Monday, February 18, 2019

Missing and Mysteries

I thought I would centralize, in this entry, all of the games that we either can't find or that I've found unplayable or unwinnable in some mysterious way. This should make it easier for readers who stumble across the blog to offer hints. I'll remove titles (or otherwise flag them) when we find solutions and add titles as I verify their "missing" and "NP" status.

I appreciate any leads, but please do not take it upon yourself to reach out to the original developers unless you somehow know them personally. Chances are, I've already tried to contact the most promising leads, and I don't want the authors (or people with their names) to get repeated contacts. If you feel you have a promising lead I may have overlooked, please verify with me first.

Bugs 'N Drugs (1977, PLATO). An early game of the DND lineage. The lesson name was BND. It isn't part of the lessons catalogued on Cyber1.

Castle of Tharoggad (1988, Tandy Color Computer 3). Nothing seems to happen upon reaching top floor and killing monsters. See this entry

Dungeon (1975, PLATO). A game of this title exists, and it's possible to load the title screen, but there doesn't seem to be any way to start the game. (Note: this is not The Dungeon, or pedit5, which I have already played and reviewed. This one is by John D. Daleske et. al.)

Dungeon (1975, PDP-10). This game by Don Daglow no longer seems to exist. See this Wikipedia article.

Dungeons of Avalon (1991, Amiga). Culminates in seemingly unwinnable final battle. If you cheat your characters to high enough values to win the final battle, nothing happens. See posts here and here.

Empire III: Armageddon (1983, Apple II). No one seems to have turned up a disk image.

GayBlade (1992, DOS). Famous lost RPG with LGBTQ themes. Some of my commenters were pursuing some leads, but that was weeks ago, and nothing seems to have turned up. Reviews, box art, and various commentary prove that the game existed, but no one seems to have a copy. See here for more.

m199h (1975, PLATO). Perhaps the first CRPG ever written, deleted by PLATO admins.

OrbQuest (1981, CP/M). Rare CP/M game derived directly from PLATO Game of Dungeons. No known publicly-available disk images exist. (Note: if you're going to try to help search for this one, please do not bother the individual with the initials B.L. who posted on his site that he acquired the game about a decade ago. Multiple people have already written him and he clearly either can't or won't supply the images; there's no point in continuing to harass him.)

OrbQuest: The Search for Seven Wards (1986, Macintosh). I've been unable to find a place to download this first Mac-only RPG.

Star Crystal: Episode 1 - Mertactor: The Volentine Gambit (1985, Apple II). It seems that this game was never officially released.

TaskMaker (1989, Macintosh). I've been unable to find a copy of the original version, just the color remake from 1991.

Twin Morg Valley (Unknown, Commodore 64). See the bottom of this entry. We still don't know when this was released or what its "deal" is.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Final Word on Daniel Lawrence's DND

The title shows that, just as with The Game of Dungeons, "DND" was just a file name, not the game name.
        
If you haven't had a chance to check out the "Data Driven Gamer," it's worth a visit. The author, Ahab, is still building his readership base, much like I was in 2011. He's more expansive in his selection of games than I am, but his particular focus is to analyze the games' quantitative elements, while still supplying a lot of commentary on the qualitative ones.

Ahab did a great job in the last couple of years analyzing The Dungeon and The Game of Dungeons, prompting me to go back and win those games. But those contributions pale in comparison to what he did last month. For the first time that I'm aware of, he figured out how to get a version of Daniel Lawrence's DND operating on a VAX emulator. For decades, we've had to reconstruct this missing link between the PLATO Game of Dungeons and the commercial Telengard based on player memories, adaptations, and interpretations of source code. Ahab not only showed the game in action, but he won it and supplied a full set of maps (for one of the three dungeons) as part of the process. His material is key to understanding this particular, peculiar line of CRPGs. Among other things, the ability to actually play this game shows that only the file name was DND; the title was--copyrights be damned--Dungeons & Dragons.
         
Gameplay in the VMS/VAX DND. My graphics are all messed up because of a line feed issue that I can't solve. The dungeon walls don't really look this chaotic.
         
Untangling the history of this particular lineage has been difficult, largely because of horrendous misinformation, much of it perpetrated (or at least not corrected) by Lawrence himself, who died in 2010 at the age of 52. (Among other things, he explicitly designated this page, which is so hopelessly confused I don't know where to begin, as the "official DND site." The authors do deserve credit for aggregating and preserving important files.) To read some sites, Lawrence is the father of the entire CRPG line, having written the first DND as early as 1972--two years before tabletop Dungeons & Dragons! His game was so popular, some articles have alleged, that students at the University of Indiana decided to adapt it as The Game of Dungeons. (Of course, it was the other way around.) Even writers who haven't so thoroughly confused the timeline have accepted Lawrence's assertions that he wrote "his" DND entirely on his own, with no reference to any other game, despite that it clearly borrows elements from the PLATO Game of Dungeons and Lawrence went to a university (Purdue) connected to PLATO. In a 2007 interview with Matt Barton, he suggests that his "play testers" might have played The Game of Dungeons and brought ideas to him. To me, such a scenario doesn't begin to explain the similarities between the games.
          
Daniel Lawrence in an undated photograph. Credit unknown.
       
The best truth that I can determine with the available evidence is that Lawrence wrote his first version of DND in 1976 or 1977, clearly after being exposed to The Game of Dungeons on PLATO. I'm inclined to think that 1977 is the more likely date, since DND is closer in similarity to Version 6 of The Game of Dungeons, which wasn't released until 1977. Then again, elements of The Game Version 8 (1978) also seem to show up in Lawrence's work, so it's possible he went back to the well several times during the development of his adaptation. The existence of several mainframe versions would support this thesis.

As we'll see, Lawrence made plenty of additions, and to recognize that he plagiarized from The Game is not to deny his own skill and innovations. His primary contribution was releasing the game to the wider world, first by writing a version for Purdue's DEC RSTS/E system. (In Lawrence's own words, the game was "the cause of more than one student dropping out" and "made me very unpopular with the computing staff at Purdue.") Engineers from DEC maintaining Purdue's system became familiar with the game and liked it so much that in 1979, they asked Lawrence to come to their Massachusetts headquarters and write a port for DEC's PDP-10 mainframe running the TOPS-20 operating system. (There are hints within DEC documents that Lawrence may have been paid for this, and that DEC's intention was to offer the game with its installations. The specific agreement between Lawrence and DEC has not come to light.) This version was subsequently disseminated in many locations where DECs were installed. The VMS/VAX version that Ahab got running seems to have been ported from this mainframe version.

By then, Lawrence had already been porting the game to the micro-computer. In 1978, he wrote a version for the Commodore PET that he titled Telengard, which had been the name of one of the explorable dungeons in DND. Representatives from Avalon Hill ran into Lawrence demoing the game at a convention in 1980 or 1981 and offered him a publishing deal, which ultimately saw PET, Commodore 64, Apple II, TRS-80, Atari 800, and MS-DOS releases starting in 1981 or 1982.
          
The title screen from the Commodore PET version of Telengard. The 1981 date seems unlikely as the actual release year.
             
(None of the histories of Lawrence or Telengard mention the specific convention at which this meeting occurred, but I found a likely session in the GenCon XIV program from August 1981. Unless Lawrence ran the same competition multiple years [I can't find the previous year's catalog], it seems unlikely that Telengard had a pre-1982 release date despite the copyright date on some versions of the game.)
          
In 1981, Lawrence ran a "contest" in which players competed for high scores or other status in some version of DND. Someone from Avalon Hill attended the session, and the result was the commercial Telengard.
            
From then on, Lawrence and Avalon Hill waged war on the ubiquitously-released free versions of the game, ordering their removal from every system on which they appeared. For its part, DEC acceded to legal threats from Avalon Hill, resulting in the modern difficulty reconstructing what those early versions looked like. You can read a long, fun e-mail chain here in which DEC employees try to argue law with their own legal department. Hilariously, various employees request assistance in finding the Orb throughout the thread while their exasperated bosses remind them that the game isn't supposed to exist on any DEC machine anymore.
            
A DEC executive orders the deletion of DND from DEC machines.
            
If Lawrence was guilty of some disingenuous behavior in trying to quash free versions of a game he partly plagiarized, it came back to bite him in repeated plagiarisms of his versions. We've seen plenty of them on this blog, including the so-called "Heathkit DND" (in actuality, also titled Dungeons and Dragons) of 1981, R.O. Software's DND (1984), and Thomas Hanlin's Caverns of Zoarre (1984). There are other BBS and shareware versions of the game that we haven't tried.
              
A DND "family tree."
            
That's the history. But what is Dungeons & Dragons? It's a text-based game with ASCII graphics in which a single character navigates one of three 20-level dungeons in a quest to retrieve a magic orb from a dragon. The layout of the dungeon and the locations of many of the special encounters are fixed, but the locations of combats and miscellaneous treasure finds are so random that you could encounter a never-ending stream of them from the same dungeon square. Combats are with a small menagerie of enemies, each with different strengths and vulnerabilities to the game's various spells. The character gains experience through both combat and treasure-finding, with miscellaneous encounters increasing and decreasing his attributes and providing him with magical gear. When he feels strong enough, he takes on the final dungeon level, recovers the orb, and--if he makes it back alive--gets his name on a leaderboard of "orb finders."

As I mentioned, there are too many elements copied directly from The Game of Dungeons for it to be remotely possible that Lawrence never saw it. These include:

  • The basic approach to game mechanics and goals, including the existence of permadeath.
  • A character creation process that includes a "secret name" for each character, serving as a kind of password
         
The need for a "secret name" is drawn from The Game of Dungeons, but the full set of attributes, the choice of character classes, and the choice of dungeons is new to DND.
        
  • The number of dungeon levels.
  • A main quest to recover an orb.
  • Carrying treasure out of the dungeon converts it to experience points.
          
My character levels up from a treasure haul.
        
  • A list of successful characters called "finders."
  • The existence of a transportation device, called "Excelsior," that moves you among the levels.
  • Basic combat options of (F)ight, (C)ast, and (E)vade.
  • A small number of monsters who have numeric levels assigned.
  • Many of the magic items are identical. Items can be trapped (although Lawrence's traps are more creative).
  • Treasure is found in both chests and random piles. Chests contain vastly more gold than the random piles.
  • Magic books that can raise or lower your attributes.
       
DND's handling of chests and books is the same as The Game of Dungeons.
      
  • Pits that you can fall down, dumping you on lower levels.
          
Luckily, I spotted this one.
        
It's also possible that Lawrence took a few elements from the earlier The Dungeon, including the organization of spells into a number of "slots" per level as well as some of the treasures you can find in the dungeon and their relative conversion to gold.

But Lawrence also added some new things to the Game of Dungeons template, some making it better, some making it poorer. These include:

  • DND has no graphics. Walls and corridors are ASCII characters and the main characters is represented as an X. The Game of Dungeons had graphics for geography, the PC, monsters, equipment, gold, and so forth.
  • Instead of just "gold," the player finds a variety of different treasure types that are converted to gold.
  • DND dungeon levels are much larger.
  • The Excelsior transporter exists on every level in DND, not just the top one.
  • A full set of tabletop Dungeons and Dragons attributes. The Game of Dungeons just had strength, intelligence, wisdom, and dexterity. DND adds constitution and charisma.
          
A DND "character sheet."
         
  • While the character in Game was a multi-classed fighter/magic-user/cleric, DND has the player specify a choice of these classes. As such, combat is rebalanced so that you don't need to cast particular spells to ensure victory, and a pure fighter has a shot at winning. Spells, which could reliably one-shot certain enemies in The Game, are significantly reduced in power. They're also more in line with tabletop Dungeons and Dragons and, it must be said, a lot less silly than The Game.
  • There's no distinction between experience and gold in DND, as there was in Game through Version 5. The Game also changed to a single experience pool starting in Version 6, so Lawrence may have been influenced by the later one.
  • DND offers three dungeons to explore--Telengard, Svhenk's Lair, and Lamorte--each of which might contain the orb.
  • Game resolved combats all at once. DND shows round-for-round results.
            
DND's approach is generally better, but sometimes you wish it would just hurry up and get it done.
          
  • DND completely randomizes the appearance of treasure. The Game "seeded" each level with gold and chests whenever you entered, and you could clear the level, but in DND, treasure has a chance of showing up in every square as you move to it, including those you've already explored.
  • DND adds more special encounters at fixed locations, including thrones, altars, fountains, dragons' lairs, and doors with combination codes.
         
Special encounters with altars are a new element in DND.
       
  • Lawrence replaced the awkward "teleporters" with stairs that remain in a fixed location.
  • DND includes a greater variety of equipment, including magic weapons other than swords. The pluses go much higher, too. Where The Game capped at +3, DND allows higher than +20.
  • DND adds cute atmospheric messages as you explore. Examples: "A mutilated body lies on the floor nearby"; "'Turn back!!!' a voice screams"; "The room vibrates as if an army is passing by." There's even a reference to Colossal Cave Adventure and its hollow voice that says "PLUGH."

Finally, it's worth noting some of the changes between DND and Telengard:

  • Telengard has no main quest. The only objective is to get stronger and richer. For years, I thought this was a defining feature of the sub-genre, but it turns out that it's actually quite rare. Most variants have some kind of main quest.
  • Telengard's has only one dungeon, randomly drawn every time you start a new game.
  • The appearance of thrones, fountains, altars, and other special features are completely randomized, just like monsters and miscellaneous treasure. A player can encounter everything that Telengard has to offer by passing time in a single square. [Edit: This might only be true for some ports.]
  • Telengard has graphics.
  • Telengard has an expanded selection of items, including potions and scrolls.
        
Telengard is a nicer-looking game, but the greater randomization creates a chaotic experience.
          
Only the last item is a clear "improvement." Telengard is arguably a dumbing-down of gameplay in DND. The lack of any main quest is particularly notable, and one wonders why Lawrence or Avalon Hill made the decision to exclude one. Perhaps they thought the game had greater replayability if the only goal was to create a stronger character.

For all the ink writers like me have spent on Lawrence and his game, it arguably had the least impact of the major lineages that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During its day, DND offered perhaps the best simulation of the mechanics of tabletop role-playing on a computer, but its arrival on the micro-computer scene was far too late to have any impact. By the time that Telengard was released, it had already been outclassed by Ultima and games in the Moria/Oubliette/Wizardry line. The direct influence of DND can only really be felt in its few clones, for which there was so small a market that they had to be released as shareware.
             
Gameplay from the Heathkit Dungeons and Dragons (1981).

Gameplay in R.O. Software's DND (1984)
           
Gameplay in Caverns of Zoarre (1984)
            
There is one small exception, and to analyze it we must first note that DND did a reasonably good job anticipating the roguelike sub-genre. In fact, it's hard not to call it a pre-Rogue "roguelike," what with its random encounters, permadeath, and MacGuffin on the 20th floor. And yet it's hard to detect any direct influence on Rogue. (To some extent, Rogue feels like a game created by someone who heard about DND but never played it.) To my knowledge, the developers of Rogue have never acknowledged any direct influence except Star Trek (1971), Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), and a general desire to emulate table-top role-playing.

However, I do think that someone on the NetHack development team was exposed to DND, or at least Telengard. I base this on the variety of special encounters that were introduced to the game at some point between Hack and NetHack 2.3e, including thrones that do different things when you sit on them and offer the ability to pry gems out of them; fountains that have a variety of effects; and altars that ask for money. Granted, thrones, fountains, and altars are fantasy staples that may have been introduced independently, but the specific way that you use them is so similar to DND that I think there must be a connection. It's a minor legacy, but still worth acknowledging.
          
Sitting on thrones in NetHack has many of the same consequences as in DND.

       
Ahab was kind enough to send me the instructions I needed to emulate DND myself. I tried for a while, but I couldn't solve an issue (involving line feeds) that created chaos out of the dungeon maps. (The solution he offers on his blog didn't work for me despite us both having the same version of Windows.) Such a win would have been superfluous coming right on the heels of his own victory anyway. I may return to it at some point in the future, just for the statistic, but not soon.

This entry will serve as my final word on this line of games, which we've visited in bits and pieces since the first year of my blog. If any new information comes to light, I'll include edits in this entry rather than writing anew. In the meantime, there are dozens of web pages and Wiki articles that I don't imagine will be similarly corrected. Daniel Lawrence deserves credit for what he accomplished, but he is not the grandfather or even father of CRPGs.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Game 319: Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers (1992)

Vol. II lazily re-uses a lot of the artwork from Vol. I, including the title screen.
         
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 5 February 2019

I remember approaching Lord of the Rings, Vol. I with some trepidation, not much of a fan of the source material, not looking forward to a game that recapped a plot that everyone already knows. Role-playing a defined character with a predestined fate, I reasoned, removes any sense of player investment in the character. Meanwhile, if the game simply follows the plot of its source, there's no fun in exploration and no surprises; but if it allows all kinds of diversions, the player is jarred by the dissonance with the source.
          
The game starts with a recap of the story from the beginning.
        
I was thus surprised to find most of my worries unfounded. Vol. I plays like an alternate-universe execution of Fellowship of the Ring--one that begins at the same location as the books but is then free to go off in its own directions. The player can make any character in the Fellowship the ring-bearer. All kinds of non-canonical NPCs can join the Fellowship, including some created just for the game. Even Gollum can join. The open world is full of side quests that Tolkien never envisioned. And it's completely non-linear: a player can exit Moria, turn around, and walk all the way back to the Shire. He'll even encounter new situations and quests if he does so. And it turned out that none of these departures from the book bothered me at all--although we must remember that I wasn't much invested in the book in the first place.

The opening to Vol. II makes me wonder if the developers retained this admirable freedom. The backstory makes this game more of a sequel to the original material than to Vol. I. The first game ends with a non-canonical episode in which the Witch King kidnaps Frodo and Sam (or, I guess, whoever has the Ring) and the rest of the Fellowship has to rescue them from the fortress of Dol Guldur (and keep in mind, depending on the player, the "rest of the Fellowship" might include none of the canonical members). The game thus ends on a triumphant note, before the betrayal and death of Boromir, who might not even be with the party.
         
The intro screens elide some unpleasant events.
         
The backstory told in the opening screens of Vol. II omits the business with Dol Guldur and jumps ahead in time to a point past Boromir's death, the kidnapping of Merry and Pippin, and the division of the Fellowship. It begins with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas (who wasn't even in my Vol. I party) on the plains of Rohan, following the trail of the orcs who kidnapped the hobbits.
            
The game begins.
          
I didn't expect the developers to emulate Crusaders of the Dark Savant and offer a different opening for every potential end state of Vol. I, but I was surprised that the game doesn't even import the save file or offer any concessions to the variances in the plot. As I began, I hoped that didn't mean that it wouldn't feature the same spirit of open exploration and side quests that we found in its predecessor.

The manual does suggest that Vol. II is more interested in adhering to canon. Among other things, it makes a distinction between canonical members of the Fellowship (Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli)--who can die but will otherwise never leave the party--and "temporary NPCs" who might join for a little while, but only until their personal missions are fulfilled. There were some of those temporary NPCs in the first game, too, but generally you trust that anyone who joined your party would stick around to the bitter end.

There is thus no character creation process. Characters come with preset levels in certain attributes: dexterity, endurance, life points, strength, luck, and will power. They also come with a variety of active skills, combat skills, and lore. "Active" skills can be directly employed by the player and include such options as "Climb," "Detect Traps," "Hide," and "Boats." Combat skills are used automatically in combat, and lore--including orc, dwarf, wizard, and elven lore--are similarly passive. Skills and lore are binary; you either have them or you don't.
          
The main interface and its various commands are activated with the SPACE bar.
        
You may recall that Vol. I was reissued in 1993 on CD-ROM, with artwork created specifically for the game replaced with scenes from Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated film. It also improved several aspects of the interface. (I started with the earlier version and finished with the later version.) Vol. II, developed in between the two releases of Vol. I, benefits from some of the interface improvements but not all of them. The party cannot move diagonally, for instance, but the main actions on the bottom of the screen--attack, view, get, inventory, skills, magic, talk, set leader, and game options--are easily called by keyboard commands. There's also an automap, which reveals itself in large squares. When you turn the interface off, the exploration window is completely uncluttered, which I like a lot.
           
The automap fills in by large squares.
        
The game begins with the three companions locked in battle with half a dozen orcs. Combat hasn't changed from the first game. You select "Attack" then specify the target from the list, with wounded and near-dead enemies annotated with special symbols. Enemies get their turns after the Fellowship members, and sometimes the Fellowship gets a free turn. I'll have more on combat later once it comes back to me.
        
In the midst of a melee.
        
My party destroyed the orcs handily, after which Aragorn did some tracking and noted that the trail of the kidnappers leads north and that the hobbits needed to be rescued at once. So naturally I decided to make my way north via east-west sweeps of the area. (Hey, I was trying to spare Aragorn a broken metatarsal as long as possible.) The eastern border of the opening area is water--I guess the river Isen--and the western border is the uncrossable Misty Mountains. The southern border is open, and you have to be careful not to cross it because the game forces you to switch parties, with I-don't-know-what consequences for the initial trio.
           
Walking alongside the Misty Mountains.
           
As you walk, events and combats are triggered as you enter their appropriate areas. You often don't see anything in advance, which is one of the oddities (and, I think, weaknesses) of this interface. Some of the things I ran into on the first map include:
         
  • Remains of an orc encampment with some rations and ale.
  • A party of random orcs. Once I killed them, I found a sigil with the white hand of Saruman on their bodies.
          
Note that there are no actual orcs on the screen until after I get the message.
        
  • Athelas, which Aragorn can use to heal wounds.
  • A Rohirrim warrior named Dorlas, hiding in the bushes, claiming to be hunting orcs who burned his town of Estemnet. He told me that a wizard has been seen on the edge of Fangorn Forest and suggested we look into it. In follow-up questioning (you talk by typing keywords, probably one of the last games in which this is true), he told me that the King of Rohan is "all but dead" and that a "craven council" rules in Edoras. He spoke of Saruman as an enemy, so his betrayal is clearly already known. Dorlas popped up several times. It got kind of annoying.
         
This doesn't seem to be this Dorlas.
        
  • A man named "Walcnoth" who just stood there and wouldn't say anything to me.
  • Three uruks trying to capture a black steed. They attacked as we approached. There were two such encounters.
  • The ruins of Estemnet. A warrior named Bregowine gave us a meal, which healed all our accumulated wounds. Most of the other citizens were angry and bitter about the failure of their king, Theoden, to protect them. The leader, a woman named Leofyn, said that the town wouldn't be helping anyone until "a weregild is paid to compensate us for our losses." Specifically, she wanted her husband's sword, a bag of gold, and the return of her son, who had taken off, vowing to avenge his father. The sword and gold had both been stolen by orcs, with a camp to the north.
         
This was the same portrait they used for Galadriel in the last game.
        
  • A warrior named Heof. He offered to teach us the "Riding" skill (how is it possible that Aragorn doesn't already know it?) if we solved a sub-quest to destroy a shrine that the orcs placed in a sacred pool used by the mearas (cool horses). The shrine couldn't be harmed during the day, and at night it's guarded by "spirits of evil." I left this for later because I wasn't yet sure if the slight darkening of the sky that happens every few minutes is "night."
             
That seems pessimistic.
         
  • A group of horsemen led by Eomer. He said that they had slaughtered a group of orcs, didn't know anything about hobbits, and not all was right in Edoras. Basically the same as the book.
        
Eomer says nothing about being banished.
        
  • In a burned area north of Estemnet, I found the orc encampment. The game warned me that there were too many to fight, but I bungled my way into it anyway. I defeated the first party of attackers but died at the hands of the second.
            
If we all die, Satan gets the ring.
          
After my defeat and reload, I changed my exploration pattern, going all the way north along the River Isen to Fangorn Forest. A path led into the forest--which is anything but dark and brooding--and it wasn't long before we found Gandalf. Saying his name snapped him out of his reverie. He explained that Merry and Pippin were safe with Treebeard and that our priority should be to stop a trio of "messenger orcs" on their way to Saruman (perhaps the same party I already killed as above?), then see about helping Theoden.
            
Fangorn! What madness would make us hesitate to go in there?
         
At this point, the game decided it was time to switch the action, and it loaded up Frodo and Sam on the edge of the Dead Marshes. There doesn't seem to be any way to manually switch between the parties, so I guess the game will do it automatically when certain plot points occur. I wonder if there's any way to artificially unite (or even switch!) the parties. I guess I'd have to find a way across Isen first.
          
I don't care what's canon; I'm glad the films didn't make the hobbits look like goofy old men.
          
The game had us distribute the gifts from the elves (two cloaks, magic rope, lembas bread), after which Frodo recommended that we approach Mordor via the marshes to the southeast. 
           
The Dead Marshes, Frodo. Yes, yes, that is their name.
           
I think I'll wrap up here for the first entry, but a few miscellaneous notes before I go:

  • The exposition with Leofyn was delivered via a written paragraph in the manual. Vol. I had these, too, but the re-release put all the text in-game. This has to be just a copy protection exercise because the game certainly hasn't been shy about long in-game paragraphs otherwise.
           
Flashbacks to Pool of Radiance!
         
  • I'm not really sure how experience and leveling work. The manual assures that your statistics will increase with experience. I forgot how it worked in the first game.
  • The screen trades between dark and light every minute or so. If that's a day/night cycle, it happens very fast. I don't think my DOSBox cycles are too high, though, because if I lower them it's sluggish to respond to commands. Are those periods of momentary dimness "night," or just cloudiness? (If the latter, I haven't experienced night at all, yet.)
  • Sound effects are sparse except during combat, when there are about three: a thunk of connection, a whoosh of missing, and a scream of death.
  • The manual devotes a lot of space to the History of Middle Earth and a glossary of characters and places, enough that I learned quite a bit despite having been exposed to this material before. The manual also philosophically questions whether Tolkien himself would have approved of a computer game based on his work.
          
I'm not going to have a lot of patience for this.
       
The events of the opening area ultimately assuaged my concern that Vol. II would be too linear and plot-driven. I look forward to seeing how it develops. I suspect I'm due for an encounter with Gollum soon. Can I be smarter than Frodo and just kill him?

Time so far: 2 hours

****

Non-sequitur: I had this dream the other night that the nation of Denmark hired me to create an official Danish tabletop RPG (this despite my lack of experience with tabletop RPGs). The scenario was to be that the melting ice sheets in Greenland were slowly uncovering an ancient civilization. I invited several of you to be a part of the team, and we had a very contentious meeting in Amsterdam (yes, I know that's a different country--I'm just telling you what my dream was) where some of you wanted to make it a pure exploration/archaeology RPG while others wanted to have, like, ice giants awakening in the melting glaciers.

Lately, I've been in the habit of writing down dreams that I think might lead to good song, story, or game ideas. I don't always hit a home run. The other night, I wrote (I have no memory of this):  "Bacon-wrapped chocolate coin. The coin has an image of a woman on it, and you have to convince her to submit before you can eat the bacon." That one doesn't seem so promising now. But the idea of an RPG set in an ancient civilization slowly uncovered in Greenland actually seems like a good one. Anyone has my permission to use the idea.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Root of All Evil


           
"The CRPG Addict" is about to enter its tenth year. Clearly, it's here to stay. In some ways, it has become as much of an addiction for me as the games themselves.

Unfortunately, it is long past time to consider how I can better justify the amount of time I spend on the blog. I average 15-20 hours per week. If I had spent that time on real work instead, Irene (my patient wife) would have a lot more stamps in her passport.

As my longtime readers know, I have struggled with this for years. Reflecting a sense of humility that would make Lord British proud, I've never felt that my work contributes that much to the world--certainly, not enough that should require people to pay money. I also didn't want to create any barrier, psychological or otherwise, to readership and participation on the blog.

Irene, who is much more of a capitalist than I am, recently sat me down and pointed out a few things:

1. People get paid for ephemera all the time. Some woman has made like $6 billion simply selling a huge list of things that don't suck. There are sites that make money off of reprinting my own content without permission.

2. With the different mechanisms available these days for monetizing writing, I'm literally just throwing money away by refusing to do it.

3. She would really like to go to Greece someday.

Hence, over the next year, I am launching a three-pronged approach to earn some pocket money from the effort I put into "The CRPG Addict." These are the prongs:

A Patreon Account

Readers have been encouraging me to do it for years, so I finally did it. I got through the entire setup process before I realized that you can only use it to make recurring monthly donations. I thought it could be used for one-time donations. (Technically, you can use it that way and just cancel after one month, but that seems like a pain.) I thus don't expect very much from it, but I set a recommended donation level of $12 per year to support an estimated 120 entries. If I get a lot of feedback that says, "Hey, I'd support you with a quick bump, but I don't want to be charged monthly," I'll consider a different platform or just remove it altogether.


My YouTube Channel

Over the coming year, you're going to see more videos posted, and YouTube offers a fairly easy monetization process, which may occasionally require you to watch an ad before the video plays. I need 1,000 subscribers to the channel before they'll allow me to do that, and I'm only a little over half that, so in lieu of making a Patreon donation, I would ask you to subscribe to my channel. I've already passed the "watch time" threshold that they set. Eventually, I'll get around to adding video links to the two play lists.

Addictive Adventure: The Complete History of Computer Role-Playing Games

I'm not promising anything yet in terms of a release date--although shooting for my 10-year anniversary is an obvious goal--but I can say that I've at least started work on editing my material into book form, and that I will make it more of a priority than in the past. The first volume will cover 1975-1983. I may ask for help with aspects of it as we move forward.


I hope none of these mechanisms prove intrusive, nor lessen your enjoyment of the blog. If they do, use the comments section for this entry to discuss the issue or otherwise provide feedback on the plan. It is my intention that none of these efforts will affect the content, approach, and quality of the blog.


Monday, February 11, 2019

Sorcerer's Bane: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

". . . office," I think this was supposed to end.
           
Sorcerer's Bane
United States
Wood Software Development (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 27 January 2019
Date Ended: 4 February 2019
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Medium-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Summary:

Sorcerer's Bane is a shareware roguelike. The player controls a fighter, magic-user, or bard who must descend 30 levels of a former magicians' academy called Mogadore, find four pieces of a slain sorcerer's staff, and use it to defeat an evil wizard named Lodi. There are some sacrifices in typical roguelike mechanics: encounters pop up randomly; you cannot see monsters on the screen; dungeon levels are very basic; there are no complex interactions among inventory items; and there's no food system. However, these losses are balanced by some interesting encounters, an intuitive interface, an excellent "help" system, innovative ideas in item effects and encounter options, and a more interesting backstory than the typical roguelike. Length and difficulty are both set at optimum levels.
      
*****

The game wrapped up in a satisfying manner. It perhaps lasted a smidgen too long, but the problem was less "real" length than a certain amount of angst after I crossed Level 20 without finding the dragons or the evil necromancer Lodi. I then started to wonder how long the developer was going to stretch things. Fifty levels? A hundred? It turned out that the answer was 30, and if I'd known that at the outset, I probably wouldn't have minded.
         
I found all the dragons' lairs (D) on Level 29.
        
After level 10, you've left the town so far behind that you probably won't go back. It turns out that the game never develops a method for fast travel to the town. Instead, you have to rely on the rare wandering cleric and wandering trader, or--more likely--your growing inventory of wands, rings, and potions.

By Level 20, I had found pretty much every item in the game. Rings never run out of magic, so you only need to find one of each. Wands do deplete, so it makes sense to carry as many useful ones as you can. By Level 20, I had also found enough books, potions, and wishes that my attributes were all at the maximum of 21.
           
My late-game inventory has just about every type of ring and wand.
           
Enemies get a lot harder as you descend. You meet advanced undead like wraiths, specters, and vampires, different types of elementals, advanced were-creatures, spellcasters, demons, giants, and of course (ultimately) dragons. Most of these creatures have special attacks that can paralyze, poison, disease, damage your inventory, and so forth. Fighting them becomes a game of swapping inventory the moment combat starts. For instance, you want to put on a Ring of Clear Mind the moment you meet a vampire or he'll charm you and then kill you, but you switch that to a Ring of Disease Resistance if you run into a troll. A fire elemental requires an immediate donning of a Firecloak. 

A weirdly large number of enemies--including demons and most undead--die immediately if you have a Ring of Disenchantment equipped when you meet them. It's cool but it seems too easy.
            
That was a freebie.
        
All the swapping gets a little tiresome, and I admit I adopted a policy of fleeing from most encounters with certain enemies (especially disease- and lycanthropy-causing enemies) and saved fighting for the tough brutes with no special abilities, such as giants and ogres. There are a small number of enemies--particularly ghouls, harpies, and thieves--whom it makes no sense to fight at all because they teleport away if you get close to killing them.
           
Harpies not only teleport away before they die; they take your items with them!
         
It took me a while, after my disastrous encounter with a Deck of Many Things, to restore my inventory. In particular, it took a long time to find a magic weapon, and some creatures are only damaged by magic weapons. I finally gave up and used a wish to get one, choosing the "Haphestus-Made Sword" (I think the developer meant "Hephaestus"), which I think is the most powerful weapon in the game except for the "Bazerker Sword," which comes with the usual curse on that item--that is, you automatically attack everyone, including friendly NPCs.

Later, I used another wish on grizzly bear and dream wolf companions, which was pretty cool, but they didn't last long, and they can only damage creatures that don't require a magical weapon.
               
My grizzly bear and dream wolf help me against a cockatrice.
           
There are some unfortunate bugs in the game. At least, I think they're bugs. Basically, some magic items simply stop working even though you still have them equipped. Usually, un-equipping them and re-equipping them solves the problem, but not always. Regeneration was particularly troublesome. I could never get a handle on how to make it work consistently. Whether I was wearing a Ring of Regeneration, wielding my magic flute, and singing the healing song--or only some of these things, or none--sometimes I'd regenerate 10 hit points per round, sometimes one, sometimes none. Sometimes I'd only regenerate outside of combat, and sometimes only in combat. 

I used these problems as an excuse to not strictly accede to permadeath. I backed up the game every couple of dungeon levels and restored when I died. I ultimately restored five or six times, but I think except for the last two (when I faced Lodi), I could have prevented the deaths with a little more care.

The dragons--white, red, gold, and phase--were all on Level 29. Each encounter was preceded by a text screen:
          
Gotta get what I came for.
        
I tried talking to the first dragon I encountered, the gold dragon. He congratulated me for my bravery and gave me his piece of the staff after taking all of my gold (which had utterly lost any other utility by then anyway).
            
An alternate way to solve this part of the quest.
         
The other dragons weren't as nice, and I had to fight them with the appropriate magic items to protect against their special attacks. I mostly killed them with Wands of Magic Missile and Fireball, which do about 10 times the damage of my weapon. Red was supposed to be "easiest" (as a unicorn had previously told me), but he was immune to any magic, so in that sense, he was harder. I had to use a wish to restore my hit points after he nearly killed me, finally killing him after a few dozen rounds.

The backstory had made it seem like there would be some puzzle associated with assembling the staff. Instead, it simply assembled itself once I had four pieces. It then spoke to me telepathically, introducing itself as "Gilcrest."

The staff filled in the rest of the backstory. Apparently, when Sabee and Lodi created the Staffs of Power, they made them so powerful that the staffs "started polarizing the very forces of good and evil." Gilcrest became aspected to good, while his counterpart Moshannon took on an aspect of evil, ultimately corrupting Lodi, its wielder. (Gilcrest and Moshannon are both place names; who knows what they mean to the developer. Come to think of it, so is Lodi.) Gilcrest said that I'd find Lodi on the next level, and that he (Gilcrest) would take care of neutralizing Moshannon.
        
The Staff of Power is chatty.
          
Level 30 was a bit different than the others. Instead of a large open space with a few rooms, it consisted entirely of interlocking rooms. 
             
A very different look than the first 29 levels.
          
Still, it wasn't long before I met Lodi. In a bit of exposition, we both drew our staves, but the staves decided to take their fight elsewhere and disappeared. Lodi, enraged at the loss of his staff, rejected my peace overtures and attacked.
         
 
Might as well preserve all these text screens for posterity.
          
Like the red dragon, he was immune to magic. He had his own magical attacks and managed to hit me with a melee weapon almost every round. I didn't last long against him on my first attempt.

On my second, I used a wish to conjure a grizzly bear companion (leaving me with one more) and equipped a Ring of Disenchantment and a Ring of Regeneration. These things helped. He was unable to hit me with spells, and the grizzly distracted him and took his attacks some of the rounds. The "monster info" dialogue told me that he had 120 hit points, so I kept track of how much damage I was doing round after round. When he got me down to about 20 hit points, I used a wish to restore my hit points and kept fighting. But he still killed me when he had about 30 hit points remaining.
           
With my grizzly bear to take some of the heat, I did better against Lodi.
         
After reloading, I spent about 15 minutes fighting random creatures on the lower levels and opening chests until I ran into a djinn who granted me a third wish. This time, with two wishes in reserve, I was able to defeat Lodi. 
           
I guess Lodi was a load-bearing boss.
        
The endgame text revealed that I was the titular "Sorcerer's Bane." Lodi's death caused the dungeon to collapse, but the goddess Kiera appeared to teleport me to the surface. The god Allyn appeared to congratulate me and gave me a weak answer when I asked why he didn't just deal with Lodi himself: "As game master, I must expend most of my energy on maintaining the balance of good and evil in the realms."
        
I don't know if I want to live in a world where God is named "Allyn."
        
After a final plea to register the game and tell others about it (oddly truncated), I was returned to the DOS prompt.

I spent some time with the other character classes, and it's worth noting that the three classes face very different games. The choice is far more consequential here than in the typical roguelike, where a wizard can essentially become a fighter with the right equipment and attributes. Here, the "hidden" statistics--to hit, to damage, to avoid damage, alertness, and magic resistance among them--are far more dependent on class and level than attributes. A fighter with 18 strength and dexterity hits far more often in combat, and does far more damage, than a bard with the same attributes.

I won with a bard, who only ever gets three bard songs, and you almost always want to leave it on the one that heals. The spells afforded to magic users add a completely different dimension to the game. You seem to get a fixed number of slots per dungeon level, and they reset upon transitioning levels. Unfortunately, there's no in-game documentation on the spells. I only got to see a couple of levels' worth. If anyone wants to try this game as a magic-user, I'd be interested in what some of the upper-level spells do and how your experience differs from mine as a bard.

In a GIMLET, I would give it:
          
  • 3 points for the game world. It's not an epic backstory, but it's better than the typical roguelike offers (at least, to this point).
  • 4 points for character creation and development. I really like how the choice of class matters. For 2/3 of the game, character development is steady and rewarding, both in the improvement of statistics and the leveling of the character.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. That's also a relatively high score for a roguelike. Some monsters are effectively "NPCs" and give you hints if you talk with them, and there are more explicit NPCs roaming the dungeon as healers, traders, and gamblers. The gambler with the Deck of Many Things is a particularly fun addition.
         
A creature gives me a hint.
        
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are fantasy boilerplate, but the developer did a superb job programming in the various special abilities and resistances and then offering them to the player in the "monster info" screen. Other encounters, as documented, are fun and unusual for a roguelike.
       
The game's assessment of the red dragon.
        
  • 4 points for magic and combat. That's a compromise between what I imagine I'd give it as magic user (5) and what I experienced as a bard (3). You don't have quite the same number of tactics as the typical roguelike, and success mostly comes down to equipping the right stuff to counter the enemy's special attacks.
          
I trade blows with a vampire, with my Ring of Clear Mind protecting me from his attempts to charm.
        
  • 5 points for equipment. Great variety, easy to assess. 
  • 2 points for the economy. It's useful at the outset, but gold becomes superfluous very fast. It would have been nice if the wandering trader had sold magic items.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no choices or branches.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are sparse, as is typical for a roguelike, and the only sound (aside from error beeps) is a relentless blooping riff on Beethoven that you'll want to turn off immediately. The interface is superb, brilliantly anticipating all of the ways that a player might want to interact with the controls. Most commercial developers could learn something from this kid.
  • 5 points for gameplay, doing well in replayability (with the different classes), length, and difficulty. 
             
That gives us a final score of 37, a decent figure for a shareware title. Even though it lacks many roguelike elements, I enjoyed it more than the typical roguelike. 

In the first entry, I said I thought I had found the right Chuck Wood, and that he would have been 18 when the game was published. After some additional research, I believe I'm wrong and that the correct Mr. Wood was closer to 28. From what I can tell, he remained in the software business (at least part-time) but doesn't seem to have worked on any other games. I sent an e-mail to some possible candidates but haven't received any responses yet. Chuck, if you find your way here, I owe you $19.95.