Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bard's Tale: Pleasingly Difficult


The night before last, shortly after encountering the above-pictured beast, I found out what happens when your entire party dies in The Bard's Tale. It isn't so bad and yet at the same time it sucks incredibly. Instead of losing your entire party to the dungeon depths, as in Wizardry, your entire party returns to the Guild of Adventurers, dead but with all of the items, gold, and experience they've accumulated. Doesn't sound too shabby.

The problem is, it costs a lot to resurrect a dead character, especially a high-level dead character. Resurrecting six dead characters cost way more than I had at this point. I had to create a dummy character just to exit the Guild. I was able to resurrect one character immediately, but to get the other five, I had to build up my savings. It took a good three hours before they were all happy and healthy again.

It sounds horrible, especially to modern gamers, but I actually really, really like this aspect of The Bard's Tale. Death isn't a game-killer the way it is in Wizardry, but boy does it have consequences. Since you can only save in the Guild of Adventurers, every dungeon foray is a risk, creating a palpable tension as you wander your way through the passages. And every once in a while, you stumble into an encounter like this one (there were actually two more on this same level, with a dragon and a high-powered wizard) that makes your stomach drop and an expletive escape your lips.

Modern games make it far too easy. In something like Baldur's Gate, you would save every five or ten minutes. If you stumble on to a soul sucker, you might treat the first battle against him like a test run. If your characters die--or, heck, even just lose more hit points than you want to spare--no problem. Just reload and run the encounter again with the experience at your back. Even that was too tough for the creators of Neverwinter Nights, though. In that game, you could just use your Stone of Recall to take a time-out, get healed up, and return to battle fresh. What a bunch of wusses we've become.

Because of the frequent save points, modern games depend on the difficulty of individual battles to make the games challenging. In The Bard's Tale, Wizardry, and other games of the era I'm playing, there are plenty of difficult individual battles, but it's the totality of the expedition that brings the difficulty. You must constantly strategize. How much gold do I need to get from this encounter to make the "trap zap" spell worthwhile? What should I set as my bottom hit point threshold before I return to the surface? Do I want to expend 15 spell points on this group of wights, or take the risk that they'll turn me into a crippling old man with one touch? I've only got 15 squares left to map on this level, but my characters only have 1/2 their hit points. Should I press on or go back?

Exhilarating. Fortunately, I have a lot of games like this left to play.

I finished mapping and exploring the Mad God's catacombs last night, finding in the process his eye (which is equippable, but I don't know what it does). An inscription on a wall told me to "seek the Mad One's stoney self in Harkyn's domain," while another one more cryptically told me, "to the flower fly the mad one die once lost an eye!" In any event, this suggests that the third dungeon is one of the towers in the corners of the Skara Brae map. Since there are three of them, I'm guessing I'm about 2/5 done with the game.

Made a really dumb mistake last night. Because I don't have a rogue, I have to cast "trap zap" on every chest after battle, which depletes the spell points of my conjurer fairly quickly. Last night, my conjurer and magician reached their seventh spell level, so I decided to dual them to other classes to start gaining additional spells. The intelligent thing to do would have been to dual my magician to a conjurer so he could have "trap zap" too, and my conjurer to a sorcerer. Instead, I dualed my magician to a sorcerer and my conjurer to a magician. I know this sounds complicated, but trust me, I'm an idiot.

35 comments:

  1. Just found your blog. Loving it so far, you've been through a few games that I missed back then (I had never even heard of Autoduel!). I'll be following this closely. Keep going and have fun!

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  2. Thanks, Ziad. Always good to get feedback!

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  3. Couldn't agree with you more about the wussy death thing. I was playing Sacred 2 recently, and my character died, only to be instantly resurrected, sans consequence at a monolith nearby. What the hell was the point of that? So... my character's immortal. Why am I trying to defeat this evil? Why don't I just rule the world?

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  4. I wish there was a difficulty setting in games like that where you could limit your saves or turn off auto-resurrection. Sure, you can exercise self-discipline like I do in Rule 6, but it's hard when the option is RIGHT THERE.

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  5. I too look back on character death in the Bard's Tale quite fondly today. In more recent games a setback like that is usually viewed as a failure and a quick reload is the order of the day. This means players deprive themselves of the enjoyable relief when you manage to flee a battle with 'only' half your party dead, or the feeling of satisfaction when you see you've raised enough gold to bring back your Wizard. There's been a lot of talk in gaming blogs this last year of old games "punishing the player" but I think that is an oversimplification. It's like the digital version of climbing a mountain expedition, participating in a tough physical sport, or attempting to solve a complex Suduko puzzle - it's very hard, it's largely pointless, but that makes the payoff all the sweeter when you succeed. You need the lows to truly feel the highs.

    As you alluded to, these days a single battle is typically the atomic and indivisible unit that you have to survive. In the Bard's Tale one dungeon was that unit, and when you were in trouble you still had to get out to the surface. Compare with Diablo and the various clones which have gone to great efforts to speed your return to the overworld. I can totally see why they've done that, but on the other hand it used to be a great choice you had to make... return to the surface now, or gamble on having one or two more battles in the depths first? This kind of strategic thinking is perhaps lacking in more modern games which focus more on bite-sized encounters - taken to its extreme in modern shooters where your health is only relevant during any individual encounter.

    I know it's not for everybody - a lot of players today don't have that kind of patience to grind monsters to earn the cash to resurrect your party, or to walk back through already-explored areas. But I think the palpable tension over the duration of a dungeon exploration that you mentioned would definitely be a selling point to some people even now.

    (Sorry for the lengthy comment!)

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    1. Wow, that is brilliant. Particularly since you can effectively extend it the other direction to cover earlier games--rather than the indivisible unit being the dungeon as in Bard's Tale, it could be "the entire game" in Rogue.

      I am torn on the issue; on one hand, I absolutely refuse to play those awful first-person shooter games with checkpoints, as the worst thing in the world to me is repeating the same 30 seconds of gameplay a dozen times until you figure out the single stupid thing you are missing. On the other, I do appreciate not being able to reload to the point that every single minor mistake makes me want to reload and try again.

      I am not sure what the perfect middle point is--Wasteland's saving system was kind of half-way between Wizardry and a modern CRPG, generally saving after every combat and every scene change, but still letting you choose to save anytime you wanted as well.

      (In regards to another comment about Imoen being disappointingly alive in Baldur's Gate II, that does bring to mind that the death of my nearly-entire-game-long companion Uthgerd the Unbroken in Skyrim. It was definitely amongst the most memorable and profound moments of the game, and only because I had saved over the last game where she was alive without realizing it and had the choice between just dealing with it or re-doing like six hours of the game. I undoubtedly was much happier having the emotional moment than replaying things!

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  6. Don't apologize for lengthy comments, Ben! Especially not when they're full of good points. You say it perfectly. To try to reclaim some of that "palpable tension," I force myself not to save too often, and I have my "reloading" rule in #6. Still, I wish this was an in-game option the creators could allow you to choose rather than something you have to force on yourself with self-discipline. For instance, you could have a "hard" setting at the outset of the game that limited your saves to once every half hour or something.

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  7. Addict: When you get far enough along and reach Torchlight and such you'll find a reemergence of these features.

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  8. Great! That'll be in about 20 years! Seriously, thanks for the info. I've never even heard of Torchlight; that's how stuck in the 80s I am.

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  9. Since I'm currently playing Bard's Tale myself it thought it would be interesting to compare my party with yours when meeting the Soul Sucker:
    http://bildr.no/view/804166
    Looks like my party is some levels higher, which is a bit surprising since I alwayd hit T key when mapping to minimize the amount of random encounters. So unless you draw your maps with lightning speed you _should_ have had more random encounters than me.
    Also I'm kind of cheating by using items lists to equip my characters with the optimal equipment. Not that it helped them:
    http://bildr.no/view/804188
    With all the mages dead there was no way to escape that room, so my fighters had to commit suicide. Thankfully gold is plenty and I had 97K left after reviving them.

    At low levels the Fire Horn was a life saver. After my first sorceror reached lvl 11 the illusionary Red Dragon had made the game much easier. The only critter moving faster so far was the Soul Sucker.

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  10. Thanks for sharing your experiences and screen shots. I did also use the "T" trick when mapping, so that doesn't put you at a disadvantage. I'm not sure how to account for the level disparity.

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  11. I appreciate the difficulty in playing games with perma-death. I recently played through Baldur's Gate, denying myself use of saves unless I stopped for the night or lost my main character. I found this made the game great fun - that is until I finished the game and found Imoen alive and kicking at the start of the second game. See, in the first game she was turned to stone by a basilisk and then blown apart by an ill-placed fireball during the fight.

    It was too much for me to forget all of the emotions I went through in the first game with losing favored characters, only to have those actions invalidated at the start of the second game. Thus I stopped playing Baldur's Gate 2. I'm sure I'll play it again eventually, but I may have to use a new character to do so.

    I still try to use this same style when playing RPGs. It made my time spent with Dogmeat and ED-E all the more special before they succumbed to the wastes.

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  12. I admire Addict's stamina and willpower. Me, I gave up on Bard's Tale when I realized that on the last three levels it's pure LUCK and not SKILL that determines your sucess. No matter how good you are you are toast if meeting large groups of Demones/Greater Demons, Expert mages and Basilisk. The Demons&Wizards always have higher initiative, so with 7 demons and 8 experts mages in the back ranks you are toast before your own archmages can say MIBL!
    On the whole the game is badly balanced. After getting the first set of magic items (mithril amours and Elf Cloaks) and the Wind Dragon spell nothing but Dragons can touch you for most of the game.
    The random encounters are so INSANE in this game that half the time you can't even look around before being beset by monsters, so the final "run" from level three to Mangar on lvl 5 is just pure luck if you meet monster that annihale your party or not.
    I admire Addict for slogging through this.

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  13. Bard's Tale was my very first CRPG (the Apple II version). I never found it to be too incredibly tough in terms of random encounters- because I never made much actual dungeon progress (hated spinners so much) and I just spent most of my time doing laps and fighting monsters until my party was buff as heck. Plus there was a way to teleport into Harkyn's Castle and quickly kill four groups of 99 berserkers using Mangar's Mind Blade. 50,000+ experience per shot plus a lot of cash.

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  14. Petrus, your comment actually got me thinking for a long time about the roles of luck, skill, and strategy in CRPGs. Forgive me if I'm putting words in your mouth, but I suspect you mean "strategy" instead of "skill" (although I suppose being good at strategy is a skill). CRPGs, in contrast to action games, are fundamentally about probabilities: that an attack will connect, that a spell will be successful, that an enemy will take a certain amount of damage, and so on. You assemble equipment, increase levels, and otherwise develop your characters to affect these probabilities in your favor, but a certain measure of luck is always inherent. That's why D&D games use dice, right? Some of the best moments in CRPGs come when your low-level character unexpectedly beats the big boss or when, conversely, your high-level party is massacred by a low-level but lucky group of kobolds.

    The problem with the Bard's Tale, in the last dungeon specifically, is that no amount of strategy can possibly allow you to survive against certain groups of enemies. Thus, the game becomes overwhelmingly about luck rather than just partly about it.

    Sorry to go on so long, but I was thinking about these very issues in regards to action RPGs and pondering a special posting. You illustrate a really good example here.

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  15. This discussion of strategy versus skill brings to mind certain MMORPGs to me. The ones where having the best possible armour, weapon, pet and whatnot are more important that skill, as combat boils down to two people standing in front of one another and swinging weapons at each other until they fall over. Therefore being the best is not so much a matter of skill as spending the time on a spreadsheet calculating out what combination of items will give you the best bonuses. Which I can see being a sign of dedication in the pre-internet days, but now everyone just goes and looks it up on a wiki somewhere. I am wondering when the complex gear systems will start to enter RPGs. Compare Dragon Warrior (Equipment is really easy to tell what is better, you just put on the best item from each town and sell the rest) to Baldur’s Gate (A number of items, you can generally tell what is best, though there are some tradeoffs.) to Torchlight (Hundreds of items, if not thousands, often hard to tell if a bonus to your main stats is worth the bonus to damage, or if the secondary effect boosting your defense is better than one boosting your offense or gold gained.)

    Anyway, this got me thinking about character ability when compared to player skill. My experience is more with tabletop RPGs than CRPGs, but when I was playing in Living Greyhawk, a worldwide D&D campaign, I noticed that someone would work out a new ‘best’ character build, and a few months latter you would see a ton of them running around. When I first started playing it was archers, as you could stack the bonuses from magic arrows and weapons. Every few months to a year there would be a new ‘in’ character that you would see a bunch of, then there would be a new fad. When the campaign ended the in build was characters that took as many different classes as they could to get the first level save-bonus each time.

    I played an un-optimized cleric: I had made him back when I first started playing and didn’t have a great grasp of the rules yet. I had a couple chances to correct my mistakes a little bit, and I got lucky and was able to take one of the more ‘overpowered’ classes, which boosted my healing. However, my stats were still far worse than most of the people I was playing with as I just took the obvious options from the main books instead of going to character optimization forums and using every obscure feat and ability I could find. Yet I was still invited to a lot of games, and people wanted me at the table. Why? I was reasonably skilled: I knew that I wasn’t a powerhouse, and knew my roll was working with the other characters. I didn’t get to be all flashy and immune to everything, but I knew how to contribute to the party despite that. A lot of the people who got there characters off forums didn’t really understand WHY that build is best, and spend more time showing off the neat trick that they built there character around then doing useful things. They had a great strategy (Do X, causing Y, which will keep the enemy blind/immobilized/stunned/orbiting a small red dwarf star until the party beats them up). However in battle they wouldn’t know the best way to use that ability to help the party.

    I am wondering if there is a similar thing in CRPGs? Games that are biased towards either having the best gear (Dragon Warrior: Get Loto sword, hit attack over and over), versus those that are more built around the players abilities? Or even those that require more work in game, in each battle or dungeon, than those that require more work out of game, working out the bonuses on each item?

    Anyway, I would be intrested in hearing your opinions on these things.

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  16. You raise some excellent points, and I don't mean to put you off, but these are probably better addressed when I start getting into games where they become more relevant. A perhaps related issue is whether it's best to take the object that has a special function you have to consciously USE or the one that gives a permanent (but background) boost to everything. I almost always choose the ring that increases my strength by 5 instead of the ring that shoots fireballs, but it strikes me as a fundamentally lazy thing to do.

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    1. Heh, I'm the same way, I HATE limited use items. I never use them because I'm always worried I'll need it more later. For example when I got the firehorn the first time I used it over and over thinking 'yay, my bard rocks now.' Then, it disappeared (without even a notice). I finally got another one later and it sat in my bard's inventory for the rest of the game, heh.

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    2. I'm the same way, keeping at least 3 of each useable item: one for general use, one in case I really need it, and a last one for desperate situations. I spend many battles trying to get through them without using items. I know it takes away from some of the strategy, but what if I need it for the final boss?

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    3. The problem is that in so many games, the "final boss" ends up being immune to the kind of single/limited-use items you have been hoarding the entire game, and you end up smacking yourself in the forehead over not using them sooner when they might have mattered. Well, admittedly, healing items never really go out of style, but other things.

      I do however remember when I finally decided to purge myself of the "save the potion forever" mindset, at the end of my second playthrough of the whole Baldur's Gate series. That was when I discovered the game has hard caps on the number of summoned creatures, because I decided to fight Sarevok by using every single summon-creature item/spell in the game rather than taking him on directly. It did work pretty well.

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    4. I played Baldur's Gate a dozen times, and each time, I was determined to use wands and potions liberally, and to reach the end with only what I needed for that specific battle. No matter how much I tried, I always made it to the end with enough wands to crack the world in half.

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    5. I think that shows a flaw in game design. If you can finish the game without using them what is the point in having so many available to the player?
      In many roguelikes, no matter how powerful you are, you are never overpowered compared to the enemies you can find, you know that you can die any moment (permadeath, if you don´t cheat). How many times I died in Dungeon Crawl because I forgot that! Thus you plan every move very carefully and use the items you have. Better use them now and live than die with them unused. I learned that the hard way, after dying so many times with items in the inventory that could have saved me.

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    6. I'm not sure it's flawed game design. Like most good modern RPGs, BG offers a variety of options for defeating enemies. Some players prefer melee combat, others ranged combat, others spells, and others a mix of all of these things. If you had a spell-heavy party, with multiple magic users capable of wielding wands, you'd probably burn through them more quickly. I tend to play with only a single magic user, and it's almost always a better use of his resources to cast a spell than use a wand.

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    7. Probably you are right and I am wrong, I have not played BG. But it strikes me as odd that big surplus of wands.Does it happen with other items too (healing potions, scrolls...)?

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  17. The Bard's Tale was one of the formative games of my youth - I had the Apple IIgs version, and it was probably the game I played the most on that machine, even though I never managed to beat it. It's fun reading these writeups.

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  18. I really like your point about the expedition being the challenge, not just the individual battles. It really makes the fact that the final dungeon in BT1 is FIVE levels a real pain!

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  19. Heh, wether you survive the final level is entirely based on luck.
    When I replayed BT 1 early this year I did several "runs" trying to get to Mangar, but I would always meet a bunch of Vampire Lords, Greater Demons or monsters with stoning attacks that would fry or stone my party before I even got the chance to act.
    Overall BT 1 is rather badly balanced. The start is difficult if you use the items of the pre-generated party, and extremely difficult if you don't.
    Then most of the game is quite easy once you get some decent gear halfway through the wine cellar. And then it gets extrenmely difficult again in the last three levels.

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  20. I must say I'm addicted to save/loads. I refuse to play games with perma-death (unless they are rouge-likes, where there is not much hope of winning anyway). For me, RPG is about learning the story and building my character. Wasting time on resurrections after death or re-running huge portions of game would drive me insane. Cheap death rules!

    That being said, most modern RPGs do not make individual battles very memorable :( I wish there were fewer of them, but that they would be more unique and hard. Like, every fight is a boss fight. Hacking through wave after wave of identical orcs gets old fast.

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  21. Personally I liked how the Bard's Tale games dealt with party death. It did not mean Game Over, since another member of the Adventurer Guild could resurrect the party. How the remains of the party wound up back in the AG is never explained, though. But it meant that the games could actually be played Iron Man.

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  22. I agree. Death in BT had very serious consequences, but at least you could take care of it by having some new characters do a little grinding. Wizardry teases you by allowing you to retrieve the bodies from the dungeons, but you need characters of pretty much the same level in order to do that.

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  23. When you get there, please try the "Hardcore" mod on Diablo II.(You can only select it if you completed the game once, or with a simple registry trick)

    It is really excited. When you die, it is over, finito. The character is dead forever. Amazing feature. I only love Diablo II with this mod. There isn't so much thrill like dying in the fever of battle when the least expected time, get shocked and gaze over the corpse of your character for half-an-hour ^^

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  24. It's not so much a mod than it is a feature, actually. And seriously, Diablo 1 & 2 are so linear that they might as well put the dungeons/castles/deserts/jungles/whatnots up in straight lines.

    It's a really watered down Action RPG with NPC interactions that you could count with 2 hands. Great gameplay mechanics but that's about it.

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  25. That's because Diablo is Larn. Larn is one of the better roguelike games, but that means it does have all the trappings of a roguelike, including the randomized linearity. The chief appeal of Larn (and thus Diablo) over other roguelikes is the absence of food as a mechanic to kill the player character.

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  26. This works better for me:

    1:war/pal/hun
    2:bard
    3:Monk
    4:Magi
    5:Conj
    6:Conj

    Seems to work a helllllll of a lot better than the fighter fighter fighter bard caster caster line up.

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  27. Personally, i prefer the save load feature from newer games, and the map system from ultima 3 exodus.In ultima 3 exdus, you still had to map out the dungeons, but you had an item that showed you the map of the dungeon.I memorized the first few levels of wizardry.I have a bad habit of memorizing things in my head, and i often end up forgetting parts, but i know how to get to the 4th level of wizardry by memory, and to find murphy's ghost.I also know by memory the outline of the first dungeon of bards tale, and more or less the map of the game by memory.I can more or less tell you where the temple of the mad god is, and how to get to the recharge outpost, but i don't remember it very well.

    See:The thing is:Saving at a place like in wizardry at the town, isn't overpowered, because it saves you from losing all characters permanently, and balances the learning curb.Bards tale has a very strict learning curb at the start in comparison to wizardry, due to the prices of resurrection.Can you lose characters permanently? Yes does it feel cheap? sometimes, but not very because you can reload your game from the starting area and head down.Plus:If your stats get drained, you could just quit and reload your save.The artificial difficulty in wizardry though, comes from the fact that its an outdated system that doesn't allow you to save easily unless you are using floppy disks.I am playing bards tale on dosbox, and that is different.I heard on apple II, you can save anywhere, and have a feature to speed up the cycles to gain mana quickly, which balances out the cheapness.In ultima 3, it doesn't take you a million years to regain mana, and doesn't force you to go to an area like the emporium a billion miles away getting lost and dying.But, bards tale has a rigorous system that is very interesting.I am bored to death of japanese rpgs, as i find japanese rpgs to be watered down shells of what was a very innovative interesting system of old tabletop rpgs.I like challenge, and i like classes being used correctly.Heck, i like bards.I use my bard a ton for making my ac go up a lot, and boy does it make a difference.

    Take Games like final fantasy, dragon warrior/quest, earthbound and such:They don't hold a candle to the westernized pc games.I beat ultima 1 2 and 3.I played ultima underworld to death, and i love the game.

    I'm not a kid either.I am in my 30s, and have been gaming since i was a kid.In some ways in my opinion, things have changed for the better, but in other ways, it was for the worse.I for an example liked oblivion, but i thought it was so inferior to daggerfall.Better graphics, but there was a tension in entering dungeons in daggerfall.Also.I am getting baldurs gate one and two, and will soon be playing them.If you want to talk to me, visit youtube and send a message to Shadow Link.

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