A Game Most Epic  

Posted by Unai in ,

This is the story of that time I ran a Dungeons and Dragons game with 11 players, how and why that happened, and what I did to survive the experience.

Charisma and River

Somewhen in late 2014 I started directing an (almost) monthly DnD campaign with my co-workers from 13AM Games. Faced with the challenge of having eight players, I decided to divide them in two parties, instead of them playing together. They would be two separate groups of adventurers in the same world, though in different locations. The players agreed not to tell the other group about their own characters and adventures, so that when the eventual crossover occured, the surprise would be big-time. I was too busy to plan many adventures in advance, much less how or when the crossover was going to be... But, anyhow, that's when the idea for the Big Game was conceived.

For the next few months, both groups enjoyed their first adventures. On one hand, we had "Team Charisma", formed by famous-to-be bard Sam Springsteen, small but ferocious halfling barbarian Vorrix "the Kneecapper", old cheese-loving sorcerer Babs Dillholestein III, and austere and nature-loving drud elf Finrod. On the other, "Team River", which included wise and cunning sorcerer Perch Haddock, strong and well-meaning sailor Strøm, dumb and former gladiator half-orc Onth, and sneaky and cowardly rogue Klebitz Grey.

Team Charisma, famous for resolving about 90% of their problems through various Charisma rolls (a large percentage of them including the Disguise skill) were tasked with the quest to find a cure to a mysterious illness that made skin turn blue and eventually caused death. Team River, effective and fun but indecisive and with a fondness of collecting useless information, was offered a huge payment for capturing the Master of Coin, suspected of treason, while he travelled to the city of Melossa.

At the end of Act I, Team Charisma had been lured to the swamps north of Swamptown (my skill for improvising town names is uncanny) and got trapped in a fight between the wererat clans living in the swamps and some mysterious hermit warriors who were afflicted by the mysterious blue skin illness. Team River and the Master of Coin had been captured by dark elves from the forests north of Melossa and were trying a daring escape. Then, without the other team's knowledge, they shared a boss fight — a large, ancient, undead, tentacled creature, summoned by the hermits and the dark elves respectively, next to mysterious perfectly semi-spherical craters.

The Fourth View

For Act II, two friends of ours joined the game, as Plum and Beatris, half-orc Paladin and Cleric. As I wanted them to play with everyone, I decided that they were going to bounce among both Teams every two sessions. Plum and Beatris were agents of a secret religious group that was trying to protect the kingdom from the threat of the Fourth View, a sect that goes again the mainstream Three Gods. The Fourth View is trying to find four magic rings that would grant powers to whomever performs a certain ritual with them. Both the dark elves and the warrior hermits that both teams fought in the previous game were part of the Fourth View.

Team River managed to escape Melossa, besieged by the Fourth View's Admiral Samosa, with one of the rings. Along with Plum and Beatris, who found one of the rings in a crypt in Nonapolis, they arrived at the Crimson Banner, a monastery-fortress with a labyrinth-library where they found more information about the five adventurers who centuries ago found and used the rings, and then scattered them across the world. Then, they travelled through the Thunder Wastelands and helped Onth turn an orc crusade against the humans into a battle against Admiral Samosa's fleet.

Meanwhile, after many travels, Team Charisma found their own ring and more information on the past in the dwarven lands, where they met the old dwarf king of Ur-Kharâd, who happened to be one of those adventurers, and assured them that the rigns' power could heal the mysterious illness. Meeting Plum and Beatris in the royal castle of Green Banner, they found the last ring. But, after being fooled by an elf sorceress, Dalaruen, they witnessed the Fourth View's leader, prince Olandar, slaying his brother and his family and steal his dragon.

As I had already planned, Act II was to conclude with a crossover between the two teams, an event that had been in the works for over a year. But there was one more variable. A week before the crossover, I was talking to Nick, our Storytelling professor during the Game Design program where all of us had met, has asked if he could partake in one of our sessions. And it occured to me that a man from whom I've learned so much about narrative and games deserved to be a part of the Crossover, my largest DnD game ever, and play with everyone else at the same time.

Eleven players. Ambitious? Ambitious as fuck.

A Game Most Epic

The game began, obviously, with the meeting on both teams. This would happen at a temple far away in the North in the Thunder Wastelands, where the ritual with the Rings was to be performed. I gave both groups (and Plum and Beatrice on their own) a few minutes to plan what they wanted to do when they met, as both groups knew that the other was coming. What ensued was an attempt of Team Charisma to disguise themselves as nuns and a camel (no comments) and attack Team River (one of whom, Klebitz, was sneakily hidden avoiding any comfrontation). Fortunately, Team Charisma's attack didn't go very well. As soon as they were on the losing side, with Beatrice and Plum not helping them, and Finrod not wanting to fight, they agreed to stop and talk. Soon, they were all friends. Kind of. Friends enough.

Once that I had taken care of that, as I knew well that my players had wanted that fight to happen, I could begin the adventure proper. We introduced Nick's character, the enigmatic guardian of the temple. At first, I wasn't sure what character I was going to have Nick play. He had suggested playing a mindflayer, his favourites; and we had joked about him being a gelatinous cube. But he had also accepted playing just anything that was convinient, of course. I thought of NPC roles he could fulfill, such as some ally coming to help, but that didn't fit best with my plans, and I didn't want it to feel forced. I also considered having him as one of the main bad guys, who would appear during the final scene, but that would limit how long he could play.

For a few days, I was out of ideas... Until the obvious dawned on me. My final objective was that at the end of the session, when the ritual was performed, the rings were dividied among the different teams. What if, instead of making the characters fight (or use diplomacy, or negotiate, or whatever) for the rings, I had a character that decided it for them, based on their performance on some trials? It wouldn't have worked well if that was an NPC, as it would feel very arbitrary on the DM's side. But this way, everything worked. The mysterious mindflayer (because, why not?) appeared, magically took the rings, and told them (in Nicks's unique and astonishing way) that he would test them, etc. For the rest of the game, Nick would alternate between the guardian of the temple, much of the time a voice telling the players what to do; and the monsters that would appear inside the temple... which, obviously, included gelatinous cubes. Therefore, he was, in a way, more of a secondary DM than a player. Maybe a mix between the two. Hey, with a group this big, one has to improvise!

So, after an hour or so of game, the ten characters walked inside the temple. They had to follow a narrow corridor and, as it's usual, they had to decide what order they walked on. For the unexperienced, this is because there's often traps, and monster ambushes, and many more pitfalls throughout a dungeon such as this one. At one point the path diverted into three corridors. They chose one... As soon as three of them had crossed, though, of course, a stone slab fell and blocked the rest of the players to follow them. So they chose one of the others... and the same happened after three of them had entered. The remaining four players had to go through the third corridor. This way, I divided the players in three smaller, more manageable groups, while at the same time mixng Team Charisma and Team River together. Yes, I'm a resourceful DM.

The Trials

After, if I recall correctly, the chance of falling into one of those pit-full-of-spikes traps I put in absolutely every session ever, they came upon the first puzzle of the night. Each group found some weird triangular symbols on a grid, etched in the wall; and right in front of them there was a similar looking grid in the floor. When they stepped on the wrong tiles in the grid, some magical fire trap would hurt them a bit. One of the groups figured out that the number of triangles indicated the order in which they had to step on the tiles. Another one managed to use ropes and jumping potions to skip the puzzle altogether (as a DM, I completely support creative solutions). The third group didn't figure out neither way and just walked across and lost some hit points.

After the puzzle, each of the group had to fight a gelatinous cube controlled by Nick. Klebitz almost died, but other than that it wasn't bad, just another obstacle. With the dead cubes behind, the groups found the second puzzle, another iteration of the previous one. There were more triangles this time, and besides the number of triangles, their colour mattered as well. And as a further complication, players quickly realized that this time their grid didn't pair with their triangles, but with one of the other groups, and they had to shout to each other. The second puzzle was solved!

They all converged in a large room where a monstrous hydra awaited them. It was a powerful hydra, but all ten players together managed to defeat it. It might've not been the most difficult fight ever (I like the challange being in the narrative, not in dice rolls), but it felt epic enough.

At some point during the fight, someone pointed me out that in proper Game Design pacing, I would've had a third phase for the puzzle. It's this formula that you can see in many video games, such as the Super Mario ones, where a level consists of a first part introducing a new mechanic; a second part making it more difficult; and a third with a new tweak to the mechanic. This is the kind of comment you get as a DM when your players have all studied Game Design! But they were right. Game Design and Dungeon Mastering are very closely related.

Anyhow, back to the game, Nick's mindflayer reappeared and awarded half of the group. He gave the Ring of Might to Vorix, for all the killing he'd done; the Ring of Blood to Perch, for his powerful use of magic; the Ring of Life to Babs, for caring for his brother and teammates; the Ring of Luck to Klebitz, for the lucky roll that saved him from the gelatinous cube; and the Voice (the ability to perform the ritual with the rings) to Finrod, for reasons I don't remember.

Enter Final Cutscene, Part One. I wanted this to be more interactive, but we were running out of time, so I just did it mostly narrative. Long story short, the Bad Guys appeared (prince Olandar, sorceress Dalaruen, and admiral Samosa) with some troops and demanded the rings be given to them. The characters didn't, and prepared to execute the ritual.

For the ritual, the rings had some weird symbols and words inside. Guess what the symbols were? SUPRISE! Frakking triangles. The same triangles from the puzzles, which determined the order in which the words had to be sung for the ritual to be complete. Did anyone really thing I wouldn't have done the puzzle in three parts? Mwahaha.

Anyhow, the words probably bear as little meaning to you, my dear reader, as they did for my players. But they sounded dark and ominous.

Baga Biga Higa
Laga Boga Sega
Zai Zoi Bele
Harma Tiro Pun

Of course they sound dark and ominous. And Basque-ish. As soon as Finrod had pronounced the words aloud, I played the following song and took over for Final Cutscene, Part Two.

The result was EPIC. The music fit perfectly with the narrative and big things happened when the music went in crescendo. For the whole length of the song, I had all my players just staring in awe. Mostly. As much as I could expect them to.

How did I manage this? My players later asked me if it was a coincidence that they fit so well, or if I had prepared it word by word. Neither. I do nothing by coincidence, and I had had over a year to prepare this. But at the same time, a word by word would've been mad, and difficult to rearrange to improvise if the players did anything unexpected. What I'd done is dividing the song in different parts and deciding what part of the narrative to talk about during each part. As it's a song I listen to quite often, I always knew what was coming when.

0:00: A mysterious, dark and eldritch voice sings and repeats the words. The words start echoing in the room with more voices singing.
1:25: A light surrounds the ring-bearers, each of whom starts feeling some tickling power inside of them.
2:03: The temple begins to shake as the voice starts talking forbidden words previously unheard. All the characters are NPCs look around in disbelief as the ceiling begins to fall down. The guardian of the temple casts a barrier spell that protects the ringless characters; while Dalaruen does the same for Olandar, Samosa and herself; and the ring bearers and the Voice are protected by the light.
3:46: As the walls crumble to dust, a perfect semi-spherical crater, same as the ones at the end of Act I, is revealed. Amorphous and gigantic limbs start emerging out of the ground. As the creatures emerge, the characters recognize them as the ancient monsters that they fought at the end of Act I. Hundreds of them.
4:40: Dalaruen of the Fourth View steps forward and realizes some weird gestures.
4:52: The monsters kneel in front of Dalaruen, who smiles maliciously. She orders the monsters to follow her. They start marching southwards.
5:24: The light surrounding the four ring bearers and the Voice intensifies... and they disappear. They are in some cold, rocky, uninhabited island in the middle of the sea.



Act 3 was set to begin. Not only had the story taken a new turn and the final baddies had been set, but it had also been a really fun and giant-sized game, and the two teams that had been together for a year and a half were now shaken and mixed. It had been a game full of surprises, from Nick's appearance to that final mix, and everyone had had a great time.

As soon as it was over I sighed in relief. It had been one of the most fun experiences I've ever had, but also one of the most tiresome. It had been extremely taxing and the game required all my skill and techniques as a Dungeon Master. I don't think I'll be doing it again... at least for a few years. But the results were definitely worthwile. How many DMs can boast of having done an 11-player Dungeons & Dragons game of such level of epicness?

And now, Act 3 begins...

This entry was posted on sábado, junio 25, 2016 at 22:01 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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