My phone pinged; I picked it up from where it was lying on the table and read the message I’d just received.
“Lena’s here. Let’s go,” I told Pat.
“Yeah, sure,” he replied. He made a note in his textbook, then put a bookmark in it and closed it. Always the diligent student: even though it was a Friday evening, he’d decided to get some more studying in before we headed out for the game night.
“Listen, Theo, are you sure they won’t mind me being there too?” Pat asked as we descended the stairs. “I mean, they’re your friends, after all. I don’t want to be the third wheel.”
“Nah, don’t worry,” I replied. “It’s just a game night, that’s all. And it’s friend, singular: Lena invited us, but there will be three more people there I haven’t met.”
“If you say so…” he said. He still sounded a bit doubtful.
“Come on, it’ll be fun!” I insisted. “And you need a break from studying every now and then, don’t you?”
By then we’d reached the ground floor of the dormitory; we waved goodbye to Darrell and stepped outside. There was a car – an old, battered Crown Vic – parked in front of the dorm: the place where we needed to go was only about three miles away, and I would’ve gladly made the trek, but I knew that for normal people (that is, those who didn’t run long distance) it was a bit of a hike, so when Lena offered to pick us up and then drop us off at our dorm I agreed, for Patrick’s benefit.
“Good evening, Lena!” I said, climbing into the passenger seat, while Patrick took the back seat – it was much more comfortable for him, seeing how big and tall he was. “This car looks like it has seen better days.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s a clunker,” she replied with a grin. “It’s my sister’s, she got it cheap at auction because she needed a ride to go to work.”
“Oh, by the way, this is Patrick, my roommate,” I said, introducing my friend. “Patrick, this is Lena, she’s doing my same major.”
“Nice to meet you, Lena,” Patrick said, extending a hand towards her.
Lena took his hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you, Patrick.”
“So where’s your sister?” I asked. “She’s part of the game group too, right?”
“She’s already at her boyfriend’s house,” Lena replied, turning the car on. “She spent the whole afternoon there. Shall we go?”
“Yeah, let’s go,” I said. Lena put the car into drive – it made a worrying clunk when she did so – and we drove off.
It took us about fifteen minutes to make the drive: the neighbourhoods near the college were mostly residential, full of twists and turns. “Huh, that’s funny,” I said, looking out of the window.
“What’s up?” Pat piped up from the back seat.
“I know this neighbourhood,” I replied. “It’s where I got lost that first morning, when I went for a run. I think I mentioned it, didn’t I?”
Patrick and Lena both nodded. “Yeah, you did,” she said. I noticed she had a smirk on her lips.
“Why are you smiling like that?” I asked, looking at her.
Her smirk grew wider. “Oh, you’ll see,” she said. “We’re here.”
She parked the car in the street, we got out, and walked up a brick-lined footpath to the front door of a house; Lena rang the doorbell, and after about half a minute the door opened.
“Hi Nat!” Lena greeted the person in front of us. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m great Lena!” Nat replied. He was a man of average height, about four or five years older than me if I had to guess; he looked kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. “Welcome to game night!” He turned to me and my roommate. “And you must be Theo and Pat! Welcome! Come in, come in.”
He ushered us inside; two middle-aged people, a man and a woman, were sitting on a couch watching TV. I guessed they were Nat’s parents. “Good evening,” I greeted them.
“’Evenin!” the man replied, waving at us. “Have fun!”
“Come on, this way,” Nat said, opening a door and revealing a staircase heading downwards. “We’ve set up things in the basement, so we can make all the noise we want without disturbing mom and dad.”
We descended the stairs, and I stopped at the bottom to take in the room: it was brightly illuminated, and a table surrounded by several chairs was in the middle, with what looked like sheets of papers and pens and dice on top of it; off to the side, a smaller table had been set up, which sported all kinds of foods and snacks and drinks, more than enough to last us the whole night if needs be.
And Lexi and Roger were sitting at the large table, looking at us.
“Hi Theo!” Lexi said with a wave.
I blinked at them. “What are you doing here?” I asked
“We’re here for game night, of course,” Roger replied, a grin spreading on his face.
I felt the gears in my brain turn and click into place. “Hold on,” I said. “Wait a second.”
“Yes?” Lena asked innocently from behind me.
I turned around and pointed at her. “You,” I said. She nodded.
I turned around again and pointed at Lexi. “And you.” She chuckled, and also nodded.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and groaned. “Of course,” I muttered.
“We were wondering when you would figure it out,” Roger said. He was still smiling.
“That was mean,” I complained.
Patrick was looking around in confusion. “What?” he asked. “What’s happening?”
I sighed. “Well, you see,” I replied, and pointed at Lena again. “This is Lena Hamilton. We’re in the same class at college. And this,” I said, turning around, pointing at Lexi, “Is Lexi Hamilton, she and her boyfriend Roger are in the triathlon team. They’re sisters, clearly, and they’ve both even mentioned having a sister a few times, but I hadn’t put two and two together before just now.”
“I see,” Patrick said; his puzzlement had turned to amusement. “And when did you figure it out, girls?”
“Pretty much immediately,” Lexi said with a shrug. “When we had dinner the first night of college I asked Lena how her day had been, and she mentioned meeting a Theo Parker who in reality has like seven names, there aren’t many of those around.”
“And we decided to have a bit of fun with it,” Lena continued. “Sorry.”
“No, there’s no need to apologise,” I answered. “I guess I can be a bit dense at times. But I’m sorry,” I continued, “I guess introductions are in order. Patrick, this is Roger. Roger, Patrick. I guess you already met Lena and Lexi.” Pat nodded.
“And I’m Nathaniel, Roger’s brother,” Nat said. “Nice to meet you, Pat. Theo. So what do you say we get this game night on the road?”
I nodded, and we took our places around the table; Nathaniel had a cardboard screen set up in front of him, so we couldn’t see what he was doing behind it.
“Alright,” he said. “Since we have two new players here, I thought we might do an introductory game. Like, skip all the character creation and stuff. I’ve pre-made some characters, so we can just play a one-night session with those, as a stand-alone adventure; and then next time we’ll do things properly.” He looked at us expectantly.
“Alright,” I replied. “But I don’t know the rules.”
“I don’t, either,” Pat said.
“And that’s the whole point of this session,” Nat continued. “Roger, Lena, and Lexi already know how to play, so we’re doing something simple, and we’ll explain things as they come up during play.”
Pat nodded. “Sounds good.”
“Good!” Nat exclaimed. “To make things more interesting, I’ve put the characters’ names in this bowl,” he said, pointing at a glass bowl that had several folded strips of paper in it. “Everyone, pick one. That will be your character for tonight.”
I nodded, put my hand in the bowl, and retrieved a piece of paper, which I unfolded and read aloud.
“Catherine Edel, Chief Sorceress of the Kingdom.” My eyebrows rose. “A girl?”
“Yeah, a girl,” Nat said, handing me a piece of paper. “Here’s your character sheet.”
I blinked at him. “But…”
“Something wrong?” Lexi asked, taking her own character sheet from Nat.
“My character is a girl,” I replied.
She just looked at me. “So?”
“Can’t I play a male character?”
“Come on, Theo,” Lena interjected. “Half the fun in role-playing games is playing as characters entirely different from who you really are. And that sometimes includes gender.”
“It’s just…” I began to say, then hesitated for a second. I sighed. “It’s just that I don’t know whether I can… Get into character. I mean, we have to think and act as if we were the people on our character sheets, right?”
“Right,” Roger nodded.
“Yeah, I don’t know if I can manage to think like a girl.”
He shrugged. “Give it a try. You never know, you might like it.”
“But if you really don’t want to play as Catherine, I can give you a different character. I have plenty prepared,” Nat said.
I looked down at the character sheet. Catherine Edel, thirty-five years old; a sorceress, she’d been hired five years previously by the King of Irbia to oversee and teach the magic corps of the kingdom, and thanks to her talent had quickly risen in rank to become Chief Sorceress. A very brief backstory: I could pretty much shape her personality and character as I wished. But still, what if I didn’t like playing as a girl?
Well, you never know until you try it, right?
I looked around the table: everyone was looking at me, waiting for my decision. I gulped and nodded. “Alright, I’ll do it.”
“Good, that’s settled then. Any other problems?” Nat asked. When no one spoke, he got up from the table, walked over to a light switch, turned off a few lights and dimmed the remaining ones.
“To set the atmosphere,” he said, sitting back down. “Alright.” He cleared his throat and began narrating.
“Centuries have passed since the last reported sighting of the fabled Gem of Power; it is said to be an artefact of incredible magical might, which allows its owner to access energies and knowledge beyond mortal ken. Recently, however, strange whispers have been circulating in the Kingdom of Irbia: people have been disappearing in the area around the Magetower, a remote ruin in the middle of the Dark Woods which has been deserted for decades. The few people who managed to escape told stories of a dark figure, dressed in robes, carrying a clear, flame-hearted crystal on a chain around their neck – the exact description of the Gem of Power, passed down through legend.”
He looked around the table and continued. “Each of you is an expert in their own field, and you’re all in the employ of the King of Irbia; he has summoned you to his throne room, to task you with a critical mission: to investigate the rumours surrounding the Magetower, and to secure the Gem of Power should the rumours turn out to be true.” He paused. “Do any of you have any questions for the King before you embark on your quest?”
“Yes, actually,” Roger said. “What about…”
As I listened to my friends have a back and forth I looked down at my character sheet again. Catherine, huh. I’d never given any thought about what being a woman might feel like. I just hoped I could manage to get into character.
I stood up from my place at the table and took a step back, spreading my arms and letting out an evil laugh. “Haaaaaa ha ha ha ha! Bow before me, mortals!” I bellowed.
“Catherine, no! Please, this isn’t like you! Let go of the Gem, I beg you! Edward says,” Patrick said.
“Catherine turns her eyes on him and replies,” I said, and cleared my throat, trying to slip my voice into a different register before continuing: “There is no more Catherine! There is only Kat, mistress of time and space!”
Lexi and Lena looked at each other. “Sigdi takes a step towards Catherine, and grips her axe tight,” Lena said. “I am sorry, Madam Sorceress, she says, but I cannot allow this. We have been tasked with retrieving the Gem for the King.”
“Calen steps up beside Sigdi, nocks an arrow, and draws the string of his bow back, taking aim at Catherine,” Lexi continued. “Catherine! he shouts, I don’t want to do this, but if you don’t let go of that artefact right now I will shoot you!”
I looked around the table: everyone’s eyes were on me, waiting to see what I – what Catherine – would do next. And I had just the thing.
“Fool! Kat says. You dare threaten me?” I shouted. “I am the ruler of all magic now! Everyone shall tremble before me!”
I could see that Roger and Nat had their face in their hands, and their backs were shaking: it looked like they were about to burst into laughter. Everyone else had a huge grin on their faces, too.
Lexi locked eyes with me. “Calen hesitates for a moment, but then shoots, his arrow taking flight towards his target.”
“Al… Alright,” Nathaniel said, taking a deep breath to calm himself down. “Lexi, roll for attack; Theo, what do you do?”
Lexi rolled a handful of six-sided dies. “I have… four successes and two failures,” she said. “That should be enough to hit, right?”
Nat nodded. “Theo?” he asked again.
I took a step forward, getting close to the table again; I ran my eyes down my character sheet, and down the list of the Gem of Power’s abilities Nat had given me when my character had touched the artefact.
“I… Use the Gem’s power to bend space, so that the arrow misses,” I replied.
He nodded again. “Roll for arcane knowledge to see if you can manage that.”
I rolled the dice. “Three successes and three failures.”
“Partial success then,” Nathaniel said. “You all see space bend visibly in front of Catherine, and the arrow drifting off in a different direction, but it’s not quite enough: the arrowhead grazes Catherine’s shoulder, drawing blood. Theo, take two damage, and you get a reaction from that.”
It had previously been explained to me that a reaction meant that I could do something before anyone else had a chance to act. I thought about what my character would do.
“Kat points toward Calen, and shouts, How dare you! When I return, you shall be the first to die! Then she uses the Gem again to teleport far away, out of reach of the rest of the party,” I said.
“Aw, what?” Patrick interjected. “She can do that?”
“Okay, roll for it. Still arcane knowledge.”
Everyone held their breath as the dice hit the table; when they stopped, Roger let out a low whistle. “Six successes and no failures, how’s that,” he said.
Nat looked at the dice for a moment, then took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Space bends again, and Catherine is gone, just like that. All you can do now is to make your way back to the castle, and explain your failure to the King of Irbia.” He looked around the table. “And I guess this session is over.”
“Oh, that was so much fun!” Lena exclaimed. “That was absolutely amazing! You really have a knack for it, Theo!”
I had a broad smile on my face; I’d had a blast, too. “Thank you,” I replied. “I didn’t think I would have this much fun, but this was great.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Nat said. “I always like it when I manage to get my players to have fun.” He looked at his watch. “Alright, it’s a bit earlier than I had planned, so do you want to roll up new characters? This way they’ll be ready and we’ll have more time for actual play next session.”
I looked at my own watch: he was right, it was only ten thirty. “Sure, why not?” I answered.
“Okay then,” he continued. “Lena, Lexi, Roger, I think you know how to do it. Theo, Pat, here are the instructions,” he handed us two photocopied sheets of paper, “and I have the rulebooks if you need to consult them.”
I nodded, and set to work. The first things the character sheet asked me were name, age, and gender of my character; my pen briefly hovered over the line, before I set it down.
I should probably make a male character, right? I mean, I was a boy, it only made sense that I would play male characters. But on the other hand, playing as Catherine that night had been lots of fun; it had been incredibly immersive, I found myself thinking as if I was Catherine, and I’d enjoyed it a lot.
Would playing as a male character be the same? Yes? No? Maybe? I just didn’t know. Before that night, that would’ve been the only possible option, I never would’ve considered playing as a girl. And was Catherine just a fluke? I’d had fun, but would another female character feel that good?
Well there was only one way to find out.
On the character sheet, beside gender, I wrote down F. Then I hesitated again when it came to the name.
Truth to be told, I had a female name I really liked; sometimes I found myself thinking about it, no idea why: after all, why would a boy be thinking about female names? And still, it was the first name that came to mind. It was close to one of my many names, actually; and it was the only one that felt appropriate. Though using it felt like crossing a line, I couldn’t tell why.
But I had already decided to make a female character, hadn’t I? Might as well go all in.
I took a deep breath and wrote the name down carefully, in capital letters, paying attention not to smudge the ink. Then I paused, looking down at the character sheet, at the name I’d just put out.
“Allie,” I whispered.
For whatever reason, that simple word felt wonderful on my lips.