The problem of the hidden goblin

Illustration by Jim Holloway, from 1983’s B5 Horror on the Hill

“…it is up to the DM to not only provide an exciting description but also to correctly act the part of the monster. Rats, for instance, will swarm chitteringly from their burrows – a wave of lice- ridden hunger seeking to overrun the adventurers with sheer numbers, but easily driven off squealing with blows and fire. Goblins, on the other hand, will skulk and hide in order to ambush and trap the party – fleeing from more powerful foes, but always ready to set a new snare for the unwary character.” – E. Gary Gygax, writing in the extensive advice section in adventure module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands.

Game night. You’re the Dungeon Master, and the players have put your monsters to the fireball– all except one. You mentioned that one goblin, peeking in from a far doorway. In the mayhem since, this detail has slipped from player attention. They ask “Is there treasure? Are there secret doors?” The goblin is forgotten.

That goblin just watched these bloodthirsty maniacs casually incinerate his big cousins with enormous flaming murder bombs. No way is he going to stick around! But what does that mean? What happens next in the game? What do you, master of the game, actually do next?

Decide quickly, Dungeon Master!

I bet you have an answer already. If you’ve been a game master, you’ve made this kind of decision hundreds if not thousands of times. The hidden goblin barely seems to be a problem at all, right? Sure – but this is also where things get interesting. This simple question has many answers, and each of them suggests something different about your job as a DM.

The hidden goblin problem is about the things you don’t say in a game that’s made of saying stuff. It’s about the hidden work of a Game Master – hidden from players but also sometimes from the GM as well. It’s about trust, and imagination, and consistency. It’s about how exactly role-playing games are played.

Let’s dive in.

Guidance from Moldvay

The goblin was hidden from the player characters, and now it has escaped. Everyone’s looking at me, because I’m the DM! What do I do now?

  • Do I just have the goblin run away and forget about it? That sounds a bit like cheating to make things easy on the players!
  • Do I keep making hidden moves for it, like I’m playing Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula? That sounds like a lot of effort for one measly goblin!

I know – let’s see what the rules say!

Looking for answers, I pick up the edition that was my first taste of gaming: Tom Moldvay’s Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, from 1980. And I look through… and through… and through. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that directly answers the question – nothing that tells me what to do with that goblin. However there are some useful hints! The example of play, for a start – the characters are arguing about what to do with some captives:

This excerpt suggests that even though the players might leave some hobgoblins tied up behind them, the DM won’t necessarily forget about them. In fact the DM might have them become a huge problem for the players in short order! Now, there is nothing here that actually tells the DM what to do. It gives no guidance on how the DM should make decisions about what might happen once the players leave. What is the chance the captive might wriggle free of their bonds and raise the alarm? How long will it take? Is there a die to roll? That’s left unstated.

Still, the message is clear – when you play D&D, if the adventurers leave captives or hidden goblins lying around, those loose ends can cause problems later. It’s up to you to figure out exactly how to make it happen, DM. Presuming you even notice that’s part of your job in the first place.

Actually, that’s an important point. The hidden goblin raises a deeper question for a DM, namely: what is my job? What am I even supposed to be doing?

No, but seriously: what is this DMing thing?

The 1981 Moldvay edition of the D&D Basic rules introduced the game to a huge audience of complete novices. Tens of thousands of people tried to learn D&D from this set… And nowhere within its pages is there a point where it describes what the DM’s job actually is.

It isn’t completely silent, of course! It mentions several specific responsibilities in passing:

  • Create the dungeon environment before play.
  • Describe what the player characters see.
  • Roll for wandering monsters every few turns.
  • Be fair, like a referee.
  • Take responsibility for NPC companions.

There’s also an example of play, from which a savvy reader might infer some more DM responsibilities:

  • Answer player questions about the world around them.
  • Ask questions of the players about their characters.
  • To decide what the player characters see, use notes as a basis for on-the-spot invention.

However – and this is important – nowhere do these slivers of guidance come together into a coherent overall directive. There’s lots of this is part of your job, but not even a hint of your job is this.

This isn’t just Moldvay. There is no such description of the DM’s job in the original three D&D books from 1974, when the DM was still called the referee; or in the 1978 Basic Rules edited by J. Eric Holmes; or in the same year’s AD&D Players Handbook; or, incredibly, on any of the 240 wildly dense pages of the 1979 AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. The Dungeon Master throughout this entire period is fundamentally mysterious and undefined, glimpsed only through mirrors like a medusa. Is it any wonder that every DM would interpret the role in a unique way?

The role of the DM would eventually be described in official D&D rulebooks. This begins with Frank Mentzer’s marvellous 1983 edition of the Basic rules – excerpt above – a mere NINE YEARS after the first version of D&D was published! But even with this guidance in place, giving the DM an organizing principle to use when figuring out their job, plenty of empty spaces would remain where things remained… unclear.

Including, of course, what to do with that pesky hidden goblin.

(To be continued…)

7 thoughts on “The problem of the hidden goblin

    1. morgue says:

      I remember that Gloomhaven review well! It was brilliantly provocative and insightful. I think the series of posts I have lined up may cross paths with several of the points you make.

  1. Josh Fox says:

    Noice. What this is mostly doing at the moment is making me think how great PBTA is for spelling some of this stuff out, and how I didn’t properly appreciate what it was doing until just now. Because my gaming culture is “that’s obvious”. But it isn’t, it’s what I’ve been taught over the course of decades.

    Looking forward to reading the rest!

    1. morgue says:

      PBTA is still astonishing to me. It discovered a totally new framework for play, and we’re still figuring out the consequences of that!

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