"OK, so, everyone ready?"
The four adolescents are fidgety. I know the body language. It's the "adult is watching" thing.
The setup is less than ideal. We're wedged into a corner of Tyler's living room. It's a small wooden kitchen-size table. It's cramped. There's nowhere for all my stuff.
My question goes unanswered. I lift the cloth off the table. A small set of ruins. A graveyard wall, dripping with old vines and grey dust. Tombstones. Four prone, poorly painted 28mm pewter figures.
I have their attention, at least for a moment. "Cool," gasps Cindy. Cindy's been utterly silent during the last half hour of shaking hands, kicking the moms out, setting stuff up. Now, she's almost giddy.
I try and wipe the smile off my face. Making eye contact with each of them in turn, I begin.
"It's dark. You're cold. Those are the first two things you realize. Your head hurts."
I pause for effect. They kids look at each other, a bit in shock. They're not smiling. They're confused.
"Uh, and ...?" starts Tyler. He's the proto-Rabbit. Bad hair, pale white skin, smart, geeky.
I remain silent.
"Uh, I stand up."
I keep my face as immobile as possible, fighting back a grin. "You can't. You go to push yourself up, and you find that your arms are numb. Your hands are tied behind your back, and your feet are tied together."
"Where are we?" asks Becca.
"You have no idea. It's dark. It's cold. You're wet. Your clothes are sticking to you."
Cindy scans through her character sheet. She's the Cleric, the only spell caster, but she has no idea what she can do. "Um, can I cast light or something?"
I tell her she'll have to make a will saving throw to overcome her fear. "Why?"
"Because suddenly you know where you are. You're in the Necropolis."
I can see her working through the word "Necropolis" in her head. She looks at the minis, the graveyard pieces.
And I know I have her. Somewhere in her eyes, I can tell I've kicked a fear reflex into gear. Not a big one. It's not a full-on Steven King moment.
My niece breaks the silence. "I want to listen. Is that a check?" She's very into the mechanics. She wants to roll dice for everything.
"Yeah Becca, you can roll to listen." 20. First dice roll of the game, and it's a natural 20. Plus she's maxed out her listen skill.
"You hear something from behind you -- above your head as your lying down. It's far away. It sounds like wet leaves and breathing."
Boom. I have her too. I can see it. Not much, and not something she'd ever admit to, but she sits up a little straighter.
Tyler, rules-lawyer in training, snaps into gamer mode and works the problem. "OK, escape artist check. I want to get out of the ropes." He does. He runs around and unties the strangers in the graveyard with him. They make casual introductions. Then the zombies come shuffling into view.
Victory is mine. The promise of three 8-hit-point, slow-moving zombies has them crapping their pants. Cindy looks me right in the eye -- actual eye contact from an adolescent -- and pleads. "What can I do?"
"Taina," I start. I refuse to address players by anything other than their character names during a game. "You are strong with Lothian. Simply brandishing the silver Ankh around your neck can strike fear into evil. And should that fail, you can channel his power into the weapons you carry, the words you speak, or the actions of your fellows."
At this point I know I've crossed a line. Ten minutes ago I was "Becca's weird 40-year-old bald uncle." Now I'm this freaky dude talking like a B-movie narrator. There's substantial risk that the table will burst out in laughter, and I will know the shame that only someone under the age of 18 can levy upon an adult. But I make my "DM's an idiot" saving throw and we slide into awesomeness.
Cindy's otherwise meek eyes fill with a spark of power. She brandishes her imaginary holy symbol and shouts, "Back!" Desperate to reward her efforts, I consider "rolling" for her behind the screen so she can be successful in turning these undead fiends back. But part of this exercise is teaching the kids, Tyler in particular, how to run the game -- not just the storytelling, but the rules too. I explain the process of turning undead. Either my real God or her imaginary one looks down kindly, and she succeeds.
More than Tiana the Cleric, it's Cindy who -- just for a moment -- shines bright in the darkness.
This single moment is why I played role-playing games as a kid, and why my sister, and the moms of these other kids, approached me to walk them through a "real" game of D&D. Tyler and Cindy's mom was clear -- RPG's were important to her growing up. Her unspoken subtext was that as a parent, it was likely impossible to break down the barriers between her and her children that are required to actually be a parent. I know this feeling. I feel it every day.
For this one brief, and likely fleeting moment, Cindy has realized that she doesn't have to live in anyone's shadow. That she can hold aloft her own holy symbol and drive back what demons may come. In this tiny sliver of time, she is more important than her well-meaning, smart, but forever older, older brother. More important than the zombies, and more important than this 40-year-old stranger.
The next three hours are awesome, in the way that only the reliving of youth for an old man can be. Tyler has his moments where his knowledge of the game is vindicated. Becca has her moments where her desperate need to roll dice pays off. James, the shy one who meekly desired to play a dwarf fighter, stands up and gives a barbaric "Yawp!" as he cleaves a dastardly assassin in twain with a single critical hit.
But me? I'll remember Cindy. And you can be damned sure I'll be seeing these kids again.