors themselves, they could only roam in previously-explored areas.) This does mean that it feels a lot more like a board game than a role-playing game – the first-person perspective of the hero figures is forsaken for the godlike overview of the players around the board. Even so, it clearly works as a rule, and I think it’s part of the reason young children were able to jump in as Game Masters and know what they’re doing.
2. Vampire: The Masquerade (Mark Rein-Hagen et al., 1991)
Vampire, pitched as a game of personal horror, was not always played that way. One of its secondary themes was however almost always present in even the most trenchcoats-and-shotguns game: politics. Spurred on by one of its supplements which described a city in which two hidden powers vied for control, and featuring beautiful infographics of the webs of relationships among a large cast of NPCs, this was a game where GMs were encouraged to always think about what was going on behind the scenes.
Although it never said so explicitly, it was strongly implied by the game setting that the GM had to do a lot of thinking about what happened out of the view of the characters. This amounted to a second secret game, played silently by the GM, in which the power structure in a city reacted and acted in response to player-visible events. The balance, in fact, was like an iceberg: visible events were dwarfed by the massive set of secret play the GM would perform as they figured out how each faction would respond to whatever was going on at the surface level.
Of course, it was not necessary to play this way, and surely many GMs minimised this work as much as possible or improvised developments as they went, but I cannot think of another game before or since that so strongly implied this kind of work was valuable, and so strongly emphasised that the players should never really find out about it. (I particularly found those relationship webs to be a very alluring toy, encouraging you to think about how an event here would ripple out through a network of people and cause a response there.)
3. Over The Edge (Jonathan Tweet, 1992)
Jonathan Tweet’s wildly freeform game of story-focused weirdness was notable on publication for it’s extensive advice for Game Masters. Tweet maintained a conversational tone with plenty of examples from his own actual play, often including the thought process he used to arrive at a decision.
There is, in particular, lots of discussion of ‘winging it’ – making it up as you go along. A lengthy list of suggestions for “Saving the PCs’ Butts” includes adding to the scene some enemies of whoever is about to kill the PCs – “perhaps they just happen to attack at the right time”. A section titled “Could Versus Should” encourages the GM to populate scenes with things that are interesting, rather than logical.
All of this clearly encourages the GM to take a very laissez-faire approach to any hidden goblins. In fact, the GM is basically told to treat the entire gameworld as a set of cards up their sleeve, and produce anything at any time as long as it adds to the momentum of play.
4. Sorcerer (Ron Edwards, 2001/2013)
Sorcerer was released in 2001, but it took years for advice and insights to accumulate around the original text, culminating in the annotated edition published in 2013. In this edition, Edwards adds some notes about how the GM should prepare for play and track overall progress between sessions, using “the diagram” which shows everything in the fiction of importance to the character:
By the time we play, I should have names and scores and events written down, and a sense of which NPCs are about to take action toward or with Harry. I should be quite firmly committed to beginning a course of action for Woo, subject as it will be to the events of play once we get going.
One more thing: that diagram is going to change through play, most likely every single session. People can get killed, or become “finished” in story terms. New characters might be written onto the diagram. Any item may shift position, whether being pulled toward the center or hopping into a different quadrant for some reason.
This is notable for being very clear about the hidden work a responsible GM should perform, but more unusually, for indicating why they should do this work. In Sorcerer, this set of hidden goblin work is important precisely so far as it helps you to generate exciting and thematic “bangs”, and to escape the trap of pre-scripting a game narrative. Anything that doesn’t serve these goals is not necessary; the GM should handwave anything else to serve the goals of play. The goal is not fairness or verisimilitude – it is the thematic exploration that drives Sorcerer.
5. Primetime Adventures (Matt Wilson, 2004/2005/2014)
This is a wonderful game allowing groups to create and play in the format of a television show. PTA (as it is commonly abbreviated) uses techniques with significant implications for the hidden goblin problem.
Play does not flow conversationally from moment to moment and event to event, but is instead broken into specific scenes with distinct beginnings and endings. (PTA was not the originator of scene-framing, but I think it uses the technique in a particularly clear way thanks to its television-show format.)
Importantly, even though there is a Game Master who has primary responsibility for the fictional world around the player characters, the ability to create a scene is shared equally among all players. (Technically, players request a scene by specifying what it will feature as well as its role in the story, e.g. advancing a plot or forcing character development, and the GM then makes the scene using this information, but the GM is encouraged to say yes to player scene ideas and in my experience scene-setting becomes very much a shared responsibility.)
PTA also includes shared narrative authority for resolving scenes. Any player around the table might end up with the responsibility of describing how a scene’s conflict ends, and while they must include “appropriate behaviour” from the characters in the scene, this is still incredibly open and allows players to devise any TV-style climax to what is happening.
All of this means the GM must relax control of their hidden goblins. Any secret thoughts the GM has about what a particular NPC might be doing could be scuppered at any time by a player scene request that puts the NPC somewhere else completely. When the GM gets a chance to set a scene, at that point they can (and should!) think about what has been going on out of sight, but the point of such thinking is solely to generate ideas for the next dramatic scene that advances the overall plot of the episode.
In other words, all that matters is what is contained within a scene – everything else is up for constant negotiation and reinterpretation, and nothing is certain. Even within a scene, any hidden goblin must be lightly held – a GM might have an NPC run away during a scene, and they might have a secret idea about where that NPC is going, but one of the players might use their narrative authority to reveal something completely different about that NPC.
Although PTA is a game with a Game Master, it shares traditional GM duties, and the effect is to completely resolve the hidden goblin problem. Many other games also share GM duties, and the hidden goblin problem is usually dealt with in the same way as here. (Note, however, that it is easy to find people who enjoy traditional role-playing games but express dissatisfaction with shared-authority games; the experience does not work for them. I suspect the absence of hidden goblins is partly why. But that discussion is for another time…)
6. The Mountain Witch (Tim Kleinert, 2005)
Speaking of shared authority… The Mountain Witch is another game with a Game Master that hands some creative power to players. Each player is dealt a secret “hidden fate”; even the GM is unaware of who has which fate, and it is up the player to create the details.
Players bring their fate into the game by introducing fate-related things into the game and then handing them to the GM to control. (“I open a panel in the wall, revealing a secret passage to the dungeons beneath. I tell everyone I came this way before.” “I know this ogre – in fact, he hates me because I used my magic to curse him into this form.”)
Indeed, the GM is advised to take the initiative and hand control to the players: “The knocking on the door grows insistent, and finally the door is knocked off its hinges, and you all see who is there… Linda, you know this person! Who is it and what do they want?”
Even though the Game Master is responsible for many traditional GM jobs, they must hold “hidden goblins” lightly – increasingly so as the game progresses and things begin to revolve more and more closely around player character fates. But there is also the novel feature of the GM creating hidden goblins – something is outside knocking on the door! – that have no identity at all. The GM introduces this hidden goblin and describes some of its actions – knocking on a door, then kicking the door down – but they have no idea what it actually is until it is fully revealed to the player characters and a player decides.
(It’s worth noting that earlier games had also dabbled with moments of shared authority like this, such as TORG (1992) which allowed players to introduce subplots using a set of cards, including the ability to change the nature of an NPC.)
Shared authority of various kinds has become a common feature of many wonderful games published over the last decade or two, and in every case, the hidden goblin problem is effectively taken off the table. However, the vast majority of RPG play still sits with the big games like Dungeons & Dragons, which maintain a very traditional form of GM authority, complete with hidden goblins all over the place…
7. Psi Run (Meguey Baker, 2007)
In this great game suited to one-off games, the players are on the run from a powerful group of villains. Every scene is played knowing the bad guys are closing in.
The bad guys here are a perfect fit for the hidden goblin idea – they are NPCs whose exact activities are hidden from the players, but whose progress in pursuit is of enormous importance. The game neatly manages the villains by having rules that track their pursuit. As the game is played, a trail of locations is created; when certain circumstances happen mechanically, the villains advance along the trail. If the mechanics ever dictate that the villains catch up with the player characters, then they are introduced into active play, appearing “on screen” at once.
Importantly, game mechanics are not the only way the enemy closes in. The GM is also explicitly told to simply move the pursuers closer to their quarry whenever it seems appropriate or reasonable given what is happening in the fiction. So the mechanics provide an undeniable structure for this hidden goblin, but the GM is also allowed to step in with fiat at any time the mechanics don’t seem to match what the fiction demands.
This is a game designed around one particular type of hidden goblin, and it deals with the problem with elegance and insight.
8. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (Cam Banks & team, 2012)
This game presents a very uncommon approach to play. The traditional GM and players division is present, but Marvel Heroic (and the Cortex+ system it uses) structures the relationship between GM and the game in a clever way. The GM is not a freewheeling creative force as in most games, exercising fiat constantly and constrained only by their sense of fairness or verisimilitude. Instead, GM actions have their own economy.
Through play, the GM collects dice to form a doom pool. These dice can be used to augment rolls and adjust outcomes like in many other games with karmic modifiers. However, they can – and must! – also be used to structure the fiction around the characters. For example, in the initial adventure “Breakout”, the GM is told: “By spending a D6 or larger die from the doom pool, you can introduce one [of the listed villains] into the Act.” In this adventure, the GM knows there are plenty of hidden goblins, other criminals who have escaped from their jail cells, but not only is the GM given no scope to imaginatively “play them” while they are unseen, the GM cannot even put them onscreen without spending some currency.
In the same way, at the end of each Act (a linked series of scenes), the GM can spend down any remaining Doom Pool to add new complications to the next Act, such as additional enemies or threatening events.
This approach to play opens a whole new way of handling the hidden goblin work of the GM – it can be manipulated and structured using game rules. This goes beyond Sorcerer‘s approach of guiding decisions by focusing on thematic relevance, and suggests that there is in fact a whole (mostly-)unexplored realm of game technology where hidden goblins fall directly within the scope of the game rules!
9. Apocalypse World (D. Vincent Baker & Meguey Baker, 2010/2016)
This is an interesting one. Apocalypse World is, I think, the game that provides not just an answer to the hidden goblin problem, but a solution. And that’ll be the subject of the next post.