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I HAVE NOT, Goblin Cave wrote, BEEN HAVING A GOOD WEEK.

It was very strange to have an adventurer inquire about how it was doing. Goblin Cave was pretty sure it didn't enjoy the direct attention.

Everything since its... premiere, had been profoundly disorganized and stressful. It had understood the vague shape of things prior — while it was in ultimate control of everything within its domain, there was an entire world outside itself that it knew nothing about — but in practice, the way the world revealed itself to it was through one disaster after another, a disorienting avalanche of concepts it could barely structure together into any kind of context. It hadn't been able to focus on anything. Or rather, it had focused on everything, and made very little progress with anything.

It had inquired about 'Deviltongue Kano', and one adventurer had launched into a seemingly endless poetry recital, 24 stanzas before the rest of the party got too agitated and told them to shut up. It had asked about hexes and received a story about an ancient cenote dungeon full of mana trees that one day simply exploded into a still-whirling hexstorm. It had asked about Moon-Caller Lonway and gotten another elaborate prose epic about his rivalry and romance with Moon-Eater Managarm, ending with the fall of the old empire. It asked about the duchy and the tribes and got a different set of opinions from nearly every adventurer that walked its halls. Some things were history, others fables, embellished mythology, and it had no clue how to discern them, especially since many adventurers disagreed as to which was which.

There were an enormous amount of things in the world, and it felt as if everyone expected it to know everything already — every conversation stumbled out into a mess of assumptions about what it was familiar with. This was, perhaps, what the survey-adventurer had meant. If it spent thirty years talking to adventurers about the world every day, that would perhaps catch it up to where the adventurers were now: fonts of bizarre, disconnected trivia that only made sense with a lifetime's worth of interaction.

One adventurer had found its new hall, confused, but had still gone through and killed the mobs, adding a single stroke to the [Mana Goblin] and [Flame Wisp] chambers, rather than the direct experience information it had requested. Since the mobs would take another week to respawn, Goblin Cave sealed off the hall until then.

ARE THERE GOBLINS, it eventually got around to asking. It had to clarify: ARE THERE GOBLINS OUT IN THE WORLD, OUTSIDE OF THE INFLUENCE OF ANY DUNGEON?

Yes, they said. Goblin Cave asked several adventurers to try and make sure.

Well. That was one question answered.

After everything that had happened — and still without the time to reflect on things — it was hard to say how Goblin Cave felt about that. Real goblins. But what made them real?

It had continued spawning goblins in the mana bellows to lure its flame wisps into attacking and using mana, and none of them had ruptured from mana drain. The newer batch had considerably more turbulent mana, which gave it several interesting ideas that it still didn't have time to follow up on. But that implied that these mobs had system connections too, they just weren't limited to its own dungeon. (In theory; Goblin Cave hadn't managed to separate one to try to shoo it out of its dungeon to see if it persisted out there as well.) So, presumably, the real goblins also had system connections. So... why did they exist? Were they, in truth, descendants from ancient [Beastkin Goblins]?

The system seemed profoundly arbitrary. Or rather... it could envision system-space separated from physical space, severing the connection. System-space would become an inert database of facts and figures: stat blocks, skill names, spell effects, all linked together but untethered from any external referent. And physical space would become mundane: no dungeons, no spells, no mana. More-or-less everything would die from mana depletion, but there were plenty of physical operations that didn't require mana. Meanwhile, the way system-space was structured seemed to scream that it was authored or curated. There were both an absurd excess of mobs — eighteen different tier 0 and 1 goblins, neatly filling out the elemental categories, from the mundane [Goblin] (t0, unaligned) to the dubious [Nilbog] (t1, death) — and a profoundly limited selection — only a single tier 1 flame elemental? No potential for two unaligned tier 1 avians? And so on. But there were goblins in other categories — Goblin+Beast, which it had only unlocked with its secondary specialization and presumably was entirely full of hybrid monsters; its mana goblins in Abberation — so it wasn't precisely correct. Did that mean there were special blended category pages for every two creature types? But if so, why wouldn't Mana Goblin be categorized on some theoretical 'Goblin+Elemental' page? Or 'Goblin+Aberration'? What if it obtained a third creature specialization? Would there be a triplet category? By what reasoning was a [Mounted Goblin], a goblin and a wolf that shared a system page, meaningfully distinct from simply a [Goblin] and a [Wolf]?

There were arbitrary structures in both physical space and system-space, but it had never seen an equivalent categorical problem with the physical world. The physical world was ontologically inert, and invited categorization; system-space came with all of its categories predefined. To Goblin Cave, that implied something had done the categorization.

It found itself explaining this entire situation to an adventuring party. They were, by its estimation, level 3, with four of them. They were the ones to find its mob hallway after it respawned and Goblin Cave reopened the passage, and one of them had spoken up: "Oh, this is... people have been saying the dungeon has been changing? Maybe talking to them? Or there's a mage stuck in the walls or something."

The adventurers, in stark opposition to the survey team, blandly and flatly accepted the changes without comment or question. It was such a clear difference that it piqued Goblin Cave's curiosity, but it had not yet managed to phrase the question — WHY DO YOU BEHAVE DIFFERENTLY THAN THE DUCHY'S SURVEYORS IN DUNGEONS? — in a way that actually got in the answers it wanted. They talked a lot about adventuring party composition and how the duchy's adventurers were overequipped and underskilled. That hadn't been what Goblin Cave had been interested in at all.

But that had led to it introducing its experience categorization project, after they had killed the mobs and added more tallies to the wall, rather than list their level and experience gain.

"You need a skill to see exactly how much experience you get from a mob," the adventurer explained. "It's kind of a hassle to get, and we're just starting out, so..."

"Plus, its really inaccurate at low levels," one of the other party members said. "You get a rough estimation."

"But you can kinda feel the experience soak in," the first adventurer had said. Goblin Cave did recall adventurers speaking of that before, especially when they killed its boss mobs. "So I just marked the ones that felt the strongest!"

That was a very stark difference from its system panes, which were precisely quantified without a hint of inaccuracy, as far as it could tell.

I FIND MYSELF FRUSTRATED WITH THE ARBITRARY NATURE OF CERTAIN SYSTEM CONSTRUCTIONS, it had eventually written. ARE YOU FAMILIAR WITH MOB TIERS?

"What like, monster races? Yeah, a little. Identification skills usually give you a broad range."

More inaccuracy. I AM PRESENTED WITH TABLES. THE COLUMNS ARE ELEMENTAL AFFINITIES, AND THE ROWS ARE TIERS. EACH TABLE IS CATEGORIZED AS A CERTAIN KIND OF CREATURE. THE IMPLICATION IS THAT EACH TABLE IS COMPLETE, SO FOR EACH CREATURE TYPE THERE IS PRECISELY ONE ELEMENTALLY-ALIGNED MOB OF A GIVEN TIER. It sketched out the start of its goblin tiers on the wall, for reference, and the adventurers clustered around to look:

GOBLINS ELEMENT
unaligned fire water wind earth light dark time death
TIER 0 [Goblin] [Flayer Goblin] [Goblinoid] [Goblin Bard] [Grogoblin] [Ray Goblin] [Skulking Goblin] [Goblin Sleeper] [Goblin Haunter]
1 [Fierce Goblin] [Tusked Goblin] [Sleet Goblin] [Goblin Piper] [Bark Goblin] [Glow-goblin] [White Goblin] [Goblin Dreamer] [Nilbog]

"Sure?"

ONE, IN THE ENTIRE WORLD? THERE IS NEVER AN OCCURRENCE OF TWO DIFFERENT KINDS OF EQUALLY-POWERFUL, SAME-ELEMENT CREATURES? EVER?

"Yeah, I guess that is kind of strange. Maybe it's local monsters? Or maybe there's stuff that doesn't exist in spawn tables? Or duplicate categories for extras?"

I DON'T KNOW. I HAVE YET TO FULLY EXPLORE THAT PARTICULAR AVENUE OF STUDY.

"Oh? Why not? I mean..." they shared a look. "Uh, if you did make some kind of powerleveling setup in here..."

I BECAME DISTRACTED WITH OTHER VENTURES. DO YOU KNOW THE STRENGTH OF YOUR SOUL?

"What like.. how devout I am? Not very, I guess."

NO. THERE IS A NUMERICAL QUANTIFICATION, THE SAME AS ANY STAT. TIER 0 MOBS COST PRECISELY 1 UNIT OF SOUL TO COMMAND. I HAVE NOTICED UNUSUAL BEHAVIOR WITH VERY LARGE SOUL VALUES, WHICH LEADS ME TO BELIEVE THE UNIT IS ACTUALLY EXTREMELY SMALL.

"I don't think I've ever heard anybody talk about having a soul stat on their status page. But, about the tiers... have you tried spawning in, like, an ant? A worm?"

WHAT IS A WORM?

The problem with that is that the kind of physical description an adventurer was capable of giving were less than useless for giving it an idea of how the spawn template might be structured.

WHAT SKILLS DOES IT HAVE?, it asked.

"They don't have any," the adventurer said. "They don't give you any experience, either."

WHAT DO THEY DO, it asked.

"They, uh, crawl around in the dirt? They're wet and slimy and come out when it rains. We use them as bait for fishing."

That was interesting. Maybe something with [Tunnelling]? With a dark or earth affinity... but if it was in the middle of a conversation then it should at least finish it before it got involved in the many-hour process of trying to work out a spawn template from first principles. But if they had no skills... well, it was fairly sure it couldn't spawn things with no skills. So if there were things that lacked system connections entirely, it could maybe not spawn them?

So, what, had the system seen the world and then categorized everything, and the only things in the spawn tables were things it had categorized? Tiers were sorted, roughly, by power. The system cared about numbers going up. If that was so, then were only the least things in the world spared its glance? Things with no potential to gain levels.

BRING ME WORMS, it wrote. AND I WILL PROVIDE YOU WITH BRONZE.

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A note from xaphiriron

so! it's been a month of writing this! i have some things to say!

i started this mostly as a goofy writing exercise because i was feeling a little burnt out on my other projects, and looking at the site i was like, well, i bet i could probably get something in the top #1000. i was absolutely not expecting a meteoric rise to, uh, currently hovering around #10 rated on the entire site. that's a little overwhelming. this is probably one of the most popular things i've ever written, which is a weird feeling.

other things i learned: writing 10k words a week is tough! i mean i've tried nanowrimo before; i know it can be tough, but especially for something like this that doesn't have a clearly-defined 50k end state it can get rough. i haven't been super pleased with the last few chapters, but that'ssss serial writing for you.

anyway, i'm gonna take next week off, so no updates until july 11th, and after that i'm gonna switch over to a monday-wednesday-friday release schedule. this is both to build up more of a backlog (which really helps for editing myself out of corners -- i can edit in all the retcons i want into unreleased chapters!) and to hopefully pace myself a little better for going forwards. i might also revise & restructure some of the existing chapters, probably mostly to backfill in some blue boxes to better introduce the few System Mechanics which are gonna be actually story-relevant. probably i should've written up the table for the tier stuff somewhere in the first ten chapters instead of now. i gotta write up a more concrete plot outline so i actually end up hitting all the story beats i wanna hit, etc.

for the record, i don't really foresee this getting to be over a hundred chapters; this is not gonna be one of those stories that goes on for 1,400 chapters with no end in sight. my actual goal here is to just finish this, rather than abandon it unfinished, so, the longer it gets the worse, really.

i'm also probably not gonna make a patreon or sell this or w/e, just since i don't really plan on making a habit of writing serial fiction, and most of the other stuff i'd write would uhh not be particularly suitable genre-wise for royal road. but i might have some other stuff to announce if/when i actually finish this, whenever that may be.

anyway! hope you're enjoying the story so far!

here are some stories that have been inspirations for this one, to tide you over during the pause:


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xaphiriron

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