Saturday, October 23, 2021

Dark Sun: Sanitation Work

The "sewers" somehow have outgoing drains. There are apparently sewers for the sewers.
After my failure to fight my way out of the slave pits in the last entry, I reloaded an earlier save with the intention of spending longer in the arena and thus getting my characters to a higher level. It was a useful exercise, although not for the reasons that I expected.
I resisted making any changes to the party, but only after I opened the character creator and verified that 14 is the highest statistic the half-giant ever rolls for dexterity. Thus, I couldn't do any better without cheating. By then, I had become attached to my ragtag group, even if they were sub-optimal, and I was determined to find a way to usher them through the game.
I had to replay a lot of the content in the slave pits, and somehow while clicking quickly through the dialogue options, I ended up offending Merzol and his henchmen. That led to a combat in which we killed the crew--and thus cut off that possibility for escape. The precious treasure they were guarding in their haystack was 100 ceramic pieces. I was pleased to see that after their deaths, other NPCs referred to Merzol in the past tense. That type of adaptability is rare for the era.
Note the past tense on Merzol.
This time around, I got the location of the hidden gem from Semyon (the slave tied up in the arena). It was in a pot in Dinos's kitchen, which we smashed with the "sword" icon. Once I knew that was a gameplay element, of course we smashed every pot that we found. We didn't find any more valuables, but I like to think I dealt a blow to the evil sorcerer-king by ruining his pot budget.
The party bankrupts the corrupt city-state.
The amusing thing is that Semyon stayed in the arena. Every time we fought a battle, he was standing where we'd left him. He would try to help us in every battle, but for some reason he only had about 3 movement points per round, and usually the battle was over before he'd even closed half the distance between his starting position and the melee. He had almost limped to the front line for our last battle. I suppose he's still there.
Last time, you heard how Scar wouldn't talk to the party until we'd been in the arena four times. Well, apparently four was both a minimum and a maximum for Scar, because on our fifth visit--even though we hadn't talked with him--there he was. In the announcer's telling, "Scar has become so disgusted with the survival of these scum [i.e, the party] that he has offered to kill them himself to make room in the pens for real gladiators!" The game gave me some dialogue options, including one that would have given us the chance (I think) to participate in Scar's escape plan, just as before, but I just chose the one that led to combat.
A lot of potential outcomes in these dialogue options with Scar.
Scar attacked with himself and his three henchmen. What he didn't know is that my ranger had made Level 3 as a druid in our last combat (or maybe from finding the gem in the smashed pot) and thus had access to "Hold Person." All four of our enemies got held on the first try. "Hold Person" isn't the instant death sentence here that it is in the Gold Box. Characters attacking held enemies must still make their attack rolls (probably at a bonus). But if they hit, they hit with a significant damage bonus, and it wasn't long before Scar's party was dead.
I love how the announcer says this before we've even finished killing Scar's henchmen.
That left us as essentially the only fighters left in the slave pens. Gilal and Mirlon never seemed to get called to combat. It also left us with only a couple of escape options: give a gem to the suspicious Mirlon or just start fighting our way out.
We only fought one more arena combat before making our escape. In it, we faced a wild mull, a strine, and a couple other enemies. It wasn't too bad. But every time we showed up for our seventh combat, we got attacked by multiple high-level foes like daggorans, mountain stalkers, and dune reapers. I tried out a lot of potential spells, but they would just run up and shred my characters. Each of them is capable of 4-6 attacks per round doing an average of around 15 damage. I'd love to hear your strategies for fighting them, but nothing really worked for me.
This was not survivable.
Nonetheless, by now I had two characters capable of "Hold Person," and I figured that would be the secret to all the guards in the slave pens. Overall, it's pretty stupid to keep spellcasters as slaves and then put them in situations that allow them to improve as spellcasters--at least with out some kind of magic-suppressing collar or other mechanism of control.
Anyway, after all that replaying, it turned out that my failure to escape the first time was mostly about bad positioning, bad luck, and failure to make use of the overhead map, which clearly shows the positions of enemies. This time, I started by killing Kurzak and Legcrusher, then running down through the slave pens before the general alarm rang, and out the western door of Dinos's quarters. Most of the guards followed down into the slave pens but got hung up there as the party ran to the western side of the map. By watching the overhead map, I was able to avoid clumps of guards while picking off individuals one at a time.  
You have to zoom in to see it, but the map shows all the guards clumped in the slave pens to the east while we're in a corridor in the southwest.
I was relieved when I made it to the sewer exit in the northwest corner, and I made a save there, but I ultimately ended up killing all the slavers by chasing them around the map, never attacking groups of more than two or three at a time. "Hold Person" helped, but it wasn't as necessary as I'd first assumed. I opened every chest and looted every body, although I didn't find a lot of useful items. The "templar" in charge of the slave pens, who attacked me alone in his lavish quarters, had a +1 longsword called "Bloodwrath." Almost everything else was a handful of ceramic pieces or, if I was lucky, some magic arrows.
Our first magic weapon!
With the corpses of men and pots behind us, we pried our way down into the absurdly spacious sewers, an act that got us 5,000 experience points each, enough for several characters to level up. That seemed excessive for the act of opening the grate, and I started to complain about it, but then I realized that "Congratulations! The party has gained experience" has been a feature of SSI D&D games for several years already. They just don't usually tell you how much.
But we've killed everyone who could possibly train us!
Only steps into the underworld, we were "greeted" by a pack of rat-men called Tari. ("I, rat" in reverse? How lazy.) They demanded that we pay for passage. We refused and threatened when they got uppity about it. They backed down. One of them told another to "tell Churr we have visitors." In further dialogue, they related that "Nestmaster Churr" is their leader, and that he's wrapped up in some plot with the "high warren chief's daughter." The sewers are divided into "warrens," an Churr apparently rules the Low Warrens. Other "selfish, cowardly" Tari live in the High Warrens. There are zombies in the "flushing tunnels" far to the north.
I feel like the first dialogue option isn't sincere.
Churr was just up the tunnel and asked us to join his Tari in an attack on the High Warren's Tari. I initially said no. In further conversation, Churr related in addition to the High Warren Tari, there is a third faction in the sewers: the "worshipers," Tari who worship the sorcerer-king in exchange for food. They are led by someone named Mikquetzl. Although I didn't agree to help in the attack, I gave a few bags of grain (which I'd snatched from a storeroom in the slave pens) to his hungry people for 5 ceramic pieces each.
We continued through the warrens. Some doors required us to find a nearby wheel to open. Some gates I could break down. Some drains and skeletons had items of small or no value in them (e.g., daggers, skulls, bottles of mold). Some wheels were broken. I continue to be frustrated by the interface, which is perfect except requiring the player to right-click through different action icons, which always reset after you do anything. Most of the time, you want it on the "talk/use" icon, but it won't stay there by default and there's no easy keyboard shortcut to bring it back.
A Tari guarding a gate refused to let us pass until we said we were escaped gladiators. He said his chief would wan to see us and let us through. The chief of the High Warrens, whose name we never got, was more polite and articulate than Churr. He asked us to rescue his kidnapped daughter. She was taken on the way back from the Skull Temple, but the kidnappers have not sent a ransom note or any demands. The chief suspected Churr. Back in the Low Warrens, Churr said that Mikquetzl had paid him to kidnap the High Warren chief's daughter. She was probably sacrificed. 
I didn't understand the first dialogue option until I realized it was literal.
Not far from the chief was the Skull Temple, a religious location for Tari where the memories of their elders are preserved through the magic of someone named Dagolar. This mysterious figure also somehow changed a group of Tari (they look different, among other things), making them the guardians of the temple. The temple guard gave us a bone crank to use on the doors with broken wheels. I found more about Dagolar from a scroll in a treasure chest behind one of the doors opened by the crank. The scroll was written by Dagolar's brother, intent on punishing Dagolar for the "abominations he creates." He mentioned hiding the Staff of Parting before entering Dagolar's tunnels. 
The High Warrens had a firepit where we could rest, heal, and recover the spells we used in the slave pens. I think the only way to rest in this game is to use those firepits.
Moving through the tunnels, we were attacked by a new enemy: Tyrian slimes. They entrapped my characters in sticky webs, and despite not being very hard, I lost a lot of hit points fighting the first batch. But they have a high experience value (2,000), and I killed five of them. Violencia made Level 5 as a gladiator after the battle, and Yester made Level 4 as a preserver. He got his second Level 2 magic selection, and I chose "Stinking Cloud." (I had chosen "Acid Arrow" for his first.) I got attacked by a few more groups in this area. 
I scaled a wall in the northern tunnels and was attacked by a red slaad--the first time I've faced such a monster on this blog, I think. They're mostly physical creatures but have some self-healing and magic-resistance capabilities. I killed this one without too much trouble, and Yester made Level 5 as a druid. 
I think success was based on individual attributes, but somehow the whole party got over.
In one of the drains near the red slaad, we found a +1 axe that I gave to Sunstroke (half-giant fighter/cleric). Sligs attacked us further in the tunnels. There were no undead.
We found two exits from the sewers. One, in the northeast corner, was activated with a lever that we discovered while searching a pipe. The second was in the north-center. As we approached, guards poured through the two doorways. It was a difficult battle because new guards kept appearing in subsequent rounds, but in general, "Hold Person" did its job. We thus could have exited at any point, but we thought we'd see the plot through.
No matter how many I killed, more kept appearing. I think there were ultimately 12.
The "worshipers" were in the central-southwest part of the sewer map. We killed a few Tari who attacked us the moment we entered, then wrenched open a door to find Mikquetzl, a human. Our dialogue options were to say that we, too, worshiped Tectuktitlay (the sorcerer-king), demand the chief's daughter, or call Tectuktitlay the "son of a kank." A kank is apparently an insect creature in the setting. I had to Google it. Further dialogue revealed that Mikquetzl had been the sorcerer-king's high templar, but he was blamed for a slave uprising and cast into the sewers. He thought by converting the residents of the sewers to Tectuktitlay's cult, he could regain favor. We agreed to take the place of the girl on the "sacrificial altar." This allowed Mikquetzl to 18 points of automatic damage to Violencia before the combat began.
That's not quite what I meant when I demanded that you release the girl.
We killed Mikquetzl and his followers in a mostly-physical battle. The only interesting item he had were some Chameleon Gloves, which take the place of a weapon and do only 1-2 damage, but cause blindness or deafness. They also sell, according to the valuation, for 30,000 ceramic pieces. He had a bunch of grain sacks in the corner, but I decided it wasn't worth lugging them to Churr for 5 gold piece each.
A turn of the bone crank brought us into his chambers, where we found the chief's daughter (tied up) and a chest with a metal long sword, a gem, and two scrolls. The Tari woman was worried that Mikquetzl's followers would attack the Skull Temple, so we agreed to go back and help.
Because of her insistence that we go immediately, I never got half my questions answered.
The resulting battle was pretty hard owing to the sheer number of Tari enemies. I decided to try out my new "Summon Water Elemental" spell that Yester had gotten upon attaining druid Level 5, but the creature ended up never hitting anything. "Prayer" was more useful. We managed to wipe out the enemies, but not before they killed the High Warren chief's just-rescued daughter. He was less bothered about her death than we expected. He gave us a Helm of Contemplation as a reward, although the comment he offered with it--"May this helm protect you as well as it protected my daughter"--left us a little confused. A check of its stats once received indicates that it casts "Gaze-Reflection."
The chaotic melee of the final battle.
As the saviors of the Skull Temple, we were able to enter and speak to the skulls, which contain the spirits of the Tari elders. The spirits were reluctant to give up much, but upon repeated questioning, I learned that this Dagolar created the Tari; that I would need the Staff of Parting to enter his domain; that I'd find it in a drain in the room; and that if I took it to the northeast corner of the flushing tunnels, I could use it to enter Dagolar's domain. They also told me how to use the other two exits, which I already knew. I grabbed the staff and headed out to adventures to be related next time. 

I moved on to other topics and never got "What do you know about Draj?" again.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • Enemies often drop fruit and other items to eat. When viewed in inventory, these items are marked with explicit spells that they invoke when eaten. For instance, grapes confer "Neutralize Poison," "Prayer," or "Bless" depending on the color. Starfruit confers "Invisibility to Undead." Guavas "Poison." Food is more expensive than weapons and armor; I don't know if this is because of the nature of the setting or because it has spell effects.
Violencia contemplates some healing grapes.
  • I feel like the automatic overhead map perhaps gives too much away. It's a little too easy that the party can see it for the entire area even if they haven't explored the area.
  • I like the resting system. So far, there's been one place per map where I could safely rest, and even then only at certain times. You can't be too wasteful with spells and hit points in individual combats.
The party can only rest at fire pits.
  • On the other hand, I think D&D games lose something when you don't have to "train" to level up. I feel like there ought to be some kind of player input or ritual, even if it was just delayed until the next time the character rested.
  • I keep instinctively going into the characters' inventories, selecting an item, and right-clicking to close the inventory and return to the main screen. The problem is that right-clicking doesn't close the inventory and return to the main screen; ESC does. I can't remember what game instilled right-clicking to close the inventory into my muscle memory.
  • One of the useless items we could find in drains was a conch shell. "Using" it pronounced a long horn note. Given this is a desert planet, one wonders where all these shells are coming from.
We found something in the sewer drain. Let's put our lips on it!
  • In combat, something weird keeps happening with Featherweight (ranger/thief). She gets attacked by enemies with missile weapons, but when the missiles reach her, there's an animation and sound that suggests a spell effect. She doesn't seem to take any damage. Is the game's way of indicating that she's dodging them or something?
  • Right-clicking on spells in this game tells you what they do. Cool.
We almost have a proper GUI.
Aside from a few interface concerns, I am really loving this game. I love that it offers so many different types of encounters, side quests and areas, and paths to success. (I wouldn't mind if I found something like a shop sometime soon.) I love the dialogue options, the spell system, and the inventory system. My only concern is the pace of character leveling. As I close this session, Violencia is Level 6 as a gladiator and everyone else is Level 5 in their dual classes. The game maximum is 9 levels. I'm over halfway there--two-thirds in Violencia's case, although I can dual her--after only two maps. Maybe I should have triple-classed everyone.
Time so far: 9 hours

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Game 437: Dungeon of Ymir (1986)

The information-packed title screen. Castlegar, Argenta, Invermere, and Silverking are all places in the author's home province.
Dungeon of Ymir
Silicon Mountain Computers (developer and publisher)
Released 1986 for ZX81
Date Started: 12 October 2021
Date Ended: 12 October 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)  
One of the parts of this job that I love best is starting up a new game and immediately finding clues about its influences. It's like being a detective. I remember firing up Nemesis (1981) for the CP/M a few years ago, seeing that one of the classes was "ur-vile," and ultimately determining that not only was the game adapted from the PLATO Oubliette, but also that the authors had attended the University of Illinois and thus had been exposed to PLATO games.
It was similar when I started Dungeon of Ymir and saw a note on the main screen that if monsters attack you, you can't escape (versus you attacking them). That tickled a memory that I followed to Sword of Fargoal (1982). It turns out that Ymir is an adaptation of Fargoal, something that no other site has put together. (Admittedly, not a lot of words have been written about Ymir.) All of its concepts, items, and spells are drawn from that game, although it has an original monster list. Since Ymir was written for a platform with less memory, it has to jettison a lot from Fargoal, in particular the wonderful sound effects that made the earlier game so enjoyable. It also has fewer levels, fewer monsters, fewer spells, and no time limit. Its dungeons are fixed rather than randomly-generated. It "makes up" for these deficiencies by increasing the difficulty to a near-insane level.
Navigating a Ymir level, full of monsters, stairs, a temple, and other resources.
We've had the discussion before about whether this level of adaptation should be considered "plagiarism" even if the author of the derivative game had to write the code from scratch. My position is that we can be impressed with the technical skill exhibited by a programmer in making such an adaptation (particularly, in this case, cramming so much content into limited memory) while still feeling that it was a bit disingenuous not to credit the authors of the original.
An analogous screen from Sword of Fargoal (1982).
If such credit appeared in the game's documentation, it's been lost to time. So has the backstory. But the mission and commands are helpfully encapsulated on the title screen. (Thanks to LanHawk, by the way, for helping me even get to the title screen; the game was very hard to emulate, and several versions I found online simply didn't work.) You have to explore a 9-level dungeon to find the Sword of Kaslo and return it to the surface. Various enemies bar your way and various assets help you along.
The ability to maneuver is vital to survival, which makes it all the more unforgivable that the movement is mapped to the number keys like this:
5         8

Fortunately, the EightyOne emulator let me re-map these to the arrows; otherwise, there's no way I would have been able to get through the game. It was tough even with the re-mapping.
The game updates you on your progress between levels.
Monsters are much tougher in Ymir than in Fargoal, and you thus expend your limited resources much more quickly. The title screen lists them in order of difficulty, most to least, but what it doesn't tell you is that each monster comes in two varieties, one easy, one about as hard as a comparable enemy three or four ranks higher. So while a "three-legged gremlin" is a beatable enemy for a Level 4 character, you need to be more like Level 7 to defeat a "terrible three-legged gremlin." A Level 5 character can probably kill a regular dire wolf with no help, but a "rabid dire wolf" is tough even at Level 8. "King" minotaurs are the toughest creatures, and even a Level 9 character (the highest level) can't kill them without magical help.
Meanwhile, monsters are seeded throughout the dungeon based on central tendency rather than absolute minimums or maximums. Most creatures on dungeon Level 5 will be in the "gremlin-dire wolf" range, but you'll still have a chance of some ghouls (on the low end) or minotaurs (on the high end) as well. Throughout the game, you're constantly going up and down the levels looking for enemies that you can actually beat. You don't earn enough experience on Level 1 of the dungeon to take on Level 2 enemies, so you might have to go down to Level 3 or 4, avoiding the hard enemies, looking for more ghouls. Finally, when you've gained enough experience from those, and from bringing gold pieces to temples, you might level up (which only happens between levels, unlike Fargoal), you can head back up to Level 1 and 2 and kill the bats and cockroaches.
In such a situation, your spells are crucial, and new players learn quickly not to blow them on easy enemies. "Shield" is the most valuable. It protects you for the duration of any single combat, which means that it can kill any enemy. Healing potions restore your hit points in chunks in the middle of combat; they're used automatically if you fall to 0. By prolonging combat for an extra couple of rounds, they might allow a character to take on an enemy that would normally be one or two ranks higher. "Rejuvenation" does essentially the same thing, but in smaller amounts each round rather than one big chunk at once. None of these items are common, I should note. You might only find one or two healing potions, "Shield" spell, or "Rejuvenation" spell every level.
Another random screen.
The other important element is ensuring that you make the attack. If you start an attack and see your hit points get dangerously low, you can retreat. If the enemy engages you by jumping into your square, however, you're stuck until the bitter end, unless you have a "Teleport" spell. "Drift" spells are the least helpful. They just let you go back up to a previous level via a hole in the ceiling instead of finding a stairway.
Hit points regenerate quickly between combats. What you cannot do here, but could in Fargoal, is slowly whittle down an enemy by attacking until you're almost out of hit points, then retreating, waiting for them to regenerate, and attacking again. In Ymir, breaking off combat seems to restore the enemy.
Other elements are drawn from Fargoal. Temples are safe places; enemies won't attack you there, and hit points regenerate fast. Temples convert gold to experience, and you can only carry 100 gold at a time unless you find a "magic sack." Enemies get faster and more plentiful as you go down, making it harder to avoid their attacks. Traps can teleport you, damage you, make you forget your current map, destroy your items, and dump you to lower levels. Levels are occluded until explored, unless you have a magic map of the level. ("Lamps" illuminate areas right around you.) But even if you do, it only works for one visit (unlike Fargoal). I took screen shots of each level to help me get through them without having to re-explore them every time I went back and forth.
I had a map to Level 8, so it was fully illuminated when I arrived.
Ymir's one original contribution is the existence of an "oracle," a mysterious figure who pops up randomly on each level, sometimes multiple times. Stepping on his square sometimes rewards you with an item or a (obvious) bit of advice. But about 25% of the time, the oracle says, "Insolence costs you experience!" and whacks away a chunk of your experience. Experience is so precious a resource--enemies either do not respawn or have extremely limited respawning--that you're tempted to reload when this happens. When the game was new, and reloading took so long, you'd probably avoid the oracle entirely, since the loss of experience wouldn't be worth it.
Speaking of reloading: I'm not sure how you're supposed to do it in-game. The only place the game overtly allows you to save is when you're setting up the dungeon in the first place, which obviously doesn't make any sense. The menu that allows you to save also has key re-mapping options, but the game crashed every time I tried to get them to work. In any event, I suspect you were supposed to be able to get back to this menu during gameplay, but I'll be damned if I can find any keyboard shortcut that does it. I thus saved and reloaded using save states. Owing to the difficulty of avoiding enemies on lower levels while still finding ones to fight to gain experience and levels, I must have reloaded around 100 times. I can't imagine doing that while waiting for a tape to save and reload.
I found the Sword of Kaslo on a level crawling with monsters. But note that some of them (the sad faces) are Level 1 ghouls.
There are some mysteries with the game. One has to do with respawning. Generally, cleared levels remained cleared, but every once in a while some new enemy would come along. I don't know what triggers that. This was particularly true once I'd found the Sword of Kaslo. At first, I thought that the game would make it extra difficult to bring it to the surface by repopulating the levels with hard monsters. This seemed to be happening when I reached Level 8, as there were far more enemies there than when I had left it on the way down. But other levels remained empty during my ascent.
Except for a lonely oracle, there were no creatures to challenge me back on Level 1.
The game occasionally yells, "Time Warp!" and prevents you from moving for a few rounds. I don't know what the purpose of that is supposed to be. At first, I thought it was to hold you in place so enemies could attack, but they don't seem to be able to hit you during those few second.
Please, let's not do that again.
I eventually found the Sword of Kaslo on Level 9 and managed to get it from stairway to stairway, back to Level 1. Exiting from Level 1 brought the victory screen below.
"Thou art a HEAD!" is how I originally read that.
I also made a bit of video, in which you can get a proper appreciation of how hard the game is:

Fargoal scored a 19 on the GIMLET, but it was buoyed by a framing story and some fun sound effects. Ymir does much worse:
  • 0 points for the game world. You're not even told why you're seeking the Sword of Kaslo.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation. Your only development is experience-based leveling, which raises maximum hit points.
  • 1 point for NPCs; I'll give that to the oracle.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. Foes are differentiated only by icon and how hard they can attack.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Making sure you initiate the attack counts as a "tactic," I guess, as does the ability to teleport away.
  • 1 point for equipment. You don't really have standard RPG equipment, just counters of spells.
  • 2 points for the economy; gold helps in leveling.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
The "final report" on my game.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. The game has no sound. The iconographic graphics are only okay. I found the interface unresponsive, and the default direction mapping is a recipe for disaster in a game that requires fast movement.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's a bit too hard and certainly not replayable. It makes up for the difficulty a bit by not lasting very long.
That's a final score of 13. Fargoal worked because of elements that simply didn't make the transition; Ymir feels a bit bloodless in comparison. The ZX81 was an under-served platform, however, so any RPG title was probably welcome.
I don't know. My philosophy is pretty twisted.
The game's author, Fred Nachbaur, wrote a number of other games for the ZX81, mostly of the arcade or board game variety. His ZX81 page is still up, although it hasn't been updated since 1999. He passed away of cancer in 2004 at the age of 53; he would have been 35 when he wrote Ymir. Tributes suggest he was a generous and talented programmer, musician, and electronics hobbyist. Silicon Mountain Computers was his own company, based in British Columbia. In addition to Ymir, he apparently sold a dungeon level editor for the game.

Although not credited on the main screen, there is some evidence that Gregory C. Harder also contributed to the title. He at least was Nachbaur's collaborator on a number of other projects. Harder later offered an Ymir II: The Deeper Dungeon (2017) for download on a Sinclair message board. I have not been able to get in touch with him.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Dark Sun: The Ungreat Escape

So much for secrecy.
I started the game anew, but with my existing characters. The discussion highlighted some potentially more powerful parties, but I thought I'd move ahead with the challenges of a less-than-perfect party. Besides, there was something I liked about the existing composition. 
The game started us in the arena again. The opening combat was with three sligs and a screamer beetle. I turned to the manual for more information about both. The "bestiary" in the manual is divided into two sections. The second one offers detailed information about monsters "appearing for the first time in an AD&D® computer fantasy role-playing game," suggesting that the ones in the first section have been described before. While this section does have common enemies like elementals, otyughs, and bulettes, I don't remember encountering rampagers, sligs, or slaads in previous games. Sligs are "distant cousins of goblins and hobgoblins," basically a low-level "monster" that has a purely physical attack with no status effects. Screamer beetles are in the "new" section. They're multi-colored giant beetles with deadly mandibles and a debilitating psi attack.
I can't remember whether the announcer is insulting us or the monsters.
I killed them all in a couple of rounds with melee attacks. This time, the citizens in the stands threw money into the arena that I could pick up. That didn't happen last time. This time, I yelled back at the announcer: "I'm a real warrior, and I'll prove it!" He sent two wild muls, two sligs, a daggoran, and a defiler after me. The game manual doesn't tell you what  "defiler" is, so I'm glad my commenters cleared that up last time: it's a mage who doesn't mind ruining the world by killing its life force for his own advantage. I wish the setting had gone all-in and called them "deniers."
Anyway, my commenters insist this battle is winnable, but the defiler opened with a cold-based mass-damage spell that knocked Featherweight and Yester out of action in the first round. The other two didn't last more than a round longer. The announcer taunted us as we died.
Restarting again, I kept my mouth shut, collected the money (5 ceramic coins), and went meekly back to the pens. Violencia, the first character, was automatically made leader of the party. You can switch with the 1-4 keys, which is nice. I kept her in the position because she has the highest charisma.
Kurzak, the leader of the guards, and Legcrusher, the half-giant monster-tamer, met us at the door. Kurzak described his job as "routine," claiming that it's a better gig than building the sorcerer-king's pyramid, even though "everything's been slowed down since his disappearance."
The arena complex. The slave pens are the section on the right side.
He led us to the pens, which comprise a rectangular ring of corridor. The gate to the pens is at the north end. Eighteen cells--eight inner, ten outer--branch off the ring. I started exploring counter-clockwise. Midway down the west corridor on the outer edge was a locked door which opened at our knock despite there being no one in it. As we entered, a breeze closed the door behind us. The state of the furnishings suggested that no one had occupied the cell for a long time, and the remains of the previous occupant were heaped on the ground in the corner. As we looked around, a zombie came walking through the wall separating the cell from a room (outside the slave pens) to the west. I didn't know zombies could do that.
Featherweight killed the zombie with her bow in the first round of combat, before he even reached us. After his death, we searched the wall and found a button, which opened the part of the wall he'd walked through. Violencia, who actually pressed the button, got 250 experience points. The hidden door led to two rooms, one with a sarcophagus, in which we found 50 coins and a gem worth 1,500. A chest in the south room had a suit of bone scale chest armor and 4 wooden arrows +3. I gave the former to Violencia, who started with no armor, and the latter to Featherweight, my ranger/thief. We had to remove the hinges to get back out into the corridor.
Just before the zombie phased through the wall.
The next cells had our first NPCs. Mirlon was a vain, narcissistic man. He said we'd need money to escape and talked of a valuable gem. He said that a slave named Seymon, currently chained up in the arena, had such a gem. "It's probably still on his body." We had the option to give him the gem I found in the secret area, but I held off for now. Something didn't seem trustworthy about him. 
Scar claimed that he runs the pens. He said he'd talk to us after a couple more visits to the arena. He had three henchmen who wouldn't say anything.
The only door on the south side of the rectangle was locked. Moving up the east side, we met Gilal, lying in the haystack in her cell. She was made a gladiator after she stole a loaf of bread to feed her starving family. Her neighbor, also starving, turned her in for the reward money. She was the only survivor of her first battle in the arena and hasn't had to fight a second one yet. She told me that enemies will escalate from sligs and screamer beetles to wild muls, renegade halflings, and mountain stalkers. In the middle of the conversation, she complained about a sharp pain in her head and wouldn't talk anymore.
Diagonally across from here, we overheard two men conspiring about something, one asking the other if he'd stashed "the stuff" in the haystack. One of the haystacks in the cell to the south of the men contained a club and 15 coins, but they were probably talking about the one in their room, as they threatened to kill me if I searched it. The leader of this group was named Merzol. We had some interesting dialogue options with him, including the aggressive "Listen, slaad-bait! I'm in charge" and a direct question about what they stashed in the haystack. I played it safer and asked about his escape plains. He agreed to let me join their escape if I returned after two more fights in the arena.
Interesting role-playing options here. I suspect the first two lead to combat, although I'm not sure "son of a beggar" is much of an insult in this setting.
The Trustee, a former gladiator now too old to fight, was wandering the hallways. The head guard let him stay on as a "helper" after he saved the man from an escaped stalker. He related that slaves sometimes escape but they have to flee the city into one of the free villages in the desert. Kurzak likes money, but it would probably take more than we could scrounge to make him betray his templar boss and let us go. He is mystified by Gilal's introversion. Between Scar and Merzol, he thinks Scar is a better fighter and more disciplined. Mirlon is not to be trusted. He finished the conversation by opening the southern door, which leads to the cook, Dinos (+200 experience for Sunstroke, who I had put in the lead in anticipation of the reward).
Dinos occupied rather luxurious quarters in the south. The moment I talked to him, he asked if we'd heard someone screaming. I said that Gilal was in severe pain, and he demanded to be led to her. We did as he asked and he healed her. (We could have done that, but the game won't let you cast "Cure Light Wounds" on anyone but other party members.) The party got 350 experience each, which put Featherweight to Level 3 as a thief. 
Just a shot of the character sheet.
The healed Gilal related that her head pain had been caused by a "memory block" installed by the templar after she escaped. She found a secret passage in the northernmost monster pen, leading to the sewer entrance. "It's a big hole in the northwest corner of the pens, to the west of the kitchen. You just have to push a button in the corner of the pen, and it will open." We'd just have to sneak past or overcome a guard there. Gilal had broken something to distract him. She was looking for a rumored village led by a man named Dominy, who has reportedly dug a well that has lasted for years, but she broke her leg before she got far, and the templars found her. There's a rumor that Tectuktitlay (the sorcerer-king) is gathering an army to wipe out the villages. Afraid if being executed if caught escaping again, she refused to come with me.
I suspect Gilal is setting up the main quest here.
We returned to finish our conversation with Dinos. He was the former head chef at the Red Plume Inn in Draj. (Any connection with the Red Plumes of the Forgotten Realms?) He was thrown in the slave pens when the high templar had an allergic reaction to his cooking, now forced to make meals for the man daily. To the east of his rooms was a water trough, where I was able to fill up a pot I'd found (+200 experience).
Having spoken to everyone I could find, I rested to restore the few hit points lost in the first battle. When we were done resting, Kurzak was hollering that it was our turn in the arena again.
This time, after entering the arena, instead of turning west to face the monsters, we ran east to explore a bit. We immediately found Seymon chained up, only he wasn't dead. He was alive and begging for water. We cut his bonds and gave him the pot of water (+750 experience). 
Approaching Seymon.
Before we could do anything else, the enemies reached us--two wild muls and two renegade halflings. Seymon joined us and nearly got killed by one of the muls, but we managed to defeat them in time. Sunstroke rose to cleric Level 3 from the experience. After combat, we took the 10 coins the crowd threw to us, but also thought to loot the bodies of our slain enemies for swords and armor. Seymon just kept telling us he'd "talk to us in a minute" and never gave us the information about the gem. We eventually had to leave the arena and return.
Overall, it appeared I had several options for escape:
  • Attack the guards after winning a fight in the arena but before being locked into the pens. That should give me the run of the arena area, which would allow me to find the secret door Gilal told us about. Or maybe just run away from Kurzak while he's leading us between the arena and pens.
  • Try to pick the lock to the door west of Dinos's room, again allowing access to the rest of the complex and the secret door.
  • Try to bribe Kurzak.
  • Give the gem to Mirlon and follow his plan.
  • Win two more arena fights and join Merzol's escape.
  • Win more arena fights and see what Scar has to offer.
I decided it couldn't hurt to fight one more arena combat and see what Scar and Merzol had to offer. We rested and demanded a new fight.
The announcer was more complimentary to us as we entered. Again, we turned east from the entrance and explored a bit before the creatures reached us. Seymon still had nothing to say, but a corpse near him had leather boots (given to Featherweight), and another in the southeast had a gythka (a polearm with a blade at each end). The enemies reached us before we could do anything else: four thri-kreen and a tohr-kreen, which the manual doesn't describe. Featherweight had the first successful use of a psi-attack, rendering the tohr-kreen unable to attack for a few rounds with "Ego Whip." We won, but we were pretty badly beat up.
The announcer pays us a compliment.
On the way out of the arena, we freed another fighter from bondage, but he died the moment he hit the ground. We found a club on another corpse.
Back in the slave pens, Merzol would talk to us, but it turned out he had no plan at all except maybe to ambush Kurzak when he opens the door. After that: "I don't know--we could just kill all the guards and take over!" Scar, meanwhile, still wouldn't talk with me.
I chanced another battle, and this one took me a few reloads. The enemy party consisted of three sligs and a mountain stalker. The sligs were trivial, but the stalker kept charging in and tearing someone apart. It gets four attacks per round, each of which can do up to 15 damage. I finally defeated them by casting "Bless" before the battle and using "Grease" to freeze him in place while I weakened him with arrows and spells. 
Specifying the radius for a "Grease" spell.
Back in the pens, Scar would finally speak to me. His plan was to arrange to fight each other in the arena, then join forces and fight our way out. He claimed to know how to open the west door. My role-playing tendencies nearly led me to simply escape on my own, likely via the door leading out of Dinos's quarters, but I wasn't 100% confident in combat yet, and I decided I'd feel better with allies. I ultimately decided to go with Scar.
The plan worked well at first. The next time we were summoned to the arena, we found ourselves facing Scar's party. Instead of fighting, both parties ran for the west door and escaped to the interior of the arena structure, but outside the slave pens. We fought a combat with a couple of guards on the other side of the door. Scar and his goons were a big help. We looted some obsidian longswords and bows off the corpses.
The gladiators break free!
Scar said we should go north and he would go south. I had Gilal's instructions for reaching the exit, but I figured I'd take my time. I was in "other game" mode, assuming that at worst, I'd find enemies in little pockets that I could clear one at a time.
Instead, every single guard in the entire complex converged on my location. Their pathfinding was unerring. I tried holing myself up in the corner of a remote room, where at least they couldn't snipe me from afar, but they just wouldn't stop coming. I saved in a bad place and don't even have the option to head directly for the exit now. I'll have to reload an earlier save from before the second arena battle.
The party cowers around a corner while waiting for enemies to enter the room. This strategy didn't work.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • Hitting ESC brings up the save/quit menu. The two buttons are right next to each other, and the "Quit" button doesn't ask for any confirmation. Fortunately, hitting the "S" key activates "Save." After one mis-click, I'm going to be sure never to use the mouse on that menu again.
  • The music, which I turned off, doesn't seem to be appropriate to the setting. Where the music for Perihelion was sparse, haunting, and appropriately apocalyptic, the title theme for Dark Sun features a driving 4/4 beat and a surprisingly upbeat melody. It feels like something that would accompany a montage of a character doing errands in Los Angeles. The slave pens theme is a bit moodier, and it has an interesting melody, rhythm, and (starting around the 1:15 mark) instrumentation, but it still doesn't feel to me like it has anything to do with the game world. The compositions are credited to Ralph Thomas, an alias for Ralph Cooksey-Talbott, whose first score was for Spelljammer the previous year. He spent the 1990s at SSI before starting his own software company and photography studio.
  • In a setting where water is supposed to be more valuable than gold, I was surprised that there's a huge water trough in Dinos's room that anyone can just walk up and use. Later, during our escape, I found a huge fountain of water. I'm beginning to think that water isn't as scarce as I was led to believe.
The party stops and stares in awe.
  • This is going to be my sticking point with the interface: it has keyboard backups for everything but switching the active icon. So instead of hitting "T" and then clicking on a character to talk, the process involves right-clicking several times and watching the icon carefully to make sure I don't miss the "talk" one. In combat, it's the same way. You can scroll through enemies with the (N)ext and (P)revious keys, but the only way to attack them (that I can find) is to click, and that involves first right-clicking to the appropriate attack option. Tell me if I'm missing something.
  • I also can't figure out the "quick combat" system, not that I'd use it with combats of this complexity. But I did want to see how it performed. The manual says you activate it in combat with the SPACE bar, but this doesn't do anything as far as I can tell.
I'm weighing several options. Now that I know how tough things are after the escape, I could go back to my original plan of starting over with a new party. In particular, I need to roll a half giant with better dexterity. His current dexterity of 14 seemed okay by past D&D standards, but he hardly ever hits, somewhat ruining the purpose of having a giant. My preserver/druid is also a bit useless once he runs out of spells, which happens quickly at Level 2.
Can I possible leave without exploring this room?
The second option is to fight more arena battles until each character gains at least one more level. My only trepidation there is that they were already becoming pretty hard.
The third option is to role play and make my escape without insisting on exploring the outer complex. That's tough to contemplate given how many rooms and likely treasures that there are, but part of me still likes the idea of a game that forces that kind of choice. Part of me also wonders whether the door to the next area is one-way or whether I'd be able to clear out the arena by "escaping," then making guerilla attacks back into the arena.
Time so far: 5 hours