Despite the obvious lack of wealth outside the city walls, there was a vibrance and industry to the place. People were actively pursuing their goals, whatever those might be. And most of them were players.
Britta could see the name tags over their heads. Most of them weren’t dressed in armour or fancy robes, they wore little more than rags, but they hustled through the crowds, ran in some cases. There was an eagerness to their movements that suggested they were fully-engaged in their pursuits.
“What’s going on down there?” Britta asked as her eyes tried to follow the unending activity.
“Life,” said L-15.
“How many players are there here?”
“Approximately one million,” said L-15. “It varies. People die, people are born. Some leave to seek adventure, others return with treasures they’ve won.”
“A million,” said Britta. “Wow. And what’s their average level?”
“Sixteen,” said L-15.
Britta thought she must have heard wrong. Sixteen? That was way past anything she’d encountered. Even the Chinese team were lower than that. The thought of it was shocking. In this world, the Chinese team were below average!
“What’s the highest level?” she asked.
Life, apparently, was very different here.
“Thirty-Four?” said Britta, stunned. “Really? Then why did you only send Level 10 players to the arena?”
“I didn’t send anyone,” said L-15. “That’s not how things are done here. Players are free to go where they want and do what they like. It’s entirely up to them.”
There was a loud bang from below and a black mushroom cloud rose from what had been a building a second ago and was now a pile of rubble with flames squatting on the remains. The cloud of smoke wasn’t that big and quickly dissipated, making the scale of the disaster more evident. If anyone had been in the building when it was destroyed, they wouldn’t have survived.
“What happened?” asked Britta. Activity had increased around the site of the explosion, with players and NPCs rushing towards and away from the area in equal measure.
“A forge was unable to contain the reaction within, and so exploded,” said L-15 in calm tones. He made it sound like a normal, everyday occurrence. “Five lives were lost. They will not be able to resurrect, and so will be born anew.”
“Why won’t they be able to resurrect?” asked Britta.
L-15 spread an arm out, the voluminous sleeve sweeping across the panorama. “Within the city walls, death is permanent. If you lose your life through accident or misadventure, you will have to start again. Outside the walls, however, death will bring you back to the town of your birth. You will be alive and well, although you will have lost some of your belongings.”
“Do you die permanently in any town or city?” asked Britta.
“That is correct,” said L-15.
“It prevents abuse of the game world to maximise levelling. We tried various penalties, but the simplest solution turned out to be the best.”
“But doesn’t that mean if a player has a grudge against someone, they can kill them and the victim is back to Level 1 and can’t do anything in return?”
“Murder is a capital offence. Inside city walls. Anyone daring to take the life of another will suffer severe consequences.
The system they had in place here sounded very harsh. Suspiciously so.
“But there are ways to protect yourself, right?” said Britta. “So you don’t lose your life or your belongings.”
“Indeed. Wise individuals take precautions.”
“For a price?” asked Britta.
“For a price,” confirmed L-15.
Overall, it seemed a system designed to reward players who paid for insurance. Not so much pay to win, as pay not to lose. A racket, to be sure, but it was hardly a shocking development no one would expect or stand for. Just another day in gaming.
Britta looked back down at the scene of the disaster. The fire was out and the debris was being cleared remarkably quickly. No doubt a replacement building would soon be erected.
There was another explosion further towards the city wall which ringed the sprawling mess. This time the mushroom cloud was green.
“Was that another forge?” asked Britta.
“That was a medicine factory.”
“I’ve never heard of that before,” said Britta. “What kinds of medicines do they make?”
“A variety. From basic healing balms to supernatural power boosts. The more potent the remedy…”
“The more likely it is to blow up?”
“Exactly.” There was a hint of a smile under L-15’s luxurious beard. “People invest their time in forging and alchemical processes to try and gain a step up the ladder to heaven. It requires fortitude and perseverance, and a degree of good fortune, but if they are lucky enough to create a magical weapon or a pill that deepens the pool of power from which they can draw, then they have the chance to face the challenges of this world with a valid expectation of success.”
L-15 opened his hand to reveal a large circular pill, milky white like a pear.
“A pill like this can give you the ability to lift up mountains and sleep among the clouds.”
Was he offering it to her? Trying to tempt her? Casually checking if she was interested in self-medicating?
Britta wasn’t particularly interested in weight training with mountains or making her beds in the clouds. It also looked like it would be a hard pill to swallow.
“I expect it has side-effects,” she said.
L-15 closed his hands around the pill. “You have a very cynical outlook. All things of value come with a cost.”
A purple light flashed in across the city, followed by the loudest explosion yet. Britta was beginning to think it wasn’t the risk involved in creating powerful items that was the problem. It might be that the people here just weren’t very good at it.