Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dark Queen of Krynn: The Black Robed, the Winged Ones, and Also the Small

Bit by bit, we ruin the draconians' plans.
When I last wrote, the party had emerged from New Aurim and had returned to Hawkbluff to infiltrate the fortress of Trandamere, religious ruler-in-all-but-name of Thenol. Hawkbluff was an interesting set of maps. I screwed it up in almost every possible way and still managed to clear it. The fortress consists of five levels up and two levels down. There were several entrances, and each required a different pass. Apparently (I looked this up later), there are eight passes. The jeweler in town, having been shown the queen's signet ring, will forge up to three of them. 
I screwed things up in several ways. First, I was feeling ornery and I refused to map the small levels, even though there are multiple stairways connecting them, plus multiple secret doors, and you really have to map to make sense of it all. Second, I carried my "total war" attitude over from New Aurim and insisted on just attacking everything. Third, I only ever got one pass from the jeweler--the "Keyhole" pass that you need to enter the main doors of the fortress. From there, I put my right shoulder to the wall and followed it dogmatically, up and down stairs when I encountered them, but never finding many of the fortress's encounters. I never even visited the two lower levels. Despite that, the place was packed with encounters. Some examples:
  • As we entered the fortress, guards were trading rumors about "over a hundred mercenaries" attacking and sacking the palace in New Aurim.
  • Clerics demanding that citizens donate their possessions and then sacrifice themselves to the undead army. We watched one old man do this to save his daughter, then attacked the clerics and stopped the practice for good.
  • We killed some treasury guards and got access to the treasury, which had 38,771 gold pieces. Naturally, we couldn't carry most of it.
  • Multiple battles with a new enemy called "Bakali." The manual describes them as lizard men from Taladas. They hit hard, and numerous times, with their spears, and they take a pounding, but they're susceptible to most mass-damage spells. 
A large pack of soon-to-be-charred Bakali.
  • We disrupted services in the main Temple of Hith, killed all the clerics, and overturned the altars.
  • Several overheard conversations and rumors indicated that Trandamere was planning for an invasion of Ansalon once Taladas was conquered.
The primary battle took place in a war room in which Trandamere and his generals were discussing the upcoming invasion of a place called "Blackwater." First, we had to kill the generals while Trandamere fled. Then, we had to kill a bunch of draconians protecting Trandamere in his flight. Then, we had to kill a bunch of Bakali doing the same. Finally, Trandamere fled through a secret portal that exploded behind him.
Trandamere had hauled Hawkbluff's architect, Davik, to the meeting. When everyone was dead, Davik joined the party and helped direct us to various places around the fortress. Still, we had trouble figuring out what to do next. A commenter helped by offering that if we'd come in through the front door of Trandamere's war room, instead of the secret door we used, we would have seen a scripted event in which Trandamere had tossed the Book of Amrocar into a dumbwaiter. That was our cue to look for it in the kitchen. Well, we eventually found it there even though that encounter text had never appeared. The book contained an in-journal map of Blackwater Glade.
I got stuck for a while in a loop where the game was asking me this every step. Fortunately, it cleared up.
Let's pause here to talk about draconians. I've been fighting them since Champions of Krynn, but Dark Queen introduces a new set of "enchanted" varieties that really raise the stakes. Aurak draconians, for instance, resurrect twice before finally dying in a fireball that damages everyone around them. Enchanted Auraks are like this except they also have up to Level 8 mage spells and significantly damage everyone around them when they explode. 
"Exploding when they die" is a trait shared by several enchanted draconian breeds. Enchanted Sivaks explode in four directions with the same effects as "Meteor Swarm." Enchanted Kapaks dissolve into acid for a 10-foot radius. But worse of all are enchanted Bozaks. They not only have "Fire Shield" active when combat begins, they explode into "Ice Storm" when killed and they have "Cone of Cold," "Ice Storm," and "Lightning Bolt" at their disposal. You have to make a tough decision when fighting them: either let them cast at will, or damage them every round so they can't cast spells, in which case they rush up to engage you in melee range and you have to either extract yourself or take the damage when they explode.
The explosions of regular draconians were annoying but rarely fatal, but the death throes of enchanted draconians often kill one or more of my characters. The best tactic I could come up with was to cast "Monster Summoning," which almost always generates fire giants, and try to put them in between the party and the draconians while I picked them off with spells (which fail a lot of the time against draconians) and arrows. The constant struggle got relatively tiresome by the end of the game, but on the other hand it proved the first serious challenge that the Gold Box offered in a long time.
Putting a summoned creature buffer between us and a draconian.
To deal with the difficulty of these and other combats, I naturally relied on buffing spells, often cast during my second attempt at the battle. "Bless," "Protection from Evil," and "Prayer" still offer some assistance. "Resist Fire" and "Resist Cold" are equally vital, although they really just halve the damage. I still use "Enlarge" even though I don't think it really helps my powered characters. My mages get "Mirror Image," "Fire Shield," and "Globe of Invulnerability." Ever since one mage found a Ring of Wizardry that gives extra Level 5 slots, I've sacrificed spaces that would have normally gone to "Cone of Cold" for "Fire Touch," which lets the characters do extra fire damage. But by far the most useful buffing spell is "Haste." Unfortunately, it continues to age the characters one year for every time it's cast, and there aren't many Potions of Youth to be found in this game. My human characters have basically given up their youth to the utility of this spell, aging from their mid-20s to their mid-40s over the course of the series. I know it doesn't make a real in-game difference, but I still feel bad for them.
I left Hawkbluff having explored nowhere near all of the maps but still having accomplished my objectives. Normally, I would have insisted on exploring every square, but the fortress respawned more than any Gold Box game I can remember. Every time I came across a guard station or checkpoint, it was newly stocked with fresh forces. The combats got exhausting, particularly since it's nearly impossible to rest inside the fortress.
A new marker had appeared on my world map, so I headed there. A ship took me across the strait to what turned out to be the village of Bai'or. A fishing village, Bai'or had been conquered by draconians allied with a thuggish faction of Bai'orians called "Sharkmen," a term use by the Oracle. The draconians had left, but the Sharkmen remained in charge. There were also a company of dragons in the woods north of town, keeping the villagers in line. The villagers had been put to work building dozens of ships to carry the eventual draconian invasion fleet across the sea to Ansalon.
A lot of games would have elided the logistics of an intercontinental invasion.
Most villagers, afraid of the Sharkmen, wouldn't talk with us. Two of them, Eric Strongbond and Oleg Hamhand, tried to pin the troubles of the town on each other.  After we invaded and destroyed the Sharkmen's headquarters, we found an old woman named Anthela who suggested we just leave Bai'or to its fate and go find allies in the gnomes in the citadel of Aldinanachru "on the northwest of the Lava Sea." We had the option to just leave or to tell Anthela that we'd take care of the dragons so the rest of the town could throw off the yoke of the Sharkmen. We of course did the latter.
The fight against the Sharkmen was a classic, old-school Pool of Radiance-type battle against dozens of enemies mostly capable of physical attacks, although they did have a few clerics in the back. They were tough, but a few fireballs softened them up for my melee fighters to finish off. The town rejoiced at their liberation, and even the Strongbonds and Hamhands made amends.
This is what I live for.
We then had to keep our promise to fight the dragons. In the town's northern wooded squares, we found a battle with several black, blue, and red dragons. They could be tough if they went first, but dragons hardly ever do, and a hastened Midsummer and Dutch, both armed with dragonlances, can kill eight dragons per round. The other party members can easily take down one or two. It wasn't even close.
When the battle was over, we met a weak, sickly red dragon who the others had been torturing. We gave it some food and water, and it related that the draconians in the Tower of Flame have been trying to bio-engineer the perfect dragon for Takhisis to inhabit when she enters the mortal plane. He was one of the genetic mistakes. Grunschka unimaginatively named him "Firebreath." Firebreath suggested we find help from unaligned dragons in Blackwater Glade.
If that's your way of describing the afterlife, you and I have very different ideas about what it will look like.
This was the fifth or sixth time we'd heard about Blackwater Glade, but we didn't know where it was. We found it by returning to the mainland and searching up and down systematically.
As we entered, Dutch fell into a sinkhole and briefly lost the dragonscale necklace that the king of the Hulderfolk had given to us. I think the entire episode was just to remind us that he had it. As we explored the area, a bard named Baldric joined us. His character sheet showed he wasn't a bard but a ranger, and 83 years old at that. It was clear that something was up with him because he would disappear before every battle, and later we'd find scorched earth and bodies. Grunschka decided that she hated him for some reason, and yelled "hooray!" every time he left and grumbled every time he returned.
The party meets another walking god.
We ran into a tribe of Bakali--so that's where they come from--and helped one with his manhood trial against a giant crocodile, but in a way that didn't rob him of the honor of slaying the beast. Although his tribe forbade him from helping us, he showed up several times during the rest of the map to give us directions.
Ultimately, it turned out that the Glade was the home of two species of dragons, red and silver, oddly aligned with each other just because neither group had been corrupted by Takhisis during the War of the Lance. They called themselves "Othlorx." Draconians and Thenolians were now stealing their eggs for corruption into draconians. Baldric was a silver dragon in disguise. We also met another, named Clematra, who let us rest in her lair.
Sounds like an abstinence-based education could solve all of our problems.
The red dragons were ruled by Tremor--another name from the Oracle, finally appearing. He was unaligned with Takhisis but not "good," and he kept demanding tribute from us until we just threatened him and he fled. The Book of Amrocar had a password that got us into his lair. We eventually re-encountered a subdued Tremor, who told us that the courage of the red Othlorx had been lost the day that Takhisis struck a scale from the chest of Kothar, their previous leader.
Of course, this turned out to be the scale that Dutch was now wearing around his neck. Just as we handed it to Tremor, a hoard of Thenolians burst in, and we all had to work together to defeat them. After that, another red dragon tried to usurp Tremor's authority, so we had to participate in a ritual in which we laid a sword across Tremor's neck without killing him, apparently proving his bravery, and his rival backed down. Tremor let us keep the sword, which turned out to be a vorpal sword, perhaps the only major equipment upgrade we got in this game except the second dragonlance.
Dragons are weird.
After all was said and done, the Othlorx offered to fly us north to the gnome citadel at Aldinanachriu, which for some reason is built on the edge of a sea of lava. As we arrived, the place was in chaos. Tasslehoff Burfoot--groan--met us at the entrance and related what's happening. Gnomes have long been divided into two castes: the Gnomoi, who do all the thinking, planning, and inventing, and the Minoi, who do all the actual work. The king recently decided he wanted to abolish the caste system, and did so by reversing the two traditional roles. The new Gnomoi laborers were stumbling over themselves while the Minoi thinkers were designing disastrous inventions. As we arrived, the castle was gutted and full of debris and the elevator was broken; every time we used it, either we took some damage or some gnome operators died.
Typical of conditions in the citadel.
We re-encountered Captain Daenor, still searching for his sister. He had hoped that the gnome king would help with the nation's fire-fleets and windships, but the king was ignoring his pleas. He re-joined the party, and I was surprised to note that he was a paladin. I didn't remember if he had that class the first time. I gave him a spare long bow +3 and long sword +4.
We had an audience with the king, who listened impatiently and then dismissed us. However, our lie-detection ring started glowing in his presence and revealed him to be a Sivak draconian. He ordered his guards to attack as he fled, and we had to kill a lot of probably-innocent gnomes. 
This plot device is used more than masks in the Mission Impossible franchise.
The next couple of hours had us running around the multiple levels of the gnome fortress, trying to find the abducted king. We fought several squads of disguised Sivaks, plus a bunch of hydras and iron golems coming through a portal that they had opened, plus fooled ambassadors from the Land of the Minotaurs. In doing so, we revealed draconian plans to invade the Land of the Minotaurs, for which the minotaurs thanked us. We also awoke a pack of vampires in one forgotten corner of the place, which was a tough battle. They all refused to turn. 
I think the minotaurs are the "black robed" of the Oracle's prophecy. It's a good thing I didn't kill them all.
We made use of the fortress's services as we explored, including a training hall, an inn, a tavern, and most importantly, an old woman selling missiles out of a suitcase. She sold 10 arrows +2 for 15,000 gold. I spent nearly an hour appraising and selling gems and jewels to convert them to steel pieces, and in the end, I was able to purchase about 250 arrows, split among five characters with bows (including Captain Daenor). They didn't quite last me until the end of the game, and I can see why some players, taking a long-term view, invest quite heavily in cheaper arrows + 1 in Death Knights of Krynn before starting this game.
About halfway through the conversion process.
We finally caught up to where the draconians were holding the king, fought several more battles, dealt with a scene in which the real king and a Sivak both claimed to be each other, and ultimately won the day.
Baldric arrived at the citadel to report that the Othlorx had finished destroying the Thenol armies. (It's kind of weird that we never had a final confrontation with Trandamere.) The restored gnome king agreed to help us and the Othlorx on a multi-pronged attack on the draconians' Tower of Flame. We will be flown by wind ship to the top floors of the tower and then work our way down.
This "Grathanich" will become important next time--and not in a good way.
I had hoped to win the game for this entry, but although I have explored most of the Tower of Flame, I'm frustratingly unable to figure out how to actually wrap up the game. I've fought what seems like about 15 "final battles," but the game apparently wants me to still fight the final battle, which I have to hunt around for. We'll talk about my end game frustrations next time, assuming I'm able to win.
Before I go, I just want to note that this game has done a better job than any Gold Box title since Pool of Radiance in giving a large number of what I called contextual, conversational, and choice encounters in this old entry. Some allow you to role-play, some are a kind of mini-puzzle, and some are like rolling a die. They're all welcome. Here are some examples from this session alone:
A rare example of a dialogue option in a Gold Box game.

Since you really need Tremor and the Othlorx, choosing "behead" must lead to instant death or a very different game.

I like having choices, but who sees this situation and thinks, "attack!"?

The man is a vampire. Helping him allows him a free attack that drains the character.
I'm not sure that any of the encounter choices offered in Dark Queen lead to significantly different outcomes in terms of the plot, but it's still nice to see some recognition that role-playing is about choices, and some players like choices that go beyond what weapon to use and what enemy to attack in combat. It's an important step on the road to more meaningful role-playing in later games.     
Time so far: 30 hours


Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Summoning: Behind Enemy Lines

Sentries open the gate as I arrive at Shadow Weaver's Citadel at last.
When I last wrote about The Summoning, I thought I was stuck. It turned out I had overlooked one teleporter. That one teleporter took me to a brand new area that had several of the items I needed for the additional slots on End Five, including a crucial gold key that opened a couple of ways forward. Before I discovered the teleporter, I also Fehu-scummed for a couple of the additional items (that is, I used my Fehu runes, which generate random items, and reloaded if I got something that didn't help.), but they only opened doors to other treasures.
It's amazing that something like my impasse hasn't happened before. There are a number of places in the game where all action funnels to a single point--a door, a teleporter, a lever that opens a door, a pressure plate that activates a teleporter, and so forth. There are a million ways that you could miss or misinterpret one of these many objects and thus have no idea how to proceed. I've been very lucky so far.
While I was trying to figure out how to proceed, I allowed myself to briefly consult the hint book. I hardly ever consult hint books while playing the games; they typically ruin the experience for me. But I was so sure I was stuck that I wanted to see if I could find the specific solution to my problem.
The hint book is 164 pages. It is my opinion that anyone who looked at the hint book before playing the game would immediately put it down and at least slowly back away, if not turn tail and run. It looks like something that Satan would hand an RPG addict shortly after his arrival in hell. The problem is not that the book isn't accurate (although it often is not) but that seeing it all laid out like this makes each level look like a Kafkaesque horror. There are hundreds of numbered annotations per map, sometimes with both numbers and letters, sometimes double letters, often in no sensible order. For instance, the opening room for End Five has the annotations 1, 2, 3, 51B, and 54.
This is an area of End Three that I didn't find too hard to solve. If I'd looked at this first, I never would have gotten started.
The bigger problem is that some of the annotations are wrong, including the key one that would have helped me with this level. I figured out the teleporter I needed to advance in the level, the door I needed to open to get to the teleporter, and the slot that I needed to feed to open the door. The slot requires a gold key. Nowhere on the map does it say you find a gold key. There was a gold key in End Three, but I needed it for a necessary door there. I've needed all the gold keys I've found so far. Why would the game expect me to save a random one just in case I needed it in a later level?

Well, it didn't. The gold key is dropped by a cyclops in an area accessible by the "missed" teleporter. The hint book says that he drops a gold coin. That's a big difference. A spot check reveals several other inaccuracies, including index numbers that don't appear on the map or mismatches between the number on the map and the textual description of that number. "Open this door by operating the lever at 17," the book says, with the number on the map pointing to a teleporter, not a door. Anyway, I'm happy to put the hint book aside. This is a game that you need to experience as it feeds it to you, not all at once.
Having sorted things out, I was able to open the way to two new areas. The first went to a part of End Three that is inaccessible from the rest of the map. To get there, I first had to solve a puzzle in End Five. I stumbled into a room with Algit, Sowelu, Isa, and Nauthiz runes. (None of these do anything interesting enough that I was excited about them this late in the game.) There was a slot in the room next to a talking skull that said, "It's your job to solve my riddle, fellow guild members. Trust your initial instinct!"
"Initial instinct" sounded like some kind of letter-based puzzle, and it didn't take me long to realize that the letters A, S, I, and N can spell ASSASSIN. There were enough runes to make the word, so I fed them in the slot in the right order, and the way opened to End Three.
Well, I'm set on "Cure Poison," "Freeze," and "Cure Confusion" for a while.
The "hidden" area of End Three was shaped like a raven, and it was swarming with assassins. I feel like I killed 50 of them. I adopted some funny combat preferences for this level and the subsequent ones, incidentally. I started to find weapons again, so I set aside Warmonger for spears, axes, and maces in an attempt to build those skills. Later in this session, I had run low on disposable weapons but high on magic-regenerating stuff, with multiple wizard's staffs and magic hats. Thus, for a while I prioritized killing enemies with magic. Warmonger is always a nice failsafe, but I wish it were one-handed. I have so many shields to get rid of.
The game gets cute with its wall pattern.
The assassin area's primary puzzle was a series of locks, positioned all over the level, that had to be opened in a specific order. It wasn't much of a challenge, just a lot of trial and error. The locks opened the way to the assassin leader called the Raven. When I encountered him, he sensed that I had the magic mirror from like 18 levels ago and threatened to kill me if I didn't give it to him. The conversation went downhill from there, and soon we were in combat. He was surprisingly easy. He took a long time to die, but his own attacks were very mild. I didn't have to "Freeze" the action once.
Raven fundamentally misunderstands the situation.
When he was dead, I used a Gebo rune to teleport to the other side of the level, where a guy named Hiram had offered me a reward for Raven's head. The reward was 12 gold coins, a Book of Spears, and a Figurine of Resurrection. The 12 coins were exactly what I needed. Added to the 3 I already had, they gave me enough loot to purchase the lava boots and the healing spell.

I returned to End Two to purchase the boots from the boot maker, then went on to explore the lava level. "Lava" is a bit of a misnomer, as I never really saw any. Instead, the entire level just glowed red with heat. Standing in the level without the boots causes you to rapidly lose hit points. With the boots, you stop losing the points, but fire-based enemies (fire giants, phoenixes, and snake statues) cause a lot of fire-based damage, so its best to keep "Fire Shield" going. As I started to explore the level, I was worried the lava boots might turn out to be temporary items, like the amulets or Boots of Levitation. But they lasted the entire level, and I assume now they're permanent.
A cinematic interlude shows the boot maker working on my boots.
The lava level was mostly about providing item rewards to the player. Enemies and pressure plate puzzles led to fairly large caches of treasures, most of which I didn't need or want, but the experience was probably good. There was one clever puzzle early in the level ruined by the game's own mechanics. The puzzle consisted of 7 skulls arranged in a circle, each of which had a clue that resolved into a number. You had to be paying attention to the game's lore and mechanics to figure out the number. The clues were:
  1. Wizards who attempted to defeat Shadow Weaver (9)
  2. Hand motions in a magic wall spell (4)
  3. Items in a sack (10)
  4. Offspring of Chesschantra (1)
  5. Wizards whose souls were entrapped in their skulls (8)
  6. Weight of a boulder (5)
  7. The Gods of Darkspyre (3) 
Each skull had a pressure plate in front of it. The idea was that as you encounter locked doors throughout the level, you weigh down the appropriate combination of pressure plates. So a nearby door whose skull announced "4103" required me to weigh down plates 2, 3, and 7. There were large blocks of wood in the room for just that purpose, but only three of them, so you couldn't just weigh down every plate--except you could if you dribbled in nearby fire giant corpses. Without much effort, I weighed everything down and spared myself repeated trips back to the room.
An interesting puzzle ruined by its own mechanics.
After I was done with the lava level, I took the long slog back to End Five. I still hadn't found two of the items wanted by the floor slots--an Odin rune, a rowan wand, and a "Zap Away" parchment--but I figured I could live without whatever treasures they revealed. I stopped in the level's foyer and spent most of the rest of my gold on the "Heal" spell, which completely restores the character and removes the need for swapping in a potion bottle during combat. On the other hand, it uses 99 spell points compared to the 5 that "Liquify" uses, and it only takes 3 "Liquify" spells to fully heal me. I'll save "Heal" for emergencies.
I finally made my way to the exit from End Five, which is the entrance to the Citadel. Two guards stood sentry by the door, saying: "Nobody enters the citadel, save for Shadow Weaver's messengers." This was my clue to don the stone messenger's outfit and hat and to carry the stolen message. With the equipment on, the sentries opened the door, and I was at last in the Citadel.
Don't I look dashing.
A downward ladder awaited me right at the entrance, and it led to the Citadel Basement. A second ladder was right there, and it led to the sewers, the alternate way into the Citadel. I started to explore it from this direction, but I soon sank into the muck again and gave up. I don't know how much experience or treasure I'm leaving in the sewers, but it doesn't seem worth it.
I explored the basement next. All the Citadel levels are roughly circular. The basement had a couple of outer "rings" with a few structures in the middle. There was a lot of open area and the same types of keyed doors, pressure plates, levers, and teleporters you've heard me describe a million times. Enemies were specters and particularly difficult skeletons. I found two Books of the Spear in the area. Spears break very fast, so it's hard to otherwise develop skill with them. There were lots of other runes. 
Chesschantra's spirit rises.
The center building housed the crypt of Chesschantra, the sorceress from the backstory. She had been King Borel's lover but slept with the God of Magic and had an unnatural child, Abighael. I had long suspected that Abighael was either Shadow Weaver or Rowena. Chesschantra's spirit arose from her coffin and cleared things up:
Do not fear me, Jera. Come closer. I must speak with you. I am the witch Chesschantra. Or, should I say, the ghost of Chesschantra. I know that you must seek out half of the Staff of Summoning that Shadow Weaver does not possess. You must then mend the Staff and use it. Hold a personal possession of the one you wish to summon in one hand and the Staff in the other. Then invoke the Staff's power!
I must tell you, Shadow Weaver is actually my daughter, Abighael. She plans to use the necklace of runes to summon back the God of Magic. She hopes to defeat him and assume his state of existence. She does not realize that she cannot win. The god will overpower her, and then release his own wrath upon this world. When you have mended the Staff, summon ME. I will then be able to take care of my daughter. I know Abighael has brought great pain to this world, but she must be forgiven. I can convince her to make amends, and to bring peace and happiness back to this world.
Somehow, "I am the world's only salvation" gives me pause.
She then gave me her skull to use in the ritual. Her plan makes sense, but I can't help but wonder what will happen if I hold other items in my hand when invoking the staff--one of the speared skulls, say, or even Warmonger. I might have to play around.
The upper floors of the Citadel had clean, crisp textures, with polished floors and golden doors, suggesting recent construction.  Enemies were guards, stone golems, and hags, none of whom were fooled by my messenger's uniform. There weren't a lot of difficult puzzles on the first level, but I could only explore half of it; the entire northern half must be accessed from Floor Two. I could only explore most of the southern half of Floor Two, also, so it's possible that I'm going to have to get to Floor Three before I find the way back down to Floor Two and then the Ground Floor to finish the maps.
I could only explore half of the first level. I assume there's another half. There was in the basement.
I haven't found the ladder to Floor Three yet, but I've been vexed by a particular puzzle on Floor Two. There's a small room surrounded by doors. It has a pressure plate in the middle, and the room is so small that you can't help but step on the plate when you enter. Stepping on the plate closes the north and south doors but opens the east and west doors. If you weigh it down, the configuration remains permanent.
This one has me stumped. I need to go south.
I can approach from the north, east, and west, but I need to hold the south door open so I can go south. That's what I can't figure out how to do. You can't step off the plate while still in the room, so there's no way to avoid the plate while getting anywhere near the southern door, and stepping on the plate closes it. Maybe I'm not meant to go that way. I still have to test my three teleportation runes on both floors to see if they take me anywhere new.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I still haven't found a black pearl to progress in the Otherworld. I have revisited sometimes to use the foyer as my personal vault.
Don't mind me, your majesty.
  • Jere made it to "hero" (Level 10/12) a while back. She has 157,501 experience points, and it's hard to imagine her reaching the 256,000 needed for "champion" level, let alone the 600,000 needed for "vanquisher." She is "expert" (Level 9/10) at swords and axes, "adept" (7/10) at polearms, and "stalwart" (6/10) at missile weapons. For magic, she is "master" (10/10) at healing and between 6 and 8 in the other three disciplines.
I make a level in polearms while killing a snake statue with a spear.
  • The only spells I haven't found are "Swiftness," "Lightning Shield," "Weapon Skill," "Shape Change," and "Alteration." The latter two are apparently plot-driven.
  • This note isn't specific to The Summoning, but I don't think I've ever mentioned it. To take a screenshot in DOSBox, you use CTRL-F5. Mis-reach and accidentally hit F4, and you've started an audio recording of your game session. I frequently exit a long session to find I have a 7 GB .wav file in my screenshots folder.
The manual suggests there are 4 levels to the Citadel. I still have to explore the equivalent of three of them, plus however much is left of the Otherworld. Still, I bet I can wrap it up in one more entry.
Time so far: 45 hours

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Dark Queen of Krynn: Total War

You know you're overleveled when your reaction to this is "yawn . . . dragons."
Motivated by commenters who told me that I'd missed some of the Oracle's clues, I turned around and returned to the Tombs to find them. It turned out that the problem didn't have anything to do with having missed any encounters; it was, rather, related to my failure to have used the "search" or "look" functions. It's frankly been a long time since I even remembered that they were there. Pool of Radiance made use of them extensively; almost any time you got a textual description of an area or object, you wanted to at least "Look" to see if there was something more to it.
To ensure that I never missed anything, I adopted a policy early in my Gold Box experience of keeping "Search" active all the time. The only downside is that it takes 10 minutes per move instead of 1, but none of the Gold Box games have time limits or actual calendars. If I particularly needed to hustle through an area, I could turn it off. But as the games marched forward, the number of things that I found with "Search" grew so low that I eventually stopped turning it on by default. Now that I know it's important in Dark Queen, I have restored my previous policy. 
The Oracle is so small and cute!
Searching turned up a few items that simply walking over each area had not, including the two remaining Oracle pieces. With them, the totality of my Oracle hints are:
  • "The bright key opens the door to the crypt. Within you will find some words you should heed. Then find the Book that Amrocar wrote. Within its pages, words you must read." The "bright key" bit referred to the choice between the golden key and rusty key that Fastillion gave us, and it proved useful in the Tombs. The Book of Amrocar was reportedly stolen from the library in Kristophan.
  • "A dragon you'll meet, more mighty than all. To stop his rampage, seek help from three friends: the black robed, the winged ones, and also the small." I'll probably know who these allies are when I find them.
  • "Find the realm where Tremor is lord. Choose the right present to add to his hoard." That one, I'm not sure about yet.
  • "You followed the monsters that landed ashore. They killed and they burned, but also found friends. In the men who bring fact to the dire Sharkmen's lore." This refers to the draconians we pursued from Ansalon, but I don't know what "men who bring fact to the dire Sharkmen's lore" means.
  • "I see flames and an egg and a crack and a head. Then another, and another, and another, and more. She rises up, the Queen of the Dark. She conquers and rules leaving only the dead." That seems pretty straightforward, with imagery of draconians and Takhisis.
As we left the Tombs, Midsummer said she wanted to leave the Oracle there, for other adventurers to find. As we moved to implement Midsummer's suggestion, we discovered that Selias had stolen the statue. His consequent defiance was interrupted by the statue exploding in his hand. And with that, both Selias and the statue were gone.
This has to be the 50th time I've been betrayed by a thief NPC in an RPG. You think I'd learn.
Back on the world map, I could see several things that looked like fortresses and towns and such, but I thought I'd reach them systematically by exploring north-south in strips, moving one square east after finishing each column. Other Gold Box games had featured un-annotated encounters on their world maps, and I wanted to see if the same held true here.
The answer is mostly no, although there were quite a few random encounters. Some were with enemies--trolls, spiders, and gorgons, mostly. I don't like fighting outdoors, so I typically let the computer take over for these. As with past Gold Box games, when you have the computer fight, you can toggle the "magic" option on and off. It's interesting to watch the computer's choice. The AI heavily favors missile weapons and will run through your entire supply of arrows if you're not careful. For spells, it can be both smart and stupid. Targeting of mass-damage spells is excellent; I've never had it catch one of my own characters in a "Fireball" or "Ice Storm." But it also has a habit of wasting those spells against single enemies or against enemies immune to their effects. The AI casts a lot of spells I hardly ever use myself, including buffing spells in combat, but it never casts healing spells. Moreover, it often decides to cast a spell before it realizes there are no valid targets, resulting in it aborting the spell. This happened a lot with "Hold Person" and "Blade Barrier." Finally, I noticed it cast "Invisibility to Animals" on enemies.
The AI makes a reasonable choice in this case.
There are also quite a few random non-combat encounters in the wilderness, most mimicking the services of a city or town. You can find wandering traders, healers, and trainers, plus other adventurers who offer to share your fire (and guarantee uninterrupted sleep).
In case you can't make it to one of several cities in the same area.
As some commenters warned me, there's a chunk of western Taladas that you can't enter. The moment you approach, voices warn you that you are "not allowed in the land of the Armarch." If you press it, volleys of arrows attack the party from unseen archers every round until you turn around and head out. 
The Armarch elves apparently meant what they said.
Most of the visible cities on the map turn out to be menu towns. These include Thera, Vinlans, and Trilloman. I visited each one and used their services, but none of them had anything worth purchasing in their shops. I got a handful of hints in each tavern and tried to make sense of them:
  • "Takhisis? You mean Erestem. That's all we need; more foreigners." Apparently, they call Takhisis "Erestem" in Taladas. Good to know.
  • "The League has had trouble with the Thenolians before but the way Trandamere has been building up the army, we can expect a real war this time." I haven't heard much about "the League," but the map in the journal shows that the northern part of Taladas is governed by the League of the Minotaurs, so I'm guessing it includes Kristophan and most of the free cities I've visited. Thenol occupies the southeast part of the continent. From previous lore, Trandamere seems to be a recently-crowned ruler of Thenol who's stirring up trouble.
  • "Draconians? You mean Traags? We've got plenty of those, but they're no real threat. All the real draconians are over in Ansalon." This man is misinformed. "Traag" is a type of draconian new to this game, weak compared to the others. I guess until recently, they were the only type that Taladas had.
  • "Belgrag was killed by the Armarch elves. All he did was set foot in their land. I'm never going near those crazy elves again." I have no idea who Belgrag is, but this is just a warning to stay away from Armarch territory, as I found the hard way.
I have no idea what this is about.
  • "Hith, Hitheh, Hiddukel! Taladas sure is the land of plenty. Plenty of names for everything . . . even gods." Very true.
  • "I heard some soldiers defected from the Thenolian army. Not surprising, considering the way Trandamere treats them. I wouldn't want to finish my enlistment as a zombie." As I later discovered, Trandamere has a habit of pressing people into service as undead.
  • "Too bad we live so close to the Hulderfolk. They're not so bad if you humor them. Even then . . . you never know." The meaning of this statement would soon become clear.
  • "I would love to trade with those clever gnomes in Aldinanachru, but it's so hard to travel there. Now, if I only had wings . . ." This refers to a city in the far northeast of Taladas, across a river or straight. I don't know if there's any way to get there.
As we kept moving east past the marked towns, we reached a "cleft in the hillside." Entering brought us to an enchanted valley, where the party fell asleep and awakened with no food or water. Since the game doesn't normally have a food/water mechanic, this was a plot device to get the party to lose hit points, which forced us to rest, which allowed the rest of the plot to unfold.
In a glade, we ran into Tasslehoff Burfoot, one of the famed Heroes of the Lance. He remembered us from Champions of Krynn and was happy to join us again. It was the most pointless marriage of an NPC with a party in RPG history, since he did absolutely nothing, said almost nothing, and disappeared at the end of the episode, before we'd fought a single combat. He did offer that we were in the realm of the Hulderfolk. Fastillion had suggested we ask for their help, but warned that the price would be high.
Having never read the books, I have no foundation for this opinion, but I simply do not like Tasslehoff.
As we rested and healed from our hunger pains (which doesn't feel like it should work), an elf named Elea kept visiting in the night and whispering to us. She was teaching us the Hulderfolk language--not in any systematic sense, starting with the major parts of speech and progressing to verb conjugations, counting, and essential vocabulary. Instead, we learned highly ritualistic statements such as:
  • GEBENE: "We have peace in our hearts"
  • LIMENE: "We will do that instantly."
  • BILBARA: "We politely but firmly decline"
  • SHUWARA: "We block our ears to language of that sort."
  • HOLBANI: "Your humor is your greatest treasure."
This is like living in New England, where you constantly encounter historical markers saying, "The Abenaki called this place 'Danaug,' meaning, 'beautiful flowing river that sparkles in the sunlight and is bountiful with salmon.'"
Eventually, we were greeted by other Hulderfolk, to whom we responded with GEBENE. This got our foot in the door, and suddenly the area was filled with elves putting on a banquet. The party was brought to the king and queen of the elves, both of whom tested our knowledge of their tongue by asking questions like, "Will you swear an oath not to destroy any of our trees?" and "Will you raise arms with us against our enemies?" I had saved just before the encounter, so I decided to see what would happen if I answered the questions "wrong." It turns out if you just say something kind of silly (e.g., HOLBANI to most questions), the elves look at each other but move past your faux pas. If you say something actively offensive (e.g., BILBARA to whether you'll swear an oath against destroying trees), the elves pack up and leave. If you answer correctly, however, the conversation moves forward and you get experience.
The conversation ended with the queen demanding that we stay for a month-long feast. Naturally, both the party and Tasslehoff objected. The queen refused to relent, but the king got around her demands by making us his "official emissaries." He demanded that before we leave, we prove the health of the "mother of trees" by counting its leaves.
We found the tree, and the process of counting the leaves took a while as I sat there and watched the number increment on my computer. When it was done--at 14159--we went back to report the results to the king and queen. The queen pointed out that leaves had fallen since the count, so the number was no longer accurate, and we were sent back to do it again. At that point, Tasslehoff suggested that we just pull all the leaves off the tree so the elves couldn't trick us again. We did that, saving one leaf that wouldn't budge. I suppose 1992 players who didn't have Tasslehoff in their party are counting still. Part of me wants to know what happens if you keep shuffling back and forth with new counts. Does it reach 1 on its own?
A prime number!
The king was amused by our solution and rewarded us with some gear, including 20 arrows +2, a composite long bow +4, and elfin chain +4. He also gave us a ring that reveals deceit and a necklace that somehow helps hunting dragons.
The elves had one final trick for us. Assuring us that we should rest and "tomorrow" they would open a passage out of the forest, we took their word. We woke up a month later, our weapons rusted, our facial hair grown, Tasslehoff gone. The game actually made a point that only Dutch's beard had grown, the other characters being elf or female.
The game suddenly pretends it has a timetable.
Elea met us on the way out of the forest and realized with chagrin that we weren't "back" but had never left. She said her own mother had been similarly tricked. She arrived in the forest newly pregnant, fell asleep, delivered the baby, awoke, and left, completely unaware that she had ever been with child. Elea asked us to tell her mother about her if we ever find someone who seems to fit the bill.
I'm not sure just your name will be enough. I think I'll probably have to tell her the whole story.
Shortly thereafter, our expedition came to a halt as we reached impassable mountains on the eastern side of the continent. North was out of the question--we found no ways to cross the river between the landmasses. West had gotten us shot with Armarch arrows. It was then that I realized you can walk south, off the map, to an entirely new map. Somehow, I hadn't realized this previously.  

A whole other map! But the Armarch still control half of it.
Fortunately, owing to the placement of the Armarch lands and various mountain ranges, I hadn't missed much. The only available route channeled the party to two southern fixtures. The westernmost, and the first I explored, was Hawkbluff. It was a town at the foot of a fortress, and the town had the usual shops and services. I couldn't get into the fortress, however--I couldn't even provoke combat--because I lacked an "incense pass." There were bad signs in Hawkbluff, though, including people who greeted me with "Death to all enemies of Hiteh!" and "Death is life!"
Shopping has gotten weird during the pandemic.
I thus moved on to the fortress city of New Aurim, which seems to be the capital of Thenol. The city consists of a large inner fortress ringed by various shops and services to the south and east. We explored this outer area first before entering the fortress. 
In addition to the 6,000 we already have? No, we're good.
As we stepped into the first building in the outer area, we met some recruiters who asked if we'd like to join the Thenolite army. This is the type of choice we've seen dozens of times in Gold Box games, and I'm not sick of them. What the encounter is really saying is, "Do you want to approach the rest of this area with guile or force?" And while I appreciate the role-playing choices inherent in the "guile" path, I'm also of the philosophical disposition that when you're nearly Level 20, capable of essentially infinite "Fireball" spells, and facing an enemy that allies with evil dragons and kills innocent people just so they can be converted to undead soldiers, there's only one response: total war. Ooh, that would be a good subtitle for this entry.
Although I know it doesn't really have any effect on the game, except perhaps in terms of my experience level, I like the idea that we're not just going to beat this enemy--we're going to completely destroy his ability to make war. We're going to burn every barracks, destroy every weapons cache, overturn every evil altar--and of course put to the sword any squad, company, or brigade that stands in between. In real life, foes are rarely so incorrigibly evil, and thus you rarely get to crusade with such moral certainty.
If you mean what do I do first, sure, it's "talk."
I thus responded to almost every encounter with "attack," even though the game was patently giving me lots of opportunities just to sneak a pile of uniforms. In the end, I had to put on the uniforms anyway, because apparently the palace guards a) stand behind doors impervious to even "Meteor Swarm"; b) have managed to remain ignorant of the fact that literally every soldier outside the palace has been slaughtered, so they'll just trust anyone wearing the right colors. In the meantime, though, I got a lot of experience.
The battles were pretty tough. It's a rare one these days that doesn't include at least a few high level wizards with "Mirror Image," "Fire Shield," and "Globe of Invulnerability" going as combat begins. They're immune to any spell lower than seventh level and arrows usually just knock away their images. If I can't damage them every round, they cast their own "Delayed Blast Fireballs," and my party can't last more than two of those. Sometimes one is enough to kill someone. Meanwhile, they soak up mass-damage spells like my own "Delayed Blast Fireballs" and "Meteor Swarms" like sponges, requiring at least three castings to kill them. I essentially have to concentrate all my resources into the mages, no matter how big the surrounding army, until they're gone. Some commenter was right that those "Eyes of Petrification" sometimes help. "Monster Summoning" sometimes distracts the mages with meat shields, but the monsters almost never appear where I want them to appear when I cast the spell.
For once, "Monster Summoning" puts monsters in a useful place.
From snippets of conversation, scraps of paper, and other encounters, I learned that Trandamere, once a "petty religious official," usurped the legitimate king and queen and has taken over. He has invited draconians into his army, even into the palace guard. They're being bred in the basement of the palace. New draconians are often sent in batches to Hawkbluff, but many of them desert along the way, so escort soldiers have started accompanying them. Those escorts carry a "clay pass" from a commander outside the palace.
Trandamere has closed temples to the good god Mislaxa and only allows the temple of Hith/Hiteh to operate. Press gangs round up citizens on the street for conversion to undead, and Trandamere plans to wage war on the League of the Minotaurs.
A healthy rebellion has formed. Most of its leaders were in prison when I started the map, but I freed them and got access to special rebel inns and stores. (One of the stores sold a few magic items, but I'm still waiting for a store that sells magic arrows.) I also freed slaves from several press gangs, and one guy who was being tortured. This was all fortunate because the rebels ending up giving us the clay pass we needed since we'd killed the commander who was supposed to give it to us. 
Freed rebels give me some assistance.
The clay pass got us into the palace, which had multiple levels. There weren't a lot of combats, which was good because a gong went off in the basement every few minutes--honestly, it got annoying to constantly acknowledge the message--and prevented sleep.  We looted a broken clay tablet from some draconians and found that Trandamere has a special interest in the stolen Book of Amrocar, which is supposedly in Hawkbluff.
We weren't the only invaders in the palace: a young female dwarf fighter named Grunschka joined us and suggested we talk to the real king and queen, held as virtual prisoners upstairs. But draconian guards wouldn't let us pass without a signet ring from Lord Trandamere. Instead, we went to the dungeons, where the draconians mistook us for an escort party sent to bring the newest batch of draconians to Hawkbluff.
If "attack" is there, I'm going to use it.
Clearly, this was what we were meant to do, but I'm not a fan of doing things the intended way, so I chose "attack" as soon as I could. This put us in two back-to-back battles with enormous parties of draconians, but draconians these days aren't really that hard--not even the special "enchanted" ones new to this game. There are some--enchanted Bozaks?--who have "Fire Shield" permanently cast, so you have to avoid hitting them in melee combat. A lot of draconians explode when they die, and the new "enchanted" ones mostly just explode more, which means that sometimes the party's fireballs and other mass-damage spells cause some delightful chain reactions in which they essentially kill each other.
A nice tight cluster of draconians awaits a fireball.
The double battle was still challenging, especially as I probed the strengths and weaknesses of the new draconians. A lot of them can cast spells, but fortunately just low-level ones like "Magic Missile." Again, it helps a lot having so many characters who can heal. Unlike all the other NPCs we've had so far, Grunschka turned out to be actually useful, especially after we gave her a spare long sword +4. 
We couldn't go much farther after killing the draconians; the way to the rest of the dungeon (and the gong, and presumably the eggs) was blocked by a guard post. Unsure what to do (I had explored everywhere, I thought), I made another circuit of the palace, and this time there were no guards to challenge me on the way up to the royal chambers. I wandered into the king's chambers without a fuss.
The king at first seemed sympathetic to our cause and listened as we described the atrocities being committed by Trandamere. But he then showed his true colors by declaring his utter allegiance to the Hith priesthood and to Trandamere--he wasn't usurped at all; he was complicit. The queen, however, was more sympathetic. She'd had a dream in which a mysterious dark figure told her to give a message to us, "Destroy them all" (meaning draconians) and then find him. She gave us a ring to give to the jeweler in Hawkbluff for assistance, then let us use her secret door to get to another part of the basement.
This guy could do a decent job in Britannia.
From there, we slowly made our way to the egg-hatching ceremony, destroying the cursed gong along the way. The ultimate encounter involved three consecutive battles against draconians, but I could at least heal and buff between battles 2 and 3. None of them were as hard as the previous draconian battles I'd fought. After the draconians, there were some mop-up actions against fleeing priests. Trandamere himself appeared in one room, burning papers, but his allies held us off long enough for him to make his escape. Grunschka suggested that he probably went to Hawkbluff. We still don't have an "incense pass," but maybe that's what the jeweler will help us with.
Preparing to destroy the mechanism for creating new draconians. Somehow, this still isn't the end.
Grunschka stayed with the party as long as we agreed to continue killing draconians, which was an easy promise to make.
She's a few steps behind, but good in a fight.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • The "Area" command, which serves as the series' approach to automapping, hardly ever works in Dark Queen.
  • This has to be the most common spelling mistake in the RPG genre:
The gods know I could use one, though.
  • "Turn Undead" never works against skeleton warriors. I would like to know why. 
  • It's a bit ridiculous that none of the high-level enemies I kill ever have any magic gear. This is far cry from early Gold Box games where every Level 4 mage had bracers AC6 and a dagger +2. I'm not complaining because I don't need the gear or money, but it's still weird.
  • While we're on the subject, I don't mind an explicit spoiler on this, particularly since I seem to be running out of places: will there ever be a store worth shopping in, or am I saving all this money for nothing?
I could have done without getting jerked around by the Hulderfolk map, but otherwise it wasn't a bad session. I wouldn't mind if the game wrapped up in Hawkbluff, but I suspect it still has a long way to go.
Time so far: 21 hours