Friday, April 20, 2018

Critical Role

By the end of the week I'm writing this article, I will be caught up and up to date on the backlog of Critical Role, the world famous DnD let's play campaign. Run by Voice Actor Matt Mercer and casted by several of his friends and family members (all voice actors themselves) the series run two campaigns that, as of this writing, would take eight and half days non-stop to listen to. It is worth every minute. It airs every thursday night on Twitch and Youtube on the Geek and Sundry channel.

I had heard about it largely through word of mouth by friends. But I wasn't really interested in it because it was DnD. I've played a grand total of three sessions of Dungeons and Dragons. Not campaigns, singular sessions. My impression of the game had been...underwhelming to say the least, though most of it can be chalked up to lack of group synergy.  I'd heard of Critical Role over the years, hard to do so as a fan of cartoons, animes and video games that all employ voice actors. I'd started listening after learning about some of the characters and don't regret the decision. 

The biggest draw for me, going in and seeing their first episode was that these were all performers in a room with each other. The first thing about performers, there is a difference between performing for an audience and performing with each other. By the time the series had began, this troupe had already been playing for two years at the actor's homes. If this were a regular group, you'd probably feel closed out on a lot of things. Never happened here. They were accessible from the word 'go'. A lot of this has to do with that they were performers, and they got to perform now for each other AND an audience, which is growing with every week. 

It also has a lot to do with the GM stylings of Matt Mercer, who many would know as the voice of McCree from Overwatch. Mercer has been playing DnD since a child, and his parents and their friends were DnD players before his birth. His stylings were highly immersive, using his narrative and vocal techniques to create a highly immersive experience with detailed settings and characters that make both the players and the audience care.

I'm not going to go too in depth, because I want people to see it (It's on youtube and twitch on Geek and Sundry) or hear it (it's on every major podcasting network). But it contains several elements that, as someone who has been running games for years now, things that I now have saved as reference points. They include:

- Several duels between one PC and an NPC that managed to be both epic and immersive for the entire table. No small feat, I've seen people at the table tune out the moment someone is getting prime spotlight like that. Because of their performative comfort with each other and the improv (and larping) motto of "Yes And" they don't see it as the spotlight being off on them. They just use it as a means of showing off their character with the fight being the centerpiece. There are three good times this happens, but I'll share the first one since it's so early in the series (episode 17 of 115 of Campaign 1) for the example: Grog vs Kern 1

- It handles death well. For a game that makes death easy to come back from, especially for higher level characters, it makes every attempt cost something. It also deals with power creep very well because the antagonists feel even more lethal as time goes along. Any time one of the characters dies, and a resurrection is attempted, it takes time to do and most episodes are spent dealing with the aftermath. I like this, and I plan on getting the setting book for the game (which is now out using d20 rules) just to see the rules for the resurrections. Death is easy, coming back from it should be hard.

- It has one of my favorite written characters. I didn't know Talieisin Jaffe (no relation to my friend's and game designs Sean and Josh...that I know of) before this, but he became one of my favorite players and his character of Percival De Rolo became my fast favorite. The first man in a fantasy setting to develop a gun. Intelligent, a bit posh, and a truly conflicted character. His character arc and Taliesin's acting and way of taking everything in his stride is something I now aspire to. He gave his GM enough rope with his backstory to create one of the darkest arcs in the series that set the tone for the rest of the game and beyond. In the new campaign, Taliesin now plays my new favorite PC: Mollymauk the Tiefling Blood Hunter (a new class created by Mercer, who also homebrewed the rules for firearms in game).

- It created NPCs that are memorable. A lot of this has to do with Mercer's sheer personality and talent. But the NPCs of Gilmore, Victor, and Kima are all recurring characters that the players are thrilled to see almost as much as their characters are. Likewise, the antagonists get some good reactions, especially the Briarwoods and Anna Ripley who manage to cause such disdain in the players that the performance is touching.

- It allows Bleed. Much of the ending is some very good roleplay, informed by years of gaming with each other as these characters. From the reactions to character deaths to enmities to the small triumphs. It allows emotional Bleed to happen.

I'm gushing a bit while writing this. I'm gushing because this show is a thrill to listen to, and to watch as well. I some times listen to the Podcast and then go back to Youtube to watch the players and how they reacted. After eight days worth of listening, which span for me about four months, I'm hungry to have experiences like this. I want to be in tabletop games like this, I want to GM games like this. I have three campaigns for three different settings cooked up just because I keep listening to this series.  A friend has invited me to a DnD campaign and I'm already cooking up a Tiefling Wizard that is the cross between James Spader and Christopher Walken. Listening to Critical Role makes me want to play more, and that is something that I am grateful for.

So as I'm now five hours (two episodes) from catching up. With a backlog of audiobooks to make up for the lack of constant audio entertainment, I have to ask: Is it Thursday yet?

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Rules of Data Brokering (or, 'So you wanna be a Lore Monkey')

I've mentioned it before that I am a fan of information gathering in games. I enjoy finding Lore, whether it's from the setting or from the players themselves. Backstories, locations and items of notes, secrets and documents, the full gamut. I also like data analysis and piecing together those bits of information to put together a narrative, or be able to take those pieces and be able to add it to the narrative as need be. It's one of the reasons why I enjoy playing and running in conspiracy games, because there are so many dots to connect and ways and means of exploiting those nodes against each other.

I'm a real life Mekhet, what can I say?

That's really where I found out I was good at dealing in information, or at least a fan of it. I used my talents both in game and in real life to listen and discover tidbits from people. Never got to use it, but by the end of game I had accrued a few sizeable bits of information that could be exploited if needed. It's the preferred MO of my favorite character, the Mage Rhys. He uses his knowledge of the magic in the City to investigate and discern pieces of information. He doesn't get the whole picture, but he can get enough pieces and push them together. My 7th Sea character, Aiden, was a thief who liked to play the Inish stereotype while stealing your conspiracy plans early on in the game. Playing Lore monkeys and data gatherers is kinda my jam in most games. From teenager hackers to that guy who knows every one. Some players are out to game the system, I'm out to game the setting. 

Of course, not every game is meant to explore the setting too deeply. Some GMs are more use to riffing the plot and don't have a lot of information saved up to make investigations viable or information consistently useful. Sometimes, the Game has a very tight plot and finding information nets you dead ends. I've run in to several of these games and I tend to find myself getting frustrated. There's no point in someone trying to find info if that info isn't some that isn't able/worth to be discovered. 

So here are my thoughts for Players and GMs who find themselves want to add some data brokers in their games.

The Rules for Brokering

The Rule of Necessity

The information that you're dealing in needs to be of use to the other PCs in the game. Whether you're a player or a GM, the information you're doling out must have something vital inside of it. It doesn't not need to be relevant to the immediate situation, but it should be something that can be used later on as necessary. 

Lately I've been watching and listening to the Critical Role podcast. During the earlier parts of the series, during a conversation the players were having, an NPC name dropped two antagonists from one of the players backstories. The player got to respond to that, but nothing is done for ten episodes. 

You can use the brokers to seed future information, to put Chekhov's Gun on the wall and wait to see when it fires off.

The Rule of Contradiction

Despite the fact that you're suppose to be selling this information in game, you're trying to give this information away out of game. Info brokers are meant to serve as a means of forwarding plot or otherwise finding ways to enhance or aid the plot move along. Finding a contact that can provide access, or a key secret of an enemy. 

The key thing for Players and GMs to be aware of is that this is a plot for plot economy. You're giving out information to handle plot to potentially have more plot (personal or setting based plot) later on down the road. 

While talking to other players while writing this, the notion of someone who gathers information and doesn't share is seen as a problem player. This is especially true for newer players trying to catch up with the plot and are willing to pay. If you're a broker, or have a broker NPC, your job is to catch those players up and tie them further in to plot. Giving people something to do is good work and promotes interest...and a character tied to making some interesting decisions.

The Rule of Acquisition

There must be some means of tracking this information down. Maybe you're a hacker, maybe you're a spymaster with a network of informants. Maybe you're psychic, maybe you're a psychic hacker with a network of psychic cyborg informants (I've played this game before). Varys has his little birds, Holmes his Baker Street Regulars. The method is almost as important as the information.

The reason I say this is twofold: 1) How you find this information out provides the context of that information. Are you dragging someone across the coals looking for information? Are you bribing a susceptible cop? Do you have blackmail information on some senator? Are you collating data from social media using algorithms that I will never, ever, be able to understand? 

How you get that information is important to context. Interrogation is notorious for not giving the correct information, and that brief information. Blackmail is a good way to cause enmity, passive collections means less vital information. 

I played a hacker in the later '80s, one of the first all time hackers....Hollywood hacking had everything set up on the computers, so cracking data wasn't as good as using the phones more often than not. You could do a lot with a tapped phone and a pencil than you could with the most powerful IBM computer. 

The other reason why keeping the means of acquisition clear is because it helps establish character. Social characters tend to create a network of informants and co-workers that can be relied on. Interrogators are often cold and ruthless. Hackers are eccentric loaners, and so on and so forth. These characters provide a service, that doesn't stop them from being characters.

For players, whatever your means, be prepared to work for your information. Data is not free, you know that as a fact. If it's information that you can easily acquire then it probably isn't worth having, despite how powerful your stats are in game. The rule of the game here is to make sure this information is good, and vital, and can help further along the game. 

And for GMs, make the acquisition of this information challenging to the players. Not just in dice rolls and challenges, but in hooks and traps for the brokers as well. A broker who isn't invested is a broker who isn't doing their job right. Keep the broker invested, but make them work for it. 

The Rule of Subjectivity 

Simply put, information is open to interpretation. That's what the point of Data Brokers are for, to sift through the information and sell the context. The information you find can be wrong, or that the information gathered isn't complete. 

This is one of those where I have to separate the player and the GMs needs here. I encourage GMs to have multiple sources of information (whether they are competing brokers or not) that have different interpretations or pieces of information. I also encourage that information to be open to interpretation that can be gotten wrong. 

I've mentioned before that in my Mage game, I had characters who investigated things in different ways. Spirit servitors, Ghostly provocateurs, Scrying Windows, and Dream Visions. Depending where and when they ask, they will all get similar but different points of reference. I did this to tie the different and disparate PCs closer together and also to corroborate what was valid and what wasn't. Sometimes they got information wrong, sometimes they got it right.

Let me make it clear that wrong information does not mean a dead end. Sometimes getting things wrong causes its own storylines, or reveals something new about the world and its characters.

For players, You can be wrong about your information, but you cannot be the source of that, especially to the other players. If you're dealing information to your other players, you are working on a level of trust with them. If you consistently dead end them they will not deal with you and you'll be in a corner playing with your index cards full of information you cannot use. You're providing a vital service for the rest of the game in a support role, if you can't provide it, what are you doing?

Words of Advice

For the GMs

Playing the information game isn't easy. Because it requires having information about the plot already set up. This means that it is very possible for the PCs to figure things out early. If you're someone who prefers a plot driven story that players and PCs react to, then this may not be for you. That's fine. Let your players know that if they're edging towards information gatherers. Let them know that information may not be easy to get because things are in such motion that you can't get access to it. Be transparent that this is not the kind of game for that. Again, been there, it's a good way to lose a player. 

For the Players

Being an information brokering PC is a form of support role. Your job is to gain and disperse information. You have a valuable service to provide. You don't have to be a friendly character, you can have your ulterior motives, but you are playing to further along plot. Information that isn't being used is useless. You drive the plot bus that the other players get on, and you're the one with the map navigating to the next stop. Be prepared to work for the information you're looking for, be prepared to  work with the GM to get this information.

The information broker, or the lore monkey, or how you want to call it is one of my favorite types of play in the game. It's discovery of the setting and sharing that information that makes it intriguing. It's digging in to the world and digging yourself in to deals and troubles. I love doing it because it allows characters to delve in to the setting by using their wits and their words. I hope my words have helped you, and I'd love to hear your experiences with dealing in information in gaming.


I have a Patreon, focused on my serialized fiction. One of my series, Bleed, focuses on the lives of role players both in and out of game. It is released to the public monthly, and patrons receive early and immediate access. If you like what you read here, please consider supporting. That'd be cool of you.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Bleed Chapter 2

Second chapter of my Patreon series: Bleed. Bleed is the ongoing adventures of Role Players both in and out of the games they play in. Bleed is currently ongoing, if you'd like to read more, consider Pledging. You'd be helping a writer make a name and keep him writing. Thanks.

The cleanup after game was more somber than usual. Of course, no one liked to stay and clean after six hours of running around playing pretend. But it needed to be done. Trash was put in to bins. Floors were swept, cups and dishes were washed and dried and put back in the studio’s communal pantry. The studio liked the troupe, and the troupe liked them back. And it was precisely because they cleaned up and paid their rentals on time that the relationship kept being mutually friendly. 
When the cleaning was done, Callie made the call. “Okay folks, you don’t have to go home but—“
“Get the hell out.” Most of the group intoned, some more cheerily than others. 
“Yep,” She said. Her short-cut strawberry blonde hair was slick with sweat and she looked ready to pass out. It’s hard running around a packed studio in the summer wearing black clothes. Where most of the other dark costumed players were some degree of extravagant, eccentric, or both, Callie’s was utilitarian. A button down black shirt that hung loose and a pair of black cargos. She had the exhaustion of someone who had run a marathon.
Such was the life of a storyteller. 
Tom thought that, compared to CJ, Callie was holding up well. CJ looked practically hungover. The color was drained out of his cheeks and his eyes were sunken. There was no real mirth left in the man. And Tom could sympathize with him on that. 
For Tom’s part, he very quietly and slowly cleaned the dishes and cups. Glasses of wine, juice, soda. Most of the plates used were paper and could be thrown out, and most of the stains on the not paper plates were pizza or something easier. 
He was aware, somewhere in the back of his mind, that the crash was settling in. The rush of an intense scene started to come down. His movements were slow, he didn’t really notice anyone as he worked, until Callie made for final call. He was day dreaming, he just wasn’t able to respond well. Everything felt slower, the lights brighter. 
When it was time to roll out of the studio, he sidled up next to Mara and Sam.
“You want to go home,” Mara asked Tom. “Or do you want to stay for afters?”
“Afters,” Tom said, though even he could hear the tone in his voice that screamed ‘bed please’. “I’m owed a drink, anyways.”
The couple nodded and the three housemates made their way in to the elevator. 
“Tom!” Someone cried. “Wait!”
The doors closed just in time to see CJ’s face rush up to the doors. They heard a muffled ‘Damn it’ from behind the door as it descended down.
“Meet you in the lobby!” Tom yelled, but probably didn’t make it as the elevator lowered them down the sixteen floors. He rested his head against the door, closing his eyes. Closing his eyes was good. 
He heard a rattle from behind him and saw Sam with a bottle of water in one hand and opening up a bottle of aleve in the other. 
“Take these,” they said. Tom was about to ask why and they answered. “The lights are too bright for you, aren’t they?”
Tom blinked, and realized he was right. “Yeah.” He took both without resisting. Even if it wasn’t the onset of a migraine, he didn’t want to deal with it. Sam, who often had migraines of their own, always had a bottle of aspirin or something on them at all times. 
“You okay?” Mara asked Tom.
“Yeah,” he said, forcing a smile. “Just tired.”
“Wanna talk about Curve?”
“Not yet,” He said, continuing his use of the elevator doors as a head rest. “It’s slowly hitting me that he’s gone.” 
“Yeah,” Mara said. “That’s a lot of psychic real-estate you two shared.”
“I have an idea for what I’m going to do for his last act though,” Tom said. Both Mara and Sam quirked an eyebrow at him. “Nope, saving it as a surprise. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean I don’t get one last hurrah.”
The elevator opened. A large section of the troupe was already outside, most of them grabbing a smoke. Tom immediately saw Lisa in the throng, talking idly with Rachel and Dinah. Simon came out of the elevator next to them, and kept walking. 
“One of these days,” Mara said. “CJ is going to kill him.”
“And then his character,” Sam added.
Tom nodded, numbly. Sam had made the right call, he could feel the migraine set in. The Aleve had a few more minutes to kick in and chase it down. 
The next elevator opened, revealing CJ and Callie. 
“Oh, thank God.” CJ said. “You waited.” He seemed out of breath, the run had not been easy on him and he’d been doing enough running.
“Siege,” Mara said. “Can you please drink a bottle of water.”
“You look like like dried out shit,” She said. 
“Don’t take it personal,” Tom said. “These two have been mothering me the entire ride down.” 
CJ nodded at that, and Callie spoke up. “I’ll make sure he Hails Hyrdrate before bed tonight.” She smiled, and then flinched a little. 
Tom felt bad for her. Callie never knew where she stood with CJ’s friends. “Appreciated,” he said. 
CJ fished something out of one of his pockets, an index card with his big blocky handwriting in sharpie on it. “I have something for you. A character concept, if you’re up for it. Consider it my contribution to combatting the mourning process.”
Tom looked at the card, cupping it so the others didn’t see.
“Oh,” he said. And then he read it again. Then he got it. “Oh.
Tom looked back up to see a big smile on CJ’s face. This wasn’t forced, and the exhaustion he previously showed seemed to abate for a time. “If the party is over, I’m making sure I bring the fireworks. Wanna help me set them up?”
“Player or Non-Player?” Tom asked.
“Player,” CJ answered. “But with some guiding notes from me, at least at the beginning.”
Tom looked at the card again, and then pocketed it. “You’re a bad man,” he said.
“I know,” CJ said with a dramatic bow. He opened his arms and hugged Tom, who returned it openly. “That was a great scene.”
“Thanks,” Tom said they broke apart. “That was a great game.”
CJ shrugged at that, and then went on to hug Mara and Sam.
“Siege,” Sam said as they hugged. “Are you sure you want to do this? End the game?”
CJ didn’t answer at first, then he said. “Yes. Yes, I do. This sounds dramatic but this is one of the first game nights in a long time where I feel like I’m leaving clean. If that makes any sense.”
No one responded to that, no one really knew how to. At least, Tom felt that he didn’t know how to respond to that. 
Mara cut through the silence, “You coming to afters?”
CJ opened his mouth, and then closed it. Then he shook his head. “No. I’m beat. Besides the trains are fucked and we need to get back uptown.”
“I don’t know why you moved to the Bronx.” Mara said, accepting the answer as much as Tom knew she was capable of. 
Callie poked over CJ’s shoulder in answer. “Hi!”
“Oh,” Mara said in a forced deadpan. She broke out in to a wry smile. “I suppose you’re a good enough reason.”
“Thanks Mara,” Callie said, breaking out in to a yawn at the end of Mara’s name. 
CJ kissed Callie on the side of her cheek. “Yeah, we’re both beat. Night all.”
The all said their goodnights. By then, mostly everyone outside made their way to afters. CJ and Callie turned left as the exited, towards the trains. 
“You lied,” Sam said.
“I know,” Mara replied. “I’m still not sure she’s good enough for him.”
They all started moving, turning right towards the diner. 
“Come on,” Tom said. The air was muggy and Tom could already feel the sweat coming down as they got down the block. “CJ clearly loves her. And she loves him.”
“Siege is…” Mara stopped for a second, clearly finding the words. “Forget it. I worry about him.”
“We all do,” Sam said.
“Especially now,” Tom added. “This game is his pride and joy. He’s been toying with it since college.”
“Before that,” Mara said. “He came up with Moonlight in High School. He shared it with me. He got in trouble when Sister Catherine saw his notes, because she thought he was a Satan worshipper.”
“Little did she know,” Tom said. He was just getting used to the absence of paintings that CJ had done. Paintings of mystical tableaus and hand drawn signs and sigils littered their friend’s former room and parts of the living room. What became research also became a hobby and part of his life. It was something the four of them all appreciated. 
And, Tom thought with a smirk, is something that can be brought back in to game.
They walked the rest of the way talking of small things. Jake’s moving in, a possible game night at their place the next week or so. Neither Mara nor Sam asked Tom about the index card CJ slipped him. They knew better, and they wanted to be surprised. 
The diner was right down the street from Penn Station, and was open very much in to the early hours. Mara, Sam and Tom all walked in to the harried looks of the staff and the loud chatter of the diner. It was empty in the front of the diner, but the closed off back was a bustle of noise and motion.
“I think our party is in the back,” Mara said.
The hostess at the front nodded wearily. Poor thing. The diner had a love/hate relationship with the troupe. Sure, they loved the business of two or three dozen people coming in every month. The problem came with these were gamers talking over each other, moving around. That’s a lot of orders getting confused, or doubled, or lost. That’s a lot of tips. It’s in instant rush hour for the staff of the diner, and it’s usually very difficult for them. 
And the gamers aren’t usually in the best of headspaces. They’ve played at least six hours of games. They are tired, hungry, and probably in need of a drink. Often, most of them need a shower too. They’re busy focusing on getting their makeup off, or changing in to more comfortable clothes. When he did go to afters, CJ was usually the last to arrive because he had to pack up Siege’s armor. 
CJ once explained the concept of Afters to Tom as a form of ritual. “Look,” he said to him one night many years ago, back when Tom was just getting started in his first game. CJ spoke to him like the mages he often played. “We just spent hours as other people. We lived their lives, we shared their challenges, their successes, their failures. We lived, learned, loved and loathed. But eventually, sooner or later, we must leave that world. We must come back to the Really Real. We can take what we learned, but there are times when the masquerade ends.”
“Afters,” he said. “Afters is where people go to the diner or bar and be people. They get to tell war stories, they get to reminisce about other scenes or games they take part in. They get to destress from the tensions of the evening. Mostly though, it reminds us that the people we’re around are not wholly the people we’ve been with the past few hours.”
“Peter and Chopper aren’t the same per---okay, that’s a bad example. Sam and Penbroke aren’t always the same person. They have overlaps, and while there may be some people who may disagree with what Penbroke did in game, afters reminds us that Sam is just a nerd like us who is playing pretend.  Some games, like the ones at conventions prefer to Debrief people before heading out, which is a bit more formal. We don’t have the time at the studio afterwards. So we stick to what we know. We leave the town of Moonlight and we go back to a greasy spoon in Chelsea. We step out of the magic circle and we go back to the waking world.”
The memory had a bitter note to Tom tonight. CJ, who once espoused the virtues of afters, shying away from it. Mara was eying Callie for being the deterrent, but it wasn’t just her if at all. CJ was burnt out, and they all knew it. He was burnt out on the game he built, and on the troupe that formed around it. But CJ had this world and his game in his head. Afters doesn’t really apply when you’re the Storyteller, when you’re expected to bring the world with you so you can prep for the next month.
Mara and Sam found an empty table. Tom looked around and saw only members of the troupe. He remembered when a group of off duty cops were in the corner and giving the group of weirdly dressed nerds the side eye as they discussed attacks, feeding on people, drugs, and a million other things that probably had most of them on watchlists for terrorism or the terminally pathetic. 
The cops were nice, and while they didn’t get what these guys did, they realized they were just people. That was key, really.
As Tom sat down, Tyler stood up. The thin, scraggly man spoke clearly with a received pronunciation. “Gentleman, Ladies, Amorphous and Non-Binary,” he raised his beer to the air. “To Curve, and Tommy Flint.”
“Curve!” Most of the people cheered. And then applauded. One voice cut through, “Any clues on whodunit?”
Tom smiled, “Find out in game.”
“No!” Rachel said. “Come on, tell us.”
Tom shrugged, “Nope. Because you all finding out what the fuck just happened is one of the reasons I’m rolling up a character for next month and not taking a month off from you weirdos and have some kind of a social life that allows me to be me.”
A cheer of laughter. Tom raised a glass of water. “Thank you all. I will give you a small hint though and just say that I’d like to thank my killer and CJ, both of whom are bastards who have made me happy with Curve’s end.”
Applause from the group, but hesitant, stunted. He took his seat. Mara and Sam smiling.
“You’re a bastard,” she replied. 
“My father would agree,” Tom said, which got a snort from Sam.
“You kept them focused on CJ to keep them off your back.” Tom nodded enthusiastically. “Well, I’m glad all those years of being a vampire actually taught you something.”
“Yes,” Tom said. “Being a blood sucking fiend.”
A glass of soda landed down in front of Tom. Holding it was Lisa. The black wig and dress was gone, replaced by a greyish blue dye job and a black and white t-shirt and jeans. A pair of glasses on her face. 
“I owed you,” she said. “May I sit.”
“Of course!” Mara said cheerily. Tom eyed his roommate. Mara just accused Tom of being sneaky, but everything he learned he learned largely by watching his roommate at work. Mara glanced back at Tom, and flashed a bright smile before Lisa could manage to notice. Only hummingbirds, Sam and sometimes Tom were fast enough to see her at work. 
“So,” Mara said. “Lianne was involved.”
“Love,” Sam called. It wasn’t exactly chiding. 
“Oh, fine.” Mara capitulated. “But that was an awesome way to end the game.”
Lisa pointed to Tom, “He found the ashes.”
“You put them on.” He replied. “You could have told me to go fuck myself.”
“I’d do that anyway,” She said. “But figured you could use the break. You’ve had a busy night.”
Tom shrugged. “I can’t complain.”
“No?” Lisa asked.
“No. I did get strapped down by a beautiful woman.”
Lisa quirked an eye at that. “Why Mr. Flint, I didn’t know you went that way.”
“I am a man of mystery,” he said with confirmation.
Lisa made a noise. “Few men have any mysteries.”
“Amen,” said Mara. Which got a dirty look from Tom and Sam, possibly for multiple reasons. “Sorry.”
Tom looked back to Lisa. “Anyway, it’s been a pleasure working with you, Lisa.”
“Same here, Tom. Any chance you want to have ties with Lianne and your next character?”
He shrugged. “Probably not going in. We’ll be running in to each other, I’m sure. But I think having ties in would cause some bleed from Curve. Start fresh, ya know?”
Lisa nodded at that. “That’s fair. You have something in mind, for the character?”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “CJ gave me a concept to noodle.”
“Oh,” Lisa said. “Oh, now I’m terrified and excited at the same time.”
“And thus, my work is complete,” Tom said dryly.
“At least until next month.” She reached out, scratching him playfully at the back of his head. The way Lianne did to Curve during their scenes together. “I should go order some food before our waiter forgets me. It’s the guy who looks like he was here when they built the place in the fifties.”
She got up, leaving the two alone. 
“Shut up,” Tom said to the table. 
“I said nothing!” Mara replied. 
He idly took a sip of his soda. “I can hear you thinking.”
Mara gave him an incredulous look. “Tom. I’m your friend, and I love you. Ask the girl out already.”
“Why fucking not?”
He rolled his eyes. “For the tenth or eleventh time. She and I are playing roles. Our characters were in a relationship, we aren’t. We don’t really hang out unless it involves game. And we’ve never really never had a reason to. We’ve gotten together to talk about our characters, or we’ve gone on group things with the rest of the troupe. We’re friends in here, and acquaintances out there.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe she’s waiting for you to ask her out?” Sam asked.
Tom gaped at them. Mara was the usual instigator and designated wingman, Sam kept to themselves.
“I know I’m the only person who identifies exclusively as male in this triumvirate,” Tom said. “So let me know if I’m overstepping a bound. But where the hell is it written that a guy must be the one to initiate? There’s a lot I don’t know in the world, or how women work. But for once, just once, I would like someone else to make the first move.”
Neither Mara nor Sam replied to that. “Besides,” Tom continued. “This is a larp, not a dating service. She’s not looking for love here, and frankly neither am I.”
“We found it here,” Mara said. “So did Peter, Dinah, CJ and Callie and a few others.”
“Yeah,” Tom agreed. He weighed his next words and his tone, trying to get his point across without trying to sound condescending or rude. “ I’m not any of you. I’m me. I’d rather have the relationship I have with her now than fuck it up just because I think she’s cute.”
“You have chemistry,” Mara said.
“So does dynamite,” Tom retorted. “Let it lie, Hill. Table it for tonight.”
Mara blinked, and then sighed. “Fine.” She said with just a little bite. “Tabled. I think you doth protest too much.”
“Noted,” Tom said. There was no heat or anger between the three of them. They’d seen and done so much together that this was not even a blip on their radar. They loved each other, in their own ways. And Tom was grateful for that in his life. But they all knew the lines they don’t cross unless they thought it completely necessary. This wasn’t one of them. Not tonight. Possibly not ever.
Tom heard his name being called across the room, he turned to see one of the many Matts in the troupe sitting between two of the many Seans they had. 
“What was that, G?” Tom said.
Matt G. asked again, “You’ve been larping for a while. How have you dealt with closings before?”
Tom thought about it and shrugged. “Depends on the game. There was one game where people tried to get a storyteller to step up and then no one stepping up?”
“Why?” Matt asked. He was one of the newer players, joined maybe a year ago. It was his first larp. 
“Being a storyteller is a job,” Tom said. “Most players don’t think about the amount of time it takes most STs to plan a game each month. There’s plot set up, including challenges and NPCs, getting people to play those NPCs, making sure there are props that can be used for those NPCs. Puzzles, challenges. Then you have managing in game emails, making sure player questions and out of game scenes are taken care of. Then there is the actual running of game which is having your attention diverted in ten different directions to make sure people aren’t too bored or plot isn’t being hogged. People don’t really think about those sorts of things. They just want to play their characters every month, maybe a few scenes in between, and call it a week.”
“In short,” Tyler said, in his crisp English accent. “No one wants to burn out like CJ clearly is.” He looked at me with a lazy English drawl, “No offense. I know he is your friend.”
Tom only bristled slightly. He could feel Mara and Sam next to him tense as well. “No,” Tom said. “You’re right. Siege is burnt toast. And he’s going to end the game on his terms. Now, going back to your other question. That was one situation, people wanting to continue the game after the ST is gone. Then there is the flipside. Everyone quickly and quietly packs their bags, says their goodbyes, and begins looking for the next game.”
“It’s how we got here in the first place,” Tyler said, followed by a few nods and grunts of agreement from Peter, Dinah, Mara, Sam and several others.
Gavin, one of the players who agreed, spoke up. “About a dozen of us, CJ included, were all part of a vampire game a few years back. It was fun.”
“Of course it was fun,” Peter said, Dinah resting her head on his shoulders. “You were Prince and the center of attention. I spent most of the time keeping the assassins off your back.”
Gavin nodded, sniffing the air a little. “Subjectively fun, then. But the backstabbing in the game got bad. It stopped being about the characters fighting each and people started coming in to games trying to out play the other players.” He said this part a little louder, so that the others at the end of the table—which Tom noticed included Simon, who had been arguing with CJ earlier. “The game got toxic, and the ST of that game decided to close up shop. None of us wanted to work with most of the others again, and CJ was so pissed off he took that setting he built years ago and turned it into a game. Most of us have been there ever since.”
“I’m sure someone is going to try and keep the game going,” Tom said. “CJ built a system and a world where even though there is tension, that’s not the focus.” Says the man politically assassinated by his lover, he said internally. “And six months is a long time. I also think that CJ closing up at EmpireCon might mean something more.”
Matt G eyed him, and Tyler took it up. “You think he might market the setting?”
Tom nodded. “I think he’s been toying with it. I think it could work.”
“You lived with him,” Gavin said. “Wouldn’t you guys know?”
Mara, Sam and Tom all shook their heads. Sam spoke up for them. “We kept ourselves out of the making of Moonlight when we all moved in. We knew that living with the head storyteller, let alone the creator of the setting, would be seen by many as a conflict of interest.”
“That had to be difficult,” Matt G said. 
“Sometimes,” Mara said. “We’d ask questions on his off time and he’d shoo us off. Or he’d get frustrated because he was worrying at a thought and couldn’t share it with us because it was plot we were going to have to deal with.”
“Sounds rough,” Matt said.
“But yeah,” Tom continued. “We’re going to have to see our options in the next few months. CJ usually has a plan. He set a specific date. He’s up to something.”
“Well,” Simon said from his far spot at the table. “If he’s giving it up, I can always run the game.”
Tom said nothing, though it felt like a lemon was stuck in his throat.
“We’ll discuss it later,” Tyler drawled.
“What?” Simon asked. “You just spent five minutes discussing it, and now we’re going to stop here? I’m saying I can run the game.”
Tom could see Tyler’s jaw clench underneath his scraggly auburn beard. “There’s a difference between talking about the future of the game and throwing your proverbial hat in to the circle. Not tonight.”
Simon shrugged. “I think the game could do with a new direction. If CJ is running out of ideas.”
“Shut up.” Dinah said. The small red head had been napping at Peter’s side so long that Tom had nearly forgotten she was there. “Please, Simon. Just shut up. Because, I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re probably one of the reasons CJ is quitting. Like do you get that?”
Simon blinked. Whether the stunned look on his face was from the realization or just the barefaced calling out was something Tom couldn’t discern. His mannerisms were very well controlled, making him a hard read. But when he did slip, it spoke paragraphs but not necessarily in complete sentences.
“I pay every month to play here.”
“No,” Dinah said. Any signs of sleep or relaxation was gone. She was awake and on. She was a five-foot-tall fireball. “You pay every month to come here and be a snide fuck while waving your sheet around demanding CJ’s attention. You say you pay to be here like that entitles you to something. What does it entitle you to? Do you see the rest of us doing that to him? No. We wait our turn and we work with him. You don’t work with him, or really with any of us. You work against us.”
“Jakis is an antagonistic character,” Simon said. 
“But Simon isn’t.” Dinah spat. “You don’t actually role play with any of us, you just sit there and be smug, and then when you want to do something you mug Siege or Callie for their time to try and get what you want. You don’t take any one with you. You don’t roleplay, you don’t respect that there is a story being told.”
“I’m just trying to be effective,” He said coolly with a smile. 
“The destination is only as important as the journey,” Peter said. “’More matter with less art’ doesn’t mean that shouldn’t be any art.” Peter was an old hand at gaming. He knew the score and knew problem players. Tom had seen him talk to players before when there were conflicts. But he didn’t have Dinah, then, and her snapping off at Simon while just minutes before sleeping in the crook of his arm makes this less moderate than he probably intended.
“You play the game your way,” Simon said, still cool. Tom was worried about that. It wasn’t acting. It was level because he was still level. “I’ll play it mine.”
“But you don’t play,” Dinah snapped. “We’re all here to tell a story. You just want to get to the punchline. There’s no patience, no passion. It’s job-solution. That might work well in other games but this is about The Story. There’s got to be foreplay before we get to the big finish,otherwise it’s forced. What did we earn?”
“I don’t see it that way,” Simon said.
And then Dinah said the words that ended the night.
“God for Rachel’s sake I hope you fuck better than you game,”
And the entire room went dead still. Rachel, who had been sitting with Lisa for most of the evening. Got up and walked out, bag in her hands. Simon, still coolly looking at Dinah and Peter, got up and followed her.
Everyone in the room was still stunned when Peter got up. “I think we should go.”
“Fine,” Dinah said in a huff. “Needed to be said.”
Not tonight, Tom thought. This was fighting at a funeral. This was shouting at a wake.

And then he caught himself. This was just a prelude. Next month was going to be the real funeral. 

Bleed continues on my Patreon page. If you'd like to read more from the adventures of the Bleed cast, and several other series, consider pledging or sharing. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Bleed: Chapter 1

With my day job and freelance work keeping me busy, and with Dreamation just a week away, I'm taking a break from my writing. However, I want to keep plugging my work. I have a Patreon, I've mentioned that a few times here. I have a few projects going on at any given point, with the main one being Bleed. Bleed is the story of role-players and their characters and how their lives intersect with one another. It isn't based on any real people, but on several experiences. I wanted to share the first chapters with you all, free of charge. If you like what you see, please consider following and supporting my Patreon.

Curve woke to darkness. That alone was nothing new to him. The cold pain in his chest and the inability to open his eyes, while not common, was also not new to him. For a vampire as old as him, being staked is what one would call ‘an occupational hazard’

The stories and movies had gotten a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong in trying to describe the mechanics of the common Vampire. Homanus Noctphagia were essentially walking corpses made animate through the magic inherent in the blood of the living. With the lifesblood of another coursing through their veins, Vampires were smarter, faster, able to fuel the dark perversions of magic. They were also supernaturally tough. Curve had once seen a friend of his—Margarete, he remembered—survive having a building collapse on her. In Venice. She survived the crush without a single blemish to her body, though she had spent the better part of the next month smelling of canal water.

The legends say that a stake through the heart will kill a Vampire. They are half right. A stake through the heart—preferably wood—would block the flow of lifesblood. The blood lay still in his veins, barely keeping him conscious. He could not tap in to his blood to make himself stronger, he could not tap in to his blood to send his thoughts out to his allies. He could not do anything but stay there and watch, and as the lifesblood began to cool in his veins, he would not be able to do that either.

All together it sucked.

Vichy, Curve thought aloud. His mouth could not move, but his ability to send his thoughts out still availed him. 1942. I was helping the underground ferry families out of the reach of the Nazis. There was another vampire there, who’d gained the rank of Standartenf├╝hrer. We’d fought. It was genial at first. We talked for a bit. But, he was a swastika-fucking meathead with no graces, so the conversations grew boring in short order. I staked him and beheaded him with little fuss. What little I didn’t know was that one of the other members of the Underground was a defector. I was staked before I knew it and left to rot in the tunnels. No one found me until 1944, when the Americans came. I hadn’t tasted American for almost thirty years, and I was famished.

Curve let out a mental sigh. It was a woman who betrayed me that night as well. Someone I also loved at the time. You can come out now.

The vampire felt a presence near him, cold and beautiful as the pre-dawn. He focused on that feeling of cold perfection, and an image formed in his mind. He could not see her with his eyes, but his mind was all he ever needed.

For as much good as it did him.

Hello, Lianne. He thought to his new companion.

“Hello, Curve.” The woman said back, aloud. She stood in his mind at barely 5 foot tall, hair a sheet of jet that went down to her shapely hips Diamonds and jewels scattered about her hair and equally black dress. Her skin was soft and pale, giving the only contrast to her midnight garb. Slightly long and pointed ears poked out of her hair. She was lovely.

“Thank you,” she said with a warm burr.

Damn telepathy. Lia, Curve thought. Why?

“I think you know why?” Curve became dimly aware of someone touching his chest. It was a dim point of information, a small weight to him like someone laying a coin idly on their skin. But he knew the spot. There, in raised lines, was a scar he bore ever since he came to this desert cesspool of a town. It was in the shape of a crown, five pointed. A queen’s crown, in pale raised lines.

Oh, Lia. Curve thought, not hiding any of the exhaustion, and the disappointment and pain for the both of them.

“I know,” she replied. In his mind he could see her raise her arms in capitulation, a petty little gesture she did whenever she was caught in a plot. It never changed anything though. She still went through with it if worth it. “I know, Curve, I know we both promised that we’d keep the game out of our lives. But I’m tired, as I know you’re tired of this. I’m tired of taking orders from the powers that be and stuck in this hell. I know you’re tired of it too, I remember that night.”

And so did he. It was the night Lianne, Sidhe Changeling had taken on the role of the Red Queen. He saw the tattoo, a raw and garish five pointed crown, carved in to her chest. He had known her for five years, had loved her for three, had given himself freely to her for more than one. In that time, he never once cried. Warm tears blood leeched out his eyes, ruining his shirt and the rug besides. He knew it would come to this, and he knew they could not escape. Being a part of the game was a lifetime commitment, and the Queen’s lives were shorter than most.

It wasn’t fair.

“No it isn’t,” Lianne said, his thoughts bleeding out. Her hand was still on him, and then transitioned to around his back. She was resting herself against his chest. “None of this, any of this, is fair. I’m tired of playing the game. But I know that there is only one way for this to end.”


“Please,” she said, the heat of urgency entering her words. “Tell me. Who is the White King. Where are they? We must attain Checkmate. Please, Curve. For all of us. For us, Curve. Please.”


And then she said the words that broke him. The words that three centuries of backstabbing, debauchery, and lies should have exorcised from relevancy. Eight words that hurt the hardest.

“If you love me, you would tell me.”

And he does love her. If there were any doubt in his mind before then, it is gone. He loves her, body and what little soul he has left. He loves her.

But, he cannot tell her.

“Why?” Lianne says.

I don’t know, Curve thinks. I never knew. The thought hits him. And you don’t know who the Red King is either.

He feels her bristle against him, like a frighten animal hearing a loud noise. This entire night, this entire gesture, was all for nothing. She has failed, and now she must pay in a way they will both regret.

Lianne, he says to her. No answer. He realizes then that she must be crying, and his body is too far gone to see her.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says. Her voice is hurried, heaving. She’s sobbing now. “I-I can’t let you—“

Lianne, he says to her again. I love you, I love you with all my heart. And you know what will happen because of this. You know that the moment you remove the stake, I will come for you and I will not stop until the insult is paid or I die in the process. You know that.

“I do,” she says between sobs. “It’s why I love you.”

His heart, that dried walnut that barely beats, heaves in his chest. I love you too, Lia.

“Where do we go from here?” she says.

He says nothing at first, the thoughts too distant and hazy for him to grasp. Then he makes his mind up. Lia, there’s something I’ve always wanted to do with you. This…is the only time I’d ever get to have it with you.

He feels her presence close, and for in that second he feels her. He feels her ambition, her fear, her exhaustion, and yes, her love. He feels it and he curses it, himself, and the game they are trapped in. It is not the first time, it is, however, the last time.

Watch the sunrise with me?

She says nothing, merely hold him tighter. He knows that, after tonight, many things will change. Someone will be crowned the White Queen in his place, soon, and the game will continue. Somewhere, a part of him wishes that he could wish that person the best of luck. But it doesn’t matter at this point, his part of the game is over.

And, quietly. He feels the warmth of dawn approach. He pushes himself in to her mind, seeing with her eyes. She feels him, and does not resist. He sees his body, a lean figure with disheveled brown hair, black tank top and black jeans. He realizes she staked him and tied him to the Dawnstone, the great promontory rock on the edge of Moonlight, where many of the others would still be caught in their plots and attempts to defend the town from the other monsters and each other.

He feels the dawn rise, and the first burst of light breach the horizon. It is the first time he has seen it in nearly three hundred years. The light hurts, the numbness leaves and all that is left is pain. The sun is for the living, and the dead will pain in the dawn of a new day. He can feel his body crack like burnt clay, crisping at the edges. Parts of him darken and flake away, until he is nothing but embers and ash.

And next to him, the entire time, is Lianne. The woman he loved, the woman who loved him, the woman who betrayed him.

As the last of him dissolves away, and his mind vanishes from this world. He decides that this is a good death.

CJ looked at his watch. “Okay, Callie needs me in the other room for the final fight. You two going to be okay?”

Tom opened his eyes, after having them closed for the last ten minutes, the bright lights of the dance studio burned in to the. He looked down, seeing Lisa curled up against him, a splash of blue and black against his solid black attire. “Yeah,” Tom said. “I think I’m done for the night.”

He found himself regretting saying anything. The moment he spoke, Lisa jerked up right and took a step away. She started fixing herself up a little, “I’ll be back in for the closing.”

“Cool,” CJ said. He went to grab a bottle of water from a side table and took a swig, then took a little water in the hand and splashed it against his face. “Here we go. Tom, it was a great scene. If you want to talk afterwards, I’ll be around.”

“Appreciate it,” he said. “I demand a big funeral.”

CJ smiled at that, but it was a weak one. Exhaustion setting in around his eyes. “That’s the next game. You want somber or ‘Nawlins?”

“Surprise me,” Tom said with a shrug.

“Famous last words,” CJ said. “Later.”

Their storyteller closed the door, and Tom became aware of being alone in the room with Lisa. She shifted a little when he saw her, clearly realizing the same thing. Five years of playing games together and they still didn’t know how to talk to each other out of game.

“I guess I owe you a beer,” Lisa said, finally breaking the tension.

“Yeah, that’ll be a soda. Thanks.”

Lisa quirked an eyebrow at that. Lisa was five-five, and built for the roller derby. Bits of blue poked through her hair underneath the black wig. The damn thing always made Tom itch uncomfortably when he saw it. It must have been hot and heavy for her with that long rag on, more so since she added the fake jewels to it. Her mascara, Tom noticed, was smudged. She had been crying.

“You cool?” He asked her.

“What? Oh yeah,” she waved to her make-up. “I think this hit me a little hard. I’m going to miss Curve.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “He was fun, but if it was going to end, this made the most sense.”

Lisa nodded, bejeweled wig bobbing up and down with her. She adjusted it. “Still, you going to be okay?”

“Probably. It’ll take some time. But I think I’m going to go down and get some air.”

She blinked at that. “Oh, oh okay. I’ll see you at Afters, right?”

“Well, someone owes me a soda. So yes.”

They both smiled. Tom felt that there was more to be said in the room. Tom felt like it would have ruined the moment. He nodded to her and stepped out of the studio.

The studio in which they played had two rooms, one larger than the other. The smaller room was used for private scenes, or for meetings for smaller groups than the entire cacophony of players around. Tom could hear raised voices from the larger room, snarling and shouting and panicked cries.

Now is that in or out of character? He asked himself. The question, he felt, wasn’t his to explore. He was dead, afterall, and that deserved some sort of break.

Manhattan in the summer is a merciless swamp of humidity. That’s the price of living on an island in a temperate zone. Tom walked around the corner to the convenience store, the blaring noise and teeming life of midtown all around him. The noise, humidity, and movement gave the City a sense of life, of being.

It also made it unbearably warm. He grabbed a bottle of water and a can of coke, one for health and the other for flavor. He sat at the stores counter to drink his water and coke in peace, and wish he had brought his headphones down, drown out some of the noise.

“Hey, Tommy!”

Tom turned to see Mara and Sam. His housemates were like those Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp, though their creepiness was more whimsical than sinister. Mara was decked in black, a bracelet of small bones at left wrist and right ankle. The rook’s skull rested right on the spot where the collarbone met the breast plate.

Sam stood next to her, the Gomez to her Morticia. They managed to make purple tweed work. Their disheveled mop of black hair giving the impression of some out of time academic or low-status noble trying to make good.

Tom cheered them with the hand. “Combat end already?”

Mara snorted, “Simon.”

“Ah.” It was all the answer he needed. “What now?”

“Tried to pull something out of the Markets. CJ wasn’t sure when or where the hell he got it and asked for clarification. Simon said he agreed to it in a phone call.”

“Siege doesn’t do phone calls,” Tom intoned as Mara hopped up in the seat next to him. Sam in the seat next to her.

“Right,” Sam said. So they got in to it, and CJ asked for a ten minute break while they unfuck the situation. I think most people are just ready to pack it in and call it a night.

“They’re getting worse.” Sam said. It was a declaration, not a conjecture. Sam didn’t really say anything they weren’t willing to believe in. “I think CJ’s going to quit.”

No one said anything after that. “Hell of an end,” Tom said as he took a sip of his soda.

“Why are you down here?” Mara asked.

Tom reached for in to his vest pocket, an older Asian lady stopping to gawk at the androgynous goth couple and their soft-goth housemate. Tom smiled at her. Her stint as a voyeur found out, the lady sped in to the busy streets. He pulled out his character sheet. It was the third sheet of his, after the previous two had crumbled from five years of folding and being stuck in pockets and held in sweaty hands. This one was showing its wear, and was ready to be put to retirement as well.

He placed the sheet on the counter, took another sip, and placed it on top of the folded character sheet. All that curve was, and signs that he had been, now a coaster.

“Oh fuck,” Mara breathed. Sam said nothing, but Tom could feel them thinking. Mara continued. “You okay?”

It took Tom a moment to find the words. “I think I’m still processing,” he said. “Curve’s been in my head for a while. It’s going to be tough to let go.”

“Who did it?” Mara asked.

Sam raised their hand, “I’d like to find out in game.”

Tom and Mara nodded, that was only fair and proper. They’d commiserate later at afters and at home.

The next minute was spent in silence. It was the kind of silence only people who have lived with each other a while understand. It was comfortable, things weren’t left unsaid, because things didn’t always need saying.

“Oh,” Tom said. “Just remembered. Jake should be stopping by next weekend to look at the place. That okay?”

“Sure,” Mara said. Sam nodded. “I’m looking forward to meeting him. You don’t normally talk about college.”

“It wasn’t fun,” Tom said. “Jake made it bearable. I think we both made it bearable. He got me in to tabletop, and once he moves in I’ll start getting him in to larping. He’s been wanting to do it for a while, but Albany’s larp scene is kinda dead.”

“Sounds like fun, maybe you can tie your new character to his? Tag team.”

Tom made a noise, “between you two and the Hewleys, I think this game has enough power pairs. Last thing the world needs is the supernatural bash brothers.”

“Besides, It’d form the trifecta. The Hewleys do the fighting, we’re the social creatures, you’re an amazing intel character.”

“Yeah,” Tom said, conceding the point. “But Jake and I…we could give the Hewleys a run for their money.

“Hey,” Mara said. “Maybe the Hewleys could use a run for their money. Grandpa Chopper is getting complacent in being alpha badass.”

Tom shrugged. “You guys should go back up, time’s almost up.”

They agreed, and made their way up stairs. Tom was less in a rush, but he tried not to slow down his friends. The night security man of the office building their studio was located in let the three of them back in, keeping a wary eye on the gothicly clad group. He was new. Most of the Saturday night crew learned quickly about the monthly goings on of their group. People dressed in weird costumes going back and forth. Carts of props that many street cops would consider suspect. Random discussions of various topics, from illicit trysts to the werewolf attacks in Central Park or Hunts Point. Many of the guards, Tom suspected, believed that many of the people who came to the studio every third Saturday of the month was on some form of watchlist as some sort of cult.

But this was New York City, so long as you were a mostly harmless cult, you got left alone.

Tom could hear the others as the elevator made its stop on the twelfth floor. Those voices were not happy. They exited the elevator, where the voices grew only louder and more angry.

“You said I could—

“I said when!? When, Simon. Show me the email, show me the note. Where the hell is it? When did we do the scene in the markets for you to get the Wispveil? If I didn’t, who said you could have it?”

“I told you I wanted any of the low level approval items from the market.”

“And I said ‘Okay, let’s do the scene’. We didn’t do the scene, so I don’t approve, so you don’t have jack shit, Simon.”

“I can get it by making a pull on my sheet.”

“And by roleplaying. This is Live Action Role Play. If you want to talk stats, Simon, Peter is doing a sign up for Fantasy Football.”

The three stopped to find the two voices. Simon was dressed in a crushed velvet jacket and looked like something out of a magazine. His features were sharp enough to cut paper and his blonde hair was disheveled to just be this shade of stylish. His green eyes had an acid edge as he glared at CJ in rage.

CJ was built like a cement wall. Thick dark hair with streaks of grey that looked like the inside of a silver mine. His eyes were a marshy hazel, and were rheumy with exhaustion. His normal pallor was tinged with scarlet. Tom had seen Siege lose his temper before. It didn’t happen often, but only when someone decided to find a nerve and press on it. Simon, if he was as smart as he claimed, should have been able to see the level of danger he was in at that moment.

“We’ve missed nothing,” Mara muttered, just loud enough for her voice to carry down the hall.

The two arguing players turned to the approaching group. Simon’s tanned cheeks darkened and he walked away. CJ deflated, the color seeping out of him. He closed his eyes.

“Thank you,” he said weakly.

Sam pulled a spare bottle of water out of their leather messenger bag. “You okay?”

CJ took the bottle, opened it, and took a hard swig. “No,” he said finally. “I’m tired.” He looked at the three of them: Mara, Sam and Tom. His eyes brightened a little and a tired smile crept on his face. Tom knew the smile was forced, but not disingenuous. The four of them had known each other a long time. “Let’s finish this, shall we?”

Mara and Sam nodded, Tom spoke up. “Mind if I watch? Do you need a hand with pulls?”

“Nah, you can watch,” CJ said. “I’d love the help but with Simon’s tantrum of the night over, we can get on with this monster mash smoothly.”

CJ lead Mara and Sam in, and Tom followed them idly. The studio had its own kitchenette and lounge. Tom fixed himself a glass of water, letting the handful of players around a poker table to talk amongst themselves. He found a chair, and propped himself near the door. Lisa walked by, looking a little wiped out herself. Her pack of cigarettes and a lighter palmed in her hand as she made her own way outside.

Tom pulled himself from any trains of thought there as a loud roar rolled through the next room. He looked in to see a group of a dozen people, each of them in smaller groups of four, surrounded a man sweeping across the floor in a black sheet that could easily be measured in yards. At the head of the sheet was what looked like as an antlered skull. The blocky build of CJ underneath thrash back and forth like a fish out of water.

“The monster is trapped by the spell!” CJ narrates under the cloak.

“Lore Four,” Sam said. “What class is it?”

“Assisting,” Mara said.

“Assisting!” two more said. Tom itched to say it. Normally Curve would be right there. Sam’s character, Ryder Penbroke, was an academic. Curve was a monster hunter. They both loved exploring the lore of the things that go bump in the night, but always differed as to counting the monster’s teeth during or after the hunt.

CJ pulled a deck of cards out, shuffled and pulled, a ‘-3’ on the card in blue marker. “Lore 5!” He answered back. “The monster is like a Wisp but clearly on a different level as previously seen. It’s covered in bones and the area is colder than most shades provide.”

Tom imagined Penbroke, a dark prince in threadbare garb, flipping his notes while keeping cover as a ghoulish phantom of shadow and bones loomed about, trapped by a magic circle.

“Well,” a grizzled man from one of the other groups cried. He was dressed in jeans and a western shirt and it looked like it wasn’t a costume. “Looks like we gotta get are arms in to this one and find out more. Hunters!”

His entire group made a hoot and entered positions. The older man called. “Fight 5, with three assist.”

CJ shuffled his deck and pulled again, moving still in his thrashing motion. He showed a ‘+4’ on the deck. “Several of the rib-like bones shatter. You each feel a wave of cold. Take a stress.”

Tom saw Peter as Chopper Hewley, cowboy warewolf, lead his troupe of hunters hack at the monster with bats, swords, claws and guns.

“It’s got a rough aura,” the short red-head woman in his group said. Tom saw her as another wolf, stocky and with tawny wire fur. “Watch yourselves. Healers ready.”

“Magic team attacking,” said one woman’s voice beind CJ. “Summer fire. Magic 5 with assist. I’m also invoking my Summer Court magic.”

Shuffle and pull, CJ answered. “Your summer magic cuts through the aura like a hot knife. You all get the smell of frozen marsh water thawing.”

“It’s a Wisp?” One voice said.

“Class 4 Wisp,” Sam said. “First recorded.”

“The monster’s turn now. Wounded, you see the dark cloak draw in to its bones and.” He pulled out a card. “Magic 12 against Physique to cold.”

Several of the players dropped to the floor, clutching themselves in pain. Mara was one of them.

Peter cried out. “Bind and Burn!”

The academics, lead by Sam/Penbroke, moved over to the surviving fighters or knelt to the wounded players.

The magic team went first. They called for more summer fire, not as bright as before but enough to cut the aura. All that was left was the skull on the ground. Peter approached the skull and made the call.

“Fight 5,” CJ pulled and then nodded. “Killing blow!”

CJ shook off the cloak, he was sweating profusely under the thick fabric and bones. “The skull breaks, sending out a wave of dark and cold. It’s too diffuse to be painful, but you all feel it. You feel the malice in it, and you can feel it’s aware.”

Tom quirked an eye at that. Wisps weren’t usually aware. He shook the thought away. That was information that wasn’t for him. Curve was dead and his next character, whatever that might be, may or may not know that. Some people liked to know the meta about the world. Tom did too, but he didn’t want to spoil all the surprises.

He pulled himself away back to the lounge for a few minutes. By now they would be headed back to heal the wounded. The academics would be trying to piece together clues from other sources and from what they’ve seen. The fighters would be patting each other on the back. The social players, who had filed back in to the room, would report on the deals that had been making with one another (minus the gossip about other players and their characters, Tom noted).

Lisa walked back in around there. Her cellphone in her hand. “CJ just texted me, wants to come in for the closing scene. I think I should go in dramatic. Got any ideas?” Tom looked around the lounge. The lounge had a small ash tray in it. Lisa saw his eyes and made a pleased noise. “Oh,” she said. “That’s harsh.”

“We should share the pain.” Tom said.

A quick dab of ashes on the hands and Lisa was ready. CJ popped his head out. The smile on his face this time was just as tired, but less forced. He saw Tom and Lisa, and then Lisa’s hands. “You two are evil.”

“He did it!” Lisa said, pointing to Tom.

Tom shook his head. “Clearly, the grief has caused this woman denial.”

CJ laughed. “Cool. I’m going to make the last narration. Wait for the fireworks, and come in on the high note.”

Lisa nodded.

CJ ran in. Lisa prepared herself, idly smudging ashes on her dark blue dress. She looked down, realizing it, and then shrugged. She then dabbed some on her right cheek.

“Cute.” Tom said.

“Yeah, I’m not nice.”

Tom hugged the wall as CJ began his narration. “All those of the White. Pawns, Rooks, Knights and Bishops. You all feel your brands burn in intense pain.”

Several anguished cries rang through the room. Tom suppressed a smile, Lisa was less contained in her amusement, but stamped it back down.

Peter/Chopper’s voice cried out. “Check! What’s happened?” A pause, realization. “Curve? Curve!?”

That was Lisa’s cue. Tom realized that her mascara was still runny. Tears on command, always impressive. She walked in with her hands outstretched, Lady MacBeth wondering if the perfumes of Arabia will wash those hands clean.

She walked in, fear and sorrow in her eyes. Tom wondered if it was Lisa acting Lianne’s grief, or if this was Lisa acting as Lianne who was acting in grief.

There was a hushed silence. Someone saw her, someone saw the ashes. “I’m sorry,” Lisa/Lianne’s voice wavered. “He’s gone.”

CJ’s voice called a beat later. “That’s game, folks!”

A chorus of voices called out, questions clamoring. Some applause. Tom poked his head in. Peter, Mara, and Sam both saw him. Dinah’ the red-head from before, also saw him. “You!” She cried. “What happened to you!?”

She grabbed Tom and, playful rough, dragged him in to the room. Another cheer of calls came from the few dozen players. Questions to him, about Curve and his fate. Voices. A lot of voices.

“Everybody please!” CJ called. “Tom has been through enough tonight.”

Several people looked to him for confirmation. Tom nodded.

“Tonight,” CJ continued, “We lost one of the first characters made for the game. I wrote Curve as one of the first Vampires in game, and then Tommy Flint came in and made him alive.”

“So to speak,” Mara said, to the laugh of a few others.

CJ was one of them. But then his face grew serious again. “To continue on this—“ he stammered, and Tom could see him struggling with the words.

Oh no, he thought. He’s going to do it.

“To continue on this theme of endings. I’d like to make a few announcements. This year we have been asked to put on In Pale Moonlight at ImperialCon. Most of us have played before, and it is where Moonlight originally began. That game will mark the end of this chronicle.”

Everyone stood stunned, with a few brief murmurs. Tom was one of them. The end of the five year story. But that wasn’t what made CJ stumble with his words. The storyteller’s hands tumbled with the air, and Tom always felt like there should have been a pen or a coin flipping between the knuckles as he did it.

“I’m also here to announce that…” He stopped himself again, and the tears in his eyes formed. His voice became stronger, and threatened to break. “After ImperialCon, I am stepping down as Storyteller.”

And that was it. Dinah, Peter, and a fair few others all cried out in shock. Tom, Mara, Sam and even Lisa nodded. They had known CJ long enough to know this was coming.

The game was ending.


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