Part One: “How It All Got Started” or “Sauron Dragged Me Along”
Strangely enough, my very first Ring Game experience
was not a Ring Game. Instead it was Operation Valar of 2002.
You see, my friends Megan Fellows and Caroline Hardin had been a part of Ring Game a few times already and had heard about the new version of the game run by a splinter group called The Second Age. Never able to pass up a costuming opportunity, they both threw themselves into it with a vengeance that scared most people but had me strangely fascinated (much like that Anime Convention cosplay of the previous April… but that’s a completely different story) .
How that segued to my picking up cigarette butts in Governor Dodge State Park is still somewhat beyond me. But, there you have it.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only newbie in the group. Megan and Caroline also talked Megan’s sister, Margaret, and our friends, Creighton Hogg and Sarah Lang, into going along. Of everyone, Creighton’s willingness to participate surprised me the most. I’d never seen him dress up as anything and I have my doubts as to whether or not he’d even gone trick-or-treating as a kid. Indeed, he was really only at Operation Valar for a good hike.
Well, that day started on a rather inauspicious note.
Sarah couldn’t make it to Operation Valar, which left us with five people going to the park for the clean up day. Since I had access to my parents’ station wagon, I volunteered to drive. We had decided to meet at the West parking lot of UW-Madison’s Humanities building at 8 in the morning to get on the road.
Margaret was new to the campus. And only a week of classes had passed.
At approximately 8:45, we sent Megan to scout the area surrounding the Humanities building to try and find her sister. At approximately 9:00 she returned, with her sister in tow, from across busy University Avenue in the direction of Vilas Hall… which had a parking lot only sort of close to it on the East side. Margaret had been waiting on the parking lot-less west side the entire time, a block away from the rest of us.
Finally, at approximately 9:05 we all piled into the car and got going.
About an hour later, my highway navigating skills showing their complete lack of existence, we made it to the park, signed in at the Operation Valar booth at campsite F, and were given an area in which to pick up garbage.
And this was where the fun for the newbie began. Everyone there was referring to areas of the park as “the Shire” or “Mount Doom” or “Gondor.” Megan and Caroline had been pointing out landmarks and making comments like “I remember this, I died here!” on the way in. But of course, I was busy keeping my eyes on the road.
So, when we were sent in the direction of the Shire to pick up trash along the road there, with me once again at the wheel, I was completely clueless.
We parked the car at a small road-side parking area at the outside edge of the Shire and began trudging our way along the road with garbage bags.
Bottle, can, piece of metal, car tire, bottle, TV dinner package, can, cigarette butt, cigarette butt, cigarette butt, cigarette butt…
With five people in a group, we were able to cover both sides of the road effectively, slowly making our way back in the direction of the group campsites. Cars full of other Ring Game vets out for the Operation passed us frequently and we even traded food with a passing vehicle. Once we reached the crossroads, we went toward the huge barn that marked Ring Game’s Rivendell, picked up a horse path, and hiked back to the car along the ridge of a small mountain.
Between razzing Margaret about her inability to navigate the UW campus and Caroline’s creepily natural desire to see small butterflies squished by passing cars, it was a fairly interesting day.
Four hours later, we decided that, above all, we needed food. We left the park and went back into Dodgeville to hit the Culver’s there. Another hour passed and, rehydrated and bellies full, we found our way back to the booth at campsite F with our five bags of garbage.
“There you are! We were beginning to wonder where you were!”
That was the first thing we heard.
As we blinked stupidly, we were informed that nearly everyone else who had participated had returned with their garbage, hauled said garbage back to the Ranger Station in all their Operation Valar glory without us, and left. The only ones left were those who had been coordinating everyone else and they had only been waiting for us.
We didn’t let that get us down, though. It had been a perfect day for a good hike and it had been fun. Plus, I felt that now I had at least an inkling of how Ring Game participants managed to make a little bit of Middle Earth out of Governor Dodge park.
Then, we were given the Second Age Game booklets. Immediately, we all plopped down right there in the parking lot (it seems to have been a day for parking lots, in retrospect), and turned to the map.
“Keep in mind,” someone said, “Mount Doom and Barad-Dur have been switched around for this game.”
Megan and Caroline turned their heads in the direction of the two ridges of rock above campsite H and sighed, clearly anticipating confusion on their part. As a newbie, it wasn’t anything I had to worry about (not knowing either ridge as either place to begin with) and I had a slight rush of satisfaction at that. For once, it was to my advantage as a newbie not to know where everything was.
We sat there reading the rule book for a considerable amount of time, discussing what it might be fun to play come the next night’s character picking meeting. This was the point at which I decided, definitively, that I wanted to be an Elf.
Now, the trick was to talk everyone else into choosing characters such that I had someone to travel with and/or meet up with during the game so that I wouldn’t be completely lost the whole time. Unfortunately for me, Megan and Caroline had their hearts set on playing Black Numenorians, the Oliphaunt had caught Margaret’s eye, and Creighton was still on the fence as to whether or not he was going to play at all.
I was alone in my wish to play a character on the side of good. Typical. One would think that I might have expected something like this from the friends I hang out with. They’re all a little twisted that way. I’m twisted myself, but apparently my twist goes in the opposite direction.
After pouring over the rule books, we finally decided to head back to Madison to go to our Anime club. There, we talked up the game a bit more, trying to nab a few more players. This was when we sparked the interest of our friend Kimisha. She didn’t make it to the next night’s character choosing meeting, but she was there the next week.
The next night, on Sunday, we reconvened in Humanities for the Second Age Game character picking meeting. I had my heart set on playing a Nandor Elf and I talked Sarah (no, the other one) into playing the same. We weren’t concerned about when our numbers would come up because they were unlimited characters. I was relieved that someone else in our group of friends twisted the same way I did.
Creighton had pretty much decided that he wasn’t going to play after all and had just shown up at the meeting to see what we were going to be up to. But, when someone shoved a ticket into his hand for the character picking lottery, he blinked at it stupidly (quite a feat for him) and looked back at us once more.
“I guess this means there’s no getting out of it?”
“Nope,” we answered.
Meanwhile, the characters that had not been pre-assigned were being written up on the front chalkboard; good on the left side, evil in the middle, and the names of the seven dwarf lords on the right. On the good side, most of the named characters were still left. All seven of the dwarves were left. The evil side still lacked such characters as the Oliphaunt, Gothmog, Ar-Pharazon, all the Black Numenorians, one of the two Balrogs, and…
“No one’s taken Sauron yet!?” Megan cried.
“Sauron is still open,” Jack answered from the front of the room, obviously surprised himself. He was running the whole shindig and the success of the unofficial spin-off game was on his shoulders. “By the way, if anyone wants to play Sauron or the other Balrog, please talk to me first.”
Megan and Caroline jumped up and raced down to the front of the room along with a few of the other prospective players. The rest of us newbies just looked at each other, trying to formulate new character plans.
“Well, there’s one other guy on the list to be a Balrog with me,” Caroline informed us as she returned, “so it’ll depend on whose number is called first who gets to be it.”
Shortly thereafter, Megan came back and sat down. “I’m the only one on the list to play Sauron,” she told us, plopping back down in her seat in amazement.
Immediately, Margaret and Creighton began rifling through the booklet once again to pick characters who, when allied perfectly with Sauron and a Balrog, could wreak the most havoc. Margaret set her sights on the Oliphaunt and Creighton was plotting strategy as a Black Numenorian.
Agonizingly, the meeting began with a preliminary review of the rules and goals of the game as listed in the booklet. Then, after much fidgeting and gnashing of teeth, Jack finally turned the meeting over to the character lottery. Slowly, numbers were called and characters claimed.
The first number called was that belonging to a ticket in the hand of one young lady a few rows behind us. “Oliphaunt,” she called out.
Margaret’s shoulders dropped and she began to rifle through the booklet again. She finally settled on being a Black Numenorian with Creighton in the hopes that she be given a Nazgul ring by Sauron in the course of the game.
Slowly, more characters were chosen; Galadriel, Anarion, Glorfindel…
“Balrog,” someone spoke up from the back of the room.
This time, it was Caroline’s turn to drop her shoulders in defeat. And, just as Margaret had done, she once again was sent rifling through the booklet.
The lottery continued until Creighton’s number was called.
“Uh, yeah, that’s me,” he called out, holding up his ticket, “Black Numenorian.”
“Are you sure you don’t want Ar-Pharazon?” one of the people at the black board asked, “he’s their leader, you get more points.”
Creighton shrugged. “Sure, why not?” And thus, he was assigned the role of Ar-Pharazon the Golden, leader of the Black Numenorians and the guy who had tried to attack Middle Earth’s equivalent of God.
Character picking continued. The next one of us to have their number called was Megan.
“Sauron,” she said with a bit of a gleeful giggle. Strange concept, a giggling Lord of Darkness…
The room let up a cheer. There would be a game after all. At least in theory, that is. Megan turned a bit apprehensive when she realized the most important role she had ever played in the past was that of Tom Bombadel in the previous spring Ring Game.
I, on the other hand, was a bit worried when I realized that she and Creighton had now been cemented as being on the same team. As someone who had role played with him in the past, I knew what Creighton was capable of. Once, using nothing but our two characters, we managed to control an entire, 30-or-so-person online RPG for three months without anyone even knowing it, not even the Game Master. It was the most frighteningly manipulative thing I had ever seen in my entire life and now I was going to go up against it.
Caroline’s number was called up next. “Gothmog,” she said, choosing the leader of the Red Eye Orcs. As the rest of the meeting progressed, it became clear that she was to be the only Red Eye Orc; a leader without an army. Still, as the one who started closest to Barad-Dur, it put her in an amazing position to help her good buddy Sauron.
The session went on and as it did three of the Black Numenorians were assigned to a group of ten-to-twelve-year-olds sitting down in the front left corner one-by-one.
I grinned at Creighton. He would have to deal with them during the game. Or at least during the start of it. He put a hand to his head in obvious dread, but next to him Margaret began to bounce.
“We’re gonna have an army of cuteness!” she exclaimed in glee.
Creighton’s dubious look deepened as she went on about how she could dress them all up in cute, matching outfits and put stickers on them and use glitter and whatnot. I wasn’t able to catch Creighton’s eye, but if I had been able to I would have put a finger to my head and mimed a gunshot.
My number came up next and I calmly asked for a lowly Nandor Elf.
“Are you sure you don’t want Cirdan?” Jack asked, referring to the only remaining named character on the good team. “He gets to start with an Elf ring token.”
I shook my head. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” I answered, making an offhand remark to the fact that I was a newbie and he was trying to convince me to be a target. I might have considered it if Megan, Creighton, and Caroline weren’t already plotting schemes not three feet away from me.
The next number that was called went to a more experienced gentleman in the back. He chose to play as Cirdan.
Margaret’s number was finally called and she snapped up the final slot as a Black Numenorian. It was only a minute after that when she began adding to the evil team schemes her theories about using the newly declared “Army of Cuteness” as a fighting force that the good team wouldn’t have the heart to beat to a pulp. More ideas about glitter entered into the equation.
Sarah’s was the last number among us to be called and to my sheer relief she chose to join me as a Nandor Elf. At least I wouldn’t be alone in my newbieness. Further, it was a great relief that the seemingly sanest among our group had chosen to hang out with me for the game. No talk of stickers existed on our team.
A few more numbers were called and then the lottery was over. The teams all got together to introduce themselves to one another, then the meeting adjourned for the night. Our group went down State Street to Noodles and Company to get some food and the evil team plotting continued. By the end of the night, Sarah and I had an amazingly squishy sinking sensation.
The following weekend, there was another Sunday meeting in which the two teams got together to make some preliminary plans. But, before that, we went through questions players had as to the rules and goals of the game. As I expected, Creighton’s questions reflected his manipulative schemes.
Kimisha made it to this meeting and I spent a fair amount of time trying to convince her to be and Elf with me and Sarah. But, she chose to be a Troll instead.
This got Margaret’s head working once again and she changed her character to a Troll as well. I couldn’t help but think that there was already some very scary plans in the works. At least it made her abandon the idea of the Army of Cuteness, though.
The teams split up and Megan snapped up the big copy of the map and led her team out of the room to go and plot away from the prying ears of good. Everyone on our team all bunched up in the back of the room to start our own plans.
Introductions were first and we went counterclockwise around the circle.
“Hi, I’m Sarah,” Sarah said next to me, “I’m playing a Nandor Elf.”
“Hi, I’m Sarah. I’m playing a Nandor Elf,” I echoed, then added with a thought, “I’m a newbie. Sauron dragged me along.”
to Part Two
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