Tessa measured her life in segments broken up by what seemed like the usual milestones everyone else did. Going to school for the first time. Having her first period. Learning to drive. Graduating high school. College. Getting her first job. Moving out on her own. Those had all felt normal in part because of how spaced out they were.
Hitting level 20 though? After no more than a few days from being “born” in the [Fallen Kingdoms]?
On one level she knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. The low levels in the game had been accelerated over the years to allow players to catch up more easily. It wasn’t like she was the first person to reach the lofty height of 1/5th the level cap. Glimmerglass was still more than four times Tessa’s current level.
All of that paled though before the whiplash of finding herself at what had once been one of the most significant level breaks in the game.
Originally, the first ten levels had been setup so that the players could largely solo them. Then [Broken Horizons] took the kid gloves off and the enemies started getting quickly more difficult.
Level 11 through 19 were the early partying levels, which various much bemoaned locations where players would gather and die en masse as newcomers worked out the basics of fighting as a team.
By level 20, the theory went, those early growing pains were done and the players were ready to start taking on more focused challenges in the form of the games first group dungeons.
[Broken Horizons] design philosophy had shifted over the years, but Tessa had joined early enough that her low level experience was still informed by the original designers mindset and they’d had some wild ideas on what sort of challenges were appropriate for beginning players.
In their defense, they were clever enough to make the challenges ones that taught the players how to overcome them, which was part of [Broken Horizons] initial success. Rather than being a byzantine nightmare of random events that lead to complete failure after hours of effort, the torments the [Broken Horizons] dungeons put the players through were ones that had pretty clear paths to overcome, and even the failures often came with some reward that made future attempts more likely to succeed. They were still ridiculously difficult in many cases, but since that was something of a standard for the industry at the time, [Broken Horizons] had the distinction of being the most approachable of the MMOs on the market by far, and as a result it prospered where other games floundered.
From Tessa’s perspective, those early, tortuous dungeons had been more than a series of ever higher hurdles to leap though. They were touchpoints she’d shared with BT and all of her other close friends. They were experiences that united her guild, and were shared by everyone who played the game at that point. They became the cultural landscape that all her fellow [Broken Horizons] players understood and which set them apart from those who weren’t a part of their society.
And it had all started at level 20.
She knew [Broken Horizons] had progressed beyond level 20 being such a defining milestone. Later expansions had added earlier, and easier, group dungeons in at lower levels to get people into the “fun” sooner, and had toned down the difficulty on the hardest content either directly or through simple power creep of new abilities and items being stronger than the ones that came before. That had made the game accessible to a far wider range of players, and had been something that Tessa had argued in favor of in more forum threads than she could remember, even as she felt the twinges of nostalgia for surviving the early brutal encounters that some of the players claimed was the lynchpin of the game’s existence.
“This doesn’t seem real,” she said, marveling at not just her own stat screen but the shiny ‘20’ that was sitting beside Lisa’s name too.
“Now imagine if we’d been using XP scrolls or potions,” Lisa said, a mirthful gleam sparkling in her eyes.
“Wait, did you know this would level us up this fast?” Tessa said, detecting a hint of knowing mischief lurking behind Lisa’s smile.
“Not at first,” Lisa said with a shake of her head. “After the first time you took a swim though, I noticed how much our xps bars had gone up.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Tessa said. “We lost all of those earlier rounds, and I basically lost this last one too.”
“Ah but there wasn’t any winning or losing here,” Sister Acroghast said. “This is training. The only important thing when your training is that you’re learning, and you two caught on a lot quicker than most that I’ve seen.”
“But, it can’t be that easy can it?” Tessa asked, still astounded at how fast she’d progressed without ever being in any real peril.
“You’d prefer it to be harder?” Sister Cayman asked.
“Oh, don’t worry, it will be,” Mother Graymourn said. “You’re still relatively unskilled. You have the basics down, but you’ve got so much more growing to do. The more you do, the longer and harder you’ll need to work to progress. I dare say there’ll come a day fairly soon when we won’t have much to teach you and you’ll need to search out other teachers or tougher challenges if you want to continue improving.”
“There are other places we can level like this?” Tessa’s mind boggled at the idea. Leveling in [Broken Horizons] had always meant walking through oceans of blood and climbing mountains of enemy corpses, at least figuratively, though a few dungeons took a stab at making that literal. Giving out levels willy nilly seemed like madness.
“Didn’t the beta testers mention this?” Lisa asked. “I thought they called out [Dragonshire] as having a bunch of different leveling mini-games.”
“They did, but somehow none of them thought to mention that the mini-games were a rocket train for fast leveling. That was unbelievable.”
“Weren’t they mostly over level 20 when they got here?” Lisa asked.
“Ohhh,” Tessa said, understanding dawning on her. “The training programs here are to let people who played the [High Beyond Tutorial] area catch up to the ones who chose to buy the [Quick Start] option?”
Gamers, being among the least patient people on the planet, were often willing to pay for convenience benefits and, once Egress Entertainment understood that, the option of buying a higher starting level for a character had quickly been rolled out. For enough money you could be a character at the level cap who was equipped with a decent enough set of gear to take on the the lowest tier of the end game [Raids].
In practice, there were enough quests and unlocks that characters needed that it was more practical to simply bypass the “tutorial levels” and start at level 20 once the “real game began”.
Tessa had never seen the point of throwing money away to skip new content, but given that some people created alternate characters like they were trying to single handedly populate the world by themselves, she could see where the five hundredth time of being a lowbie might get a little old.
“Hey, would we be able to have some friends come by to join you for sparring, or do you need to work on you own training for a while?” Tessa asked.
“We’re here for everyone,” Mother Graymourn said. “It’s our [Holy Mission] you might say. We’ll probably do some more round of [Walk the Plank] then take a break and switch it up. Good training needs to cover all the basics after all.”
“You’re thinking we get the kids, and the others here?” Lisa asked.
“Yes, definitely, before a thousand other [Adventurers] show up,” Tessa said.
“That’s a good idea. If we can get everyone up to level 20, we’ll have a much easier time with the [Cursed Walkers].”
“That’s what I was thinking. We were planning to use the lowest level [Undead] out there to work up to level 20. If we can start at 20 though, we’ll be able to handle bigger groups out of the gate and even take on some of the boss spawns.”
“You say boss spawns, and I hear enough rare loot to pass them out as party favors afterwards,” Lisa said and then switch to the party’s telepathic channel. “Hey folks! How fast can you get to the [Chapel]?”
“We’re not far! What’s the matter?” Rip asked, fright dancing in her voice.
“It’s not what’s wrong. It’s what’s right. Check your party list. Notice anything interesting?” Tessa asked.
“We’re all still alive it looks like,” Matt said. “And nobody new on the list.”
“But you’re listed as ‘Pillowcase’ again,” Rip said.
“And you’re level 20? When did that happen? What did you find?” Lady Midnight asked, the greedy longing for experience points of any sensible [Adventurer] plain to hear in her voice.
“We found the [Sisters of Steel],” Lisa said.
“Okay, that sounds badass. Are they literally made of steel?” Rip asked.
It wasn’t a particularly unreasonable question given the world they were in.
“Nope. Flesh and blood,” Tessa said.
“Awww,” Matt, the [Metal Mechanoid] said.
“They’re wearing plenty of steel though,” Lisa said. “And don’t really care if you drop them into a ten foot deep pool while they’ve got all that platemail on. So Rip’s pretty much correct on the badass front.”
“We’re headed towards the [Chapel] now then!” Obby said.
“Is it okay if Baelgritz and his crew come with us?” Rip asked.
Tessa had the strangest sensation that Rip had decided to adopt the three space travelers as though they were a trio of adorable pets. Given that Rip had been the first to pick up an actual pet so far, and that her first thought had been to name it after a mind numbingly dangerous chemical, Tessa couldn’t rule out the idea that Rip was intending to add the demonic looking trio to her menagerie.
“Should we be worried about Rip imprinting on space traveling demons?” Tessa asked Lisa on their private line.
“I think they’ve already imprinted on you,” Lisa replied privately. “I’m more wondering if our demon trio is imprinting on her.”
“They’re adults though, aren’t they?”
“They are, I think, but they’re adults who’ve been in a rough situation for a long time from what Yawlorna said. Then we show up and show them just how much worse everything they were dealing with could be. And then we show that we can deal with it and keep them alive. That kind of thing leaves an impression.”
“And Rip was the one leading the team when they went to [Sky’s Edge] wasn’t she?” Tessa asked.
“I think so. She’s got a lot of drive. I don’t know how much of that they were there to see, but she leaves an impression quickly.”
“Think we should check with the nuns to see how they’ll feel about three demons joining the festivities?” Tessa asked.
“Probably not the worst idea we could have,” Lisa said.
As it turned out, and Tessa decided it probably shouldn’t have surprised her, Moth Graymourn was all too eager to meet Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz. Granted she’d been told that they were ‘travelers from a distant world who appeared similar to the [Underworlders] we know’ but Tessa was sure none of the nuns had missed that she was saying ‘they look like demons, but they’re really not’.
“You say they may not be able to learn from sparring though?” Sister Acroghast asked.
“We’re not sure,” Lisa said. “We’re familiar with a fictitious version of them. In the fiction we know, they’re basically static. But these aren’t exactly like the versions we know. They’re lower level than we are, so it might be that they’re stuck there and can’t progress.”
“If they’re people like you say, I don’t believe that will be true here,” Mother Graymourn said. “They may not want to, they may have a terribly difficult time with it, but the one thing that’s true of any person is that they’re always able to change.”