How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever

Third-edition Dungeons & Dragons reached stores in 2000. Its popularity fueled a number of “living” campaigns similar to today’s Adventurers League and Pathfinder Society. One such campaign, Living Arcanis hosted an event called The Battle of Semar at the Winter Fantasy convention. This event billed itself as a Battle Interactive. Before then, living campaigns held plain interactives. Paizo Publisher Erik Mona recalls, “Prior to Living Arcanis, most (if not all) interactives involved players wandering around a room with several ‘activity booths,’ occasional mini-adventures, and other non-adventure opportunities. The idea (though not wholly the practice) was that once you stepped into an interactive, you ‘were’ your character, and in-character chatter was highly encouraged.” The Battle of Semar gathered many tables of players to fight together toward the common goal of freeing the fortress city of Semar. The session might not have been the first such epic event, but it popularized the form. Suddenly every living campaign sponsored battle interactives. The format lives on in the D&D Epics and the Pathfinder Society Specials.

These multi-table, epic events have brought some of my favorite Dungeons & Dragons game sessions. At big conventions, they gather hundreds of players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective.

Just 3 years ago, I stumbled into serving as a dungeon master in my first such event: ADCP4-2 Lost City of Suldolphor by Dan Anderson. I had a blast. Since then, I’ve run tables at five epic events, and played in two more. Still, that first one stands as my favorite.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

This year, after running a table for DDEP2 Mulmaster Undone, the first of Gen Con’s two Epics, I tweeted, “Have the D&D Epics lost the plot? Recently they are fun but not special.” The event gave no sense of adventuring parties joining in a grand endeavor, and no interaction between tables.

The convention venue created many of the problems: Organizers could not use a public address system. They could not project results on a large screen. The schedule created severe time constraints. By the end, when the organizer would have announced results, the convention center cut the lights and power. But even aside from these handicaps, this Epic lacked the ambition of my first Battle Interactive.

The experience made me think of my past events, the many elements that I loved, and some elements that fell flat. I wondered how to build the best multi-table epic ever.

For more than 10 years, volunteers and professionals in the gaming community have written and organized these events. Some draw on experience that dwarfs mine. So who am I to explain how to create the most epic event ever? Nobody. Nonetheless, I will tell you what made my favorite events so good, how future events might even be better, and I’ll try to give you your money’s worth. If no one sounds off to tell me where I’m wrong, I’ll be disappointed.

Gather the room with a role-playing performance

The Lost City of Suldolphor did not begin with a dungeon master reading box text. Instead, Dan Anderson and M. Sean Molly stood at the front of the banquet hall, and performed as WeavePasha and Ala’Ammar, the adventurers’ patrons. This bit of theater did a far better job of setting the scene than any lone DM could have. Plus it brought the room together in a common mission. From the start, we were no longer separate tables isolated in our separate teams. We stood as a league of heroes standing together in a great fight.

No battle interactive or epic should ever begin with individual DM’s introducing their tables to the adventure. Setting the scene calls for a bit of theater. Don’t tell me our hobby lacks enough story tellers and role players to put on a show.

Establish a goal for everyone, and then show their progress

Epic events unite players at many game tables to reach a common goal. Each table’s success contributes to the final outcome. While players at the tables race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war.

These events work best when the organizers use a projector to display progress: battles won and lost, territories captured, and MacGuffins claimed. The players may not know the rules of the game within the game, but they must see how its outcome turns on their actions.

Without an ongoing show of progress, epic events play less like games and more like tests: Everyone works alone, stops, and then gets the results. The lack cripples the event.

Embrace the fight for glory

Especially at Gen Con’s Epic events, the marshals who match players with DMs face an extra challenge: Many of their DMs are new to running for strangers, so they want easier, low-level tables. Meanwhile, high-level tables fill most of the room. For epic events, players typically bring their highest-level characters. Everyone wants to show off their strongest character; everyone wants their best shot at glory.

With a big stage and a shared goal, epic events fuel gamers’ competitive fire. They want to bring attention to their table and to their characters. This makes players rush to complete as many challenges as possible, to contribute as much as possible to the community’s success, to bring glory to their table and their PCs. The urgency creates an electric atmosphere that no single-table session can match.

The best epic events embrace the hunger for glory. They offer more challenges than the players can handle and the hardest challenges the players dare to accept. Players inclined to fight for the spotlight should have a chance to take it. Just as knights once competed to take the vanguard in the battle, tables could compete to take the most dangerous—and glorious—tasks. For a taste of glory, some players will even sacrifice beloved characters to suicide missions.

Focus on combat encounters and clear challenges.

A year after my first battle interactive, I served as a DM in my second. For me, this session didn’t feel like as much of a smash has that first event.

This adventure featured an assortment of challenges contributed by various authors. Some of the challenges came as battles, others offered skill challenges or even role playing diversions. Something for everyone, except the battlefield reports on the projection screen kindled my players’ taste for glory. When the adventure led to role playing, they grew frustrated by the pace. The organizers wanted a certain number of parties to tackle each encounter, so I could not always steer the players to challenges that would suit them. I worry that I failed to leave all the players happy with the session.

Fifth-edition D&D accommodates all play styles, but not every event must fit all play styles. D&D epics work best with short, clear missions. The Living Forgotten Realms Battle-interactive adventures included this disclaimer: “This adventure is combat-intensive. Players who do not enjoy combat encounters are less likely to enjoy this adventure.” A good epic event might allow players to choose role-playing challenges, but it cannot require them. When the event results begin to appear on the screen, few players have patience for tangents. An epic event that forces every play style fails to play to the epic format’s strengths.

Offer players a choice of challenges

This year at Gen Con, I ran a table at the low-level track of DDEP3 Blood Above Blood Below. The scenario put PCs in a gladiatorial contest that evoked the spectacles of imperial Rome. Scattered across a massive, flooded arena stood a number of platforms patterned after the cities on the Moonsea. For example, the Mulmaster platform punished characters who used arcane magic. Characters boarded boats and raced to capture flags from the platforms.

This buffet of challenges proved brilliant. From a distance, the PCs could see enough of each platform’s encounter to create meaningful choices. Players selected targets that suited their interests and their characters’ strengths.

The abundance of islands led players to move as fast as they dared to tackle as many challenges as possible. Critically, no table could collect all the flags.

In the same event, another track included a single, big challenge. I loved the track’s adventure, but some tables finished early and their players started begging for chances to help at other tables.

Epic events should always have more challenges and more encounters than any single table can complete in the time allotted.

The choice doesn’t have to come from a buffet. Players could also choose from a menu, with scouting reports that suggest the style a difficulty of the challenges.

Let players find a difficulty level

An epic event at a major convention welcomes a range of players and characters. Some tables feature folks still learning the game. Others include tacticians and min-maxers seeking to dominate encounters, the harder the better. Events like the Lost City of Suldolphor accommodated disparate skill levels by giving players a chance to choose a level of difficulty ranging up to glory—there’s that word again. The tactical gamers could flaunt their skills by selecting the most difficult level. Plus, they could hardly complain if some of their heroes fell in battle.

A clever event could even allow players to select a difficulty with the in the game setting. In the early days of D&D, players chose a difficulty level by choosing how deep into the dungeon they dared to explore. Epic events could parcel out missions of various difficulty and let tables choose which ones they wished to tackle.

Harder challenges might contribute more toward victory, although the contributions must be scaled by tier so even beginning PCs can weigh in the outcome.

Set party objectives that contribute to the overall goal

Some multi-table events have a shtick where a boss monster visits each table like the bride and groom at a wedding reception. Each table gets an exchange of attacks, schedule permitting.

Confrontation at Candlekeep put PCs in towers and flew a colossal dragon to each. I saw a PC jump on the dragon and ride table to table. The player was giddy. In an unforgettable moment of glory, he seized the spotlight at every table. The event led the designer to add the tactic to the encounter description.

However, these multi-table tours suffer drawbacks. When the boss leaves, no one at the table wants to go back to fighting mooks. That battle feels now meaningless, and probably is. Then when the boss finally falls, most players just hear cheers from another table. Most do not share the victory, or even feel they contributed much. The climactic win feels like a letdown. At a big con in a noisy room, I have sat at tables that never even heard their battle’s conclusion.

In the strongest multi-table finales, each table works to accomplish a separate objective that contributes to the overall goal. Perhaps each table must destroy some fragment of an artifact, or close a planar rift while monsters spill out, or slay a creature that carries a fragment of the master’s soul. Fantasy opens limitless options and plenty of monsters for everyone.

Foster interactivity

Without interaction between tables, epic events feel much like any other D&D game, so designers keep looking for ways to encourage interaction. I’ve seen promising techniques, but none have cracked the problem.

Many events let players call for help from other tables. But in play, players virtually never seek help. Folks play D&D to act as powerful heroes. No one wants to beg help from strangers. They would rather die fighting.

Another approach lets events at one table spill to other tables, as when a hero at one table jumps on a dragon and rides it to the next. Most commonly, the head DM announces an event when, say, a table completes an objective, and then DMs at the tables act on it.

A multi-table battle needs these sorts of events to feel interactive, but they create challenges with communication, interruptions, and for me at least, information retrieval.

I’ve seem two types of communication: table flags and announcements. Table flags let players at one table call for help. In other words, they go unused. Announcements broadcast events and conditions to the room. They work fine, especially in quieter venues, but they don’t suit messages to just a few tables.

Event announcements create interruptions. In practice, I cannot stop a player mid-turn to resolve some new event, so I have to wait and find the right moment. Sometimes, when I like the pace and energy at the table, I am slow to add a new ingredient. In practice, interaction is worth a few interruptions.

When interruptions come, I must find the rules for the new event in the adventure. Modules tend to describe an adventures progression in the order of events, but interruptions come out of order. The description could be—and has been—anywhere in a hundred-plus pages. I hate stopping the action for even a minute while I go hunting.

I would enjoy seeing interaction created by passing items like keys, scrolls, clues, and PCs on dragons from one table to another. For instance one table’s success could unlock challenges that another could tackle. This sort of interaction could be driven by handouts that explain the new event to the players and provide a page number for the DM. This sort of messaging might come with an order of communication, so the DM at table 5 knows to pass the key to table 4, and that if the creature escapes, it goes to table 6.

Create decisions for the room.

Some Battle Interactives offered another trick for uniting the room. They created decisions to be shared by the players in the room. For instance Lost City of Suldolphor had players decide whether enslaved elementals should be freed or whether they should remain bound to improve the odds in an upcoming battle. ADCP5-1 Home’s Last Light asked players to decide whether to destroy a city so its invaders would gain nothing from capturing it. Both ethical questions gave players a chance to step into their characters head and contribute to the decision in a bit of role-playing.

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19 Responses to How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever

  1. all says:

    YES …. ! 🙂

  2. Alphastream says:

    Excellent thoughts. Writing battle interactives is something I care about dearly, having enjoyed them so much in LG and on into present campaigns. I agree with just about everything you say. A few thoughts:

    – Arcanis didn’t invent the BI. It made it popular and blew people’s minds. A big part of this was that LG Triads (admins) couldn’t play in their region and authors couldn’t play their own adventures. As a result, many admins/authors played LA. All those minds blown by that Sean Molley interactive resulted in tons of admins going back to their regions and building upon that experience. Historically, LG’s very first prequel event, the fall of Gorna in Geoff (Virginia) was the first LG battle interactive in 2000 and was a massive battle including all kinds of cool elements (one player was even secretly a Barrier Peaks robot!). That also went on to be highly influential and probably a big reason why Geoff was one of the best regions in interactive design and overall.

    – Confrontation in Candlekeep (not Crisis) was tough to create, because it was a Delve. I’ll write about that soon…

    – We should probably not forget that non-battle Interactives have fallen by the wayside. That’s a shame, because they really tickled a different player itch. These were purposefully removed from LFR because WotC believed at that time that such (LARP-style) events made the game look bad!!! Someone from WotC actually posted that. I think that mindset has changed, but we still see those events very rarely (a notable exception is Legend of the Five Ring’s organized play campaign… though the sale of the company might doom this too).

    – Battle Interactives seem easy, but nearly every awesome good thing you do will fail horribly at some tables, due to the nature of how these incentives/strategems play out so differently with different players. As you noted, the dragon visiting can be a downer when it leaves, or the player riding the dragon can overshadow others. So much of this handles on how DMs and coordinators at the event handle it. It is incredibly hard to parse the words to try to inspire the right behavior at events. For example, I tried hard to force/encourage the Candlekeep event to have DMs or a greater ask each player what book they brought to pay the entrance fee. Done well, this can really launch a table into a rollicking good time, by giving them an RP purpose and opportunities for hillarity. For example, when I played it, my barbarian was the only one in the tribe who could bear to carry a book of erotic fiction without being tempted to read it, follow its teachings, and give up fighting. My barbarian tribe had sent me with the ‘cursed’ book to give it away, so I had come to Candlekeep. We did a fair bit of role-playing as a group around that, which ensures the experience is cohesive, fun, and not just a battlefest.

    – The venue is a key element. The current space is really tough for communicating. I think I also am at fault for making Corruption in Kryptgarden (the first Epic) too challenging to administer. While everyone got the feeling their actions mattered and saw them scored on screens, the communication required tons of volunteers (who could have been DMs or had other table roles) and was confusing. I goofed that, and perhaps because of that the admins reversed position and though it too hard to communicate at all for this year’s events? I do think there is a way to communicate, and I’ll do my best to provide feedback to future Interactive writers.

    – It’s worth noting that many of our favorite experiences with BIs are at smallish conventions with maybe 200 players. You get a sweet spot there with size, communication, volume… Do the same principles apply at large events as at small ones? With Candlekeep we tried splitting groups up into Pods of 5 or so tables. That might help, though it minimizes how interactive it is across the whole event.

    – The biggest thing interactives get wrong is how to have one table help another. It practically never works. Nearly every author/admin wants to see it happen, but more often than not it just hurts the feelings of those who are having a tough time at their table. We worked long hours on this aspect for Candlekeep and eventually just removed most of what we had written. It sort of takes seeing many of these events to see what can go wrong here.

    I could go on forever on this topic, but I’ll stop now.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Alphastream,

      I’m thrilled that you shared a perspective based on a wealth of experience that I lack. I find it fascinating.

      In the history of living campaigns, I’m struck that Sean Molley keeps surfacing.

      I never found any accounts of battle-interactive-type events that preceded Arcanis, except for folks saying, “I think I played in something like it before 2003.” Your written history of The Fall of Gorna must be the first on the web.

      Seems like LARP-style events might have a place for those who enjoy the style. Aren’t we embracing all play styles now? Unlike in the days of steam-tunnel incidents, I don’t think concerned parents worry that role players will lose touch with reality anymore.

      The WotC folks seem to relish the 1000-player epic events like the last few at Gen Con. These events let Wizards boast about how many players joined in a single D&D game.

      However, I don’t think such big events do best for the players and organizers. The Gen Con space is too loud. Communication and logistics become too unwieldy. Worst, the current rules against projectors and a public-address system cripples the event. If nothing changes, the epics do not belong at Gen Con.

      On the other hand, if Gen Con ran a 250-player epic in 4 or more slots, the event would be more manageable, the judges more practiced and prepped, and communication easier. Perhaps it could even go in its own room. I can dream, right?


      Dave

      • Alphastream says:

        I can’t recall all the events, but just in Geoff I recall there was the Siege of Preston in either 2000 (I think December?) and then another the next year. My first that I attended was I think in 2001 in Veluna. That was a full-fledged BI… I actually use it often as a source of inspiration because I liked the cross-table elements – some great stories from that one.

        The space is absurdly loud. But, I don’t think we were that far off on the first Epic in terms of sound and communication. Adding 2 more speakers and a few clearer visuals (even just big words on the screen) would have covered it. But, I think any of us around a few years back would love to be back in Sagamore.

        • Tom Plunkett says:

          Hi Teos,

          We had two or three a year BIs in Geoff, not counting other interactives.

          My recollection from the first year of Living Geoff: 2001
          Spring Interactive (Gifts of the Fey)
          Summer Battle Interactive: Battle of the Bloody Ridge
          Possibly a Return of the Duke interactive
          Fall Interactive: Endur & Diesa were married, other activities
          Winter Battle Interactive: Siege of Preston

          Battle of the Bloody Ridge in the summer of 2001 was the first truly organized pure Battle interactive. After bloody ridge, the Geoff Triad organized 2+ battle interactives every year, and other Living Greyhawk organizations started doing the same.

          I wasn’t at the 2000 event (Legacy of Valor), but it was sort of a combined modules and interactive and battle interactive event over a twenty hour con weekend (60 players).

  3. Alphastream says:

    I was writing to Sean Molley, one of the Living Arcanis BI authors, about something else. I shared this article with him and I think he would be okay with my sharing that he really enjoyed the article. He also said “It’s a bit of a shame that Living Arcanis gets all the credit for having “invented” the battle interactive (and I say that as someone who has written a LOT of them!) when we were really inspired by interactive events that we played in 2001-2002 (I think the Battle of Semar, which was our first BI, ran at Winter Fantasy 2003). I will humbly say that Henry Lopez, Derrel Weaver, and I deserve some credit for having advanced the state of the art in terms of the design of our interactives, and I like to think that we inspired a lot of people to do great things — but we certainly didn’t invent the idea!”

    • DM David says:

      Hi Alphasteam,
      Thanks for sharing that. Seems like a lot of campaign organizers were experimenting with multi-table events early in that d20 era. All the creativity makes me wish I’d participated in organized play then.

      Dave

      • Alphastream says:

        I felt that way back in 2003, which is why I became involved. I was actually involved in interactives first, then authoring adventures for organized play. It is never too late to get involved, and I think it gets better all the time because the ‘science’ of the game improves and you can apply all those lessons from the past.

  4. Pingback: Making Confrontation at Candlekeep Interactive | Alphastream

  5. Dan Anderson says:

    Nice article! So glad you enjoyed Lost City of Suldolphor.

    One of the greatest challenges in adventure-writing, and especially an interactive, is avoiding a cookie-cutter approach. Every time we have created an interactive everyone loves and used it as a model, the follow-up was regarded as “Meh, seen it before.” Players expect something new and engaging in every new adventure, not a fight-RP-fight-boss model. In every adventure I worked on for LFR, I introduced a new mechanic, twist, or gimmick to make the adventure fresh.

    In Lost City of Suldolphor, we experimented with the Ziggurat at the “Special Mission” feature – allowing a skill-specialist from each table to come together and work towards a common goal. Mechanically spanning levels 1-20 was no small feat, and I’m glad the global admins approved the risk … it worked out better in the game than it looked on paper.

    Final thought on your article: As soon as someone writes the most epic-multi-table-event-ever, the bar will be set higher for the next event. Here’s to hoping that organized play writers will continue to keep raising that bar and creating even more epic adventures for DMs and players looking for a larger-than-one-table D&D experience.

    • Alphastream says:

      Hi Dan! We miss you in interactive land! 😉

      I agree with that higher bar. I actually tried to keep things fairly mundane with the first AL Epic on purpose so that there was room for future authors to go more over-the-top. There were fantastic elements (fey king, a portal, flying mounts, a ghost), but I tried to keep them fairly tangible and spread out across the different tracks PCs would experience. A campaign has to be careful not to make it too hard on future authors (though in theory our imagination should be limitless).

      At the same time, something that is important to me is that fantastic locations should feel that way. It struck my table that when we did the second Epic the location was amazing: a network of flying ships flying toward one of our cities. However, as we explored each flying ship, it felt very much like regular dungeon rooms. Having more factors to reinforce the location would have, I think, make it a stronger experience. The final big fight didn’t really have any factors from being on a couple of flying ships. That felt like a lost opportunity to our group to really make it a special experience.

      • DM David says:

        Hi Alphastream,
        I ran the track with that network of flying ships, and the contrast between the fantastic backdrop and the mundane interiors struck me too.

        Lately, I’ve been pondering how best to parcel out the wondrous elements in a game like D&D. I like the way the Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG adventures always feature wondrous elements, even with a starting adventure. New PCs always do more than just slay the kobolds in the old mill. On the other hand, some of the battle interactives have included so much magic-as-technology, like alchemical bombs dropped from fleets of airships, that they feel like Eberron rather than the Realms. Perhaps the BI format allows such gestures, although your interactives never needed them. I haven’t found any insights yet, but your comments add food for thought.

        Dave

        • Alphastream says:

          It’s really tough. There is a lot of sort of seductive thought that I feel as an author to go to spaces like “alchemical weapons” because it can seem so grandiose. And, for some, that can be really great. I try to remember that my favorite interactives were huge because of the scale, but also because of the importance of the events and the impacts we could have. It was seldom due to the fantastic aspects, unless it reinforced the story.

          I thought the first LFR interactive did a pretty great job of that. It was all about going into a spellplague area, and thus it had some very fantastic aspects… but that really fit with the theme and it worked.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Dan,

      I’m delighted to see your comment. Lost City of Suldolphor was a smash. All the attention you gave to topping past interactives paid off in Suldolphor. At my table, at least one player rated Suldolphor as the most fun D&D session he’d ever played. The players seemed to enjoy the Ziggurat, so I always wondered why I never saw special missions in the interactives to follow.

      The interactive format still offers room for innovation, but I think one can succeed by doing familiar things well. For instance, I continue to be impressed that you—a lone author—took the time to match players against level-appropriate monsters rather than just scaling the foes. I ran an 18th-level table and relished the chance to pit the players against purple worms and titans and such. (A later BI had me launching 18th-level Kobolds into target practice. Those fights offered all the heroic flavor of a bug hitting a windshield.)

      I wrote this post because Lost City of Suldolphor set such a high bar in my very first interactive. But with all the room for innovation, I feel confident that the bar will continue to rise. In playtest, the Epic coming for Winter Fantasy looks terrific. Even if you didn’t write it, you and the other authors of past, great interactives contributed.


      Dave

      • Dan Anderson says:

        Dave,

        Thanks again for the kind words. Just as there are many “styles of play,” there are different styles of author. We all approach the game differently, and I found that the adventures I enjoyed playing the most fit well with my play-style. Some writers go for high-fantasy, some go for a darker style (Dark Sun), some prefer a steampunk flavor (you mentioned Ebberon), and others like to be storytellers with the PCs as witnesses to the story (Living Divine). Each of these styles will appeal more or less to different players.

        My style is high-heroic. White hats and black hats. Good triumphing over evil. Most importantly: the PCs are the center of the story. Their choices should matter. A D&D game is a story about the PCs, not a story that includes the PCs as support characters. This can been seen from my first LFR adventure CORM2-4 about the Queen of Thorns, carries through the Calimshan adventures, and is reflected throughout the LFR EPIC series.

        I think the added piece that made Lost City of Suldolphor so amazing (for me) is the other adventures tied to it (CALI4-1, CALI4-2, CALI4-3, and the two SPECs). Including the interactive, they formed a connected story-arc where the PCs – as individual tables and a group – created and drove the story. We were able to foreshadow events in the interactive, introduce key NPCs, and incorporate the outcomes and decisions in the lead-up adventures to culminate in the ADCP interactive event. This focus on story – and the PC’s centrality to events – brought together all elements into a cohesive event that made the whole convention experience truly ‘epic.’

        Glad to know that all of my volunteer work paid off – the greatest reward is knowing that others have taken what I created and found a few hours of enjoyment, as well as the lasting contribution of inspiring future efforts.

  6. Dtm says:

    These multi table events are what me and my friends look forward to the most at gencon. I don’t have as much experience as others. I have only played pathfinder’s the last 4 years

    Last year’s “blood above, blood below” was our first dndal epic and was probably one of my favorites, almost equal to the diamond city siege pathfinder had. Pathfinders events seem to have become less cooperative imo, but I haven’t read or ran them, just a perception while playing. The dnd epic felt more cooperative and immersive, despite not having a personal ballroom etc. I really look forward to more of these andays hope they take some of this advice and make them even better.

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