Thursday, June 8, 2023

Shine on, Ambermoon

The night was mighty dark so you could hardly see . . .

So far, Ambermoon has offered the experience of conquering one obstacle only to immediately bang my head on the next one. Last session, the "next one" was the desert lizards. I settle into another period of grinding in Spannenberg. I started with undead, which offer more experience, but they're also a legitimate threat, which bandits are not. So I ultimately go back to killing random pairs of bandits, looting them and selling their equipment when the shop is open.
I admit I don't feel good about the whole thing. I have no problem with grinding in general, but I also think it ought to be something of a last resort. If you only have one path forward and you can't defeat the monsters on the other side, by all means grind. But if you have three or four paths forward, it's a little cheesy to start grinding just because you can't survive one of them. In an open-world game, there is always more than one path forward.
It says this even if they only increased one point.
Nevertheless, I stay at it until Qamara and Egil both hit another level. We return to the trainer for some more attack training, then head back out to the desert. It takes a day or so to find the enemy base in the middle of the desert, surrounded by a wall. Despite quite a bit of traipsing north and south, I don't even encounter any desert lizards this time.
Let me pause to register a complaint about the day/night cycle and, at the same time, to note an interesting fact about game time. First, the clock advances 5 minutes for every 3 moves in the wilderness. Terrain doesn't seem to make a difference. It also advances 5 minutes for every 10 seconds of real time that passes. These advances are completely independent. So if it turns 21:00 and you move twice, then wait 10 seconds, it will be 21:05. If you then move a third time, the clock will immediately advance to 21:10. I've played plenty of games where time advances in real time and plenty where time advances based on moves, but I don't think I remember any game combining the two approaches like this.
In any event, Ambermoon has a day/night cycle in which it gets darker at night. "Darker" is accomplished by shrinking the field of view in the game window. In full daylight, you see 11 x 11 tiles. You occupy the central square and can see 5 squares in any direction. From there, it gets dark in three stages. In the first, the field of view shrinks to a circle with a 3-tile radius; in the second stage, it shrinks to a one-tile radius; in the third, you can't see anything but the tile the party occupies.
This isn't very useful.
This is already pretty annoying. In life, nighttime rarely means pitch black, and Lyramion is supposed to have a couple of moons besides the amber one of the title. But even worse is the time that it starts to get dark: 17:00! It's like the entire game is set in the Orkneys in mid-winter. By 20:00, it's pitch black. From there, you might think that, for balance, it starts to get light again at 05:00, but no, you don't even hit the one-square-radius stage until 06:00, and it's not full light until 08:00. That means you only get 9 hours a day, or around 108 moves, where you can see the entire screen. You basically have to camp as soon as it gets dark, which will have you sleep until 07:00, then dance around for an hour until it gets bright. (Burning a torch, if you're curious, lights only a one-square radius.) I can't wait until graphics are good enough to depict night as dark but not completely opaque.
Entering the bandit's hideout.
Back to the plot. As we enter the house that serves as the bandit's headquarters, we hit a trip cord, and a bell rings to warn them that we're coming (there doesn't seem to be any way to avoid this). Inside, we find a tidy house of two levels and four rooms per level. The game notes that it "looks as if the house was left in great haste," including a card game in progress and warm bowls of soup still on the table. The first thing we find is a hidden lever in the chimney that opens a passage downward.
The secret passage disgorges several cloaked figures, each representing a party of two or three bandits. Regular bandits are no threat at this point, and we spend a few minutes mopping them up. Qamara hits Level 8.
When am I going to get a second attack?
One of the rooms has a chest. We open it with a lockpick. I'm not sure how lockpicking works in the game. Neither of my characters have any skill with it, yet I've never had it fail when I actually have a lockpick. So I guess the skill is for when you don't have any actual lockpicks and you have to improvise? If so, it's a pretty useless skill as long as you keep an eye on your supply of lockpicks. In any event, the chest has a golden horseshoe (one of the four that the farrier in Spannenberg was looking for), a two-handed sword called "Firebrand," a dexterity potion, five more lockpicks, and 1000 gold.
Qamara is just naturally gifted.
I give the sword to Egil, and it's a pretty significant upgrade. He goes from dealing 3 or 4 points of damage per round with a longsword to 10 or 12 with Firebrand. The sword can also be used to cast a fireball. As for the dexterity potion, it's one of several attribute-raising potions that I find in the bandits' headquarters, and I selfishly give them all to Qamara. I mean, she's the only character who I know will be with me for the entire game. 

I immediately run into an encumbrance problem, though. I already had about 4,000 gold from my grinding in town, and with the additional 1,000, plus the items I've looted, I don't really have room for anything else. Thus, we prematurely leave the dungeon and return to Spannenberg, with the intent of buying that elf's "Monster Eye." Unfortunately, in about a day of wandering around Spannenberg, I can't find her. So I end up dumping the gold in a chest back at grandfather's house.
There are bandits in the area and I'm storing thousands of gold pieces in a house occupied only by a man on his deathbed. This is a good plan.
While back in Spannenberg, however, we meet an NPC who we missed the first time (or he wasn't here): a human male adventurer named Otram. He says that he's planning to journey to Newlake to join the Brotherhood of Tarbos. Tarbos is the demon/wizard whose imminent return drove the plot of Amberstar. I prepare to behead Otram, but he explains that the Brotherhood of Tarbos is an order of spellcasters who spend all day and all night casting spells on Tarbos's coffin to prevent his return. "It is only thanks to the brotherhood," he says, "that dreadful Lord Tarbos did not reappear for the last seventy years."
Some important lore.
I'm confused by this until I look over my Amberstar entries and recall that in Tarbos's backstory, he was banished to "one of Lyramion's moons." I had just been picturing him in a different dimension or something. So I guess what happened was that the moon that came crashing into Lyramion was Tarbos's moon, and it brought Tarbos with it. The question is what happened then. Did he die from the impact? Did some hero have to kill him? Maybe we'll find out. Either way, it suggests that the party's success in Amberstar wasn't successful at all. The moon crashing into Lyramion wasn't a side-effect of what happened; it was literally the mechanism by which Tarbos was returned. I just went through the screenshots for my winning Amberstar entry, and none of them explicitly say that we succeeded in stopping the ritual. I just assumed. That's an amazing twist if that's what the game is implying. But it also means that the real story--somehow neutralizing Tarbos as he arrived--happened off-screen.
We return to the bandit house and continue exploring. We find another horseshoe in a chest and a third in a hidden nook in the fireplace. We also find some more gold, potions, and a magic helm called the Sun Helmet.
I appreciate this game's clear statistics.
As we head downstairs, we're attacked by a party of five bandits. This one has a "bandit chief" with them. He's a mean bastard. He stands in the back and fires arrows at us, doing 8-16 points of damage when he hits, and he hits most of the time. After two combats in which Egil is killed, I deal with him by blasting him with one of Firebrand's fireballs. We meet a few more parties that have bandit chiefs, and I continue to deal with them this way. I assume the sword eventually runs out of fireballs or it would be way over-powered. The bandit chief drops a note in runic that translates as "LEFT, RIGHT, CENTER, RIGHT."
The bandit chief flames out of existence as Egil nails him with a fireball.
The meaning of this note becomes clear as we enter the dungeon beneath the house, which is presented in 3D. The opening area has three teleporters in adjacent alcoves. I take the left one and find myself facing three more. I take the center, and so forth, until we reach an area where the dungeon opens up.
The first stop in a teleporter puzzle.
We continue exploring and fighting bandits. Qamara hits Level 9 and Egil Level 5. We find several chests, including one with several pieces of useful armor and helms and one full of potions. We run out of space again. Encumbrance is apparently going to be a real pain in this game.
Eventually, we wander into a room where we meet the bandit's leader, an old man who introduces himself as Nagier. He tells us that we've killed most of his people, and so he offers us a choice: a fierce battle with him and his remaining bandits or a truce in which he promises to abandon Spannenberg and to instruct us in the "Critical Hits" skill. That sounds pretty good to us, so we take his deal. He gives us a treaty to bring to Spannenberg and a key to a chest of stolen loot that we can return. The chest has 1,850 gold, "wishing coins," the fourth horseshoe, a "windpearl," a gold goblet, and a suit of "shadow leather." I have to put some potions and other equipment in the chest to take all of it; I just hope it's there when I return. For some reason, when we go to train for critical hits, the option is grayed out. I don't know whether it's not available to our classes (why wouldn't it be available to a warrior?), whether we need more money, or whether something else is wrong.
I should have tried both options, but I hadn't saved in a while.
After leaving the dungeon, I make the mistake of going to Spannenberg first to turn the horseshoes over to Tolimar. He accepts them and gives us a shovel, pickaxe, and crowbar, which of course we don't have the room for. I have to drop a bunch of food. After shuffling everything around, we take a side trip back to grandfather's house to store more equipment in his bedroom cabinet.
You don't need to justify why you're attached to solid gold horseshoes.
In Spannenberg, Norlael gives us a 500 gold piece reward for the return of his goblet. The Baron is happy with the treaty and gives us a "treasure key." I also earn enough experience for Qamara to make Level 10. (It's curious that Egil doesn't make a new level here; does only the person who hands the Baron the note get the experience?) The key opens one of the chests in his throne room, where I find--sigh--4,000 gold pieces and a "holy horn." I already have one of those and I'm not even sure what it does.
Somehow, I missed the fact that the baron is named "Iron George."
I finally find Sandire again and buy the Monster Eye from her, which is a huge pain because a single character has to give her 5,000 gold, but to give a single character that much gold, I have to swap most of my equipment to the other character. Anyway, she sells me the eye, which becomes a permanent part of the interface, just like the clock and compass.
Let's just say that if you told me that it was a different part of a monster rather than its eye, I'd believe you.
We head back to the bandit dungeon to grab the rest of the loot, but of course I screw up the teleporter puzzle, which sends us to a kind of arena. An announcer tells us that to escape, we'll have to press the correct button out of two possibilities. We fight a battle with spiders, then press a button. I guess it's the wrong one because more spiders drop from the ceiling. After the second battle (Egil reaches Level 6), we press the other button and it opens a corridor back to the beginning. I guess this would be a good place to grind. 
I hate when this happens.
We grab the potions and gold we left on our first visit, then return to grandfather's house. I take a save outside his front door, but rather than head to the basement and clear the rubble with our new tools, I decide to indulge a bit of wanderlust.
I like the graphics in outdoor exploration, but the game has weird ideas about where you can move. Take the bridge pictured below, where you see me ramming into a post at the end of it.
The oblique interface obscures the actual path of movement across the bridge. If you were to look at it top down, replacing the graphics with the tiles behind the scenes, it would look like this:
It's a minor thing, and I'm not honestly upset about it, but it's silly that you can't just cross a bridge in a straight path, or that the only valid path on the bridge has you banging into a post on either side. It gets worse for other objects, like trees, where the tiles that they occupy graphically are different from the tile or tiles they occupy for purposes of movement. In the screenshot below, for instance, the tile that I cannot traverse because of the tree (visually) to the northwest of the character is actually directly north of the character. When early iconographic games stuck resolutely to one-tile-per-terrain-type, as in Ultima III or IV, there was never any confusion as to where you could walk. But as we get further into the 1990s, we're seeing games that maintain a tile-based approach but try to mask that fact by blending the graphics from one tile to another. Graphically, that tile to the  north of my character is "right edge of tree, right tree shadow, the rest grass." For the purposes of movement, the tile is just "tree."
I cannot move north, but I can move northwest.
The overall point I'm making is that it's visually difficult to determine where you can walk and where you can't. So far, this hasn't had major implications, but I could see it becoming an issue. I could miss an obscure mountain path or assume that I can't cross between two islands when I actually can. That very example actually comes up a little later:
Despite the water, you can cross on and off this island to the north and west.
I decide to make a counter-clockwise circuit around the extremities of the island, starting at grandfather's hut, which is in the southeast "corner" of the island. Mountains and stone walls funnel me west, then north into the desert, then east, then north again. We get a rematch against the desert lizards. They hit hard and take a lot of damage. I nearly lose Egil, but we manage to kill one, and the other one flees. They're worth 75 experience points and 2 food rations.
These guys can take a real beating.
We round the eastern mountains and find ourselves on the coast, which includes graphics of palm trees and very large shells and starfish. We reach a dungeon entrance. The door has the symbol of Gala, goddess of life. Our picks fail to open it. Mountains prevent exploration very far to the north or south, so soon we're back in the desert again.

Days pass as we explore the northern coast, where there's an impassable swamp to the northeast, round a bay that cuts into the island from the west, and finally reach the mountains west of Spannenberg--days in which nothing at all happens. I account the experiment a failure. This is perhaps a game in which you want to save open exploration for those times in which you have no other ideas.
I thought that little crater lake was cute.
Next time, we'll go more purposefully back to my "to do" list and see if I can clear up the rest of Spannenberg's woes. I complained about several things in this entry, but as it concludes, I actually find myself enjoying the game more than in my first three entries. I feel I finally have some momentum. More important, Ambermoon, like its predecessor, is one of the few early-1990s games to check all the boxes for what we would consider a full RPG: an evolving story, quests and side quests, NPCs with dialogue and personalities, and full sets of attributes, equipment, and combat mechanics. I expect it to get better as I move forward.
Time so far: 15 hours 

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Game 491: Adventure Dungeon (1983)

Adventure Dungeon
Independently developed; published in March 1983 CLOAD magazine (a cassette magazine)
Released 1983 for TRS-80.
Date Started: 3 June 2023
Date Ended: 5 June 2023
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Very Easy (2.0/5) in the sense that every game is a "winner"; Hard (4.0/5) to get the top score and survive all dungeons.
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Adventure Dungeon is an interesting title that commenter Dungy unearthed a couple of years ago by going one-by-one through old disk and cassette magazines. It was written by David Lo of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Lo was a modestly frequent contributor to CLOAD, although this is the only game that's surfaced with RPG aspirations. It's not quite an RPG by my definitions, but at the same time, it offers an interesting approach that had me thinking a lot about optimal strategies.
The setup is that you're trying to join the Wise Council, which requires you to prove yourself in a contest. Asking the player for nothing more than a name and a sobriquet, the game dumps you on Level 1 of a five-level dungeon. (You can technically choose to start on a higher level, but I'm not sure why you would.)  Each level is 30 x 13 squares. Scattered across these 390 squares are 18 monsters, which do not move, and 13 treasures. Collecting treasures and defeating monsters increases your score. If you defeat all the monsters and collect all the treasure on one level, you move to the next level. If you clear all the levels, or die, the game ends and you learn from the Wise Council whether you earned enough points to join and, if so, at what rank.
I was "confused" because I thought the game was asking for my class and the instructions hadn't said anything about that.
While simple in concept, plot, and mechanics, Adventure Dungeon introduces one devilish twist: When you encounter a monster, you have to wager a certain number of your hit points against its hit points. If you wager exactly the same number as the monster has, your odds of beating it are 50%. If you wager double the number the monster has, your odds are 100%. In between 1x and 2x the monster's hit points is a linearly increasing probability of success.
Fighting an orc on Level 2. Wagering 340 hit points against his 271 gives me a 63% chance of success.
So why wouldn't you always wager two times the monster's hit points? Because character growth depends on how much risk you take. Both your maximum hit points and your score increase in proportion to your risk. If you play it safe and wager 2x, you get no increase at all (and values above 2x will actually drop your values). 

For instance, on Level 1, you meet a spider with 51 hit points. You have 300 hit points. You can attack it with any number of points between 1 (about a 1% chance of success) and 102 (100% chance). If you wager 101 points, the largest number that would give you anything in return, you would earn 1 hit point and 10 points to your score. But if you were successful when betting only 1 point, you would earn 101 hit points and 990 points to your score. Earning points is important because monster hit points increase depending on the number of monsters you've already killed. Enemies start as weak as 2 hit points (dwarves, trolls, and harpies at the beginning of Level 1) and as strong as 22 hit points (dragons at the beginning of Level 1). As you slay their fellows, each monster experiences a change in its hit points, but not in a predictable way. (These changes are solely dependent on the number of monsters remaining and not on your score or hit point total. I checked.) For instance, here's how the orc's hit points change depending on how many monsters remain:
Do you think anyone has ever made a chart with "orc hit points" in the title before?
I don't have a TRS-80 emulator with save states, by the way, so creating that chart meant starting enough new games in a row to encounter the orc after each number of enemies while surviving all those previous enemies. Yeah, it took a while. I couldn't possibly do it for every enemy on any level, but the highest hit point value I saw for any creature on Level 1 was the dragon at 519.
Obviously, 519 is well above the character's starting hit points of 300. The character needs to have earned 738 hit points on the level to be sure of defeating the dragon, if he encounters it last, and he can't possibly earn that many if he plays it safe with all the other enemies.
Every level has all of these monsters, randomly scattered. They are roughly in order of most difficult to least difficult.
On Level 1, you have the advantage that you can uncover the entire level before picking up any treasures or fighting any enemies. There are no barriers. Every step reveals the eight squares around you. You just have to walk carefully. The instructions tell you what symbols match up with what monsters. You could attack them in a strategic order. But as we've seen, the number of hit points that each monster has at each stage is unpredictably variable. You'd have to learn the "right" order through a lot of trial and error, perhaps creating a matrix of each monster's hit points at each stage.
And each level has all of these treasures.
There are a couple of other confounding considerations. If you wager less than 1.5x an enemy's hit points, the enemy automatically kills you if you lose the combat. If you wager more than 1.5x, the enemy "lets you leave" but you lose what you wagered. This is hard to recover from some combats. For instance, in the only session where I made it to Level 3, I met a balrog with 634 hit points while I had 2083. I wagered 1110, or about 1.75x the balrog's total, which gave me an 87.5% chance of victory. This was the standard I had been following. In this case, I lost the odds, and my hit points dropped to 973. The balrog was still on the map, but now I could only wager 973 hit points to his 634, giving me only a 72% chance of winning. Fortunately, I won the second time; otherwise, I would have ended up with 0 hit points. As it was, the number I'd lost hurt me when I next met a sphinx with over 1,000.
Without enough hit points to wager, I was "torned to bits."
If you're able to make it to Level 2, you'll note that every enemy has a couple hundred more hit points than on Level 1 (to start; again, it changes and generally increases as you kill their comrades). The terrain is also different, with walls blocking access at some point, making it more difficult to reveal the level before having to fight anything. That strategy becomes impossible on Level 3, where all enemies and treasures are nestled in a crosshatch pattern through which you have to move diagonally.
The weird Level 3.
Level 4 is like Level 2, but without the dots that mark the tiles. Level 5 has a proper maze, albeit a small one. The wall squares are chaotic and unpatterned on Levels 2 and 4, but they create corridors and rooms on Level 5. After you leave each level, whether by clearing it or by defeat, you have the option to have the game reveal the rest of the level before you move on.
Viewing all of Level 5.
If you choose to start on a Level higher than 1, the monsters have the same hit points as if you had started on Level 1. You still have to clear five levels to completely win the game, so the game just adds as many re-iterations of Level 5 as is necessary depending on where you started. For instance, if you started on Level 4, you'll face four iterations of Level 5 after you complete it.
In six hours of playing--admittedly, a lot of that was recording data for the preceding chart--the best score I could accomplish was 8,693 points. According to the instructions, that should have been enough for me to achieve the fifth rank, "Eldar of the Outer Council," but the game screen said I had only achieved the fourth rank, "Member of the Outer Council." The highest rank, "Lord of the Wise Council," requires at least 27,000 points. 
What I received . . .
Versus what I was supposed to receive.
What consumes me now is what strategy you would have to adopt to get that high of a score. The obvious thing is to first carefully map the levels, avoiding monsters and picking up unguarded treasure. Treasure gives you points with no risk. Then, I guess you want to take on the monsters in roughly descending order of difficulty. Although the hit points are variable, in general, dragons, balrogs, wyverns, and hydras are the strongest monsters and dwarves, trolls, harpies, orcs, and black unicorns are the weakest. The trouble is determining how much to bet. Even betting enough to give you an 85% chance of victory gives you only a 50% chance of winning 4 combats in a row and a measly 5% chance of winning all 18 combats on a level. A 95% chance of victory gives you only a 40% chance of winning all 18 combats on the level. 
Here, I've uncovered most of Level 1 before attacking anything.
I actually set up an Excel sheet to start modeling different strategies and likely outcomes. Ultimately, because your score increases in a linear manner with risk, your expected payout from battle alone is identical no matter what strategy you adopt. But the presence of treasure encourages you to play conservatively to increase your chances of staying alive for the next level, where the treasure can add to your score for no risk. But as we've seen, playing too conservatively means that you don't have enough hit points to take on some of the tougher monsters. The whole thing is tying me in knots. I need Ahab to help tackle this one. (Ahab, by the way, is racking up game totals scarily fast. He'll hit 500 before I do at this rate.)
In some ways, Adventure Dungeon really isn't different from any other RPG; it just has fewer variables with more transparent odds. If you were to analyze Ultima III from the same year, you'd have a much more difficult time deriving a single probability of success from any one combat. You'd have to consider enemy and party hit points, attributes, accuracy and damage statistics from weapons wielded, armor class, and the dice rolled for each attack--and that's without any consideration of spells. But if you had all the numbers, the expected probability of success would be determinable.
How do developers properly balance games with so many considerations?
This makes me wonder, in turn, if game designers do create master spreadsheets for individual battles (or combat overall) and tweak the variables to aim for a particular chance of victory, perhaps even accounting for the average player making x errors. I was thinking about this recently in relation to Gloomhaven, to which Irene is addicted. Every battle must have a few thousand variables to consider. Every character card is different, and there are something like 15 character classes, which might appear in any combination of two, three, or four in any battle. Each character enters a battle with 9 or 10 cards out of a deck of maybe twice that many, each card offering a variety of offensive and defensive options, including spells (which depend on various elements having been "infused" during previous turns). The characters' levels determine enemy levels, but characters can have equipment and augments to which enemies have no analogues. Every attack is accompanied by the equivalent of a die roll, but complicated with curses and blessings and various special cards achieved through success in battle objectives.

This is all a lot for the players to keep track of, but it must have been even more difficult for the author, Isaac Childres. I find the game generally well balanced. We started playing at normal difficulty and then moved up to "hard" and "very hard" as we got more experience, but no matter what, we've always had a success rate of about 85%. Either we've been extremely lucky in this consistency or Childres had some way of distilling every advantage and disadvantage, every card, token, and pip, into some kind of standardized value that resulted in roughly the same odds for every battle no matter what combination of characters, levels, and other factors. Which do you think is more likely? And whether Childres had such a formula for Gloomhaven, do you imagine other developers do when writing CRPGs? Or do they just wing it?
When and how often you allow a player to save makes a huge difference, of course. With no ability to save in Adventure Dungeon, even extremely favorable per-battle odds translate poorly into long-term success. A game like Elden Ring can offer much worse odds, at least for boss battles, and still engage players simply by not making defeat the end of the game.
GIMLET? Bah. It gets an 11. The probabilistic strategy element is worth a couple of points, and it's short and replayable. It's not really the sort of game I started my blog to play, but it does pose some interesting questions about the types of probabilities that underlie many other games, and I'm thus grateful to David Lo for prompting an interesting topic of discussion.
Ed. from 06/08/2023: A few days after publishing this entry, I heard from author Dave Lo. He says that his primary influences were Dungeon (1979) for the Commodore PET (which I reviewed 10 years ago), which Lo played at his high school, and Monster Combat, a type-in game published in the February 1981 Creative Computing, which offered the same kind of risk/reward system.

Lo verified that he thinks the best strategy is to collect treasure first, then attack the monsters in descending order of difficulty.

I asked him about the business of writing for diskmags in the early 1980s, and he said it was "very casual--just submit something when it's done." The pay varied from $100 to $200 per program. Lo continued to work on Adventure Dungeon, changing some of the math and adding a spell system, but he never published an updated version.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Serpent Isle: This Broken Jaw of Our Lost Kingdoms

Apparently, they have T. S. Eliot in Pagan.
Despite my misgivings about the game's length, I start this session with a certain excitement--even optimism. Serpent Isle so far has been somewhat predictable: three cities, three sets of problems to solve, three artifacts, culminating in a bottleneck that requires those three artifacts. But now that I'm through the bottleneck, looking at the northern half of the island, the game seems wide open again. This could be an illusion--probably is an illusion--but that doesn't change the immediate feeling of being on a frontier where anything could happen.
My map shows some kind of structure to my east, which I would encounter quickly if I adopted a counter-clockwise exploration pattern from my current point. So just to be ornery, I decide to go west and adopt a clockwise pattern. 
As we skirt along the northern border of Gorlab Swamp, we're attacked by an insect swarm and a couple of boars. This is good because boars drop meat, the party is getting hungry, and I haven't maintained a large reserve of food (of course, I have a "Create Food" spell, but why waste the reagents?). Wolves join the attackers as we get nearer the coast. Shamino is poisoned and Iolo wounded, which gives me an excuse to burn a couple of my thousand potions.
Curse save us all from a death like this.
We reach the site of what I first take to be a shipwreck, debris scattered all around it, but it turns out to be the camp of some extremely messy adventurers. The corpses of two men and three women line the shore. A journal chronicles a harrowing half-year in which a large party arrived to search for gold. They found several veins of ore but frequent attacks by wolves made them paranoid, and they eventually turned on each other. One of them, Draygan, burned the ship, and it seems that the rest were killed by wolves. There might be some Treasure of the Sierra Madre allusions here; it's been a long time since I saw the film. 
One of their barrels holds a couple of white potions--easy go, easy come--and some jugs of milk. I waste the reagents for a "Telekinesis" spell to bring down the gangplank only for Dupre to tell me that it's blocked. We'll never know what's in the two crates on board.
By what? Water?
The journal wasn't kidding about the wolves, though. As we continue along the coast, we're attacked repeatedly--and of course the bastards respawn the moment we leave a screen. They're more annoying than dangerous, though.
There's something amusing about calling a wolf a "fool."
We soon leave the wolves behind, and it's a long, uneventful stretch along forested shore--the forest canopy occasionally accented with silverleaf trees and giant mushrooms--before the coast turns north, indicating that we've reached the island's western extremity. We pass gamboling deer and rabbits. A reaper, looking like a dead tree trunk, doesn't fool us. "Where are we?" the Avatar wonders at one point. "We are lost, Avatar," Dupre unhelpfully responds.
Our trek north along the western coast ends in a cul-de-sac, water to the north and west and mountains to the east. The dead body of a sailor inexplicably lies on the beach. A heavy rain begins to fall as we make our way back south and then east, this time following the mountains. Lightning occasionally strikes, depositing junk or turning rocks into cauldrons and candelabras.
End of the line.
Our first significant encounter in a while comes when we find a hut in the middle of the forest with a silverleaf tree growing through the center. A white-bearded man bustles about a neat interior with various plants, tables, cups, and potions tidily arranged. He introduces himself as Morghrim, "master of these forests." When I ask him to clarify, he gives his titles as: "Forest Master! Friend to Windrunner! Former protector of Elerion, and now refugee of Pagan!" This is, I believe, the second mention of "Pagan" in the Ultima series, the first occurring in Ultima Underworld II.
Morghrim goes on to explain that in his world, Pagan, he was the last of a long line of protectors of Elerion, the great world tree. When the Guardian invaded the world, Morghrim opposed him. The Guardian's forces burned the tree, and Morghrim lost his eyes in the fire. His friend, a gray wolf named Windrunner, rescued him, and Morghrim used the last of his magic to create a portal that dumped them in the Serpent Isles. Since then, he has spent centuries tending the forest and speaking to its animals. Frustrated with the differences by which magic worked in his new world, Morghrim stored his Pagan-based magical abilities in a living orb called the Heart of Elerion.
I guess his face is supposed to be burned. The graphics weren't quite good enough for me to notice until now.
As we talk, he mentions that he's friends with the Hound of Doskar, a magical beast who can track anyone if you give him something personal to that person--just what we need to find Cantra. But Morghrim has three problems. First, the forest is dying because of the imbalance problems that the Serpent Isles are experiencing. Second, a sadistic trapper named Hazard is slaughtering the forest animals. Third, the leader of a camp of miners, Draygan, has stolen the Orb of Elerion. Windrunner and the wolves went after him and killed all his followers, but the orb makes Draygan impervious to harm. Morghrim suggests that we might be able to reason with him. If we can return the orb, he can summon the Hound of Doskar to help us find Cantra.
Finally, Morghrim mentions that although Elerion was burned, he was able to save the Silver Seed at the heart of the tree and bring it to the Serpent Isles. The Silver Seed is of course the name of this game's expansion, which I've put off doing just because it hasn't come up organically yet. I don't quite understand the relationship between Morghrim's Silver Seed and the Amulet of Balance I got from the Xenkan monks.
This unexciting screenshot is here only to avoid too many paragraphs of text in a row.
Continuing along the mountain range, we come to a cave. It leads to a long, multi-leveled dungeon in which we fight boars, giant spiders, goblins, acid slugs, and bats and find crates full of potions and one crate with several magic armor pieces. After a while, we reach the exit to the dungeon. Just as we do, the party starts complaining that it's getting colder. Next to the exit, we find a dying trapper. He introduces himself as Fitch, a companion of Hazard. Some evil sorceress attacked his band, and he crawled into the cave to die. He expires shortly after explaining his tale; we loot a Gwani cloak from his body.
Apparently, we don't even try to heal him.
We emerge into a frozen landscape. I debate whether to save this area for later or continue my exploration pattern. I decide to continue the pattern. We head north and find another cave with two polar bears, which we unfortunately kill. Yet another cave north of that seems to have the remnants of the battle that Fitch spoke of. Bodies lie on the floor next to scorch marks and ghosts walk through the room. A trapped chest has more cloaks, including a Gwani cloak.
The color of the stats window seems to indicate how badly the character is suffering.
By now, though, we start to experience a serious problem. Despite being wrapped in Gwani cloaks, my characters are freezing. Their complaints go from "it's a bit nippy" to not being able to feel their faces. They actually start to take damage. I try different combinations of warmer gear, but I don't have enough fur hats and boots to go around. We turn around and head back for the dungeon. However, the characters don't stop complaining even after we pass the point at which they originally mentioned the cold; they keep complaining all through the dungeon. They're taking damage from frostbite while simultaneously taking damage from goblins. I try to keep everyone hale with potions and spells, but characters keep collapsing. I mistake "Poison" potions (green) for "Awaken" potions (orange) and make the situation worse. Eventually, I reload from just outside the dungeon and head back through it as fast as I can. The characters don't stop complaining about the cold until we reach the original entrance and head back into the forest.
If you don't like the climate in the Serpent Isles, wait five minutes.
Moving along, we find Hazard's Lodge in the forest. One trapper attacks as we enter, and we easily dispatch him. A note indicates what we already know: that Hazard has gone to the north. But it also tells us something we didn't know--that he's in possession of the glass sword we lost when we arrived on the island. He must have found the sword where it replaced a pine cone.
Only in this screenshot am I noticing that mandrake on the floor. Dammit.
North of the burned ship we discovered earlier, we find several dilapidated buildings that must have belonged to the miners. Still north of that, nestled in the mountains, behind a gated fence, we find Draygan's compound. The first person we encounter is a woman named Beryl. She says that there are actually four survivors of the expedition: herself, Draygan, and two men who work for Draygan. She recaps what we already know about Draygan having left the rest of the party to be eaten by wolves, and she blames Draygan for the death of her husband, Carvell. She's tried to run away, but Draygan's flunkies keep finding her. She confirms that Draygan is invincible, but she thinks we might be able to deal with him by treating an arrow with a plant called King's Savior, which puts people to sleep. The Forest Master should know where to find some.
We find Draygan himself in a small hut. He relates the history of the miners as we already know it, except that the ship they arrived on was called The Emerald Lady. I had been wondering where they came from, but a tattoo on his forehead confirms Monitorian origins. He doesn't seem to know or care that I'm a fellow Knight of Monitor. He has delusions of power and glory and warns us not to interfere with them.
From here, that would be a small nook of dirt surrounded by mountains.
For fun, I take a save and attack him. He retaliates with fireballs that quickly wipe out the party. I reload and feed him a "Sleep" potion (how is that different from Beryl's plan?) and he gets a protective aura around him. I feed him a "Protection" potion and he goes to sleep. I feed him a "Poison" potion and he wakes up. I feed him an "Awaken" potion and he gets poisoned. Confusion over the potion colors aside, poison doesn't seem to damage him, and if you put him to sleep with a potion, he just wakes up when you attack. Oddly, pikemen from Monitor respond to his cries for help.
The answer to the obvious question--where did they come from?--turns out to be the caves to the north of Draygan's compound. I don't know why we're repeatedly told that Draygan only has two followers when clearly he has more. The cave network is large and offers combats with giant spiders, headless, and trolls. Their bodies, as well as a few chests, yield gold nuggets and bars, which is nice because I haven't made any serious money for a while, and I still have spells and reagents to purchase.
Looting a troll lair.
We decide to finish our circuit before returning to Morghrim. As we near the eastern coast, Shamino starts exclaiming, "I know this place! I never thought to see this again!" He explains what we already know about the castle once being his home, and he laments the fair lady Beatrix that he abandoned there. He draws me a quick map of the castle as he remembers it and mentions a secret door that once existed to the west between two trees.
Helpful, but not really necessary.
A plaque at the impassable front gate reads: "BEWARE. SPIRITS PROWL HERE." Mountains block passage north around the castle. We head back west and find Shamino's secret door between the stumps of two trees. A tunnel leads through the mountains, past combats with giant spiders and giant scorpions (?), and down some stairs. In a cyclops lair strewn with debris and body parts, we find a chest with a magic shield and some magic crossbow bolts. 
Cyclopes are nasty.
A stairway upward leads to what Shamino has marked as a storage room. A ghost immediately greets us, welcoming us to "the Castle of King Shamino, the Betrayer!" She tries to attack us, but we're on the other side of a closed secret door, so she just beats at the wall for a few seconds before disappearing in a flash. We open the door and start exploring around the edges of the castle. Highlights:
  • The storeroom has nothing of value but torches and bandages. Food in some of the barrels has rotted away long ago, leaving banana peels and fish skeletons behind.
  • The well still has water at the bottom.
  • The kitchen has a couple of fresh dead bodies. A diary on one of them indicates that he was a pirate hired by Batlin in Fawn. He relates how Batlin's party traipsed across the frozen north, hunting and imprisoning daemons. One of them was called Anarchy. How they came to their end in this kitchen is unknown.
  • In the meeting hall, armored statues come to life, and we have to kill them in a (relatively) long combat. Almost everyone is wounded down to single digits, and I have to spend some time healing.
Did they come back to life the moment we left the screen? Of course they did.
  • In the guard post, we use a winch to open the main gate so we don't have to exit through the caves.
  • Undead attack us in the barracks, where there are a number of locked chests. I spend time picking them all, but they just have pieces of armor worse than I already have. A cluster of levers at the north end of the barracks unlock all the doors that were previously locked.
Between the wizard's chambers and chapel.
  • The armory has eight locked chests. The four front ones yield to my lockpicks but are all empty. The four rear ones break every pick. One by one, I bash open the locked ones. I find a bunch of regular weapons and armor, a dragonslayer sword, a magic axe, a fire wand, and a note from Beatrix to Shamino. In it, she begs his forgiveness for having "looted the king's private arms" when the castle was besieged by goblins and Shamino was nowhere to be found.
  • The dining hall and servants' quarters have nothing but cobwebs and rotting furniture.
  • The wizard's chamber has a nice selection of reagents in several locked chests. A few magic scrolls lie behind a locked door, but an invisible chest has the key.
As we leave the armory, the ghost speaks to us again, and it is clear that it is Beatrix: "I loved thee once! I wrote three notes of love, letters of trust--but thou didst remember me no more, when Lord British summoned thee to his aid!" She attacks a couple of times and disappears. She appears again in the wizard's chambers: "So, thou didst finally think to return, King? It is too late! All are dead, the goblins conquered all ." Finally, she meets us a third time in the chapel: "Here is where my body did lie, until the goblins pillaged the tomb. I died of a broken heart, waiting for thy return." As if to drive this home, there's a casket in the corner of the chapel with a plaque that reads: "BEATRIX OF THE BROKEN HEART." It is empty.
Beatrix reacts to Shamino's mustache.
Shamino is curiously mute during all of this, and he has nothing to say when I double-click on him. Unfortunately, there's nothing else we can accomplish here at the moment. There's some kind of magic barrier in front of the castle's main keep. We make several loops around the area and search all the keep's walls for secret doors, but nothing comes to light.
That's convenient.
We continue our explorations and finally arrive at the castle that was just to our east when we emerged from the swamp. The swamp surrounds it like a moat. A few wooden planks serve as a bridge, but Boydon somehow manages to get himself poisoned as we cross it. The interior main doors are locked, so all we can do is take stairs up to the battlements. All ways here lead to dead ends or other locked doors.
I assume this is the Castle of the White Dragon.
Out of ideas, we make the long trek back to the Forest Master's house, using the trip as an excuse to probe the mountains for secret passages. We find one just before we reach the area with the hut. It leads to a small cave with barrels of food and potions, a trapped chest with a magic bow and magic arrows, and a little money in a sack. The remains of the presumed owner are spread out across the floor.
A secret niche.
Morghrim knows what King's Savior is: "Aye, it's a weed!" He describes it and tells us where to find it, near the mushrooms to the west. It takes me a while because his description depends heavily on color. Iolo has exactly one regular arrow, so I apply the plant, and it turns into a "Sleep Arrow." I grab a couple of extra just in case, and we head back to Draygan's camp.
One wonders how a plant that makes magic arrows ever managed to save a king.
I let Iolo do the honors, and of course he somehow screws it up, leading to another death at Draygan's hands. I reload and give the bow and arrow to the Avatar. He manages to put Draygan to sleep in one shot. Then Beryl rushes up and kills him! I wasn't expecting that. I guess I can't blame her, though. She thanks me and heads off, intending to offer herself as an aide to the Morghrim.
Technically, he only fell asleep thanks to me.
Draygan's body has magic leggings, a great helm, and the Orb of Elerion. Morghrim gates in and demands the orb immediately. I give it to him, and he gives me a whistle to summon the Hound of Doskar. I blow it, and a friendly little dog appears. I expected some kind of demon mastiff or something. I ask it to track something and give it Cantra's wooden sword. The dog points to the east.
Anyone know what kind of breed that is?
Apparently, the Hound of Doskar doesn't so much lead me to my quarry as point to it. I have to keep re-summoning him with the whistle if I want him. Still, there isn't much to the east except the two castles, and sure enough, the hound leads me directly to the front gates of Shamino's Castle. Next time, we'll see what's changed.
As the session closes, my open-world optimism is mostly gone, and while the session hasn't been unenjoyable, I find myself missing the less-linear world of The Black Gate. It's too bad that Origin didn't use the strengths of this engine in further titles. I want to explore more and follow step-by-step instructions less.
Time so far: 50 hours