Sunday, January 6, 2013

Curse of the Azure Bonds: A Pile of Filth

I have that question about a lot of gods.

Yulash was a bloody nightmare. There were way too many random encounters, and I actually had to spread the playing that makes up this entry over three days because I got sick of combat every 45 seconds.

The back story in the manual indicated that the forces of Zhentil Keep and Hillsfar (the latter called the Red Plumes) were at war over Yulash, and indeed when we arrived we found a falling-down city with squads of Zhentarim and Red Plumes at every street corner. The Red Plumes seemed to have the upper hand for the moment, as they greeted us and had cordoned off a "safe" section of the city. I had the option to be rude to them and thus make an enemy of everyone in the city, but I was nice and got permission to use their barracks to rest and heal.

Moander in the flesh.
 
Our purpose for being in Yulash was to find the cultists of Moander, one of the three remaining holders of our bonds. According to the Forgotten Realms wiki, the elves battled and sealed Moander (the god of rot and corruption) from the material plane some centuries ago, but since then, his cultists have been trying fervently to bring him back. The unwitting participation of Alias and her party in one of these resurrections makes up a major part of the plot of Azure Bonds, the novel on which the game was partly based. Alias and her friends were able to destroy the god's avatar, and the cultists were back to square one. Apparently, that's where my party comes in.

Exploring the city of Yulash was a test of patience. Every three or four steps, we encountered:

  • Cultists of Moander, who generally shied away and fled (I later found out why).
  • Zhentarim warriors, mages, and priests, who were just as difficult, if not more so, as in Zhentil Keep. The mages were mostly immune to magic, making it hard to damage them before they could cast spells.

A typical Zhent squad.
 
  • Packs of Red Plumes. They were generally friendly, but some of them had clearly been scarred by the war and saw my party as a threat.
  • Looters, who either fought us or picked our pockets.

There were a few light role-playing options here.

  • Plant-based creatures such as shambling mounds and vegepygmies. The vegepygmies were a joke, but the shamblers were tough melee creatures, immune to many magical attacks, and prone to multiple attacks per round against my party. I found that "Hold Monster" worked tolerably well against them, but we only had two or three of those memorized at any given time.
  • Some kind of pit or wall trap, some of which my party members were able to detect and avoid.

I knew I had a thief for a reason.

Late in the map, we encountered a group of shambling mounds dragging the body of a priest but gingerly avoiding a wand that he carried. After we killed them, the wand turned out to be a "Wand of Defoliation." It's an unusual item for D&D in that it a) required no identification, and b) casts a spell that otherwise doesn't exist in the mage or priest grimoires.


After probably the longest time I've ever spent mapping a 16 x 16 area, I found the entrance to the "Pit of Moander." As with the Tilverton sewers, the developers took what normally would have been one 16 x 16 square and made two 8 x 16 levels on top of each other. The moment we entered, a cultist, after calling us "the chosen ones," conveniently collapsed the entrance behind us. The cultists otherwise stayed out of our way for the initial explorations.

My party starts to question their careers as adventurers.

We soon came across two NPCs finishing off some cultists and shambling mounds. They were Alias and Dragonbait, the primary protagonist of Azure Bonds and her saurian companion. They joined us for the rest of our time in the pit.

I didn't realize until they joined that the game doesn't otherwise provide NPCs like Pool of Radiance's hirelings.

There was a bit of discussion a few weeks ago on whether I should read Azure Bonds before or after playing the game. There doesn't seem to have been any good way to do it. The book undoubtedly spoils aspects of the game, but the game also spoils the book. In a journal entry in the game, Alias talks about her history and the fact that she's a construct given false memories by her creator--a major plot twist of the book. Alias's creators had bonded her the same way that my party was bonded, but they weren't exactly the same organizations. We shared the Fire Knives and the cult of Moander, but her other bonders were an evil mage named Cassana, a lich named Zrie Prakis, and a beholder-looking demon named Phalse.

I don't know where I got the idea, but I had this impression that Dragonbait turned out to be an accidental tourist from the Dragonlance universe, but he's not. He's just a member of a rarely-seen Forgotten Realms race called Saurials. In a campaign setting in which the most dedicated elves, halflings, and dwarves aren't allowed to be paladins, a miniature dinosaur somehow lacks any such restrictions.

I hope Mazzy Fentan never finds out about this.

They were both mostly useless. In battle, they hung back and used missile weapons exclusively and weren't very good with them. But they did have a few comments about the area as we explored, including the odd deference with which the cultists were treating me.

They needed me alive.

A journal entry found in the hands of a dead Zhentil Keep messenger suggested that the cult had betrayed the alliance of the five groups that bonded us; in fact, the cultists were clearly planning to kill the party before the other bonders could make use of us. We finally encountered Mogion, the high priestess of Moander, in her temple. She invoked the bonds to freeze us (and, conveniently, summoned plants to ensnare Alias and Dragonbait) until she completed a ritual that somehow used the party's life force to open a gate for Moander to cross into the plane.

Only Level 10, and I'm already killing a god.

The ritual fortunately caused the bonds to fade, so the party attacked the cultists and three "Bits o' Moander" that managed to make it through the portal. The bits had plantlike characteristics--they seemed to just be large shambling mounds--and were thus vulnerable to the Wand of Defoliation. It was a tough battle, but we were ultimately victorious. The cultists had a good treasure cache behind the altar, including a map to a secret exit.

Unfortunately, my victory put the entire base on high alert, and we had to wade through several combats, with no safe resting places, all the way back to the exit. There, we encountered a group of priests, mages, and shambling mounds much tougher than the "boss" battle we had fought earlier. It took me three tries to win.

Like so many occasions, this one calls for a fireball.

Alias and Dragonbait took their leave upon exiting, and apparently Zhentil Keep won the war despite my having turned their city into a chaotic ruin.


We returned to a town and prepared to assail the final enemy whose whereabouts we knew: the mage Dracandros, somewhere around the village of Hap.

In Pool of Radiance, I extensively praised the combat system, and I still think it's one of the better ones I've encountered in CRPGs. The same basic mechanics hold through all of the Gold Box games, which is a definite positive about playing them.

That said, there are a few subtle differences between the earlier game and Curse of the Azure Bonds. It isn't the mechanics that have changed so much as the enemies. A game with higher-level foes requires more complex programming of special attacks. Pool of Radiance mostly had enemies who simply swung weapons or shot arrows, with a rare magic user or priest capable of low-level spells. Curse has enemies with a greater variety of spells, resistances, and special attacks. The party members, of course, have the same things, as well as a greater variety of magic items to use. These new variables significantly ramp up the tactical challenge. In the screen above, for instance, I'm facing 10 visible cultists, all of whom have the ability to cast "Hold Person." I have to figure out how to remove their threat early in the round before they can start casting, which involves weighing the possibility that my spells will fail and deciding exactly what gambles to take. Tactical questions might include:

  • If the enemy has archers, should my mage cast "Fireball" and run the risk of getting hit with an arrow while she prepares the spell, or should she cast something like "Stinking Cloud" or "Magic Missile" that goes instantly?
  • Should I use my priest to cast "Hold Person" on as may cultists as possible, or should he delay to the end of the round to cast "Dispel Magic" on any party member held by a priest's spell?
  • The cultists are all lined up and perfect fodder for a lightning bolt. But to get in place, my mage will have to run away from an enemy adjacent to her and thus run the risk of getting attacked while fleeing. She'll also be in a very vulnerable position after the lightning bolt. Is it worth it?
  • Should my fighters start attacking the cultists in the front row, and reduce the number of cultists who can cast spells in the first round? Or should they delay until my priests have held a number of them, so they can take them down in one blow?

Naturally, I regard greater tactical complexity as a positive. But it also comes with some negatives. Simply put, there are times in which the game's AI is not up to the new variables it has to juggle. As we saw in the beholder battles in the comments to my last posting, enemies are too dumb to follow you around a corner. Enemies with special attacks, like the medusa's petrifying gaze, don't use them after they've moved in a round. Spellcasters always burn their best spells right away, even if they don't have a viable target. If you stop a spellcaster from casting during a round, he'll grab his melee weapon and charge your front ranks no matter how ill-equipped he is as a melee fighter. Enemies never heal each other, or themselves, never use the wands, potions, or other special items you find on their bodies after battle, and only rarely effectively use buffing spells. These deficiencies weren't as stark in Pool of Radiance simply because hardly any foes had such options.

I'll post more extensively about combat later, but one more note for now: I don't know what it is, but all my healing spells suck. I have three levels: "Cure Light Wounds," "Cure Serious Wounds," and "Cure Critical Wounds," but I'll be damned if I can see any difference in their effects. The highest is supposed to heal 6-27 hit points, but I don't think I've ever seen it go higher than 10. Similarly, my "Potions of Extra Healing" routinely heal only 1-4 hit points. That makes them essentially useless in combat.

57 comments:

  1. That monster paladin has a CHA of 4, too...

    NPCs work best as archers. They just get themselves killed or get in the way if they go into melee. I use them to dispatch held or gagging monsters so my other characters don't have to.

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    1. Yes, I guess charisma didn't become important to paladin until the third edition.

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    2. No, it was! In all Gold Box games, generating a Paladin guarantees 17 or 18 charisma. It was an original rule.

      You want to argue Charisma vs. Comeliness, then that's another issue...

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    3. The idea with non-human Paladins is generally that they are very charismatic to their own species, but can still have a very low charisma attribute to the player races. Although there's nothing saying they couldn't be charismatic to all of the above in some cases.

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    4. Because what's charismatic to a race that lives 5000 years inside the earth making tunnels is the same for the equivalent of cockroaches (humans) and also the same for eternal, dainty forest spirits. It's the usual colonialist biases underneath d&d's hood. Not that I want to blow it out of proportion, Charisma mostly means 'number of followers' in the early editions, but still, not buying the 'inspiring saurian to saurians, but yucky to good-aligned humanoids and humans' explanation.

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  2. Yulash is a _warzone_, so no wonder it's a nightmare of random encounters. You really don't have to explore everything. IMO it's better role playing to just head straight for the Pit, following the map provided by the Red Plumes commander (at least I think it was him).

    Zhentil mages are not immune to magic, but they are buffed with one of the Globe of Invulnerability spell, amongst others. Cone of Cold should work well against them. The screenshot actually shows a perfect situation for Cone of Cold, unless they also have the Fire Shield spells that protects against Cold (I don't remember the details).

    You can control the behaviour of the NPCs. Equip missiles if you want them to hang back and use missile weapons. Unequip missiles if you want them to charge mindlessly into melee, disregarding any Stinking Clouds you may have cast.

    I agree about the poor AI. It's easily the weakest aspect of the Gold Box games, and one of the main reasons I think the Infinity Engine games are superior.

    BTW, one of the scariest monsters in the Pit IMO were the Giant Slugs. The could spit acid and do up to 72 damage.

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    1. I did get the map entry, but that wasn't any guarantee that there wasn't some interesting or important encounter in one of the off-map areas. I felt I had to explore everything. If I'd known what I know now, of course, just would have made a beeline for the pit.

      I did encounter the acid slugs several times. In many ways, they were a lot like this game's dragons: capable of devastating damage, but easily slain in one or two rounds.

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  3. Huh, that would be an odd bug in the healing spells. Psudorandom numbers aren't hard to generate, and they should have just copied the code from the damage spells.

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    1. The game engine does use the same number generator.

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    2. Yeah, I think I was just experiencing a bunch of bad luck. Later in the game, the healing spells started to work a little better.

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  4. Another thing: Wands of Fireballs and Necklases of Missiles are great for insat-disprupting large numbers of enemy spell casters. They do less damage than the Fireball spell, but it's a fail proof method.

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    1. True. I used up the necklace (of which I've only found one) early on. I just found a wand of fireballs for the first time tonight. It's too bad that the magic shops don't sell them, but I suppose that would unbalance the game.

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  5. I thought Shambling Mounds were near-mindless creatures. I found it odd that they would know to stay away from that wand. I actually have a Shambling Mound figure that I found long ago. It doesn't have any articulation - it's just a hunk of rubber. It's pretty cool-looking though.

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    1. This is completely speculative, and my D&D 2nd ed. lore is lacking, but could the mounds not simply react instinctivly to defoliating effects that leak from the wand? To be sure, if they are truly, completely without sensing or decisionmaking capabilities this would be impossible for them. Puppy can't shy away from fire hurting his snout if puppy lacks a brain. Of course, brainless puppies are another matter entirely.

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    2. I can't find a 1st or 2nd edition Monster Manual (I have a 1st edition one around here somewhere, but I can't find it). However, in 3rd edition they have int 7, where human average is 10, with a normal range of 8-12. Half-orcs are normally 8, but can range down to 6.

      They are listed in the intelligent monsters section of the 2nd edition Monsterous Manual (I found a table of contents.)

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    3. In short, be watchful of that hunk of rubber, Amy ;-)

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    4. Oops! No wonder I can't find it now. Maybe it made a den under my bed...?

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  6. When will the bad guys learn that it is always a bad ideas to involve PC:s in your schemes?

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  7. These games seem like just the kind of thing a Kickstarter campaign would be good for...just as with all the other old games that have been redone. Four interconnected games with better AI and graphics, (hopefully) new storyline, and many fond memories from older players for the nostalgia.
    It worked for Baldur's Gate! (these ones would need an new engine, though)

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  8. I would say that the combat tactics of the enemies do improve in later versions of the engine. Mages, for example, will frequently use darts and stay at a distance when they run out of spells or get hit instead of running into combat. And monsters will use their special abilities after moving.

    It's minor things, but you will definitely notice an improvement as you go.

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  9. This reminds me of the beginning of the Buck Rogers gold box game, where it began in the middle of an invasion. What was really cool was that allied soldiers were also running around, fighting the enemy. It really felt like a war.

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  10. I'd would be interesting to debate religion with a woman sporting such a generous cleavage window.

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  11. I usually put Alias and Dragonbait in the front ranks. They usually survived with defensive tactics and careful use of spells.

    But as you pointed out, the fighting after the boss fight is much harder and yes reloading was in order for me too.

    One reason I would go to Dracandos first is so one of my female characters could join the Swanmays. This impresses the Commander at Yulash. Also I would target Zhentil clerics and mages with missiles or ice storm to block casting. Missle carrying infantry is a necessity in the Gold Box from this time on. I think Thieves can use short bow in COAB.

    Mogion is the most reprehensible of the enemies you face. Alias is correct about her religion. In POD you will battle these jerks again. I won't say where. Its pretty trippy.

    Lots of thanks
    JJ

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    1. I used "ice storm" a lot, too, but I only had two or three slots for it, and since there's no safe place to rest in the ruins, I was constantly trucking back and forth between the ruins and the barracks, usually with a pile of random encounters both ways. Sometimes I wouldn't even get back to where I'd last been mapping before I'd exhausted my spells on random encounters.

      I guess my big problem with this area is that it never stopped the random encounters the way that some areas do. In Dracandros's tower, the beholder caves, the sewers, and so on, once you'd faced 10 or 12 random encounters, they went away, and you only got the fixed ones. This map just kept 'em coming.

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    2. This reminds me of your early Wizardry posts. It seems in Yulash you are in that economic mode where you have to ration spells and missles based on your distance from the barracks. I am having the same problem right now in Wizardry 7. I can only get by with an alchemist who has a load of magical "crap" (mostly wands and powders) to throw at random parties so that she doesn't waste spells. More and more these games seem like another exercise in logistics. I might just go back and play Avalon Hill's Stalingrad.

      The limit on random encounters reminds me of the slums in POR. I wonder if that is a standard feature for gold box dungeons, albiet suspended for Yulash. Hmmmm... Yulash, the Stalingrad of the Dalelands.

      Thanks again.

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    3. Yup, most of the Gold Box games have limited amounts of random encounters in "dungeons". Which is one of the reasons why I love them. As much as I like the combat system it still gets very tedious fighting the same enemies every sixth step. For Yulash it makes sense, though, but even here CoAB shows it's class by having at least three different types of encounters. Most areas in Gateway to Savage Frontier (my least favourite of the fantasy Gold Box game) only have one type.

      BTW, I played Wiz 7 some months ago. That is one massive game, and at times quite brutal.

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    4. For me, for some years, Wizardry 7 was the summit of CRPGs. Brutal is a kind word for a game whose main advice is to "save and resume" before entering any room. Still I like the plot and character options in the game.

      I played Treasures of the Savage Frontier and that one did introduce one new facet: reinforcements - for both the party and the enemy. That could make major changes from time to time. It was also the first CRPG I played with a romantic angle.

      BTW Octavianus, have you ever seen "I Claudius"?

      Thanks
      JJ

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    5. JJ, I liked Wiz 7 too, but not as much as I did Wiz 6. Wiz 6 had better story and atmosphere, I think, but Wiz was more unlinear and dynamic. Too bad the dynamics mostly stopped half way through the game, though.

      Treasures of the Savage Frontier was a great game and fixed almost everything that was wrong with Gateway.

      I very vaguely remember "I Claudius" from my childhood, but that's not the origin of my chosen screen name, which incidentally was unique until some south-east Asian guy either changed his name to Petrus Octavianus, or he became known when he became a minister.

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    6. Dear Petrus,

      Sorry for the assumption on my part. Still I like your posts a great deal.

      I prefer Wiz 7. I like the planet Guardia as a setting.

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    7. Don't worry about it. And thank you. :-)

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  12. IIRC, if you explore with SEARCH off, you get fewer encounters (maybe I am misremembering)

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    1. That's a good point. I hadn't talked much about that. I like to keep it on because I'm worried I'll miss some vital thing if I don't--but it's silly because almost every place that has something findable by SEARCH also has some text to clue you to use it.

      But turning it off only seems to reduce the random encounters by about 25%--not the 90% you'd expect from going from a 10-minute move to a 1-minute move.

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    2. My Dad says he used to play these games by running around with explore on, dieing freely, map it out, reload then go back with it off until he reach the spot he needed to search, then search there, reducing the care he had to take on his first pass, and freeing him for worrying about using up items.

      I didn't say I approved of his tactics, just that that is what he did.

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    3. I run around with Search off and (when my mage is of high enough level) Enlarge on, while mapping and clearing out the place Then I consult the map to see where any hidden doors ought to be and Look.

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  13. This post got me thinking - what is an ideal number of fights per (say) half-hour of dungeon exploring? There's probably some idea number that allows mapping at a good pace while giving good beat 'em up breaks.

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    1. It's not just the number of fights, but the length of battles as well that drag things down.

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    2. I think what discouraged me more is that the battles were mostly pointless. All of my characters were max level already except for the paladin, and you never find good items from random combats, so they served no purpose but to slow me down. The same scenario in which I had four or five levels yet to attain would be a different story.

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    3. I agree with this... I'm currently playing through Champions of Krynn and even after "clearing an area" and the bad guy got away (with my Dragonlance!), I have to walk back thru the town and there is still A LOT of random encounters. Building up to the big battle of 3 Black Dragons was cool, but I'm kinda over it... I just want to go back to the post and get my next mission without being bothered by a bunch of random encounters

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    4. In Champions of Krynn most areas have a limited amount of random encounters, but they reset each time you revisit the area. So it pays to explore fully before leaving a dungeon, and to move as quickly as possible to already explored areas.

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  14. Your post lets me remind the memory when I was a child. Thanks for sharing.

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  15. "In a journal entry in the game, Alias talks about her history and the fact that she's a construct given false memories by her creator--a major plot twist of the book."

    That was a shitty thing to do, sir. I was thinking about reading that book. I hadn't even heard about it until you mentioned it.

    Not a lot of point anymore.

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    1. I don't think that's fair. Chet's playing the game and blogging about it, so it is obvious there is going to be spoilers of the story. If you had the intention to read the book first, maybe you should have skipped COAB posts until then.

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    2. Completely agree. This is a blog about the game. Readers shouldn't be surprised if the plot of the game is discussed in the posts and comments.

      On the other hand, readers should NOT post plot or game spoilers before Chet gets there, as it ruins the adventure and discovery experience for both Chet AND other readers.

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    3. Is that plot twist only in the book? I don't remember it mentioned in the game. However, from the get go, you get some foreshadowing that something is off in the book. I don't remember being that surprised about it while reading.

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    4. It's mentioned in the game: Alias tells her story in a long journal entry. But it's not a "twist" in the game because the book is over and done, and Alias is just bluntly relating her history.

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  16. Why on earth is Alias still wearing the totally impractical clothes her "masters" dressed her in after capturing her towards the end of the book? It even mentions that the chainmail split down the front would be useless for real combat. Surely the first thing she'd do after they escaped would be to put her proper armour back on! I guess they just based her design off the cover image?

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    1. I was going to say something about that, but I didn't think I could take an explanation about a magic force field again.

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    2. I think that forcefeild is powered by something known as 'sexism'.

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    3. Canageek you have inspired me to experiment in the powers of sexism when I get home (For Science!). I'll let you know how badly my wife throttles me if she makes a saving throw.

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  17. I remember the battle with the Bits O' Moander. I had to repeat it a few times before I finally won. I recall finding that whole Moander area quite challenging. I recall my cleric's weapon being almost useless against the shambling mounds, as I believe only bladed weapons were able to do significant damage to them.

    It's been about 20 years since I last played this game, so this is really bringing back memories. I was only 14 or 15 at the time, having little experience with CRPGs, so I wonder if I would have a much easier time of it now.

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    1. Even my bladed weapons did lousy damage against the shambling mounds and bits. If I had just relied on melee combat, I wouldn't have been able to hold out long against them. Fortunately, they were vulnerable to "Fireball," "Magic Missile," and "Hold Monster."

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  18. Gotta love that you get this kind of spam due to mentioning magic or spells in your text.

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    1. What I love is that the spambot is so inept that it posts the same thing multiple times to the same posting under different names.

      Delete
    2. What. The frack. My eyes BLEED from that post. (I get them in my email). Damn.

      Delete
  19. I left the pit of Moander with both NPC's and 4 party members dead. I was completely out of magical resources, and the 2 living party members had 1 hit point each. I'll never forget it. I don't think I've ever played a dungeon that was so perfectly matched to the strength of my group and had such a nail biting end.

    The only thing that sucked is that the 2 NPC's were due to give a farewell speech at the end of the dungeon. I could tell because their picture popped up. But because they were dead, the text never appeared. I never found out what they were going to say. I hadn't made much effort to keep them alive because i thought they were next to useless and I wanted their equipment. I felt terrible about it when their picture popped up and faded away.

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    1. I had the same feeling after the kobold battles in POR and in one section of SotSB. So far, the Gold Box games are the only ones to have offered this nail-biting tactical challenge.

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