The Cursed Jungles of Yatar

Ten adventurers, many of them completely new to the profession, prepared to fly by airship to the lower quarter of the great Aphesus. Six deadly dragonborn serving a dragon of undeath ready to stop them. A new curse of death brought about by rituals written in the ancient Book of Vile Darkness. Airship sabotage, primitive halfling tribes, savage grung — what could go wrong in this Dungeons & Dragons campaign? Almost everything, sadly.

Regardless, as Dungeon Masters, we know everything is a learning experience in D&D. A botched boss encounter, a less-than-exciting skill challenge, a screwy plot point — it matters not; we’re always honing our craft. 

When I started the Cursed Jungles of Yatar campaign, a misadventure I’ve labeled Campaign 2.5 in my archives, I had one and a half real campaigns under my belt. Convoluted, I know. The Savage Front was a failed experiment during which I learned a lot. The Dead of Isles of Altarin was a success with a few major failures near the end. The Frozen Expanses of Iskryn, Campaign 2, was still ongoing (and is ongoing right now), and I was learning session after session. Mid-campaign 2, a group of my friends sincerely wanted to play D&D, so I decided to start a campaign with them. This would become Campaign 2.5.

So, how did the campaign go and what spelled its demise? Let’s delve into the Cursed Jungles of Yatar.

The Pile On

Let’s pay close attention to the following scenario, and try to spot where things start to visit Asmodeus himself:

On the first night of the campaign, session zero, I arrive a few minutes before the start time. I set-up everything, my DM screen, minis, and notes, alongside pencils and character sheets for everyone. Players start arriving, one after the other. Snacks are piled, drinks are poured, and I count the correct number of players at the table — but they don’t go by the names I recognize. More people are set to arrive — and they do. And then some more. Then a few more. Then another. My mind starts to race; I know there are too many potential adventurers here for a good, coherent time, but what can I do? I’m at a friends apartment, I’m not going to throw anyone out or tell anyone they can’t play. I’m beating myself up, “Why didn’t you say there was a limit, RJ?” As I try to answer the question, I snap back to the present. The table is full, and everyone is waiting to begin. I sip my fruity drink, peer across the table, and begin the campaign despite my worries.

Strike one. Many of us have been in this exact situation: we’re expecting a certain amount of people to enter our D&D domain and more pass through its gates. What do we do? Do we toss people out? Do we play it off and go with the flow? Do we make it clear before the campaign begins that it has a limit to the number of people that can play? Well, this depends on how we see ourselves.

If we’re happy to host as many people as possible at the table, don’t set a limit — but prepare for a raucous campaign. If we know we’re not comfortable running a campaign for a large amount of people, it’s important to establish limits. If we’re me in the situation described above, we’re basically screwed. I wasn’t okay with the former and I didn’t do the latter; it’s a mistake I’ll never make again.

Alas, the mistake was made and the campaign began. We were a group of ten players and one Dungeon Master. Disaster struck, and I wasn’t prepared. We aren’t always are. Luckily, we can learn from our fellow DM’s ridiculous mistakes.

Regardless, there we were, prepared to begin this campaign with a hefty load of eleven people. Most of them were new to D&D, too — this was going to be rocky.

Before the campaign truly began, we conducted a session zero. We talked about the setting: the Cursed Jungles of Yatar (also the title of the campaign). Yatar was a tropical hell and paradise, filled with terrifying but beautiful jungles, devil-infested but majestic mountains, and myriad lost ruins and native races. Next, I asked each player general questions about their character. What were their goals? Where did they come from? Afterward, I dove deeper into their respective backgrounds. For example, I asked the tabaxi monk the following: what was your monastery was known for? What was it called? Who ran it? As another example, I questioned the dragonborn barbarian about his tribe. What was your tribe’s name? What does your tribe value most? What is a phrase your tribe often chants before battle?

After speaking to each player about their character individually, which took a while, we all discussed what we’d like to get from the campaign. Did we want it to be weird? Epic? How about rife with political intrigue? Was roleplay going to be a major factor? We decided upon the four pillars: it was going to be character-focused, beyond epic, littered with intrigue, and spiced with fiercely tactical battles. A good mix, truly. Finally, we were prepared to enter the campaign. Session zero had taken a while. There was a cacophony of laughter, screaming, roleplaying, and character development, but it had been done. We were ready.

The campaign began at the airship docks of the great city of Goldengate on the coast of the Enoach Desert. Adventurers from across the land were gathering there on this day to depart on a grand journey from their arid home to a tropical hell: the jungles of Yatar. Deep within the dense tropics of this deadly region, amidst yuan-ti fanatics, demonic beasts, and dragon worshipers crept a curse, rising above the canopy and corrupting the entire continent. The resurrected living were dying, their souls being drawn to some place in the depths of Yatar. The famous adventurer’s guild, the Loreseekers, decided to hire an army of soldiers and sages, thieves and brutes, fanatics and priests, to fly south and discern the death curse’s origins — and it all started here.

The adventurers met each other on the dock housing the Red Phoenix, a respected airship captained by a high elf who was affected by the curse. Despite sour first impressions, trouble with a pipe, and a little bit of gang violence, the party boarded the vessel successfully and departed alongside the rest of the fleet. The individual members interacted with the crew, which included a sun dwarf pyromancer, a chiseled human dock worker, and, of course, the strange ghostly captain. Also on the ship was a hooded black dragonborn who revealed herself to be a traitor as all the airships were caught in a manifest zone to the first layer of the Nine Hells, Avernus! The party desperately fought the dragonborn as their airship’s elemental crystals were destroyed and they began to plummet to the ground below. The world raced past them as they watched every other airship meet the same fate. It was absolute destruction. Praying for their lives, they struggled to hold onto the airship as it crashed. All went dark…

Somehow, we made it through the first session. The entire time, three or four people were always trying to speak to me as side conversations lit up the other end of the table. It was hectic, to say the least. Calming everyone down was a futile strategy, for alcohol, excitement, and nerves fueled every player. It was understandable. Many of them were playing for their first time. They had lots of questions and lots of ideas. Both were good, I welcome questions, ideas, and anything else a new player can offer. However, the sheer amount of shouting, knocked over drinks, and interruptions wore me out. How was I going to do this again? Was I going to do this again? Of course, I thought — they all had an awesome time.

After a few weeks, I scheduled the next session and prepared a small speech. If we were going to play D&D as a group of this size, everyone needed to calm themselves, allow others to speak, and relax. We all sought good fun, and if people were being shouted down, shouted over, or completely left out of the conversation because they didn’t want to throw their voice into the mix, we weren’t finding anything great.

So...the next time.

The Isle of Arguments

One by one, the party members awoke amidst burning wreckage in a wet tropical forest. They weren’t in Avernus, but they weren’t in the Enoach, either. They quickly scoured the surrounding area and discovered that they had to be close to Yatar, perhaps on one of the islands along its coast. Their airship had left the manifest zone and landed here...but what about the rest of their crew...and the rest of the Loreseeker airships heading toward Yatar? Well, a lot of this intrigue was forgotten when the group encountered a hostile tribe of grung and spawned an allied red slaad. The airship was thrown to the wind, the plot with the death curse was on the back burner, and the grung were front and center...until the large group’s dissolution.
The party rushed across the island and quickly began to bicker over where to go next. Some wanted to fight the grung, others wished to explore the ruined druid home on the other side of the island, and still others thought the red slaad needed to die. The ten party members couldn’t decide which way to go, even when outside forces like the grung themselves or the friendly first mate tried to push them in a certain direction after hours of arguing. Unfortunately, this infighting sparked the destruction of the group, as over half of them were assassinated by grung as the others escaped the island.

As could be guessed, my little speech bore no fruit. Despite firmly telling everyone that they needed to work together in some fashion because the group was so large, that they needed to give people a chance to voice their opinion, the group failed to do it. After every encounter, they’d debate about where to go next, well, about half of them, while the others sought adventure. They didn’t want their precious D&D hours to be invaded with debates over which place to explore — they wanted to explore! As it happened, I tried to force the party into action, whether through a hostile encounter or NPC advice. It didn’t work. I spoke out of game, explaining that if everyone couldn’t do what I had asked earlier, this would be the end of D&D. Half of them stood their ground, the other half tried to convince that half to back off from the edge.

I wasn’t bluffing.

After another hour of bickering, the party split, wandering off fight more, I presume. I ended the session there, alerting everyone that this might be it, that it was too hectic and it just wasn’t working. A few days later, I contacted certain people from the party and told them we’d be ending that portion of the campaign. Further, I explained why: people weren’t having fun, despite multiple attempts to remedy that. Instead of trudging on with this massive, uncoordinated, raucous group, I picked those who I thought worked well together and continued the campaign. They’d pick up where the party split into two. Easy, I thought — the campaign could go on!

The Brief Reboot

With a suitable sailing ship constructed, the remaining party members departed the grung-infested island. They traveled for a few days before discovering shore: the coast of Yatar. As soon as it would possible, the ship was anchored and the party made way to the beach to interact with the halflings they knew lived there. After all, they needed to resupply and discover just where they were. The barbarian danced with the brutish halfling chief; the sorcerer spoke with the tribe’s shamans. All the while, the triton and human sat in the background, suspicious of the erratic halfling tribe. That was until they hit a crossroads where they had to ally with the halflings against a common foe, a massive rampaging tyrannosaurus, spewing zombie raptors from its mouth! That was where the fun began...except it didn’t. 

That was the end of the campaign.

There was no issue with the party, in-game or out-of-game. Everyone got along great, any spits between members had good reasons behind them, and everyone was having a blast. The story was moving along nicely, they were steadily moving to a city where they’d kick off the story of the death curse, the key plot element that connected all of their characters. Why did it stop? 

Because of me. I ended it. Sometimes, real life gets in the way of our happy time. Tragic events can turn our epic Wednesday nights into dour evenings of sadness and frustration. When that happens, it is best to stop playing, but be honest. I let everyone in my group know what was going on: why we had to stop and what the future looked like. Full transparency with your D&D group, especially if they’re great friends, is vital. Luckily, everyone understood what I was going through and wished me well. I think they were happy I wasn’t leading them on, promising them that we’d play next week, or the first Saturday of the next month.

Regardless, I was furious and crushed in the back of my mind. But I knew it was temporary.

As soon as the painful period in my life passed me by, I contacted those people again, the failed adventurers en route to the Cursed Jungles of Yatar. We stopped at session seven of that campaign, though it seemed like we played many more. I told them I was ready to run D&D for them again, that I was confident nothing wicked was walking my way. Immediately, they jumped up and were ready to play again, understanding that if something did come my way, I’d be straight with them. They trusted me.

That was on December 27th, 2018. Next week, we will be playing in the 31st session of the new campaign, the Karlith Straits. It has been a blast. Everyone is having a splendid time and I must say, it might be my proudest D&D work, this campaign. It’s insane to think it emerged from the disaster that was the Cursed Jungles of Yatar, a note I call “Campaign 2.5” in my archives.

Yet, when I look back on it and think about everything I learned during that campaign, I’m thankful for it. As I always say, every failed experience as a Dungeon Master is an opportunity to learn for your next adventure.

In Summary

Not all campaigns work out; that’s okay. Despite their shortcomings, we learn from them, we grow from them, and we use our obtained knowledge to improve our campaigns in the future. If there’s anything we should take away from this failed campaign, it’s the following:
  1. Set clear expectations for your players.
  2. More isn’t always merrier.
  3. Sometimes real life can destroy the campaign and it’s not the fault of someone in the party. Be straight with your group, don’t lead them on!
Until next time, farewell!

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  1. With that many players you could have run a West Marches campaign.

    1. Definitely! My brother is running a West Marches-style campaign for his frat house at Kettering University. I might try it out too, one day.