Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Bard's Tale III: Don't Make Me Do This. Please.

"We drink to our youth, to days come and gone..."

Holy... I last played Bard's Tale III more than a year ago?! I've been working on 1988 games since last January?! If I had realized this a week ago, I probably wouldn't have restarted my blog. I'd have given up in despair. I realize that the odds of me ever catching up in time with current CRPGs is extremely small, but it's absolutely impossible if I take more than a year to cover a year's worth of games.

I already didn't want to play The Bard's Tale III again, but now I don't want to play even more. You can go read my postings on the game from--Jesus Christ--last February if you want (the last one is comically titled "brief break"), but to summarize my dislikes:

  • Characters come into the game far too high, possessing all of the available spells. There is really no room to develop throughout 90% of the game.
  • The game involves endless combat, with random encounters appearing even as you stand in a square and turn. With the number of monsters, the distances, and no "quick combat" option, combat takes forever. By the time it's over, you've forgotten what you were doing before you went in, so you take a couple of turns to orient yourself, and you're back in combat again. Even with liberal use of the "Run Away" command, you find yourself in six times as many combats, each lasting four times as long, as Wizardry or Might & Magic.

This is a game where you find yourself saying, "Oh, for #*&$'s sake" quite frequently.

  • You're forced to pick up useless equipment and then discard it.
  • Spell points regenerate only outdoors, at a rate so slow that it literally takes an hour in real time. There is no "energy emporium" where you can pay to get spell points regenerated, as in previous games, and the "harmonic gems" that regenerate all of them are precious and rare. (At least, in this DOS version; some commenters reported they were more frequent in other versions.)
  • To cast a spell, you have to select it from a very long list of four-letter codes, which are not alphabetized, instead of being able to just type it in yourself.

I know I saw it in here somewhere...
  • Enemy magic users have a habit of summoning creatures every round, needlessly prolonging combat until you can get close enough to kill them.

Oh, yes, please let's keep this going indefinitely.

  • Multiple monsters use the same portraits and it's very hard to keep straight those that do no damage from those that do horrific damage.
  • The dungeons are full of annoying things like spinners, squares of darkness, and magic-draining zones that add nothing to the gameplay and just make things hard for no reason. There is otherwise hardly anything in the dungeons, so you end up spending a lot of time plodding along and mapping for nothing.
  • You can't tell if a bard song is playing unless you have the volume on, in which case the same 10-second melody loops over and over and over.
  • The game just sucks.

But last year, when I was saying this, you were all like, "Noooo, CRPG Addict! It gets so much better after you start traveling to other worlds! We promise! Bard's Tale III is a classic!" so I declined to just do a GIMLET and delete the stupid thing from my hard drive. Why did I let that happen? You don't tell me what a good game is; I tell you. Did you invent the GIMLET? No, I didn't think so.

Fine. I'll give the game one world to prove that it's not just one big suck-fest, and then it's on to BattleTech.

I remember that after the "brief break" posting on February 6, 2011, I spent a lot of time level-grinding by just randomly spinning in place in some dungeon, fighting random encounters, while I...well, it would take too long to explain, but suffice to say I had a week's worth of work where I had to wait for my computer to process batches of hundreds of thousands of data records, and I couldn't do anything intensive on it while it was processing. DOSBox, fortunately, doesn't take up a lot of the CPU's attention. Most of my characters rose about 10 levels during that week. Either because of that or the 20 levels that the character's rose after the first dungeon (see my rant about that here), I'm not finding most of the combats terribly difficult, just long and annoying.

For reasons I don't quite remember, my characters are in a realm called Arboria, trying to collect a magic bow and arrows from someone named Valarian. I ran into a character name Hawkslayer, who is now at the head of my party, and some total spaz of a king wants me to kill someone named Tslotha.

Or maybe "Tslotha's Head" is some kind of artifact. Whatever. The developers aren't so good with the punctuation, either.

From some hermit, I bought a spell that will make me grow gills and explore the bottom of a nearby lake where there's some kind of palace.

Hey! You look just like every other old man in the game!

And there was a tree with acorns on it nearby:

And...yeah. I've got nothing else to tell you. I'm not sure how all of these things fit together. Right now, I'm in the midst of mapping a place called Valarian's Tower. There are at least two other dungeons in the area of I don't know how many levels, and the thought of mapping them all fills me with such revulsion that I honestly think I may get drunk before playing any more of this game. You have to map, though, because the game depends so much on special encounters in non-obvious squares that to miss a single square might screw up the entire game. (To be fair, this is true of every first-person, tile-based game of the era; it just somehow annoys me more here.)

This is a perfect description of the CRPG Addict's living room.

The basic problem with The Bard's Tale series is this: by the end of the first game, your characters were already developed as much as they were going to develop. Oh, sure, there's a "chronomancer" class in this game that has a different set of spells, but they don't add much of anything to the game and you can max out your spell levels in about half an hour of gameplay. So after spending a relatively short and non-torturous game getting from level 1 to 15 or 20, you get to spend two more games of twice the duration getting from level 20 to...I don't know...probably 100 or so, but you don't really gain anything from these level increases except more hit points and spell points. This is why most other series (Ultima, Might & Magic, Wizardry) have you start over at Level 1 or, at most, allow you to continue your level progression through two games. If The Bard's Tale III had me start over at level 1, with level 1 foes, I wouldn't have complained for a second. As it is, with characters so over-powered, the game has no choice but to throw hordes of over-powered monsters at me.

I know I'm going to get a lot of comments urging me to just drop it if I hate it that much, so I'm more interested in hearing from people who see some value in this game. For god's sake, what do you like about it?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Game 69: The Game of Dungeons/dnd (1975)

The interesting thing about role playing games--computer and otherwise--is how they marry the left and right brain, the quantitative and the qualitative. For people who like calculations, tactics, and probabilities, you have the statistics-based combat and magic systems, adapted from wargames like Chainmail. For people that like open-ended narratives, histories, quest, and dialogue, you have--well, all the rest. Just as I suppose there are some (demented) people who prefer their chocolate and peanut butter separate, there are those who prefer these game elements separate. If you just like the left-brained stuff, you play strategy games; if you just like the right-brained stuff, you play adventure games.

It's inescapable, though, that the earliest CRPGs were more about the left brain than the right. (Yes, I know that the idea of "left-brain" and "right-brain" has been discredited; I'm using them as metaphors.) The world-building and story-telling of the PLATO games, Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and other early CRPGs are not nearly as well-developed as their combat systems. One is tempted to cite programming limitations for this, but we have the problem of Zork rearing its head in 1977. Zork offered an interesting game world, detailed descriptions of rooms, persistent inventories, and some quasi-NPCs--essentially, the right-brained half of an RPG. It is no less an "RPG" than computer games that adopted that designation, and yet, somehow, it wasn't considered as such. The left-brainers won out.

The union of tactical combat with interesting game worlds happened so slowly that it's hard to pinpoint when the first full, synthesized "CRPG," as we currently think about that term, first appeared. I suppose we have to give the honor to Ultima, but the game loses points with me by offering a game world that's so stupid. (Ultima II was more offensively dumb than Ultima I, but Ultima I was still dumb.) Regardless, Origin deserves credit for a string of games from 1983-1986 (Ultima III, Ultima IV, Autoduel, Moebius, 2400 A.D.) that included plenty of elements from both sides of the brain. SSI leaped on the scene during the same period with Wizard's Crown, Rings of Zilfin, and Shard of Spring. These were not all great games, but my point is that this era marked the end of the period in which a "CRPG" was about combat and virtually nothing else.

To play these early PLATO games is to look through a window on a time in which not only were CRPGs new, but the earliest developers had decided that the most important aspect of a "computer role-playing game" was not the story but the monsters and weapons. I wonder if this caused any backlash from pen-and-paper RPG players. Certainly, some of them must have complained that the programmers had stripped the soul from RPGs. That doesn't mean they're not fun; they just lack a major element of the game--Dungeons & Dragons--from which many of them take their names.

The "finders of the orb" seem to have a common theme going.

The title screen calls the game The Game of Dungeons, but the file name was just dnd, and this is what has stuck in history and legend. Developed in 1975 by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood (who named the dungeon "Whisenwood"), this may be the first CRPG developed openly as a game, without having to hide under fake file names on the PLATO mainframe (cf. PEDIT5). It has existed continually since its first edition.

For the history of the game, I am indebted to Dirk Pellett and Flint Pellett. Dirk wrote a history of the game on Cyber1's preserved PLATO system, which I quoted in December. Dirk and Flint both exchanged e-mails with me following this posting and fleshed out the history a bit more. Whisenhunt and Wood were inspired by both the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, first released the previous year, and the PEDIT5 dungeon, which I reviewed in December. They improved upon PEDIT5 with a multi-level dungeon, more monsters, and more spells. Dirk Pellett arrived at the University in late 1975, started playing dnd, and had so many suggestions that Whisenhunt and Wood gave him editing privileges to implement them. He improved a number of aspects of the game mechanics and added a host of items, potions, and encounters. Dirk's brother, Flint, attended the university starting in 1977 and helped program subsequent editions. They were kind enough to send me a bit of the original source code, of which Flint says he has a "pile of printouts."

To me, this appears as Είμαι ένα άγριο ζώο. Ακούστε με βρυχηθμό!.

The earliest version still around (5.4) is from 1977. The manual describes the game in language that inescapably marks it as the progenitor of almost all CRPGs that followed:

[Adventurers] wander around in a maze and pick up any gold they happen to find lying around. They can also find magic items and treasure chests! Unfortunately, recent years have seen the dungeon become inhabited with strange and deadly monsters...

Characters have four attributes--strength, dexterity, intelligence, and wisdom--which, like D&D, are on a scale from 3 to 18. PEDIT5 didn't allow you to re-roll, but dnd does. It's also fairly generous with the stats. I got these after only a few rolls:

After you accept the statistics and assign a name to your character, the game dumps you in the entrance to the dungeon, and the adventure begins. Your character is simultaneously a fighter, magic user, and cleric, with power depending on level and attributes.

When I reviewed PEDIT5, I noted:

I would have forgiven the first CRPG for being really basic and dumb: perhaps a text-only game in which you managed some basic attributes against some random encounters... Instead, we get a fairly large dungeon, a solid set of attributes, challenging random encounters, 8 spells, monsters with resistances based on type, and graphics that the DOS platform won't surpass until Ultima III.

dnd fits this description, only more so. The programming complexity here is not only impressive, but the various options and quirks are so numerous that I'm honestly having trouble keeping them all straight. Some examples:

  • When you encounter a monster, you can fight, evade, or cast a spell. If you try to "evade," your chances are based on the configuration of the surrounding walls, your dexterity, and your encumbrance.

A demon reacts to my attempt to evade.

  • Encumbrance also affects your ability to fight. There are various options for stashing and hiding gold to temporarily reduce encumbrance.
  • There are bottomless pits in the dungeon. Falling into one gives you a chance to "grab" onto each level as you plummet into the depths.
  • Treasure chests and magic items are often trapped.
  • The game says that the amount of gold you "bring out of the dungeon" affects your experience and spell levels, but I can't seem to re-find the entrance to the dungeon after I start.

  • There is a selection of magical weapons, armor, and accessories with different powers and + levels.
  • You occasionally encounter random books that either raise or lower your attributes.
  • When finding potions, you can study, examine, or just drink ("quaff") them, with 11 possible effects, including "astral form," which allows you to pass through walls and floors.

And there are occasional special encounters, like this:

Any CRPG Addict who says "yes" here doesn't deserve to have readers.

The ultimate goal of the game is to find the "ORB," guarded by a dragon, on Levels 17-20. The game warns that the dragon can do up to 100,000 hit points of damage. I'd be happy if I could just survive more than three combats. So far, the game is proving extremely hard. When you die, the game tells you how many other kills that particular creature has made before you, although I don't know when this counter was last reset. Either I'm the only one playing the game tonight, or everyone's having a lot more luck than me (these screenshots were about an hour apart):

I just hope I don't encounter a creature named "Barney Stinson."

The influence on dnd games is obvious, and as I previously covered, informed by my conversations with Dirk Pellett, it's tough to see sometimes where "influence" ends and "plagiarism" begins. In his text file history of dnd (available only on the PLATO system), Dirk says bluntly that Daniel Lawrence plagiarized dnd in making his own DND, later commercialized as Telengard. In e-mails to me, Dirk says that he later had a chance to look at Lawrence's source code and gives him a little more credit for some original programming. Nonetheless, the influence of this dnd on DND/Telengard is obvious to me, including the random encounters with portals, monsters, and potions, the discovery of random treasure on the ground, and the overall feel of the gameplay. Yes, DND introduced some more complexity in the encounters, but it still very obviously a descendant of dnd, whether by plagiarism or homage. Rogue also owes a lot to this game and it's continually more challenging levels, culminating in the retrieval of a McGuffin from the bottom.

It would be cool, but I suspect impossible, to win this one. I'm going to fire up the Cyber1 terminal now and then and see how far I can get (and do a separate posting on Version 8), but otherwise don't look for a lot of postings here. I definitely recommend that every true CRPG lover sign up for a Cyber1 account and play a few rounds.


Further reading: Posts on the entire DND line: The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1975); Dungeon of Death (1979); Telengard (1982); Caverns of Zoarre (1984); DND (1984); and the Heathkit DND (1985). For a discussion of Lawrence and plagiarism, see this account by one of The Game of Dungeons's original authors. 

Other posts on the PLATO series include The Dungeon (1975), Orthanc (1975), Moria (1975), Oubliette (1977), and Avatar (1979).

Over at "CRPG Adventures," Nathan Mahney spent three months and over 200 characters winning the game. Check out his series of posts starting here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Inscrutable Exhortations of My Soul

No, thanks. I'll just fall off.

Last weekend, my wife and I took a trip to Bar Harbor, Maine, to go "snowshoeing." Only there wasn't any snow, so we ended up doing an alternative, less romantic-sounding activity called "hiking in the cold." I've been to Bar Harbor more than 20 times, but one thing I've never done is wait until low tide and then hike across the bar that gives the town its name to Bar Island. Our bed-and-breakfast was relatively close to this natural land bridge, so we decided to do it.

Arriving on the other side, we found that the road diverged into a hiking path and an overgrown track marked "private road." The private road had manifestly not been driven down all winter, or even longer, so we decided the odds of encountering an angry landowner while trespassing were low. In less than half a mile of walking, the road ended in a clearing. There was no house but rather the ruins of one: a couple of chimneys and a low stone foundation overlooking the rocky coast. It looked to have been abandoned for a good century or so. (I later found out there was, until recently, a modern house in the clearing next to the ruin, but it the land had been donated to the park and the house torn down. I haven't been able to find anything on the older house whose ruins were still visible to us.) I took this picture:

As I gazed at the sad and overgrown ruin, a strong and inescapable feeling crept over me: I wanted to go back to the hotel room and play a CRPG.

I realize how pathetic that sounds, even to fellow gamers. I was looking at something fascinating--a piece of history in a place that I loved. But there was never going to be anything else to stoke the sparks of mystery about the place. I have no doubt that the "private road" sign had failed to deter hundreds, if not thousands, of other hikers every year, and there was no chance I was going to find anything in the ruins that hadn't already been picked over by thousands of hands. I wasn't going to open the ash trap of one of the old chimneys and discover a previous owner's journal, detailing a horrific murder that had taken place decades earlier, but providing just enough mitigating clues to heal the heartbreak of a sad centenarian residing in some lonesome house in town. Orcs were not going to suddenly rise from behind the wall and snipe at me with bows. I was not going to find a chest nestled against the outer walls, containing a sword and helmet. The brambles tangled over the stone were not suitable for brewing into potions, nor did they conceal runic letters that, when absorbed, would bestow upon me some fantastic skill. I was not going to stumble upon a concealed trap door, leading me to treasure-filled depths.

While real life, and the real location, should have offered real rewards to compensate for these deficiencies, they were not, at the moment, enough. And so, after spending a respectable amount of time hiking the rest of the island, I used the promise of a fireplace, hot tea, and a good book from the store in town to persuade Irene to return with me to the confines of the bed-and-breakfast, where I spent the next four hours attempting to win Wizardry V. I failed, and I still don't know exactly what I'm going to do with that game, but I do know that...well, I'm back.

Looking over the comments from my "hiatus" posting, I'm amused by how many of you didn't understand my core problem. The suggestions that I change the nature of my blog by playing only "good" games, or switching to console RPGs, or doing "let's plays" instead of writing blog entries...none of them got at the real issue, which is that playing games, even in "moderation," takes a lot of time--time that, as a self-employed person, I could be using to make money. If I didn't feel like making money, it's still time I could be using to do other things that would help me in the long term: learning a new language, exercising, practicing the piano, reading great works of literature (or even my own professional journals), taking dance lessons. I had decided to stop the blog because when I sat down with my list of goals for 2012, I needed the time that playing games was taking away from me.

But this is what I discovered in the intervening month: I'm apparently going to spend a certain percentage of my time screwing around, whether said screwing around involves playing video games or watching Babylon 5 for the seventh time. I've made fair progress on my goals in February, but I've also spent a lot of time on Reddit, reading old articles on Cracked.com, reading the Mistborn trilogy again, and playing Boggle on my iPhone. None of these things are what I stopped playing CRPGs to do, and playing games, and writing this blog, while overall about as useful as anything else I've been doing, at least lets me document my experiences and interact with interesting people.

It was either this or a Boggle blog.

With that in mind, I have to figure out my next steps. I've left five games from 1988 in various states of incompletion: The Bard's Tale III, BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception, Sentinel Worlds, Star Command, and Wizardry V. The easiest thing to do would be to write them all off and start fresh with 1989, and I may do that, but I want to think about it first. Before I do, I'm going to offer a posting on the 1970s dnd, because I already have it half-written. Then we'll see about these other games.

I want to be clear, though: this is not the passion I would have chosen for myself. If I could design my own life, and identify the calling of my blood--the thing that, while hiking in some random part of the world, would suddenly fill my heart and mind with a palpable compulsion--it would not be computer role-playing games. Sure, I enjoy them--immensely--but I don't enjoy enjoying them. If that makes any sense. If you don't mind that paradox, I'm glad to have you as a reader.