The con had wound down. The fans were all gone back to their mundane lives, leaving the five of us in the con suite. Our host, the Gaming Director, passed around what was left of the free sodas. We drank and stared out the window as darkness gathered in the skies above the hotel. The Power Gamer spoke of adventures long past, with the Rules Lawyer interrupting whenever the Power Gamer incorrectly stated a rule. The rest of us listened, extending the camaraderie of the con just a bit longer.
As the Power Gamer wound down Marlow took over the narrative. “Ah, friend, you have put me in mind of ancient games and old times. Of when Third Edition conquered the gaming realms, banishing our cherished characters as mere second-edition cardboard characters. The end of the era when all it took was a handful of dice and a few spare minutes to bring your character to life.”
We all lifted our soda cans in salute to the bygone age as Marlow continued. “To learn this new approach to gaming, many of us ventured forth to small cons, far from the great cities and great hotels of the major cons. I was among those who ventured far from game shops, far from comic book stores, far from civilization itself. I remember not the name of the con, just that my dear aunt was on the con committee and could get me in for free. Friends, a free con does not mean a good con. Let this serve as a warning to you.
“The con was held in a small motel with only three floors. As I waited in line to register, I wondered how anyone could gain the true con experience without the long wait for an elevator or the frustration of missing a cherished event because it was too far from the gaming tables to visit between rounds. They got one part of the experience right. The registration line was painfully slow! Yet after that promising start, events spiraled ever downward.
“Emerging at last from the registration line, I was prepared to rush to the game room to register for all the good adventures. But my dear aunt grabbed me at the last second. Members of the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers had to be guided to the Star Wars room. From there, I was pressed into service dropping a band of elven warriors off at the Lord of the Rings room. From there, I took Spider-Man to the superhero room and then guided some goths to the Vampire LARP. By the time I escaped from con committee supervision and reached the gaming room, all of the first-round games but one were filled. I read the adventure description. ‘A band of adventurers travel up a river into the heart of the Orc lands to rescue Kurtz, a great human warrior, and bring him to the safety of the lawful lands.’ It sounded like a good adventure. I quickly signed up for it, and, as first-round games were about to begin, went in search of the table.
“I should have known there was a problem when I saw the way the gamemaster was dressed. Instead, I just assumed he hadn’t done his laundry recently and that’s why he was stuck wearing khaki pants, an Oxford shirt, and loafers to a con. I was the last player to arrive. Character sheets were passed out as soon as I sat down. Before looking at the character sheet I started setting up for serious gaming: getting out my first-round dice, arranging paper and my pen; the typical approach for any gamer. This met with the disapproval of the gamemaster. ‘You should start reading your character sheet immediately. You have much to learn about your character.’
“I looked at the character sheet and revised that to character sheets. The guy had written six pages of information about the character! All the important stuff was at the beginning, or so I thought. I was a good fighter but could sail a boat due to blah blah blah blah. The gamemaster had used two pages just to explain how my character learned seamanship. Those two pages even included why my character disliked tuna fish! By now, the other players and I were casting glances back and forth, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. We soon learned.
“The six characters had been hired to take a boat up-river into Orc lands, to rescue the mighty warrior, just as the adventure description said. As boat’s captain, I ordered everyone to the boat so we could cast off. ‘No, you don’t,’ the gamemaster told me. ‘The boat is badly in need of repairs.’ I just stared at the gamemaster and then said, ‘Fine. We repair the boat and then cast off.’ The gamemaster frowned and shook his head. ‘You don’t have enough nails to do the job.’
“And so we spent the first thirty minutes of the game trying to buy enough nails to repair the ship. We had a dwarf in the group and tried to have him strike a deal with the local dwarven smiths. But, no, that we could not do. In this land dwarves were farmers, not smiths. I could not believe what I was hearing. Dwarven farmers? By the gods! But the nails were not the end of the foolishness. Upon completing our repairs, we found that a large band of Orcs had slipped onto the boat. This, I thought, was more like it. ‘I draw my sword and attack the Orcs,’ I said. The gamemaster did it to me again. ‘No, you don’t,’ he said. ‘This is the crew you hired to help sail the boat upriver.’
“We all stared at the gamemaster in disbelief. ‘I hired a crew?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Of Orcs?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I did this knowing a dwarf was a member of the crew? A dwarf, whose racial enemy is Orcs?’ I asked again. ‘Oh, that!’ the gamemaster replied. ‘The dwarf was raised by benign Orc farmers after his parents died in a plague. The dwarf has quite a kindly disposition towards them.’ This was too much for the player with the dwarf. ‘I have a kindly disposition towards Orcs?’ he cried. ‘I did not see that on my character sheet!’ The gamemaster merely smiled. ‘Yet it is there. Look at Appendix B, Footnote Four.’ The dwarven player rifled through his character sheets. When his head fell into his hands, we knew the gamemaster had won the point.
“Our band set forth to sail the river. And we discovered that our little boat was a steamboat rather than a sailing boat. The gamemaster had prepared himself for an argument, but we accepted the steam engine. Fantasy sometimes features steam power along with magical power. Besides, we thought the steam engine would let us reach the real adventure area quickly. After an hour of finding nails, fixing the boat, and arguing over Orc crewmen, I assure you that we were all prepared to do battle against hordes of Orcs. It didn’t work that way.
“The gamemaster spent the next hour and a half narrating our journey upstream in excruciating detail. He described the plants on the river banks. He described the rancid meat the Orcs ate, in such detail that I lost my appetite for lunch! He described the villages we passed. He even described the number of mosquito bites our characters received and how badly the bites itched. Then, finally, after what felt like forever, our boat was attacked by savage Orcs! At last, we players thought, a call to action!
“I told the gamemaster, ‘I draw my sword and leap to attack the closest Orc!’ The gamemaster frowned in disapproval, telling me, ‘There is another way to deal with this.’ Through clenched teeth I repeated, ‘I draw my sword and leap to attack the closest Orc!’ The gamemaster gave me a piercing stare, as if willing me to find this other way of which he spoke. I stared right back as I rolled for initiative. ‘I got a 13 for initiative,’ I announced. Throwing his hands up, the gamemaster said, ‘Fine. Ruin the adventure. It’s your loss.’
“For the next thirty minutes, we players actually had fun. Not as much fun as we could have had, as the gamemaster gave only the barest descriptions of the combat. There was no spurting blood or hacked-off limbs, just, ‘You hit, roll damage,’ repeated in a monotone. All too soon, the battle was over and our cleric set about healing us. My character spoke to the crewmen. ‘Gather up the bodies, boys! Fresh meat is back on your menu!’ The gamemaster snarled, ‘Your character would not say that!’ I snarled right back, ‘He just did!’ The gamemaster made a note. ‘That’s going to cost you experience points for playing out-of-character. And why did you fight the Orcs? You could have scared them away simply by sounding the steam whistle!’ After the six of us had scraped our jaws off the table, I replied, ‘Because it’s more fun to fight!’ The gamemaster actually tilted his head back to make sure his nose was in position to look down, and said, ‘Oh, I see. You are a group of roll players rather than role players.’ You could actually hear the double-L in roll, too.
“It was at that time that our gamemaster gave us the first good news of this adventure. ‘So much time was lost in the fruitless battle with the Orcs,’ he told us, ‘I am forced to rush your journey upriver. Much flavor will be lost.’ Smiles broke out all around. Our fight had earned us a fast trip to the rescue of the mighty warrior! The gamemaster brushed over the next ten days of travel, ten days I believe it would have taken an hour and a half for the gamemaster to complete!
“Soon we were bringing the boat to the riverside, ready for an exciting rescue. Before we left the boat, we tied up the Orc crew so that they would not simply steal the boat. This course of action did not sit well with the gamemaster. ‘No, no, no!’ he protested, looking at our dwarven player. ‘Your character would not allow these Orcs to be so mistreated!’ The dwarven player, his jaw firmly set, replied, ‘My dwarf is on the deck, whistling loudly. He hears nothing, suspects nothing, does nothing.’ Oh, did the gamemaster rant and rail about that, although he knew there was little he could do to force the issue.
“Moments later, we slipped into the jungle beside the river, moving towards a hilltop fire. Chanting could be heard coming from the hilltop. Perhaps the mighty warrior was about to be sacrificed to an evil Orc god! Anticipating a good fight, we hurried ahead—and literally tripped over a human man as he lay watching the Orc ceremony. ‘Kurtz the warrior, I presume?’ I said. All hopes of a daring rescue collapsed when the man answered, ‘Aye, Kurtz I am. You are the men sent to rescue me?’ At our nods, the man looked toward the fire, ‘longly,’ the gamemaster told us, and then said, ‘I do not wish to leave this… this… ceremony, gentlemen. It beckons, drawing me toward it.’
“I cast a glance at the other players. ‘I suspect Kurtz is bespelled. We shall not draw him from this evil place while the spell still stands.’ Looking at the gamemaster, who was about to say something, I loudly proclaimed, ‘Drawing my sword, I charge into the clearing and attack the nearest Orc!’ I knew I had done the right thing as the gamemaster had despair written all over his face. ‘No!’ he said. ‘He is not bespelled! Kurtz simply longs to join the uncivilized simplicity of the native culture!’ I cut him off. ‘The Orcs are obviously caught flat-footed. We all get a free attack before they can react!’ Ah, the protests and wails of the gamemaster ring in my ears still! It was not much of a fight, but it was worth it simply to hear him wail and complain.
“Two combat rounds later, the Orc bodies littered the ground. As we searched the bodies, Kurtz charged into the clearing screaming at us. We all knew the gamemaster was just using Kurtz as a way of yelling at us. We also noted that the gamemaster had not had Kurtz draw his sword. We waited until he reached us and then all attacked at once. Oh, the look on the gamemaster’s face! It was worth the entire excuse for an adventure! Kurtz did not live to draw his blade again. We looted his body as well, and then returned to the boat. Once there, we slaughtered the Orc crew, looted their bodies, and set sail back down the river.
“We got no farther, as the gamemaster completely lost his composure. ‘You cretins! You morons! I spent over a year designing this adventure, drawing from one of the great works of English literature! I thought I could bring culture to the likes of you! I should have known better!’ By this time the entire gaming room had gone quiet as everyone turned to watch our table.
“Perhaps I should have let the gamemaster stalk out with the last word, yet I did not. ‘What great work of literature was the adventure based upon?’ I asked. All energy seemed to have flowed out of the gamemaster. He answered quietly. ‘It was Heart of Darkness.’ The other players all looked confused. Obviously, they did not recognize the story. I took pity on them and explained, ‘Heart of Darkness is part of the second Dark Elf Trilogy that TSR published back before Wizards of the Coast bought them.’ For some reason, the gamemaster cried, ‘The horror! The horror!’ and ran from the gaming room. I looked at my fellow players. ‘The gamemaster is right. The Dark Elf Trilogy is one of the great works of English literature.’”
The Gaming Director looked out the window again. Darkness completely covered the hotel. It was time to leave. Time to return to the mundane world, just as all the others had done. Standing, he said, “Wow, it’s a pity that guy did such a bad job of converting the dark elf stuff. That could have been an adventure for the ages.”
We all nodded sagely, filing from the con suite. The Gaming Director hit the light switch and closed the door. Behind us, darkness claimed the heart of the con.
Growing up, Henry Vogel worked at the usual range of menial jobs, from grocery-store bag boy to pizza delivery to retail sales, before ending up in software development. In between the menial and the IT jobs, he achieved some small measure of fame as the co-editor of Eternity Science Fiction magazine, the co-creator and writer of the Southern Knights and X-Thieves comic book series, and the million-copy-selling writer of some comic book scripts for one of the big dogs. For the past ten years he has also been a professional storyteller, performing regularly in the North Carolina area. He currently lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife, son, cat, and a lot of imaginary friends who are all clamoring to have him tell their stories.
Henry has been part of the Stupefying Stories core crew since before the beginning, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Stupefying Stories would not exist today without his steadfast friendship, his unfailing support, and—not to put too fine a point on it—his remarkably successful novels. Beginning with his 2014 YA space opera (he prefers the term “planetary romance”), Scout’s Honor, followed in 2015 by Scout’s Oath and Scout’s Duty (and coming November 1st, Scout’s Law; no cover preview yet but I’m copy-editing it right now), the sales of Henry’s novels are what have been keeping the doors open, the lights on, and the checking account in the black, these past two years here in the fabulous Rampant Loon Media Building.
In 2016 Henry “graduated” to writing more mature action/adventure space opera (though those of us who grew up reading Andre Norton and Heinlein and Asimov juveniles might object to that characterization), releasing his most successful novel to date, The Fugitive Heir, followed by The Fugitive Pair, and the same-universe-but-not-the-same-series standalone novel, The Counterfeit Captain, which for my money is his best book yet.
In sum, Henry Vogel, thanks for everything. I owe you, big time.
And honestly, the check is in the mail.
About this story: “Heart of Dorkness” originally appeared in the first, print-only version of Stupefying Stories. As that issue was never released in e-book format and never will be, it seemed fitting to give this story new life on SHOWCASE. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did the first time I saw it, and that you’ll share it with your friends in and outside of the SF/F community.
No Furries were harmed in the making of this story.
Not that we didn’t try.