The Line


An Apocryphal Story entitled

The Line

Copyright 1996 by Rich Staats All characters, actions and “schtuff” depicted in this story are fictional. Any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead is strictly coincidental. However, the story is dedicated to a real person. Someone whom many will miss. Jon Roorda touched the lives of many. He is remembered with fondness. Jon, this one is for you. Caution, this tale might not be suitable for younger readers. It chilled my blood as I wrote it. The flashing red and blue lights shimmered brilliantly off the broken glass. The common room lights were out with the power, and the emergency lights did little to dispel the horror and gloom. Leon’s body lay in a pool of what appeared to be liquid tar in the bad, intermittent light. A jagged, gory soda bottle lay to his side. The other gamers all gaped on with dazed looks except for Russell who cackled on to himself “the evil is dead; I killed the infiltrator!” I shook my head in shock and disbelief. How did it come to this? Where exactly had we crossed the line between fantasy and reality? I prided myself on running a good campaign. It should have been good. I had been doing it for years. The gaming world was big and complex with plenty of detail. I had a wealth of experience to draw on; as a member of the armed forces, I had lived all over the world, experienced foreign cultures from the inside, and conducted patrols under hostile conditions. When I described the party members’ hearts pounding in their throats, I was describing something I had felt. Maybe it was my own passion about the campaign that translated into the players taking things too seriously. Maybe it was deeper. Was I responsible for this tragedy? I had commanded hundreds of soldiers and had sent them into dangerous situations --- sometimes to their deaths. I had seen more than my share of young fatalities; still, Leon’s death struck me as particularly senseless, meaningless, and his death was not the only one weighing on my soul in recent days. As a commissioned officer, I was expected to do my share of community service. Some officers chose to work with the special Olympics or the scouts, I was always drawn to the youth centers to help with the youngsters there. Possibly it was because I came from such a large family growing up. I had forty some first and second cousins. As the oldest of the lot, I was expected to help entertain them at family get togethers. Games had been a natural way of getting the kids together both in the family and in the military bases around the world. I was drawn to role-playing because of its apparent connection with the occult. My grandmother had claimed to be a witch, and my uncle Otto had been a collector of the weird and wonderful. One of his chests contained books and scraps of paper with what Otto claimed were “spells set down by his grandmother, a witch.” My grandmother, Otto’s sister, had branded my foot when I was twelve. She said it would give me the control to “call up the powers.” Like all her ravings, I dismissed this. After all, who could believe an old woman who left 16 year old pizzas in her freezer when she died? Even though I was active in the Church, my interest in the occult did not diminish over time. What could be more natural than doing wargames and role-playing with “my kids” in the youth centers as I called them? The years had produced a lot of success stories. There were kids who got turned around in school. I wistfully recalled one mom who had told the recreation center director that I had to take her kid into the gaming group. Things worked out. He and his brother Chuck had gone from high school dropouts to graduates with good jobs. I had been at gamers’ weddings, graduations and confirmations. I had even had a couple of my gamers name their children after me. I would have traded all that to bring Leon back. I struggled to think of what was different about this campaign. Why now? Why with this group? Where did the descent into madness begin? They were brighter than my average gaming group had been. MIT tended to attract folks who were bright and passionate about what they did. Russell was the first one I met. Oddly, we got to know each other at a church retreat. I was “horn swaggled” into driving for the foray. (Most of the congregation was composed of undergraduates who had neither licenses or access to automobiles; at all of thirty years, I was the well resourced “grey beard” in the crowd.) Russell was tall, lanky and blond. A standard activity at these retreats was to go around the circle and describe yourself. When it got to me, I mentioned that I played RPGs. Russell came up to me afterward and brought up the fact that his dorm had a core RPG group who had recently lost its gamemaster. I volunteered to come over for a session or two. When I arrived at MIT, it was just another assignment to me. I didn’t think I would have time to do gaming, but I was separated from my family (which was still at Fort Polk) and feeling pretty lonely. Most important, I missed being around some younger, lively people. The majority of the folks in the military were under 25 years of age, and they certainly knew how to have fun. My fellow “grad” students tended to be a dour lot who focused on their studies just to keep their heads above water. I wasn’t feeling the same level of academic stress; so, I agreed to meet Russell’s friends. The group was fairly reticent when I arrived, but when I pulled out my sound effects, detailed maps and calligraphic handouts, the group became more lively. I sized up the group and tried to get a feel for the dynamics; anything can be helpful in planning scenarios and getting sessions to hum along. Russell was the group leader and had clearly assembled those present. Russell was both highly religious and a type AA personality. He kept detailed notes and filed the group’s handouts in a binder. Leon was Russell’s roommate at the time. Leon was heavy set and sported a half-hearted goatee and an old, stained tie-dyed top. When Leon laughed, you knew that someone had fallen for a ploy of his and was about to be the butt of a joke. Still, under his seething intellect, there was a kind core. He was the kind of guy who would rip you up with his sharp with and then give you the shirt off his back. Santiago sat to Leon’s left. Santiago was a soft spoken, friendly man. His smile was disarming, and Santiago tended to act as a moderating influence on the group. Harmon sat opposite me at the far end of the table. He was short with quick eyes, and he asked a lot of technical questions about game mechanics. The last member of the party was Pete. He took everything in and swirled it through his dizzying intellect. When he acted, you knew that whatever objective he sought was caught in his grasp just as surely as the sun would rise tomorrow. Pete favored complicated plot twists and engaging, multi- dimensional NPCs. The campaign took off like a rocket. The group drank in every detail. Every handout was analyzed, and each NPC was treated as a valuable clue in a complex mystery. The more time I put into the campaign, the more information the group wanted. I was getting calls three or four times a day from the gamers asking about aspects of the campaign and information their characters might know. It was a heady time. The players were drawn naturally into the world. The actions inside its confines made sense. There was an internal consistency. By the time the campaign started, I had been running games in the same world for twelve years. When I shut my eyes, I could see the NPCs, hear the squeak of the wagon wheels and smell the dust in the air. Pretty soon, I could shut my eyes and see my players looking around in the world too. The players started engaging in conversations like “hey Russell, what do you figure that field of purple flowers smells like? I think they probably have a scent vaguely like lilac, but with a bitter tang.” It became obvious that the players were spending a great deal of time outside the campaign planning and discussing actions in the gaming sessions. I got to be a little nervous about the players’ academic averages and insisted that we spend some time doing non-gaming related activities. The players all came from a single dorm at MIT, and pretty soon the other students in the dorm began to be involved in our non-gaming activities. Rather than interjecting more distance into the gaming group, it cemented the group members and I more closely together. I started to withdraw from the campaign once my wife and three children arrived. The gang from the dorm helped me fix up a wonderful, old captain’s house built in 1835. The place had ten bedrooms, four fireplaces and a huge spiral staircase. When we began our labors of love, it was not much to look at, but as time went on, it was transformed as sure as a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Our collective blood and sweat and tears turned the brick, board and mortar into a home. Although our gaming time went down, I still did things with the group, and my eldest daughter used to remark that the house as always full of “moms and dads without kids.” It was a common occurrence for me to come home from classes and research and find my living room filled with five or six folks from the dorm, playing with my children and watching TV. The house became a home away from home for the dorm members. About that time, the marriage went to hell. It started out subtlety like my wife kicking a chair apart in front of me and throwing knives. When my four year old started routinely placing herself between her mother and me saying “Mommy stop being mean to Daddy!,” I knew it was time to do something. After trying counseling and other options, it became obvious that one of us would have to vacate the home. The police just laughed at me when I told them I felt threatened. My lawyer told me that there was no chance for me to get the kids in Massachusetts as an active duty service member. I beat a hasty retreat with as much dignity as I could. That wasn’t much. I threw myself into my studies and the campaign. It became the Campaign. I cried myself to sleep and made handouts. I spent hours working on NPCs and encounters. The level of complexity of the Campaign increased tenfold. About this time Leon approached me with a novel idea. Feverishly, I turned the concept around in my mind. Leon wanted to run a character who was secretly part of the group the party was trying to ferret out. In the end, Leon’s mission for his character was to prevent the party from recovering the Orb of Power. The players were drawn into my maelstrom of emotional energy. Some members of the group began leaving notes for each other, hidden in the dorm written in one of the languages of the Campaign. Some of the players became so involved with the Campaign that intra-party strife caused several of them to stop speaking together outside of the sessions. Everyone knew something was up, but no one could figure out what. The party knew that someone or something had too much information and seemed to be one step ahead of them. It vexed them and tortured their spirits. Leon laughed a lot. I gave up on sleep. I started writing title articles for major journals. I ran colloquiums and did seminars. And the Campaign ... the Campaign ... it became a mosaic of beauty, intricate and subtle in its the parts, and the whole was breath taking. I was producing work at a volume that should have left me panting. Still, hard work is the morphine of the soul, and I had a lot of sorrow to drown. I called my eldest on her birthday, and she hung up on me. I was loosing my children as inexorably as the forces of Tim Hel were grinding the Kingdom of Slotara to dust ... with a little help from within. There were conspiracies within conspiracies. I plotted the voices the NPCs would use. I ran sound effects till all hours of the night. I took all the players suggestions, embellished them and used them in the Campaign. All the while the party circled closer to the Orb of Power. I came over to the dorm one night to find Russell had barricaded himself in his room. I went up to talk to him, and he let me in, revealing he was about to burn the party contract. Our conversation was tense. “Russell, why are you doing this?” “They are violating the spirit of the contract! It means nothing; it is just a scrap of paper.” “Russell, it is just a game. Let’s go get some ice cream.” “It is not a game. Can’t you see that! You can tell a lot about a person from the way they play these role-playing games. These people are evil! They have to be stopped!” With that, Russell lit the document on fire. He must have soaked the contract in something beforehand, because it burned in a sickly green flame. (It was probably some copper salt.) Russell apologized to the other gamers, and things appeared to go back to normal. Leon in particular went out of his way to mollify Russell. That same night Leon called me on the phone to reveal his next bit of brilliant intrigue. Harmon’s girl friend dumped him the next week, and he played his character recklessly during the weekend session. Harmon’s grades dropped, and his character became suicidal. He made some mistakes, and his character was killed. Harmon gave me the strangest smile as he walked away from the session. He said he did not need to roll another character up. No one heard Harmon tie the rope to the banister. No one noticed the sound of his body trying to drop thirty feet and being stopped short at twelve by the rope attached to his neck. Everyone heard Kimberly scream that morning when she got up to run that following morning. Near as the coroner could tell, Harmon killed himself at celestial midnight on Candlemas. I didn’t show the investigators the strange note I got in the mail from Harmon two days later. I burned the circle and scribed runes and threw out the ashes. I bathed for a long time that night, but the slippery feel of the ashes would not leave my skin. Santiago was Harmon’s roommate. According to school policy, Santiago could have taken a semester off with no penalty for losing a roommate to suicide. But, Santiago declined. Santiago did not want to miss the Campaign sessions. The gaming time became more tense. It was our solace and our hell. We started to play three times per week. Gaunt faces, hair raising escapes and feats of self sacrifice and bravery dominated our lives. I lost twenty pounds in two months without trying. My children asked not to see me on Christmas. No matter what they did though, the party members could never outmaneuver the forces of Tim Hel. They were just too clever, or they were getting help from a confederate. Pete put the cleverly disguised clues together. I thought it was over the session when his character asked a divination that revealed a traitor in their midst. I’ll never know what Leon did, but the next session Pete and Leon both made a show of trying to find the conspirator. The air was filled with paranoia. Leon was in his prime, but everyone was looking over their shoulders. Party members came and went to the sessions in groups. They didn’t trust each other alone. Santiago’s girlfriend left him. She said he should marry the gaming group since it occupied all his time. Russell began to attend church three times per week. He asked me to pray that he would find the strength to do what must be done. Somehow, Russell’s moods seemed to improve during the gaming sessions. I asked Russell what was up. He said I knew, but that he knew like God, I was always fair. He would not be found wanting when the time came he said. The children’s mother won full custody and moved out of the state. She left a note saying that she wanted no child support or alimony. She never wanted me to see or speak to her or the children again. I felt a black pit opening beneath me. I tried to stop the Campaign, but it proved impossible. We did take a brief hiatus. Though, like a junky hooked on horse, we crawled back to the table, retching from our lack of will and indecision. Pete announced in an understated way one evening that he had figured out where the Orb rested. He was right. I stopped the session after the party made preparation for the journey. I wanted the session where they found the Orb to be perfect. As the session broke up, Russell asked what special preparations the party members might have made. I mentioned that as members of the Thaliban Society of Light, they would most likely have fasted before taking up the last leg of this holy quest and surely they would wear white garments on the day they brought glory to the forces of Light and Good. Pete remarked as I departed that the end was at hand, and all mysteries would be revealed. In the distance somewhere heat lightning boomed across the sky. I made handouts the likes of which I had never made before. I dug out some of my old uncle Otto’s documents. Usually I mixed my inks. I was particularly proud of a combination of scarlet and green that looked like dried blood, but when I made my documents that night, I didn’t cut corners. I wanted everything to be perfect. I felt dizzy as I inscribed the words on the parchment “O Magna Porta! Adoramus tibi!” I looped and curled the words into a mosaic, and it truly appeared magical as I finished the last touches in burnished gold leaf. The sky crackled angrily at me the night of our last session. As I reached the doorway, I was greeted by one of our movie watching regulars, Pattie. She remarked “you sure are lucky! I thought the skies would have opened up by now.” I waved my hand absently and said “they can start any time now.” It began pouring outside. Pattie looked at me queerly and helped me carry my props to the room. All the party members including Leon were dressed in white robes. They had glassy eyes. I recognized the signs of fasting. I should have; I hadn’t eaten solid food in three days at that point. The session was high-strung from the start. As the party entered the temple complex, the tension grew. Each encounter brought the group to its feet. The thunder shook the plate glass of the common room. When the party found some potions, I gave Pete and Russell some money to buy the group soft drinks. I explained that it would not be a dishonor to the gods to drink the healing draughts. Pete and Russell had chosen some classy beverages in real glass bottles, a commemorative edition of some type. We all toasted their impending success that evening. The party entered the final chamber. I darkened the lights and set up props while the players waited outside. I turned on the floods to the strains of the Carmina Burana as the party entered the common room in march order. I awaited them dressed in robes of black, surrounded by a cloud of incense. The Orb glistened on the table before me. I whispered a greeting to the group and raised my hands to cast a spell. They made their rolls, but none were quick or accurate enough to stop me. The forces of darkness sent a thrill through my body as I sealed the four corners of the room. Another wave of attacks came, and I revealed that one of their midst was a traitor. Leon jumped up to serve our dark masters. As he came forward to seize the Orb, I intoned the words of the spell on the parchment before me. Russell and Santiago looked on in horror, and Pete gave Leon a conspiratorial grin. Leon picked up the Orb and turned to face the remainder of the party. I finished the spell which should have blasted them out of existence. The lightning bolt blasted the window behind me with a deafening roar, spraying me with shards of jagged glass. My black robes protected me from most of the lacerations, but the bolt knocked me to the ground. The power went out at the same time. I heard the muffled sound of Leon’s laughter and then another glass smashing. Leon’s laughter abruptly ceased. I was still incoherent when the police arrived. Later these servants of Thaliban detained me again when some Quislings noted me carving the sacred symbols of Tim Hel in my arms. They hold me still, but these walls are nothing. I could melt them with my gaze alone if I wanted. But, I am patient. My time will come. Tim Hel whispers to me that he will be pleased only once I bring more sacrifices to him. I play the games and give the answers these puppets of Thaliban want to hear. Soon I will be free to fulfill Tim Hel’s desires once again. Tim Hel assures me all will be well. I know he is right. You see. I know everything.

I am God

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You can reach me by e-mail at: rstaats@mitre.org