When Dingle arrives at the circular ruins outside the old church, the first thing he sees is a man in a crown, holding a flaming torch - it is the man he must kill. But the crowned man shows no fear, he simply waves and beckons him over. Dingle is curious. He approaches with caution and looks into the grassy arena below, where he sees two dark spirits - red phantoms like himself - taking swings at each other. The man in the crown begins silently dropping glowing stones everywhere, one by one. There are two more red phantoms squatting on the stone ledge nearby, quietly watching the duel below.
Dingle (full name: Dingle Dongle) looks at the fight, then at the man he is supposed to kill, then at the spectators. Then he does something that more and more dark spirits in Lothric are doing. He puts his weapon away, he sits down and he waits his turn.
Welcome to the 'fight clubs' of Dark Souls 3 - improvised arenas where players are gathering to fight each other in the presence of a host, regardless of affiliation or motive. At a fight club, it doesn't matter if you are part of the mad covenant of Mound Makers, who routinely murder their old friends, or a 'sunbro' from the Warriors of Sunlight, honour-bound to help others through the game. At a fight club, only the PvP matters, only the brawl.
"I got the hint and sat next to the other phantoms," says Dongle, who discovered the clubs that fateful evening and went onto become a "host" of his own small gatherings. He later posted a guide to Reddit, telling people where to find them and how not to get yourself killed for breaking the fluid and ambiguous rules of etiquette. But to get to this point, he had to learn some of those harsh lessons first hand.
When it came time for Dongle to duel at his first club, for instance, he leapt into the ring to challenge the reigning champion. But during the fight, instinct took over and he used his Estus flask - restoring some of his health mid-fight. He had just broken one of the club's few rules.
"I knew I made a horrible mistake when the host jumped down into the ring and started swinging his torch at me. I was somewhat confused but I could tell he wasn't trying to kill me. Then he proceeded to chug all of his Estus in front of me so that the 'out of Estus' animation played."
Dongle got the hint. He swigged his entire bottle of Estus and watched as the host approvingly climbed back up the steps to the "stands" and rang a chime to signal the fight was back on.
"Suffice to say that my first match ended in defeat."
After that, Dongle was hooked. He left his summoning sign again on the stone ground above the ring and waited to be summoned again by his new king. But he could not find his way back. Time after time he was brought into worlds where the summoning player just wanted to duel him one-on-one. He fought, he died, he won, he lost. But the king was nowhere to be found.
"I dueled random people for about an hour before I realized what I needed to do. I went back to the shrine and stocked up on prism stones, bought some torches, picked up the dried finger, and traded for the wood carvings."
The items he collected where exactly what he needed. The dried finger is a disembodied hand, cursed and shriveled. Crack its knuckle and you can summon more phantoms to your world. The wood carvings, meanwhile, can be dropped on the ground, where they smash and release limited words in a deep voice - "hello!" or "thank you!". With these items he became his own king. The host of his very own fight club.
To let people know he isn't hostile - that this is something other than your average fisticuffs - he wears odd clothes and tries his best to communicate. He dons the robes of a holy man and wears the strange, giant crown of Xanthous, while weilding a flaming torch in both hands.
"As soon as people start showing up, I drop the 'hello' carving and start shitting out prism stones. As soon as the first arrivals see that I'm summoning more people, they usually get the gist, take a seat, and wait for the show to start."
The multiplayer of Dark Souls 3 is complicated. Normally, red phantoms will invade to kill other players. Yellow 'sunbros' can be summoned to guide you along a path, or help destroy bosses. And purple phantoms could be either friend or foe, helping you one minute then stabbing you in the back the next. This is only a small cross-section of the possible ghosts that can appear in your world - other players looking for thrills or gratitude among the traps and hounds of Lothric.
Other types of players might invade you only in certain places, say a haunted swamp, while others still will come to your aid only if you have already been invaded, like blue-tinted bodyguards coming to your rescue. Every kind of phantom gets a small reward when they complete their task, be it murder or protection. This web of motives is what drives the multiplayer of the game.
But in the fight clubs, all this breaks down. Technically, every visiting red phantom should want the "host of embers" dead. If the host summons five red phantoms into his or her world, the best outcome for each of them would be for the host to die because if the host is killed, they will all get a 'pale tongue' - something they can use to further the allegience to a covenant, opening up new items. Even if they don't particularly need this item, it is the conventional wisdom of the game that a red phantom will always try to kill you.
So, theoretically, every dark spirit at a fight club ought to immediately stab, pummel and slash their gracious maser of ceremonies to pieces. But this doesn't happen. They arrive, they bow or wave, and they wait around, not to fight the player whom the game is beseeching them to kill, but another phantom entirely. Sometimes they will stand right next to host, where at any moment they could strike, and yet they don't. They honourably wait for their match-up.
Well, most of the time.
I discovered the fight clubs by accident, almost in the same way as Dingle Dongle. I invaded the game of an innocent player in a damp, crab-infested swamp and found two men sitting in the dank leaves. Far from teaming up to kill me, they simply sat there, ignoring me. I sat down to join them, fully intending to stab them after gaining their trust. I ended up participating in what I thought was a player's personal gladiator show. I thought the experience was unique, until I discovered that it was happening in a bunch of places - Crucifixion Woods, the Cleansing Chapel, the High Wall of Lothic. It wasn't a one-off. It was a phenomenon.
Of course, honourable interactions between supposed enemies and brawling in PvP arenas isn't new in Dark Souls. But this time the players have no place to go, no DLC where they can gather and scrap together. This time they have come up with the conclaves on their own, and installed a set of loose rules without so much as microphone.
Later in the game, I saw the same cascade of summon signs which Dongle had seen, scribbled on the stone outside a chapel where I had just beaten another one of Dark Souls 3's wretched bosses. I stripped off everything but the Exile's helm (a creepy metal face) and equipped a single torch, giving myself a 'man-in-the-iron-mask' look. Within minutes I was hosting a fight club of my own. It was over two hours before somebody double-crossed me. A man in a beastly overcoat stabbed me in the back with his greatsword, killing me instantly with a final crushing blow.
"Oh yeah, it happens from time to time," says Dongle about the betrayal. "I've found that it's most likely to occur if I'm waiting for people to be summoned... and both gladiators land killing blows on each other. This usually leaves one guy on the ledge with me while we wait for new challengers. About half these guys joke around with me while we wait, but the other half can't resist the temptation to score an easy kill."
This sense of danger gives the gatherings some edge. At any moment, you might be killed by one of your contestants. After all, that is what dark spirits are supposed to do. But it is an interesting social quirk of the fight clubs that this danger is at its highest when nobody else is watching.
Yet the players usually do refrain from murdering their host. This might simply be because none of them want to be denied a fight. If the host dies, everyone gets sent home - cast back to their own worlds. And where is the fun in that? On the other hand, if the host acts as an anchor, everyone is guaranteed at least one fight (and possibly many more if they survive to become a champion over multiple duels). Or maybe deference for the host is simply down to self-interest. Because if the attacker of a host fails to land an instantenous kill, they can expect to be "ganked" by all the other combatants at once.
"If someone is brazen enough to attack me while people are around," says Dongle, "everyone will gang up on them and eject them from the club, although, they do succeed in killing me every once in a while."
That's not the only time players will police each other. Using your Estus flask to restore your health during a battle is (as Dongle knows) frowned upon. He tries to impart some wisdom on his guests if this happens but his gladiators sometimes have other ideas.
"If I see a duelist chugging his flask during a match, I try to emulate what that first host did for me... jump down and chug all my Estus in front of them so they see that it's not allowed.
"I say 'try' because sometimes the spectators will just jump down and decimate a chugger before I can even attempt to teach them our ways."
The fight clubs are now cropping up all over Lothric. But occasional backstabbings are a mundane concern next to the new ghostly threat which hangs over the fighters and moderators of these strange new arenas. A single player nobody wants to show up. His name is "Malcolm Reynolds" and he is a hacker with a terrible weapon.
"I've seen the posts on Reddit about him," says Dongle, "and I've been keen to watch out for his sign (to avoid it). I usually fill the summon cap by bringing in red signs, so I don't normally get invaded. Every so often, though, someone will slip through the cracks and invade me. When that happens I just try to stay vigilant and watch them when they arrive to make sure they aren't hacking [and] know what's up."
Malcolm Reynolds has been invading people's games and attacking them with a modified weapon - some say a dagger. This dagger reportedly transfers souls to the the stabbed victim. But far from being a violent blessing, this act is enough for the game to detect that something fishy is happening, which leads to the victim being "softbanned" - where they recieve a message saying "Invalid game data" when they try to play, essentially breaking the game for them. Not only has this walking plague been afflicting innocent players one by one, he has been live-streaming it as he goes (the image above is one of his victims, however). The only way to counteract Mal's deadly dagger is to make regular back ups of your own save data and restore them if you ever have the misfortune to be struck by him. Either that or throw yourself off a high building as soon as you see him arrive.
A few days ago, however, the hacker posted a video on his YouTube channel that suggests this character may have been permanently banned from the game. But whether he will return in another guise is yet to be seen. Dongle remains wary, after all the hacker has been doing this since the first Dark Souls.
"Someone reported that they encountered him at the Pontiff spot, so I have been kinda worried," he says. "I started backing my saves up just in case I run into him. The contingency plan is just to commit suicide if he invades my world. People rarely get summoned into the 'ring' and when they invade they have to run to the spot where the fight club is happening.
"Theoretically, I have plenty of time to jump off a ledge before he would reach me or any of my gladiators."
For now, the fight clubs continue, with more and more players discovering the amorphous etiquette of the arena every day. People are even starting to broadcast their whereabouts in forums and setting up passwords so that they can only be accessed by those in the know.
Following my untimely death as host of the last club, I begin a new congregation. I'm a terrible PvP fighter. When I win a battle against an invader, it is a huge deal. I usually just hide and wait for them to get bored and leave. In Dark Souls 2 I was a loyal member of the Rat King Covenant, because it allowed its members to set up poisonous traps and trigger hordes of rats to tip the duel in their favour - unfair, you might say, but I needed every advantage I could get. With the fight clubs, I have found a more honourable way to witness the skill of the game's seasoned fighters.
I transform myself into a skinny, semi-naked dragon-man, holding a torch and a whip.Then I surround the ring with glowing stones, and summon a mob of new contestants to the circle. Far from being confused or violent, they all immediately understand what they have come across. The duels begin.
One man fights only with his fists, his opponent refusing to give up a shield and sword. The boxer is defeated. Another pair face off wearing identical outfits, weilding the exact same weapons. They circle and parrot each other with each swing and stab. Later, mace-weilding giants fight nimble samurais, pyromancers shoot fire at sluggish knights.
Dozens of red phantoms show up and pass through this grinder. Mad purple phantoms, weak white phantoms, even the over-protective, golden 'sunbros' seem to understand the rules and stay their hand when confronted by their enemies - the reds, the purples. Most of the people I summon should want their dragon slavemaster dead. By all rights, they ought to kill me - I wouldn't be offended. Instead, they hold vigil above each fight. Carefully and silently following the rules that nobody has told them. Wait your turn. No Estus flasks. Bow before you strike.
And obviously: if it's your first time at fight club, you have to fight.