The Lower Levels
by Eildon Rhymer
Enraged squirrels, angry daisies, butter knives and other horrors almost as fearsome. Life's tough enough you're a first level adventurer - and even tougher when a certain Rodney McKay's in your party.
"What was that? What was that? God! Get it away from me! Get it away from me!" There was a flare of pink light and the soft sound of an explosion, followed by a slight clearing of the throat, pitched somewhere between apology and defensiveness. A small trickle of singed dust ran down the flowery bank.
The dark-haired adventurer turned to his new companion. "False alarm again?" His voice was prematurely weary.
"It could have been a bug," the other man protested, "hiding in shadows."
"But wasn't," the dark-haired adventurer said, sighing as he dropped his bedroll; he had not even bothered stowing it in his pack this time. "Look behind you."
"What?" The man called Rodney whirled round, hands brought up in defensive panic. "Are they swarming?"
"Non-existent bugs can't swarm," the man said with patient impatience. "No, I mean look at our previous camp, which we left five minutes ago, and – oh look! – there's the camp before it, just beyond that tree. At this rate, it'll take us a month before we meet our first proper NPC. Please stop over-reacting and blasting away at nothing."
"I resent that. The time before last, it wasn't 'over-reacting,' as you unfairly put it, Mister Two Points in Greatsword and Compensating Much? Using my great powers, I identified a mysterious object covered with strange sigils --"
"You identified my spare socks."
"I can't help having powerful skills," Rodney huffed, "so powerful that I need a full eight hours of rest and meditation and refreshment to fully hone them."
"It," the dark-haired man said. Rodney ignored him.
"You just swing a sword round. Any grunt can do that. Besides, who wears socks in role-playing campaigns? Socks do not exist in the world of fantasy. When they fell out of your pack and landed at my feet, all bundled up like that, it was an entirely reasonable assumption that it was some vital quest object."
"Oh to be second level," the dark-haired man said, as he settled down to another day of sleep of sleep that he did not need. He muttered something more. The words "useless" and "first-level mage" definitely came into it, but Rodney deigned not to hear it.
"Why are we first level, anyway?" Rodney grumbled, pausing for breath at the top of a hill. "You're clearly at least forty, and I'm… well, let's just say I'm a man in my prime, with countless achievements under my belt. Yet here we are, slogging along with barely an experience point between us."
"It's because it's the start of the adventure," the other man said through teeth that were beginning to ache with being gritted so much.
"But think of that girl in the tavern last night – you know, the one who'd lost her bonnet. You found it in a corner, and – bing! – twenty experience points. I got four just for buying a pint – though I should have been given at least fifty for the experience of drinking that stuff. You'd have thought," he panted, "we'd have done something like that before in forty years of life."
"Best not to think about logic," said the dark-haired man. "Go with the flow. Look! A dire hamster!" He drew his sword, and almost managed to kill it.
"Who are you, anyway?" Rodney looked up from his spell book, bored from the thirty-ninth consecutive bedtime spent poring over the somewhat limited intricacies of Magic Missile.
"Took you long enough to ask."
"It wasn't important." Rodney waved his hand dismissively. "There you were in the tavern with your shiny new sword and his shiny new clothes and your tale of an orphaned childhood spent on a sheep farm. You may as well have had a label round your neck saying Player character and first level adventurer. That's why I asked you to join my party."
"I seem to remember that I asked you."
"Whatever." Rodney waved his hand again. "I didn't need to know your name; I just needed to know that you weren't evil, and your eyes aren't the right colour for that." His hand faltered. "Unless you disguised them with magic. You aren't evil, are you?"
"Chaotic good," said the other man. "Ranger. Name's Sheppard. John Sheppard."
"Huh," Rodney grunted. "I'm chaotic good, too. Useful, isn't it? You can get away with… well, not actual murder, not as such, unless they're orcs or goblins or gnolls or umber hulks or hobgoblins or those nasty things that eat your brain or vampires – can you murder something that's already dead? – or coloured dragons (but not metallic ones; what's with this place and colour coding?) and --" He stopped, frowning. "What're you doing?"
"Trying to roll a saving throw against verbosity." Sheppard looked quite miserable, cursing under his breath. "Damn! Now I have to roll on the critical failure table."
"And dire badgers," Rodney continued, with a new lease of life, "and ogres and dark elves and fallen paladins and bandits and those things with the eyes or anyone from an evil race or anyone of evil alignment, and you can break into people's houses as long as the GM isn't watching, and even if he is, you can just give some money to the church afterwards and that makes it okay, and… Oh! A ranger! That means you can charm animals! Can you charm the fleas in my bedroll so they stop biting me? Or doesn't it work on fleas? It certainly seems to work on barmaids and blushing peasant girls, and --"
It was a long time before Sheppard slept.
"Kill it!" Rodney fired his magic missile. It missed. "Kill it, Sheppard! Kill it!"
Sheppard swung his sword. "Damn! Only rolled an eight."
"Kill it! It… it's horrible."
Sheppard dodged the lunging petals. "Feel free to… share the… experience points, Rodney," he said through gritted teeth. "Throw stones, or hit it with a stick."
Rodney reached for a small branch, but stood up without picking it up. He took a step back. "Go, Sheppard!" he shouted. "Kill, kill, kill the killer potted plant!"
The stem was severed, and the plant withered away with a wail. "It was a one hit-dice monster." Sheppard wiped the sap from his sword and shook the pollen from his hair. "Hardly a 'killer'. And thanks for the help. Or are you a bard now, standing back and shouting encouragement?"
"I've only got four hit points, I'll have you know. Any plant has the potential of being a killer, even a slightly vexed daisy, and it certainly put up quite a fight; you really need to work on your initiative rolls. Besides --" He folded his arms in a decidedly justified fashion "-- I couldn't lift the stick."
Sheppard frowned as if he was beginning to realise something that he couldn't quite credit. "Just how many points of strength have you got, Rodney?"
Rodney huffed a little bit, then, "Three," he admitted.
"Four. I… I rolled badly," he said. "It can happen to anyone, and you shouldn't judge a man by his dice rolls. I took points from the useless skills – which is all of them, really, when you come to think of it; I mean, who needs charisma? And dexterity? What's the point of dexterity? – to give to --"
"And how much intelligence do you have?" Sheppard's voice had the tone of someone who had refrained with great effort from saying, "clearly not you", and "so your Magic Missiles actually hit things," but whose days of refraining had now come to an end.
"Thirty-four," Rodney declared, throwing it like a weapon.
"Compared to a useful maximum of eighteen," Sheppard said. His voice alarmingly level. "When you stop getting bonuses when you go higher than --"
"I can't help it if your brain can't comprehend the --"
"When you're too weak to pick up a stick to attack a 'slightly vexed daisy.' When, despite your god-like intelligence, your magic missile would still only do 1d4 damage if it ever hit."
Rodney decided to ignore all the unpleasant parts of that. Instead, he concentrated on getting out his bedroll, and dreaming of the heady days of level three, when he would wreak his righteous and fiery vengeance on the flora of the world, not to mention certain disrespectful rangers.
"We need more people in our party," Sheppard said, as he rested after a particularly difficult battle with a squirrel.
"You just wait until I get level three spells." Rodney leafed through his pack looking longingly at the scrolls he could not yet use. "Fireball – oh, I knew you'd like that one. I can see your eyes shining. You warrior classes are all the same: big things go boom."
"They're shining with worry. I've seen you with Magic Missile. We'll need a party of twelve, so when you blow up five sixths of the party, we're still --"
"Hey!" Rodney protested.
"Damn." Sheppard cursed, looking uncomfortable. "I think my alignment just shifted towards evil. It was a joke, guys! I didn't mean it!"
"Still, a hot girl would be a welcome addition to the party." Rodney was still holding his Fireball scroll, but his eyes were elsewhere. "One of those ones who fights demons while doing acrobatics in tiny fragments of chainmail – and, seriously, what's with that? It would be nice to have someone like that, though, with all that exposed.... Useful to help us smite evil, I mean." He looked vaguely upwards, slowly relaxing when he felt no immediately alignment change.
"A barbarian," Sheppard said, "and a cleric. It's dangerous out here, what with the squirrels and the plants and the non-existent bugs." His voice took on a brief edge. "We're almost out of healing potions, and you spent all our money on stale bread --"
"Power bars," Rodney protested, "infused with magic that you mere warrior types will never understand." He spoke with the utter confidence of someone who knew only too well that he had been conned. "Clerics are useless, anyway," he said. "Mumbo-jumbo imitation of proper magic."
"Look out!" Sheppard gasped. "There's a dire chicken behind you!"
Rodney scrambled to his feet, his face blanching. "What? Where? I've only got four hit points! Do you know what a chicken can…? Oh." He folded his arms. "Very funny. Ha ha, very droll, etcetera etcetera."
"Cleric," Sheppard said firmly.
Sheppard plunged his sword through the centre of one piece of slime, paused a moment until the next round, then impaled the last globule with the point. "When do I get Cleave?" he asked no-one in particular.
"That was impressive." Pink sparkled rained down on Rodney from the tree he had accidentally hit with his stray Magic Missile. "Really, it was."
"Huh." Sheppard frowned quizzically, bringing his sword up. "I think I levelled up." He looked at the sizzling wound on his leg. "Huh. Hardly hurts at all. I must have rolled maximum on hit points. Go me! Oh. Wait!" He rummaged in his pack and pulled out an ornate butter knife. "Mysterious family heirloom," he said, "bound to be significant near the end of the adventure. I… uh… forgot to put any points in dagger proficiency. Let's see if…" The knife slipped, slicing him across the palm. He tried to catch it, but its tip embedded itself in his foot, slicing his bicep on the way, then somehow severing a few locks of his hair. "Damn," he swore. "Maybe next time."
"Why haven't I levelled up?" Rodney wondered.
"Perhaps because you put so many points into intelligence that you can't even tie your own shoelaces?" Sheppard gestured with his chin at the dagger. "You must have dagger proficiency; it's about the only sort of weapon a mage can use. You pull it out; it's safer. No, don't worry about me," he said pointedly, as Rodney grabbed the knife and dropped it to the ground, already beginning to protest about blood stains on his second-best robes. "Nothing a good night's sleep won't cure, and it looks like we're getting another one of those."
"This isn't what I signed up for," Rodney grumbled, smearing lotion on his flea bites. "We haven't seen any dungeons, and as for dragons… It's just not dignified. You nearly died when a squirrel attacked you. I was half-killed by a bunch of flowers…"
"And as for the butter knife…"
"I thought it would at least be magic swords hewn from fallen stars, and… and… carnivorous forests and… and lions and mighty sea monsters with teeth. Life's rather stressful when you've only got four hit points. All the flora and fauna, and even household utensils…"
"I've got twenty hit points." Sheppard sounded smug.
"And you still got stuck with a butter knife."
Sheppard stretched out his legs, and looked up at the sky, where strange birds flew and clouds spoke of distant promise. "It's because we're still in the prologue," he said. "Things will get better once we start chapter one."
Rodney grunted, then snapped his head up. His hand came up. A pink ball of magical fire shot upwards, entirely failing to hit the angry pigeon.
Sighing, Sheppard picked up his sword, readying his bedroll with one practised kick as he did so.
The Character Sheets
Notes and disclaimers
1. Many, many role-playing rules were harmed and wilfully ignored in the making of this story.
2. Rodney's right about the socks – just read Diana Wynne Jones' excellent Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
3. Credit to Order of the Stick for general inspiration. Rodney so is Vaarsuvius.
4. Credit to Steve Jackson Games for Munchkin, source of the Enraged Potted Plant and other such horrors.
5. I do wonder if I should worry about myself.
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