Allison stood, mouth agape, for what was certainly a socially awkward time. Finally, she was able to stammer, “Woaaaah.”
“Yeah, pretty cool, isn’t it?” TJ’s eyes gleamed mischievously. “I didn’t want to spoil the surprise for you, and wasn’t sure if he’d come all made up anyway.” Allison glared, and his smile faltered. “Erm, be right back, guys. Gotta go pee.”
The rest of the group seemed just as amused by the revelation. “Sorta changes the weekend of hot guys, huh?” Chuck seemed amused beyond measure, and Allison’s look did nothing to suppress his mirth.
Simon looked back and forth between the two for a few moments before shrugging and returning to his seat. He patted the folding chair next to him. “Take a load off, Allie. We’ve got a little time to kill.” Reluctantly, Allison took the offered seat, disbelief still registered on her face. “So you’re wondering why I’m here, dressed like an idiot, aren’t you?”
Color spread across her cheeks and she mumbled, “You’re the one who used the I-word, not me.”
He smiled back. “Before we all ended up on that rec soccer team my dad coached, I was totally part of the D&D crew with Jimmy. But then my dad decided I’d be better at peewee football. That ended up taking a lot of my time, so I had to give the gaming up. Every so often I could get a free weekend to get dressed up and fight, but my gaming days are pretty well behind me now. This is my first chance to actually play in just about forever. I’m worried it may be my last.”
“Well if this is to be your end, at least make it an end worthy of remembrance! At least that’s what Theoden said in the Two Towers.” Jimmy grinned and raised a mock toast. “Hear, hear,” the others shouted, raising their own invisible glasses.
Simon smiled back at the group. Thanks, guys. Anyway, I was a lot better at doing the makeup years ago. But if you don’t use your skills you lose your skills, right? That’s what Dad always says.” He paused, lost in thought, before continuing, “What are you doing here? I never expected you to do this in a million years!”
“Well, you know, TJ finally roped me into it. I wasn’t doing anything else this weekend, so I figured I’d give it a shot.”
“You got a backstory?” Chuck interjected. “Or even a name?”
Allison looked back and forth between the boys. “Backstory?”
“Well, for example, my name is Phineas! I was the best pickpocket and cat burglar in Freeport. At least I was, until I crossed the wrong folks in the guild and had to hop a boat outta town. Met up with these fine gentlemen and offered them my services.” He jerked a thumb at Jimmy. “Always pays to have your own muscle, you know what I mean?”
Jimmy nodded. “I am Jameson MacCordish, from the northern tribes.” He grinned sheepishly. “I know, it’s kinda cliché, but it seemed cool when I was ten. Anyway, my village was destroyed by outlanders, and I left seeking vengeance. Found it, too. But that didn’t bring my family back to life, so I’ve been wandering ever since.”
Allison shook her head. “Well I didn’t think of any of that. No name, and definitely no backstory. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Nah,” replied Jimmy. “Allison is as good a name as any, and with that hair of yours, maybe you’re from the North as well.” He screwed up his eyes. “In fact, let’s say you’re a good friend of my character’s kid sister. The two of you were away from the village when it was sacked – I bet he was taking you to the temple to start as a novice. And the last time I saw him he asked me to look after you, so here you are. Fresh from the temple and out on your first adventure!”
Allison looked doubtful, but gave in at the happy look on Jimmy’s face. “Kid sister. First adventure. Got it.”
“OYE OYE! The king commands your attendance on the parade ground!” All conversation inside the lodge stopped and bodies began moving towards the door. TJ stuck his head in the door and called, “C’mon guys, time to start!” They stepped back out into the bright sunlight to see that a tent had been erected. Allison figured it was probably meant to be a “pavilion” since it had a couple streamers waving from its corners and apex, but the “J&R PARTY RENTAL” stamped in big letters sort of killed the effect.
She looked around at the thirty or so others who had converged for the weekend of gaming. As she had feared, there were almost no other girls present, though it occurred to her that she didn’t feel as out of place as she had expected. The one adult woman in attendance stood nearby and was dressed in a green outfit similar to Stu’s. Next to her was a bearded man in a matching costume, and as the two murmured back and forth they watched the play fighting of three children that looked to be between ages ten and fifteen. Occasionally one or the other would call out a suggestion, and when the youngest took a sword in face and burst into tears the woman wrapped him up in a hug. Realizing it was a family that had all come together for the weekend, Allison smirked, idly imagining what half human, half whatever-Simon-was children would look like.
There were several other non-humans within the group, though none of them appeared to have put the attention to detail into their makeup as Simon had. Those players who weren’t robed mostly wore shirts woven from grey or silver yarn to simulate armor, and a couple even had headpieces made from real chain links. Almost everyone had a weapon of some sort, either a staff or a sword or an axe, all padded and duct taped for safety.
As the last person exited the lodge, someone nearby blew a trumpet fanfare and then shouted “Hail King Robert of Livonia!” The crowd returned the shout, and one of the tent flaps opened to reveal a middle-aged man wearing a fur robe across his shoulders and a crown atop his head. The fur looked authentic; the crown looked like it came from a dollar store. Allison remembered her own helmet and decided that she shouldn’t judge.
There was a smattering of applause and cheering. One lone voice shouted, “Long live the king!” The king looked over in that direction and smiled and waved, and gave a little bow of his head in acknowledgment. Regardless of what his costume looked like, he sure looked like he was reveling in the attention.
“That’s the guy,” TJ whispered. “The one who owns all this land. Wicked nice when you get to know him. He’s like an accountant or a lawyer or something most of the time.”
“My people.” The king smiled broadly. There was a bit more applause. “MY PEOPLE!” His voice boomed this time, his arms spread out before him. This resulted in more cheering, though one person booed as people fully got into their characters. “My people,” his voice softer now. The crowd edged closer. “These are dark times. Dark times, indeed. In years past, our kingdom has cried out when in need of champions, and those among you stepped forward, took on the challenge, and returned victorious. As to the manner in which you approached these challenges…well some were less acceptable to the Crown than others.” His eyes fell first upon Chuck, and then moved on to several others as he continued, “But we can overlook that in light of your successes.” There was a little nervous laughter among the adventurers.
“But those challenges, those trials and tribulations, are but nothing compared to what we now face. A darkness has risen in the East.”
TJ muttered, “It’s always the East, isn’t it? Sauron, Arawn, the Yankees…” This spawned considerable laughter, and King Robert scowled in his direction.
“This is no joke, my people. There is a new threat that faces us, and not just us, but all the peoples of our world.” Now that got people’s attention. They were used to plots being based on only local happenings – some barony invading another, or a tribe of goblins passing through and raiding farmer lands. There were groups all around the country that laid claim to other parts of the world, and each group was mindful of not stepping on others’ toes.
“Word has reached us that a mighty wizard has arisen from the squabbles of the Arcanum in Estervary. We have long been protected here in the West from their internal struggles and from the fallout of their magebattles. This has been partly because of our distance and partly because none wanted to risk looking outwards when their power base was still threatened by others.
“But that has all changed. One stands supreme amid the ruins of his rivals, and at least for a time will be able to act unchecked. He has turned his eyes westward, with thoughts of war and conquest. To be sure, there are many lands and many leagues between Estervary and us, but as each domino falls, he will gain momentum until he is unstoppable.”
A voice from the crowd called out, “But what of the rest of the Arcanum? As he moves westward, will they not try to topple him from behind?” It was all Greek to Allison, though it was obvious that most had all the background lore down.
The king nodded. “Indeed, that is always the way of these things. And while yes, history has proved that this is the inevitable conclusion, shall we wait until he has laid waste to our lands and has killed or enslaved our friends and neighbors?” His voice crescendoed. “Or shall we ride forth to meet him, to turn him aside before he comes within a hundred leagues? For myself, and for our people, I choose the latter.”
There was a general muttering within the crowd as the assembled heroes digested the information. Allison looked at TJ and said, “Wait, a hundred leagues? Isn’t that really incredibly far? Are we going to get on a bus or something? Couldn’t they have just emailed us this information beforehand and then pretend we’d already marched by the time we got here?”
He smiled, “Well, that’s kind of what we’re going to do. After we break camp and head out into the adventure, we’ll fast forward to whatever part of the world holds the next encounter. We won’t actually go very far at all, but we’ll cross hundreds of miles of game terrain. Willing suspension of disbelief, and all that.”
“Like those horns Simon’s wearing?”
TJ snorted. “Yeah, exactly.”
The murmuring had receded, so their monarch spoke again. “Time is of the essence, my friends. You must proceed with all haste. The fate of not just our lands and people are in your hands, but the fates of everyone who lives outside of Estervary. Go now. Go with my blessings, and the blessings of the gods.”
With that, the crowd erupted into a cheer. The king gave one last wave before disappearing back into the tent. People began breaking up into small groups, which Allison presumed were their own versions of adventuring parties. She looked around at the boys she was going to be fighting beside for the next several days, in their costumes and – in Simon’s case – makeup. A surge of adrenaline streamed through her as she convinced itself that she was off to do battle with evil monsters and save the world. She grinned, “Ok, let’s go knock some heads,” and then turned toward the woods.
“Wait, Allison,” called Simon. “We can’t leave quite yet.”
“Why not? What about all due haste and that stuff? The fate of the world is in our hands. Shouldn’t we get going?”
“Well yes, and no. Look around. You see all those other parties here?” Allison counted six other groups.
“Well there aren’t enough NPCs – non player characters – for everyone to run off fighting at once. The first group goes out and we give them half an hour and then the next group goes out and the like. That gives each group time to complete a particular encounter, either killing some monsters or discovering some hidden cache or interviewing a local person and lets the NPCs set back up for the next group to come through. In the meanwhile, we just sorta hang out here and shoot the breeze. We can head back into the tavern until our number is called.”
Allison nodded then led the way back to the table they’d vacated not long before. “For a football player, you sure know an awful lot about how this stuff works.”
If he was at all embarrassed, it was well concealed by his makeup. “Yeah well it’s been a while. Feels good to be back in costume and in character. Back in the saddle, so to speak. I have to say that being Garbaldar,” he pronounced the name with a guttural growl, “sure is a lot of fun. A lot more fun than getting pounded by linebackers. My dad says that Garbaldar won’t get me any scholarships for college, though, and being a tailback will. So ol’ Garby only comes out every so often.”
“Show her your tongue, Garby,” Chuck interjected, causing both Jimmy and TJ to laugh, though Stu looked as bemused by the statement as Allison felt. Simon grinned for a moment and then said, “Ok, gimme a moment.” He turned and fidgeted for a few seconds before turning back around. “Thtand back folkth,” he said and opened his mouth wide, allowing a six inch tongue to unroll from inside it. He made a slurping noise and waggled it back and forth several times before reaching up with is hand an pulling the prosthetic off his real tongue. Allison initially recoiled, but quickly joined in on the laughter.
A voice drifted in from outside the lodge. “Group five, you’re up! Group five? Where are you?”
Jimmy jumped up from the table and said, “Woah, that’s us already. They always do it in a random order, and we’ve never gone this quickly. Let’s get a move on. I don’t want to have the folks behind us hurrying us along. Did Allison ever get that mace we were talking about? If not, I’ve got a spare in my car I can go run and grab. She did take a proficiency in mace, right?”
“Yeah, I made sure she took the mace, and took an armor proficiency too, so she can get credit for that truly awesome…breastplate,” he snorted” she’s wearing.” She rolled her eyes at him. “If you can go grab it for her, that’d be great. And then we can get rolling!”
While they waited for Jimmy, the others went to the judge in charge of starting and checked in. He made sure that they matched the descriptions listed on his clipboard and then said, “Ok, so here’s the scoop. You are going to be traveling through the Duchy of Hanover on your way to Estervary. Just as a reminder, the Hanoverians aren’t particularly fond of magic,” he looked at TJ, “or of humanoids,” he looked at Simon. “Head due west into the woods and the adventure will begin. From this point on, coming out of character will cost you experience and treasure rewards, not to mention ruining the fun for everyone else.” He again consulted his clipboard and said, “Ok, looks like TJ is the group leader.” The judge handed him an air horn and said, “In case of an out of character emergency, blow this three times in rapid succession, and then once every minute or so afterward so that we can find you. In case of an in-character emergency, well, I hope you know how to run.” He slapped Simon on the butt the way football players often do and winked. “Have fun storming the castle!”
By this time Jimmy had returned with Allison’s mace, as well as his own weapon, which was every bit as ridiculous as TJ had led her to believe. The handle was a good foot and a half long, and then the “blade,” which was only identifiable as such because it was on the other side of the crosspiece and painted silver, was another six feet if it was an inch. The foam padding that had been wrapped around the PVC pipe kept it from wobbling too much when it moved, but she decided that on balance it still looked pretty stupid. It occurred to her, however, that if it was going to be the only thing that stood between her and her character’s death at the hand of some power-mad wizard and his various assorted minions, she would indulge a little ridiculousness.
She took the mace and hefted it in her hand – it wasn’t much more than a stick with a knobby end. Swinging it once or twice, she said, “Thanks. Hold it on this end, whack with that end, and no hits to the head or the, well, you know whats, right?”
“Right!” Jimmy gave her an encouraging smile.
“Got it. Let’s get moving.”