How to Drain Your Dragon: Gaming’s Most Impossible Boss Battle

Adam Mathew
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming

The lore of Everquest was not backwards in coming forwards. Kerafyrm The Sleeper, a nuclear-level threat lurking in the land of Norrath, could never be killed. In mainstream, Tolkien terms: he was Smaug done right — a winged Baba Yaga that bore no weakness.

His crystalline armour was perfection. There was no bullcrap bare-spot begging to be shot by some flukey, wannabe human Legolas. The beast also wasted no time monologuing to burglars in smooth Cumberbatchian tones. His idea of a conversation was to straight up murk you a dozen times over. To do so would take one touch.

Kerafyrm was death incarnate. Kerafyrm was sheer malevolence. A player-thresher on four legs. And, on November 15, 2003, to the horror of those who coded him, Kerafyrm was punk’d.

Snuff the Magic Dragon

To fully paint the picture of what might well be the biggest upset in video game history, let’s take some time to set the scene for the EQ uninitiated. Somewhat dickishly, Kerafyrm (which translates to ‘almighty son’ in the ancient tongue) was a non-reward for anybody who slayed the four lesser dragons imprisoning him in The Sleeper’s Tomb zone. Eliminating that quartet of elementals would unseal an inner chamber and broadcast an ominous warning…

“Woe unto you, pitiful ones, you are about to release something that you cannot comprehend or withstand. The world itself is in peril now.”

Once awakened, Kerafyrm would utterly destroy his “rescuers” and cut a vengeful swathe of death and destruction across the land of Norrath. Imagine it — an ethereal, crystal dragon exploding from a mausoleum to go on a pan-continental murder spree, moving from zone to zone, all the way from the icy wastes to the heavily populated settlement of Skyshrine. Anybody stupid enough to get in his way would be felled effortlessly, ruthlessly.

To watch him in action was an unforgettable sight, a natural disaster on par with a Category 5 super hurricane. Stretched behind him would be a trail of corpses. Ahead of him: fear, panic, and server-wide log offs. The only safety EQ players had from this angel of death was to take refuge in the (hideous) real world. It was like a digital passover.

That said, the greatest tragedy of an unleashed Kerafyrm was that once he’d reached Skyshrine, this mini-apocalypse would disappear. Forever. If one ever had a mind to slay him – and there were millions of salty folks who did – there wouldn’t be a second chance at it. No repop. No do-overs.

Come at the King, You Best Not Miss

Knowing this, player-made pacts began to organically spring up — rules maintained by jagged alliances of guilds within striking distance of the beast. Looking back, this was pretty remarkable in and of itself, considering how competitive the one-percenters were on that server. Because what better way would there be to prove your dominance than by achieving a “content first” victory?

On less enlightened servers, chances for glory were squandered. Misguided opportunism and good ol’ fashioned “loot denial” griefing resulted in the loss of thousands of player lives and many a Kerafyrm.

On the Rallos Zek (RZ) PvP server, an uneasy fellowship of three guilds (Ascending Dawn, Wudan, and Magus Imperialis Magicus) had formed a protective barrier around their dragon. The gentleman’s agreement: loot from the first three warders would be farmed and split evenly – the fourth and final warder was not to be touched.

For a time this uneasy truce, combined with the fact that simply getting into the zone was no cakewalk, kept RZ’s Kerafyrm snoozing. But, as smaller and less community-minded factions grew in level power and numbers, the threat of marauders and trolls (both figurative and literal) became greater.

Eventually, a bandit with the means to open Pandora’s box came along. For reasons probably best known only to himself, he went by the name of Stynkfyst. This Iksar monk had partnered up with the largest random-pk guild at the time, a horde of malcontents dubbed The Curse. Not only did he have the numbers at his back, Stynk was also an excommunicated former member of the Ascending Dawn. He possessed insider knowledge on how to secure the Sleeper keys that could trigger a digital apocalypse.

After catching wind of Stynk and his intentions, the fellowship of clans weighed up the risks: he’d either ruin the Kerafyrm encounter or make a good fyst of it and take the glory. Either result was unacceptable. And so the fellowship called the banners to mobilise en masse…

Death by Dracarys

Before we continue to the main event, let’s pause a second to make the capabilities of this dragon “live” for you. Kerafyrm had not one but two Death Touch attacks, which is kind of excessive when you think about it. One was a close attack that could hit you for a maximum of 6999 damage per swing. On top of that, this prismatic merchant of pain had a PROC’d 20k ranged attack with no known range or refresh limit. If you could see him, you were probably on the lunch menu and didn’t even know it yet.

In terms of defence, he was an even bigger nightmare. The only spells that would tickle his hide were the Shadowknight’s Harmtouch or a Wizard casting Manaburn. As for his health pool? It was more like a health ocean. To this day nobody outside of Sony Online Entertainment knows the exact number, but well-investigated estimates put it at somewhere between 100 million and 400 million hit points — 250 million being the most accepted guess. To put this into perspective for you, Everquest bosses in those days didn’t exceed 2 million.

Those bleak offence and defence numbers represent the good news, too. Don’t forget that this battle took place on 2003 Internet. Admittedly, we’re not talking the era of modems measured in baud rates, or kilobytes delivered from your ISP via carrier pigeon. However, a decent setup in the day could barely handle EverQuest’s normal 60-player raids.

Eyewitnesses who were there recall that having around 200 folks crammed into one small area, going the tonk on a single dragon was quite the stress test. For some, the action was sometimes reduced to a Powerpoint presentation. The biggest fear for the attackers was the zone crashing out completely.

False Start and Fallout

Be that as it may, on Nov 15th, 2003, three guilds comprised of upwards of 200+ players appeared. They marched under a flimsy banner of truce on a PvP server infamous for its backstabbing and villainy. Regardless, this angry throng fought the mighty dragon for 3 hours and 15 minutes. Using nothing but numbers, brute force, and sheer zerging, they found a tactical groove and, to their increasing amazement, chipped the dragon down to 27% health.

The klaxons must have been blaring at SOE.

“It was definitely not intended,” according to Holly Langdale from the developer team. “And we learnt a lesson: you don’t tell them anything definite or what your intentions are because you ask the right question, you give them a challenge, they’ll find a way around it somehow.”

When Kerafyrm dropped to 26%, the unthinkable happened. The monitoring Game Masters (GMs) panicked and took the nuclear option to save their precious dragon. One click later, the server repopulated as if nothing had ever happened. The dragon winked out of existence and the response from the playerbase was on par with the rage-storm of Kerafyrm himself.

After much abuse, SOE apologised and released a statement explaining its side of the shamozzle. Allegedly, the switch was flicked because they were convinced the fellowship had stumbled onto an unfair glitch (side bar: SOE was particularly antsy about players cheating in this zone as they’d caught and banned another guild running an exploit on the warders). The GMs insisted that at some point in the melee, Kerafyrm’s aggro became locked onto an NPC character. This unintended fixation gave the attacking players immunity.

One player insisted he was fed a different tale during a chat with a GM named Zaltaran. To paraphrase, “the suits” at SOE had intentionally pulled the plug because Kerafyrm’s demise did not fit with their story arcs.

Whatever the case, SOE offered recompense by XP showering and resurrecting the players who had fallen during the encounter. New leases on life were also granted to the warders and, most importantly, the RZ’s Kerafyrm. Furthermore, the so-called problematic NPC was removed from the equation, and a “happy hunting” message was sent out to the server. Within 24 hours the dragon reappeared, dozing in his den once more. The true endgame began…

The Real Mother of All Dragons

On the 17th of November, 2003, Kerafyrm’s day of reckoning came. SOE’s GMs watched it all from start to finish, most likely in shocked disbelief. 200+ players once again put aside all enmity to stand side-by-side on a PvP server. Their efforts were unified, and their tactics, shaped from the gruelling previous attempt, had evolved, too. No longer was this a simple bind rush (wearing down a target by dying, respawning, and traveling back to the place of death to go again). The fellowship had streamlined the strat. Cut out the commute.

Doing a Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow was ditched for a “rez stick rush” instead. In layman’s terms, 20+ clerics were tiptoeing through the sea of dead players, spamming the resurrecting properties of their Staffs of Forbidden Rites. It was simple and elegant, a battle of attrition that could inch the fellowship ahead of the DTs (death touches). The grunts on the frontline could die, get reborn on the spot at 90% experience, scoop up their weapons and resume sticking it to Kerafyrm again. Rinse, repeat.

After nearly four hours of fighting, a Dark Elf Wizard by the name of Trylun was lifted to eternal glory by landing the Kerafyrm killshot. The hateful beast threw back his awful head and released a death cry aimed at the cruel and uncaring heavens. It flopped onto the ground as more than a few players wondered why this so-called reaper-proof beast even had a death animation coded into him at all. To the dismay, and in some cases utter fury of those present, he yielded no loot whatsoever. Kerafyrm The Sleeper was also a bad loser. He winked out of existence after 30 seconds, thwarting any hope of a group photo screenshot.

“It’s a guarantee you have no idea what players are going to do with your content and probably 80% of the time they don’t play it the way you expect them to,” Langdale told us. “So, we definitely worked that in in a variety of ways. Because Everquest is a game where it’s about discovery and we’re pretty open with our rules. And that’s intended, because the players feel like the game is theirs and they’re defining it themselves rather than us defining it for them.”

As the days and months passed, the story of The Sleeper fanned out across the Internet and became legend. Legend became MMO myth. In the years that followed an SOE employee named Rashmere insisted the kill was invalid. Their 2007 statement: “whether by pure coincidence or great planning, the [RZ] attack on the Sleeper took place after a patch that broke NPC regen, causing them to regen at a far lower rate than they would normally. The sleeper’s normal regen makes him essentially unkillable.”

Few seem to know or care about this allegation, however. All the world chooses to remember is that free men and women stood against a tyrant. A couple of hundred herded cats slayed an unkillable beast protected by devs who weren’t above a bit of deus ex machina. If that’s not gaming’s greatest boss battle, we shudder to think what is.

Adam Mathew
I've seen and played it all – from Pong on a black-and-white CRT to the 4K visuals and VR gloriousness of today. My only regret after a decade of writing and 30+ years of gaming: hitchhiking's no longer an option. My thumbs are nubs now.
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