Another level of Dungeon Master is behind me. As some of you predicted, it was a bit more difficult than Level 2, although images like the one above were mercifully rare. There were more "puzzles" on this level involving hidden switches, pressure plates, secret doors, and teleporters. The only one that really taxed me involved a door on the other side of a pit. The solution was to cast an "open" spell on the door, then throw an item into the darkness beyond it. The item landed on a pressure plate, closing the pit. It took me a while because I had overlooked the fact that I had a scroll with the "open" spell on it.
Long ago, in a woefully overlooked posting, I waxed about the magic systems in different games. My thesis was that while combat and such tend to be familiar from game to game, magic systems are characterized by several dimensions: how you acquire spells, the limits on the spells you can cast, how you regenerate your spell powers, how you access your spells, how the spells are divided by category or class, and so on. From Ultima V's reagent-and-syllable based system to Dungeons & Dragons scribe-and-memorize method to The Elder Scrolls' skill-and-mana model, every game seems to feature a slightly different spell system.
Dungeon Master is no exception, and its spell system is even more unusual than most. First, any character can cast any spell, provided he or she has the requisite spell power. The neat thing about the game is that you don't define your characters as "fighters" or "wizards" at the outset; rather, your characters become fighters or wizards (or both) depending on whether they cast spells. This confused me at first, but it's essentially just an early version of the skill-based system that The Elder Scrolls games use. In Morrowind, for instance, you can define your character as a "knight" at the beginning of the game, but that doesn't stop you from channeling your efforts into arcane or priestly spells and becoming an archmage by the end of the game. So one of my characters, Hawk, started out as a fighter, but eventually has developed basic priest levels by repeatedly mixing potions.
To cast a spell, you have to string together a valid set of runes in a special section of the screen (where the cursor is in the image above). The first rune indicates the power of the spell (and thus how many magic points it requires); the rest specify the spell. Theoretically, I guess, you could cast every spell in the game right from the beginning, but the problem is, you don't know what they are. Only by finding scrolls with messages like "Cast VI BRO to cure poison" do you acquire this knowledge. So far, I've found light, healing (the spell requires a flask and creates a potion; I don't know if there's a non-potion healing spell, too), cure poison, poison, something that "weakens nonmaterial beings," stamina, and open door.
Offensive spells are going to be a bit of a problem, I can tell. Because combat is in real time, and it's hard to remember what symbol corresponds with what rune, it takes me 10 seconds or so to string together each spell. That's too long to be standing around getting pummeled by monsters. The game lets you prepare spells ahead of time and "hold" them in the spell box, so the only offensive spells I've used are ones that I've put together before I approach the monsters. Then I let the spells fly and try to finish off the combat the old fashioned way.
Each rune you add to the spell box (each syllable you speak, in the game's parlance) costs a little bit of mana. If you make a mistake, you can backspace and delete the syllable, but you don't get the mana back. I don't know for sure if you gain skill points by simply speaking the syllables or if you actually have to cast a valid spell. If the latter, I'm not sure if my ninja character, Leyla, will ever gain any spellcaster levels, as she doesn't have enough mana to cast even the most basic spells.
So that's the magic system. Let me cover some of the other miscellaneous things I discovered during my Level 3 gameplay:
- I found a compass in a secret area on the level, well after I had completed most of the map in the wrong orientation. While it's nice to know where north is, the compass doesn't tell you your relative position in the map, so it's utility is somewhat limited. I suppose it will help a little on spinners, which I encountered on this level. I'm not a fan of spinners.
- Unless I'm missing something (I probably am), there's no way to know the names of monsters I'm fighting. It makes it hard to describe them. On this level, I faced mummies (that was obvious from the bandages), some kind of blue goblin-looking monsters, and these insidious creatures that looked like piles of debris from a distance. They were hard to kill but slow, so I could back off and toss all of my missile weapons at them.
Three goblinish things attack me from the right.
- In the upper-right corner of the game screen, you see the formation of the characters. The color-coding on the little pictures corresponds with the colors in each character's status bar on the top. Being color-blind, I can't really tell the difference, but memorizing the positions of four characters isn't a big problem. Only the two characters in the front of the formation can attack with melee weapons, but I can swap who's in front and who's in back at any time. What I noticed tonight is that monsters adhere to this 4 x 4 formation, too. Check the screen shot above, and note that the monsters aren't using the left slots. This means that if Leyla tosses a missile weapon right now, it will sail harmlessly down the hallway.
- The game is relatively slow to give up its treasures. Each level has only a few caches of treasure, and rarely do I find a weapon or armor that seems better than what I already own. I say "seems better," but it's actually hard to tell, as the game doesn't tell me the damage done by weapons or the protection afforded by armor. (Is a sabre better than a falchion? How does a leather jerkin compare to an Elven doublet?) This is one of only two major complaints I have about the game.
- My second complaint has to do with secret doors. From what I can tell so far, there are two types: those activated by hidden switches, and those that I just walk through. The switch ones are cool. I have to watch carefully for changes in the pattern on walls and make sure I don't miss them, but this is a perfectly valid gameplay element. The ones that I walk through, on the other hand, are a pain in the ass. Since my characters take damage from just walking into walls, it's impractical to bump into every wall to see if there's a secret door behind. It would be too time consuming even if I didn't take any damage. But there's functionally no other way to find them. I found one on Level 3, but I'm guessing I probably missed others on this and previous levels.
- My rules about saving and reloading make the game a bit time-consuming. Every time a character dies (provided the whole party doesn't die), I have to haul his or bones to a resurrection altar, then return to the place of death to pick up his or her equipment. There was an altar on Level 1 and another on Level 3, so I hope they continue to keep coming every other level. Adhering to my rules does make combat a bit suspenseful, as I have a lot of incentive not to die.
- Sometimes, I'm finding, the best thing to do is run from combat and regroup at a safe distance, drinking some healing potions, preparing some spells, and lining up missile weapons. This keeps me spatially aware more than most games: I need to know the best path of retreat.
- Encumbrance matters. The more weight my characters carry, the slower I move through the dungeon. This became a problem in one section of Level 3 in which I had to press a button that opened a secret door, then race down the corridor before the door closed. It was several frustrated attempts before I realized I needed to abandon some of my stuff so I could run faster.
- I haven't figured out yet if monsters respawn. If they do, they do slowly.
- I realized just tonight that there's no economy in this game. The characters don't have a cache of gold pieces, and there's no place to buy or sell weapons and armor. I have found a few stray coins, but these are solutions to puzzles, not something I can use at shops.
In case it's not obvious from my coverage, Dungeon Master is a pretty awesome game. It's potential for ruining my life over the next couple of weeks is nontrivial. In my first post for this blog, I told the story of how I nearly gave up CRPGs for good:
My wife went out of town for a three-day business meeting, and I had planned to use the time to finish editing a book that I'd promised to the publisher a couple of weeks prior. The first morning, I worked maybe an hour on it before deciding to take a break for a "little" bit of Oblivion. 72 hours later, when my wife returned, I had done essentially nothing else.
Well, here we are, a year later, and my wife is out of town for another three-day meeting--for the same purpose as last year--and I have the same sort of major work project overdue. If you see another posting about Dungeon Master on this blog before Sunday night, I expect you all to yell at me.