Somewhere in an ordinary living room:
»Right, so, the group has gathered near the secret passage that leads into the old castle in the dark forest«, the game master says. »What are you going to do next?«
The four players are looking at each other.
»If the others are really quiet, can I hear anything?«, asks Lara, who plays the elven warrior.
»Make a listen check.«
»Can I just say that I still think it’s a bad idea to enter this castle?«, Tom interrupts.
»Is that your opinion or your dwarf’s?«, the game master wants to know.
»Only mine, I guess«, Tom admits. »My dwarf actually cannot wait to get his axe dirty and slaughter some evil fiends.«
»We don’t even know what lies behind this moldy old door.« Mark doesn’t appear to be too concerned about it though. His human fighter will deal with whatever the game master throws their way.
»Have you made your listen check yet?«, the game master asks Lara.
»Okay, you hear the dwarf’s breathing right behind you. Also, there is a strange metallic noise, like the rustling of chainmail.«
Lara glares at Tom reproachfully.
»What?«, he cries, »I didn’t do anything. I’m hardly breathing. That noise did not come from me. Maybe you only imagined it, what with inhaling all that herbal stuff you got from the old witch we met yesterday.«
»I didn’t inhale it. It is some sort of tea or so.«
»Or so«, remarked Boris, who had been silently listening to their usual discussions during game play. »Not one of us did actually understand what that old hag told us and yet, we had nothing better to do than drink that stuff for breakfast. Although« he adds as an afterthought, »my halfling quite liked the taste of it.«
»Which is why Lady Clematia Brimstock drank almost all of it by herself before we even got our mugs out«, grumbled Mark. »Greedy halfling lady.«
»And the fact that this hag was just sitting by the side of the path, seemingly waiting for you, did not occur at all strange to any of you«, the game master rejoiced. »And neither did her appearance.«
»I remember thinking: That skin looks mighty green for a hag«, says Boris. »And then I got distracted by all the food she was cooking in that bubbling cauldron.«
»Personally, I think she was rather pleasant«, Tom says. »But I rolled a 1, so …«
»Oh, will you please shut up« moaned Lara, »I can’t hear a thing if you constantly bitch about everything.«
»Mimimi«, the other three made in unison.
»While the party is discussing vital aspects of their group dynamics and lack of common sense you all hear a terrible shrieking sound, coming from somewhere deep inside the castle«, the game master explains. »It is so terrifying that you all need to make a courage check.«
The four players roll their dice. Mark cheers when his die comes up with an automatic success, Lara and Tom nod approvingly and point at their dice. Boris moans painfully.
»My halfling lady is scared but not so much that she wants to run away. She probably hides behind the human or the dwarf.«
»I will protect you«, Tom says with a generous smile.
»So will I«, Mark chimes in.
»That is all very heroic of you, guys, but can we just for a moment focus on it what actually was that made this terrifying sound?«
»Good point, pointy-ear«, says Tom.
Lara groans and looks at the game master as if seeking help.
»Right«, says the game master. »You may all make an intelligence check and add any knowledge skills that might help you here.«
»Knowledge skills«, Mark repeats in a tone that shows his utter amazement that anyone might actually have spent some points on such a useless skill during character creation.
»Whatever«, the game master says. »Make your checks.«
»Fifteen«, Lara says. »My elf might actually have an idea what that could have been.«
»Natural twenty!«, Boris and Tom yell in unison and raise their fists to the sky as if they already won the battle against whatever was probably waiting behind those moldy doors.
»Nineteen«, Mark adds with an air of dignity, as if his human fighter had no need for sheer dumb luck.
»Nice«, says the game master. »You all have heard about a vicious creature that was mentioned in the local folklore. It is called a nightmare and it usually rears its ugly head at a specific time of the year, the autumn equinox, when the world awaits the coming winter.«
»A nightmare?«, Mark asks incredulously.
»That’s a horse«, Tom explains.
»Am I honestly being dwarf-splained now?«
»Are you two discussing this in-game or out-time?«, the game master asks.
Tom and Mark look at each other and grin.
»Oh no«, groans Boris and facepalms. »Don’t give them ideas.«
»This is not getting us anywhere», Lara complains. »I am drawing my elven longsword and kick the door in.«
»Strength check«, the game master says with a delighted glee on her face.
»Oh no! Just a 9.«
The group sighs.
»Too bad. You kick against the door and hurt your foot but not dramatically. The door stays shut but it creaks and rattles a bit, disturbing a crow that had been sitting on the eaves right above you. It makes an angry noise and flies to the nearest tree. If you keep an eye on it you realize that the crow is doing that too. Moldy spores fly off the wood, you may all make a resistance check.«
»Poisoned by mold, that would just be typical for us«, Tom complained.
»Anyone below 10?«, asks the game master.
Mark raises a hand. »Just a 6.«
»Too bad«, says the game master with a mischievous grin. »That is not your run-of-the-mill kind of mold spore. Or perhaps it is under the influence of the equinox as well. Anyway, you feel sort of dizzy, but not in a bad way. Everything is rather colorful, almost hippie-esk, and your warrior has not a single worry in this world.«
Mark grins stupidly and raises two fingers. »Ey, peace, ey.«
»Exactly. Also, all your rolls will suffer from a -5 penalty until I say otherwise.«
»All of them?«
»Do you find the meaning of the word “all” in any way confusing?«
»Perhaps the effect of the mold spores is rubbing off«, Lara suggests.
»I mean, it is Halloween, the veil between the two worlds is rather permeable tonight«, Boris adds. »So it could be that the spores not only hit Ram the Warrior but also Mark the Dice Roller.«
»Ha ha.« Mark pulls a face and dutyfully notes the -5 penalty on his character sheet.
»While you all are distracted as usual, a creaking noise causes your attention. The door, that you were unable to kick in, opens with a jarring sound.”
»I still have my elven longsword ready«, Lara hastens to remind the game master.
»I still hide behind the dwarf«, Boris explains quickly.
»If I can, I ready my axe, otherwise I will just ram them into the wall, whoever will come through this door now«, Tom says and rubs his hands with joyful expectation.
»I couldn’t care less about any of that.« Mark leans back in his chair and grins stupidly.
The game master looks at them and takes a deep breath.
»Roll for initiative.«
Somewhere in an old, spooky castle:
The sun was setting behind the mighty Mountains of Doomage and the orcs of Castle Dreadful gathered in the courtyard in order to receive their orders for the night. Not everyone in their little band was totally agreeable about the fact that they had entered the service of a non-orcish evil entity but strange times had called for strange measures. At least that was what their shaman hat told them. Some had questioned it, others were still pondering over the true meaning of that enlightening speech, most of them couldn’t even bring themselves to listen whenever the – probably slightly demented – shaman raised his voice. There was mention of a lucrative raid, that was all that mattered.
At least to most of them. Some still wanted to understand.
»Explain to me again, why we are here?«, Thrakbog asked Noden the Shaman, who not only was his daughter’s mate but also the sorcerer of their little group. In fact, nobody had been aware that he was also a shaman, until Noden himself had told them so. Not everyone of them had an inkling what a shaman really was so they let him have his fun with it. Whatever “it” was.
»There is a portal in this castle and at a certain time of the year it opens into other worlds where no orc has ever pillaged or looted«, Noden repeated for the umpteenth time.
»Right, right«, Thrakbog said absentmindedly. »But why did we have to sign up with the old hag in order to get through the portal?«
»Because it is hers. She wouldn’t let us use it without making a deal.«
»And what was that deal about, remind me again?« Groisch had joined them finally and looked as if he had never heard of it all before. Which might just as well be true because his mental capacities were rather limited, even by orcish standards.
»We help that hag defend the castle against whatever might come through that portal tonight and we can loot as much as we like in that other world.«
»Couldn’t we just kill the old hag and do whatever we like?«, Groisch suggested.
»My thoughts precisely«, said Thrakbog.
Noden waved a clawed finger in front of them and made that face he usually made when he felt intellectually superior to the rest of them, which was always.
»I really couldn’t advise that« he said and shook his head in addition to the finger. »That is a very old green hag. They are not to be trifled with.«
»I don’t want to trifle her, I want to kill her«, Groisch insisted.
»Right, well, please, feel free to try«, Noden said and grinned wickedly. Who was he to tell the other orcs how to meet their end? And a rather painful one at that. He had heard lots of truly gruesome stories about green hags and had no reason to assume that they were in any way exaggerated. Well, not more than any stories usually are, as orcs were rather boastful creatures and so were their bedtime stories.
Not that they had beds. But you get the point.
»I think it is best that we do what we agreed to and be done with it«, Thrakbog said with an air of authority. Being the oldest in the group, he demanded to be listened to, even if his ideas had never been the cleverest from the beginning. Only Noden had the intelligence to be aware of that though. And as Thrakbog was the father of Noden’s beloved she-orc, he usually kept is gob shut when the old orc said anything stupid. Or when the old orc said anything. Period.
»You are getting soft in your old age«, Groisch said, »what with all your agreeing and sticking to it.«
»Wisdom comes with age.«
»As does rheumatism«, a hoarse voice said behind them, They turned around and saw the old green hag standing in the doorway that led into the yard.
»Get into position, it is almost time.« She pointed towards a long and narrow tunnel leading into the depth of the inner castle.
»Oh, this is gonna be fun«, Groisch rejoiced and rubbed his massive clawed hands expectantly.
»Define fun«, Noden said but waved him off with a quick gesture.
Groisch and Thrakbog immediately flinched, as if they expected something else to happen. Noden grinned. They were terrified of his magic. Good. It had not taken long and not too many fireballs gone seemingly astray to make them fear his abilities.
»Are we going to charge right through that portal?«, Groisch asked hopefully. It had been far too long since they had a proper fight. There was a lot of tedious planning going on these days and all of it went way over his head.
»You can if you like«, Noden said and looked at his comrade with huge innocent eyes. Well, as far as any orc manages to look innocent.
Thrakbog eyed his son-in-law suspiciously.
»I would normally approve of that plan because that is the orcish way of doing it«, he said. »But given your evil grin – which by the way makes me rather proud of you – I am assuming that it might actually be a trap und you’d love to see Groisch being beaten up properly by whatever is on the other side of that portal. You still have not forgiven any of us for abandoning you under fire. Am I right?«
»You just know me too well, Papa«, Noden said and sighed dramatically.
»Now you just sound frightfully like the teacup-fighting soldiers in one of those dreadful books. Could you please not do that?«
»You said please.« Groisch made a face of utter disgust.
»I can only apologize«, Thrakbog said.
»Urrgghh.« Groisch pretended to vomit.
They all started laughing almost hysterically. It felt good to be a proper orc again.
»Guys«, the old hag said, »would it be too much to ask if you focused at least for a couple of minutes on the task ahead?«
»Actually«, Noden began, but a whinnying noise cut him short.
»Ah, the nightmare arrived«, the old hag said and gave a satisfied cackle. »And about time too. These stupid idiots were getting on my poor nerves.«
»That sounds familiar«, Thrakbog said.
»The neighing nightmare?«, Noden asked.
»No, that thing about her poor nerves. I’ve heard that before. Say, old hag, have you, by any chance. ever met a certain Mrs Bennet?«
The hag and the other two orcs looked at him rather incredulously. But before anyone could ask any more stupid questions, the green hag clapped her hands.
»Come on, guys, get ready. The hour is upon us.«
»Who?«, Groisch asked. »And where exactly?« He pulled his rusty old sword and looked around.
»Never mind», the hag said. »Come this way, I show you the portal.«
They followed the old green hag through a dark and narrow passage until they reached a moldy old wooden door.
The hag raised a finger to her lips to silence them, and the long dirty fingernail, with remnants of blood on it, made them shut their gobs for once without any discussion.
They listened and heard several voices complaining about trifle matters on the other side of the door. A loud bang, followed by a crow’s cooing, made the old door shake, but it held firm. More discussions followed.
»Who are those idiots?« Groisch asked in a whisper. It was a strange feeling that for once he shouldn’t be the stupidest guy in the plot.
»Gamers«, the old hag answered softly. »From beyond the veil.«
»You mean the other world?«
»Exactly. The portal opens. Get ready.«
As she opens the door with a creaking noise, they all hear a voice say:
»Roll for initiative.«
Somewhere in between:
»Roll for Initiative«, the voice echoed. Oll or nitiative … tiative … ive.
Two groups were facing each other, weapons more or less at the ready. On the left: a dwarf, an elf, a human and a halfling, on the right: three orcs and a green hag. Somewhere behind her the gleaming eyes of the nightmare appeared in the long and dark corridor that lead to the moldy old door.
»What the …«, began the elf, when a loud rumbling noise was heard from above. Eight massive rocks, rather shaped like edgy boulders, fell from the nightly sky and landed right behind the group of adventurers. Numbers were carved into the stone.
»What the …«, repeated the elven warrior and sounded remarkably female and Lara-like. The other members of her group exchanged nervous glances.
»Boris, is that you?«, the dwarf asked and eyed the halfling that used to be Lady Clematia Brim.
She looked down at herself, then up again. Fear visible on the small creature’s face. »It certainly feels like me«, he said.
»The halfling and Thrakbog win the initiative«, said an echoing voice that did not seem to come from anywhere and yet filled all their heads.
»Great», Boris said. »Does that mean we can leave?«
»No«, the voice answered. That only means you can attack first or run.«
»I’ll do that then.«
»Wait«, Thrakbog yelled. »I don’t understand.«
»Nothing new there«, muttered Noden beside him.
The adventurers exchanged another irritated look, then the halfling rushed behind the dwarf.
»Next«, the voice in their head demanded.
»What next?«, Groisch asked. »This is stupid. I’m gonna attack now.« He tried to rush forward, sword raised above his head, only to find that he was incapable of making a single step forward.
»It’s not your turn yet«, the voice said.
»Who is that?«, Thrakbog asked and gave the hag an accusing glance, as it had to be all her fault, naturally.
»I am your game master«, said the voice. »And it is your turn to do something, Thrakbog.«
»Right, of course. I’m gonna …, I’m gonna …«
»Just attack those idiots already, will you?«, Noden complained.
»Right, that’s exactly what I was about to do, before you started yelling at me. Show a little respect, I am your father-in-law after all.«
Noden sighed. »And don’t I know it.«
The hag smacked Thrakbog on the head.
»Hey«, complained Lara the Elf. »It was not her turn yet.«
»I consider it a free action«, the hag said and cackled. »Now go, Thrakbog, and kill them.«
»Right, I was just about to do that.« He raised his hammer and charged forward. As he brought his hammer down onto the gender-shifting elf, the mighty blow should have struck her/him down by any means and the poor creature started screaming, as if their live was coming to an end already, but nothing really happened. The hammer overered a teensy bit above her elven face.
»Make your attack roll«, the voice said.
»What do you mean?«, asked the orc. » You do not expect me to roll around the floor here, right? I just attacked pointy-ear with my hammer. The elven bitch just refuses to fall.«
»Ey! Mind your language, you misogynistic asshole.«
»Ah, the good old days, when an orc could just insult anyone to his heart’s content«, mused Thrakbog.
»You still need to make your attack roll«, the voice reminded him.
»Whatever. How do I do that?«
»You just need to think about it«, the voice explained. »There is an app doing it for you.«
»I always knew that one day the apes would take over the world«, Groisch murmured.
Everyone stared at the stupid orc for a moment, utterly speechless, even the nightmare.
Then a giant boulder fell from the night sky and almost smashed the little halfling into the ground.
»Hey!«, he complained.
»Sorry«, the voice said. »It’s getting a bit crowded. The two maps don’t match properly. Anyway, Thrakbog’s attack roll was a success. Deal some damage.«
»We could have been at that point ages ago«, the orc complained. »Do I have to think of the damage or can I just smack that bitch with my hammer?«
»You are learning fast, Thrakbog«, the voice said.
»Shshshshsh!«, the orc hushed alarmed. »Don’t let my fellow orcs hear that.«
»We’re right here, Thrakbog«, Noden said amused. He would have a field day reminding his father-in-law of his unorcish behaviour as soon as they were back with the tribe.
»Watch out!«, Tom yelled. »Giant die incoming!«
A strangely shaped rock dropped onto the ground right next to Lara the Elf.
»Bam!«, Thrakbog screamed with delight.
»Indeed«, the voice said. »That makes 12 points of damage, Lara.«
»Shit, I was low on hit points anyway.«
»Perhaps we should have some of that herbal stuff the old hag gave us«, Mark suggested, drooling a bit. His eyes were glazed over and he was grinning stupidly.
»What is the matter with him?«, Noden asked.
»Magic spores», the witch behind him answered.
»Hey, hang on«, Boris the Halfling said. »You!« He pointed accusingly at the witch. »You were the old hag that gave us the herbal tea yesterday!«
The green hag cackled again.
»Really?«, the voice demanded to know.
The hag lowered her eyes and shrugged. »I … I was just curious what you had in store for me this year. I just love Halloween and couldn’t wait to see it.«
»Tsk tsk tsk«, made the voice of the game master. »You really should know better than to get a sneak peak in advance. I’m afraid you need to be punished for this, my little green hag.«
»Oh, must I?«, the old hag grumbled but didn’t dare to raise her head.
»You must indeed.«
»Yes! Punish that old coot«, demanded Lara.
«Relax, everybody«, Mark said. »I think she deserves a second chance. I mean, this herbal stuff wasn’t all that bad, was it?«
»No, I have to admit, that was rather tasty«, Boris the Halfling admitted.
»Um, guys, can we just for a second focus on the fight that’s been supposed to happen right now?«, Thrakbog asked with the utmost politeness he was capable of, but nobody paid any attention, as usual.
»I will not do it again, game master«, the old hag whined.
»Of course you won’t. Because I am going to teach you a lesson. Being nosey might be your downfall one day. And you need to be taught that lesson.«
»What a nit-picker«, Noden grumbled.
»Would you like to join the hag, Noden?«, the game master asked.
»Not necessarily. Unless it contains some proper fighting. This is getting rather silly right now. Can we get on with the rock throwing and all that, so we can proceed to the part where we loot and pillage like there is no tomorrow?«
»Actually, there is no tomorrow«, said the voice of the game master with some mirth. »This is supposed to happen all within an hour or so. And you wasted it all with pointless discussions.«
»We?«, they all asked in unison. »You were the one throwing rocks at us and blathering about stupid lessons and all that.«
»Right. And your time will be up in a few minutes. So, old hag, step forward and accept your punishment.«
»This is not fair«, complained the witch.
»Indeed it is not. It is called game master despotism, and I’m loving it.«
Still grumbling and mumbling to herself the old hag stepped forward. The nightmare had given up by now and started munching on Noden’s spell book that was sticking out of his bag.
»Alright then«, said the hag, »what are you going to to with me?«
»Actually, I will make you young again. Not exactly pretty, but young. And you will learn a lot about magic. That doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?«
The old hag shrugged, clearly suspicious that there was a rub in it somewhere.
»You will learn about magic and about the dangers of sticking your nose into all sorts of stuff that is none of your business. In fact, I will send you back to school. True, a weird one, but a school nonetheless. Step forward, Hermione Granger, and learn your lesson well.”