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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dungeon Master: Final Ranking

The closest I've come to pissing myself while playing a CRPG.

Dungeon Master is a seminal game, no doubt. As the first real-time 3D game, its influence can be seen in countless later games, particularly the Eye of the Beholder series and Ultima Underworld. It shepherds in a new era of gaming, and in the minds of many players, I'm sure that turn-based 3D games like Wizardry and Might & Magic were suddenly lacking.

I can't quite jump on that bandwagon. While I admire the technical innovations of Dungeon Master, I can't honestly say that I enjoyed it more than turn-based CRPGs. The constant frantic clicking got old after a while. ("Many games suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome today," jokes Barton [p. 236], "May have Dungeon Master to blame!")

As I was finishing the game and thinking about the fusion of Order and Chaos into Balance, I began to wonder if the creators of Dungeon Master weren't influenced by L. E. Modesitt's Saga of Recluce series, which features many of the same themes. It turns out that Modesitt's first Recluce book post-dates Dungeon Master by about four years, so I guess not, unless Modesitt was an avid Dungeon Master player. Or is there a third original source? Or is it just a very obvious theme?

With that question lingering, we move on to the GIMLET score.

1. Game world. Reasonably interesting. The manual features a long, novel-like exposition, written by author Nancy Holder (who would later go on to write a bunch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer novelizations). The story sort-of sits in the background, though, with no further overt references until the end of the game, when you encounter Lord Chaos. There's something of a twist ending in that the originator of your quest, Librasius, is himself as evil as Chaos. The order/chaos dichotomy is not one we've seen in a CRPG so far. I'd give the story more points if the game included it better during the gameplay itself. As it is, I'll go with a final score of 6.

2. Character creation and development. Character creation is definitely original, although I'm not sure that this is in a good way. The game really doesn't gain anything by having you select your characters from a "Hall of Heroes" instead of just creating them, and I'm not sure what purpose the developers thought they were serving. Character development, on the other hand (described in this posting), is very satisfying, using a skill use-based system that we won't see again until The Elder Scrolls. Since the best strategy is to develop all of your characters in all of the possible classes, there isn't much of an opportunity to role-play them, and in any event the choice of classes and sexes has no effect on the subsequent game. Final score: 7.

Selecting heroes on Level 1.

3. NPC interaction. There are no NPCs in the game. This is the game's most disappointing non-feature. Final score: 0.

4. Encounters & foes. I counted something like 25 monsters in the game, and many of them are original to Dungeon Master. Each has a different variety of attacks, defenses, and weaknesses, and figuring these out was part of the strategy. Frustratingly, though, the game doesn't tell you anything about the creatures--not even their names. There is some basic AI: most enemies flee when their hit points dip, and they move out of the way of closing doors (although they can't open doors themselves). Most of the encounters are random, and some enemies do respawn, giving you plenty of opportunity to build up your skills. Final score: 7.

The mushroom people turned out to be called "screamers."

5. Magic and combat. Although the constant flurry of clicks wore me down, I give a lot of credit to the landmark real-time combat system that the game uses. Combat is very tactical, with numerous weapon and magic options, and attack functions that increase with your skills. The magic system is one of the most original encountered, with a combination of runes and mana, and a spell list that only slowly reveals itself. The way you use the game's many spells has a significant impact on the overall experience. Aside from the annoyance of picking up missile weapons one-by-one after each combat, I can hardly think of anything negative to say about it. Final score: 8.

Fun fact: if you cast "see through walls" at the door on the first level, you see Lord Librasius (Order) standing outside.

6. Equipment. My biggest frustration with the game, right up to the end, was a lack of any way to evaluate the equipment. You find a host of magic rings, crowns, and amulets with no clue as to what they do; weapons that give you no indication of their damage; and armor that offers no information about its relative level of protection. It's all trial, error, and guesswork. Perhaps this was supposed to add to the fun, but I found it maddening. Aside from that, there is quite a variety to the equipment you can find and use, particularly the magic items. A little description would have given a high final score, but as it is: Final score: 3.

7. Economy. This pissed me off a bit. The game is rife with jewels, gems, and coins, and I dutifully picked them up and kept them, assuming there would be a place that I could use them later on. Aside from one small vault, there was no reason to hold on to any of these valuables. And there's nowhere else in the game to buy or sell anything. Final score: 1.

Leyla's worthless inventory. Chaos Strikes Back better let me spend this stuff.

8. Quests. The game has one reasonably-compelling main quest, and all of the gameplay is bent on it. There are no side quests, and the main quest--aside from the bad "alternate ending"-- really has only one choice, with no roleplaying opportunities. Final score: 3.

9. Graphics, sound, inputs. All of them are quite good. I wish there had been more keyboard commands and less reliance on the mouse, but this game is notable as the first one to actually use the mouse. As you've seen, graphics and sound, while nowhere near the quality of modern game A/V, are certainly good enough to enjoy the game. The final cutscene is well-animated, the Wilhelm scream that your characters emit upon death is particularly memorable, and I like how you can hear monsters moving in adjacent hallways and creeping up behind you. Final score: 6.

10. Gameplay. This is always tough to assess in a dungeon crawler. Like any of them, the gameplay is almost entirely linear, and it delivers the exact same experience on gameplay. In terms of difficulty and pacing, I think it was a tad too difficult and a tad too long, but only a tad. I won't be eager to replay it, but I'm not sorry I played it once. Final score: 6.

Total ranking: 47. This has it beating Beyond Zork but not Might & Magic, Ultima IV, or Starflight, all of which I agree I enjoyed more. I admire Dungeon Master for its innovations, but despite them I don't think it's a "great" game.

Finishing this game took me damned near a month, although it was an extremely busy month, work-wise. I'm really going to have to hustle if I want to complete 50 games by the end of my blog's first year.

43 comments:

  1. I found the non-naming of critters vaguely interesting, in that it touches on a realism aspect not usually found in RPGs. Rather than oh, that's a oohkopodis from here in the manual, it's horror movie style -- what *is* that thing?

    Now, it would have been better yet if the Beyond Zork NAME feature was included so there would be some kind of in-game referent.

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  2. The lack of monster naming didn't bother me that much (can always come up with your own), although I would have liked a one-by-one presentation of the game's antagonists, Doom-style. ;)

    I think the GIMLET score is fitting (actually expect a lower number) and am curious how other realtime titles will fare in comparison.

    On to FTA, which I think suffers from quite a few strange design decisions, but again I'm looking forward to you forming your own opinion.

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  3. I'd never thought that much about the object properties issue before reading this blog but now I think about the games I like best do usually give you some indication of object value whether it is through sale price at a shop or someone who can identify it's properties.

    Based on my fairly limited progress in DM I think your scoring is about right. Thanks for going through this one - it sounds as tough as I always thought it would be.

    I've tried FTA for dos recently so curious to see what you make of that one.

    Great to have the videos now as well.

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  4. Jason, that might be the coolest suggestion I've ever heard: give the player the opportunity to rename monsters. What a great way to add role-playing to a game! Too bad no game does this.

    As to "realism," though...I don't know. I figure seasoned adventurers would generally be familiar with the proper names of common monsters.

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  5. Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol has quite a good method for monster (and item) naming, where your characters skill levels and wisdom affect how much you know about the dungeon's inhabitants. For example, an ignorant character may see a "winged animal" with a wiser character seeing a "bat" and an even wiser one a "vampire bat".

    Good game that, and a fan remake on the way.

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  6. I expected a slightly higher score, but I certainly think you were fair. I'd just like to say that I am irrationally excited for Might and Magic II, which must be not too distant. If it doesn't get a score of at least 1,000, you need to kill the Ancient Dragon again. Thanks as always.

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  7. Probably in 5 months, unless he hates the games so much that he only plays them for 6 hours each :)
    Next Five games :
    Faery Tale Adventure: Book I (1987)
    First Expedition (1987)
    Le Maitre des Ames (1987)
    Legacy of the Ancients (1987)
    Legend of the Sword (1987)

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  8. I doubt that "First Expedition" really is an RPG but who am I to say...

    However, as for Dungeon Master being "the first real-time 3D game" I can say that it certainly isn't the first real-time 3D CRPG.

    Dungeons of Daggorath precedes it by several years:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeons_of_Daggorath

    /nitpick

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  9. I have a question: how much did you grow attached to your characters through the arduous quest? Do you have an imaginary personality for each one of them? Did you spend any time while you were rolling around in the dungeon thinking how your characters would respond to this or that? Or did the 'everybody levels on every class' aspect of the game, as well as the bare no NPC interaction kill any space for voluntary role-playing?

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  10. Not preaching for DM specifically, as your appraisal is very accurate, but I was wondering if there couldn't be a N/A possibility within the GIMLET scale? A non-existant element is not necessarily a badly implemented or designed one, giving zeroes might not be fair to the game... If you took economy and NPC out DM would have gotten 58 proportionally, still not amazing and still below Might & Magic I.

    Anyway, your coverage was great fun to read.

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  11. That's a fair point Georges. However, it begs the question as to what items on the gimlet scale reflect essential properties of an CRPG. At first instance, I tend to agree with in that economy and NPC are not essential properties.

    However, upon further consideration, with the absence of NPC (or online third party PC) interaction, the argument can be made that the amount and/or quality of role-playing that transpires becomes little to none or is lacking because of it.

    There is no strong argument I can think of to insist on economy being essential, except that a) it was/is a common aspect of CRPGs, and b) it can add to the role-playing experience.

    The other issue with allowing n/a's is that in practice, you would apply full points to that scale, rather than applying none, which seems counter intuitive. The better alternative would be to convert the gimlet scores to percentages, and simply not apply a particular scale to that game in the first place.

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  12. "If you took economy and NPC out DM would have gotten 58 proportionally".

    Sorry, missed this. Yes, percentages all the way.

    Bottom line? I think if the Addicted One felt wanting for NPC interaction (or any other aspect that was missing), and felt the game was lacking because of its absence / would have been better for its inclusion, then the scale should stick.

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  13. There is a Windows port of Dungeons of Daggorath if you want to hit it on a backtracking session sometime.

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  14. Thanks for the note, Andy. I shouldn't say "no game" as if I've played more than 10% of them. I've never even heard of "Mordor."

    Aelfric, I'm really eager for MMII as well, but it's a 1988 game, so we're talking a couple dozen between now and then, so David might be right. David & Calibrator: I've never even heard of ANY of the next six games on my list. If they turn out to have doubtful CRPG creds and I'm not feeling them, I may go through them pretty quick. "Nethack" and "Phantasie III" are both coming up soon.

    Fair enough on "Dungeons of Daggorath." I was relying on some bad intel. Jason, I might do what you suggest. Oddly, it turns out my wife played that game as a child and has a soft spot for it; maybe I can lure her into this world a bit.

    Helm, I think I would have enjoyed the game more if I'd made my own characters. The game allows you to "reincarnate" the heroes at the beginning, starting them with no class and giving them your own names, instead of "resurrecting" them. I wish I'd done that. I never really thought of them as separate characters the way I did my MM1 party. Perhaps it's the "all characters are all classes" thing.

    Okay, on the GIMLET scale. The purpose of the scale is no more and no less than to rank how much I, personally, enjoyed the game AS A CRPG. In the original posting, I tried to outline the elements that would make a "perfect" CRPG if the game scored a 10 in all of them. By your proposed revision, Georges, a game could get a perfect score even if it didn't have these elements, but without them, to me, it wouldn't be a perfect CRPG. Thus, if Dungeon Master had featured ANY NPCs, even bad ones that resulted in a very low score, it would still be a better CRPG (to me) than it is with no NPCs at all. I just wrote all of that and then realized that Buck said it much shorter in his final paragraph.

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  15. Haha, Nethack. That will be a very interesting read :)

    Mordor is fantastic BTW. I only had the demo which stopped at B3, but my brother and I played it on and off for years and still never finished mapping B3 out. And that's working collaboratively too, since all the characters share the same dungeon and map.

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  16. I just realized Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King lets you name individual creatures (although not name entire species like I was thinking), *and* does the Mordor thing with monster recognition. Dunno why it didn't occur to me before, I've played a lot of that.

    While we're on the subject of ports, I remember you regretting that would would be missing Zelda. There's a very good Zelda port at http://www.zeldaclassic.com/ (I wouldn't consider it a CRPG but you did mention it.)

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  17. It was just a tought, I totally give in to your comments which I understand and agree with!

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  18. Heh, I can't believe you never heard of this game before! It's one of the monumental classics with Pool of Radiance and Baldur's Gate.

    I was a bit disappointed that you didn't enjoy it more, but I guess you are more into NPC interaction and dialogue than solving puzzles.
    Or maybe it hasn't aged that well? I replayed it about 5 years ago and still found it fun, but compared to Chaos Strikes Back and Ultima Underworld is is a bit lacking in some areas. It's much easier, more linear and has more empty areas than CSB. I'm really looking forwars to you playing CSB. It's definitely my most _intense_ gaming experiemce ever. In CSB you really need to map and you have to be on your toes every step on the way.

    My best memories from DM was the gigglers, or annoying-little-asses-on-legs-bastards which I used to call them in between much cursing and swearing. I've never felt so rudely insulted by a monster as by so those giggling asses on legs.
    And killing the dragon and getting a neatly stacked pile of dragon chops was very satisfying.

    As for the blue gobling thingies I'm not sure of their real name but they used to be called Blue Meanies.

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  19. After seeing you play a game I'm somewhat familiar with I'm understanding why so many people are reading your blog. I'm now thinking through old RPGs I've played to see when you reach them: Dungeon Master II, Moraff's World and Castle Of Winds: A Question of Vengeance (and it's sequel) are the only ones that come to mind. I played Nethack, which I guess I should have jumped ahead to comment on it in real time while you played it as I could have given you a couple of pointers. Ah well, you will reach v3.4.3 eventually, right? >.>

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  20. DM was a first in many things. One that's often ignored is dropping items - DM was one of the first games, if not the first, where the location of every object was track and kept persistent throughout the game. In most RPGs of the day (and still in some just released ones) dropped items blink out of existence. Here you can return to pick them up. Likewise, monsters were kept track of instead of them blinking into and out of existence as was the custom in those days - if you ran away from a chaos knight, it didn't vanish, but would still be waiting for you the time you come back.

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  21. That's a god point, Anon. I hadn't thought about persistent objects before. Demon's Winter is the only other game I can think of that makes this a reality.

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  22. Nethack has persistent items and levels- that, which is the main reason I prefer it to other roguelikes. I don't know what edition they added that in though. Most games have temporary dropped items- until you leave the screen/area. There are very few that track the whole gameworld. Odd, from the sounds of it Mass Effect went back to older games with its terrible inventory of hard to use.

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  23. Fun fact: Take the firestaff back to the start (as your original quest is from the manual) and see what the Good Lord Librasulu does...

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  24. Anon, you must not have read my previous posting on the game.

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  25. Ah yes...excuse my hastiness. So many never actually bother traipsing back up to complete their 'official' quest. Congratulations.

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  26. "I give a lot of credit to the landmark real-time combat system that the game uses"

    I thought one of the purposes of the ranking system was to be able to compare old games to new in an absolute sense. Giving points for landmark features seems to defy that intent.

    I can't understand how this game got an 8 in "Magic and combat" given the clumsiness of spellcasting in combat and the fact that closing doors onto the heads of enemies is an important strategy. No monster names or indicators of how damaged enemies are. What tactics does combat have beyond the 'back off then hack off' technique you employed?

    Nor can I understand how Character creation/development got 7, when you have no meaningful choices and feel obliged to grind everyone to a respectable level in each vocation. Where are the trade offs?

    I really enjoyed the dungeon master posts :)

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    1. The SCORE should reflect an absolute ranking, but I give myself liberty to comment on innovations in the text. I took points away for the interface in the interface category, but for combat itself, I thought it deserved a high score for the numerous attack abilities, the highly original magic system, and the overall tactical nature. Still, I agree it seems slightly too high. If I was ranking it today, I might give it a 7.

      I agree with you on character creation. My text sounds more negative than the score I gave it. I felt that the development process was satisfying and original (even compared to a lot of modern games), but it should have lost more points for lack of character creation and lack of character-specific role-playing.

      I often look at my ratings later and think I should have gone a point higher or lower, but I don't feel like constantly adjusting past scores.

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  27. I've always actually liked the lack of names and easy descriptions to armor/weapons in games like these. I felt it was a part of the fun. Test it out against the same enemies as last time and just eyeball an average score. Sure, it's not perfect, but it feels more legitimate to me - at least in a pure dungeon crawler like this. I may be a bit biased though. I loved the original Eye of the Beholder, and playing that had me seek out Dungeon Master which I liked almost just as much. Being a big D&D fanboy at the time, the setting won it out for me, plus my increased familiarity with the setting.

    I'm sure you'll get to this game in about 10 years or so, but Legend of Grimrock is an amazing modern example of Dungeon Master. It's practically plagiarism at points, but I'm forgiving of this as no one makes games like this anymore. At least it actually has different texture sets for different levels of the dungeon.

    And while I realize the GIMLET score (I'll have to try one of those next time I go out) is largely a personal affair, I do feel this game gets pinged a bit hard for lack of NPCs. Part of that is the flair of the game, trying to create a sense of claustrophobic, trapped loneliness as you wander through the dungeon, trying to survive. I feel that despite the abundance of it, food and water provides the same sensation. It reminds you that you COULD starve to death down here. I do agree they could have managed it better, however.

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    1. 10 years? I think you greatly underestimate the number of games between 1989 and 2012.

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    2. Hey now, be optimistic.

      Tanuvein, I hear what you're saying about "testing" being part of the challenge, and that works well for things like weapons and armor. But there were some amulets and such in the game that I don't think there was any realistic way to figure out their purpose via trial and error.

      You make a good point about NPCs. There will eventually come a game that lacks one of my GIMLET categories for a very good reason--a game in which, say, NPCs or an economy would actually hurt the developer's purpose. I'll have to find a way to deal with that when it happens. In this case, I get your argument but I don't really agree. If the game was going for "a sense of claustrophobic, trapped loneliness," I don't think it really came across in graphics, sound, or other aspects of gameplay.

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    3. I stopped looking up how long it would take The Addict to finish, as I posted the last one right before he left, and I figured it would be a bad luck thing.

      Anyway, to be honest? You are probably supposed to look those up in your DMG, since everyone back then who bought those games probably played D&D.

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    4. (Want me to hook you up with a copy for reference during future Gold Box games?)

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    5. Sure! If it's not too much trouble.

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    6. Sure, what Goldbox game is next, so I know what edition to search out?

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    7. That's a good question. Either Champions of Krynn or Secret of the Silver Blades depending on how I order things for 1990. I'll probably go with Krynn first.

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    8. I know Champions of Krynn was released early in 1990. In fact it was the first game I played when I did the 1990 part of my play list. And I seem to recall Secrets had a few improvements to the game engine compared to CoK.

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    9. BTW, the first Buck Rogers game was also released in 1990, in the last quarter of the year. Secrets was probably between Champions and Buck Rogers.

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  28. I've discovered your blog only recently, good job! I'm really enjoying it. I'm a bit of a neophyte with the CRPG genre, but reading your posts really makes me want to play. I've started Dungeon Master (Amiga version) right now and enjoying it, keep up the good job!

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    1. Thanks. Always good to hear from a fellow "adventurer!"

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  29. There is definitely more than a single place where you can use coins and gems. Some areas are secret (ex., require going through false walls, or freezing time when monsters are standing on a pressure plate), so maybe you missed them.

    The reason for the "hall of champions" is that you play a soul, and you're given the chance to resurrect and control the bodies of 4 adventurers who died in the dungeon.

    As to the lack of names and stats for the monsters and weapons, it's deliberate. Real animals and real weapons found in caves generally don't come with documentation.

    NPCs and "an economy" wouldn't make any sense in DM. The dungeon is supposed to be a series of traps and riddles, not a village with a market. You might as well have a category for "mounts" and then complain that you carried a piece of leather for days, hoping that you would be able to find a horse and make a saddle at some point.

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  30. Like I mentioned in the Faery Tale Adventure Post I stumbled only recently upon your blog and I think it was because I searched for a few Dungeon Master things.

    At first I was like "Wait a second, he calls himself RPG Addict and never heard of Dungeon Master?!? That´s like saying you love classic adventure games and think Kings Quest is a brand name for a Beer Company! Preposterous!"

    But then I read more of your Blog and kinda realized that you just like a different kind of RPG, kinda like the opposite spectrum of what I like xD
    For me RPGs are cold number based systems, heck I often mentioned in my Videos how much I HATE AND DESPISE Planescape Torment or Mass Effect, imo they are just Adventure Games / Visual Novels with a bit of combat attached to it ... and not in a good way like Hero´s Quest (Quest for Glory) but meh ...

    But one thing I think is interesting that despise being on different sides of the RPG Spectum we do rate certain RPGs quite high ... I also love the Goldbox Games and Might and Magic series ... interesting xD

    About Dungeon Master and sorry for rambling a bit, while I do think that it is the best invention since sliced bread I do see your points and I do like that on the GIMLET points that are actually in the game it does rate quite high so I can live with that :P

    About the Weapons though ... it never occured to me as that annoying, I usually picked them up and chose them based on the Attack Patterns ... Chop is my favourite attack so "Does the Weapon have a Chop option? No? BEGONE!" (Well except the Vorpal Blade for obvious reasons) ... fared pretty well with that way of handling things xD

    ... gosh I am vocal when I start typing, guess I have to make my own Blog or something ...

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    1. It was, admittedly, a pretentious title for me to have taken in 2010. I wasn't really a "CRPG Addict" back then; I was an addict of about 10 very specific CRPGs that I played over and over.

      I don't mind games that tell a solid story, but I want them to give me freedom to explore around the story and let me make choices that affect the story's outcome. You're right that I don't tend to enjoy plotless dungeon crawlers as much, though it depends on how good the mechanics are. I rated DM fairly high (on my scale) because the mechanics were good even if the story was piffle.

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    2. For me there must be a nice balance between Gameplay and Story.
      I also want to be part of the story and make meaningful changes (Unlike 99% of JRPGs for example where you can ... usually change diddly squat) but I want the game to Show ... Not Tell the story, I want to play a game, not read a book (Planescape Torment) or listen to a "Choose your own Adventure" story (Mass Effect) with little to no gameplay (I only played Mass Effect 1 and couldn´t bear it ... Planescape Torment ... I think I invested 2-3 hours into it and didn´t even get into one real fight? Not sure).

      And if a game is not satisfactory in that regard I´ll prefer a plotless Dungeon Crawler where I may not get an interesting story but at least get some good gameplay out of it.

      Going to LP soon the SNES remake of Wizardry 1 - 3 ... Wish me luck xD

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