It was game night, and I have rules about game night. One of my biggest rules is that no one can be early, because I need the time to meditate and prepare my last minute details. That’s why when I heard the knock on the back office door I hesitated and wasn’t going to answer it. But then I thought: maybe it’s the delivery guy with yesterday’s missing shipment of Battlegear Ruby miniatures.
I opened the door and there was Gretchen standing there with tears streaming down her face and her neck flushed bright red. Her watery blue eyes were rimmed with piggy pink. I tried to shut the door on her but she dropped her shoulder, crashed into the jamb, put her hand on my face, and shoved me backwards. My glasses came off as I went sprawling. I cursed and sputtered as I felt around for my displaced spectacles on the hard carpet.
Gretchen came inside, shut the door behind her, and locked it.
“You’re early,” I said. “Way early. You know my rules.”
I finally found my glasses next to a box of shitty government comics about tooth decay and put them on. Now I could stand up and properly menace her.
“You have to help me,” she said. “Felix is bringing a new girl to the game tonight and I am freaking the fuck out. It’s either me or her. It’s not fair.”
Felix and Gretchen had been a couple for as long as we’d been campaigning together. They’d broken up over Christmas, and it had been awkward for everyone, but they’d done as I asked and kept their personal problems at home while we were gaming. They’d continued coming to my store twice a week for our gaming session, but I had noticed over the past few months that Felix had become increasingly glum as Gretchen persisted in her false hope that they would be getting back together soon.
I suspected that they were still sleeping together after our gaming, even though they were technically not a couple anymore. They always left together, anyway. And during the course of our games their avatars always managed to have a conversation that seemed loaded with themes of “renewal.” Gretchen’s thief “Pico” and Felix’s werewolf-barbarian “Grimtar” talked about future things, like buying their own pirate ship together or creating an army of ghouls and using them as shock troops in deep, impossible future dungeon crawls.
Creating an army of ghouls TOGETHER.
And now Felix was bringing a new girl to the campaign. Typical of Felix. He didn’t call. He didn’t ask. He was just going to bully us all into accepting this new girl and bully Gretchen into dealing with it. Still, though -- the sadistic bastard was my best friend and we went all the way back to grade school.
“That sucks,” I said. “But what do you want me to do about it? If he wants to bring somebody new, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t ban him from the game. You guys aren’t a couple anymore. Maybe it’s time to move on.”
“NO,” said Gretchen. “I know he still loves me. He’s trying to hurt me and make me jealous.”
“Fine,” I said. “But that doesn’t explain why you are here early.”
“I want to ask you a favor,” said Gretchen. “Something really important.”
“I won’t ban her from the game,” I said. “She has the right to roll up a character and play it just the same as everybody else does. You know my rules, Gretchen.”
“That’s not what I want to ask,” said Gretchen. “I want her to play. But I want you to make her look bad. I want you to make sure she has a terrible time and that she doesn’t want to come back.”
“What do you think that will accomplish?” I said. “Come on, Gretchen. Don’t be territorial.”
“Will you do it or not?” asked Gretchen.
“You want me to compromise my ethics as a Dungeon Master -- as your temporary God -- and you don’t offer me blood tribute? Have you learned nothing from our campaign? Supplication of the cold and malevolent deities of the Outer Planes requires flesh sacrifice, otherwise you could suffer permanent wisdom damage.”
“It’s me or her,” said Gretchen. “Do you want me to leave right now?”
“I need incentive,” I said. “I need goals to shoot for.”
“What kind of goals?”
“I need treasure. You know what I like.”
“Alright,” said Gretchen, thinking. “If you promise me you’ll do it, I’ll give you a kiss on the cheek when this is all over.”
“Bah,” I said.
“Aaaaand if you can start a fight between them, I’ll give you a kiss on the lips with tongue.”
“What if I can make her leave the game in tears and make Felix run after her, apologizing the whole time like an asshole?” I asked.
“If you can do that, I’ll give you a deep tissue massage,” said Gretchen. “Shoulders only. With your shirt on.”
“What if I can make her leave in tears and make Felix stay here and NOT run after her?”
“I’ll give you a deep tissue massage with your shirt off,” said Gretchen quietly.
I considered this. Gretchen was a big girl with thick arms, a thick chest, and massive slabs of healthy, glowing skin that radiated confidence and hunger. She always wore giant black bras that barely contained her tremendous and powerful breasts, breasts which had the same effect on me as a “confuse” spell. I could keep fighting, but sometimes I wanted to attack my friends.
Could a massage with my shirt off lead to something dramatic?
How high was my charisma? Really?
“And here’s the big prize,” I said. My tongue was dry. “What if I can make them break up?”
Gretchen was quiet.
“I don’t know,” said Gretchen. “What do you want?”
“What are you offering?” I said, trying to sit down in my computer chair. I missed the seat on account of being so excited and I almost fell on my ass, but I caught myself just in time.
Gretchen was too preoccupied to notice. She bit her lip and cocked her head. She glared at me, thinking. We heard voices from the sidewalk outside the shop. They were here and headed this way.
“A handjob,” said Gretchen. “That’s as far as I’m willing to go.”
“Deal,” I said. My heart beat so fast I thought I might pass out.
Felix, Joel, and the new girl were already in the shop when Gretchen and I met them at the cash register.
“Who’s this?” I asked Felix, looking at the new girl with feigned confusion.
“She’s with me,” said Felix.
“Oh hey,” said the new girl. “I’m Annalisa. It’s nice to meet you. It’s so amazing that you have your own comic book shop. I just love comics.”
“Oh yeah?” said Gretchen. “What do you read?”
“I like everything,” said Annalisa. “I like the art form itself.”
“Totally,” said Joel, sucking the last drops out of a Big Gulp and flinging the plastic cup at the trashcan in the corner.
“Scheisse,” he said jogging over to put the cup in the trash for real, his chain wallet jangling at his side like sleigh bells. Joel only cursed in German. It was one of his ten “things.” I had been friends with Joel for years, and as far as I knew, his entire personality was entirely reducible to ten affectations:
1). He only cursed in German.
2). He smoked Lucky Strike unfiltered cigarettes.
3). He obsessively collected loose change and saved it up in a giant aquarium in his living room.
4). He would light any lady’s cigarette with his classic pearl Zippo, but never a man’s.
5). He always wore a green porkpie hat and a chain wallet.
6). He always wore shorts and black socks, even in the dead of winter.
7). He had immaculately sculpted sideburns that were always shaved so sharp that they appeared to be drawn on the sides of his face in black marker.
8). He claimed that his father was in prison.
9). He was writing a screenplay about a hitman.
10). He collected swords.
I suspected that Joel was gay and didn’t know it yet, but I didn’t let it affect our friendship.
Annalisa and Felix looked strange next to one another. Here was Felix, a towering, shovel-faced brute with a thick mane of coarse black hair and an oily ponytail that looked like a wet dishrag. Annalisa instead was a slight, willowy girl with wire-rimmed glasses like mine, a crooked nose, and bright, sunny features like a newly-awakened baby. Where did Felix find these girls?
“It’s nice to meet you, Annalisa,” I said. “Have you ever done any tabletop gaming before?”
“No, but it sounds awesome,” said Annalisa. “Just like acting.”
“I hope Felix has not filled you full of lies and false hopes,” I said. “This is a very high-level game. Although I would be happy to help you create a character that you can play for the evening, there’s almost no chance that your level one character will survive the sorts of carnage and horror that you will be facing today.”
“I was thinking that maybe she could just sit and watch,” said Felix. “You know, get a feel for it.”
“Hmmmm,” I said. My biggest ally in destroying Felix’s new match was going to be Felix himself. “Here’s a thought. Why don’t you let her play your character?”
“What?” said Felix. Felix’s level thirteen werewolf-barbarian Grimtor was a difficult character to play, even for an experienced gamer. He shapeshifted into his uncontrollable canine form every time he was enraged or scared unless he was able to pass a very high will check. As a werewolf, Grimtor was unpredictable, dangerous, and suicidal. Felix had been working on Grimtor for two years now and through cunning and some smart gaming decisions, he had acquired several rings that boosted his will and kept him from transforming all the time, letting him benefit from the werewolf bonuses without having to deal with the inherent weakness of violent emotional instability.
“It will be a good introduction for her,” I said, licking my lips. “Why don’t you let Annalisa play Grimtor so that she has a good time, and you can play some disposable level one character? It will be a fun challenge for you.”
“Okay,” said Felix, glaring at me. “If you are going to allow it, I guess I see no problem with that.”
“Are you afraid she’s going to kill Grimtor?” asked Gretchen, smirking.
“Seriously, guys,” said Annalisa. “It’s no big deal. Why don’t I just sit this one out?”
“No,” I said. “This will be fun.”
“It’s cool,” said Felix, smiling, putting his hand on Annalisa’s shoulder. “Just, uh, don’t do anything stupid.”
Gretchen and Annalisa both winced and looked at each other. They shared some kind of girl moment.
“I won’t do anything stupid,” said Annalisa cheerfully.
I led everyone over to the gaming table in the back behind the bookshelves full of graphic novels. I studied Joel and Gretchen’s character sheets and saw what they had done over the weekend as far as assigning bonuses from the last game. Joel was playing a level twelve dwarf sorcerer named “Blazefist,” and Gretchen had been playing “Pico,” the same level fifteen thief, ever since we’d started gaming together.
I let Felix have a disposable level one character that I had made for another game a long time ago – a fighter named “Questix” – and I filled in the back-story on our current campaign for Annalisa’s benefit. She was trying her hardest to pay attention but I could tell she was losing me, so I tried to sum it up and give her just enough information so that we could begin playing.
“After searching the abandoned fishing village of Narwhal for clues, Pico, Blazefist, and Grimtar – that’s you -- have discovered that the sleeping sickness that has struck the Sword Coast, and left it open to hordes of gibberlings and kobolds coming down from the mountains, has been caused by a necromancer named Festulent who has an underwater keep only accessible by enchanted submersible. You have undergone all the necessary quests to build the submersible, and have followed Festulent’s evil lampreys deep into his lair, fending off giant squid and the drowned dead who serve as Festulent’s bodyguards. You have broken into his inner underwater sanctum and are hunting him through the bone-and-steel caverns that he has erected to protect himself from the forces of light and justice. As you move out of the airlock, you discover that a young knight named Questix has stowed aboard your submersible, seeking revenge against Festulent for the death of his sweetheart when the fishing village of Narwhal was attacked by undead from the sea so that Festulent could harvest human hearts in order to perform stronger demonic magic.”
“That sure is a lot of names,” said Annalisa. “I don’t know if I can remember all that.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It will all soak in as you play.”
“What do I do?” asked Annalisa.
“Just try and imagine what a seven-foot tall werewolf-barbarian would do in each situation, and remember to use all your powers,” I said.
Annalisa looked at her character sheet and bit her lip.
“The inner hatch to the airlock is sealed by a stinking green mess of seaweed and animal bile,” I said. “There are both magical locks and mechanical ones.”
I rolled a hundred-sided die behind my Dungeon Master’s shield and smiled coyly at Gretchen.
“The thief Pico can tell that the airlock hatch is trapped,” I revealed.
“All this is utterly beyond me,” said Annalisa. “Maybe I could just hang out in the shop and read some comics.”
“No,” I said. “It’s easy. What do you want to do?”
“I guess I want to go through the airlock?” speculated Annalisa.
“Better let me handle this one,” said Gretchen. “I attempt to unlock the inner airlock using my Arcane Lockpick Set.”
Gretchen rolled one of her dice from her little purple drawstring bag. It was a high roll, but fuck it.
“You succeed in unlocking the airlock,” I said. “But as you cut through the seaweed barrier, the demon soul of the ensorcelled fiend who guards the door blows through the chamber like a hurricane of magic razorblades, causing twenty points of damage to everyone.”
“Well fuck,” said Felix, ripping his character sheet in half dramatically. “I’m dead.”
“That was quick,” said Annalisa.
“Fickenhunchen,” said Joel. “Brutal.”
I smiled as everyone subtracted the damage from their sheets. “The body of Questix explodes in a spray of blood and screams. The airlock whizzes open and you see Festulent himself sitting on a throne made of mermaid bones and black ebony. He throws his head back and laughs as he beckons you to enter his throne room.”
“Should I go in?” asked Annalisa.
“You are the strongest and toughest,” I said.
“Do whatever you want,” pouted Felix.
“I guess I go inside,” said Annalisa. “And I say ‘We are here to get you, Festulent. You’d better give up.’
Felix rolled his eyes at Gretchen who smiled back and looked very patient.
“Festulent stands up from his throne, still laughing, and raises his arms,” I said.
“I cast shield on Grimtar!” said Joel, interrupting me.
“Grimtar ignites in a glowing blue force shield,” I said to Annalisa. “That means you are now immune from physical attacks, but not magical ones. What do you do, Pico?”
I turned to Gretchen.
“I try to hide in the shadows,” said Gretchen.
“You are successful,” I said after rolling a die. “Grimtar?”
“Uh, I go up to Festulent and I swing my axe at him,” said Annalisa.
“What?” said Felix. “No…”
“As you raise your axe to strike, Festulent casts chain lightning on all three of you. But since your axe is raised up, it acts like a lightning rod and draws in the full force of the attack. Your body sizzles and you howl with animalistic rage.”
I rolled a die.
“You take fifteen more points of damage,” I said.
“Change into a werewolf!” shouted Joel. “Werewolves are immune from most magical attacks!”
“How do I do that?” asked Annalisa.
“Ignore Joel,” I said. “It has to be nighttime. Or you have to be enraged or scared. But your rings, unfortunately, keep you from changing due to fear or anger.”
“It’s not nighttime?” asked Annalisa. “And why can’t I take my rings off?”
“Even though you are underwater, it is still day,” I said. “And your rings are cursed and can’t be removed.”
“Goddammit,” said Felix. “Let me play.”
“Quiet,” I said.
“You can play if you want,” said Annalisa. “I don’t mind. I’ll just go wait outside.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Gretchen.
“I’m sorry,” said Felix. “But don’t just stand there and get killed. You should try and run away.”
“Festulent raises his arms again to cast another spell,” I said.
“I cast acid arrow!” said Joel.
“Your acid arrow misses,” I said, rolling a dice.
“Sheisse,” said Joel.
“Festulent’s hands glow with ethereal fire and he turns, still laughing, to Grimtar,” I said.
“Run away!” said Felix.
“I run away!” said Annalisa.
“You really want to turn your back to him?” I said.
“No,” said Annalisa. “I hit him with my axe again.”
“You have like five points of health left!” said Felix. “Come on! This game doesn’t count!”
“I’m sorry,” said Annalisa. “I didn’t mean to ruin your character.”
Gretchen cleared her throat.
“I come out of the shadows,” said Gretchen. “And I chop off Grimtar’s left hand.”
“Oh my god!” shouted Annalisa, standing up. “Your ex-girlfriend is crazy!”
“No way,” said Felix. “That’s really fucking smart.”
“The rings,” explained Joel.
I nodded to Annalisa.
“She just saved your life,” I said.
Annalisa was still standing, slowly looking at each of the three of us as if realizing we were insane.
“As your hand falls to the ground, you lose the will protections from your two Rings of Mind Steel and you suddenly transform into an eight foot tall, snarling werewolf. You howl in Festulent’s face. His hands falter as he tries to go through the motions of his magical incantations. You are berserk with pain and rage, and you swipe at his face with your right paw…”
I rolled a die.
“…knocking him down and tearing a huge gash in his throat. He lies on the ground bleeding, and he is laughing no more. He will never laugh again.”
“I come over and stab him in the heart,” said Gretchen.
“He dies,” I said. “You have defeated him.”
“Thank you,” said Felix to Gretchen, covering her hand with his. “Seriously. Thank you.”
“This is fucked up,” said Annalisa. “I’m going to go.”
We all watched Annalisa gather her purse and leave my store. Felix took her chair as soon as she was gone, tightening our circle.
“We weren’t really dating,” said Felix. We could all tell he was lying. “She said she liked games so I thought I’d bring her along. Sorry about that.”
“We should go through Festulent’s horde and see what enchanted items he’s got,” said Joel.
I picked up a pair of dice and shook them in my hand suggestively, back and forth, back and forth, until I caught Gretchen’s eye. She looked at me and then she looked back at Felix, nervous. Felix looked glum. Resigned. A little bit sad. I shook the dice in my hands some more and then I blew on them like a gambler on a hot streak. I shook the dice back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until Gretchen’s face went red. I couldn’t tell if she was mad or embarrassed. I tossed the dice and leaned back in my chair, crossing my legs. Someone kicked me under the table and I fell over backwards. My legs came up and smashed into the gaming table, ruining all the pieces and knocking everything onto the floor, ruining everything.