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How Goblin Bet was born from a casino in hell

Salty Bet meets D&D in this throwback to old-school Internet novelty sites.

John Harris, Contributor

December 5, 2023

11 Min Read
Goblin Bet Screenshot
Screenshot via Goblin Bet website.

If you were to drive over to goblin.bet you would find an entertaining bit of internet fluff: pixel art monsters fighting it out amongst themselves for your amusement and fake betting pleasure. The monsters use the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition ruleset and stats, in their System Reference Document (SRD) form for legal reasons. The fights are all completely automated, arranged into brackets, going from a challenge rating of 1/8 to up to 15 and above. Monsters that win a bracket advance up until the next, until an overall winner is crowned. And then it all starts over again.

These kinds of fun web games feel like they used to be more prevalent on the internet, and I was pleased to find a new web game of its ilk now in 2023. We spoke with its creator and maintainer about his project, where it’s been, and where it’s going. 

Who are you, and what is Goblin Bet?

I’m Misha Favorov, an indie game designer specializing in the space between digital and tabletop games. My most traditional digital game is probably Sumer, which I served as designer and lead programmer for, but even that was a hybrid of Euro-style worker placement board games and digital platformers. These days, I mostly work in the TTRPG space.

I also teach game design at LIU Post. I feel very fortunate to have been able to break into academia, although it is a bit of a double-edged sword; I can work on games like Goblin Bet without much worry as to their profitability, but as my responsibilities have grown, my time to maintain my projects is definitely a bit squeezed.

When and how did Goblin Bet get started?

Goblin Bet came out of Covid. I was stranded in San Diego, my teaching work mostly dried up, and I decided to teach myself web development. I’d already been making games in C# for nearly a decade and had taken a few stabs at web games previously, but they had never gone anywhere. This time, I decided to just dive deep into full-stack web dev using modern tools (Goblin Bet is made with a React front end and a NodeJS back end).

Initially, I was making a sort of living module, a replacement for PDFs for RPG content that would make things like cross-referencing and mid-play edits much easier. However, one day, while I was walking the dog and listening to a D&D actual play podcast, there was a segment where the players were in a casino in hell, and the DM actually played out little low-level monster arena fights for the players to bet on. I thought to myself, “Surely somebody’s made something like this online already, right?” but no, nobody else had done this. It just felt like one of those holes in reality that needed filling, you know?

Most of my other games are things where I feel like I have clever design ideas, or like I’m trying something experimental. Goblin Bet feels very different than all those; design-wise, it’s really just Salty Bet meets Dungeons & Dragons. It really feels less like I designed it and more like I just happened to be the one to discover it.

Goblin Bet feels like a relic of an earlier era of the internet, one that may have seen its time come again. How has its popularity changed over time, and how is it doing these days?

Ha, I’m hoping this type of thing will become more and more common! You can definitely see my background in its design; it’s designed way more like a game UI than a webpage. I’m guessing you’re probably referring to stuff like Salty Bet or Newgrounds by ‘earlier era of the internet,’ but formally my biggest inspiration was probably Nicky Case; she does these really cool explanatory web experiences like “The Evolution of Trust” that aren’t quite traditional games and aren’t quite traditional websites.

As for popularity, Goblin Bet definitely rises and falls. I put it online relatively quickly for testing, but didn’t advertise it at all. Still, every now and then, someone would find it and post it on Twitter, and I’d get a rush where there’d be a dozen or two people on at a time for a few weeks. The first big break the game had was getting posted to Reddit, where it absolutely blew up; we were consistently at 500+ people playing the game at any given moment.

The big break was a huge problem for us, actually. I hadn’t yet added any sort of account system in, so gold was super easy to hack, and (more importantly) there was no reliable way to ban people. When 4chan found out about it from Reddit, the group chat got really vile, and I was stuck putting out a bunch of hotfixes trying to filter out posts with the words most commonly associated with sexual violence and racism. It took me about a week or two, if I remember right, to get accounts in, and things have been very chill ever since, but we’ve never quite hit those player numbers again.

Things are pretty quiet these days. There’s usually a few people playing, and every now and then, it’ll get posted somewhere new, and we’ll have dozens in chat at any given time again, but it’s hard holding onto popular attention. It doesn’t help that the update cycle has slowed down quite a bit as my academic career has progressed.

Goblin Bet follows the pattern of the "Salty Bet" style of web games, where spectators on the internet wager pretend money on some activity, in this case, D&D monster battles. Of course, there are only so many D&D monsters. How do you keep fights between the same two general species interesting?

That’s really the question at the heart of the game’s design. I’ve always viewed my role in all this, given that I’m not the one designing D&D 5e’s rules, as someone trying to facilitate storytelling. There’s some of that inherent to the game’s premise—seeing a goblin trying to stab a pack horse to death and either succeeding or getting kicked in the head is inherently dramatic, funny, and a bit narrative. Most of the mechanics I’ve added have just been trying to reinforce that.

So, at the end of each bracket, I’ll post some stats about notable things that happened; if some monster got smushed especially hard, or lost people a lot of money, or absolutely refused to die, I’ll try to recognize that and throw up some text celebrating that accomplishment. The pet system is also meant to do the same; if a monster accomplishes something really unusual or special, it gives the players a way to adopt that monster and give them a name that reflects their actions. That monster can then appear in later fights, and when they do, it’s a chance for their story to continue.

Even the mutation system was, for me, as much about letting the monsters feel different from each other as it was keeping things mechanically fresh. A goblin’s a goblin, but a goblin with a vorpal sword or a ring of invisibility or a horrible smell has just enough going on that you can start to project a personality onto them.

Screenshot via Goblin Bet website.

The style of the pixel art graphics is that many of the monsters look cute, especially the dragons. I don't understand it myself, but in some circles, there is a bit of a stigma against pixel art. I think it suits your game. Who made the art? What influenced its style?

The pixel art is all from my collaborator, Rosalind Chapman. She’s really who made Goblin Bet what it is; my initial plan was to make the monsters just be their names bumping into each other, but meeting and working with her really took the game to someplace special. We met on a TTRPG Discord, and she volunteered to make some art for the game.

I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into; she’s a really amazing pixel artist, both in terms of cramming a ton of personality into a tiny number of pixels and in the speed of output. She burnt through making art for all the open-license 5e monsters way faster than I could code them up, and I loved just about every one of them.

She also designs non-5e TTRPGs and digital games! She put out Valiant Quest a bit after Goblin Bet came out, which is an extremely cool tactical battle TTRPG that blends old school and 4e-D&D gameplay in a really elegant way; I definitely suggest people check it out (you can also find her other stuff here).

Goblin Bet stages its fights using the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules, which I imagine is a bit of a concern due to Wizards of the Coast's litigiousness. Goblin Bet gets around that by using the System Reference Document (SRD), a cut-down version of the rules provided for third party compatibility. Have you had to make any concessions with Goblin Bet to stay in the good graces of WotC's legal department?

For sure—we’ve stuck pretty closely to the monsters provided in the SRD. Sadly, no Beholders or Mind Flayers in Goblin Bet. We’ve also got some Kobold Press monsters in there, since those fit under the OGL as well.

The trickiest part may be for the PC-monsters, though—it does mean the character options we have for them are quite limited. The plan for once I get around to finishing those off is probably just to homebrew up some additional options of our own. Kind of a “we have battlemasters at home” vibe.

I'm interested in how RPG-style games simulate their game worlds. Besides the basics like HP and AC, Goblin Bet provides a one-dimensional battlefield on which its combatants can either advance or retreat. It reminds me of the combat simulation from classic computer RPGs like Wizardry and The Bard's Tale. Why did you use this and not the more typical grid-based tactical battlefield usually favored for D&D since 3rd edition?

Adapting a TTRPG to digital inherently involves a whole bunch of strategic omission, right? I knew I was going to have to code up a few hundred monsters, most of which contain some number of unique mechanics, so I had to go in with a plan to keep the codebase as simple as possible. Making the space as simple as possible—just a distance between the monsters—was intended to prevent the need for pathfinding or positioning code. Terrain, pathfinding, etc all open the game up to all sorts of edge case bugs and complications that really didn’t feel like they were important to the heart of what made the game interesting. It’s always just a 1v1 fight for the same reason—I wanted to keep the monster AI code very simple, and the moment you’re calculating optimal targets or figuring out which tile is the most strategically valuable to stand on the codebase suddenly gets much more complex and hard to build custom cases into.

I was surprised by one thing, though—5e is relatively easy to adapt since it does very much feel like the monsters were designed to have simple mechanical strategies baked into their movesets; a 5e battle is surprisingly interesting even when all parties run totally on autopilot. Monster abilities and spells also tend to have strict mechanical triggers working off of keywords and hard stats. The system works very cleanly even without any creativity or narrative backdrop.

Which is probably why I actually don’t play very much 5e. I actually had not ever played it (other than once during the beta) at the time I started Goblin Bet, and have only joined a group to try it out in the last year or so. I tend to prefer more OSR systems like Basic D&D or Into the Odd when I run games. I’m in RPGs for the freeform creative problem-solving, which is funny because Goblin Bet is pretty the total opposite of that.

What kind of publicity has Goblin Bet gotten? How do you get the word out?

I mostly already answered this [above], but I’ve been punting active promotion down the road. I figure once I get those last few CR 25+ monsters and Level 5+ PCs in, I’ll do a promotional push for the game, and then that will be that.

How do you keep the lights on for your free web game? Is it a challenge? How do you get donations? What kind of incentives do you offer?

So, my day job is as a professor of game design, that’s how I pay my bills. One of the things I really like about that is how it means I don’t need to worry so much about the monetization of things I work on; they exist more to be a part of my personal practice than as things to make me rich in and of themselves.

Goblin Bet is a tricky one to monetize ethically, as well; because it’s basically a fake gambling game it could become very predatory (and possibly illegal?) very quickly if we started to encourage players to put real money into it. We do have a Patreon, but we made a conscious decision to keep the rewards from it purely aesthetic. We want people to pitch in out of love for the game, not because we’re hitting their dopamine triggers just right to trigger an addictive reaction. As a result, the Patreon tends to help cover roughly half to all of our hosting costs and I just pay the rest out of pocket.

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