Monday, November 29, 2010

Dungeon Master: Runic Magic

Level 9 down. Five to go!

I'm on the road again this week, this time in Charleston, South Carolina. This is significant because I love Charleston. It is especially nice this time of year, given that I normally live in Massachusetts. Nonetheless, I left the rooftop bar an hour ago so I could return to my hotel room and make this posting. This is what my CRPG addiction--and, to an equal extent, all of you--has reduced me to. I am also relatively intoxicated, so forgive me if this posting is riddled with errors and poor logic until I can correct them tomorrow.

As some anonymous writer prophetically noted earlier today, Level 8 took me a long time, but more on that in a minute. I wanted to take some time to talk about Dungeon Master's unique use of runic magic.

I reflected this week that if I was truly playing these games in chronological order, having never been exposed to CPRGs before, I would be noticing a lot of "firsts" that I'm am currently missing. I don't think any other game has featured a magic system like this one, although Ultima Underworld--sort-of a spiritual sequel to Dungeon Master--would famously adapt it. There are even elements of it in Ultima V (not yet played), in which each spell is a combination of syllables.

The spell system in Dungeon Master is a system of 24 glyphs in four different "tiers." I showed these in the first posting for the game, but I'll show them again here:

Each spell begins with a specification of the spell's power, represented by the first "tier." Some of the more basic spells, like "magic torch," require only one further tier, while others, like "lightning bolt," progress through all four. The power level determines the strength of the spell and the number of spell points that each glyph requires.

A fireball launched at a death rat.

You cast spells by queuing the glyphs in the spell section of the screen and then clicking the runes to actually cast them. The neat thing is that you can queue a certain spell long before actually casting it, so all four characters, for instance, can line up "fireball" spells and then wait for an appropriate enemy. Of course, if I decide I want to make some potions before an appropriate enemy comes along, I lose the spell points I invested in the "fireball" spell. Such is the gamble you take.

Syra lines up a fireball spell.

The difficulty associated with remembering each spell's glyph sequence and the time it takes to click on them make it difficult to actually cast them in combat. I've discovered that "fireball" is a relatively easy one, though, if I cast it at the EE potency level, since the glyphs EE, FUL, and IR, all occupy the same position in the sequence of glyphs. Casting it is four quick clicks.

Discovering "fireball" was a major turning point. "Fireball" is really the major workhorse spell of any CRPG. I sense a "special topics" posting coming up soon.

The game reveals its spells slowly, through scrolls that you find in different parts of the dungeon. Levels 6-9 really exploded the number of spells that I have available. I finally find OH EW RA (magic vision; sees through walls), which many of you have been hinting at for days, although I found it somewhat overwhelming and short-lived. FUL IR (fireball) and OH KATH RAH (lightning bolt) were great additions, since before them my only good offensive spells were DES VEN (poison) and OH VEN (poison cloud). I found FUL BRO NETA (fire shield) early on, but I forgot about its existence at a crucial point (see below). There are a whole host of spells that create potions to boost my stats, although I've yet to really use them. Plain old FUL (magic torch) remains a constant companion; I found another called OH IR RA (light), but I'm not sure how it differs. One, DES IR SAR (darkness), I've found no use for at all.

The glyphs aren't meaningless, either. VI is a component of all healing spells, FUL shows up in fire-based spells, and EW seems to have to do with nonmaterial things, like DES EW (weaknes nonmaterial beings) and OH EW RA (sees thorugh material things).

I realized belatedly that nothing was stopping me from simply trying different glyph combos on my own, without waiting for the scrolls. But must of my attempts result in an error that I've "mumbled a meaningless spell," so I suppose I'm better off waiting for the scrolls.

Anything that results in a potion is a priest spell and everything else is a wizard spell. Spell points, which increase as I gain priest and wizard levels, regenerate fairly quickly. I've discovered that it's a bit of a waste to walk around with a full spell point reserve; even burning these casting needless extra "magic torch" spells or mixing unneeded healing potions helps me gain levels in those classes.

Anyway, it's a unique magic system. It combines the "spell memorization" theme of Dungeons & Dragons games with the "runic" system of Ultima Underworld and the "syllable" system of Ultima V and the "spell points" system of The Bard's Tale while, of course, pre-dating most of these games.

A magic barrier precluded progress on Level 7.

So. Back to the gameplay. Since my last update, I have conquered Levels 8 and 9. Level 7 I had to bypass temporarily because I was missing a key to a locked door. A sign saying "the key to the passage lies in hidden deep" kept me from panicking and worrying that I'd overlooked it.

Ghosts assailed me on Level 8. The only weapon that could defeat them was the vorpal blades I found on Level 6.

Level 8 was mostly a vast cavern composed of ghosts that fell easily to my vorpal blades and thieves, which were the most annoying CRPG monsters I've ever faced.

Gangly, larcenous bastards.

They ran up behind me, making a chortling sound, and snatched anything I was carrying out of my hands. I had to chase them across the dungeon, swiping at them as soon as I got into range, to get my stuff back. Level 8 also featured random fireballs that kept hitting me out of nowhere. I never did figure out what was going on with those, although they eventually stopped for some reason.

The cavernous Level 8.

Level 9 was more of a traditional "maze," with lots of dead ends and turns. There were hardly any puzzles on this one, although it featured some tough critters. Again, since the game doesn't name the monsters for me, I call them "jawas," "weird crawly things," and "death rats." The rats were the toughest, swarming me two or three at a time.

A jawa, sans the sandcrawler.

A few stray observations:

  • In the last posting, I showed an example of a button that was hard to see. These two levels featured even-harder-to-see buttons on certain walls. I think I got most of the secret doors because there isn't much blank space on my maps, but I can't be sure.

This game does not reward myopic players.

  • Level 9 had an area full of traps, where every square I stepped on tripped an unavoidable trap and launched a fireball from the other end of the room. I toughed my way through it, taking copious damage and healing my characters with potions, before I realized the "fire shield" spell would probably come in handy.

Pelted with trap fireballs.
  • There was one puzzle in which I had to find something "lighter than a feather" and stick it in an alcove. A rote process of trying all of my items determined that the solution was chunk of "corbomite." If there was anything in the game that taught me about corbomite's unusual weight properties, I missed it, but the mineral itself is a reference to Star Trek.
  • There are more stairs on these lower levels than on the upper ones. Some staircases go to unexplored parts of upper and lower levels, but there also seems to be a central staircase starting on Level 6 that gives you quick access through the levels. Getting to it on each level involves finding a "skeleton key" and using it to open a secret door (helpfully distinguished by a skeleton head).

  • The game makes a big deal about your characters needing to eat and drink, but frankly I've found nothing but copious amounts of food and water. I've been lugging around extra food (and chests to carry it) since Level 1, and I'm thinking about just dumping the chests in one of the central staircase levels so I don't have to lug around the weight. Unless something else happens late in the game, it doesn't look like I'll have any trouble returning to these storage locations. Honestly, if you're going to require characters to eat and drink, at least make it a little bit of a challenge.

My characters remain quite sated.
  • I'm showing you these maps because they take a long time to make and, dammit, someone is going to see them.

There are five levels left to the game, I think, so I'll press on. Although this one is taking a while, it is clearly a seminal game in the development of CRPGs, and I'm grateful I was exposed to it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dungeon Master: Puzzles

I realized late in the level that I had misread the compass in the beginning. I ended up mapping the entire level upside-down.

The levels are taking a bit longer in Dungeon Master, but I'm on the cusp of being halfway through the dungeon.

Level 6 was a long and difficult experience, with tough monsters and interesting puzzles. A few postings ago, I faulted the game for lacking any real "story," but it's starting to make up for that with other challenging gameplay elements.

Coming down the stairs, I was greeted with a large room containing four small alcoves next to four inscriptions on the wall:

  1. "I am all; I am none."
  2. "Hard as rocks, blue as sky, twinkle in a woman's eye."
  3. "I arch yet have no back."
  4. "A golden head and tail but no body."

2 and 4 I got almost immediately--a blue gem and a gold coin. #3 took me a minute of checking through my inventory before I hit on a bow. #1 I never got. I mean, I figured out the object by trying random items in my pack, but I don't know what that particular phrase corresponds to a "Mirror of Dawn." Nonetheless, the solution opened an alcove containing a key as well as the exit to the room.

I lost count of how many keys I picked up on the level--something like six. With only a couple of exceptions, each key opened a door to areas that were not strictly necessary to finish the level, but which contained treasures (including two vorpal swords, which I assume are pretty cool).

I don't know what the one on the right is doing.

But each key required solving a puzzle. Near the entry room was a crypt marked "the grave of King Filius, explorer of combinations." The room contained four buttons which I had to press in a particular order to open a secret door. With no clue as to the order, I simply had to write out each possibility (1234, 2341,4123, etc.) and cross them off one by one until I figured it out.

Next to Filus's grave was the grave of "King Milias the Golden, who even in death searches for bullion." A gold coin dropped into a slot in the wall opened that one.

There were several puzzles involving pressure plates--mostly having to throw objects onto the right ones. One kept me occupied for a long time. It seemed simple enough: the plate opened a nearby wall. But none of my items would trigger the plate; I had to be standing on it. After a long while trying to figure something out, I hit upon the solution of having monsters stand on it--there were plenty of respawning skeletons nearby. But wouldn't you know it--they wouldn't stand still long enough for me to run through the door. So after a period so long I'm not entirely comfortable admitting it, I remembered I had a number of magic boxes that would freeze enemies in place for a spell. That victory tasted sweet.

The critters on the level were reasonable difficult. There were three new monster types: beholders (that's what I'm calling them anyway; the game doesn't tell you their names), skeletons, and giant bees. The skeletons weren't too much trouble except in one place where they trapped me in a corner and attacked me in waves. Beholders were medium difficulty, pummeling me with spells but falling fairly quickly to my weapons. The giant bees kicked my ass, wiping out my entire party twice. I had to resort to firing poison spells while rapidly retreating down the corridor. Fortunately, there weren't many of them.

One wonders where giant bees find pollen in the depths of a dungeon.

In other news:

  • I've done a good job balancing out my character levels. Each of my four characters is at least a "craftsman" (fifth level) in each class. The more I play, the more I like the skill-based development system.
  • Back when I was writing about Shard of Spring, I noted that there weren't many games that allowed you to adjust the power of spells. Here's one that does. The first rune that you speak in each spell determines its potency.
  • This level didn't have any walls to walk through, but it did have plenty of tiny hidden buttons. These are virtually impossible to see from the side, so you have to turn and face every wall.

This is where a hobbit character would come in handy.

The not-knowing-how-to-evaluate-weapons-and-armor thing is getting more difficult. I found a lot of new stuff on this level, and I'm just making guesses about what's best. Y'all keep suggesting that I cheat on this point, and I admit I'm sorely tempted. So out of curiosity, if I did want to give in and look up weapons and armor on a table or something, does one exist? If so, how did the author figure it out? It's not like the weapons do a consistent amount of damage every time you strike.

Yay! A mail aketon! Unless that's worse than an Elvin doublet. In which case, boo!

I know this is a weird time to say this, but it occurred to me today that the graphics are quite good in Dungeon Master--perhaps even the best of any CRPG I've played so far. You can't see it in the screenshots, of course, but the monsters are animated, and the designers took the time to work in neat little touches like shadows. If only the dungeons had some variety to their textures--but I suppose that since the dungeon was supposed to have been one man's house, it makes sense that they don't.

I'll think about recording some video for my next posting.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gobble, Gobble

Source: The Onion, of course.

Night had fallen in the dungeon of Anaias. Four heroes, exhausted, sat Indian-style around a small fire, fighting hunks of tough, gristly meat with fingers and teeth. The gore and carnage from the latest battle had been shoved into one corner of the room--a room that, like all rooms in the dungeon, was curiously perfect in its proportions.

"All I'm saying," the scholarly Nabi was saying between bites, "Is that this Grey Lord guy must have had a hell of an architect. Each corridor exactly ten feet wide? That's just not representative of the technology level of most pseduo-Medieval societies."

Hawk was wiping grease off his dagger with a piece of Elven doublet. The vest had served faithfully as his armor for five levels, but he had found a mail aketon earlier in the day and had torn off the doublet without a moment's hesitation.

"What I find odd," he said, "Is how every time we move, we move exactly 10 feet. Just a minute ago, I tried to take a little baby step , but somehow I couldn't do anything but take my normal huge stride."

"Like an anti- Zeno's Paradox," Nabi mumbled through a mouthful.

The svelte Syra had been unusually quiet during the meal. She chose the brief lull in conversation to speak up.

"You know, in our user's world," she said in an obvious homage to Tron, "They have a holiday in which everyone eating a meal tells what he or she is thankful for. Since he's all alone today, I thought we might honor him by engaging in this odd custom."

"Our user?" snarled Leyla. "You mean the guy who managed to get me slaughtered by a flying snake nine times in an hour?"

Syra remained committed: "Just be thankful he doesn't go off to play Faery Tale Adventure and leave us stuck here forever."

That shut Leyla up quick.

Hawk was the first to speak. "I'm thankful," he said, "For the magic spell that permeates this dungeon and prevents food from ever spoiling or rotting. Imagine where we'd be otherwise."

"Uh, Hawk," Nabi hesitated, "I'm not sure there's..."

Hawk cut him off. "No. Don't even tell me there isn't a spell. I just ate a drumstick that we found in a chest inside a sealed wall."

Turkey legs, corn on the cob, apples, and chunks of giant mushroom-people. I'm almost sorry I'm missing Thanksgiving dinner.

"I hear there are some RPG characters who don't have to eat at all," Syra remarked.

"Get out!"

"No, really. The gods of their world decided that slaying endless hordes of monsters is hard enough without having to worry about basic bodily needs, too."

"Consumable" is the best thing you can say about it.

"And we're stuck eating chunks of flesh from giant worms," Hawk said. "I knew I should have been a character in The Bard's Tale."

"You still have to drink in that game," Nabi remarked.

"Only one character has to drink in that game, and for a real role-playing reason. Besides, drinking is a separate issue--we'll save that discussion for a time when we have better screen shots."

The characters shifted uncomfortably. "Anyway, at least we can eat slices of worm round," Leyla offered. "I'm thankful I'm not like that poor bastard in Ultima II who had to travel all the way to Africa just to steal hundreds of orders of fish & chips. I mean, he couldn't have just caught a few fish from that frigate he was always going around in?"

"There's a balance, I suppose," said Syra. "I remember talking to an adventurer from Might & Magic. There, you only need to carry a little food, and you only use it when you rest. If you don't eat for days, you get fatigued and ultimately go insane, but it's not a constant nagging chore."

"I know you all get hungry," said Nabi, "But I'm thankful that when you do, you don't shout, 'I'M GETTING HUNGRY!' or 'AVATAR, I NEED FOOD!' I ran into this guy a while back from Britannia, and all he could talk about was how his companions bothered him every time they needed to eat."

"Yeah, we just start taking damage and dying," Hawk said.

"At least you do it quietly," Nabi said. He thought for a moment. "Odd, that guy. When I came back from the men's room, he'd taken off and stuck me with the tavern bill. All he'd left was a note that said, 'Hawkwind can suck it!'"

"Speaking of men's rooms," Syra said. "I'm thankful that this game doesn't require us to, shall we say, attend to any of the other needs on Maslow's bottom tier. There's such a thing as taking realism too far."

"Maybe," said Nabi. "But there's also such a thing as not taking it far enough. Isn't it odd to have such meticulously crafted houses and palaces in Oblivion, but no bathrooms? When was the last time you even saw a commode in a CRPG?"

"Oblivion," Leyla interjected, "Being the game where you somehow take a chunk of meat from a dog, combine it with some flour, and use a mortar and pestle to mash it into a potion." She shuddered. "I don't even want to think about what that tastes like."

"Since we're completely destroying the fourth wall," Hawk replied. "I have seen commodes in CRPGs. The was a whole row of them in this orc fortress in Icewind Dale II. One of them had a diamond hidden in it. That, my friends, is how you tell the true role-players from the poseurs."

"Real role-players don't hunt through orc excrement looking for diamonds?" Leyla said. "I don't know... our user seems to do a lot of that."

"Only metaphorically," said Hawk.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dungeon Master: Between Two Worms and a Dragon

If someone could build one of these between Massachusetts and Bourbon Street, I'd be a happy man.
Another lesson learned: don't blog when you've been awake for more than 24 hours, because you come off grumpy and it riles up the readers. I apologize for that. I'm feeling a little better about Dungeon Master tonight. When you're tired, even the most rote of games can feel like an effort, and nothing is very fun.

Though I'm not as annoyed with the game as on Monday, I didn't make much progress tonight despite playing for several hours. Still on Level 5, I first got caught up in a series of teleportation fields and had to find my way through them through trial and error. I did notice one neat thing: I don't actually have to "look" at the compass in my inventory to see the direction; instead, the icon actually changes to point towards north. That's pretty nifty.

After finishing the level, I decided to head back up to Level 4, return to the room with the constantly-respawning mushroom creatures, and camp out there to build up my characters' levels. Reader Georges left a good comment a few days ago about the importance of training all characters in all levels. Leyla had no spellcasting levels; Hawk had no ninja level; and Nabi had no fighter level. All of the characters, whether they had levels or not, were imbalanced in some way.

Leyla still lacks a priest level. Hence, the potion jar in her hand.

The game deserves more credit than I've been giving it when it comes to its skill-based leveling system. It is fairly rewarding, and in many ways, it anticipates the more complex systems in The Elder Scrolls games. To increase levels in a class, you have to use its associated skills a certain number of times. The higher the level, the more experience you need to advance.

I'm not completely sure what all the skills and actions are that contribute to each level, but from what I can tell so far:

  • You improve your ninja score when you fight without weapons and throw things
  • You improve your fighter score when you fight with weapons, get hit, and use a skill called "war cry" that, as far as I can tell, does nothing but make your character yell "yah!"
  • Priest levels advance by mixing potions
  • Wizard levels advance by casting spells

Rear characters can't attack directly or get hit, so I'm learning the importance of occasionally rotating the characters to give everyone some experience in melee. Reader John helped me realize belatedly how I could improve spellcasting skills even in a character with hardly any spell points.

Unfortunately, my plan backfired a bit, and I managed to get myself stuck in a corridor/stairs area with two giant worms at one end and a flying lizard thing at the other. Neither shows any desire to just go away, and all my characters are low on spell points and health. If I stand still, they come and get me. If I engage them, I die. Regrettably, I saved in this location, so I keep reloading, trying to defeat one or the other, dying, and reloading. I'm sure I'll get past them sooner or later.

Thus, sorry for the short posting, but I didn't want to go three days, and I don't have anything else to report after two. I might take a detour into Faery Tale Adventure tomorrow, or I might stick with this, depending on my mood and whether I can get past the worms (suggestions welcome). Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dungeon Master: Back in the Dungeon Again

I owe my life to a relentless door closing mechanism.
Here's an important lesson learned for the month of November: I cannot play multiple games over the course of a week, offering at least one, sometimes two, postings per day, without getting so far behind in my work that I have to swear off CRPGs for an entire week just to catch up. I suspect that my regular readers--if I still have any left--would prefer a moderate pace of one posting every two days to this feast-or-famine trap I seem to have fallen into.

Getting back into Dungeon Master after a week off was tough, but it was even tougher coming up with enough material to make a blog posting. What did I say about the game a week ago? "Pretty awesome?" It's amazing how fast one's opinion can change. Somewhere in the midst of mapping Level 4 or 5, I realized that this was probably as good as it was going to get. If five levels haven't offered me any NPCs, plot points, interesting vistas, big bosses, or puzzles involving anything more advanced than a pressure plate, probably the next five aren't, either. It's taking me about 3-4 hours per level, but getting a little longer on each one. Based on trudodyr's depressing revelation last week that the dungeon has 14 levels, I suspect I have another--ulp--30-40 hours of gameplay left on this one.

This is the problem with Dungeon Master: it's all style and no substance; an endless slog through the same corridors fighting the same monsters. From a gameplay perspective, it's great; I only wish this engine had been used by Might & Magic or even Wizardry. From an RPG perspective, it's...well, barely an RPG. Granted, Wizardry didn't have a lot of story to it, either, but at least it had the decency to be only 10 levels, and about half the size of Dungeon Master's labyrinths.

Another huge level down.

All right. Enough whining. Let's get to the new stuff.

In the comments to my first posting, reader tekeli-li told me about something that I can't decide whether it's a "feature" or a "bug" in the game: if you lure monsters into doorways and press the "close door" switch, the door keeps bashing down on them until they die or flee. If you keep attacking the monsters while this is happening, they don't last very long. When I first read the comment, I thought it was an amusing little diversion that I probably wouldn't use much, so as not to rob my characters of the skill bonuses associated with killing monsters. Well, little did I know. Without the door-closing trick, I never would have made it through the endless armies of giant worms on Level 4. My characters still haven't recovered from that experience.

The tactics of combat and magic have forced a revision of how I see my characters. I was regarding my first character, Leyla, as primarily a ninja, and giving her lots of stuff to throw when enemies first appear. But once the enemies close in, it took too long to switch to melee weapons. So now I'm trying to develop the ninja levels of my two rear characters and the spellcasting levels of my two forward ones. Based on the comments I'm receiving, though, I pretty much need to regard all the characters as generalists and have each of them get levels in all four classes.

The only way we know how to look for secret doors is bash face-first into the wall. I picture the monsters laughing at me.

Secret doors continue to annoy me a bit. I'm paranoid about missing them, so I've taken to bashing every wall--my characters taking damage while doing so--just to make sure there isn't one there.

Leyla reacts predictably to a giant worm's bite.

Happily, Dungeon Master defies the conventions of most CRPGs by refusing to include poison. No! Just kidding! Wouldn't that be disappointing? Actually, pretty much everything poisons my characters starting on Level 4: worms, flying snake things, the occasional trap. Curing it involves mixing up a batch of antidote which, to be fair, increases my character's priest skills, so it's not all bad--just a bit annoying, as poison always is.

Ah, the fabled Ekkhard Cross.

The biggest annoyance in the game continues to be a lack of information about the different pieces of equipment I find. It was bad enough when I had to try to figure out the relative merit of different weapons and armor, but now I'm finding magic items--or, at least, what I think are magic items--such as an "Ekkhard Cross" and a "Gem of Ages." If you look at the screen shot above, the game provides you a way to look at your items and get information about them, but all you learn is the name and the weight. What does it do? There's a whole bunch of blank space under the weight where they could put this information, but they don't. I just have to stick it on a random character and hope it does something. This is pretty much unforgivable.

Cleaning up after a kill.

Missile weapons are pretty useful, but picking up missile weapons after hurling them all in combat is getting pretty annoying. You have to click on each item on the ground, then open the character portrait, stick the item in the proper inventory slot, close the character portrait, and pick up the next item.

Dungeon Master, I should mention, features missile weapons like bows and slings, but it also requires you to have associated ammunition. Games are divided on this issue. The Might & Magic folks just assume you can pick up arrows anywhere, I guess, and thus provide you with unlimited ammo. In Baldur's Gate, you can by 40 arrows for a single gold piece and yet you still have to buy them. Ultima doesn't track arrows; The Elder Scrolls does. It's a trade-off between realism and avoiding the annoyance of inventory micromanagement. I can't say for sure what side I fall on.

I don't fall on the side of Dungeon Master, which requires you to have ammunition but only gives you five slots to hold it and doesn't stack like objects. That means each character can shoot or throw only five times before having to go pick up his stuff or switch to a melee weapon. Any realism it gains by doing this, it sacrifices by having your ammo never break; all arrows are re-usable.

And that's about the size of it. Here's me fighting some sort of reaper or something:

We must always be conscious of the effects of our moods on our enjoyment of things. I've been up for close to 30 hours straight and played my last round of Dungeon Master after writing 20 pages on the differences between ethnography and phenomenology. It's possible that tomorrow, in a refreshed mood, the game will regain its former level of addiction and enjoyment. If not, I may take a detour to Faery Tale Adventure, but have no fear: I shall finish Dungeon Master simply because it seems like a game that a CRPG addict ought to finish.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dungeon Master: Level 3

The party fails to work together as a team.

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.

Nabi prepares to cast a spell to make a healing potion. Note the empty flask in his inventory.

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.

Syra hits a monster in the face with a DES VEN (poison).

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.

You keep on trying, kid.

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.

Fighting "debris-creatures"

  • 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.

A nearly-missed switch to a secret door.

  • 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.

Hawk comes back to us.

  • 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.

Hawk needs to take a load off.

  • 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.

Three levels down...I actually have no idea how many there are to go.

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.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Quick Vote

So I did something different this last week by playing more than one game at once. I don't know why it hasn't occurred to me before. Obviously, one-game-at-a-time is my preferred modus operandi, but if it had occurred to me to take a break and go on to a different game temporarily, I might have stuck with Wizardry IV, Swords of Glass, and a few other games in the past.

Is toggling between a couple games a good idea when I get bored, stuck, or frustrated, or does it ruin the immersion? Use the "reactions" boxes below to give me your vote:

  • "Good" means: "Yes, by all means, play a couple games at once if it means you're more likely to finish them."
  • "Bad" means: "No, I prefer you stick to one game at a time and either finish it or move on before starting another."
  • "Meh" means: "I'm the kind of person that hangs out in /r/apathy. I don't even know why I'm voting."

Don't be a jackass and vote more than once even though the blog will let you.

Any substantive comments welcome, too.

There will be another Dungeon Master post when I get done with Level 3, probably tomorrow.

Beyond Zork: Final Ranking

Don't try to fight fire with fire: A life lesson from Beyond Zork

Let's get this out of the way at the outset: Beyond Zork is not a CRPG. It's a text adventure with some CRPG elements attached. I probably should have rejected it for this blog on dogmatic grounds. On the other hand, I had an awful lot of fun playing it, and solving the puzzles (mostly) without help was an ego-booster. I also added two new words--burin and palimpsest--to my vocabulary.

Nonetheless, I'm going to rank this as a CRPG. For the uninitiated, I use the GIMLET scale (described here) for the scoring.

1. Game World. Small and goofy. The landscape, features, and people serve the puzzles and plot, not any sensible order. The jungle, gondola ride, platypus castle, war between Borphee and Pheebor, and so on are all part of the fun, but they obviously don't go together. They also don't fit terribly well with the lore established in the game's backstory. It's not supposed to be a good CRPG game world, but then again, check the title of the blog. However, unlike many actual CRPGs of the era, the game remembers your actions, and your actions have consequences for the world. Final score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Most text adventures don't have this at all, and it's only Beyond Zork's small nods in this area that even begin to qualify it as a CRPG. You can choose from several existing characters or make your own, assigning a name, sex, and five attributes. As you defeat monsters, you rise in level and thus endurance, and your other attributes increase with various items, potions, and spells. Higher scores allow you to solve or shortcut puzzles, so your stats do matter even if your sex doesn't. The limited game world means development is limited, but it's still better than some early CRPGs. Final score: 4.

It's nontraditional character development, but it's character development.

3. NPC Interaction. There aren't many NPCs in the game world, but they are all memorable, from the crusty old sailor to the conniving cook to the pontificating Cardinal Toolbox. You do have to interact with them to advance in the game world, and they have honestly interesting things to say. Moreover, the parser, which allows you address them directly (SAILOR, HELLO!), ask questions (ASK COOK ABOUT ONION), and give commands (TOOLBOX, GIVE ME THE RELIQUARY) is about as open-ended as dialog choices get. There aren't really "role playing" options here, but it's still very enjoyable. Final score: 7.

4. Encounters & Foes. My GIMLET scale wants "unique monsters." Folks, I give you monkey grinders, cruel puppets, lucksuckers, Christmas Tree Monsters, and of course grues. These monsters are not only thoroughly described in the manual; the manual gives you clues about their weaknesses and the means needed to defeat them. There are even role-playing options with some of them, allowing you to defeat them with cleverness, compassion, or brute force. Many of them, of course, you do not fight in traditional CRPG style, all the encounters are essentially scripted, and the monsters do not respawn once defeated; your experience rewards are limited. Final score: 8.

After three games of being menaced by grues every time your lantern goes out, you actually get to kill three of them in this game. That alone is worth it.

5. Magic & Combat. Combat is very basic in the game, consisting of typing attack commands and hoping to score a hit based on your attributes and luck. Magic is through scrolls, potions, and wands, and mostly geared towards specific puzzles, although you have a lot of flexibility in how you use some of them. There are no real "tactics" to combat, though. Final score: 3.

6. Equipment. Like most adventure games, you have a wide variety of items in Beyond Zork, most needed to solve puzzles, but some (sword, plate mail, cloak) just to make life easier. You can gauge relative worth of the equipment from its value, and each item is fairly well described with the EXAMINE command. Some key plot items are always found in the same place, but many of the magic items are randomized within the game world, making each game a slightly different experience. Beyond Zork is unique in that it lets you give your own names to your weapons and animal companions. Final score: 6.

7. Economy. You don't get any cash for killing creatures, but there are a number of treasures that serve no purpose except to sell them, and you can always sell expended magic items and used plot items. It's worth doing this so you can save for your suit of plate armor, cloak, and sword, as well as one major plot item (the hourglass). Towards the end of the game, though, money stops serving any purpose, and in general the monetary system is more of an afterthought than an integral part of the game. Final score: 3.

8. Quests. There is only one "quest," although with many puzzles, and it is introduced in a very strange manner, more than halfway through the game, via a circumstance that you create. Until this happens, it's hard to know what your character's motivation is except "because it's there." As far as I can tell, there's only one outcome to the main quest, and it doesn't really follow from the quest itself (i.e., the Implementors give you the quest, and you never see them again). Final score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. Well, it's a text adventure, so we don't really look for graphics and sound. (Sound consists of an occasional beep when your stats go up or down.) The text-based controls do work quite well, though, with the game recognizing most words that you would think to type in any given situation. Final score: 3.

10. Gameplay. Gameplay toes the line between linear and nonlinear. The world is fairly small, and most of time spent in the game comes from solving puzzles, not exploring the world. Within the limited world, you have general freedom as to what order you do things. It isn't replayable at all, but it does offer the right challenge level--just frustrating enough at times to, well, make you detour to another game for a little while, but not so frustrating that you give up in despair. I thought its level was almost perfect. I'm surprised I was able to complete it without any major hints, although if it was just a little more frustrating, I probably would have succumbed. Final score: 5.

Final score: 46.
The little non-CRPG gets a higher score than any CRPG I've played except Ultima III, Ultima IV, Starflight, and Might & Magic. I'm on board with that 100%. If this wasn't supposed to be a blog about CRPGs, I could give it additional points for its sense of humor and quality of writing.

I maintain this was a good inclusion in the list. Barton notes that Beyond Zork was a unique hybrid: "no other major developers have been willing to revisit the design" (p. 259). As such, it was worth exploring and archiving. I'm ready to get back to slaughtering legions of goblins, though, and I won't miss all the typing.