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Story Time: It’s A Party

For context on this story, be sure to listen to our bonus episode Session Zero! Otherwise it might not make much sense.

Remember, $20/month patrons get to suggest prompts for Story Time! Join up or upgrade today!

*

“So, what exactly is a Session Zero?” Michael asked, easing into his seat as deliberately as he did everything, with practiced precision.

“It’s like a setup session,” Teresa explained, placing her books carefully in front of her, less because she wanted them to be neat and more because she wanted something to do with her hands. Fun. This was going to be fun. “We’ll talk about our characters, and our expectations and hopes for the games.”

“Why?” River asked. Her hands were folded in front of her, listening almost too intently.

“For safety and communication purposes.” Em lined faer dice up in between faer fingers to watch them catch the light. “The last thing a DM wants is to throw a monster at someone that will trigger them, or put them in a character situation that’s uncomfortable.”

“Exactly,” Teresa agreed. Session zero had been Em’s suggestion, when Teresa had confided in faer that she was nervous—fae had DM’d several games, fae was practically an expert.

“That is a great idea.” Alex lounged in his chair like a slovenly emperor, one leg thrown over the arm, which couldn’t be comfortable but definitely drew the attention of the room. “Cal, you remember that group we tried to play with in college?”

“Oh my god,” Cal groaned. “They were the absolute worst.”

“No respect for the narrative,” Alex explained. “Just try to have a character moment. They’d ruin it.”

“Murder hobos,” Cal went on, flipping their graph-paper notebook to a new page. “Misgendered me and my character constantly.”

“And their jokes were awful,” Alex went on. “Really, that game was just an excuse for them to speak into existence every sexist or homophobic thought they’d ever had.”

“Why did you keep playing with them, then?” River asked, mystified.

“We didn’t for very long,” Cal explained. “But we stuck with it longer than we should, ‘cause who else were we going to play with?”

“The group fell apart without us,” Alex said, a little smugly.

“I’d like to prevent that, if I can,” Teresa said firmly. “I don’t know how long this story will go, but I do want to make sure we’re all still friends on the other side of it.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Alex said, lifting an imaginary glass.

“Should we talk about hard no’s?” Em suggested, removing faer dice from between faer fingers and building them into a little stack.

“Yes, um, to start with—in this world we’re going with no homophobia or transphobia whatsoever.” Teresa flipped to the list she’d written on a scrap of paper in the Monster Manual. “I just don’t see the point of that, and I don’t think it’s interesting to play in that space anyway.”

“Good!” Cal said, crossing their arms. “This is supposed to be a break from reality.”

“What about fantasy racism?” River asked. “Do the dwarves hate the elves in this world?”

“No, I feel like it’d be more complicated than that if this was real, right?” Teresa said, leaning back in her chair. “Even places that have been at war for years—not every individual member of one nation hates every individual member of another, right? I’m trying to build some nuance into the geopolitics.”

Em looked up. “You’re building geopolitics?”

Teresa was suddenly embarrassed. “I’m trying to. I like lore. I’m having fun.”

“Good, the point of this is for you to have fun too,” Em reassured her.

“What about stereotypes?” Michael said with that intensity he had, the kind that Teresa knew meant he’d been thinking very hard about something. “Maybe there’s no outright hostility, but people will often think two-dimensionally about others, regardless of what dimension it is they’re actually seeing.”

“Planning on playing a jerk, Michael?” Alex said casually.

Michael blushed, just a little.

“I think that’s acceptable, as long as you’re not bothering other players,” Teresa said. “Can we agree on that?”

The players nodded or made some small noise of agreement, except for Em, who held up one finger. “If it doesn’t mess up your lore, can I put a moratorium on institutionalized slavery?”

“The official stuff on the drow is pretty gross,” Cal agreed.

Teresa nodded, trying to think through the plot she’d already built. “We can do that. Oh um…how do you feel about individual bad guys treating people like slaves, though?”

“As long as it’s not state-sanctioned and we get to blow them into the astral plane,” Em said.

“Done,” Teresa agreed.

“I don’t do zombies either,” Em added. “They give me nightmares.”

“We can definitely work around that,” Teresa said. “Who else?”

“Um, can I…” River began, and then hesitated.

“Go on, River,” Alex encouraged.

She swallowed and nodded. “Um, I just…it’s not a hard no, so much, but…is this going to have a happy ending? Like, I don’t mind tragedy, I just want to know what I’m getting into going in.”

“Oh, I don’t want you guys to die!” Teresa assured her. “Like, seriously, whatever happens—I want you to win.”

“You can’t win D&D,” Cal laughed.

“Sure you can!” Alex declared, swinging an imaginary sword. “Kill the monsters, hit level 20, win the heart of fair maiden.”

“Those are encounters.” Cal nudged Alex with their elbow.

“Don’t be pedantic.” Alex nudged them back.

“That makes me feel better, thanks Teresa.” River folded her hands up again. “I did just remember, I do have one hard no? Can I request that no one flirt with my characters?”

“Easy enough,” Teresa said, making a note.

“Aw, but River, what if it’s funny?” Alex said.

River considered this for just a little bit longer than was comfortable in perfect silence, before giving a sharp nod. “Okay. Do not flirt with my character unless it’s very funny.”

“Deal,” Alex said.

“Okay, anyone else?” Teresa asked, and when no one responded, said, “Then I think it’s time we talk about our characters.”

“I don’t really have an idea for mine yet,” Alex said, throwing an arm around Cal. “Except that Cal’s and mine are going to be best friends. Non-negotiable.”

Teresa smiled. “Okay, Cal, do you know who you’re playing yet?”

“Something fighty,” Cal shrugged. “I’ll flip through the book and see.”

“I think I’m going cleric, but I have questions about how the gods work first,” River said.

“Okay, we’ll get to that in a sec…Em?”

Em unzipped faer backpack, pulled out a folder, opened it to a page, and place the page in front of Teresa on the table. “Here.”

“You already got yours done?” Michael said, with a note of worry in his voice.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I got to be a player instead of a DM?” Em retorted.

Teresa looked over the page. It was a human wizard, and she would have to check against the book, but it looked like standard stats with racial bonuses already applied. She flipped to the back—Em even had a spell list all set up.

“All right, Meltyre, welcome to the party,” Teresa said, handing it back to Em. “Would you be okay with helping everyone else set up their characters with me?”

“Sure,” Em said. “Did you see the spells I picked?”

“I saw that you picked them, why?”

“They’re good,” Em said, jabbing a finger into the sheet.

“What are you playing, a wizard?” River said.

“Nerd,” commented Alex.

“Wizards get the most spell variety and spell slots, and my boy is perfect and I love him,” Em shot back. “I bet your character eats my character’s dust.”

“Oh, we’ll see about that,” Alex said, snatching up a Player’s Handbook that was most likely Cal’s. “Let’s figure this out right here, right now.”

“What about you, Michael?” Cal asked.

Michael took a long slow breath. “I…I think I have an idea. I read through the handbook, but…I’m not sure if what I’m doing is…allowed?”

“We can work something out,” Teresa said, hoping she sounded reassuring.

“Maybe. Alex was kind of right, is all.” Michael looked down, picking at the table. “I am thinking of playing a jerk.”

“That’s okay, if it’s interesting,” Em said.

“Michael the person is not a jerk, and we’re all smart enough to know the difference,” Cal said.

“I don’t really have any experience playing at all, though,” Michael went on. “Won’t I slow you down?”

“The more people who play D&D, the less often I have to be a perma-DM,” Em added.

“Are you sure?” Michael said, finally looking up. He looked pained.

Teresa saw now—it was imposter syndrome, or something like it—Michael didn’t believe that they all wanted him to play.

“Dude, if we didn’t want you to be part of this game, I wouldn’t have dragged your ass here,” Alex said, nonchalance hiding the kindness.

“When Teresa was trying to come up with a fifth player, we literally were like, Michael would be perfect,” Em added.

“I want to know about this character who’s a jerk,” River said. “Sounds interesting.”

“We’re sure,” Teresa said firmly. “I mean it.”

Michael still looked as though he wasn’t quite convinced, but he pulled out his phone. “I um…I typed up what I was thinking. Can I send it to you?”

“Please!” Teresa said, relieved.

“Wait, did you say you read the entire Player’s Handbook?” Alex said.

Michael looked up from his phone. “Didn’t you?”

“No?!”

Teresa suppressed a laugh. “Let’s roll some stats.”

Story Time: Schoolkids

For this month, I am feeling in a very back-to-school mood (even though I am so grateful I’m not in school anymore). Let’s visit a pair of twins who also didn’t have a great time in school…

*

Zara kicked a rock in the road and watched it as it rolled off into the weeds, rather unsatisfyingly. She hated school.

You know, it wasn’t even school that she hated, really. It was the people there. If her teacher had left her alone to read a book, it would have been fine. But no. There had to be—

“Look, it’s the demon!”

—other students.

The girl who had called out was down the road quite a ways. Zara opted to ignore her for now. “Demon” wasn’t even close to the worst thing she’d been called, and it was frightfully unoriginal.

“Zara!”

Now that was something to pay attention to—Larkin’s voice, behind her on the road. He’d forgotten his lunch pail.

“Zara, wait up!”

She slowed her pace imperceptibly, but did not stop. He’d catch up soon enough.

And catch up he did, his pail banging against his knees. “Hey.”

“Hi,” Zara said flatly.

“What did Coreen say?” Larkin asked.

“Called me a demon.”

“Called us demons,” Larkin hummed. “I thought she might want to know about the arithmetic. She asked me about it yesterday.”

“Why do you help her?” Zara asked scornfully. “She hates us.”

Larkin shrugged. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Goody two-shoes,” Zara scoffed. “You just want her to like you.”

“Uh, yeah?” Larkin shot her a look that suggested she might be an alien. “Why don’t you?”

“Because she called me a demon, dummy,” Zara said, throwing an elbow into his side, hoping the pain would drive home the point.

Larkin wheeled out of the way neatly. “Us. I’m same as you.”

He was so frustratingly dense sometimes. It wasn’t worth seething over, but the seething bubbled up all the same.

“Coreen isn’t so bad,” Larkin said. “She’s not the worst, anyway.”

“Hm, good point,” Zara grumbled. “It’s great that she only calls us names instead of beating us up.”

“Exactly,” Larkin said with a sincerity that made her furious.

“You’re such a suck-up,” she said. “Why do you let people treat you like that?”

“What am I supposed to do? Just be angry all the time?”

“At least once in a while!” She threw up her hands. “You’re so pathetic.”

“You’re right!” called a voice from a tree beside the road.

Oh great.

Gavin fell from the tree with a heavy thud. Coreen was annoying; Gavin was the size of both of them and was proud of the tooth he’d lost in a fist-fight. He sidled up in front of the twins with a nasty gap-toothed grin.

“He’s pathetic,” Gavin said casually, “and you’re evil. And that’s why you should both give me your lunches.”

“Because somehow you’re neither pathetic nor evil?” Zara spat.

Larkin grabbed her arm, his little claws pricking at her skin like fear. “Don’t do that, don’t make him mad!”

“Yeah, don’t make me mad,” Gavin said, mocking Larkin’s tone, and then dropping it to say, “you disgusting little demons. Hand ‘em over.”

Larkin’s arm started to raise his lunch pail to the bigger boy, but Zara interrupted him. “No!”

“No?” Gavin demanded.

Zara,” Larkin hissed.

“I said, no. Leave us alone.” Demons were supposed to be scary, right? She snarled, showing off the sharp teeth that the other kids made fun of, flexing her unburdened hand so her claws stood out.

“Give them to me now, twerps.” Gavin extended his meaty hands to Zara, to grab her and throw her around or worse—

And she raised a hand right back, and for a moment, all her rage was gone, exiting through her hand in a brilliant flash of fire.

And Gavin was thrown to his back, leaving nothing but the smell of smoke as evidence of how he got there.

For a moment, everything was a quiet tableau. Larkin finally whispered, “Did you kill him?”

Gavin coughed a little and then groaned.

“Oh my gods!” Larkin said, fully aloud now. “Oh my gods, what did you do?”

She wasn’t sure. It had felt…right, though. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does too matter!” Larkin said, whacking her shoulder. “You can’t do stuff like that!”

Zara ignored the whack and stepped forward to look down at Gavin’s face. For the first time in all the time she’d known him, he looked back at her in fear. She sniffed. “You won’t bother us again.”

“Freak,” Gavin said hoarsely. “I think you broke my ribs.”

“I thought you liked fighting,” Zara said acidically, and kept walking. “C’mon Larkin.”

Larkin trotted to keep up with her. “This is crazy. We can’t do magic.”

“I can, I guess.” Which was a fascinating new development.

“But it’s not like you studied for it or a god gave it to you,” Larkin said, getting all worked up about it. “That’s…that’s sorcery, Zara! That’s dangerous!”

“Maybe I don’t mind being dangerous for once,” Zara muttered, examining her palm.

“I do!” Larkin yelled. “And I’m the same as you!”

Zara stopped walking to look at her twin. He was really upset about this.

“I don’t even know how I did it,” Zara explained, trying to placate him. “It’s not like I’m trying to be dangerous. It just happened.”

“That’s worse,” Larkin pointed out. “Cuz that means it could happen again.”

“I want to keep us safe, that’s all.” Zara kicked at his foot. “You’re not mad at me for that, are you?”

Larkin sighed. “No. I just don’t want us to get in trouble.”

“We won’t! I don’t even know if I can do it again.”

“Just don’t get so mad again.” Larkin started walking again. “Keep it under control.”

That was a stupid thing to ask. Surely he knew that?

Then again, he was frustratingly dense.

Zara skipped a few steps to walk beside him again. “I’ll try.” For him, she would try.

Story Time: Home

Hello everyone! A shorter story for you all today about baby Tessa. Enjoy!

*

There were a lot of things to be said about the Harvest Festival, Tessa thought. It was one of two parties that the orphans got in a year, for one. There was food in abundance, and it was the good kind of food too, not their usual thin vegetable porridges and bread that was somehow stale even when it was fresh. People got adopted during the Harvest Festival—not many, but a few. They got new clothes during the Harvest Festival. People seemed to give half a damn about them, which was a nice change.

The best part about the Harvest Festival, though, was getting out of Split River.

Split River was a drab, awful little mining town. They mined for silver, and though the veins of silver were drying up, people still went into the caves to work every day. Tessa had heard adults joke that Split River’s main export these days was orphans.

Gods, how dearly she’d like to be exported.

But now it was time for the Harvest Festival, and like every year she had memory of, she was loaded up into a wagon with all the other orphans and taken out of the horrible gray streets of Split River, to the village of Larkdale.

Maybe it was because it was smaller and not so dirty. Maybe it was because the castle Whitetower was up on the hill, watching over the town, that made them keep things shipshape. Maybe it was just that it wasn’t Split River? But Tessa wished she lived in Larkdale instead.

“Hey, look.” Thin little Reevis, who was probably Tessa’s best friend if she believed in things like getting attached to people who could vanish out of her life at any moment, pointed a thin little finger out over the side of the cart.

Tessa had to twist around in her seat to see where he was pointing: a building. A moldering old inn, looked like. There were roof tiles hanging off, and windows broken. The sign, which hung from a single chain, said, “The Giggling Crane.”

“What about it?” Tessa asked.

“That wasn’t there last year,” Reevis said authoritatively.

“Look at it,” Tessa scoffed. “It’s clearly been there forever.”

“No it wasn’t,” Reevis returned, squirming in his seat. “I remember cuz last year it was a field. It had a big lumpy rock in it that looked like a walrus.”

Tessa opened her mouth to argue, but she remembered Walrus Rock too. Instead, she took a second look.

The orphanage was a squat, horrible little building made of stone. Cold in the winter, cold in the summer—just cold, generally. This building, this Giggling Crane, looked like it had been designed to fit in between buildings, though, and reached up and around rather than sitting like a frog in a mud puddle. It was shaped…friendly.

“I heard Lord Samuel might come and play with us,” Reevis said, evidently no longer impressed by ruined buildings appearing out of nowhere. “He’s our age, you know.”

Tessa rolled her eyes. “I know. I’ve seen him more times than you.”

“Do you think he’ll play with us?” Reevis said. Gods, she could see the stars in his eyes.

“Why would he play with us?”

“Because he’s our age,” Reevis repeated, as if that explained anything.

“He’s a little princeling noble boy,” Tessa griped. “He doesn’t want to play with a bunch of orphans. He’s our better.”

“What makes him better?” Reevis said, scowling.

Tessa felt like spitting, but the matron was looking this direction and would give her a lecture and probably a cuff for good measure. Instead she just said, “Born lucky.”

Reevis kicked his toe into the floor of the cart. “Now I don’t want to go. You ruined it.”

This didn’t bother Tessa very much. She’d been ruined for these kinds of festivities for the last few years. It was hard, seeing all the wealth and privilege little Lord Samuel had, and knowing that for one day’s taste of it, she was supposed to be grateful.

Then again, Reevis looked so crestfallen.

“Cheer up,” Tessa said, nudging him a little. “If he played with us, we’d have to do whatever he wanted to do anyway. We’re about to eat the best meal of our lives.”

“I guess so,” Reevis said, but he looked a little less dispirited. “I wish I was born lucky. I could live in a castle.”

“I don’t think I’d want to live in a castle,” Tessa said thoughtfully. “It’s so big. It’d take so long to clean.”

“Where do you want to live, then?” Reevis asked.

“Here, maybe,” Tessa said thoughtfully, and then threw a hand out at the Giggling Crane, which was getting smaller and smaller in the distance. “There. I want to live there.”

“It’s so old, and abandoned, though,” Reevis said, squinting at the disappearing structure.

“I could fix it up,” Tessa declared. “It could be home.”

“Home,” Reevis repeated. “Sounds nice.”

“Yeah.” Tessa watched the inn until the cart turned a corner, and it was gone.