The air was crisp the next morning when TJ’s mom pulled into Allison’s driveway. The weather forecast predicted a beautiful weekend: clear skies, highs in the lower seventies, and lows only in the upper fifties. Nothing a bedroll – or a sleeping bag – couldn’t handle. Despite the warm temperatures, autumn was in the air and the leaves had begun to change their colors. As far as TJ could tell, it all pointed to a glorious event. He hopped out of the car and went to ring the doorbell. He waited a few moments and then rang the bell again.
“Geez, keep your shirt on, I’ll be right there!” Allison’s voice was muffled through the heavy door. Sighing, TJ leaned back against the low fence that surrounded the porch, and prepared to wait. Allison’s parents, having learned of her last minute plans to go “fight monsters” in the surrounding countryside, took no time in getting their own weekend plans in place. They were flying out to Atlantic City for two nights at one of the newest and ugliest casinos on the boardwalk. Their cab had come to take them away at 5 am, and they were no doubt already in the air toward their glitzy long weekend. Allison was an only child, so there wasn’t anyone else to open up the door and invite TJ in while he waited for his friend to get ready. He sighed again.
Suddenly the door jerked open. TJ’s jaw dropped at the sight of Allison’s costume. There she was – at least he thought it was her – dressed ready for a battle, an opera, or maybe both. She had donned a sky blue dress that swirled around her legs in the light breeze caused by the opening door. Her torso was encased in a plastic replica of a bronze breastplate, with outrageously sized domes on her chest. Topping the entire ensemble off was a Viking helmet, one giant horn turned up and one turned down.
“So, how do I look? Am I going to fit in?” Allison grinned from ear to ear.
“Um. Well. Um.” TJ stalled as he tried to formulate a response. “That’s not exactly what we discussed on your packing list last night. What happened?”
“Well, you know how my uncle has that amateur theater company over on Jefferson Street? I gave him a call last night and this is what he dropped off. I think I look smashing!” She gave a little twirl, letting the bottom of the robes billow out into a bell shape around her legs. “He said that I need to make sure that I don’t get it dirty, but I’m sure these robes can be dry-cleaned if it comes to that.”
Allison’s eyes narrowed and she gave her friend a little pout. “You’re not going to tell me I look ridiculous, are you? Because if so, you’re off to slay dragons this weekend alone.” She gave a curt nod for emphasis.
TJ needed only the slightest pause to blurt out, “Oh no, Allie! You’ve got that look down. I think you’re going to fit right in!” In truth, he was pretty sure that she wouldn’t. But he knew that geeks are notoriously unwilling to mock the way other people dress, so she wouldn’t actually hear anything about it. He just hoped no one was planning on bringing a camera. The last thing he wanted was to cause ridicule for his best friend for the rest of her life.
“By the way,” she added suspiciously. “Why aren’t you dressed yet? This isn’t some big joke, is it?”
“Oh no,” he hurriedly replied. “I just have the wizard robe and hat. I’ll toss them on when we get there.”
She looked appeased, but he still decided a strategic change in subject was still in order. “Where’s all your stuff? Let me help you get it loaded up.”
“Oh, I don’t have a whole lot of stuff to bring. There’s my sleeping bag. I mean bedroll.” She flashed a grin. “And I’ve just got a few other things. It all fits in my backpack over there. If you want to grab it, I’ll get my bedroll and we can hit the road.” TJ stepped inside the house and walked over to where her bag was waiting beneath a small cherry table. The lights from the chandelier overhead reflected in the mirror that faced the door. For perhaps the millionth time he reflected on how cool it must be to have two lawyers for parents. The backpack looked just as advertised, but when he hefted it onto his shoulder he let out a groan.
“Good grief, what have you got in this thing? Rocks?”
Allison turned, then snorted a laugh and replied, “Yeah, actually. Those are rocks my folks and I collected last weekend when we went hiking. You know how they are. Dad read a book about family bonding and they decided it would be a good experience to go play geologist. My weekend bag is that one.” She pointed to another backpack sitting by the door.
TJ shrugged and trudged over to an identical backpack, throwing it easily over his shoulder and heading out the door. Allison followed him through, her sleeping bag in hand. Checking that her keys were in her pocket, she pulled the door shut, twisted the knob to make sure that it was locked and then skipped down the walkway to where TJ waited at the open trunk. She tossed the bag into the trunk and twirled over to the passenger side back door.
TJ let out a chuckle and said in a surprised voice, “Well now, that’s quite the turnaround, isn’t it? I pretty much had to twist your arm to come yesterday, and now you’re raring to go!”
“Well I decided that if I’m going to look like an idiot for a couple days, I may as well have fun doing it. And if it stinks, I can always grab a ride with someone back home and can spend all day tomorrow eating Captain Crunch in my PJs and binge watching Cartoon Network in an otherwise empty house. Win-win, if you ask me!” She hopped into the passenger side back seat and said, “Hi Mrs. Keller, thanks for the ride!” His mom replied with a cheerful, “My pleasure, Allie, it’s great to see you! Hopefully we’ll get you over for dinner again soon.”
TJ barked a laugh and shook his head. “That’s the spirit! I knew I liked you for a reason, Allie.” He went around to the rear door on the driver side and got in. As he buckled, he said, “I’m not going to leave you back here all by yourself, you know..” She grinned and buckled her own belt.
The car pulled out of the driveway and moved slowly down the street. Allison looked back at her house once more before turning her attention to her friend, who had begun to talk about his character’s past exploits. The well-manicured lawn and perfect little hedges seemed to mock her decision to spend the weekend with their more wild cousins. But one thing was sure – TJ really seemed to have fun on these things, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The trip took less than thirty minutes on the highway. The group TJ played with had reserved a wildlife reserve for the weekend. It was the type of place that Boy Scout troops used for camp outs – a good mixture of open land and woods, as well as a few small ponds scattered here and there. Most importantly, there was a central lodge with running water and even an outdoor shower. On those rainy weekends when people ended the day all covered in mud, even a cold shower was better than nothing, especially when there was a large open hearth waiting to warm them back up.
The property’s owner had originally been wary of letting a bunch of teens and young adults run around pretending to chop each other into pieces, and was on site for the very first game held there. It turned out that he had so much fun he decided to keep coming back and was eventually given the full time role of King of the Realm. Everyone understood that if they didn’t take care of the location, not only would the group have to find a new place, it was entirely possible that their character would lose their head to the executioner’s axe.
After they pulled their bags out of the trunk, TJ reached back in and removed a coat hanger with his costume attached. He pulled the ornate robe over his head and then topped himself with a floppy hat. “The beauty of robes is that no one knows what you’re wearing underneath. A couple layers of sweats go a long way on those chilly evenings. Some folks go for period shoes, as well, but if I have to run, I’d rather it be in my Nikes than a pair of sandals.”
After the requisite hug and admonition to be safe from TJ’s mother, the two friends were left standing in a gravel lot adjacent to the lodge, backpacks slung across their shoulders. “So now what?” Allison asked.
“Now we go get ourselves checked in, see who else is here, and get you a character!” The pair walked the short distance to the building and slipped through the open door. The room was dark, as one might expect of some medieval tavern. Unfortunately, also like a tavern, the room smelled of unwashed body. Sitting in chairs around the room were a couple dozen teenagers in various amounts of fantasy gear, each individual’s choice apparently based on their personal girth. There were a lot of flowing robes, and no gladiator-style leather harnesses.
Allison had to choke down a laugh at the assembled players and TJ elbowed her in the ribs. “Shh,” he whispered at her. “They have ears, too, so be kind. They’re really nice folks, I promise. Let’s go get us registered.”
In one corner of the room was a desk with official-looking people and a sign that read “Ye Olde Registration” behind it. As they headed in that direction they heard, “Hey TJ! You made it! And you brought a newbie! Awesome!” The voice came from the opposite corner of the room. The two turned and TJ broke into a wide grin as he spotted some of his friends gathered around a small table. He took Allison’s elbow and guided her over.
“Hey guys! Great to see you again. Is this going to be a great weekend, or what?” This was met with vigorous head nodding. “And look who I finally managed to convince! You remember my friend Allison, don’t you? Through sheer determination and the promise of hot guys, I was able to get her to give in and join us for the weekend.”
The assembled boys looked back and forth at each other in amusement. One said, “Hot guys, huh? I didn’t know you I was your type, TJ.” He batted his eyelashes and the others at the table laughed. “And of course we remember Allison,” he added with a snort. “It’s not like you ever shut up about her or anything.”
TJ’s face turned red, “Come ON, Chuck. You look in a mirror lately? I told her Simon was coming, and that’s what pushed her over the edge.” Heads nodded in understanding. “Anyway, Allison, this is the party. Chuck, our thief extraordinaire, can open just about any lock that exists. We haven’t yet found a trap he couldn’t disarm.”
The small, slightly chubby boy was dressed all in black, with the exception of a conspicuously thick silver chain dangling from his neck. He smiled proudly and declared, “I’ve put all my skill points into those two items. I’m totally worthless for pretty much everything else, but I can get us into places that no one else in the game will ever see in character. I’m up to eight points in each, TJ. I leveled up last game. Gained a bonus weapon skill too, so now I can actually swing a dagger without hitting one of you guys.”
A large boy sitting next to him said, “That’s what you think. I’m still keeping my distance from you, little guy.” He stood up and extended a meaty hand. At his full height he towered over everyone else at the table and Allison had to look up to meet his eye. “Hey Allison, good to see you again. It’s been too long.” She took his hand and shook it a few times.
“Nice to see you too, Jimmy. You got big over the summer, didn’t you?”
Chuck piped in, “And once again Ford Prefect’s assessment of humanity’s ability to cheerfully state the obvious proves true!” Allison looked at him blankly. “C’mon. Ford Prefect? Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?” She blinked. He glanced at TJ. “Where did you find her? Man, she needs some serious edumacation. Learn you a book.” TJ shrugged, “She’s a work in progress.” He gave her a quick shoulder hug.
Not only had Jimmy grown, but TJ’s prediction about his outfit was correct. He had a shimmering coat of mail over a padded gambeson, metal bracers attached to his forearms and what looked like matching pieces strapped to his legs. “Nice getup you’ve got there.” She flashed Chuck a hostile look.
“Thanks,” he replied, and gave her a mock curtsy. “You know how my mom is. Once she got it into her head that I needed to look beefy, she went all out.” Allison nodded agreement. Jimmy’s dad had died young, and ever since then his mom tended to overcompensate. He always had the best of everything, even when she had to stretch.
The third member at the table, a boy with light brown skin and bony shoulders stood up and extended a hand to TJ. He was clothed head to toe in shades of green, with a tunic, cloak, leggings and blouse. Large ears poked out of a brown polar-fleece flop hat that sat atop his head. Leaning against the wall behind him was a bow made out of PVC tubing, painted brown to look more like real wood, a not altogether successful effort. “You’re Stu, aren’t you? I’m TJ, pleased to meet you.”
Stu nodded, “Likewise. I’ve heard good things about you from Jimmy at school, and I’m eager to fight by your side.” He turned to Allison and took her hand. Rather than shaking it, he bowed over it, brushing his lips across its back. “Milady.”
Allison giggled and said, “Well I can’t say anyone’s ever done that before. Maybe this weekend won’t be a total bust!” The boys laughed. “Hi Stuart! What are you doing out here at this geek fest?”
“I needed to get out of the house and for a little peace and quiet,” he replied. “By the way, call me Stu. Only my mom and my sisters call me Stuart, and I kinda hate it.”
Chuck’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “You guys know each other?”
“Now who’s stating the obvious?” Allison rolled her eyes and Chuck stuck his tongue out. “Stu’s two older sisters dance with me at the studio in Springfield. They’re really good, though I don’t think either want to be dancers after college or anything.”
“Nope, Pre-Med for both,” Stu confirmed. “Just like Dad.”
“So what kinda character are you going to play, Allison?” Jimmy asked.
“Um. I don’t know actually. I didn’t really give it any thought. I just figured I’d show up and hit things on the head or cast magical spells,” she wiggled her fingers at this, “or something along those lines. I don’t even know any of the rules.”
The boys at the table all looked back and forth at each other, and in unison declared, “Healer!”
“Healer? You mean I don’t get to bonk people or cast magical spells or anything like that?” She shot a hurt look at TJ. “This is going to stink, isn’t it?”
“No! No, it won’t,” TJ replied, perhaps a little too quickly. But she wasn’t buying it. He continued, “Well. Maybe it will a little.” He held up his thumb and forefinger. “But just because you’re a healer it doesn’t mean you can’t bonk people. We’ll make sure we get you a club or a mace or something. And technically, healing is a magical spell. It’s just a different sort of magical spell from what I cast.” Allison looked unconvinced. “And, the guys are right. We’ve got a thief, Chuckles. We’ve got a Wizard, me. We’ve got a big piece of meat, Jimmy. It looks like Stu provides us with ranged attacks, and if I’m guessing correctly tracking and other outdoor skills that could come in handy, depending on what the story is.” Stu nodded and TJ continued, “What we’re really missing is healing support. There have been some adventures when we’ve barely been scratched and all we needed was Chuck’s expertise to get us through. But if we get into some big combat and start taking damage, we’re gonna be in rough shape without a healer.”
“And you’re already dressed as one! Sorta. Except for the hat.” Jimmy’s comment elicited laughs from the guys, and turned Allison’s face red.
“Yeah well, you better make sure you don’t get clobbered too much, cause I’m not sure if I or my hat want to heal you very much.” She let out a little humpf.
This resulted in a series of “ooohs," but Jimmy just grinned. “I’ll do my best. I’m good at not getting hit!”
TJ stood and pulled on Allison’s sleeve. “C’mon, let’s get registered and get you a character created. It won’t take long, and I’ll explain the rules while we’re in line. Be back in a jiffy, guys.”
The two left the table with a wave and crossed the room to the registration desk, where there were only a few people in line ahead of them. As they approached the line, Allison gave TJ a sideways glance. “So it’s not like you ever shut up about me?”
TJ blushed a deep red, which she pretended not to notice. “Yeah, well,” he stammered, and then abruptly changed the subject. “Here’s the way things work. The weapons we use are all made out of PVC pipe wrapped up in foam and duct taped like crazy. It isn’t comfortable to get hit by one, but it’s not going to do any serious harm. Different weapons do different amounts of damage, and everyone can only take so much damage before they get knocked out. Different classes can absorb different amounts, and as you level up, your hit points increase too. You’ll be starting at first level, so you aren’t able to get hit much, even with your, um, armor.” He tried, and failed, to not look at her absurdly large breastplate. “You should try to avoid it as much as possible.”
She crossed her arms. “You think?”
“Shush, I’m trying to be helpful and put this in context for you. I’ve been around for a while, so even though I’m only a wizard – and we get the fewest hit points of the bunch, I’m still going to have more than you. And Jimmy, he’s a beast. He could take enough damage to kill you and me both twice over and it still wouldn’t put much of a crimp in his style. He’s great to have around.”
“Well what keeps the monsters from just running around him and whacking us dead first?”
“Two things. First, he doesn’t carry a sword. He carries a sword. It doesn’t really fit in rooms with low ceilings. So it’s hard for things to run around him simply as a matter of logistics. Second, his class is called a berserker, and one of its traits is that enemies are drawn to fight him. In rules terms, what it means is that he wears a bright yellow headband when we are out playing, and monsters will always attack him first, unless they physically can’t get to him, or someone else injures them for more than half of their total hit points. So we mostly let him go to work and support him with our other abilities from afar. Stu will be an interesting addition to the mix – we’ve never played with an archer. Hopefully he’s got good aim or he’ll be tagging Jimmy in the back with his arrows, and friendly fire counts too.
“As far as spellcasting goes, well I have a list of spells that I’m allowed to cast during the day. A couple of my more powerful ones I’m only allowed once or twice. A couple of my basic spells I can cast as often as I want. I’ve got these little bean bags I carry in a pouch on my waist. When I want to cast a spell at someone, I call out the name of my spell and throw it at my target. If I hit, it does damage. If I miss, well, I miss. And cause of safety concerns, if I hit someone in the head, I take damage myself as a penalty. So good aim is important.”
“Well, what about me? What will I be able to do?” They were almost at the front of the line.
“As a healer, most of your abilities will be focused on, well, healing. And as a level one, you’re not going to have a lot. Nothing offensive that you could cast is going to be of any use against the things that we’re going to be fighting, so we’ll focus on simply keeping the rest of us alive. You know, like how you used to stick close to the goalie back in soccer. And if it comes down to it, like I said, we can get you a mace to hold and whack things with if they get too close. Again, no shots to the head or the, um, unmentionables. Those are no-nos.”
They stepped up to the table where there was the typical paperwork to be filled out. Name and emergency contacts. Known food or medicine allergies. Waiver of liability. As they filled out the paperwork, the man behind the registration desk asked, “Character names?”
“Galphalon,” replied TJ. “And a newbie”
“Galphalon?” Allison repeated. “Where did you come up with that name?”
TJ shrugged. “Dunno. Just sorta came to me. Like ten years ago. And I’ve stuck with it. Don’t be a hater.”
The administrator had pulled up TJ’s file and was filling out a card of abilities and spells that he had access to for the weekend. “Here you go. What is your friend playing? And does she know the rules?” He looked her costume up and down and seemed to come to the conclusion that no, she probably didn’t.
“She’s going to be healing for us this weekend, and yeah, I’ve explained the most important parts to her.”
“Healing. Good call. I’ve heard that the kobolds are down from the hills in force. Fighting will be fierce, indeed.” He pulled out a fresh character sheet. “OK, a level one healer gets access to light heal, cure poison, stun, and holy smite. You get 5 casts a day to be spread among those four spells. Which do you want to load up on?”
“She’ll take four heals and a cure poison. And give her a point in diplomacy, a point in maces, and heavy armor proficiency.” The man nodded and began filling out a character card.
“Wait,” Allison interrupted. “What’s that holy smite thing? That sounds really…smiteful.”
TJ shook his head. “It only does two points of damage with a successful hit. Trust me. We’ve got no shortage of damage dealing ability, between Jimmy, Stu, and yours truly. Those two points aren’t going to be a whole lot of good for anything. What we need is healing, cause each of those spells gives us back 5 points. She’ll take the four heals and the cure poison.”
She raised her voice. “Wait a minute. You asked me to come and play because it would be fun. And part of the fun is killing things and waggling my fingers and stuff. I want to be able to smite things. Just once. So I can say I did.”
TJ let out a sigh and the registration guy gave him a sympathetic look. “Ok,” her friend said. “Give her a smite. Who knows, maybe it will come in handy after all. But if I drop dead because you ran out of heals, I’m not going to be very happy with you. You hear?”
Allison gave him her best innocent look and batted her eyelashes. “Okeydokes, you’re the boss!”
They got the rest of the paperwork taken care of and Allison was handed a carabineer with the tokens representing her skills and spells attached to it. The pair then headed back to the corner table. A new person had arrived. The boy’s face was green and covered in warts, and his hair was pure white. Completing the makeup was a pair of little horn nubs sticking out of his forehead. “Oh hey,” TJ said, “Simon’s here!”
“Hi Allison,” the whateveritwas grinned as he stood.
Allison’s jaw dropped.