Sunday, September 30, 2012

Der Standard Interview

I had previously posted this in the blog's header, but a few readers pointed out that the header information doesn't appear on mobile readers or in RSS feeds.

An interview with me has appeared on the site of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. The author, Rainer Sigl, posted an English translation on his blog. As Rainer points out, the English "translation" is actually the original, so I don't mind directing people to read that instead of the original.

I want to expand upon one of my answers, which has an unfortunate typo. I meant to write, "Because so many CRPGs are set in fantasy worlds, I don't think they serve well as reflections of their times." But I accidentally left out the "don't," completely obliterating my point.

Even fantasy literature is, of course, a product of its time and myriad surrounding influences. It's hard not to see Hitler in Sauron or the trenches of World War I in the "Dead Marshes." The latter books of Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" series draw so heavily on Ayn Rand that she ought to have been credited as a co-author. I recently read The Last Rune series by Mark Anthony (I didn't think it was very good), which features several gay relationships that would have made the novels unpublishable a few decades ago.

But I see fantasy games as slightly different. Compared to novels, the plot is usually pretty threadbare, and there aren't a lot of words in them. It's much more difficult to find cultural influences on Ultima V than it is The Lord of the Rings. I'm not saying it's impossible; just more difficult. Because of this, there's little about Ultima V, other than the level of technology with which it was created, that screams "1980s!" This is why I concluded that, "Most games, especially fantasy games, tend to be fairly timeless." Contrast this with, say, Scavengers of the Mutant World, which is such a product of the Nuclear Age that it seems almost silly today. I think that this might explain why I have less of an affinity for science fiction and post-apocalyptic RPGs; they're not as "escapist" as fantasy RPGs.

I really like my answers that begin "It's just nostalgia" and "What we've lost"--particularly the second one. Playing The Magic Candle has really driven home the amount of effort that players used to have to put into gaming. Earlier today, I wandered into a sleeping god's chambers, but because I hadn't written down the chants correctly, I couldn't wake him up. No game developer would dare do something like this today. Skyrim probably wouldn't even let you into the dungeon containing the chamber until you already had the chants. Then it would just show the proper chant on the screen instead of making you type anything. You can't convince me that this is better gaming.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Magic Candle: Curse the Darkness

This is what we call a "bad sign."

If I wasn't going for a "candle" theme in all of my titles, I'd have called this one "Might, Magic, and Mushrooms," after the three tactics you need to master to defeat the Forces of Darkness (that's not my unnecessary capitalization; the game manual repeatedly uses the term). After the first few combats, you're pretty screwed if you try to rely solely on swords and arrows.

Mushrooms are the easiest to understand. There are 8 of them, but a few do things you need rarely, such as Drelin's increase in traveling speed, Loka's poison-curing ability, and Medicin's cure for disease. I burn through Sermins extremely quickly because everything you do in this game depletes energy, and the only real alternative to Sermin is to sleep all the time. For regular combat, there are four mushrooms that I have to juggle: Gonshi, Luffin, Mirget, and Nift. Intelligent use of these mushrooms makes or breaks a battle.

Nehor uses a Gonshi to get an edge in combat.

Nifts protect you against three physical attacks, and the simplest method of winning combat is to always have these in your system. They don't "stack," unfortunately, so if a single character gets hit more than three times in one round, you inevitably take damage. When my health is low, eating a Nift vies only for casting a "Shield" spell (depending on the enemy I'm facing) for priority.

Luffins increase accuracy and Mirgets increase strength--but only for one hit each. In combination, they ensure that a melee fighter does significant damage. Gonshi increase the number of combat movements by three times the normal number (although, oddly, it seems to work out to 5 a lot of the time). In a typical combat round, you might get one or two actions, so Luffins and Mirgets really have to be used with Gonshis to be effective. Without Gonshis, you waste one or two rounds just eating mushrooms. With the Gonshi, you can string things so that Action #1 is eating the Gonshi, Action #2 is eating the Mirget, Action #3 is eating the Luffin, and Actions #4 and #5 are attacking.

The neat thing is that the effects of Gonshi, Mirgets, and Luffins don't happen until you actually "use" them in combat. If you eat a Mirget, it won't go out of your system until you make a melee attack; simply shooting arrows will use up the Luffin but not the Mirget. More important, if you know a tough battle is coming up, you can load up on all the mushrooms before the battle starts and just dive right into combat during the first round instead of wasting valuable actions chomping the mushrooms. If it wasn't for the expense, I'd have a mushroom feast after every combat to prepare for the next one. I usually do, in fact, when I'm in dungeons. But the cost of mushrooms--roughly between 4 and 30 coins each, depending on type--encourages you to be economical. When you find a patch, it's a real bonanza.

Anticipating a tough battle, Giauz is hopped up on everything.

The magic system in The Magic Candle blends the "memorization" system of Dungeons & Dragons games with the "mana" system of many other games. There are 24 spells in the game, organized into 4 "books." You have to buy a book to have access to the spells within it. My wizard started with one book, and I've purchased two more since, so the only one I lack is the book of Zoxinn, which seems to be ultra-powerful, so it will likely appear later in the game.

Even after you purchase the spellbook, you have to "learn" the spells during rest periods. The time it takes to learn a spell depends on the power of the spell and your level of wizardry; currently, it takes Eflun only 13 minutes to learn "energy" (restores energy to a party member) or "pierce" (dispels magic fields) but 63 minutes to learn "resurrect." The time spent learning is time not spent sleeping, so generally after everyone wakes up fully rested, Eflun is exhausted from his studying and has to take a Sermin mushroom; it feels like this is the equivalent of college students taking amphetamines during finals week.

Eflun's spellbook with learning times and casting costs.
 
From your pool of learned spells, you then have to "recall" a specific spell to memory and finally cast it with the "magic" command. Each spell, as you can see, has an associated energy cost. Between that and learning in the first place, Eflun goes through a lot more Sermins than any other party member.

As with most games, I find that about one-fifth of the spells are useless. "Confuse" theoretically confuses monsters on patrol so they don't intercept and attack you, except a) usually you want this to happen for the experience; and b) it doesn't work on monsters directly in your path. "Energy" is obviated by cheap Sermin mushrooms; "Heal" by potions.

This is where "Pierce" comes in really handy.

But there are a few spells that are absolutely indispensable. "Pierce," "Repel," and "Walkwater" are necessary for dungeon navigation. In combat, "Shield" protects you from magic attacks and "Resurrect," if cast quickly, does what it suggests (since there's no other way that I know of to raise dead characters, the spell is vitally important). A few combat spells--"Fireball," "Fear," and "Shatter"--have saved the day for me more than once. I don't have any mass damage spells yet (those come with Zoxinn), and none of the spellbooks have any monster-summoning spells, which is too bad.

It's not quite as good as "Paralyze," but he won't attack for two rounds.

There are a couple of things you can do at the beginning of combat to prepare yourself. The "Vision" spell lets you see what enemies await you in dungeon rooms, so you can prepare accordingly. "Assess" tells you the strengths and weaknesses of the enemies you face. Outdoors, "Locate" shows you all the enemy patrols in the area.


I love that I have to cast a spell to do this instead of just,  you know, peeking in the door.

The final decision you make in combat is the deployment of party members and weapons. Each combat starts with a "pre-round" in which you scatter your party members about the combat field--but only for a few rows on your side of the screen. Thus, you have to judge the distance to the enemies (accounting for whether you have Gonshis in your system or not) and make a decision about which party member should attack which enemy, and whether it's best to charge across the battlefield with a sword or axe or to use a bow or magic.

Readying my party members for battle. Nehor, my best archer, is poised to take out a spellcaster. Sakar (with the axe) is going to charge one of the tough cyclopses and hopefully clear him out so that Giauz (above him) can drop down and shoot the other spellcaster with his bow. Min and Rexor are going to concentrate their arrows on another cyclops.

The game cycles through your characters in order, but you can change the order. Very often, for instance, I'll have a melee enemy protecting a spellcasting enemy some distance away. I'll adjust the order so a melee fighter has a chance to chop down the melee enemy before my archer starts firing at the spellcaster on the other side of the battlefield.

Successful attacks have a chance of raising the associated skill (I'm not sure if this is random or somehow accumulated). I cheer when it happens. It saves money on training.

 
Combat itself is a constant process of watching shield levels, Nift levels, stamina (hit points), energy levels, remaining spells, remaining arrows, weapon wear and tear, and other logistics, and making deployment, mushroom-eating, and spell decisions accordingly. It's rare that I can't keep ahead of physical attacks with Nifts and potions, but high-level spellcasters can wear down shields very quickly (and paralyze you regardless of whether you have a shield). For this reason, I usually concentrate attacks on spellcasters until they're dead. An exception is cyclopses, which have a way of concentrating all of their ranged physical attacks (they hurl boulders) on my wizard, wiping him out in one round regardless of his number of Nifts. The "Disappear" spell helps with this, but I often forget to memorize it.

Eflun's going to need to eat another Nift pretty soon.

One tactic involves surrounding enemies so they can't dodge. Enemies can dodge ranged attacks perpendicular to the attack and melee attacks parallel to the attacks. If you can block them on either side, you can stop them from making a successful dodge no matter how high their agility or how low your dexterity.

The mongor has nowhere to go as Nehor takes his shot

All in all, I like the logistics of combat in this game, but while they might be a little more advanced than, say, Demon's Winter or Ultima V, let's not kid ourselves: it's not Pool of Radiance. There are hardly any buffing spells (just mushrooms), no variance in the types of attacks, no sneak attacks, no monster-summoning, no initiative rolls. Enemies occur in progressive ranks of difficulty, but rarely are they different enough that you have to craft a special battle plan for specific foes. Because it takes so long to cross the battlefield, combat also lasts a long time, and when I'm trying to accomplish a specific objective, it wears on my patience a little.

I just want to say that these enemies look pretty weird.

In plot terms, the game is fairly slow-going, and I don't feel like I've accomplished as much as I'd have liked by now. After the round of professional development I chronicled last time, I got side-tracked by the dungeon Meardom (below the castle), since I had enough charisma to speak to the character who would open it, but it soon became clear that I was out of my league. I left and got back on track.

 
If you'll recall, my primary goal right now is to get access to the vault containing the Zirvanad, which details how to restore the Magic Candle. To get into the vault, I need a key carried by a white wolf that only responds to hoyam essence. The dwarves had hoyam essence but would only give it to me if I returned the Hammer of Thorin, which had been stolen by orcs and buried with their slain king, Chambur, in the dungeon Vocha. An NPC had suggested that, for some reason, I visit the desert Island of Kuskunn before heading to Vocha. I took his advice. There, I found a temple to a sun god. Another NPC had said that the temple inscriptions would be too small to read with the naked eye, but I had purchased a lens for Min to use, and using it, I found a four-word phrase needed to awaken the god when I encountered him.


Sailing from there to the Isles of Ice, I made my way to Vocha.


All dungeons require a passphrase to enter, but the orcs in the jail in Port Avur had given it to me.


Vocha wasn't terribly large--six small levels--and yet it took me a long time. I wasted a lot of time not realizing that you can camp in dungeon rooms after you clear them; I kept retreating to the surface to fix weapons and memorize spells (I needed a lot of "pierce" spells, which dispel magic barriers, and "waterwalking" spells for this one). Anyway, I ultimately found Chambur's (curiously unguarded) burial chamber and the Hammer.

Desecrating an orc tomb.

Equally important, I found a sleeping god who, awakened by the chants from his temple, increased my maximum stats.

Not to question thee, oh mighty god, but you couldn't have done better on the agility?

There were two fountains in the dungeon that subsequently raised my actual strength and dexterity stats to their new maximums. I still need to find agility and speed fountains.

This was a significant upgrade.

To get out of the dungeon and back to the mainland, I tried a teleportal chamber for the first time. A wandering wizard had told me that the combination from Vocha to Shendy was three spheres, and from there to Uberion (the starting area) was two pyramids and a cube. I can see I'll be making use of this method of traveling a lot. Better than waiting for a boat.

Teleportaling off the Isle of Shendy

Returning to Soldain with the hammer, I pleased the dwarves and was given the hoyam essence.

For wading through days of combat with horrific legions of evil and returning their priceless artifact, I got a bottle of perfume.

Now I need to find out where this white wolf hangs around. Somewhere near Phaleng, in the north, as I understand it. Judging by the map, I've explored only about 15% of the territory in the game so far.

The game map with the (rough) area I've already explored highlighted.

Some other notes:

  • Pressing "Q" while in a dungeon room causes the game to crash. I can't tell you how many times I accidentally did that after winning a battle. There was lots of swearing.

  • I found an elven maiden on the Isle of Shendy, but I didn't know what to say to her.

She wanted to know what song I wanted her to play, but "Play that Funky Music, Elf Girl" wasn't the right answer.

  • The economy is pretty good in this game, and by good, I mean difficult. Because mushrooms, spellbooks, armor, and traveling objects (pyramids, spheres, and cubes) are expensive, I really feel rewarded when I find a cache of treasure. Gems are the best way to make money, it seems--either buying them from wandering dwarves and selling them at a markup, or finding them in dungeons.

One emerald buys almost 50 Nifts.

  • One of my biggest annoyances is running out of arrows while in dungeons. Even if I load up every character with 99 of them (the maximum) before heading out, I inevitably go dry before I've finished exploring.

Min, usually only mostly useless in combat, is now entirely useless.

  • You can be ambushed while walking through dungeon corridors. I'm not sure if these ambushes are random or fixed. Sometimes my elf, with his "hunting" skill, senses them, but usually I'm taken by surprise. When ambushed, the enemy gets a round of attacks first, so this is one of the reasons I like to be loaded up on mushrooms at all times while in dungeons.

Bargs come out of nowhere.

  • There are pools in dungeons that, if you drop a pearl into them, show you a map of the level. I find them mostly useless--the levels aren't that big to begin with--so I usually just sell the pearls.

Maybe if the map stayed with you, it would be helpful, but you only see it for a minute.

Finally, I made a long video (posted to my YouTube account) illustrating various aspects of gameplay, including combat. Enjoy if that's your sort of thing:


Someone warned me that this game would last a long time, and they weren't kidding. I'm not bored yet, though! By the next time I post, I should have some more solid news on the main quest.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Magic Candle: Wax On, Wax Off

My party resorts to manual labor.
 
The Magic Candle cheats at gambling. I worked it out tonight. I'm not much of a gambler, but my business is numbers, and I've had the chance to apply them to gambling several times lately. At Harrah's in New Orleans earlier this year, I won enough money at blackjack to pay for the trip and an iPad for my wife. In Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, I encountered a casino where they apparently didn't want to pay for croupiers any more, and all of the blackjack tables were run by virtual dealers. Theoretically, it used regular casino blackjack rules, but there were all kinds of bonus bets and whatnot, and in the process of trying to analyze the whole thing, I lost over $500.

I was also, admittedly, a little distracted.
 
So this was on my mind when I returned home this week and started playing The Magic Candle. It features a basic dice game where the player with the highest roll wins. You would think the odds would thus be 50/50 (after eliminating ties, which exchange no money), and indeed on first pass, I thought they were. But I decided to analyze it more closely and I found a curious pattern. Check out my ratios at different betting levels over 30 trials each:

Betting 1 Gold Piece:
13 wins (43.3%)
13 losses (43.3%)
4 ties (13.3%)

Betting 10 Gold Pieces:
14 wins (46.7%)
11 losses (36.7%)
5 ties (16.7%)

Betting 50 Gold Pieces:
7 wins (23.3%)
19 losses (63.3%)
4 ties (13.3%)

The first two results are well within the realm of random probability--in fact, the first is suspiciously exact--but the third should only happen 1/20 times on the basis of random chance. I want to try it with more betting levels, but you know how I feel about save-scumming: I was betting real money here, and I lost most of it. I won't be able to continue the experiment until I make some back, but if any of you want to go at it and let me know the results, I'd appreciate it. I'd like to know exactly where the cutoff is where the game starts cheating, plus what happens at higher amounts (the maximum is 99).

Collecting data.
 
You want more evidence? I also recorded the actual rolls. In a random game, there should be no significant correlation between the amount bet and the resulting roll. However, the statistics show a 0.20 correlation between the amount bet and my opponent's roll, and a -0.12 correlation between the amount bet and my roll. Another way to look at it is with averages. The average roll for both of us should be around 7, but here are the actual averages at the three levels, with the opponent's given first:

1: 7.5 - 7.6
10: 6.6 - 7.1
50: 8.2 - 6.8

My conclusion: something about a higher bet influences the opponent's roll upwards but leaves the player's roll unchanged. I'll report back when I have more gold. Now, in real life, I'd report this to the NGC, but who do I report it to in Deruvia? On the other hand, maybe I'll keep it secret. If there's an amount that influences the casino to win, there's probably an amount that influences the player to win, and I want to find it.

Because gambling for money is so much more civilized than this.
 
If you're wondering why I'm so obsessed about money all of a sudden, it's because I need it. Badly. As I started exploring the areas around Keof and Bondell, combat got a lot harder, and I need better armor, a good supply of mushrooms, new spellbooks, healing potions, and training in my combat and magic skills. But after my visit to Bondell (where I dumped a lot into increasing charisma), I barely had enough to buy passage back to the mainland. Battles produce cash, of course, but it doesn't appear to me that there are many random encounters in the game. Thus, I find myself in the common CRPG paradox of needing improvements to win battles but needing battles to afford improvements.

Two of these sessions cost the last of my gold.

Thus, after returning to the mainland, I went back to the Royal Castle and dumped the 4 characters I had who didn't have a trade and enlisted two gemcutters, a metalsmith, and a carpenter (my existing character, Min, was already a tailor). I took them to Port Avur and put them to work at their respective trades, earning between 5 and 7 gold pieces per hour--24 hours a day.

Oh, yes. I'm sure you'll be a great...uh...adventurer.

Giauz, meanwhile, lacking a trade, kept adventuring while his colleagues slaved away in their sweatshops.



After three days, I had about 2,500 coins, which I figured was enough for a decent stash of 'shrooms and gear. I returned to the castle, sent the manual laborers packing, rejoined with my real party, and bought a bunch of stuff at the Port Avur general store. This was facilitated by the higher charisma Min had achieved by studying with the halfling version of Dale Carnegie in Bondell.

"How to win friends and influence shopkeepers."

Concerning the main quest, between my visits to Port Avur, Soldain, Keof, and Bondell, this is what I've been able to discover:

  1. To restore the Magic Candle, I need to find what it says in the Zirvanad.
  2. The Zirvanad is stored in a vault in the caverns below Lymeric.
  3. To get into the vault, I need a star-shaped key carried by a White Wolf.
  4. To summon the White Wolf, I need hoyam essence.
  5. The dwarves in Soldain have hoyam essence.
  6. The dwarves will only give it to me if I return the Hammer of Thorin.
  7. The Hammer of Thorin was stolen by orcs so that their chief, Chambur, could be buried with it.
  8. Chief Chambur is buried in Vocha, an orc town/dungeon on the Isles of Ice.
  9. To raise the gates of Vocha, I need three words: HOKDE, KAFLTH, POKANDAJO.
  10. A dwarf suggested I visit the uninhabited island of Kuskunn before going to Vocha.

Stumblilng on Dermagud.

So it appears that my next quest-related step was to take a boat to Kuskunn and then head out to Vocha. However, I decided to engage in some character development first by finding and exploring the dungeon of Dermagud. I finally found it, but I haven't been able to get very far.

This is where a pick comes in handy.
 
The rooms have tough creatures, there are a lot of traps--including an annoying "time" trap that burns about half a day--and there's a section of corridor blocked by snakes. You might imagine that I could slash through them, but according to the manual, the "repel" spell "is the only way to resolve conflicts with the poisonous snakes that infest some dungeon corridors."

These are some tough snakes.

There were several times that I was glad I learned dwarven:

"Two steps south, four steps west, six steps south, dig." There were three diamonds there.

A few stray notes:

  • The counter is freaking me out a bit. Yes, I still have over 950 days, but it's a constant reminder that I can't dither around and waste time. I don't think there will be any more manual labor sessions.
  • In an amusing and slightly annoying way, you often encounter the same NPC multiple times on the road.You'll speak to him, exit the conversation, take a step, and there he is again. Since you don't find out the NPC's name until you "greet" him, and because so many bits of lore and quest-related material are dependent on talking to NPCs, I feel like I need to stop and check every time, just to be sure.

I know. We've met 17 times already on this same stretch of road.
 
  • My dwarf apparently doesn't like traveling the waves. This prevents him from sleeping, repairing, or doing anything useful during boat trips.
 
  • I learned the hard way to set a watch while sleeping outdoors. You get ambushed otherwise.
  • In past postings, I've noted that like in Ultima V, NPCs keep schedules and are sometimes not available, but unlike in Ultima V, the NPCs do not move; they simply disappear when they're not around. However, the game compensates for this a bit by having multiple NPCs tell you basically the same things and give you the same clues. Thus, missing an NPC isn't as critical in this game as in both Ultima IV and Ultima V.

This is the second person to tell me this.
 
  • I keep forgetting to "repair" my weapons while camping, which means they have a chance of breaking in combats.
  • Based on your comments and the evidence in the game, there appear to be no more weapons than what you can simply buy at the shop. No magic weapons, no special artifacts. Since better weapons require more strength, I need to find a way to increase strength before I can improve this aspect of my characters.

It's a rare CRPG in which my greatest aspiration is to wield a "great axe."

  • I had a good laugh at this pair of encounters in Keof:




I have just enough for the Sabano spellbook I need for the "repel" spell, so I'm going back to Soldain to buy it. Then we'll see if I can finish clearing out Dermagud.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Magic Candle: In the Wind

The lands of Deruvia are large and varied.

Going to The Magic Candle directly from Bloodwych throws into sharp relief the difference between these two fundamental categories of CRPGs. We call the latter the "dungeon crawl," and its virtue is its relative simplicity. You get a backstory--quite frankly, it can be almost anything--and then you're released into a terrain limited in both geography and plot. The point of the dungeon crawl is hack, slash, heal, move forward. No one fills a journal playing Dungeon Master. Please trust that I'm  not saying this in a negative way. There are times that such a game is exactly what you want.

I don't know that the other type of game even has a specific name, but it's what you get with Ultima IV and V, The Elder Scrolls, Might & Magic, and The Magic Candle: games in which you don't simply map, but discover. While I'm always up for a good dungeon crawl, exploring a new CRPG land that really demands exploring is one of the better experiences of being a CRPG addict. When you enter a new level of a dungeon crawl, you wonder how tough the monsters will be and how many navigation obstacles the developers will throw at you. When you enter a new town of...whatever you want to call this type of game...you wonder who you'll meet, what they'll say, what kind of quests they'll have for you. It's a wonder that we even think of them as the same genre.

Over the last couple days, The Magic Candle showed me a few more of its innovations and a lot more of its lore. I still don't have quite enough experience to give you a thematic posting on combat or magic, so I thought I'd just recount my experiences in chronological order and we'll see what unfolds. Next time, I might be able to organize the posting around something.

Giauz prepares to die.
 
At the end of my last entry, I had resolved to walk overland to Soldain, just south of the Royal Castle, where I had a number of people to meet. Fairly soon, I discovered that heading to Soldain in The Magic Candle is not like walking from Britain to Trinsic in Ultima IV; Deruvia is a lot more dangerous than Britannia. After getting bloodied several times by the Forces of Darkness, I turned around and went back to Port Avur to spend my last bit of gold on a bigger arsenal and brawnier characters.

It turned out there wasn't much I could do about weapons. Most of my characters already had the best weapons that their strength allowed them to carry. One exception was my ranger, Nehor, who was able to buy a "brom bow" (I have no idea what "brom" is). Thus, I decided to concentrate on a little training and a bigger supply of mushrooms. Checking my cash (which had been bolstered by a few successful battles and a little gambling), I found that I had just enough to one day of combat training for everyone. I split my party into three groups--three melee fighters, two archers, and the wizard--and sent them to respective schools.
 
Lest you think I'm rich, this was before I remembered to split up the gold.
 
It turned out the wizard didn't have quite enough...
 
 
...so I sent him to the inn to sleep and memorize spells. He was sad.


With the money I had left, I invested in every mushroom I could afford, focusing primarily on Sermins, which restore energy, and Gonshi, which increase combat movement speed. I couldn't afford much by this point, but he training had done its job.

In my mind, I heard, "Huh-Huh-HOO-ah!"

My party reunited at the front gates (I really am enjoying this party-splitting thing) and I headed out.

"Hey, Eflun! How did your training go?...Why are you looking at me like that?"
 
Bolstered by my training, mushrooms, and Delmoko's tip that I could pre-cast magic shield spells on my characters, I returned to my journey to Soldain. The game is nice about giving you an image of a skull and crossbones just before you're about to stumble on a pack of enemies. Inevitably, this happens in a chokepoint that you can't get around without some magical ability to cross mountains.
 
 
I had to fight six battles on the way to Soldain, and not one of them was easy. I had assumed that Gonshi mushrooms increased movement speed throughout combat, but they only last for one round, so I can't blow through them too fast.
 
Using a mushroom. And to answer the obvious question: sometimes he gets cold at night.
 
The biggest combat difficulty was the Zorlim spellcaster that always appeared in the back of the orcs, wolvingas, or whatever other footsoldiers occupied the front ranks. I lined up my archers and tried to take him out as quickly as possible (it generally took to long to get someone in melee range), but he usually had the chance to blast the shields and stamina (i.e., hit points) of a few of my people. Annoyingly, they just vanish when they die and don't leave any treasure.

Also on the way down the coast, I ran into a new kind of encounter and interface:
 
 
Fortunately, I had a rope:

Was this really the safest way to do this? Eflun is pretty old.
 
At length, I arrived at Soldain, home of the dwarves, and began exploring. It was a small town. Other NPCs had primed me with the names of several doors to knock on (as I mentioned previously, you can't just barge into houses; you have to know who lives there), and I learned a little more about the hoyam essence I need to lure the White Wolf who carries the key to the vault containing the Zirvanad which tells how to restore the Magic Candle.
 
 
But here's where there was another neat thing: I had been told to visit a scholar named Rabbonkar, and he offered me "knowledge of the dwarfish tongue." I would have guessed my dwarf already knew that, but whatever. I expected to get some sort of attribute note, but instead I got an actual list of words in dwarfish. Clearly, these will be useful for some puzzle in the future, so I dutifully recorded them in The Book of Flame and Wax.
 
When I see "YOZU UMEN GRU DAHAR," I'll know to turn around.
 
I had to wait until 18:00 to enter the council hall and visit with the dwarf councilors, who told me they'd be happy to give me some hoyam essence if I would return the Hammer of Thorin, an artifact of the king who ruled the dwarves during the age in which Dreax was imprisoned. It had recently been stolen from Soldain, probably by orcs, and one of the dwarves thought I should ask the orcs imprisoned in Port Avur. Dammit, I just came from there!

Isn't that racial profiling?

I was going to have to return to Port Avur to get passage to Keof--my next major stop--anyway, but on the way back I thought I'd try to find the dungeon of Dermagud, where a god named Valon is rumored to sleep, and to which I had just gotten the password needed to get in. I don't really understand the "gods" issue yet. Apparently, there are eight of them, they're all sleeping, and I need passwords (or "prayers") to wake them up. I'm not sure if the places they're sleeping are the same as "temples," or whether the passwords to get in are the same as their "prayer words."

Dermagud was said to be an old dwarven mine in the mountains of Uberion, through which I had to pass on the way from the Royal Castle to Soldain. Since Soldain is a city of dwarves, I went with the idea that it might be close to the city and started to explore the mountain range just north. Anyway, I never found Dermagud, but I did find, guarded by some evil thugs, a Sermin mushroom patch. Warned by Petrus, I picked, but not too greedily. My understanding is that the mushrooms only grow back if you leave a few.
 
And I just learned the term "mycologist" today.
 
My plan now is to head back to Port Avur and see if I can get a bead on the Hammer of Thorin, then take the boat to Keof, where a monk knows more about the vault containing the Zirvanad. Finding the Zirvanad seems to be my biggest main quest at this point. I also want to get to the halfling village Bondell (also, I think, reachable by ship from Port Avur) so I can train up my charisma, but I think I need to grind up some gold first. All my explorations so far have taken place in a tiny sliver of the northwest corner of the map.
 
Lest I give you the impression that it's all roses, there are a few things I don't like about the game. Movement is extremely slow, both because of the combats but also because there's literally a pause after you press the movement key before your characters actually move. These add up. I find it very easy to accidentally waste a turn in combat because I think I'm still moving one character when it's switched to another. NPC dialogue is a bit annoying in that every time the NPC tells you something useful, it kicks you out of the dialogue and you have to re-initiate it. Since each party member can only carry 99 of a lot of things (mushrooms, arrows, food), it's difficult to equalize everyone's stuff by having one character pool it and then divide it. The sound is piercing and awful. Most of all, I don't like having to continuously worry about each character's "energy," which depletes every movement, combat action, and spell (though, to be fair, the Sermins help with that).
 
But this is also a game that has left me eager to see how the plot unfolds and palpably nervous every time I step into new territory. It is, more importantly, the first game since Wasteland--almost a year ago--that I'm playing because I want to, and not because it's on a list. This wick is going to burn for a while.