Saturday, November 26, 2022

Game 475: Curse of Vengeance (1992)

 
The game is more creative than you'd expect given that the author was named Scott McNab and he named his company "Mac-Nab."
      
Curse of Vengeance
United States
Mac-Nab Software (developer); published as shareware
Released 1992 for Macintosh
Date Started: 23 November 2022 
Date Ended: 24 November 2022
Total Hours: 4 (unfinished)
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
     
I've always liked text adventures--not as much as RPGs, of course, or else this would be a different blog--but I'm also not very good at them. I like the process I use to play them, which is to systematically map everything and annotate puzzles and dead ends as I find them, then make a second pass, trying to solve the puzzles. This system usually carries me through about three-quarters of the game, but it only works so long as it's clear there's a puzzle to solve. One by one, locked doors and rusty grates give way to the keys and oil I've found in other places, but eventually there comes a time in which there's still something to do and yet I've run out of obvious puzzles. This is where some adventure games expect you to make what seems to me a superhuman leap--to recognize that you must fiddle with some random rock, or search a blank wall, or climb a specific tree that looks like every other tree.
   
Curse of Vengeance is such a game, or at least it seems to me such a game. It was written by Scott McNab of Davenport, Iowa (home of Bix Beiderbecke, which I'm throwing in for absolutely no reason, but at least I'm doing it in parentheses) using an interactive fiction kit called TADS: the Text Adventure Development System. The kit, written by (then) CalTech student Michael Roberts, was first made available in 1990. (For more on TADS, read Jimmy Maher's 2017 article.) The kit is still being used, with version 3.1.3. released in 2013. It supports some limited RPG mechanics, although most games created with the kit seem not to have used them. Curse is the only TADS game that is also an RPG listed in the Macintosh Repository database, where I found it. MobyGames lists one more: Magocracy (2004) for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS. I know that some kits will eventually pose a challenge regarding when to say "enough," but TADS doesn't seem to be one of them.
      
The backstory text.
     
Curse casts the player as an unnamed mercenary who's heading to the village of Drakkar to meet a gravedigger named Fallon Shires. Shires has sent the PC a note asking for his help. The character starts the game with no possessions, as he's recently been robbed by other mercenaries, although he somehow has 500 gold pieces.
   
Gameplay begins in a forest square near the village of Drakkar. The scant documentation that comes with the game only gives you a few tips on commands, but it's easy to figure out. TADS may be its own thing, but it's part of the Infocom hegemony: You can toggle descriptions with BRIEF and VERBOSE; the "I" key brings up inventory; "G" repeats the last command; "Z" causes you to sleep. You WEAR and HOLD armor and weapons, LIGHT lamps, TAKE or GET objects on the ground, and so forth. There's even a grue. I never had any issues figuring out the right commands. The parser supports entering multiple commands at once with commas in between.
   
My map of the game has 173 screens; the author says in the accompanying text file that there should be about 200. Going from screen to screen is generally a straightforward process of typing one of the eight cardinal directions. Only a handful of times do you go UP or DOWN, and the author only rarely messes with directionality by having you, say, exit one area from the east but arrive at the next from the south.
      
My Trizbort map of the game world. You should be able to zoom in to see details.
      
Area descriptions are brief and contain few unnecessary details. About 80% of the areas have only a few words of description, like "East-West Path" or "North, South Passage." Usually, when there's something to do in an area, it's immediately obvious; SEARCH, OPEN, and READ handle the vast majority of your interactions.
          
There are a lot of sections in the game like this.
    
The game's RPG credentials center around random monsters such as giants, kobolds, and ogres, which you can encounter anywhere except the town of Drakkar. The system is extremely basic. All you can do in combat is attack or try to flee. The character has an attack rating and armor class based on currently-equipped items, and you and the enemy simply whittle down each others' hit points round after round. Critical hits are possible. 
     
Defeating an enemy and leveling up.
      
Successfully slaying an enemy gets you gold and experience points. Amassing experience points causes you to level up at regular intervals, increasing your maximum hit points. As you earn more gold, you can afford better weapons and armor in Drakkar, although the best items are found rather than purchased. Hit points regenerate slowly, but you can heal more quickly by drinking water from the fountain in Drakkar (you need a flask to FILL it) or by finding a hut west of the city, where the residents sell healing potions for 200 gold pieces.
     
Tip: the expensive stuff is a waste of money.
            
The game consists of four major sections: the city of Drakkar, the southern caves, the southeastern path to a wizard's hut, and the northwestern castle. Most of what's in between is filler--long strings of nondescript paths and passages to give the sense of size. It is mostly open from the beginning, although you can't enter the caves or castle until you have been "marked" by the southern wizard. The sequence of plot events goes something like this:
        
1. Visit Drakkar and stock up. There's an armor called Dirten's Weapon Emporium; I can only hope it's named after the Pool of Radiance NPC. It also has a general store, where you find most of your standard adventuring gear (rope, lamp, oil, flask), a watering hole, and a tavern.
    
2. Meet Fallon Shires in the tavern. He tells you that an evil sorcerer named Kryptic (who "lives in the caves to the north") has kidnapped his daughter. He gives the player a coin, which he says is cursed. It will not allow the player to leave the area until his daughter is rescued. He recommends that the player go to the southern wizard (not the evil one) for aid. Promising great reward if the quest is successful, he scampers off.
     
Fallon Shires sounds like a gated community outside San Francisco.
        
A note in a desk drawer in the tavern's office has a note written by a warrior named Throckmorton, "the only mortal to ever fight and almost win a battle with the Evil Sorcerer." It says that the player will have to "master all three of the magical items" to win.

3. Visit the southern wizard. To get to his hut, you have to tie a rope to a tree to swing across a ravine. The wizard tells you that you'll need three jewels to defeat the Evil One--one shaped like a star, one shaped like an eye, and one shaped like a triangle. He casts a spell that "marks" you with the face of the cursed coin and gives you the star-shaped gem. He also tells you there are powerful items in the Great Palace in Darkkar and that a "keeper," who lives in town, has the key.
      
Jeton is a new vocabulary word for me. I'm going to use it instead of "challenge coin" from now on.
     
4. Loot the Great Palace. Technically, you could have done this earlier, but until you meet the southern wizard, you'd have to make some leaps of logic. The Great Palace is behind a locked door in Drakkar. The only person who lives in town who could possibly have the key is a villager living south of the watering hole. He attacks when you enter his hut, and if you kill him, you're led to believe you just killed an innocent villager for no reason. Knowing that you need his key makes it only a little better. Once he's dead, you have to PUT OUT the fire in his fireplace with a flask of water, then SEARCH it to find a clump of ash, then WASH the clump of ash with more water to reveal a bronze key.
     
I was proud at how quickly I figured this out.
   
The bronze key opens the door to the palace. In the main hall, you find a painting signed by someone named "Hawking." It depicts the palace and calls it "Basilica." Upstairs, you find a silver key, which unlocks the door to the armory, where you find a suit of armor--the best armor in the game.
   
5. Explore the southern caves. You can't even enter the caves unless you've been marked by the wizard. You need a lamp to get around. There are two major things to do here. The first is to kill a magician who's set up a laboratory in the caves. He has a Shield of Ogre Strength (between it and the armor, you can't get a lower AC) and a book that gives you the information needed to safely cross a set of pillars in another section of the caves.
   
Crossing the pillars puts you in front of a statue. He asks you the name of a great ancient warrior; if you searched the tavern, you know that the answer is THROCKMORTON. The statue drops the eye-shaped jewel in your hand, and you're back in town.
       
Throckmorton is also a city in Texas, west of Fort Worth.
         
6. Explore the northwestern castle. As with the caves, you need to be marked to even enter. In a bedroom in the castle, you find a Sword of Burning Dragons, a ridiculously powerful weapon. Until you find it, the best weapon in the game is the long sword, which has a weapon rating of 6. The Sword of Burning Dragons has a weapon rating of 100. Once you have it, enemies basically die in one hit.

A trap door leads to the attic, where you find a beholder. He asks the name of the palace (BASILICA) and then gives you the triangular jewel. Again, a flash, and you're back in town.
          
A palace and a basilica aren't quite the same thing.
      
This is where I'm stuck. I have all three jewels, but I can't find the supposed "caves" in which the Evil One lives. An obvious place would be near a beach northwest of Drakkar. There are nine interconnected squares here making up the beach, but I can't figure out anything to do here. Unused items include a flask with an explosive liquid, a pouch with red powder, and a bunch of sand. The most obvious thing would be to throw the explosive bottle at the cliffs north of the beach, perhaps causing the cave to open. But the game doesn't recognize the word CLIFF and just throwing the bottle generically doesn't do anything.
        
A close-up of Drakkar.
        
Let's cover somer oddities and bugs of the game:
   
  • There's a fatigue system, but it's weird. You don't get tired until about 600 turns into the game. Assuming that the game doesn't take much longer, whatever I have to do, you could probably win in fewer turns. The game warns you repeatedly that you need to sleep. If you ignore it, you eventually pass out and wake up with all your inventory gone. You can only sleep on beds, but there are only a few places with beds in the game. If you find one and sleep, the game says you wake up refreshed, but it doesn't seem to actually reset the fatigue meter. You keep getting messages that you're exhausted and eventually pass out. You end up having to drop all your inventory, pass out, then pick it up again to avoid this problem.
       
Sleeping for hours and hours only to still be exhausted is the type of thing I play games to escape from, not experience.
     
  • There's also a hunger system, but I didn't get hungry until turn 1,200. There's only one food item in the game, so I guess 2,400 turns is the limit.
  • The game's parser gets confused when it comes to items with multiple words. The general store sells both Stone Oil and Lamp Oil, but if you try to BUY either of them, it tells you that it doesn't know what you're talking about. If you just BUY OIL, you end up buying the Lamp Oil. I can't figure out any set of commands that lets you buy the Stone Oil. Maybe that's crucial to winning. Similarly, trying to refer to any of the jewels is difficult, as the screenshot below shows.
      
And this is how Chester became an atheist.
      
  • In the room where you find the Sword of Burning Dragons, you can TAKE it, but the game doesn't register it as gone from the room. After taking it, if you don't leave the room immediately, it disappears from your inventory.
  • To wield a weapon, you have to HOLD it. To unwield it, you have to UNHOLD it. But if you DROP it without UNHOLDing it first, the game registers it as gone but not unwielded. From then on, you can't wield any more weapons because you didn't unwield the previous one, but you also can't unwield the previous one because you dropped it. (This remains true even if you pick it up again.) Clearly, the "something is wielded" flag is distinct from the specific item that is wielded. But you retain the weapon rating of the previously-wielded weapon even if you drop it.
        
My inventory at one point in the game.
     
  • The game has a scoring system. For most of the game, no matter how far you progress, the score remains stuck at 0 ("itsy-bitsy ant doo-doo"). Then at some point around Steps 3 or 4, it suddenly goes up to 10,100 ("scrawny") but never budges from there for the rest of the game.
  • In general, TADS supports a lot of commands that the game doesn't use. In particular, Curse has no way to interact with NPCs. The game gives you generic responses to things like YELL, SAY, DIG, TURN, PUSH, and so forth, which might make some players assume those commands have some utility in this specific game.
       
If there's nothing useful to PUSH or DIG, then the game should just tell you, not string you along.
    
I'm tempted to record this one as "not winnable" under the assumption that some bug is preventing me from finding the endgame, but I suppose that's a bit dishonest. Plus, it would interfere with the glorious streak of "Nos" in the "won?" column that I've amassed this month. I have reached out to the author, who promised a map of the world and a hint booklet for the $10 shareware fee, so hopefully he still has that, and I can append an addendum to this entry after turning it into a win.
   
For a GIMLET, I'm giving it an 19. It has a couple of serviceable puzzles, though I would have liked to see more, and of greater complexity. It's about the right length for its mechanics. It doesn't do well in most standard RPG categories, including combat, character creation and development, and NPCs (all 1s). I'm still awaiting a truly great RPG/text adventure hybrid, but an occasional shareware effort helps keep the torch alive.
    

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Die Odysee: A Journey of a Thousand Miles

A classic Greek mystery: the ruins of a palace, and blood on the throne.
        
Once again, the community has come together. Author Martin Auer supplied a scanned PDF of the full game manual; Busca and LanHawk supplied OCR'd versions of it so I could copy it into a translator. LanHawk also extracted the game's text into a file that I could cut and paste from rather than having to manually transcribe it from the game screens. In the meantime, any number of commenters--Vauban, Buck, El despertando, Busca, LanHawk--translated bits of the available material. Some combination of people alerted me to a missed character creation process on the first disk. It's so heartwarming when people offer assistance like this. Otherwise, I might have been forced to abandon this game whose own author feels is so "well, bad" that he's sorry "for the kid that maybe got this as his only birthday present."
    
It took me a while to get back to it, because to play it properly I have to have half a dozen windows open on three monitors, including the game, LanHawk's text dump, the manual, my notepad, and Google Translate. Now that my computer won't be moving for the long holiday weekend, I can hopefully make some progress.
   
The Strauss-accompanied introduction that I quoted last time leads to a main menu with options for the game's backstory, manual, acknowledgements, and character creator. The backstory has another long text exposition setting up the game. "The latest inconclusive battle was only three days old when the winding paths of fate led Odysseus to a tavern, accompanied by a few loyal comrades," it begins. The tavern keeper tells them of a dungeon beneath his establishment. He has never entered it, but rumors say that it contains a lost city and an oracle. "Now Odysseus and his comrades pricked up their ears. An oracle? Could this be the end of this terrible episode? All the oracles of Greece had refused to help them for more than eight years now!" The innkeeper says that he has a key in a box in his room. He's saying something about a curse and a king's daughter when the companions, ignoring him, head into the dungeon. "None of the heroes had any idea what whirlwind of events they would find themselves in from now on."
   
The "manual" option doesn't lead you to a "how-to-play-the-game" kind of manual, but rather a 2,000-word introduction to Greek history. "Homer is considered the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey," it begins. "He probably wrote them down around 750 BC." I won't bother to summarize most of the rest, as we have Wikipedia these days, but it takes an odd turn in that it mostly focuses on Greek history post-Homer, including the Greco-Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War--all interesting stuff that would be explored wonderfully in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (2018), but not the game that we have before us, unless Odysseus and his friends are going to travel through time or something.
     
It's just too bad that the modern world seems to have forgotten the Spartans and the events at Thermopylae.
           
The Atticans appear several times in the narrative. I'm reminded of our recent discussion of "Bad Attic Latin" in The Return of Werdna. It amuses me how almost every game has some thread that links it to previous games, whether intentional or not.
   
If you didn't know the author was a teenager, you would figure it out immediately from the "Acknowledgements" (this is not the literal translation of Grüße, but I think it fits the spirit). Here, one word at a time, Auer thanks about 500 people and entities. In addition to (I presume) family and friends, we get thanks to Claudia Schiffer, MTV, Pink Floyd, Monty Python, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Amazon Women on the Moon, The Longest Day, Sid Meier, Dune, Animal Farm, Larry Bird, Billy Joel, and--here's one I wouldn't have seen coming--Vera Lynn. Did "We'll Meet Again" achieve some kind of 1990s popularity in Germany that I've never heard about?
   
Finally, we get into character creation. Odysseus is, of course, a fixed member of the party. But you can replace Amphion, Ino, and Pheres with characters of your own creation and name. The number of races and classes is mind-boggling. For races, you get human, Titan, Cyclopes, Centaur, Cercopes (impish monkey-men of the forest), Laestrygonian (man-eating giants), Erinyes (Fury), Harpy, Siren, Amazon, Nymph, däumling ("thumbling"), shepherd (?), sea eagle, butterfly, and nightingale. To the extent that any of these creatures exist in Greek mythology, I don't think Odysseus is supposed to meet them until after the Trojan War.
       
Women can be whatever they want to be!
    
Class options are warrior, half-god, alchemist, seer, philosopher, mathematician, poet, cook, doctor, Olympian, herald, archer, mermaid, seaman, artist, Muse, singer, hunter, dancer, thief, merchant, tailor, and blacksmith. There are numerous sex/race/class restrictions, some of which make sense (e.g., no male Sirens, Muses, or Erinyes) and some that don't (e.g., no female alchemists, no Amazon philosophers, no Erinye doctors). The manual has no help on any of this, including the strengths and weaknesses of the various races and classes.
        
Selecting my god.
       
In addition to the primary class (beruf), you also pick from the same list for the character's "hobby." You then pick from the character's "faith": elements, colors, symbols, and gods. That choice leads to a particular sub-menu choice for "circle"; for instance, those with an elemental faith choose from water, fire, metal, diamond, wood, and blood. Finally, you have to answer the character's perspective on two yes/no questions from among several possibilities. These include:
      
  • Is the fate of man predetermined?
  • Is war a means of resolving conflict?
  • Can a mortal reach the world of the dead?
  • Can the forces of nature be harnessed? 
  • Is health the greatest source of happiness in life?
      
When you're all done, you get a character with various values for health, magic, morality, strength, intelligence, endurance, dexterity, charisma, skill, reaction, and what I assume is "cold sensitivity" (kälteempf,). Each character also gets certain skills, like spellcasting, group formation, calming the pulse, tracking, stealing, and playing the lyre.
        
A final character sheet.
     
It was a bit too much for me. I let randomness guide the way. I ended up with:
   
  • Tisiphone, a female Erinye mermaid/seer color-based faith (white circle) who believes in fate and war.
  • Tommaso, a male thumbling thief/half-god with a god-based faith (worshiping Pan) who believes mortals can reach the world of the dead but not harness the forces of nature.
  • Ligeia, a female Siren mathematician/dancer with a symbol-based religion (wave circle) who believes one cannot enter the world of the dead and that health is not the greatest source of happiness.
        
I can't tell if that's Grace Kelly or Cybil Shepherd, but either way, it's an appropriate image for a "siren."
       
Odysseus himself is a male half-god/warrior with an elemental faith (water circle)

After creation, you can change the character's photo, but there's only one option for each race, so the default makes the most sense. 
     
The graphic for the däumling is a riot. I guess it's going to be tough to equip him.
        
As recounted last time, the game begins in the tavern, really in the middle of the backstory, as the party has not yet descended to the dungeon, and if you talk to the tavern keeper, he tells you about the dungeon and the Oracle as if for the first time. The first step is thus to get the key from his box. I first talk to him a bit and repeat the dialogue from my first attempt. I now know that asking a character of himself (via his own name) will open up some options. In addition to what I got last time, I get:
 
Antoklos: "That is my name. I've been the landlord here for about 12 years. But if you ask me, I'd rather be in another city. The war ruins the whole business. Earlier . . . yes, earlier. Many years ago, this place was famous: Tymen, the market town; Tymen, the trading center. There came traders and merchants from east and west. There was a lot going on here in Tymen in the past, a hundred years ago or so. But I'm getting excited. Those rosy days are long gone, and the war drives away even the last customers."
       
"Das ist mein Name. Achten Sie darauf, es nicht durch übermäßigen Gebrauch zu erodieren."
       
War: "Troy is also quite rundown, but you will never conquer this city. I'll bet you wine and amphora! They only have to hole up in their town. The siege has been going on for so long now, and what did it bring? And in confidence: until you free Helena, she will look like my wife." [I didn't really understand that last bit.]
     
Wife: "My wife?  I traded six cows for her. They were six really good cows. Now I have sixteen cows. Not bad either for someone who has worked his way up from the bottom. But milk prices aren't what they used to be either. Now you have to count every liter to stay afloat. In the past, yes, you could buy a whole acre of land with one cow. Now it's just enough for a few strides. What else should I tell you about my wife?"
     
Troy: "Well, this city is a fortress, and an indomitable one at that. Of course the Trojans cannot win the war, but they can always avoid defeat. You've already bitten your teeth on the walls. They're just too tall and too thick. And your mission is only over when you take the city and free this woman. What was her name? Helena . . . yes. Priam makes a fuss about this woman if you ask me. There is only one way to finally end this war. You must find the oracle."
     
Priam: "He is by no means popular here in town. He reigns in Troy as if he were the great ruler. I think he's quite cocky, you know what I mean? But nothing seems to grow against him and his city. Maybe if you are lucky you can make it."
      
Tymen: "This area was once famous for its trade and wealth. There was prosperity and order. That was many years ago. Then came the curse of the gods that sowed destruction. Now this region has been ruled by Troy for several generations. A poor village that can just support an inn. But if you want to know something about the past of this place, you should read about it yourself in the collection of tales in my room." 
      
I'm prepared to do just that, but the collection of tales in his room is gone! Actually, as I look around the tavern, a lot of the stuff I picked up last time is gone, including shirts, hats, and food. I guess creating a new character doesn't reset the game. To do that, I suppose I'll have to extract the disk files from the archive again.
        
There's a lot missing, but the key I need is there.
    
But there is a metal key on his desk, which I had somehow missed last time. It opens a door south of the main tavern room. I grab a rose from a small alcove along the way, having read a spoiler from Mr. Auer. The door leads to a long corridor, which opens into a large room with two thrones and a gold chest. This must be the remains of the palace that Antoklos talked about.
    
The chest won't open, so I continue to the room south of it, a large storeroom full of equipment such as shields, gold, a dagger, and a pile of metal. The gold key opens the chest in the previous room, and gold pieces come spilling out. I collect about 500.
     
I don't know where I'm going to spend this gold, but I'm getting rich.
    
At this point, both Odysseus and Tommaso are exhausted. I check the manual for instructions on how to sleep, and it says to click on the clock. While this does cause time to pass, it doesn't seem to do anything for the characters. Doing so while standing on a bed doesn't help. Fortunately, being exhausted doesn't seem to stop me from moving, talking, or doing anything that I need to do for the rest of this session.
   
In another room off the throne room, I encounter my second NPC, sitting on a sofa. She introduces herself as Daphne. Like Antoklos, she has a ton of dialogue--almost 1,500 words of it. Copying it from LanHawk's text dump, I unfortunately can't help but notice some of the keyword prompts. One of them is schleier ("veil"), which Daphne never speaks. It thus appears that you have to try keywords based on the character's appearance as well as the dialogue. Another of her prompts is götter ("gods"), but I can't figure out how to type the umlaut on the Amiga keyboard. ALT-o gives me an Ø, but no other combination of ALT, SHIFT, and CTRL does anything special.
     
You don't find scenes like this in the usual high-fantasy game.
        
Daphne tells me that she has been here for decades because of a curse. She is the daughter of a king, Jason, who also had two sons, Pheres and Leiodes. Her brother Pheres was "insatiable," wanting literally everything. Jason tried to appease him by giving him half his lands and half the treasury, but it wasn't enough. Pheres killed Jason, then waged war on his brother when Leoides inherited the throne. After a siege, Leoides was forced to flee the castle through a secret passage. Pheres conquered it and imprisoned Daphne. At some point, at least according to Daphne, the gods cursed the family, and as part of the curse, Daphne has to exist forever in this room. The Oracle, which has lived in the castle for centuries, is also sealed away as part of the curse. Daphne quickly falls in love with Odysseus, who seems smitten with her as well.
      
Remember Penelope, Odysseus.
     
In her dialogue, Daphne makes reference several times to particularly loving flowers and not having seen one in decades. I have Odysseus give her the rose, which completely seals her affections. Then, in a series of text screens, she leads the party to a secret door and says that's the way to the Oracle. She begs Odysseus to come back to her, and he promises he will. I get a brief view of the party in a rough-hewn corridor, and then the game dumps me to the Amiga workbench. Mr. Auer also mentioned having a crash around this point.
   
Thus, my homework is:
   
  • Re-extract the game disks and start over, so I can properly fill up my inventory.
  • Go through the manual and figure out how exhaustion and resting work.
  • Figure out how to get past this point that the game is crashing.
   
I'll keep working at it and let you know what I come up with. 
         
A cut scene as Daphne escorts us to the basement.
      
"You'd better," I hear you say. "My life is not complete unless I know the CRPG Addict is working his way through reams of expository narrative written in German." Well, good news: SOTE is on the horizon, and I can use some help with the very long, scrolling backstory that begins the game. If you speak German fluently and wouldn't mind taking a look at this video to give me a summary (the part I'm having trouble with starts at 02:25), I would appreciate it. You'll probably need to watch it at half speed.
   
As for Die Odyssee, if I were that kid who got this as his only game for his birthday, I wouldn't be disappointed . . . yet. Overwhelmed and confused, maybe, but not disappointed. It's certainly one of the more original experiences of 1993.
    
Time so far: 5 hours

   

Monday, November 21, 2022

BloodNet: The Bronx is Up and the Battery's Down

 
Technology marches on. Poetry jams never change.
       
The situation so far: Mercenary Ransom Stark has been turned into a vampire, but he has been saved from full transformation by the cybernetic implant that is also keeping Hopkins-Brie Syndrome from driving him insane. As he tries to find a way to cure his vampirism, he has learned that the vampire who turned him, Abraham Van Helsing, is a board member of TransTech--Stark's former employer, the company that controls the Internet and just about everything else. Stark's only allies are groups of underground hackers, including one run by Deidre Tackett, the creator of Stark's implant. Tackett's followers, the Lost Kids, are protecting something called the Incubus, the ultimate hacking program, from Van Helsing and TransTech. I think I have all that right.
    
My first two sessions resulted in several side-quests and leads. I begin this session organizing them in rough order of importance.
      
  • A faction called the Red Cross Knights is waging a private war against Van Helsing and can be found in the Cloisters.
  • The homeless former employees of TransTech hanging around Central Park want some fiber-optic cable, which I can steal from TransTech headquarters in Brooklyn. A "data angel" named Lenora Major who hangs around Cafe Voltaire can give us security access.
  • A nun named Mother Mary wants to meet me at St. Patrick's. She might know something about the vampires preying on those in Central Park.
  • I have the consciousness of a hacker named Elvis in my decking unit, and I need to find a cybernetic body for him.
  • Rymma Fizz, one of my companions, wants us to swing by Electric Anarchy and pick up her husband, Garrick. Electric Anarchy may have some information about vampires.
  • The leader of the Autonomy Dogs has offered me $40,000 to assassinate the leader of the Hard Metals.
     
I begin the session in the recently-discovered second room of the Abyss nightclub. The first person I talk to, Maranda Armanda, takes offense to my questioning and attacks me with a couple of goons. My party guns them down quickly and loots their bodies. I wasn't expecting a battle in the middle of a nightclub.
       
The post-combat loot screen.
      
Stark's old friend Lash Givens joins the party after hearing Stark's story. (If I want to take Garrick or anyone else, I'll have to get rid of someone.) Stevens has reasonably high statistics in almost everything. There are other mercenaries in the room named Zarah Aviatrix, Bonton Himishaka (who will only work for me if I give him drugs), Luke Monterey, Fantas Goulakas (Stark's rival on a previous job), and Monique St. Clair. 
   
Before I get to my main list, I head up to West 126th Street to Sid and Nancy's, arms dealers mentioned in Stark's notes and in some NPC dialogue (named, of course, after Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen). My experience with combat in the last session makes me want to verify that I have the best stuff, plus plenty of ammunition. The place is weird. I guess Sid and Nancy aren't specific people but the name of the gang; all of the men call themselves "Sid" and all of the women call themselves "Nancy." There are three pairs of people on-screen with those names. One of the Sids has an issue with Nimrod. This is the second time this has happened, so I transfer his inventory to other characters and ask him to leave.
         
I decided to let you live into your 20s.
    
The same Sid buys my extra decking unit for $5,000. His Nancy, who partied with Stark in the past, gives Stark some make-up to make him look less like a vampire. Another Nancy has a Doppelganger to sell. It sounds like it can make a copy of a person in combat. She offers it for a laser rifle, a laser pistol, and a dermal filament, or $4,000. I make the trade.
   
I was frankly hoping for more of a store, since I have so much inventory I don't know what to do with it. I bring up the manual's description of various items and go through my inventory bit by bit. There's way too much of it, but it basically breaks down into:
       
  • Guns
  • Grenades
  • Ammunition
  • Armor
  • Crafting components, which I can't use until I get a toolkit.
  • Decking unit accessories
         
For now, I just make sure that each character has weapons consistent with their skills. Stark's highest combat skills are in melee weapons, and I don't have any good ones, so I leave him armed with a shotgun. We're low on shells, so I also give him a Riot Stopper Stun Rifle and its ammo. Rymma is best with high-tech and bio-tech; lacking any of the latter, I give her a laser rifle and power cells. Slash works best with regular firearms and gets a 9mm pistol. Lash is equal with just about everything. I have more power cells than other ammo, so he also gets a laser rifle. That leaves me with several excess weapons to sell, but I still haven't found a place.
       
Moving on, I head up to 176th Street and the Cloisters. As we arrive, Lash Givens suggests that I "play these guys straight." The game does a good job making the player slightly apprehensive about what he'll find in each area. Sometimes, you don't have much of a chance to scope out the situation before violence erupts or an inescapable dialogue takes over. The latter happens here, as a knight named Sir Fintin recognizes me as a vampire and demands that I explain myself. Stark decides to make fun of the guy's armor (with no input from me); Fintin takes offense and we're soon in combat. Honestly, what's the point of an NPC telling you to "play it straight" when the game is just going to shove dialogue into your mouth? The knights slaughter us with swords and lasers, and I have to start over at Sid and Nancy's. I wonder if better communications skills would have produced a different result.
         
Moments later, Stark would learn the utility of "the armor."
       
Heading back to my list, I decide to try Lenora Major at Cafe Voltaire, way down on Canal. As we arrive, Lash alerts me that I'm "starting to look less and less human." This must be related to my "Bloodlust" meter, which is up to 60%. The next time we get into combat, I'm going to have to bite someone.
         
One of the more unusual "hunger meters" in RPG history so far.
   
Voltaire, "the gathering place of the city's bohemian intellectuals," has a dozen people on two screens. The owner, Duchamp Pynchon, alerts us to an upcoming poetry reading:
       
Ultraviolet will be performing instantaneous poetry fashioned on stage from words extracted from her subconscious by a neural implant of her own design. She runs the output through a graphics program that converts the literal meanings and emotional connotations of the words into holograms projected throughout the room.
      
Stark is unimpressed, but I think that's something I'd go to see.
         
Cafe Voltaire has some memorable decor.
     
Lenora is sitting in the back and offers to hack TransTech's security system and put my "essence" into it for $25,000. That involves me meeting her in the net in a WELL with the code named MAJOR. She says I'll need at least a Samurai Soul Box, but I have that.
     
The second side of the cafe has a bunch of stuff going on. First, Oscar Nandez tells me that the Kafka Conspiracy might be interested in meeting me on West 23rd Street. A woman named Jane Queen Possible (a fun Bob Dylan reference) fills in some more information: the Kafka Conspiracy is looking to destroy TransTech. Joyce Reverb--who talks as if she's narrating a story--characterizes the group as data anarchists.
      
A guy named Cyril Thorpe is jacked into cyberspace. At first, he seems to be talking nonsense, but it appears he's just talking to different people. According to nearby Moliere Ten Street, he's not just a data angel but an "archangel ascending." Using a combination of technology and natural psychic abilities, he can effect permanent psychological changes in people who come to him for help--anything from curing addiction to solving interpersonal problems at work.
          
I could use this type of service.
         
A guy nearby named Gerry Soo, who likes to speak in multiple languages, gives me a note with instructions on how to find Thorpe's well. The note is written in three languages--French, Spanish, and German, and I'm able to figure it out with only a little help from Google Translate: "Curiosity is worthy of reward. I admire those who seek the truth. Cyril's powers can be used for good or ill. Which purpose you serve doesn't matter. Type in the word MIDDLE to meet our mysterious friend."
       
This reminds me of the time I went up to a street vendor in Paris and said, "Deux croque-monsieurs, por favor."
     
Players of 1993 weren't meant to translate it directly. To help them out, the player can consult another cafe denizen named Benny Puzzle. Benny speaks entirely in crossword puzzle clues. At first, I try to construct a grid around them, but Soo tells me that the "across" and "down" parts don't mean anything; it's just the answers that matter. You have to string them together, along with occasional words that Benny speaks directly, to make a sentence. The key part of his narrative seems to read: "Languages are my practice and my life. I work for a company that designs language codes. Place them in your deck and you can learn the major languages. I can tell you that the codes are in a group at address NOUN." 
        
1 down: obtain; 2 across: misplaced; 2 down: eccentric person [pejorative].
     
With three new WELLS to check out, it's time to head back to cyberspace. Tackett's lab is just back up the street, so we head there. Once in cyberspace, I run into another Samurai avatar belonging to someone named Klee R. Wynter. He or she advises me to "steer clear of Zeus." At the first FATS, I enter MAJOR and enter Lenora's well. She has a Dragon Soul Box.
   
She copies all of my "essence" files (e.g., STARK.MEMORY, STARK.PRSNLITY, STARK.PHYSICAL) to the TransTech network, which involves entering commands like "TT\: COPY STARK.* TTSECMAIN.FILE." Lenora stresses that this process will make infiltrating TransTech's headquarters easier but not foolproof.
        
It amuses me that this universe has constructed this unnecessarily elaborate virtual-reality GUI for accomplishing simple things on the Internet, but still has to resort to command lines to copy files from one computer to another.
       
I can't find a way to exit a WELL without exiting cyberspace entirely, so I do that and then re-enter. I don't need Benny's translation code to find Thorpe, but I figure it might come in handy later. On my second visit, I run into Zeus, who also has a Dragon Soul Box. He brags about his powers and mocks me, then demands I come to his headquarters at NYU to confront him. If I beat him in some kind of contest, I'll get all his decking equipment and information. Otherwise, I won't be able to visit cyberspace again.
   
For now, I find a FATS and enter NOUN. I'm immediately confronted by a logic puzzle that demands I put the various hacker gangs of New York in a specific order based on a series of clues. I like logic puzzles, and this one isn't very hard. I enter the correct sequence and enter the WELL.
      
You have to interpret "cannot tolerate" as "are not adjacent on the list."
  
At first, the only thing I find is another "C. Flyer" file, but a search reveals the "Babel Code." I grab it and use it, which introduces it into the language center of my brain. It's a good thing I solved this puzzle because my translation of Soo's note was off: the WELL code I want isn't MIDDLE but rather MEDIUM.
      
Yo deseo que ce soit so einfach.
       
I make a third trip to cyberspace, half-expecting Zeus to block me, but he doesn't. I enter Thorpe's WELL. He tells me that he can help me, but I need to find a material object belonging to "whoever is at the root of this difficulty." That's all I can do for now, so I exit.
   
Stark's "Bloodlust" is nearly at 70%, and Zeus did challenge me to some kind of combat, so I head to his headquarters in an NYU dorm room in Washington Square. It's empty when we arrive. "Looks like we've been had, folks," Lash comments. A girl named Paula DiMigglio is sitting at a computer. She says that she doesn't really have anything against me; she just wants my help and thought a challenge was the best way to lure me. In exchange for information on TransTech, she wants me to rescue her friend, Banks Verbatim, who has been trapped in a TransTech "data cage." She knows the cyberaddress code (SOFTBALL) and the password (NINJA).
         
i didn't expect "data cage" to be so literal.
       
I'm not sure what I can do that she can't, but I give it a try. I find myself in a construct that looks like a literal cage. Banks is here, begging for help. His body is dying on the outside (wherever it is), and his Soul Box is decaying on the inside. But to get him out, I'll need a "data cage key," which I can find in--you guessed it--TransTech's headquarters.
   
I'm worried about my "Bloodlust," now at 72%, but I head over to TransTech anyway. Maybe I can find an unsuspecting guard.
          
Looks like the Hudson got some new bridges.
        
I head across the river to the only location not in Manhattan. No sooner am I in the lobby than an "Entry Drone" kicks me out, saying I don't have a clearance badge. No one mentioned that as a requirement.
    
Back on the map of Manhattan, I decide for some reason that rather than going back to my list of clues, I'll just work my way up from south to north. My first stop is a revisit to the Autonomy Dogs. When I speak to the leader, Sabaccatus, he's so annoyed that I haven't killed the leader of the Hard Metals yet that he attacks me. I try biting during the ensuing combat, but the enemy just breaks my grip every time, and Stark is killed.
         
Is "victim" the right word? They attacked me, after all.
      
Reloading, I visit the Autonomy Dogs again. This time, I preemptively bite Sabaccatus before speaking to him. This works. In full view of his gang, I kill him instantly and "dispose of the body." My "Bloodlust" goes down to 0%. But my implant warns that I've lost a bit of my humanity, and sure enough, that's down to 91%. After a couple more failed attempts at combat, I decide I can live with the loss of humanity, but I'm worried that Sabaccatus is important, so I murder one of his flunkies, Briss, instead.
       
The kind of screen that lets you know you've lost an eighth.
    
Time for a check-in with Will over at The Adventurers' Guild. He also discovered the "second screen" thing somewhat late and also visited Cafe Voltaire. He also visited Sid and Nancy and got the instapigment. While reading his account, it occurs to me that maybe I can use that to avoid being recognized as a vampire. I try it and it works, although the game warns me it will only last for a day.
     
I hope that isn't the only bottle.
     
I'm able to visit the Trinity Church Cemetery without instigating a combat. The leader of the gang there, Louella Travesty, is having her people dig up the recently-buried so that they can ensure they're not vampires. She gives me a clove of garlic. A member of her gang, Christian Proel, gives us a stake.

I have similar luck when I visit the Cloisters at the other end of Manhattan. Stark is still a dick ("You guys an S.C.A. chapter in your spare time?"), but I'm able to enter safely and talk to the members. The knights each carry soulblades, "a lethal merging of quantum physics and metaphysics." They kill vampires, but only if ritually bonded to their owners. 
        
Stark makes some new friends.
        
There are five triangles offering exits to different cloisters from the knights' courtyard. I blow my cover when I enter one of the rooms and don't cast a reflection in a mirror. I'm able to kill the knight in the room, but I figure that's not what I'm here for and I reload, avoiding his cloister.
    
In the other cloisters Sir Anias is mourning his dead brother, killed in a battle against vampires in Brooklyn Heights. The brother's chestplate was left behind, and Anias wants it returned for enshrinement. A knight named Sir Dominick gives me a serum that will make my blood poisonous to vampires. Archabbot Herscehl asks if I want to join the knights. I say yes, and he directs me to the armory for weapons, but that's where the mirror is. Sir Sebastian also sees through my disguise and orders me out of his chambers, but he doesn't attack. I swipe his rosary beads. Sir Helveticus offers me $25,000 to find his younger brother, who got into drugs. Lady Remington gives me another stake, and I also find some cruets of holy water.
        
I'm having flashbacks to the first time I met my father-in-law.
      
I hope my account hasn't become too boring. I'm eliding a lot, particularly the quirks and personalities of the various NPCs. I know I've already said this, but there's a huge amount of dialogue; at times, the game feels more like an interactive novel than something you "play." From both an adventure gaming perspective and an RPG perspective, I've started to notice some of the many things that the game lacks, starting with any sense of interactivity on the screens. All you can ever do is "Look" to get a description of the area and "Search" to find hidden objects. There are no buttons to push, puzzles to solve, or even ways to use objects. It doesn't even matter where you stand when searching or talking to NPCs.
  
While you occasionally get a "Yes/No" option, there are no dialogue choices. Stark says what he's going to say. Talking to NPCs is the only way that the game moves forward. But on the positive side, the writing continues to be acceptable, the world-building and use of themes admirable. 
    
Before wrapping up, I check in with Stark's skills. Since the game began, he has gained 5 points of strength but no other attributes. The only skills that have increased are "Faith" (+5) and "Will" (+5). None of my combat skills have increased despite several successful combats. In other words BloodNet is like every other Paragon title, in which skills and attributes increase rarely and unpredictably.
    
My first priority for the next session will be finding a merchant. I know they exist because Will's narrative mentions something like that. I have no more inventory space. I wonder if I can use a central location like Tackett's lab as an inventory storage location, or if items disappear if left too long. 
    
Time so far: 8 hours