Must Love Dice, Part IIFeb 18
Jennie Michalski – Teacher, Gamer, Female
It was either dice or heroin, really. Luckily, none of us were cool enough at a formative age to know where to buy drugs. Ron bought a snack baggie full of oregano one time. So, the pen-and-paper thing was our habit, you know? You keep doing it because you keep doing it. And, yeah, I like being with the guys and having fun with them. We’re all friends. They’re my person, or whatever.
I do it for the camaraderie. I think we all do. God, nobody likes it for the spreadsheets and the math, right?
Well, nobody except Martin, right?
When last we left our brave adventurers, Ron had been defeated by Samantha Case. Sam was that most dangerous of all creatures – the Ex – and Ron was powerless against her. Or so his friends thought, and Ron did little to disabuse them of that thought. Instead, he lived with Dreiser, who had been his best friend since the fifth grade; he spent more time with his friends gaming, watching movies, hanging out. They rallied around him protectively – Matt, Jennie, Dreiser, Cory and even weird Justin.
Once, when nobody else was in earshot, Matt admitted it was good to have Ron back.
Three months passed like that.
Ron’s life was good. Sometimes, he felt infused, revivified, unyoked from Samantha’s leaden weight. Most of the time, though, Ron was haunted by a simple truth:
“Being single sucks.”
Transformers: The Movie was on and the love triangle between Arcee, Springer and Hot Rod was the trigger for this particular instance of this particular conversation.
Across the room, perched on the Swopper chair at his desk, Dreiser just kind of looks at his friend for a beat and mumbles something. Whatever it is that Dreiser said, it sounds like “Hunh.” He pushes his pencil into the electric sharpener, inspects the newly-sharpened point and returns to plotting out Thursday night’s encounters. The party was pursuing the ghost of Nicodamion’s son from the future and giant iron golems with trebuchet arms were the latest obstacles in their path.
Dreiser always said “Hunh.” It was his inscrutable catchall reaction. For a week after seeing Watchmen, he said “Hurm” instead, but it got old really quickly and he didn’t stop until Jennie monologued about Rohrschach’s myriad terrible qualities. Everyone was thankful.
“The thing I hate about the new edition,” Dreiser says, completely ignoring his roommate’s angst in favor of a bracing discourse on the mechanics of pen and paper role-playing games, “is that it’s like the Michael Bay version of the game. Level one and you can make things explode. They should just let the rangers drive Humvees through Cuban shanty towns as a daily power. I mean, where’s the challenge when you’re awesome from the start?”
The New Edition had been out for about a month, and Martin had not just read it, he had absorbed it as if he were in utero and he and the game were ill-fated twins. He’d downloaded scans of the leaked pre-press galleys, bought the hardcovers, and then got a legitimate .PDF download. He said the latter was to account for any errata between the two digital copies. People talk about how piracy is bad for sales, but those people don’t know anybody like Martin Dreiser: like most gamers, Dreiser is a completist, and completists will pay twice for everything they steal.
Sometime after his eightieth readthrough of The New Rules, Martin pronounced to his troupe of gamers that they (the rules) were horrible and wrong and that he (Martin) hated them (the rules and possibly the troupe of gamers as well). He’d been running their weekly game using the new system for about two weeks by then, and all of the characters had been converted over under Martin’s dungeonmastery eye. Dreiser’s first impulse was to restart the game using The Old Edition, but Jennie really liked the new rules. Martin (and Justin, too, but he wasn’t running the game and had few friends among the group, rendering him almost totally unimportant) really liked Jennie – was in love with her, in fact – so he swallowed his pride and kept slogging through the “unbalanced, unplaytested, unbearable mess” that his most beloved role-playing game had become.
A little annoyed at the preemption of his sulk, Ron leapt into the discussion, ready for bloodshed. “I think it evens the playing field for everybody.” Ron was accustomed to letting Dreiser be right most of the time – it went easier on everyone – but Ron’s ire was up and, besides, he really did like the New Edition rules.
Pushing up his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose and theatrically throwing his hands up, Dreiser looked at his newly-defiant roommate, eyes wide with exasperation. “Ron, no offense, but you are exactly the gamer this panders to. You’re Mr. I’ll Solve Every Problem With Evocations And/Or Swords.”
“Hey,” Ron countered, “I’ve played a cleric before. Remember? Barten Dwor?”
Martin sighed the way that some people punched. “Barten Dwor was a Sword Cleric. And Matt still sulks about how Hodo Houndstrider died because you were too busy attacking the mother frostagor to heal him.”
Unmoved from his perch on the couch, Ron smirked and gave his friend the finger.
And then Dreiser was back at work, scrivening out hit points and armor classes.
Robots were fighting on the television, Stan Bush crooning in the background either that you could in if you dared or confirming that you have got both the touch and the power. Bored after six minutes, Ron cast his glance back at Martin. Martin was the same Martin he met when they were ten; it was comforting. No matter what happened, Martin was wrapped up in his lists and tables and his plans, God help him. He really was, Ron thought, the only one of them who played for the math.
Dreiser was inscrutable, but Ron saw something in the diligence of his pencil on the graph paper that signaled…irritation? Matt joked that Dreiser didn’t feel, but Ron knew better than that. Martin simply tried very hard to keep others from noticing.
“Dreiser, making everybody formidable from the get-go isn’t bad. Look at how useful mages are now. You really prefer casting your one spell for the day and then cowering behind some meat shield of a warrior with a two-handed axe? Everybody should have something to do every round.”
Martin rests the pencil in the crease of the pages and looks up, waken from his reverie of treasure tables and dungeon maps. He is not inscrutable in this moment. “That’s not how the world works,” he says, and then meanders into the kitchen. Ron listens for three, four, five minutes and hears nothing.
It is not how the world works, it’s true. Which was one of the reasons Ron role-played – to have a few hours of not being subject to the real world. Martin Dreiser, on the other hand, is never not a stickler for authenticity.
As Ron sits on the edge of the couch, the ‘best friend’ impulse to succor combats the ‘bro’ impulse to avoid feelings. He is still in detente when the refrigerator opens, followed by the clinking glass sound that means beer retrieval. Then Martin drops onto the far end of the couch and smiles, the subject forgotten. “What’s on Deadliest Warrior tonight?”
“Saxon Vs. Mecha-Saxon.”
“You know, I’m not quite sure if you’re joking.”
Ron and Martin spent the rest of the night like that – quips and questionable programming. Ron made fresh popcorn and they talked about comics, about epic fantasy novels, about baseball and, of course, about the game. Martin even made a few snarky comments about Justin, his rival for Jennie’s affections within their clique of gamers. Unfortunately, with the very brief exception of Ron, who held hands with Jennie for two weeks in the eighth grade, she only dated outside her little circle of friends. Meanwhile, Martin has liked her as long as he has been aware of girls. For the two weeks that Jennie and Ron were a couple, he refused to talk to either of them. At the height of the animosity, he wrote “Judas” in pen on Ron’s character sheet on the line where his Class should have gone (a barbarian who went by the name of Varshak Cleaveskull). “Ask her out,” Ron tells him. Ron tells him this every day. Every day, Martin shrugs and mutters something about how it’s a conflict of interest because he’s the game master.