Chapter 1:

A Game Begins


September 13, 2022 AD. Sunview University, California, USA, Earth.

Cam tossed his phone onto his dorm’s bed with a groan, flopping down onto the bed under the Dungeons & Magic limited-edition poster pinned to the wall. His roommate Jordan, sitting on the floor doing homework, looked up at him. “Bad news?” Jordan asked.

“Cindi dumped me!” Cam said. “Over text, no less!”

Jordan whistled. “Wow. Talk about the worst birthday present ever.”

“I know,” Cam whined in return. “Surely she could have a little more respect for a guy.”

Jordan wrote something in a notebook, not even bothering to answer. On the outside, he and Cam could not more different for two college students of the same age. Jordan was tall and muscular, always wearing button-down shirts and keeping his black hair closely trimmed. Cam was short and rather fat, owned nothing but T-shirts, and let his hair grow out.

As Cam moped, Jordan finished his homework. He stuffed the book into his backpack, then got up and cheerfully clapped Cam on the shoulder. “Relax,” he said. “It’s still your birthday. I want to take you out for dinner. Anyone you want to invite?”

“Ha, ha,” Cam replied. “Gee, let me call up my long list of friends.” He pantomimed holding a piece of paper. “Oh, that’s right. The list is blank.”

“You got it, dude. Two bros, celebrating. I guess with the breakup, it would be distasteful to invite my girlfriend along?” That was another difference between the two. Jordan had found a woman he hoped to marry, while Cam could never keep a girlfriend for more than a month, though not for lack of trying.

Cindi had been something of a record for Cam. She had stayed with him for whole four weeks, although their last date had been catastrophic. So what if I let her pick up the bill? he reminisced. I was broke at the time. Although in hindsight, he probably should not have ordered the filet mignon that evening. And really, calling her a “cheapskate bimbo” when she didn’t want to pay it had not helped anything. Still, she had totally overreacted.

At dinnertime that day, Jordan treated Cam to fancy pizza place. The two split a large Pepperoni. After several minutes of munching, Cam opened the conversation. “I’ve been thinking. I haven’t really looked into the possibility of online dating yet,” he said. “I know girls on those sites only go for good-looking guys, but I figure I’m good enough at Photoshop to fix myself up.”

Jordan swallowed. “Are you sure this isn’t too soon?” he asked. “I mean, you literally got dumped today. Why not give being single some time?”

Cam paid no mind to the advice. “So I did some research on the best dating site. I found this one called Heartmaker. I already signed up, see?” He showed Jordan the screen with his profile. “But I need some advice on how to optimize the profile. What do you think?”

Eyes rolling, Jordan took the phone. He spent a moment scrolling through the mostly-blank profile. It contained Cam’s name, age, and college, but nothing else. Even the image was the default blank face. He handed the phone back.

“What do you think?” Cam repeated.

“It’s sort of…empty. Maybe you could add some details about yourself?”

“Like what?”

“How about a hobby?”

“I don’t think I have any hobbies.”

Jordan snorted. “Dude, you have a Dungeons & Magic poster hanging in your room. You’ve tried to get me into that game how many times? Mention that.”

Dungeons & Magic. The Tabletop Role Playing Game, a genre of gaming where each person plays as a character from a fantasy world. The group goes on an epic cooperative journey together under the care of the Dungeon Master. This Dungeon Master, also known as a DM, is the person responsible for writing the story, controlling side characters, designing combats against monsters, and generally running the game. Cam had played D&M, as it was known, incessantly in high school. The game was often played in large story arcs called “campaigns.”

But now, in his first two years of college, he had never been able to find a group of people willing to play. He just couldn’t get motivated to go to the effort of seeking out people. But there was no denying that Cam loved D&M. However, there was one major problem with mentioning his D&M hobby on the Heartmaker app.

“Do you think I want people to know I’m a nerd?” Cam said. “If I mention on my profile that I play D&M, I might as well be shouting ‘Hello, I am a loser nerd virgin! Do not click on my profile!’”

Jordan shrugged. “Whatever. Do what you want. Don’t blame me if nobody notices a profile with nothing on it, though.”

The dinner ended. Jordan dropped Cam back at their dorm room, claiming he had something to do. Cam spent some time procrastinating on homework, thinking about what his friend had suggested. His D&M poster hung from the wall. It portrayed a warrior clad in armor wielding a glowing sword against a huge dragon, the smoking ruins of a city in the background. The hero was impossibly outmatched, but despite that he seemed confident. Cam had always looked up to that kind of mindset.

“Oh, what the heck,” he muttered. “I’ll do it.” He pulled out his phone and made the changes with a few quick movements. When he set his phone back down, his profile read:

Cam Ziegzies. Age 19. Attending Sunview University. I love playing D&M (Dungeons and Magic). Not an impressive profile, but surely it was better than nothing. As an afterthought, he uploaded a picture of himself. He figured he could edit the picture later if he so desired.

Cam was in World History class the next morning when he received the alert from Heartmaker. He had received a message! Eagerly, he opened it. It was from a girl named Ella.

Hey, I saw you play D&M. That’s so cool! I used to play as a kid. Are you playing a campaign right now? Could I join in?

Cam wasn’t sure if he should be happy or annoyed about this message. This Ella didn’t sound interested in a romantic relationship at all. He browsed through her profile. Apparently, she also went to Sunview University; she was a member of the track team. He decided to wait before replying one way or another.

The second message came later the day, while he was eating lunch. It said Hello. I saw on your profile that you enjoy Dungeons and Magic. I like to play sometimes too. Would you be interested in being in the same playgroup? At first, Cam thought this must be a joke or something from this Ella. He checked. No, it was an entirely different girl, this one named Dinah. Her profile was almost as empty as Cam’s, but it did mention that she also attended Sunview University. It was an odd coincidence, having two separate girls message him about D&M, but he supposed it wasn’t too strange. In fact, if Cam tried hard enough, he could even see the humor in it.

The third message made things less funny. Arriving late in the afternoon, this one came from a girl named Bekah. Hi there. My name is Bekah. Your profile mentioned D&M. I’ve always been interested in the game. I know this is a strange request, but would you want to teach me some time? Blessings. This Bekah also went to Cam’s same college. According to her profile, she majored in Religion. Also, judging by her low-resolution profile picture, she was very short.

“This is ridiculous!” Cam exploded to Jordan that evening. “I got messages from three different chicks today, and all three were just interested in D&M? What are the odds.”

“Wow, three takers in just one day? Not bad, Romeo. Looks like nerdiness is in.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Cam replied. “They definitely just want to leech off an existing D&M game because they can’t get one of their own. Who even looks for a game on a dating app? There are way better ways to find a playgroup. Obviously I’m not interested in dating a girl who is just interested in D&M and not me as a man.”

“You better hope they never get to know you as a man,” Jordan muttered. He looked like he was about to say more, but he was interrupted by Cam’s phone pinging.

Cam picked up the phone. “Finally,” he said. “A message on Heartmaker that isn’t about D&M.” The phone screen displayed a short message from a girl named Annette. It said hey there. hows it goin

“Five bucks says she really messaged you about D&M,” said Jordan.

“Deal. No way it happens four times in a row.” Cam typed out a response to Annette. Not bad. Hows it going for you, babe? After a moment’s thought, he deleted the last word before hitting send.

Her reply came a moment later. Good. The next message took her a bit longer to write. Hey so weird question lol. You play D&M right? My ex bf used to play all the time and it looks super fun. We go to the same school so would you teach me sometime? ;-)

Cam tossed his phone with a growl of frustration. Jordan just laughed and extended his hand. Cam placed a $5 bill in his outstretched palm before lying back in defeat. “This sucks,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” Jordan told him. “This is awesome for you.”


“Look, you’re always moaning and groaning about not getting to play D&M anymore, right? You’ve always said you’d want to run a game as a DM if you could just find the players, right?”

“Yes,” Cam said.

“You had four people reach out to you about playing D&M. What are you waiting for?”

Cam nodded slowly. Isn’t this what he wanted? Sure, it might not mean getting a girlfriend, but he shouldn’t complain about an opportunity like this. “You’re right, Jordan,” he said.

“I always am.”

“Hey, do you want to join the game? It would be nice to have a friendly face in the group, so I’m not just running a game with four strangers.”

“Can’t. I just started a new job with pretty irregular hours. I might drop in sometimes, but don’t count me as regular.”

“Fine.” Already, Cam’s mind was far away. He was planning so many things: the world for the game, the story, the fights… “She’ll be named Sin-Dee” he said.

“What are you talking about, man?”

“The first major villain they will fight. It will be a goblin woman named Sin-Dee,” Cam explained. Jordan shook his head with a weird look on his face.

Cam spent the next several days coordinating with the four girls. He had confirmed individually with all four that he was starting a new campaign of D&M with some other people, and that they could join. When messaging them, he left out the part that the others had also reached him through Heartmaker. That was just embarrassing.

As it turned out, trying to align the schedules of five separate people—the four plus himself—was a near impossible task. Because of classes, they could only play on evenings or weekends. Ella, as part of the track team, was only free a few nights out of the week. Dinah said she often had extra studying to do at night and on the weekends. Bekah attended church twice a week and volunteered her time. Annette had a job. Cam spent a whole night with a planner in front of him, pulling his hair to find a time when everyone was free. Eventually, he settled on a time: they would start next Saturday at three o’clock. They would figure out the time for their next meeting—or “session,” as it was called in D&M lingo—on Saturday.

Cam also asked them to create their characters ahead of time. Those who had played before, Ella and Dinah, could do it on their own, and Cam helped Bekah and Annette create theirs through a series of exchanged messages. Cam, too, had work to do to prepare. He spent several sleepless nights writing the backstory of his version of the D&M world. He also planned out the first battle that the group would face. D&M worked on a scale of 30 levels, with new characters starting at level 1 and working their way up as time progressed. His plan was that the four girls would start at level 1, but would immediately level up at the end of the first session.

Saturday arrived. Cam had decided to play the game on the small table in his dorm. Jordan wouldn’t be in the room at the time, so there would be just enough space. It would be tight, but it was the only place that he could think of. He messaged all of them on Heartmaker to tell them his room number. He was busy with preparations, so he propped open the door so that he didn’t have to constantly get up to let guests in.

The first arrival was a short woman with long brown hair and a large forehead. Despite the heat, she wore leggings and an embroidered sweater. Cam recognized her from the picture as Bekah. She smiled as she saw Cam. The smile made him feel…nice. As she sat down, he forced himself to focus.

Bekah had just exchanged introductions with Cam when a very tall girl with blond hair walked in the door. She introduced herself as Ella. Cam had known she was tall but seeing her in person was almost intimidating. She was at least four inches taller than him with long blond hair and green eyes. She wore a lime green tank top and short shorts that showed off her fit, tanned legs. As soon as she sat down, Bekah began chatting with her; based on the conversation, the two had shared an English class in the past.

The three had to wait several minutes before the next person, Dinah, arrived. She was a short, mousey girl with curly auburn hair and freckles. She wore shapeless jeans and a baggy grey hoodie. She was lugging a backpack that made a terrifyingly loud crunch when she set it on the table. Bekah introduced herself, with Ella following shortly. The new arrival said “I’m Dinah” in a miniscule voice before hastily pulling a worn textbook out of her backpack. Cam read the title upside-down: An Introduction to South American History. She held the book up, sheltering her face.

The fourth girl, Annette, did not arrive for over half an hour. Waiting here with three strangers was awkward, so Cam was about to start without her when the door burst open. The girl walking in made Cam catch his breath. Ella and Bekah were good-looking enough, and Dinah was not ugly, but compared to the fourth one, they were plain. Annette was beautiful; there was no other way for Cam to describe it. She had shoulder-length black hair and deep green eyes that demanded attention. Her artfully ripped jeans highlighted her hips, and her blouse was low enough to show a tiny hint of cleavage, just enough that made it hard for Cam to tear away his gaze. She must have noticed Cam staring, because she gave him a wink before shutting the door and sliding into her seat. “I’m Annette,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.” The other girls introduced themselves in turn.

With everyone present and introductions finished, all four turned expectantly to Cam. Suddenly, he became very aware that he was sitting in his room in front of four attractive girls. Who all were paying close attention to him. He cleared his throat. “Why don’t we—” he croaked in a small voice before clearing his throat again. “Why don’t you all go around and introduce your characters? If you have the character sheets printed out.”

Ella put her hand up. “I’ll go first!” In her eagerness, she actually stood up out of her chair, dominating the table with her height. “My character is Erenata Vallanodauter! She is a half-elf Warrior, trained in the ancient ways of her people to defend the Great Tree, but because she hated her job and her father, she was ousted from her clan and became a wandering mercenary, serving in the army of…” she trailed off as the other four stared at her. She sat down. “That’s me,” she finished with a blush. She nudged Dinah, who was sitting next to her, reading the textbook. “You go next.”

Goaded out of her studies, Dinah made a small exclamation of surprise and fear. “I’m so sorry for not noticing that it was my turn!”

“There’s nothing to apologize about,” Cam said.

“Right! I’m sorry for apologizing!”

“You don’t have to—never mind,” Cam said. “Just tell us about your character.”

“Right. Um, well, the character I made is named Descartes. She’s an Elementalist Wizard. Um, I didn’t make as much backstory as Ella. Sorry.”

Ella laughed. “Don’t worry about it! I wrote way too much about Erenata anyway.”

Cam tried to steer the conversation back on track. “Bekah, how about you?”

The short girl smiled. “I want to play Rachel. She’s an, um,” she looked at Cam for help.

“A cleric,” Cam reminded her. “Someone who specializes in healing and supporting her allies.”

“Yes, that!” Bekah said. “Thank you so very much in helping me prepare for this, Cam.” She smiled so sincerely that Cam found himself blushing.

“I guess that’s my cue,” said Annette next. “My character is named Appraiser. She’s a Thief. So your characters should watch out for your valuables when I’m around.” She laughed.

“Technically, a Thief character doesn’t have to only steal,” Cam noted. “Thieves also make excellent scouts and skill, um,” he trailed off as he saw the four girls looking at him.

Annette laughed. “You are so cute when you’re nerding out!” Cam’s best response was an eloquent “uh.”

He was trying to clear his head when he noticed something that drove out all thoughts about Annette. “Annette, did you not bring a printed-out character sheet like I asked?” A character sheet was a document that held all sorts of important information about the character like their abilities, current condition, and equipment. It was very hard to play a game of D&M without a character sheet unless you were incredibly experienced at the game. Ella, Dinah, and Bekah had all printed out theirs.

Annette looked surprised for a moment. “Oops,” she said. “I guess I forgot mine.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Cam said. “Just bring it next time.” Annette nodded.

“Ok, then let’s get started,” Cam said. He took a deep breath. “In the Kingdom of Farrus, at the capital city known as Aphysbia, you all meet in a run-down tavern…”