A passing of the Dungeon Master torch

Mar 29, 2019 | Events, Features, Inside the Bubble, News

I

It’s the end of a three-year journey— eight elaborate maps of the different layers of a mysterious castle, each the size of a classroom table, are dramatically unveiled one by one. The final confrontation against the evil vampire Strahd is going to be an intense one, expected to last up to two days.

Gathered around the table are history teachers Gabriel Baker (as the Dungeon Master), Arta Khakpour (as Skelros, a goal-oriented military scout), Brian Cropper (as Bjorn Bjornsson, a vampire-hunting cleric), Associate Director of Admissions Davion Fleming (as Soran, a tiefling rogue or semi-demon), and electives teacher Patrick Berger (as Heiro,a half-orc barbarian), as well as Baker’s partner, Mandy Peacock (as Heloise, a magical bard).

Suddenly, Cropper’s Bjorn Bjornsson runs out of the room, escalating the previously diplomatic situation into unnecessary violence. Baker, the DM, is stunned and momentarily at a loss for how to proceed now that the climax of the conflict has just been abruptly aborted. Here, in their own words, is how it went down:

BERGER: On this last day, Gabriel revealed the most elaborate set of maps we had ever seen. Each map was about the size of this table. He had eight of them, representing each layer of the castle we were exploring. It was the final lair of the vampire overlord, and each time we would go to a different stage, he would dramatically rip off one sheet, and we’d all gasp at the beauty and intricacy of what lay below.

A lot of it was because the people I played with helped me keep going.

BAKER: They are basically going to the stereotypical evil person’s castle to face the bad guy—something we had been building up to for three years. The story had gotten very ambiguous about whether this person was totally evil. Are all the bad circumstances this person’s fault? A lot of gray and moral ambiguity had been thrown in.

FLEMING: I think we were all on edge but really excited. I could feel a bit of melancholy falling on us, though.

CROPPER: The plan was to go into the castle and “beat the boss,” but my character had a second agenda to see if he could figure out who killed his sister, and kill that person too.

So it was a “double whammy” goal. At the same time, the rest of the group didn’t really trust me— earlier on, Strahd, the bad guy, had used mind control on me and had convinced me to do something kind of nefarious. And the group couldn’t tell if I was on the group’s side or Strahd’s side.

FLEMING: I was excited for my big reveal as becoming the new “bad guy.” My character supplanted the main antagonist, the vampire Strahd, of the campaign. Essentially he, Soran, took over the land and it fell into darkness again.

BERGER: We finally walk into the dining hall of this vampire overlord. 

He pushed everything into a violent encounter that did not need to be a violent encounter at all.

He asks us to sit down and he starts giving us this dramatic speech, summing up
all of his motives and intentions. As this moment that Gabriel had been building up to for years was finally getting to pay off in this face to face interaction with all of us, Brian just stands up and sprints out of the room.

BAKER: The characters are all sitting with this guy, Strahd, just discussing the situation—it’s not combative. Brian’s character is just like, “I’m bored with this,” and gets up and runs out of the room. They were looking for someone in the castle and Brian/Bjorn was just like, “I’m going to go find this person.” He’s out of the conversation. He pushed everything into a violent encounter that did not need to be a violent encounter at all.

 

CROPPER: When we got there, I read the situation, I read the room, and I
saw the rest of the group was timid and scared. I thought going for a surprise move, like running away and trying to find the person who killed my sister would speed up the process.

BERGER: Before he left, Brian whispered in Gabriel’s wife’s ear, that caused her character to also stand up and sprint out of the room. This was something  Gabriel absolutely did not expect—he spent so long planning this enormous final encounter. It had completely foiled Gabriel’s expectations, and so he had to think on the fly since half the party had just sprinted away and started exploring the castle. He decided that this character [Strahd] would just try and kill us all.

“You can do pretty much anything. It’s about being very creative within this loose set of boundaries.”

BAKER: We expected that this last game was going to last two whole days— we had two days set aside and we were going to play over the course of the weekend. Brian pushed us to completion in a single day and in only a few hours. But it ended very cool, they were victorious—sort of—in the end. It was sort of bittersweet; we were going to have this ending that was going to last two days and it was hilarious and sort of ridiculous that Brian did that.

This freedom of narration in Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy role-playing tabletop game commonly referred to as D&D, created one of the most memorable moments for the players. 

The players create their own characters and embark on adventures in a fantasy setting created by the Dungeon Master, a player who acts as the game’s referee and storyteller.

 

Each character possesses special qualities and strengths, like magic, combat, or persuasion, as well as a class, like wizard or ranger. Baker, as the Dungeon Master, created a complex fantasy world in which these characters travel, quest, battle enemies, and much more.

The players react to the guidelines and events of the world that the DM sets, often in service of an overarching mission, the “Brian word for the campaign,” as Fleming describes. Through their every move and encounter, they slowly carve out the story’s path. With the help of a 20-sided die, the DM determines the outcome of the players’ decisions.

Baker’s world, a modified version of Barovia from the D&D module “Raven loft,” is a “gothic, horror place,” as he put it; the final mission—a “cliché and stereotypical fantasy”—was to kill Strahd in order to free this land.

He just kept talking about how badly he wanted to explore someone else’s world.

“My world was very clearly building up to a certain point and I would often gently push them in different directions,” Baker said.

His was a time-consuming and high-commitment position, and maintaining the campaign for over two years was a difficult task.

“I took copious notes and planned well in advance,” Baker said. “But a lot of it was because the people I played with helped me keep going. Davion was really instrumental because he was really into it—he was one of the people that would help me wrangle people up and schedule, and make sure that we played. That would help it keep going because we would lose momentum sometimes.”

Now that the first campaign has concluded, Baker is passing the DM responsibilities to Berger, who will be the DM for the next campaign.

He expects Berger’s game to be more open-ended and “dynamic,” just based on the sheer number of possible missions. Berger stepped up to this position out of “guilt— exclusively guilt.”

“I think Gabe provided me with one of the craziest experiences of my life, over hundreds of hours, over two years, and that whole time he was putting all the labor into designing this huge campaign experience for us, he wasn’t getting a chance to explore it himself,” Berger explained. “It’s like if you were to design a maze and you knew all the puzzles and trapdoors, it’s not fun for you.”

Baker will finally get the chance to do so, in the group’s second campaign, which will take place in Berger’s new world, Waterdeep, a change from Baker’s—an “open-world, horror-themed game,” as Berger described it. 

“You can do pretty much anything. It’s about being very creative within this loose set of boundaries.”

The second campaign will take place solely within the walls of a metropolitan center, a “confluence” that characters will have to navigate through various political, social, and cultural landscapes as well as working within the thriving underworld of gangs, criminals, and merchants who have “collectivized” into unions.

In this upcoming journey, the players will have to “grapple with the city’s power brokers,” as Khakpour puts it, and enemy and ally will be much harder to distinguish.

Cropper sees this new campaign
as an opportunity to branch out in his role-playing abilities and confidence, as his character will be a blind, Dwarven female.

Moreover, like Berger, he is excited to see Baker, who is “very physical” in this position, often assuming new voices and mannerisms, take on more formal role-play in the game.

Fleming expects that Berger’s new world will “give them more responsibility in the storytelling.”

Not only will the players be exploring a new world, but they will also be navigating a completely different style of thinking and design, as Baker is a war historian and Berger is an economist.

“Gabriel knows a lot about Roman warfare. He would talk about defensive techniques of the other people we were fighting… and military strategies…and use his Roman military knowledge to argue with us. Gabe is into the long stories with the beginning, middle, and end,” Cropper said. “Patrick is an economist. He’s interested in exploring the economics of the city. So he’s describing the investments that have been made in neighborhoods and business connections. It is much more of an economic introduction, rather than a historical introduction.”

It’s a rare occurrence that you can willingly hang out with people that you work with and don’t have to talk about work.

For all the players, this new campaign and the continued relationship will not only be another foray into a highly imaginative and complex fantasy world, but also another way to relax and just spend quality time with friends who are also colleagues.

“Honestly, I am just looking forward to hanging out,” Fleming says. “We get together and talk about a game that is not real by any means but has helped forge and create some of the most real and meaningful relationships that I have at Nueva.”