The next day, Tess met him at his locker before school. “Hey,” she said, “I went book shopping with Alex and Tina last night and I found this cool store down by the river that sells games. They’ve got a lot of C&C stuff, but that’s not what was cool. In the back room, these college guys were playing a huge game, and they had a woman in the group, too. I watched the GM, and he was great, almost as good as you.” Steve’s face went hot at the compliment. “They were just wrapping up, so I went and talked to him. You might want to meet this guy; he’s a big, fat dude named Aaron Slayton, really smart. He’s working on a writing degree at PSU.”
“That sounds great,” Steve said sincerely, and with some relief at the disclaimer that Aaron was a big, fat dude. “Did the Harrisons go in too?”
“Nah. We passed the shop together, and Alex and Tina wanted to get to this other one, so I just told them I’d catch up later. I kinda lost track of time, and Alex was pretty mad when he came back. I didn’t get a chance to talk to the woman much, but she said they usually play on Saturdays. Maybe we could go tomorrow.”
“Yeah, maybe. What about tonight?”
“I can’t. Alex and Tina are going out and I told them I’d babysit. You guys could go ahead. Have Curt play Megaera for me, and I’ll pick it up later.”
“You really want that?” Steve asked.
Tess frowned. She scuffed at the floor with the side of her shoe. “No, but I don’t wanna hold up the game.”
“We can postpone it,” Steve said. “The guys’ll understand.”
* * *
Actually, he didn’t think they would, at least Curt wouldn’t. He’d be fine playing without her, so he didn’t plan to give them the option. As soon as he got home, he looked up the Game Den in the phone book and called to confirm they had open gaming. “Sure enough,” said the old man who answered. “The more, the merrier. I gotta warn you it’s not real neat in back, but everyone seems to have a good time.”
Then he phoned Curt and Rei and told them that the game was off that night because he had more work to do on the adventure. He mentioned the Game Den, and that it might be worth checking out. Curt had heard of it and agreed. “My cousin went once. They’ve always got a good stock of rulebooks.” Rei was agreeable too, as usual. Both figured they could get rides.
He called Tess. “Yeah, it’s cool,” she said. “The kids were monsters after dessert. Tina owes me big time.”
The next morning, Steve’s dad made him work pulling weeds in the bark dust around the lawn. Because of Steve’s arm, his dad assumed Steve’s usual weekend job of mowing and edging. Steve far preferred mowing to weeding, but it was decent enough for letting his mind roam over an adventure, and what he’d told the guys wasn’t entirely a lie: he still had thinking to do. He’d planned out the whole dungeon network of the underworld and knew what was coming up, but that was just an armature. The unlooked-for stuff, the course correction based on what the players wanted—that fleshed out the action and he didn’t think he had it down yet.
The underworld seethed with hostility and deception. The monsters were opportunists and didn’t get along, and they all had their areas that the hag didn’t want them to stray from. Side tunnels housed especially fearsome monsters. Lydia might want to lead the party to a monster that would kill them off. This could be the place to introduce Megaera’s vampire, Karsk, the one her mother superior sent her out to find. The hag had a master vampire as her lieutenant. Steve had written him up as “Olaf” in his notes, but maybe Karsk was Olaf by another name. He’d be too powerful for Megaera, though, and even if she got a lucky roll and subdued him, the hag could easily take him out of Megaera’s control, like her son had with the other vampires. Steve had envisioned Olaf as super tough. Would Megaera’s mother superior send her to retrieve a really powerful vampire? Maybe she would—if she didn’t want her to succeed. Steve felt excited by this idea. That’s how he’d drive Megaera farther from her evil past—he’d show that the mother superior had betrayed her. But then how would she beat Karsk? Maybe Bugclaw gave its wielder extra power over undead.
Eventually, Steve thought, he wanted to work Megaera away from Bugclaw. That might be a long project, getting to that point, and a challenge to keep it interesting, but he’d do it for Tess…
Steve turned this over and over in his head, losing track of time. Finally, he became aware of the sun on his arms and the swifts squabbling in high-speed chase, cutting the air with their blade-like wings as they banked up along the fir at the yard’s edge, did hammerhead stalls, and came plunging back down over the grass: part birds, part mini fighter planes. His bucket had filled with weeds, and he’d tackled almost the entire lawn edge. If someone said they’d done the work for him while he was daydreaming, he wouldn’t necessarily disbelieve them.
* * *
He copied the Game Den’s address from the phone book, and then handed it to his dad as they pulled out of the drive at five o’clock. A few minutes later they reached the highway exit. “When are your friends meeting you?”
“In about an hour,” Steve said, “but I want to make sure that I get a table, and I have to do some setup.” His dad frowned, but nodded. The others wouldn’t be coming till six, but he wanted to get acquainted with this college guy who had Tess so intrigued.
“Did you eat?”
In his excitement, he’d forgotten. He could always buy a hot dog or something. He had a couple dollars of allowance money on him. “Yeah, I’m good.” His dad shook his head, fished out his wallet with one hand, and glancing between it and the road extracted a ten and tossed it over to him. “There are several places to eat along the river. Don’t go alone, and don’t wait till late. Man, your head is so deep in Bilbo Baggins, you scare me sometimes.”
The ride was short, just downtown about five miles away, on Southwest First, a block west of the river. Rising up through the line of buildings to the north, the Burnside Bridge arced away eastward, its tight balustrade like a zipper along its top. The Game Den was one of a half dozen businesses occupying an old one-story strip mall that stretched the length of the block.
The entrance had a worn rubber pressure mat and a glass door. Hanging from the door handle just inside was a chain of variously shaped bells. Apparently the store had once been a mini mart. When he stomped on the mat and nothing happened, he hefted his satchel of game books with his good arm, and pushed inside with the edge of his cast. The door whipped shut behind him with a jangle.
Banks of exposed fluorescents sputtered high above, and towering wooden bookcases marched along the store’s left side. To the right, a long strip of tan shag carpet spilled down the concrete floor and passed the checkout stand, where a bald, middle-aged man swiped a pricing gun on books he removed from a cardboard box. He glanced up. “Here for the C&C game?”
“Yeah,” Steve said.
“Well, you’re early, but that’s okay. Aaron’s in back sweeping the floor. You can put your stuff with him if you want. Are you a player or a gamemaster?”
The man’s acquaintance with the game impressed Steve. “GM, mostly.”
“I’m still learning to play, but I think it’s a lot of fun. Do you buy your adventures or make them up yourself?”
“I only run my own adventures.” The man didn’t respond and went back to pricing. Feeling awkward, Steve pretended to occupy himself by looking at books. His eyes slid over an endcap display of used Harlequin Romance novels, like an untidy wall of vertical white bricks, and another of dark-spined horror novels, their titles embossed in metallic foil.
“You get good grades I bet?”
Steve shrugged. He had drawn close enough for a better look at the guy, and realized he wasn’t as old as he’d thought at first. His head was completely bald, with a raised pink mole above his right eyebrow. He had a close-cropped dark-blond beard with a few gray hairs in it, thick lips, and a bulbous nose. His eyes were ice-pale like Rei’s dad’s, though he wasn’t nearly as tall. Lines around his eyes gave him a wise, wizardy look. The impression grew when the man smiled. He reached over the counter and offered his hand. “I’m Magnus.”
Magnus’s hand was soft, like he kept it lotioned, but his grip was strong and assertive. He said, “I’d think a kid would have to be pretty smart to run his own adventure. I’ve sat in on a couple games with Aaron, and I’m blown away by everything he keeps track of. It’s hard just keeping my own character straight.”
“Well, I really just use the rules as a guide. If you track everything, you waste time and your players get bored.”
“That’s what Aaron says. You know him?”
Steve said, “Isn’t he in college or something?”
“Yeah, but he helps me out. He thinks that role-playing games have brought back the storyteller’s art. I think he’s right.”
“I think so too,” Steve said, though he’d never really thought about it at all.
“So how’d you hear about our little game nights?”
“My friend Tess.”
“That thin, dark-haired girl, real pretty?” He said this matter-of-factly.
“I’ve never met a kid that smart before, or well read. Do you know her family?”
Steve thought this an odd question, but said, “She’s living with our school principal. Her mom’s sick, and her dad isn’t around.”
“That’s too bad, but I could tell she’s had it rough. I’m glad she’s got friends like you.”
Surprised, Steve didn’t know how to respond; this sounded oddly like what Mr. Harrison had said.
“Well, good thing you’re here early. We had overflow last weekend. A guy who runs a paint store down the block lets me send kids there. They said it went okay, but I think they liked it here better. Aaron really sets the tone with his games. I’ve seen him run one with a dozen kids and had them all on the hook.” Magnus turned back to pricing for a few seconds. “I’ll check in once your game’s going.” Steve started down a book aisle, and Magnus nodded him further on. “Back room’s that way.”
* * *
Steve arrived at heavy double doors that were hard to open. He found Aaron watching as he came in, hands folded atop the handle of a push-broom. At first, Steve took him for a grownup. He was tall, with a thick middle. His buzzcut head was strong and round with thrusting brows. His nose on his blocky face was straight, flat at the bottom and slightly flared. Steve realized that the tightness in his thin lips was a grin. Steve thought of a cavemen, though maybe the smartest one in the tribe.
“I heard you chatting with Magnus,” said Aaron. “So you’re Steve. The way your girlfriend talked about you, I thought you’d be older.”
“She’s not my girlfriend, just my friend.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said and frowned at his miscalculation. “Is she coming tonight?”
“Yeah, and so are my friends Curt and Rei.”
“Decent. I’m in the middle of a campaign based on Celtic myth. I was telling your— Sorry, what’s her name again?”
“Oh, right. I was telling her about it. You know Lloyd Alexander’s books?”
Steve shook his head.
“She didn’t either, but when I described the Black Cauldron, she actually recognized it from The Mabinogion, which her mom read her.”
“Yeah, she learned a lot of cool stuff from her mom. What’s the Black Cauldron do again?” This was his best dodge. Steve had no idea what it did in the first place, or what The Mabinogion was.
“It creates zombie warriors. Anyway, she told me about this weapon you came up with, the flail.”
“Yeah, I just thought it up in the middle of the adventure.”
“It’s part of a demon or something?”
“Yeah, my game has all these demigods, called Powers. They’re made of strange particles from the Big Bang, and fold space to cross galaxies and stuff.”
“Like the Old Ones in Lovecraft.”
“I haven’t read him yet, actually. I thought my idea was new.” Steve felt crestfallen.
“There aren’t any new ideas. So how do these demigods fit in?”
“In my game, outer space is like weather, and Earth is in a section of high-pressure space that the demigods normally can’t get into. They come to Earth when a space storm passes over, and every few million years they take animals back with them, like the dinosaurs and trilobites and stuff, so things that were extinct here got rescued and then evolved.”
“Kind of Noah’s Ark. Cool. Tess was right, you’re a bright kid.”
“She said that?”
“Yeah, but she didn’t tell me any of this.”
“Well, I don’t talk about it in the adventures. I’ve mentioned bits and pieces to Rei and Curt. It’s just background.”
“It’s good stuff.”
Steve felt hot with the effort to articulate his ideas, and also with pride, realizing not only that he had an appreciative audience, but that, yeah, his ideas were pretty good after all. “There’s this demonlord named Cax, and he looks like a cross between a mantis and a millipede. Actually, I got the image from a book cover. I can’t remember which one.”
“Hmm, a book by Michael Moorcock? Did you read the Elric series?”
“Yeah, when I came down with the chicken pox last year, I had my mom get them. But it’s not from those. Anyway, Cax is the main enemy, but it could be years before the party takes him on. There’s a super-powerful, giant hag that’s working for him. She’ll be the first major boss they meet.”
“ ‘Boss’—that’s cool. I’d like to watch your game but my own group’s coming.” Aaron made a few swipes at the floor into a pile of dirt and pencil shavings and then laid aside the broom and took up a dustpan and brush from a nearby table.
Steve backed away to give Aaron room and ended up slouched against the bare drywall next to the door. He said, “So what made you want to be a GM?”
Aaron brushed dust into the pan thoughtfully, and then settled back on his haunches a moment, heaved a sigh, and struggled to his feet. Finally, he said, “C&C takes the props of classic myth — gods, monsters, magic powers, thieves, wizards, warriors — and helps you make it personal. That’s what I like, creating a mythic second life for my group. It’s kind of a bonding ritual, like church.”
“Church?” Steve thought this was taking it a little far.
“You know these religious guys who say it’s devil worship?”
“They’re nuts, right?” said Steve.
“Yeah, well, I think they’re not nuts. They use fantasy to indoctrinate people and control them. They don’t like the competition so they come up with this crap, but pretty soon they’ll figure out it’s better to try ridicule. I think you’ll see roleplaying games get marginalized. Pretty soon it will be something only dorks like us are interested in. Ten years from now, if they’re mentioned on the news, it’ll only be with a smirk. So this is the Golden Age. Enjoy it.”
“That’s pretty bleak,” said Steve.
“Not really. All the good stuff is on the fringe. Maybe guys like you and me’ll create the next big game, like with computers or something, or write books, or who knows. But anyway, our friends seem to like what we’re doing.”
Aaron’s face had colored during his speech and his eyes shone. Just like Magnus, the store owner, he seemed a little manic, but it was refreshing to be in a place where Steve didn’t feel judged, so he didn’t feel like judging, either. Aaron had to be a good dude to make Tess open up so quickly. If anyone had a nose for stupid people and bullshit, it was Tess.
The door creaked and Rei wrestled in around it. “Hey, there you are. Curt’s on his way.”
Steve introduced him to Aaron, who shook his hand and then took up the push broom again and returned to leaning on it. “We were just talking about Steve’s adventure,” Aaron said.
“Yeah, it’s going pretty good,” said Rei. He cast around, hefting his backpack. Folded chairs were lined up along the walls, and four low, round tables with particle-board tops were shoved to the edge of the room, in front of rickety metal shelving that held boxes of fluorescent lights and loose paperbacks. Rei pulled one of these strange tables away from the wall and put his backpack on it. “This is kinda funky.”
“Those are industrial cable spools,” said Aaron. “They were at a construction site down the street, and the foreman said Magnus could take them. He made the tops, and countersunk some bolts. Cheap tables. They’re kind of a good height. You can lean over them and get the lie of all the character sheets and miniatures.”
“We don’t use miniatures much,” said Rei.
“Yeah,” said Steve, “I’ve got a few figures, but I mostly place dice or scratch down a battle layout on note paper.”
Aaron shrugged. “I like to use a vinyl grid map with erasable markers.”
The bells clanged at the entrance outside and a noisy, bantering group progressed through the store. They had an unintelligible exchange with Magnus, and he barked with laughter. A few seconds later, the door opened, and a big guy with wooly red hair and mutton-chop side burns puffed inside, followed by a willowy, very pale young blond woman half a head taller. In her height and pallor, and her choice of a loose white muslin blouse, she reminded Steve of the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; but, far from holding herself aloof, she slouched, with her long, thin arms half-folded as if she were cold or trying to keep herself together. She had delicate features, offset by a strong, almost masculine jaw and pale blue eyes widely spaced. Steve couldn’t decide if she was pretty or not. A thin Asian guy followed her in. He wore a sleeveless shirt and his olive-skinned arms were lean and muscle-corded.
Aaron put the broom aside and got busy helping the others pull out a table and chairs. The red-haired guy said, “Get this, man. On the way over, Mary raced Jack down the street, and this drunk guy and his dog came around the corner. Jack was just ahead of her, almost up to the dog, when it turned and started shitting on the sidewalk, right where his foot was gonna come down, and he almost did the splits to miss it, and fell over. So Mary beat him to the curb!
“But the guy starts laughing and laughing, and he bends down and picks up a fresh, steamy turd and squishes it and holds it out all dripping off his fingers and everything, and says—”
“ ‘—look what you almost stepped in…’ ” said the Asian guy, obviously Jack, and then Mary and the red-haired guy finished together, “China boy!”
“Bullshit. Really?” said Aaron.
Jack nodded, and wiped tears out of his eyes. He got himself under control a few seconds later and then said, “I’m Laotian!” and broke into a renewed fit of teary-eyed hilarity, as if that were somehow the funniest part.
“Hey, Keith, Mary, Jack, this is Steve, and …”
Steve brought up his hand in a timid half-salute. Mary glowered and her mouth made a querulous twist. “Are you guys joining us?”
“No,” said Aaron, “Steve’s running his own campaign. We were just talking about it when you came in. Seriously great stuff.”
Jack, the Laotian guy, made a dubious smirk. “Cool. Welcome to the Game Den, a wretched hive of slackers, dopers, and English majors.”
“Mmm, I detect a progression there,” said Mary.
Jack leaned toward Steve and, shielding his mouth with the back of his hand, nodded toward Mary. “English major.”
Aaron took a seat with his back to the far wall, grabbed a gym bag nearby, and began unpacking his game manuals, notes, and clear plastic boxes of polyhedral dice. Jack went to the wall and dimmed the lights, and Keith dragged a couple of freestanding reading lamps out from among the shelving. He plugged them in at opposite ends of the room. Mary unfolded chairs, and in a couple of minutes, they’d settled completely down to business, already distanced from Steve and Rei, who went and set up the table Steve had claimed earlier.
Curt entered after five more minutes, just as Aaron had begun his narrative: “You see the cloaked figures meld into the shadows under the trees. Moradel can feel the curse working on him. You believe what the old man said was true: no magic will cure this curse; you must destroy the black cauldron within a fortnight, or die…”
Curt watched the college students uncertainly while he edged over. Aaron had his group’s full attention. They appeared concerned and earnest. Steve had witnessed those expressions from his own group now and then, but seeing it as an outsider was fascinating and made him want to listen in. Aaron measured his words, took his time, but never seemed to be stalling. That authority and confidence, along with a decent ear for language, made his delivery compelling.
“… among the trees, suddenly the lurching forms of cauldron warriors resolve out of the shadows, their faces distorted, shiny, and dark — like peat mummies long preserved under rotting bogs.”
“Draw weapons, back to back,” said Keith.
“I ward them off with my Celtic cross,” said Mary.
“The cross grows warm as they approach and suddenly flares red hot. You drop it just in time to avoid a severe burn. The first zombie slashes at you with a rusty sword. Roll precedence…”
Just then, Steve noticed Tess standing inside the door, arms folded, watching Aaron’s group. He caught her eye, and she nodded and then tiptoed over.
“He’s pretty good, huh?” she whispered. Steve nodded, and then they stepped away and she took her seat. “But,” she said, low across the table, “I think he’s mostly a good performer. The situations he gets the party in don’t seem as interesting as ours.”
Steve answered her with a smile. He handed Tess and Rei their character sheets. Curt brought out his own from a spiral notebook. He never trusted Steve with his character between adventures. “Ready?” Steve said, straightening in his chair.
“Yeah,” said Tess, “I’m ready to make that bitch pay for what happened to the baron.”
“Okay, then. You’re in the cave with the werewolf.”