|The dragons weren't quite this big in combat.|
I guess most players go to Dracandros first. That I saved him for last (before Tyranthraxus, anyway, who you have to save for last) meant that I was a little overpowered for him, and this was reflected in the comparative ease with which I blasted through his tower and slew not only him but an entire horde of his dragon allies.
If Dracandros wasn't invented solely for this game, I'm not sure where he came from. He's presented as a Red Wizard of Thay--a cabal of notoriously paranoid, evil, traitorous, and slightly insane rulers from a kingdom far to the east. I don't know of any CRPGs set there, although Edwin from Baldur's Gate was another representative.
From the intelligence I'd collected through tavern tales and journal entries, I knew the following about Dracandros:
- The Red Wizards had expelled him for being too ambitious, which is really saying something.
- He's obsessed with dragons.
- Dragons have been seen flying south for weeks.
- He considers himself an arch-rival of Elminster of Shadowdale, and thus fashioned his personal crest to look like Elminster's.
- He seemed to be plotting to spur dragons to lay waste to the Dalelands in another Dragonflight (the first Dragonflight was a mass attack by dragons on the Dalelands that had occurred some years prior; I think it was a D&D module). One of his subjects was training displacer beasts to assist in the devastation (I destroyed them outside Tilverton).
The adventure began in a southern village alternately called Hap and Haptooth. Shortly after entry, I was joined by a Turmish wizard named Akabar Bel Akash--yet another character from Azure Bonds. It was another sign of my comparative late arrival that Akabar was only Level 4 and had only 15 hit points. After a few battles with him in my party, I decided to take him back to Essembra to train up, but he ditched me the moment I left Hap.
I didn't shed a lot of tears. Akabar was a walking disaster. His AI wasn't smart enough to keep him from casting fireballs or stinking clouds in the middle of the party. After a few such fiascoes, I forced him to burn all area-effect spells in camp and only memorize things like "magic missile." I also gave him a bunch of extra Darts of the Hornets' Nest I was carrying, which he took with him when he disappeared.
|Akabar fireballs the entire party to take care of one Drow--who wasn't even affected.|
Back to Hap. The terrified villagers were huddled in buildings, hiding from hordes of Drow invading the streets. The map wasn't large--just 8 x 16--but I had to push through several Drow patrols before encountering their leader, an efreet, in a warehouse.
|I like the icon for the efreet.|
After I killed them all, the village returned to normal life, and I found a map to a nearby set of caves.
|Role-playing an evil party must suck in this game.|
The caves were also infested by Drow, although not all of them hostile. I still don't really have any idea what the Drow were doing here. Their presence in Hap suggests they're allies of Dracandros, but in the caves I encountered Silk, a Drow woman calling herself a Swanmay, who wanted help infiltrating Dracandros's tower and collecting parts of dragons.
|Did she just pick the first female in the party, or was there something about Goldeneye being a ranger?|
I assume the Swanmays take greater import in a section of Azure Bonds that I never reached. I'm a bit confused about them. My understanding is that they appear in the D&D Monster Manual as a kind of were-swan, but with an odd and benign form of lycanthropy transmitted through tokens and accepted by choice. In other contexts, though, they seem to be more of an adventuring group. The Drow woman said she was the "leader" of the Swanmays "since Kith and Belinda disappeared on the Great Glacier," and I'm not sure what bit of lore this is referencing. In any event, they seemed to make Goldeneye, my ranger, one of them. After they gave her a marking, several of the Drow patrols stepped aside for us. I also had the option to avoid combat with large groups of comparatively friendly Drow mages and clerics, which I took, less because I was afraid of them and more for role-playing reasons.
At one point, I went down a passage and a bunch of Drow collapsed it, screaming that "none shall reach the divine city," which suggests that the caverns are just an extension of the Underdark. Did some of them partner with Dracandros just because he was their neighbor?
The network of caves culminated in a chamber occupied by a dracolich named Crimdrac who gave me the opportunity to surrender. I always wonder if people actually play that way. They reach a dracolich and say, "Oh, thank god. He's giving me the chance to surrender. I was worried I was going to have to fight him!" I like to think that if you say "Yes," the game just dumps you to the DOS prompt and deletes itself from the computer.
I used the same strategy that I use on all dragons: diffuse my party around him so that he can't hit too many characters with one breath attack. Anyway, he was extremely vulnerable to "magic missile," and I had three characters capable of casting it, so he didn't last more than a round.
When we entered the tower, we encountered Dracandros and he immediately used the bonds to freeze us and haul us up to the top of his tower. There, his plot became somewhat clearer. A mass of black dragons had assembled, and Dracandros used the bonds to compel us to attack one. It turned out to be an illusion, but his point was made: my party was dangerous to dragons. He told them that we were pawns of Elminster, who planned to "destroy all dragonkind in retaliation for the Dragonflight."
The dragons weren't convinced, and they forced Dracandros to release my bonds to see what I did on my own. At this point, I had a choice: talk, flee, attack Dracandros, and attack the dragons. It was a tough decision. On the one hand, the black dragons were evil. On the other, if I attacked them, they'd think Dracandros was telling the truth. On yet another, they'd only think that for a few minutes. Other factors in the decision included a) my characters were already very close to their max levels, and thus did not need the experience from the battle; b) I didn't know how many there were from the description; and c) what kind of sissy adventurer doesn't take the opportunity to fight an entire brigade of dragons? I attacked.
|I really liked the role-playing options, though. What would have happened if I'd talked?|
The battle was disappointingly easy, even considering that I was supposed to be here several levels ago. Each black dragon had 48 hit points, which took exactly two "Fireball" spells or a few fighter attacks to deplete. I confess that I forgot to count exactly how many there were, but I think it was somewhere around 18. My two mages cleared out enormous swaths of them. The only real danger was their acid breath attack, but the battle started with my characters out of the range of most of them, and the ones that survived my initial "Fireball" onslaught only used their breath attacks a few times. Fairly quickly, I had defeated them all and earned about 11,000 experience points per character for the battle. The game gave me the opportunity to carve out one of their hearts for the Swanmays.
|If all of my characters have more than 50 hit points at Level 10, shouldn't black dragons have thousands of them?|
After this, I had to battle my way down the tower. As most of this section, this was easy, pitting me mostly against Drow and owlbears (one of many D&D monsters whose conception must certainly have involved psychotropics), plus a few fixed encounters with wyverns. There were some nice treasure hoards containing rings, gauntlets, ioun stones, and other equipment that it would have been nice to have had in Zhentil Keep and Yulash.
|The title of the paper was "Avoiding Tower Traps."|
One interesting encounter involved a mage with a "Sphere of Annihilation." He offered a game by which he and one of my mages would "concentrate" on the sphere and try to drive it towards each other and see who survived or chickened out first. I won with hardly any effort; I assume it had to do with my high luck score.
|At least he wasn't chicken.|
I encountered Dracandros in his tower's courtyard, and he immediately attacked me with an efreet army. Again, the battle was easy. I just had to stop him from casting long enough to kill him. He was oddly untargetable with direct spells like "magic missile," but he was still vulnerable to area effect spells like "ice storm"--and so were the efreets.
|I have no idea what was in the bag. Maybe lamps to summon all the efreets?|
As I exited the tower, Silk appeared and gave me a load of gold for the dragon's heart. Her little address to Goldeneye was one of the few times that the game uses your character names (one of the few times in any CRPG to date, actually), and one of the few times outside combat that your party actually feels like individual characters. I thought it was a nice touch.
|The 1980s influence on Drow hair is fairly obvious.|
A few lessons from today's gameplay:
1. The series continues to be strong in role-playing options. I'm not saying they're at the level of some modern games, but it's nice to have choices even when the choice is obvious. Surrender to the dracolich or attack? Accept the mark of the Swanmays or refuse? Surrender your gold to random Drow patrols or brace for combat? Explore a lava-filled room or play it safe? This is the first part of the game where I might have done something authentically different if role-playing an evil party. I wouldn't call the game enormously replayable for this reason, but I do wonder what would have happened if I'd chosen different options, especially with the dragons atop the tower.
|That the answer was obvious doesn't make the choice less welcome.|
2. I'm eternally grateful to those of you who convinced me to keep a multi-classed fighter/thief. Despite his multi-class, Karnov is the most powerful fighter I have, and his backstab ability is just awesome. I probably burn more hit points trying to engineer him into a backstab position than if I just had him attack normally. Unfortunately, my insistence on keeping him in light armor means that he ends combats unconscious more than any other character.
3. The Drow carried some fairly powerful armor and weapons, but these crumble to dust when you take them into sunlight (i.e., leave the town for the wilderness). I'm glad I didn't replace any of my existing armor with Drow armor.
4. I can't tell you how happy it makes me when enemies line up for a lightning bolt.
4. I can't tell you how happy it makes me when enemies line up for a lightning bolt.
5. The game has the same essential non-linearity as Pool of Radiance, but with relatively difficulty levels attempting (and failing, in my case) to force you on a more linear path. If you were to map a path through the game and its major stages, this is what it would look like:
Which brings us to the end of the game, and the final battles with Tyranthraxus. When I returned to the Standing Stone after leaving Hap, the "gray-robed figure" who had been giving me advice threw back his hood to reveal himself as Tyranthraxus.
|Did my party not notice something odd with the shape of the hood?|
He bade me meet him at Myth Drannor for our final showdown. Next posting, we'll see what happens.