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It's (Not) Just a Game

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It all began with five little words. “I'm starting a D&D game.”

Colonel Sheppard looked up from his paperwork. His office was in the usual state it took when he was in residence. The laptop that represented an overflowing inbox of paperwork unfulfilled sat closed on his desk, the screen still stubbornly on. He held a tablet in his hands, one that he could tilt toward his chest in case of curious passerby so no one would see the internet chess game he was in the middle of. McKay knew he was supposed to be working on forms and either didn't care or took pity on him by goading him into game after game over the network. He tilted the tablet now and surreptitiously removed his feet from his desk.

As though Colonel Carter hadn't just walking in and seen it all. And said those five little words.

“A what?” Sheppard asked.

“A Dungeons and Dragons game,” she said. “I think. I'm leaving it up to Dr. Rowan to decide what ruleset we use. I was wondering if you'd like to play.”

“Dungeons and Dragons,” Sheppard said. He'd heard of it before but he'd never... “I've never played it.”

“We're starting at level 1 so that's not an obstacle,” Carter said. “Wait, you never played?”

Sheppard shrugged. He'd never had the opportunity. Imagination wasn't exactly encouraged in his family life and in his experience the Air Force seemed to attract people who used to beat up D&D players in high school. It wasn't something he thought about so it wasn't something he missed.

“You're playing,” Carter said. It almost sounded like an order.

“So what is it?” Sheppard asked.

Carter grinned and sat on the edge of his desk. “You play a character in a story,” she explained. “You don't know the story. You don't know what happens next. Only the Game Master, Dr. Rowan in our case, knows the whole story. Dice add an amount of randomness because luck is always a factor.”

“What kind of story?” Sheppard asked.

“Fantasy. Save the world.”

Sheppard was not impressed. He felt like did that most days. Doing the same on his day off just seemed tedious. “Pass,” he said.

“You don't want to save the world from an evil wizard?” Carter tempted.

“Not big on fairies and unicorns,” Sheppard said.

“Suit yourself,” Carter said ominously. She left without a word.

Sheppard was just about to make his next move, McKay had moved Queen to Queen's Rook 4 and Sheppard had to come up with a proper answer, when his office door opened again. Sheppard hid his annoyance and looked up.

“I can take over,” Lorne offered.

Oh. Oh! That was much less annoying. Now Sheppard could properly trounce McKay from his bedroom.

“What did Colonel Carter want?” Lorne asked.

“Hmm?”

“I saw her in the hallway,” Lorne explained. The logical deduction was implied. “What's up?”

“Oh, she asked me to a Dungeons and Dragons game,” Sheppard said.

“You should join,” Lorne said.

Sheppard felt an eyebrow raise. “What?”

“Yeah, you should join,” Lorne said. “If it's anything like the D&D games SG-1 was supposed to have under the mountain it'll be a riot.”

Sheppard's expression changed to something that generally questioned the sanity of the person in front of him.

“What?” Lorne asked.

“You're serious,” Sheppard realized.

“Absolutely. You should. It'll help you unwind.”

“I'm not wound,” Sheppard muttered. He sat up and felt his back twinge in protest. His eye twitched as the irony hit him. “All right, fine, the thing with the Replicators has me a little... tense. How is killing imaginary dragons in a dungeon going to help?”

“Just try it,” Lorne said. “You'll be surprised.”

*****

Sheppard found his team in the mess hall. McKay and Ronon seemed to be in the middle of some sort of competition, or perhaps McKay was just hungry and Ronon found it amusing to try and out-eat him. That did seem to be happening more than it used to. Sheppard sat next to McKay before it devolved into the both of them growling and trying to steal off of each other's trays. It would inevitably end with Ronon winning and taking all spoils while McKay pouted.

Teyla sat nearby, her tray out of reach of the competitors. Sheppard took the hint and slid his own tray out of their reach before they noticed it. He almost succeeded, only losing a jello cup and a forkful of mashed potatoes.

He cleared his throat. It did nothing to distract the eating frenzy. So he sighed and just said it. “So, um, I won't be able to go camping this Sunday,” Sheppard said.

That stopped the eating. Ronon gave him a suspicious look. “What's up?” he asked. A fork then stabbed into Ronon's tray. Ronon's focus returned to his opponent and he growled, teeth bared, at McKay. McKay answered, shoulders back and fork in hand. Ronon struck, his own fork stabbing into the bulk of what might once have been a salsbury steak and dragging the entire plate away. McKay attempted to defend his tray but was unsuccessful. He sat back with a 'hmph' and held what pudding cups he could salvage. McKay's attempt to look dignified was somewhat lessened by his need for a napkin.

“It is impressive watching them eat,” Teyla said with a distinct tone. Sheppard couldn't tell if she was being diplomatic or sarcastic. “Has something happened, John?”

Sheppard had been looking for some excuse to avoid camping on the mainland, it was true. But this time he had a valid reason. “I was asked to join a... well, a game.”

McKay wiped his face with one hand. Then he wiped his hand with his almost completely neglected napkin. “You're not playing Ancient Civ,” he said.

“I'm not playing Ancient Civ,” Sheppard agreed. Nobody should be playing Ancient Civ. There were real cultures in Ancient Civ. It made the cultural victory disturbing and the economic victory worse. The military victory was just a nice name for 'genocide'. “Carter asked me to play D&D.”

“Dee and dee?” Teyla asked.

“It's a storytelling game,” McKay said as he peeled open one of his salvaged pudding cups. He looked around for a spoon but it was with the rest of his tray in Ronon's possession. Sheppard held out his own spoon in offering. McKay took it. “A bunch of you play characters and someone tells the story.”

“We had those,” Ronon said. “The storyteller was the only one who knew the story. The other players, we called them player-characters, had to decide how to react as events unfolded.”

“Huh,” McKay said. He tried to reach for his tray to steal it back. Ronon slid it out of McKay's reach.

“Was it played by nerds in basements?” Sheppard asked.

“Of course not,” Ronon said. “We had storyhouses. The storyteller told the story from a balcony while the player-characters acted the events on a stage. For some of the larger battles the entire audience would be involved.”

McKay groaned. “The Satedans invented LARPing.”

“I take it Earth has something similar?” Teyla asked.

“You could say that,” McKay said.

Sheppard wasn't entirely sure what he was getting into. But he was sure he would be getting out of camping on the mainland that Sunday. That alone was a win.

*****

Sheppard found the game room in its usual spot, the North-East Pier at the false end of a corridor.

Dr. Tomson sat in the back surrounded by tiny bottles of paint and an army of tiny people. Some were painted, some were not, some looked half-painted. She used brushes that did not seem small enough to paint tiny details on these tiny people and Sheppard still had no idea how.

Half a dozen people were clustered around a table while Dr. Parrish dealt. Given the hat he wore and the cards it looked to be some sort of poker variant. A few noticed him and started eating their jellybean winnings, possibly to disguise their betting or maybe to make the sizes of their stacks less intimidating.

Several board games were in use, a couple of tables were covered in army men and...

“Ronon?” Sheppard asked. Yes, Ronon was indeed peering down the side of a table and waving a measuring tape around. On the table before him an army of bird-headed warriors faced off against bipedal crocodiles wielding giant mallets among spindle-shaped dice.

“Hey Sheppard,” Ronon said.

“I thought you and Teyla were going camping,” Sheppard said. He looked around the room. At least she was nowhere to be found. Carter was there, though, sitting at a table with a collection of books and papers and weird dice.

“Decided to watch you guys,” Ronon said. “Colonel Carter said if I was going to be here I needed to be playing a game.”

Sheppard felt his stomach roil with nerves. It was an unfamiliar feeling. “Ronon, I don't know if...”

“I can play this and watch,” Ronon said.

Sheppard sighed. Ronon wasn't going to leave. At least he wasn't going to mock him. Hopefully. He headed over to the table where Carter sat waving him over.

He recognized everyone here. They were all scientists. Dr. Pete Rowan ran the local brewery out of the chemistry labs, Dr. Branton was one of the anthropologists at the base of the East Pier, and Dr. Simpson was an engineer who had delved so deeply into the puddlejumpers' base code it was hard to get her out. Even Carter was a scientist hiding under her rank. “McKay coming?” he asked. It made sense for McKay to be here.

“He said no,” Carter said. “Don't worry, we've got enough people here. What do you want to play?”


Ace stood in a town square, a lone elf surrounded by what felt like a thousand humans. The Swallowtail Festival was usually an excuse for these small coastal towns to hold a street fair and throw open their temple doors. The street fair seemed to be accounted for but the temple was closed. Instead a podium stood before the temple doors.

Although to be fair, those were ornate doors. The rest of this town seemed to be made of wood and stone, where did they get glass like that?

Ace felt out of place here. His greatsword was peace-bonded into its sheath, a compromise with the city guard. He hadn't wanted to leave it in the tavern, too many bad experiences with bar staff helping themselves to his stuff while he was out. His chain shirt jingled merrily against his chest as he walked through the stalls and looked at all the wares he didn't have the money to buy. His ears had the food vendors trying to offer him leafy things and teas while perfectly good meats roasted over hot coals.

The local priest, who still hadn't opened the temple, gestured to a large wagon being wheeled into the square by acolytes. Or maybe they were apprentices. Ace wasn't sure of the terminology.

He didn't pay much attention to the speech the priest gave. He'd heard it before. Desna, the goddess of travel and dreams and Varisian humans, fell to the world and washed ashore 'here'. Every town and hovel and city on the sea claimed Desna washed up there. She was nursed back to health by a blind child. Desna repaid the child by turning them into a butterfly, beautiful and ethereal and constantly being chased by children.

Speaking of, the acolytes pulled the cover off the wagon and a veritable swarm of butterflies rose up in a riotous cyclone of color and wings. The crowd cheered. Ace clapped his hands politely, more interested in those great smells coming from the large dishes being hauled from carts and taverns. And kegs...

This place knew how to throw a party.

The food lasted almost until sunset. The beer less so. Most people were attracted by the spicy curry salmon put out by the lady with the weird hair so Ace was able to get his fill and then some of the lobster stew put out by the guy with a wooden leg. He seemed genuinely willing to talk about how he lost the leg but Ace noticed the story was different each time. Just today the stories said his leg was bitten off by a gigantic fish, lost in a duel with a wizard, and that he cut it off himself while the 'Sandpoint Devil' tried to drag him off by that foot.

Eventually sunset brought everyone back to the still-closed temple. Ace stood in the back with a stick of roasted meat, cold leftovers he was able to con off of the stoic guy who ran the tavern with all the deer heads. At least, he thought it was a con. This meat was pretty good, even cold. Kind of a sharp taste to it though... Wait, this wasn't fresh...

Ace shrugged to himself and kept eating. The peppercorns covered the funky taste of rot really well.

The priest took to the podium and slammed stone against the wood. Ace jumped. Nothing that small should be that loud.

The priest cleared his throat. “Welcome, everyone, to the Swallowtail Festival. Today we forget the Late Unpleasantness and the darkness it brought to Sandpoint, for today we consecrate--”

A piercing scream stopped the priest's words before the speech truly began. Everyone looked around for the source. Then another scream and in the distance, tittering chanting scratching voices. Something small ran through the crowd, then something else, and another as they started singing.

“Goblins chew and goblins bite. Goblins cut and goblins fight. Stab the dog and cut the horse, goblins eat and take by force!”

People began to panic and run while dogs barked and horses screamed. Ace stuffed the stick of meat in his mouth, holding it like he was a dog himself as he reached back to break the string that peace-bonded his weapon. He pulled the greatsword from its sheath.

He was not alone. He spotted a blonde human standing on a cart tossing knives into the melee. She saluted him with a knife before throwing it right at him.

Ace ducked.

He had not noticed the goblin as it climbed the wagon behind him and jumped at him from the high ground, its small sword raised. He did notice it now that it was pinned to the wagon like a grotesque doll.

Ace saluted back and entered into melee with his sword swinging.

Suddenly his sword vibrated with... music? He looked around and saw a human with a buckler strapped to one arm, hands and voice raised above the din. He'd taken the steps of the temple and defended it with voice and rapier.

A goblin raced by him, running for its life from a large dog. The dog was in turn being chased by three more goblins, all with weapons raised. Ace accepted it and chased after the lot. The cart full of fuel for the night's celebratory bonfire burned, casting an eerie light over the scene as the sun sank to the horizon to be swallowed by the sea.

And then something next to him exploded.

Ace stopped in his tracks. He just noticed his snack was missing but that was no longer important. Who was blowing things up? With what?

A glowing ball of anger shot in front of him, impacting a goblin in the chest. An unassuming man with a staff and a glowing hand stood in the middle of a pile and was shouting 'come get some'. Given the lack of attackers it seemed few wanted some.

Then Ace felt the music change. His sword rang with music that wasn't good, it upset the balance of his sword. This upset Ace. The goblin bard sang her creepy song even as Ace realized she held his snack in one hand.

“Chase the baby, catch the pup. Bonk the head to shut it up. Bones be cracked, flesh be stewed, we be goblins! You be food!”

How anyone could sing and eat at the same time Ace had no idea. Nor did he want to find out. He shouted a challenge, raised his sword to try and shake off the upsetting music, and charged.

What followed was not something he was proud of. Others might tell the tale but he never did. He would never admit to having a prolonged swordfight with a goblin, not when he had his greatsword and she wielded a stick of meat. Worse, it was his stick of meat, he conned it from the tavernkeep fair and square! He would have won that swordfight, too, if the blonde woman hadn't taken the opportunity to impale the goblin on a dagger. A dagger! His weapon was three times as tall as his foe and said foe got felled by a dagger.

But at least it was over. Mostly.

The fire was doused, the temple remained locked, the crowed was dispersing to the local taverns for something to calm their nerves, and Ace found himself left in the square with the three others who had successfully defended themselves.

“Charlie,” the blonde woman said, indicating herself. “You can buy me a beer for saving your life.”

Ace scowled. “I had it,” he said. “Ace, by the way. And I totally had it. I was just setting it up for a proper skewer.”

“Right,” Charlie said, her grin getting wider.

“Reggie the Bard!” said the man from the temple steps. He flicked the blood off of his rapier and sheathed it. “Tales, songs, random knowledge, at your service.”

“I like your music,” Ace said.

The fourth one stayed quiet. Charlie looked at him questioningly.

“Thomas,” he said. “I'm a sorcerer.”

“It's hard to beat a Magic Missile to the face,” Charlie said. “Let's hit the tavern. After that I could use a drink.”


Sheppard sat at the table while the other players talked about themselves. Rowan described the scenes using more voices than any one man should possess and more imagination than Sheppard thought possible. He wasn't even looking in the adventure book, it lay closed next to him with post-it notes stuck in any number of pages.

Simpson played the mysterious sorcerer Thomas who was described as far too ordinary to be as mysterious as she was making him out to be. Maybe she hadn't thought of a backstory either.

Branton, on the other hand, had an entire past behind him that involved failed wizard training, piracy, and a stint in a traveling circus. Also, his name was apparently 'Reggie the Bard!' complete with capitalization and punctuation.

Carter, thankfully, seemed more realistic in her backstory. Something about growing up on the streets of Magnimar, some big city to the south. She only ever used daggers because they could be found anywhere and hidden in more places than that. Sheppard wasn't entirely sure that knowledge was fictional. He'd heard stories about the exploits SG-1 got up to.

Sheppard... had not thought of a backstory. Or a character. Or a personality. He had an elf fighter with a greatsword who enjoyed drinking. Suddenly he felt very stereotypical.

“Next Sunday?” he heard Rowan say.

“Next Enforced Sunday,” Carter said. “Whenever that is.”

“I'm game,” Branton said.

“I... might have work,” Simpson said.

“McKay doesn't enforce the Sundays?” Carter asked. “He's supposed to.”

“No, he does,” Simpson said. “But... I just... There's some stuff I need to get done and...”

“We understand,” Rowan said. “Come if you can.”

“I will,” Simpson said before gathering her things and leaving.

“Not bad for your first session.” It took Sheppard a moment to realize Carter was talking to him. The game room had changed while they were playing. Ronon was in a corner pretending to read a book, the book was upside down. The poker table had changed to blackjack and a completely new set of players. Dr. Tomson was painting a different set of tiny people. The armies fighting each other on tables now wore power armor and too many skulls on their belts. Wait, who went through the effort to paint tiny skulls like that?

“Think you'll be back for more?” Carter asked.

Sheppard had to admit, it was fun. Even when he and the goblin bard were rolling badly their failure had been twisted into a comical swordfight against his own kebab. “Sure,” he said. “I'll be back.”