Cecelia ended up sitting up across the table from me, with Roger next to her. I was less than pleased by that development, but could see no way around it. If I sat next to Cecelia, that would leave the guys suspecting something more than mere friendship between us, especially if she got playful. While I suspected they’d keep their mouths shut around Chloe, I preferred not giving my friends the impression that I was a scumbag.
The other alternative was to have her sit next to Dan, and there was no way that was going to happen. Roger’s desperate ploys for attention were one thing; his brain would shut down and catch fire if a girl acted like she was interested back.
Dan, on the other hand, was as much of a ladies man as you could get while being an overweight geek, and he’d several relationships I was aware of.
Besides, Roger had been so transparent in making sure he sat next to ‘Lee’ to help her with her character that I couldn’t have cut in without making it obvious that we were ‘fighting over the girl’. Again, not an conclusion I wanted to impart upon my friends.
Keith smiled as he settled in at the front of the table. SadPredictable. I found myself agreeing with Cecelia on some level, but Keith was still my friend, so I focused on his positives. Now that Keith was in his element, Keith would have a chance to show Cecelia he had redeeming features. He was a genius at storytelling, and able to herd the metaphorical cats like it was the simplest thing in the world.
I knew how hard that was; we’d all taken a stab at doing what Keith did, but Dan was the only one who even sometimes came close, and then only for fun one-shots. Those one-shots were amazing fun, like the time our characters saved Christmas, but not campaign material. Stupid didn’t begin to cover Dan’s games, yet we’d laugh and joke the entire night. Keith, however, created epics that kept us engaged week after week for months. Annoying as he was at times, he was incredible in that chair.
I tried to translate that knowledge into something that would carry across through the metal hidden under my clothes. Not only was it a good idea to have something to defend myself with, it was how I maintained contact with Cecelia. UncertainAcceptanceTrust. She smiled, and although she couldn’t know the full extent of my thoughts, she trusted my judgment.
Speaking of judgment. “Hey, Keith, what am I supposed to do?” I felt the need to get that out of the way first, since not having a character would be rather awkward. “Didn’t you turn my character into a blood sucker at some point while I was doing my summer job?”
“Yeah, and gave away all our group’s secrets to the enemy,” Dan said. “Next time, just play a lawyer, that way we know not to trust him from day one.” I accepted his good natured jabs for what they were: of everyone, he was the least likely to hold a grudge over my hiatus from the group. The fact that Keith’s father was a successful business attorney was not a coincidence.
Keith fished around the papers behind his screen. “Here, this is the NPC I was using to give them a spellcaster.” Keith handed the sheet over to me. “Tanil, an expert on technomagic, and also a local magistrate, so he can negotiate terms with the Barbegazi if needed.”
“Thanks,” I said. I skimmed over the sheet, which was complete. Once again I was impressed by Keith’s attention to detail; it must have taken him two hours to build this character, and he no doubt had a dozen others in his notes. I checked the spells available, and they were reasonable, if intended for an aggressive play style built for damage output rather than defensive spells like I preferred.
“Now, for those that need caught up on the story,” Keith said. He gave both Cecelia and I unhappy glances, but the one I recieved was an accusation. “Our heroes, having broken through the seige around Vera, now head into the Frostspire mountains. They follow an ancient trade route, the only known path through the otherwise impassable cliffs to seek the aid of the Barbegazi, one of the few remaining neutral factions left in this war.”
Keith took a breath, then checked the notes which must had his reading prompts. “The Barbegazi culture remains aloof; they believe themselves untouchable in their mountain strongholds. They must be made to understand that Shadowblight will not be content until nothing remains which draws breath, or all hope is lost.”
“And if we recruit them, our reward will be magic daggers which can turn into almost any tool imaginable,” Dan said. “Also, free cheese.”
Keith shook his head, then reached for a sheet of paper. “No, Dan, you are not getting Swiss army knives.”
“Dude, why not?” Dan fidgeted in his seat, and I saw the plan unfolding in his mind. “They’re named after Swiss dwarves, live in mountains, and are avoiding a World War. Just admit we’re going to Switzerland. Maybe the knife can be a side quest, after we win a yodeling competition.”
Dan then attempted to yodel. I had no idea what good yodeling sounded like, but if it was meant to sound like three angry cats fighting in a burlap sack, then his rendition was flawless.
Keith interrupted the atrocity against all things music with a single toss of a die. “And Argore eats a rock to the face.”
“Dude! Rock falls, everyone dies isn’t something you’re actually supposed to do!” Despite the whinning, Dan couldn’t hide the victory in his tone; he won, and he knew he won. “Can’t you just dock some xp or something?”
Keith sighed, then started setting little blue tokens on the map. “As I described last week, and summarized a minute ago, you’re walking down an old trade route. If you couldn’t spot an ideal ambush location for what it was, how could that possibly be my fault? Now roll for initiative while I manage the rest of the surprise round.”
Ah, that makes sense. CuriousUncertainRespect? Nah, too common an occurrence for it to be a special event. UnderstandingAcceptance. I couldn’t convey the full message to Cecelia, but this was nowhere near the first time that Dan played Tank on the meta level by annoying Keith to the point that the monsters put their focus on killing his sturdy, heavy-armor wearing character rather than squishier members of the party.
Keith had a nasty habit of his villains being smart, going after spellcasters and glass cannons while leaving the big stupid fighter for the end. To compensate, Dan teased him just enough to make him forget strategy for the purpose of punishing his character. Part me suspected Keith knew this and went along with it anyway, but I was unwilling to break the dynamic by bringing it to light.
ConfusedUncertainDistress. “Uh, what’s initiative?” Cecelia asked.
“Oh, don’t worry, these sheets are difficult to understand. That’s why I’m here to help you.” Roger was shoulder to shoulder with Cecelia before I even parsed her emotions. “In fact, even most regular players never quite grok all the nuances to character design. You can spend decades without ever coming to know everything about the system.” Roger did a remarkable job, by Roger standards, of focusing his eyes on the sheet, rather than down her shirt, but he still rubbed his shoulder against hers with more enthusiasm than necessary. “You want this spot right here. Just roll and see what you get.”
ContemptSuperior. “Oh, that’s easy enough.” She grabbed one of the dice and tossed it out. Most girls, and most guys for that matter, were put off by Roger’s behavior, but Cecelia seemed to take it in stride. I would have to decide later if her smug sense of control was better or worse than mild revulsion as far as reactions went.
“Wrong kind of die,” Roger said. AnnoyedStupid. “You use this one.”
Meanwhile, I fished through my spell list for anything that might protect my soft little wizard from death by falling rocks. There were a couple choice options on the list. Hmm, so Keith gave his wizard some of the best anti-ambush spells in the game. I’ll take it. “With a quick utterance of arcane power, the wizard’s eyes glow with mystic light, and for a brief moment there appears to be two of him. A moment later, a wall of snow and ice rises up to shield the party from enemy attack.”
I took a couple of the lego blocks we used to denote temporary boundaries and set them on the left side, where there were four enemy units rather than two. It wouldn’t be in time to protect us from the ambush projectiles, but for future rounds it would protect us from a lot of damage.
Keith finished his dice. “The huge humanoids stood upon perches in the cliffside, hurling blocks of ice down on the party. Standing well over twenty feet tall each, they were impossible to mistake for dwarves of any description. These appeared to be frost giants, the Jötunn. Okay, so of the six, four went after Argore. Two hit. The other two hit Tanil and Melenis respectively.”
“I activate Bulwark and shield Melenis!” Dan moved his icon over to the character Cecelia had been assigned. “Despite his own injuries, the mighty warrior stepped up, and with a grunt stopped the heavy stone with the might of his arm and shield.”
We all rolled our eyes, save for Cecelia who somehow pretended to be blissfully unaware of what was going on here.
Keith ignored the show to address me. “Roll for spell failure. And who’s got what for initiative?”
I tossed my die and got a respectable roll, then we went through the mechanics of writing down damage which turned out not to be as horrible as I’d expected. Melenis got the high roll by a wide margin; she’d been controlled by Keith for so long that we forgot she was a speed build.
FearUnfamiliar. Cecelia looked around. “I, umm, don’t know what to do?”
This time, I jumped in first. “The game’s supposed to emulate real life, at least to some extent. Your character’s built a lot like an Assassin package Imbued. Huge close range damage output with a daggar, but situationally dependent on surprise attacks and flanking. Play her like…” yourself. RecognitionReady. “A ninja or something.”
“Don’t forget to wait for your buffs, though!” Roger cut in. “Sure, it’ll slow you down, but it’s worth it for the stat boosts, and being faster than the rest of your team doesn’t matter, since we’re all faster than the giants. We’re like Gifters, I guess.”
“Okay, I’ll wait for the stat boosts.” Cecelia felt more at ease, now that she was getting some idea what the game was like.
Roger moved his character toward the wall I put up. “I start a rousing ballad, about fighting in the face of adversity. Everyone gets plus four to attacks and damage, and their weapons beging to glow and radiate heat.”
Hmm, my turn then. Well, if we’re going buff round, I’ve only got one worth mentioning. “Tanil chants another spell, and time seems to slow for the party, but it’s they who have changed and are faster than could be natural.”
“My turn?” Cecelia perked up some in her seat. She tapped her unit, then moved it forward. “Okay, so I run toward the guy here, with a zigzag pattern so they can’t hit me when I’m running. Then when I get up to him, I’m going to pull out his hamstrings!”
Roger shifted some. “Uh, that doesn’t really matter. D&D doesn’t have rules for that.”
“No, I wanna see how this works out.” Keith brought his hand up to his dice. “But you don’t just get to use precision damage for free, it only works if you can hit them by surprise, from behind, or when you and an ally have them flanked.”
“Then I go under his legs. They’re four times bigger than a person, so I should have no trouble with that, right?”
“Well, roll for it.” Keith smiled and dropped his voice to an ominous threat. “But if you mess up, you’re in a lot of trouble. Is it worth the risk?”
I felt the charge drain from my stored metal, in the moment where Cecelia tossed the dice. Roger declared the natural twenty, but I knew it was coming before it ever left her fingers. I didn’t like her cheating, but I was willing to let it slide this once.
“Alright!” Cecelia moved her token behind the giant. “I do a diving roll right between his legs so I’m crouched down between his feet. Then I jab out with my knife.” Cecelia punctuated the statement by pushing her hand out from her side like a sort of underhanded stab. “Then I jump to my feet while dragging the edge along the tendon in the lower leg. Either I’ll cut right through it, or I’ll shred through all the muscle up to the knee. They’re gonna be callin’ him gimpy for the rest of his life. All ten seconds of it.”
Roger slid a bunch of dice over to Cecelia. “You got the crit, now let’s see how much damage you make happen.” He counted the dice. “We’re five short. I’m gonna need to borrow your sixes. Eh, forget it, I’ll get my Shadowrun kit so only my stuff’s getting mixed up.”
AmusedTypical. Roger no doubt had the ulterior motive of showing off his collection of dice and their decorative case, but I ignored it. Cecelia knew what she was doing, and I felt confident she wouldn’t hurt him, at least as long as I was here to chaperon. Either way, once the dice were added Cecelia’s pool, she had to use both hands to pick up the pile.
Another drain hit my armor. ExcessiveImpossible. Moments later, she stopped drawing on power and let the pile spill from her fingers onto the table in front of her. ExcitedUncertain. “How’d I do?”
Roger started separating dice by their faces. “Over a hundred damage and that’s before knowing if these guys have fire vulnerability. If you didn’t get him, either he’s the boss or we’re all in a whole lot of trouble.”
Keith reached over and flipped the token over. “The Jötunn bellows in surprise and agony as the small target proved to be far more deadly than anyone could have anticipated. Melenis only just gets out of the way before he collapses in the snow, dying of blood loss without ever truly comprehending what killed him.”
VictoryAnticipation. “Alright! Now to get the other one!”
“Save some for the rest of us.” Dan reached out for his token. “With Melenis facing one of the monsters alone-”
AnnoyanceTerritorial. “If you steal my kill, I’ll stab you in your sleep.”
Dan didn’t even hesitate before he revised his actions. “-Argore figures she can take care of herself. The four on the other cliff face are both more numerous, and would be able to kill the spellcasters without him to protect them. He uses his belt of healing, then readies himself for to meet the monsters’ charge head on, but close enough to take cover if they prefer to stay back and throw boulders.”
The rest of the night went well, though not much progress in the story was made. Keith’s willingness to bend the rules for the newbie had its limits, and by the end of the fight our characters were running low on options, so we had to make camp. The rest of the night was consumed by a mix of banter and figuring out what we’d do with our new levels. Cecelia took Roger’s advice on the whole affair, and I figured I’d rather work out a new character than keep running an NPC. My character was one of Keith’s preferred hyper-competent super-geniuses rather than something I’d enjoy playing in the long run, anyway.
It was well past dark when we got out, loaded up on pizza and enough caffenated sugar water to guarantee we wouldn’t be asleep until well after midnight. I was just glad I told Nanna that I’d be at Roger’s overnight; we’d done that enough over the years that there was nothing unusual about it.
Cecelia slid into the passenger seat, then leaned forward, getting a little into my personal space. “Okay, that was way more fun than I expected.” She didn’t need to say it with our emotional link, but it was nice to hear. “We gotta do it again.”
“I’m sure the guys will be happy to have you.” It would be minutes before I realized how dirty that sounded. For then, I just acknowledged that even Keith was cool with her, or as cool as he was with anything. “Not a lot of beautiful girls who like gaming out there.”
HappyDesire. Cecelia moved just a little bit closer, which had the effect of showing more of her cleavage. Her breath felt like it was going to make my skin melt in the most wonderful way. “So you think I’m beautiful, huh?”
“Anyone who doesn’t is blind or dead,” I said. I should stop this. Right. Now.
A bit more movement, and she now had her knees on the seat, and one hand braced against my knee. SuccessDesire. Her tongue snaked out to wet her lips. “Know what I want right now?”
I knew, I could feel it, but I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge it. The part of my brain which had access to rational thought was busy trying to guess what chemical trick she pulled off to make her breath smell like cinnamon and fresh rain. “Uh, what do you want?” She’s going to kiss me, and I’m going to let it happen.
She moved in just a little closer, and I wondered if her dark brown eyes were the result of shapeshifting, or if they were natural. In all the time I’d dealt with her, they were the only feature she hadn’t made consmetic changes to. I felt the cool breeze of her inhaling, aware that if she stuck her tongue out now, she’d lick my face.
“What I want.” I noted her hand trailing up my leg. VictoryPossession. Even without the emotional senses, her smile would have made her intentions clear. Then with a blink, it was replaced by a face just about to laugh. “Is a tarantula.” She pushed off me and bounced into her seat. “The shinier, the better.”
Oh thank God. “Uh, maybe we should discuss that with Chloe before making any decisions.” Chloe, who I love, and holy fuck what did I almost do? It was a stupid question, because I knew exactly what almost happened. I took a breath and swore to myself to never allow anything like that to happen ever again. Based upon Cecelia’s content amusment, she proved whatever point she felt she had to prove, and I chose to let it go unspoken rather than confront her.
Cecelia toyed with my radio until she found some station that played club music, while I kept to my own thoughts.
As the drive gave me time to analyze the situation, I admitted to myself that a lot of it had to do with Cecelia getting so involved with what could be called ‘my’ culture. The dream of every male geek was to find a female geek, and the rest was a simple matter of hormones and her being attractive. That it had been almost two weeks since Chloe and I had an opportunity to be alone together no doubt exacerbated matters. All told, a combination of shallow natural impulses, and now that I was aware of them, I they no longer had power over me.
I focused my thoughts on getting to the hideout and holding the girl I loved.