Content of the article: "Double Wizard Extravaganza – A post-battle report of how I blew my friends’ minds"
I prepared and ran a one-shot last weekend for a group of long-time friends I’ve been a PC with but never a DM for, so they didn’t really know what to expect. I like DMing campaigns, I think they’re fun, but I get the most enjoyment out of running one-shots, because you get to do a lot more weird, crazy experimental stuff. Here’s a summary of how the day went. It was a long day, so to keep things manageable I won’t go into too much gory detail, but hopefully you still find this write-up entertaining.
I provided five pre-made level-8 characters for my players to choose from, all intentionally very archetypal:
Ulric Stoutbrim, the Dwarf Fighter and captain of the guard,
Mina Willow, the Elf Ranger who reports the events of the wilderness to the city,
Levinia Cobble, Halfling Cleric of the local god,
Alexander Fossboor, Human Wizard and professor at the local academy,
Pelidos Aran, Tiefling Rogue and reformed burglar.
Luckily everybody got to play their first choice. To abbreviate the backstory, they were a group of capable individuals hired by the ruling council of their home city of Altesia to apprehend an abrasive self-proclaimed “Grand Archwizard” by the name of Solarien Styx, whom evidence had shown was responsible for disappearances and other mysterious happenings in the area. A human girl coming out of a week-long fugue state with no memory, but carrying a dragon’s fang emblazoned with Solarien’s emblem, was the definitive proof.
They approached Solarien's huge magical mansion outside the town, and were welcomed in by his voice as “tonight’s entertainment” when they knocked on the door. The mansion, bigger on the inside than out, was a huge labyrinthine maze of hallways and chambers filled to the brim with magical opulence: art, trinkets, furnishings, you name it, all attended to by lobotomized Monodrones whom the party was completely invisible to. In the center of the first story was a huge circular stone elevator powered by three energy cells, missing of course. A map carved into the wall of the elevator indicated three chambers marked by icons of a Wooden Pillar, a Water Pump, and an Egg. They picked Egg first.
Inside a rough-hewn cavernous chamber filled with rubble and pyrite coins slept a half-organic, half-stone dragon covered in runes, prominently missing one fang, coiled around an energy cell. One failed stealth roll later and they were fighting the beast, which had a different elemental breath to throw at them every round (to make sure everyone had a chance to flex their good saving throws). It also shed scales imbued with elemental energy every time it moved–E.g. Picking up a lightning-imbued scale would deal 1d4 damage per round to the holder but increase move speed by 10ft and attack bonus by +4. When it became bloodied, it performed a special bite attack against the cleric, lodging its one remaining fang in her shoulder. For the rest of the fight, she needed to make the saving throw against the breath attack even if she wasn’t in its cone of effect. The dragon eventually went down and they retrieved the energy cell from its hoard.
They picked Wooden Pillar second. Inside this chamber a shin-high primordial soup surged with micro and some not-so-micro organisms. A giant wooden totem pole rose out of the center, with eight segments spinning independently with magical gizmos, and shooting lightning into the soup to generate life. Around the room were eight terminals, each connected to a segment. A successful Arcana check or “Hulk Smash” check on each terminal deactivated a segment on the totem (shout-out to the dwarf fighter who rolled a nat 20 on a literal suplex maneuver), meanwhile it continued to spew lightning. If there were no targets within a 15-foot range, the lightning created a new add for them to fight (slime, giant hornet, sahuagin, gith). If there was a target, the lightning would deal % Max HP damage, but no add would spawn. The intention of that mechanic was to have them re-evaluate the role of “tank” but instead they just avoided the lightning, killed the adds as they spawned, and disabled the terminals in short order with several good rolls.
With the second energy cell retrieved from within the totem, they returned to the elevator only to discover that the third cell had already been put in place (!). Not questioning it too much, however, they ascended to the second floor, draining the three cells in the process. The map changed and they were met with three more options, icons of a Sun, a House, and a Gear. They chose Sun.
Inside the otherwise-empty chamber was a huge mechanical platform powered by an energy cell, supporting a giant astral hatchling floating above. It had the body of a ten-foot-tall infant but a head like a star, covered in dozens of eyes. The head emitted light nearly too bright to look at, and sapped all the color from the room so the party could only see in greyscale. When they approached, it spoke to them using their own mouths and voices.
–“Who are you?” the wizard said, still in full control over his faculties but unable to stop the words as he said them. “Those words didn’t come from me,” he immediately followed up.
–“We are here to apprehend Solarien Styx” the fighter said to the hatchling, “and we would like to borrow your energy cell.”
The ranger replied to the fighter, unwillingly, “You cannot have my energy cell. It keeps me alive.”
With a successful religion and arcana check, respectively, the cleric and wizard could tell a) this creature was not native to the material plane and b) the platform was acting as a sort of magnet, binding it here. The fighter continued to speak to the hatchling, getting a bit philosophical about “what constitutes even being alive, if you are only ever trapped in this chamber? You need to meet people, have experiences.”
–“What is an experience?” The hatchling replied, again out of the mouth of the ranger.
–“If you let me close, I can show you,” the rogue said with a successful deception check. She approached the platform and cast Darkness.
–“Oh, I don’t think I like–” the hatchling began to say out of the mouth of the cleric, before the rogue used her thieves’ tools to pry the energy cell from the platform. The hatchling blinked out of existence, and color returned to the room.
I’ve abbreviated the conversation here, but with the addition of
to the entire weird encounter, my players were genuinely unsettled by this room, and I was absolutely thrilled to see it.
They returned to the elevator to find the second and third energy cells already put into place (!!). The original plan had been to have them do two rooms on the second floor, but for irl time constraints, we had to limit it to one. They ascended to a Mario Galaxy-esque space filled with planetoids and nebulae. This was meant to be a skill challenge / puzzle segment as they traversed the funky gravity, but due to the time constraints we shortcutted it a little. After successfully tossing the rogue up close enough to a planetoid to grab on with her whip, she found a mechanism on it that extended a ladder both up and down. When they climbed up, they reached Solarien Styx’s inner sanctum, and this is where the mind blowing truly commenced.
They entered a chamber with Solarien facing a huge wall-spanning mirror, but the reflections in the mirror were not of the Solarien and party they knew. It was them, but also not them. It was at this point that my other DM friend and I joined together the video calls of the two separate groups of players running the same adventure. Both groups had an Ulric the Dwarf Fighter, Mina the Elf Ranger, Levinia the Halfling Cleric, Alexander the Human Wizard, and Pelidos the Tiefling Rogue, and it turns out Solarien Styx had managed to contact an alternate reality version of himself to perform his bizarre experiments. When each group had found energy cells already put into place, that was the effects of the other group bleeding into their reality. Other small hints during the session (-“Nat 20 Perception, do I see any footprints in here?” -“You see many, but they are all your own.” -“???”) hinted at the true nature of this session, but we all talked afterwards and fully 0 out of the 10 players saw it coming.
For the final boss fight, the groups split into separate video calls again, but ran the battle on the same Roll20 map. Both Solariens merged into one super-wizard that would spend alternating rounds in each reality, leaving behind residual shards of magic for the party not currently fighting. These shards were each coded to a school of magic and could be used to replicate the effect of nearly any spell in the handbook—notably, except Conjuration, which would be used to drag Solarien back into the off-party’s reality (*and, to prevent cheesing the fight, no spell could be cast with the shards more than once). Solarien was powerful enough that if only one party fought, they would surely have TPKed, so both groups needed to coordinate sending Solarien back and forth while they had alternating rounds to lick their wounds. The players in both parties demonstrated great creativity with the spell shards, for instance casting Greater Invisibility with the Illusion shard on the rogue in the other party so she could benefit from sneak attack every round, or chaining Beacon of Hope with the Abjuration shard into Mass Cure Wounds with Evocation when the other party got hit by a particularly nasty Wall of Fire.
Near the end of the fight, when both Solarien and one party were close to falling (but all the good healing spells already having been used), the rogue in the off-round grabbed the Transmutation shard and hit the active party with Mass Polymorph, turning them all into giant apes. One critical ape smash later, and self-proclaimed Grand Archwizard Solarien Styx with nothing more than a smear on the ground. The characters in each party looked at their alternate-dimensional counterparts in the mirror, then left the mansion to return to their home town Altesia—at least, they hoped it was the correct Altesia.
Coordinating this event with twelve people (ten of whom were not allowed to know what was really going on) was a challenge, but ultimately a massive success. Probably the most rewarding single session I’ve ever run, and they all thoroughly enjoyed it as well, to my eternal thankfulness. The idea for tricking two groups of players into running the same event simultaneously, but joining in the end for one shared boss fight was born out of a span of time where I spent several Sundays in a row doing a session with one group, then immediately doing a session with the other group. I love D&D, but back to back sessions taking up entire Sundays got to be a bit tiring. I thought “What if I could just do one session with both groups?” and the rest is history.
P.S. The other group did the Wooden Pillar room, the Water Pump room, and the Sun room as well. The other rooms (House, Gear) were all fully fleshed-out encounters–even if neither group got to see them–but as any DM can tell you throwing away prepared work is part and parcel of the job. Wouldn’t trade it for the world though. The Gear room would have explained the lobotomized monodrones running around, as it contained a Decaton brainwashed by Solarien to capture monodrones and repurpose them for his nefarious ends.
Hopefully someone here can take inspiration from this idea in one way or another. It was a ton of work but paid off in spades, and if anyone else has the gumption to coordinate a dozen people for an event like this, it’s absolutely worth it.
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