Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Chaos Strikes Back: A Spot of Violence

Plotting my attack against a little spellcasting Jawa around the corner.

Games that seamlessly integrate regular gameplay and combat have a special place in my heart, and it was one of the things I enjoyed about Dungeon Master.

Most CRPGs treat combat as a separate "event," leading you to a special combat screen in which you have far more limited movement than in the regular gameplay screen. You can only get out of the combat screen by winning, dying, or fleeing--and winning is obviously the only satisfying outcome.

Such games have to introduce combat very carefully. If they make the monsters too difficult too soon, it can be very discouraging to players. With games that treat combat and gameplay as unique elements, it's easy to construct a combat scenario in which players cannot win at their current levels or even at all. See, for example, the early troll battle in Pool of Radiance, or the (optional) battle with demon lords at the end of Might & Magic II, or the battle against the Mulmaster Beholder Corps (sans Dust of Disappearance) in Curse of the Azure Bonds.

But games that don't treat combat separately from gameplay feature a very different dynamic. In such games, you can retreat without "fleeing," take some time to heal, hide and sneak, use obstacles to obstruct enemies, flank them, lead them into traps, and (in some games) find allies to help. These games make combats enormously tactical, though in a different way than, say, the Gold Box series. They also allow for more challenging encounters at earlier levels.

There aren't many of them. The Elder Scrolls series, Might & Magic VI-VIII, the Ultima series after VI, and the two Dungeon Master games are the best examples that I've played. With time, effort, luck, and skill, there's virtually no creature that you cannot defeat at any level in these games. Higher levels make things easier, of course, but a Level 1 party in Might & Magic VII can kill the dragon in the opening area as long as they keep running and time their bow shots in between the dragon attacks. In Skyrim, you have a ton of options for defeating any enemy, including running, hiding, and using sneak attacks; summoning monsters; retreating into areas they can't access and wearing them down with bows or spells; enlisting NPCs; leading them to other monsters (leading an elder dragon to the Karthspire Camp was some of the most fun I had in the game); and using a well-placed FUS RO DAH to send them flying off a cliff.

Killing the Emerald Isle dragon in Might & Magic VII took a lot of patience, but rewarded you with a nice artifact early in the game.

Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back don't have a ton of options, but they still feature this dynamic. As I was closing the last posting, I defeated four "death knights" by luring them one-by-one into a looping corridor, darting in and out of their attack range while landing blows of my own, and using the door-closing trick to damage them as we fought. If they knocked my health down too much, I could always flee to a remote part of the level and heal up. I used similar tactics to defeat a dragon on a lower level.

Flanking the dragon and striking from the rear.

Unfortunately, knowing these things are possible tends to slow down the gameplay. When I encountered an impossible (or near-impossible) combat in Might & Magic, I'd annotate the location on the map, go explore somewhere else, and return later. In Dungeon Master, because I knew I could defeat those death knights or giant spiders if I just find the right combination of skills, I'd keep at it until I did--even if it took hours.

But as one might expect, Chaos Strikes Back has to screw with you on the normal conventions of this style of combat. Here are some ways:

  • Locking you in confined areas with a large number of enemies, limiting movement and flight options. The game in fact starts this way.
  • Including enemies that continually respawn (often in response to walking over an unavoidable square), so you can never actually "clear" them.
  • Fiddling with the magic; through the KU area I've been exploring, spells bounce back at me or otherwise don't do what I expect from them.
  • Having enemies spawn in the only return path from a dead-end corridor.
  • Including nigh-unkillable enemies.

Okay, to be honest, I'm not 100% sure on that last point. But shortly after my last posting, I ran into a little Jawa thing that I remembered from Dungeon Master. I remember it being tough, but not impossibly tough. I did well over 600 damage to it before it finally killed all of my characters with spells. If it's not invincible, I'm not sure what the issue is. I had to abandon the area for later.

Jawas aren't supposed to be able to use the Force.

Shortly after my last posting, I discovered that I was even more hopelessly lost than I had thought. The teleporter leading to "the junction of the ways" had already gotten me lost enough, but even after that, in the midst of mapping the level of the junction, I found corridors that twisted back on areas I'd already mapped, meaning either the game doesn't respect the Laws of Mapping, or I screwed something up, or I was unknowingly teleported at some point. I hate not knowing what level I'm on. Instead of a neat set of maps, I have a whole mess of fragments. I suppose some of the staircases or pits might be dropping me or elevating me more than one level at a time, which throws another huge wrench into things.

The rest of this level--whatever it was--featured an area full of mummies. As one of the first creatures you encounter in Dungeon Master, they're not very tough, but they seemed endless. After what felt like an eternity of hacking and fireballs, I cleared them.

It looks like I've blasted open the door to a nightclub.
On the level below that, I killed a dragon. The damned thing must have had 3,000 hit points. It took me almost 45 minutes of dodging around him to kill him. When he died, he left a bunch of dragon steaks and some armor pieces to replace the ones I had to toss after Amy clued me in that they were cursed. He also had a "solid key."

I'm thinking this dragon level might be the lowest level because there were no pits nor down staircases. I also think it might join up with an area I mapped in a previous game (a common teleport field goes to the same place). I tentatively merged the two areas on my map (below), but I also could be way off.

I left the area via the teleportation field, which returned me to the "junction of the ways." I didn't think I was done exploring KU (I thought there was a hunk of corbum ore in each one), so I returned and found myself in an entirely different place than the first time, which I guess validates my idea that some weird teleportation thing is happening even after I leave the junction. The new area eventually connected to the area I was familiar with, via two small levels of ant warriors and giant spiders, most of whom I defeated by using the trick of darting downstairs, attacking, and darting back up.

A few levels up, and I found the sign for the "Diabolical Demon Director" that I've heard so much about. I found myself assailed by some salamander-demon things, and I kept using the downstairs/upstairs trick to defeat them while taking minimal damage. Little did I know that going up and down the stairs was simply causing more of them to spawn (thanks for the hint, Amy). So when I next fire up the game, I have to find some other way to defeat them.

Some other random  notes:

  • I realized a combat strategy that was probably obvious to everyone but me. Only the two characters facing the enemy can engage in melee combat, so if you don't have any ranged weapons or spell points, two characters are always standing around doing nothing. But you can make use of them by spinning around in the middle of combat and having them attack to your rear. You can't see the enemy while you're doing this, but the attacks do connect.

Fighting worms behind me.

  • On the dragon level, the game reminded me of one of the things I loved about Dungeon Master: the barely-visible button. This turned out to open up a pretty key area, full of magic items.

  • There were a bunch of wooden doors I couldn't figure out how to pass before I remembered that you can just destroy them.

  • There are hidden pits in the game: floors that look perfectly normal, but when you step on them, you go screaming to the next level. That's just evil.
  • I think one of my characters gained a fighter level early in this gameplay, but otherwise no one's really been increasing, no matter how many battles I fight, spells I cast, or potions I make. I'm "expert" in everything.
  • So far, I haven't had much of a problem with food, but I'm starting to get a little worried about water. Aside from a fountain near the starting area, I haven't found any.

Navi's food and water levels are a little low for my preferences.

  • On a higher level, I found a scroll that reads "fighters charge." It doesn't appear I can "use" it in any way, and I'm not sure what it was trying to tell me.

Gameplay sessions with Chaos Strikes Back are really exhausting. Expect numerous interlocutory postings (like yesterday's) before I finish.


  1. Nice observation that DM and CSB can be tactical in a different way than turn based games are.
    IMO they do it much better than the other DM-clones I've played.
    In the other DM-clones you can't (AFAIR) really interact with the enviroment; it's just your party and the monsters, and the rest is static. But in DM and CSB you can destroy doors by might or magic, use doors on monster, lure monster onto pits, and more.
    That, the level design and the puzzles is why I think DM and CSB are still unsurpassed in their genre.

    Incidentally Doom could also be quite tactical since you could trick monsters into firing at each other. Great wat of saving ammo. ;-)

    When fighting that Jawa, did you use Spell Shield and Fire Shield? Those spells help quite a bit, and there are lots of items casting them.

    Yes, the paths leasing from the junction of the ways each have an invisible teleporter or something that really messes with your head (and map). Leaving items on the squares leading from the altar my help get your bearing.

    As for the endless mummies, you may do something more clever than killing them...

    I love how the dragon had a belly full of armour. I guess the armour was quite as digestable as the adventurers wearing them. ;-)

    The Blue Meanies are rather weak. It's great fun just slaughtering them all, instead of using hit and run tactics.

    Against the Demons, you need to get past the Livling Rocks and a pit or two, then head right and find a relatively safe place from which to attacks them. Use Fire Shield to protect against their Fireballs, and avoid getting up close with them due to the Fireballs.
    Alternatively you can Disrupt your way past the Fire Elementals to your left and see if you can find a way there. But make sure you have a strong Fire Shield while exposed to the Demons.

    Nice combat tactic you mentioned. I guess it's quicker than switching the party members.

    Are you sure the invisible pits are really invisble and not just very hard to see?

    I seem to recall there was a fountain near the stair leading up to DDD.

    1. My thoughts and junk...

      The back row character trick just blew my mind. I had no idea you could do that!

      The "jawa" things (Vexirks) were not that hard for me. Then again, all of my characters were some level of Master in two skills when I finished Dungeon Master, and I imported them, of course. I also had a few pieces of chainmail and maybe mithril mail as well. The dragon wasn't that hard for me either. I did the stairs trick for about five minutes. I was late once or twice in climbing back up, though, and a character died on me.

      From Ku, you have a random chance of ending up in one of three areas. These may join up with another random area, or bypass it altogether. This may occur in the other ways as well. This should add at least one point to replayability, imo.

      What I do in the DDD is kill the Rock Monsters (or all but one group of them), and trade fireballs with the Demons. It's not that hard to dodge them if you're not encumbered, and they can't go past the pits to get to you. I left a previous comment (encrypted) on what to do with a spare Rock Monster. ;)

      The pits in the Amiga version are completely invisible to me. Okay, never mind. I just checked one of my videos and now my mind has been blown twice!

      Unfortunately, Chet will need a certain key to get to the room with the fountain. There is a fountain underneath the "Supplies for the Quick" area. You will probably need a key (it is a common one) to turn off the mists so you can get past without being beamed to the Junction of the Ways. I forgot about the fountain during my playthrough, and my characters were continually dying of thirst for over an hour.

    2. Isn't this a bit spoilery? Jeez.

    3. Yeah. Cit it down, Amy. You don't need to handhold him through the game.

    4. Chet has said that telling him about areas he's already been to is just fine. He's been to all these places. It's also no5t much more spoilery than what Petrus said. I just expounded a bit. And what the hell - "Cit?"

    5. The good news is that reading spoilers ahead of time don't help me at all for this game. It all just sounds like "blah blah blah blah" until I actually get to the point that someone is talking about, at which point I have to choose to go back and read the spoilers if I want to be spoiled.

    6. I confirm THIS particular Jawa is very very tough hp wise. But there actually could be more than one...

      Hidden pits are not hidden, as PetrusOctavianus suggested. Look closely.

      Water IS a big problem here, but I kind of liked this because I like resource management. I think it's worth to fill flasks of water in the central area before heading off to the junction and keep only 1 empty flask for Vi potions.

      The different places where the junction takes you are not infinte. After a bit, you'll recognize quickly where you landed and how to get back to where you wanted to go originally. That's not a specific spoiler, but there are TONS of shortcuts in that dungeon, secret passages or ways which don't have items or such, but quick-connect different sections of the maze.

      Oh, and I'd really stick to that solid key, might turn out being important, hehe.

    7. I finally beat him tonight and found that his companions in the next room died much quicker.

      I'm actually suddenly water-rich, having found several waterskins, which carry three doses each. Now it's food that's the problem.

    8. Hmmm, odd. Those little guys dropped a ton of food when I killed them.

    9. I think there was a loaf of bread and an apple or something. After I posted this, I did a little better, though. Killed a dragon and got lots of steaks, and there were some demon dogs that left food.

  2. Oh, you're quite welcome. If you want to know if your map is correct, decrypt this:

    Gur znc vf nofbyhgryl pbeerpg, naq gung vf gur nofbyhgr obggbz yriry. Gubfr gjb nernf qb pbaarpg. Avpr wbo.

    1. Thanks, I figured I was in trouble when it didn't just say "LRF!"

    2. Even if it was a "yes," I would never answer that simply. :P

  3. Oh, I just thought of something. Were you trying to use fireballs or some such thing on the Vexirks in the area that magic goes wonky? You may only think you're hitting them.

    1. No, I learned that lesson early. I was just beating away at them with swords and stuff.

  4. Your characters probably won't level much further. In both DM and CSB the xp requirements always double for the next level. I.e. you need as much xp for the next level as you've needed thus far cumulatively. This is why in DM it is so much better to reincarnate the champions instead of resurrect. You gain the levels up to craftsman or so really fast. In CSB reincarnation lowers the attributes a fair bit, so using an old party from DM or resurrecting is not such a bad choice it is in DM. And the start is a lot harder :-)

    Each action adds xp both to skill related to that action and to one of the class levels (fighter/ninja/wizard/priest).

    Also, in CSBwin you can see the amount of xp you have in a skill you've just used when you use the (unmagnified) size x1. Not that useful, but at least you'll see how many points you're gaining.

    I hope CSB doesn't get to annoying. It is a hard and at times pretty unfair game. I never managed to beat it. I always eventually screwed up somewhere too badly and was too despondent to restart after a few tries. But reading about it has been fun, and the nostalgia is great :-)

    1. Almost immediately after I posted that last night, I got a bunch of master levels in fighting, priesting, and wizardry. I'm hardly using ninja skills, so it's no surprise that it won't increase. Given how long it took, though (and I was probably part of the way there at the end of DM), I don't expect to increase much more. Is there much after "master" anyway?

    2. From what I remember there are several levels of master, each corresponding to the power levels that can be applied to spells. So you go from << master to [] master to = master, etc.

    3. Ah, that's what the << means. I was curious about that.

    4. Also, I can't recall whether you know this already, but generally you don't have to be actually achieving anything to advance a skill. Ninja increases by throwing objects about the place even if they don't hit an enemy; fighter can be increased just by whacking doors; wizard spells can be cast into thin air and will still do the job. Priest is less convenient to grind up as you need to repeatedly make a potion then drink it to empty the bottle again. So if you have food and water you can increase skills as much as you can be bothered. In CSB such opportunities are less common than in DM, though; I spent hours doing this kind of thing in the area in the first game with respawning worms. In retrospect I probably could have put those hours to better use. Hope this isn't too spoily for you.

    5. I think maybe I knew that back in DM, but I'd forgotten. Thanks for the reminder; I may use these tactics if grinding becomes important.

    6. The top level is called Archmaster, but I've certainly never gotten close to it. I don't know if this will happen in other versions of the games, but I once gained a fighter skill just from something hitting me, as that character was not hitting the monster at all. I also gained a fighter level from a door hitting a monster. By the way, there are a few priest spells that don't create potions.

    7. There's a parry/dodge type of a fighter skill, which is raised, I believe, when a character is being attacked.

      War Cry (it's in the list when you are unarmed) is a priest skill. Kicking and punching are ninja skills. And most of the special item powers are either wizard or priest skills.

    8. Going up levels increases your stats, so even if you don't use, say, Ninja skills it's worthwhile to grind past the easy Ninja levels just for that sweet boost to DEX and STR.

      You can gain levels by swinging at thin air, but being in battle lets you advance much faster (the way the game tracks this is actually by how long ago you have received damage or been targeted by an attack, so you don't count as "being in battle" if the enemy never gets a hit in. I think).

    9. Hmmm, interesting; I didn't know that. Do you know if you can just walk into a wall/fireball yourself occasionally, or does the damage have to be inflicted by an enemy?

    10. I don't know. I punched and kicked and war cried for a long time tonight while waiting for spell points to recharge, and no one budged off their ninja or priest levels.

    11. With melee attacks (whether armed or unarmed) you need to be hitting something, like a door. A wall won't do, IIRC. This is not true of ranged attacks, where I think it's the throwing not the hitting that matters. Dunno about war cry and its alleged priest-grinding ability; I never used it so can't say.

    12. War Cry does give priest levels: it's one of the few ways to grind magic skills for characters that start without any mana. It's only a little bit though, so I doubt it's going to have a visible effect around the levels CSB takes place in.

      I'm fairly sure (90%+) that to get the combat bonus you have to be attacked by an actual enemy, not a trap, fall or wall.

  5. "But you can make use of them by spinning around in the middle of combat and having them attack to your rear"

    I would have never thought of that, naturally we think of all the characters "facing" the same way and I think the Eye of the Beholder series is strict about this, not allowing the "about-face" trick...not that it would've helped much anyway, your rear characters are almost always useless in melee for those games.

  6. "Jawas aren't supposed to be able to use the Force."

    The Wookieepedia begs to differ :P

    1. Very well. Do any of the EU materials explain what Jawas actually look like under their hoods?

    2. There also is a quest in SW:TOR on the Imperial side where you have to deal with a force using Jawa :)

  7. You mention the Ultima games after VI as an example of great integrated combat, but VI itself was the first of the series to keep combat in the same scale. I actually didn't much care for the real-time-with-pausing combat system of the VII engine - there were hardly any worthwhile tactical considerations. VI was probably the most fun for combat, in that regard.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I actually intended that to mean "starting with VI" but I worded it badly.

    2. Surprised you didn't mention the infinity and aurora engine games.


    3. You know, I don't know why I didn't. You're right: they do use integrated combat. That's why you can lead enemies down long corridors, setting traps, casting spells, and generally bleeding them to death before they even get in melee range.

    4. I was going to mention the same thing about Ultima VI -- I played 99%** of the way through it for the first time last summer, and was surprised to find that combat integration was really useful for survival. (It worked a *lot* better for me in that respect than in later Ultimas; I reached the near-end without anybody dying.)

      **A tip for when you reach it, Chet: keep backups of every session, as U6 tends to corrupt savegames & have odd bugs that make it impossible to progress. I had to start over twice from scratch due to bugs, and hit another one right before I could finish. :-p

    5. Thanks for the tip. Getting 99% through the game and having to quit would be infuriating.

  8. Integrated combat is also a staple of roguelikes.

  9. The Gothic and Risen games (same developer and basically the same template) are also integrated combat games. As much as I LOVE some of them (particularly Gothic II and the first Risen) I can't imagine getting far in them without exploiting the weak combat AI.

    Basically I found I needed to kite enemies, run far enough away to have time to whittle them down with ranged attacks, then finish them off with melee. Heal and repeat. With tougher enemies I'd have to get them stuck on environmental features.

    Even then some enemies would just wipe you out if you were insufficiently levelled. Enemies only respawn at particular story beats, so a fun element of the games for me is how you have to thread your way through the rich environment, figuring out which enemies you can defeat and noting which ones to come back and tackle later. More satisfying than it probably sounds.


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