Tuesday, January 12, 2021


Rona Jaffe's 1981 novel, Mazes and Monsters, is probably the best known example of a book using roleplaying games as the basis for its plot, in large part because of the television movie based on it. However, it was far from the only instance of such a book. Another one, published the same year, is John Coyne's Hobgoblin. Unlike Mazes and Monsters, which I have still never read, Hobgoblin is a book with which I am quite familiar. My father was an avid reader both of fiction and non-fiction; I remember he would check out huge numbers of books from the library every few weeks and spent most of his spare time reading. Occasionally, he'd recommend something he'd read to me and we'd talk about the book once I'd had the chance to read it too. 

In the case of Hobgoblin, our discussions began when he asked me if I'd ever heard of Brian Boru. At the time, I hadn't and he told me that he was supposed to be an ancient Irish king. He was also the name of a roleplaying game character in a novel he was reading. Hearing this piqued my interest and, after he'd finished reading it, he gave me the book to me so that I could see for myself. 

Hobgoblin is not a great book by any means, but it'd be unfair to Coyne to lump it with Mazes and Monsters. Unlike Jaffe, whose story is as sensationalist as it is absurd, Coyne is telling a different kind of tale, a weird coming-of-age horror novel in which roleplaying is not seen as dangerous so much as childish. There's a strong suggestion in Hobgoblin that roleplaying is an emotional retreat, an unwillingness to "grow up" and come to terms with the sometimes harsh realities of life. Its protagonist, Scott Gardiner, is an intelligent but awkward teenage boy whose father has recently died and who has moved with his mother to a rural upstate New York far from the city where he spent most of his life. Already an avid player of the titular RPG, Hobgoblin, he becomes even more obsessed with it, to the point where he begins to see monsters from the game around his new home.

The book is silly and lurid at times – it's a horror novel, after all – but, unlike Mazes and Monsters, I don't get the impression that Coyne had it in for roleplaying games. In fact, the game of Hobgoblin, to the extent we get any sense of it at all, seems vaguely plausible as a real game, in part because it's steeped in Irish mythology and folklore, which lends it a certain verisimilitude. Nevertheless, the rules of the game are still a bizarre mishmash of elements, with a board, cards, dice, and miniature figures. I doubt Coyne had ever played D&D when he wrote the book and his descriptions of the game strike me as the kind of thing an outsider might well say after a fairly cursory investigation into the subject. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter, because Hobgoblin isn't actually about roleplaying games. Its imaginary RPG is more a metaphor than a plot device.

Thinking about Hobgoblin is another reminder of just how revolutionary roleplaying games seemed in the late 1970s and early '80s. From the vantage point of 2021, when RPGs and RPG-like entertainments are not only ubiquitous but in fact form a sizable portion of all pastimes, it can be difficult to understand what all the fuss – and worry – was about. Even having lived through those times, it's often hard to remember the sheer newness of the concept. RuneQuest famously contains a dedication to Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax for having "opened Pandora's box," which, I think, recognizes the effect that roleplaying really did have one the wider culture. I say it all the time: RPGs changed the world. It's little wonder that people at the time might react with a combination of fear and curiosity upon first encountering them.


  1. I really enjoyed Hobgoblin when I was younger and read it again just a few years ago. To me, the descriptions if the game were fascinating. I've wanted to play in a mythical Irish setting using the creatures in the novel since I read it. Your observations of the novel are spot on.

  2. Wow. That brought back some long-forgotten memories.

  3. I loved that book back in the day. My older sister was a horror fan, and had gotten it, then shared with me because I was a D&D player. I was a little miffed when Gygax gave it a pretty savage review in Dragon (along with Mazes & Monsters). I was a teenager when I first read it, and last read it probably when I was around forty, I still enjoyed it.