It took me all of ten seconds to verify that the Obligatory Chess-Board Puzzle was not as obligatory as usual.
On the surface, it was very much as it always appeared: a rudimentary, run-of-the-mill man-sized game board puzzle, nothing particularly special about it. It had been dressed up a bit by the Proving Grounds’s architects, lots of big grey animal-faced statues towering up around it on all sides and rising toward a domed ceiling, and all the squares enameled in a confusing array of colors that resembled no chess-board I can ever remember seeing. Even odds as to whether they did this to make the puzzle (and thus the associated trap) more deadly or they were just trying to spice things up a bit and disguise the fact that yes, in the end, they had settled upon a hoary old chestnut of the dungeon design genre for the northeastern sector because they had no better ideas to work with. Between you and me, I’m not certain the dungeon designers that the Wizard hired once upon a time were actually that good at their jobs. I suspect they put in a low bid, and that was the primary appeal.
(I never met the Wizard, mind you, so I am singularly unqualified to speculate on his motivations. My friend Seamon the Water Weird, who is a planned encounter, and who has thus been here at the Proving Grounds since the beginning, knew the man and has privately confessed to me that he was crazy as pants on a chicken. Seamon also tells me that despite this, his heart was in the wrong place, which is a gentle compliment in the upside-down inside-out world of evil wizards.)
That all said, there was an air of crackling energy about the place today. The eyes of the animal-faced statues seemed to glitter, more anxious than usual to rain blazing electrical death down upon those who would tread incorrectly upon its squares. The enamel of the squares beneath gleamed as though it had been freshly waxed and polished (which was not literally likely, given the dangers of doing so) and the whole thing seemed alive in a way that I hadn’t seen since, well, ever.
“Whoa, girl,” I muttered beneath my breath, picking my nose thoughtfully at it. “What’s gotten into you today?”
The Obligatory Chess-Board Puzzle did not respond, but I could hear it groaning in anticipation, like a beast of burden straining at its traces. I shook my fuzzy head. Strange. Not unwelcome, but still a bit strange. Idly, I hopped across the squares in just the right way so as no not trigger my own demise and spent a while staring up at the statues.
It was as though they were waiting for something. Hopping nimbly back across the puzzle and resuming my wandering monster rounds, I found myself wondering what it might be waiting for.
As fate and poetic conclusion would have it, I did not have to wonder for long.
It was an unremarkable corner. I had rounded it, literally, well over a thousand times before. But that time, on that day, the rounding of that corner revealed something it had never revealed before: her. A girl, occupying the hallway in the way that only a massive colossus of humanoid flesh wrapped in tempered plate armor can. She stood there, one booted foot braced against the wall, trying valiantly to remove one of the hallway torches from its bracket and not succeeding. Her hair was long, wavy, the color of clover honey; and her plate-mail was the shimmering blue of oil on water. She was tall (human, I wagered), but she had an odd little knob of a nose that suggested that there was a drop or two of dwarfish or halflingish running through those veins. She wore a sword across her back that was as big as two kobolds laid end to end and she was the single most objectively beautiful creature I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong: my heart is still taken by my huggy-wuggy-drownykins (though I would never let Seamon hear me call him that!) But there was something about the girl, something so clean holy and right that it made my heart leap in my tiny little breast just to behold her.
An adventurer. Again. After all this time.
I watched, transfixed, as she gave up on the torch, shaking the hair out of her eyes as she did so. It rustled at the glittering pauldrons of her armor, sounding like the chiming of impossibly distant bells.
“Well, I’m stuck,” said the adventurer (“Adventuress”? Is that the right variation?) before me, giving the wall of torch brackets a blisteringly blue-eyed stare. “I can’t shift even one of these, not for love or gold pieces.”
“I don’t see why you insist on putting absolutely everything you come across into your inventory,” said her companion, a wolf-sized creature apparently consisting of a single large disembodied brain supported by four clawed legs. I hadn’t seen its like before, and it led me to believe that someone was getting a little avant-garde on the random encounter tables on one of the shallower levels above us.
“This isn’t like that blind cave fish,” said the adventuress. “I actually want and need one of these torches. You guys’s tunnels are all explicitly torch-lit. Are you going around lighting and replacing torches all day?”
“I don’t really have a good grasp of the routine,” said the brain. “I’ve only existed for a matter of minutes. Or did you forget?”
“Point is,” said the adventuress, “torches burn out hecka quickly. Unless there’s somebody trotting through here very frequently and pointlessly replacing the torches over and over again, these suckers are everburning. Have you ever seen one of them extinguished?”
“See my earlier point about only existing for a matter of minutes,” said the brain.
“Whatevs,” said the adventuress. “I want an everburning torch.”
“It’s not very practical, though, is it?” inquired the walking brain. “I don’t think you’ve really considered the practical implications of a burning object that never ever goes out. You couldn’t put it in a bag or anything.”
“I’d store it in my waterskin.”
“You’re keeping the fish in the waterskin.”
The adventuress gave a little sneer. “Well, obviously I’d find a different place to put the fish before sticking my everburning torch in it.”
Her rapacious greed was enthralling to me. Her shining armor was bedazzling. Her needlessly complex approach to practical problems of her own devising was positively hypnotic. Truly, she was everything we here at the Proving Grounds had hoped for. Despite myself, I let out a little squeak. Two successful Perception checks later, I found myself being stared at by a pair of blue eyes and an uncommonly intense frontal lobe.
“Kobold!” shrieked the adventuress, joyfully, whipping an enormous broadsword from out of her back-harness, which instantly burst into white flame on contact with the air. “Awright! Momma needs a shot at some random loot!”
“Okay, hold on,” said the walking brain, interposing itself between the adventuress and me. “For serious, here? You’re not even going to try and talk?”
“Yeah,” said the adventuress. “Pretty sure those little boogers don’t speak Common. You’re seriously suggesting that I see a kobold and not attempt to smite it? These guys are little walking bags of combat rewards!” She blinked, beaming to herself. “They’re nature’s XP!”
“These ‘guys,’” insisted the brain, “are my brethren.”
“You didn’t exist until I spawned you, like, half an hour ago!”
“Still my people,” insisted the brain. “Cut from the same module.”
“It really is okay,” I said. “I’m at peace with the matter.” And I was. Much as I would have liked to spend more time getting to know Seamon and settling down in a little enclave of my own with him in the Well Chamber, the sudden arrival of the adventuress had changed everything. This was, of course, my highest destiny as a kobold: to be cut down in droves by questing treasure-hunters. I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to manage being cut down in droves given that there was just the one of me, but for Kurtulmak’s sake, I was going to try. Finally, I could correct the rather unfortunate error of combat prowess that had left me alive and my associated adventurer dead, all those many years ago. Finally, I could give something back to the Proving Grounds that had spawned me.
“It will be an honor,” I said, “to be cut down by you.”
The adventuress won initiative.
She held her action.
“Well, crap,” said the adventuress. “I can’t smite him now. He talks and everything!” She screwed up her face at me. “Plus, I’m not even sure he’s a kobold. He’s kind of fuzzy. I thought kobolds were, like, little dragons or something.”
“First Edition,” commented the walking brain. “Whole different world back then.”
“Oh, cool!” said the adventuress, inspecting me from a safe distance. “A museum piece!”
“Yes, yes!” said the walking brain, ingratiatingly. “This guy’s a keeper! They don’t make ‘em like him anymore. Surely that’s a good a reason as any to try to win this encounter using diplomacy rather than combat?”
“All right, you sold me,” said the adventuress. She crouched into a low squat. Her eyes got wide and gleamy. “Hey little guy!” she said. “Hey! I think I got some iron rations in one of these bags. Would you like that? Iron raaations! Num num num! Num num num num num!”
Meanwhile, the brain slapped itself with the palm of one of its claws, shaking its frontal lobe back and forth. “Diplomacy, Kelli. This isn’t Handle Animal.”
The adventuress, Kelli, straightened up. “Sorry, Eidey. I haven’t really tried to handle conflicts non-lethally before.” She blinked. “Like, ever, I think.”
“‘S’aright,” said Eidey. “Just takes a little practice. You’re a sorcerer/paladin cross, so you should have Charisma coming out the butthole.”
“Figure of speech. Just say what feels right and let your skill checks do the rest. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Kelli. She cleared her throat. “Greetings, noble Kobold! Scion of the great drago—er, I mean… dogs! Wolves! Wolves of the High Forest! We entreat you, or perhaps ‘thee’ to grantest us… passage…est! Through this hall. Without me killing you. Pretty please. With sugar on.”
A pall fell over the scene. This? I suddenly thought to myself. After all these years of waiting, this preposterous little girl is the best the campaign world could come up with? In a twinkling, her armor didn’t seem as shining and her imperious, entitled demeanor became boring and mildly irritating rather than the culmination of all the hopes and wishes of the Proving Grounds.
“How was that?” said Kelli, turning brightly to the brain-on-legs.
Eidey stroked thoughtfully at his pituitary gland. “I don’t think that worked as intended, Kelli.”
Kelli put her gauntleted hands on her faulded hips. “Are you kidding me?” she exclaimed. “I used all sorts of titles and old-timey language and I even said ‘please’ at the end! With sugar on!” She stared intently at the brain. “Sugar,” she emphasized.
Eidey sighed, though I couldn’t quite work out how, without lungs or a throat or anything. “This campaign isn’t really heavy on role-playing,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter so much what you say as it does how the dice turn out. Although it is pretty puzzling. Off chance you’re throwing natural ones, you wanna give it another shot?”
“Okay,” said Kelli, dubiously. “Hail, Kobold! I… wondereth if we may have gotten off on the wrong foot somehow! My pet intellect devourer here thinks it would be a bad idea to kill you, so even though I totally could, maybe you might see your way clear to, um, letting us pass?”
Okay, that tears it, I thought to myself, readying my spear. Stupid puffed-up preposterous bint. Bellowing my best kobold war cry, I launched myself at the duo. Eidey the walking brain made a purposeful lunge of psychic concentration at me mid-charge and my world dissolved into shining sparks and went away for a second.
“What the hell are you doing?” I heard Eidey say from somewhere outside of my zone of stunned mental haze. “You were trying to turn him hostile. Admit it!”
“Goy, no!” said Kelli, punctuating her words with cracks on a piece of chewing gum. “You completely sold me on the whole diplomacy angle! And look what happened! He was just going to sit there and let me kill him and suddenly he went all bugfart!”
“I can’t figure this out!” said Eidey, his clawed toes clacking against flagstones as he paced back and forth. “I’ve run the numbers! Even a complete rookie throwing the typical first-level points into his Diplomacy skill should be mathematically incapable of reducing the disposition of an encounter this much!”
There was a silence, punctuated by the noise of Kelli’s gauntlet scraping against her gorget as she scratched nervously at her throat.
“Kelli, darling,” said Eidey, with a certain amount of dripping sweetness, “you have put points into Diplomacy, haven’t you?”
“Well, see,” said Kelli, “it’s not as though I get all that many skill points, and—”
“Diplomacy!” shouted Eidey. “It’s… it’s one of the basic things that paladins do! Didn’t you have anything left over when you started out? Exactly what is your Intelligence bonus, anyway?”
“Oh, gods,” said Eidey. “Oh, gods. I thought when you told me about your eight in Dexterity that that was low as it went. Don’t tell me it gets worse.”
“So I flubbed a roll or two in my youth!” protested Kelli. “We all make mistakes, right?”
“Oh gods oh gods oh gods,” said Eidey. “This isn’t happening. Tell me I haven’t thrown in with a girl who used Intelligence as her dump stat!”
“Excuse me,” I said, planting the butt of my spear against a crack in the flagstones and levering myself off the floor. “I’m still hostile over here, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to get on with the business of killing you.”
“So now what am I supposed to do?” said Kelli, throwing her arms wide.
“Your job!” shouted Eidey. “Piss or get off the pot, Thunderhold! Diplomacy that thing!”
“Fine!” spat Kelli. “Although I don’t know why I’m wasting perfectly good rolls trying to circumvent an encounter with a stinky little half-hit-die subhuman whose highest goal in life is helping me test-drive my Cleave feat.”
And just like that, the killing rage dissipated. Yes. Yes, I would definitely class myself as “indifferent” now. Shrugging nonchalantly, I leaned my spear up against the wall and began working on next week’s to-do list. A disproportionate number of the entries consisted of the single word “wander.”
“Whoa,” said Kelli. “I did it! I shifted him right out of killing mode! That’s total Book of Exalted Deeds crap there, right?”
“Yes,” said Eidey. “Exactly right. Finally, you get it.”
“But wait,” said Kelli. “All I did was talk trash about him. How did that even work?”
“For the last time,” said the brain, “it doesn’t matter what you say! It’s all decided by dice!”
Kelli quirked. She clanked over to me and tried to engage, which was kind of irritating, because she was getting in my light. Nothing to get hostile over, though.
“Hey, Kobold,” said Kelli, quietly. “You’re a pustulent little monkey-dog with a serious and committed relationship to medical-grade halitosis, and your mother licked garden tools for fun.”
Instantly, it was as though the shining day-star of the surface world had emerged out from behind one of those big cottony floating things. “I want to dirty your boots,” I said, leaping into the paladin’s arms, “just so that I can have the pleasure of letting you clean them off on my face.”
“Holy crap, that worked,” said Kelli. “Hey, Eidey, lookit! I’ve adjusted him all the way up past ‘Helpful’ and on to ‘Disquieting’!”
“Great!” said the walking brain, rearing back on his hindquarters and clapping his foreclaws together in a rather sarcastic fashion, which I was pretty sure Kelli didn’t deserve. “Only took you about seventeen rounds more than it should have.”
“I got the job done, didn’t I?” she said, setting me gently back down on the floor. “Okay, momma’s gonna put you down now.”
“Question him!” hissed the brain.
“Question him!” the brain repeated. “You know, that thing you do with opponents you haven’t killed once the fight is over?”
Kelli shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t understand.”
The brain growled and marched over to our position. “Okay, look,” he said. “I’m robustly and frighteningly psionic so I could probably wrench this out of your head, but seeing as though we’re on good terms, I’m just going to ask you this: Kelli and I are on a mission to find the soul-anchor of an ancient and long-presumed-dead god named The Numbing One. Your wizard, the wizard who built this place, was the last living creature to have the thing in his possession according to everything the Edificant Library had to say on the matter. We need anything, anything that you might remember about this guy and/or any ominous trinkets he may have collected.”
I shrugged. “I’m not your monster,” I said. “Sure, I’ve been around for a while, triggering traps and inciting encounters, but the Wizard was way before my time.”
“Crud,” said Eidey, sitting back on his cerebellum.
“However,” I said, brightening, “I’ve got a friend who’s a real planned encounter! He knew the Wizard. If anyone could help you with this, I bet Seamon could!”
“Yes,” said Kelli, pointing eagerly at me. “Yes, great. Let’s go see this friend of yours, kobold-boy. Eidey, what can I say? You were right all along!”
“Yes, yes,” sniffed Eidey. “Enjoy these little sparks of delight at my correctness while they last. Eventually the classical conditioning will kick in and agreeing with me will become a matter of purest reflex, handled at the level of the spine.”
“I have no idea what you just said,” said Kelli, turning to follow me down the hall, “but I’m agreeing with it! I tell you what, this quest is suddenly looking a whole lot brighter, and it’s all thanks to sweet, sweet Diplomacy!”
“I’m so glad to hear that you’re happy,” I said. “Come now, let us go meet Seamon. He’s so going to enjoy drowning you.”
“Sorry, what?” asked Kelli Thunderhold.