Friday, November 29, 2013

NetHack Version 2.3e: Ascended!


NetHack (early series; version 2.3e)
The series includes 4 public releases between July 1987 and April 1988
Date Started: 3 January 2011
Date Ended: 12 June 2013
Total Hours: 62
Difficulty: Hard-Very Hard (4.5/5)
Final Rating: 36
Ranking at Time of Posting: 76/121 (63%)

Okay, here's how this happened: a few months ago, when I was bored waiting somewhere with no Internet access, I started fiddling with the NetHack app on my iPhone. I had remembered not liking it before, and I still didn't really like it. It isn't the app's fault; the iPhone screen just isn't big enough to accommodate much of the dungeon, nor many of the common commands.

But the whole experience gave me a NetHack jones. The good thing about NetHack is that it's perfect for small blocks of time, especially when you're half-doing something else. Its minimal graphics, no sound, and ability to pause indefinitely between moves makes it an ideal supplement to boring conference calls, webinars, bus rides, TV viewing, and whatever else. If I'm sitting in an airport with five minutes to kill before my flight, I'm not going to fire up Wizardry VI or Legend of Faerghail; it takes that long just to get the game running, map sheets and note pages open, and all the windows positioned right. But a five-minute NetHack session is just fine. In fact, I'd argue that NetHack probably should be played in small bursts of time, so you don't lose your level of alertness and make mistakes.

If I was going to play more NetHack, I wasn't going to waste time playing the version I'd already ascended, and I didn't want to jump the line by going to the 1992 version, so I decided to go backwards and mess around with 2.3e, the last of the "early NetHack" series, which I played for a while back in January 2011.

I was surprised to note how primitive this version seemed compared to 3.0, which I ascended back in June. Early NetHack had no rogue class, no alignments, no attributes other than strength. Classes don't have names associated with their levels. The screen doesn't display your current condition--blind, hallucinating, confused, and so forth--so you have to note what's happening and when it goes away. There are no NPCs (oracles, guards, friendly creatures, priest) or any command to talk to them even if they existed.

Apparently someone thought this was funny.

The dungeon structure is also a lot more primitive. There are no special levels except the idiotic one featuring the Three Stooges that only appears in this edition. There's no castle level, nor does Vlad's tower appear in the levels of Hell. There is a division starting around Level 30 between dungeon levels and the mazes of Hell. The Medusa is present in this early version, on the last level before Hell, and she was responsible for the deaths of two of my characters. Instead of a Wand of Wishing in the castle, you get one hiding under a boulder on the first level of Hell, a fact that caused no end of frustration when my characters lacked any way to bust up that boulder. More on that below.

And the maze levels oddly use hyphens instead of pipes to mark vertical walls.

Like the 3.0 series (but unlike later versions, I think), the Wizard of Yendor has the Amulet in his possession, and he's located on some random level of Hell (between 30 and 60). There are no down stairways on the Hell level, meaning that you have to find some way to get to the bottom and begin working up.

But enough was the same that I had my bearings. In my final rating for the 3.0 version, I bragged that, "now that I've won, now that I know how the entire dungeon maps out, now that I realize what's possible and how to do it, I think I could ascend... at least once every 20 characters." Well, that nearly held true. I think I fielded 27 or 28 characters before I ascended, and about 18 of them made it past dungeon level 15. When I look back on my early posts, I can't believe how many characters I lost for dumb reasons on the first few levels.

In many ways, early NetHack is harder than the 3.0 series. (Since I haven't played it, I can't compare it to the current version.) Some reasons:

  • There are intrinsics, but they're a complete mystery: you get no hint that you've acquired the intrinsic when you eat a corpse. This means if you eat something that grants poison resistance, the only way you'll know it works is the next time something tries to poison you. There isn't even an option to see your intrinsics when you die.
  • I'm not entirely sure, but I don't think classes start with intrinsics, and certainly not all the ones they get in later versions. The barbarian isn't immune to poison, for instance.
  • The game is much fonder of swarming you with multiple foes at once--including extremely frequent orc hordes and killer bee colonies--than the later version.

These guys were right at the bottom of the stairs.

  • There are no helpful messages that indicate the presence of monsters, shopkeepers, throne rooms, and such.
  • Dipping potions in fountains doesn't dilute them, so you can't make plain water that way to later turn into Holy Water. Even if you could, there are no altars to make Holy Water. This is fine, though, because dipping things in Holy Water doesn't bless them. There are no blessed items in this version, just regular ones and cursed ones. 
  • The lack of altars also means that you don't have an easy way to test the cursed status of items.
  • There are unicorns, but they don't leave horns, meaning you don't have instant ways to cure hallucination, confusion, and the like.
  • Although blindfolds and pick-axes exist, I never encountered them as items in the dungeon. The only way I ever acquired them is by either starting with them or wishing for them.
  • The enemy AI actually seems more intelligent in this early version. They don't necessarily come charging at you, nor to they stand in one spot during your combat. They'll dance around and move aside to allow their allies to flank you instead of, say, stubbornly standing in doorways.
  • The cool weapon/artifact Excalibur is not immune to damage as in later versions.
  • Perhaps most notably: there's a level cap at 14! Between regular combats, Potions of Gain Level, and wraiths, this is extremely easy to achieve.
  • Wishes seem rarer. Thrones and fountains are very reluctant to give them up, and there are no Scrolls of Charging to help you get more out of the occasional wand.
  • I don't have the quantitative evidence, but I felt this version had a lot more traps, including "mine traps" that not only damage you but screw up your legs and reduce your encumbrance capacity for a time.
  • There are no items of magic resistance or reflection. No amulets at all, in fact (except the Amulet of Yendor). No cloaks except the Elven Cloak. No boots.
  • The dungeon consists of 60 levels instead of just 50.
  • Enemies have no trouble following you upstairs, so you can't use the "stair-scumming" trick.
  • There are a billion ways to directly get your strength drained from both monsters and corpses, at least until you finally get lucky and get the "resist poison" intrinsic. Potions of Restore Strength are some of the most valuable objects in this game.

Balancing these challenges was a series of things that made it a little easier, at least in parts:

  • Spellbooks were a lot more plentiful, and genocide actually appears in this version as a spell that you can acquire. I hardly used spells in 3.0, but in this version, they were key to my success.

I just about fell out of my chair when I saw this. But you do still have to be a fairly high level to cast it successfully, and it fades fast.

  • Identification scrolls also seemed more plentiful. Between acquiring the "identify" spell and identification scrolls (along with the various tricks I'd picked up during my 3.0 series play), I rarely didn't know what things were.
  • Though Excalibur is weaker, since there are no alignments in this game, any class can acquire it very easily by dipping a longsword into a fountain. 

Not quite how it happened to King Arthur, but we'll go with it.

  • No soldier ants. No liches. If you can genocide dragons, you don't have any heavy-damage spellcasters to worry about. This balances the lack of any magic resistance items.
  • "Genocide" automatically works on every monster type in a class, just as "blessed genocide" does in later versions.
  • Elven cloaks protect against rust monsters, so they aren't the same menace they are in later versions.
  • Though there are no altars, you can "sacrifice" and boost your luck anywhere.
  • Although none of the Hell levels have down staircases, all of the up staircases are in the exact place that you arrive from the level below. This makes it absurdly easy to both find the Wizard (just put on the blindfold on the 60th level, find the staircase, and hit "up" until you seen him) and to escape the Hell levels after finding the Amulet.
  • There's no "final level" after you leave the dungeon. Winning is just a matter of getting back to Level 1 and going up the stairs.

Because this version lacks so many of the items (particularly magic-resistant and reflection ones), the "ascension kit" ends up being quite small: a blindfold and the "telepathy" intrinsic, a Ring of Teleport Control, a Ring of Fire Resistance to survive in Hell, a Potion of Levitation to get across the Wizard's moat, (there are no boots), and some way to get down to Level 60 and start searching for him. The latter bit ended up being the hardest. It's tough to find level teleport traps after you have a means of teleportation control. There's no Unholy Water so no way to curse a Scroll of Teleportation to get you there when you're ready to go. I ultimately got there by reading a regular Scroll of Teleportation while confused, but you have to get lucky to find the items in the right order.

Without telepathy and a blindfold, you couldn't scope the Wizard like this. You'd have to go looking for him at the center of every level. That would get old fast.

After a series of characters who died both honorable and stupid deaths (eating tainted corpses, stumbling into water while confused, acquiring teleportitis before teleport control and warping into the middle of a treasure zoo, stumbling on the Medusa unaware), I won with Chester the Archaeologist. I decided to go with that class because he starts with a pick-axe, one of the few items I consider absolutely essential. On the way down, I found a Ring of Teleport Control and Ring of Fire Resistance fairly early, both within a massive shop on Level 2.

Look at all this stuff. I was testing things in here for hours.

I cleared out several throne rooms on the way down and, after taking care to boost my luck by sacrificing fresh corpses, sat in them. In one of them, I got my strength elevated to 18. On another, I got the option to genocide a creature, and I chose dragons. Later, with a spell of genocide I acquired, I did away with vampires, too. I used the Wand of Wishing on the first level of Hell to get a blindfold, then zoomed down to Level 60 and started working back. I found the Wizard and his pet Hellhound on Level 40, in a closed chamber surrounded by a moat.

Chester acquires the last item he needs.

I had found out the hard way from a previous character that you don't want to use the Wand of Death on the Wizard in this version. It just bounces off his wall and kills you:

Well, that sucks. Gideon the Barbarian was moments from winning.

But as I said earlier, this version's Wizard is a pushover. I killed him with Excalibur, grabbed the Amulet, and headed up quite quickly given the way this version of Hell handles stairways. As in later versions, the Wizard occasional returns and dogs you on the way up, but he's no more difficult than he was in his lair.

Yes, and I'm pretty sure I can do it again.

Between my existing maps and teleportation, I was able to clear the way back to the surface almost too easily.

I never found an Elven Cloak with this character, so my equipment took a pounding from rust monsters.

Although not all the spoilers I'd previously learned helped, the overall approach did: move slowly, think, be cautious. Don't go nuts chasing nymphs around to recover things you don't need. Don't feel like you have to explore every room and kill every creature. Don't feel inadequate if you ignore throne rooms and treasure zoos.

I absolutely do not have to prove myself in here.

When I ascended in 3.0, the winning message indicated that I'd become a demi-god. The winning shot for this version is more akin to Rogue, where getting out with the Amulet simply added points to your final score, but the position on the leaderboard was ultimately more important than "winning" the game.

Now that I've experienced the totality of the game, some adjustment of the original GIMLET (which I completed almost three years ago) is in order. Version 3.0 improves so much on this one that it deserves to be ahead by more than 2 points.

  • Character creation and development goes down to 4 (I originally gave it 6). With no alignments, the opening choices makes less of a difference, and the inability to see intrinsics develop means that it's hard to enjoy that aspect to leveling. 
  • Encounters and foes goes to 5. The next version more solidly deserves the 6 that I previously gave to this version, with a greater selection of enemies with special attacks, and more special encounter locations.
  • Equipment gets docked a point to 7. This version lacks the full breadth of 3.0's gear, and it doesn't have the options to mix and match them in so many cool ways.
  • By giving this game a 7 on gameplay originally, I was being inconsistent in how I usually treat elements of difficulty. The same score I gave 3.0, 5, would be more consistent.
  • Everything else stays the same: game world at 1; NPC interaction at 1; magic and combat at 5; economy at 4; quests at 2; graphics, sound, and inputs at 2.

This brings the score for NetHack 2.3e down to 36 from the 42 I assigned originally. When I first rated it, I was giving it too much credit for what I hadn't seen. This new score makes this version scale much better with the 44 that I gave to version 3.0.

This little endeavor added another 42 hours to my gameplay time on this version, added to the 20 I spent on it back in 2011.

Despite the more primitive nature of the gameplay, this version satisfied my roguelike cravings for the moment, so it's time to get it together and get back on track with the main list. Thanks for indulging me in this diversion.


Further Reading:  My first, second, third, fourth, and GIMLET postings on this version of game from January 2011; my ascension from 3.0 and my GIMLET for that version; a rundown of the 2.3e version from Wikihack. Later, I went back further in time and played the original Hack, which precedes this version.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Legend of Faerghail: Encounters, Combats, and Stuff

Where I spent the next five hours.
What do you suppose the developers were going for with "Faerghail"? Some combination of "faery" (or "fair") and a place-name suffix? A "phantasy spelling" of the last name "Fairgale?" They didn't seem to have adopted it from existing literature; the only other thing that uses "Faerghail" is a metal band from Finland, and since they were formed in 1995, we're left to suspect that they took their name from this game. In any event, I'm rather sick of typing the name and having to do a brief check to make sure I spelled it right every time.

My map of the first monastery level.

The dungeons in the game are quite large. They have to be, because there are only a handful of them. Most of my playing time since the last post has been in the monastery of Sagacita, which comprises four 34 x 34 levels--the game's standard. The Count of Cyldane had sent me there to find more information about the elves from the monastery's libraries. When I arrived, I found that the complex had been recently invaded and sacked by evil dwarves--so perhaps it's not just the elves who are acting inexplicably hostile. It appeared from the messages that I received that after the dwarves destroyed the upper levels, they were slaughtered by undead in the catacombs below the monastery before achieving their objective.

Before I arrived at the monastery, while still exploring the outdoor area of Cyldane, I was joined by a "woodkeeper" whom I met in a random encounters, so that's an additional reason to talk to non-hostile monsters (other than trade). He stayed with me until the first level of the monastery, where I dumped him for an NPC named Eljot--one of the monks seeking revenge on the invaders. Throughout the monastery, I ran into parties of monks and clerics who clearly belonged there, and who responded in a friendly manner to my greetings before allowing me to go on my way peacefully. I don't know if there are any in-game consequences to killing such friendly parties.

Actually, he said his name was "Melian" when I met him, but it became "Eljot" once I had him in the party.
What's slightly annoying is that the levels are much bigger than warranted given the things that you find there. Four huge levels of the monastery served only to deliver into my hands a couple of books on the titular legend of Faerghail and a sarcophagus whose purpose is unclear to me. I'm not saying the rest of the dungeon was completely empty--there were random encounters, treasures, and the occasional "atmospheric" message--but in general I prefer games with a higher content-to-square ratio.

A typical atmospheric message.
The sarcophagus was a bit of an annoyance. It weighs a ton, and when I originally tried to pick it up, the game said it was too heavy for any of my characters. So I (l)eft it, shuffled some inventory around, and went back to the square, only to find that I no longer had the option to get it. I imagine if I had gone all the way back out of the dungeon and returned, it would have been there, but as it was I just reloaded.

Transitioning between the two monastery levels and the two catacombs levels. I had to find a rope down below to get back up.

The inter-related encounter, combat, magic, equipment, and economy systems of this game have some interesting ideas but ultimately don't work very well. One of the primary reasons that they don't work is that combats are essentially optional. You have the ability to "withdraw" at any time, including the first round, with no penalty. You'll even get experience if it's not the first round. The enemies stay in the area and may re-encounter you again, but they don't actively chase you; in fact, movement of monster parties seems to be entirely random. If they encounter you, it's because they happened to wander into your square, not because they made a beeline for you. I assume there must be some fixed, unavoidable encounters in the game, but I haven't found them yet.

One of the more interesting monster types in the game.

If you want to play out an encounter, you can try talking to the parties, with success determined by whether you know the language and (I think) both your charisma and negotiating skill, the latter of which often increases during a successful encounter. If the encounters were more meaningful, this would be a fun dynamic, and there would be reasons to learn as many languages as possible. As it is, a successful "friendly" encounter offers nothing more than the ability to trade (rarely do the monsters have anything I want, with the exception of the occasional torch or lantern), get an NPC companion (of limited utility), or negotiate a withdrawal, which you can do without talking to them in the first place. You get no lore or other assistance from monsters.

It's notable that any character who successfully "talks" to a non-hostile NPC party gets some modicum of experience. Since monsters don't disappear when the encounter ends, you could theoretically "grind" by encountering and talking to the same friendly parties repeatedly. I haven't done  that, but I have tried to have my lowest-leveled character do as much of the talking as possible to try to cure some of the experience imbalance.

Grace gets 50 experience points for saying hello.

The dynamic for combat itself is okay. As with other games from the Wizardry lineage, you define an action for each of your characters--attack, defend, cast a spell, or use an item--and then everyone executes the actions at once.

The characters plan their actions.

In the execution, you can choose a regular (a)ttack, in which you get a blow-by-blow report accompanied by a little animation...

...or (q)uick combat, with just a final status report of how everyone fared, including damage they received to hit points, armor, and weapons. The summary doesn't tell you anything about how the monsters fared, but you can see the total number of monsters decrease as you go through round after round of quick combat.

The combat animations are cute but they take too long (among other things, you have to hit ENTER after every one), and the only time I ever do a regular (a)ttack is if I accidentally hit the wrong key.

One thing that the game adds is the ability to specify one of four ranks in which the character is standing. Forward ranks increase risk but also increase the likelihood of a successful attack. Theoretically, anyway. I haven't noticed that much of a difference. I've typically kept my most well-armored characters in the forward-most "kill" rank and everyone else in the standard "attack" rank.
At the end of the combat, you get a final tallying of  gold received, rations received, experienced received, and damage done to each character.

The party after a dangerous fight against buffalo.

Combat was deadly when all of my characters were Level 1 and could be struck dead by a single blow. Now that most of them are Levels 3 or 4, that almost never happens, and I can heal or make a withdrawal if a character gets close to death. The ability to withdraw in any round fundamentally makes the game a little too easy.

Magic hasn't played a bit role in the game for me, and I think it might be possible to play successfully without a single spellcasting character, though you'd have to rest a lot to recover hit points. The magic system is of the most basic sort, with characters able to learn new spells as they rise in levels. Spells require spell points, and they deplete very fast. My cleric can manage 5 or 6 "cure light wounds" spells in between rest breaks; my mage can do about that many "magic arrows." Except for the occasional healing spell, an attack is almost always the better option, and again the withdrawal system makes it pointless to carefully plot spell attacks. I've found the thief's sneaking skill quite useless for the same reason.

Holt prepares to cast a spell against some phantoms.

I also haven't noticed much of an effect from equipment upgrades, which have been slow to arrive anyway. The game is a lot like The Bard's Tale, where the character's level, statistics, and skills mattered a lot more than his gear in combat. There have been several times in which some weapon or piece of armor has broken, leaving my character to fight unarmed or unarmored, and I haven't even noticed the difference.
The equipment condition/repair system appears (I think) for the first time in Legend of Faerghail, and like most other things in the game, it's a good idea with poor execution. The system essentially requires you to have a smith in your party to effect repairs as equipment deteriorates. If you do have a smith in your party, it takes only a few moments to repair anything back to 100%. There's no strategy or skill associated with the system, and thus it accomplishes nothing but add a few minutes to the gameplay.
Ladd prepares to work on his own equipment.
One other aspect of the equipment system is that there are stricter rules about what characters can and cannot use than most other games. It's not like D&D where all of the fighting classes can use almost any weapon or armor.

The smith, for some reason, is incapable of using an axe, flail, or quarterstaff.

The economy is frankly a little baffling in its extremes. The vast majority of the treasure chests in a dungeon yield only between 1 and 9 gold pieces, if anything, and most combats produce essentially the same number. I've found a few treasure rooms behind secret doors with a dozen chests that, collectively, earned me around 40 gold pieces. Then, occasionally, you'll find a chest with 500 gold pieces or a major treasure that sells for 1,500.
In most games, this sight would be very welcome.
Expenses are similarly bipolar. The cost of almost anything in this game--equipment, repairs, new languages, new spells--is entirely trivial with the exception of training (acquiring new levels), which costs thousands of gold pieces. So almost all of your money goes into training, and characters would almost always have more levels available to train than money available--except that chests respawn, so if you find a couple that offer major gold hauls, you can just repeatedly enter the dungeon and get them. Again, a very weird system.

A large number of miscellaneous observations:

  • The graphics, including the monsters and dungeon textures, are quite nice, especially coming from the unvarying walls of Wizardry VI.
  • Experience points offered by each enemy are extremely variable and don't seem to have anything to do with the enemy's strength. I get the most from animal creatures (apes, bears, buffaloes) encountered in the wilderness.
  • Traps are annoying. Usually, my thief doesn't detect them. When she does, she usually fails to disarm them. In addition to doing damage, they sap morale and require a rest after a couple of them.
"Does a boob"; sinks up to his knees. Got it.
  • Attributes and skills increase when going from level to level, but completely randomly.
  • In complete opposition to the DOS version, you get copious amounts of food from encounters. I haven't had to buy any since the beginning. Oddly, although the game displays the party's food total, each character actually carries individual rations. You have to make sure that one character doesn't run out and thus gain no benefit from resting.
  • The game has one of the first crime/jail systems that we've seen. When you're in an inn, a thief has the ability to (p)ick-pocket. If she fails, she gets a warning the first time, then sent to jail the next time for a few days (you have to leave the town, wander around for a while, and return to pick her up). Since pocket-picking isn't very lucrative (certainly not enough to balance the annoyance of getting caught), this is yet another example of a good idea poorly implemented.
That's kind of a weird punishment, isn't it? "You will stay in jail until your friends come back."
  • I found a bunch of scrolls in the monastery titled "Book of Stars" and "Lord of the Rinse." I assume these are jokes and there's nothing to do but sell them. Nothing happens if I try to "use" them. Then again, I can't figure out how to use a scroll called "Enchant Armor," either.
  • Secret doors are identified as dotted outlines on the wall that you have to look for. It's not a bad system--probably better than running into every wall headlong. You can usually figure out the presence of a secret area via large unused portions of the map.

Can you see it?

  • Dungeons can be cleared of enemies but seem to reset, including all treasure and monsters, when you leave and return--not go from level to level, but leave the entire dungeon and return.
  • For some weird reason, when you're navigating dungeons and you're at a square with a door, you have to hit a key twice to turn or move. This has messed up mapping for me more than once.
  • The translations must have been done by different people, because there are some places in which the English is extremely good, and some places in which it's atrocious.

Is this supposed to have something to do with Indiana Jones?

The books I found in the monastery tell the "Legend of Faerghail" and are written by the "Great Wise Magician Ihl, Grand-Master of the nine and a half schools of the occult. According to the legend, in ancient times, a race of "moon people" called "Wer" lived with the world's inhabitants and helped guide the younger races (the god-creators had adopted a non-intervention policy). During this time, a demon "Lord of Darkness" named Balaan arose and began enslaving people from his headquarters in the "ice desert" in the north of Faerghail. To enhance his ability to destroy the other races, he allied with Istrildiar, the King of Dragons, who was angry at mankind for hunting dragons.
Reading the legend.
Eventually, a group of champions, composed of representatives from the various races, defeated the axis of evil, threw Balaan into another dimension, and imprisoned Istrildiar in a cave. (The book helpfully notes that no one knows what became of the champions,  "but if they have not died, they're still alive today!") The implications of this story on current events is for now unclear.

Back up on the surface, I have no intelligence on where to go next. Options include a complex in the north of the east valley which includes a bunch of characters asking riddles, the "derelict castle," the elven headquarters (where I have to answer a question about Findal's lineage), and the "Temple of the Savants." There are also a few encounters I need to revisit on the first map.

My lack of postings lately hasn't been because I don't like the game, but rather a combination of work and vacation. But Legend of Faerghail does continue to seem rather blah. I don't mind it, but I don't see what its point is. Its core gameplay elements are simply adopted from other games, and almost everything new it introduces fails in some way. Still, it's possible that my mind might change as I continue to explore. I'll probably give it until the end.


Further Reading: My first, second, third, and fourth posts on Legend of Faerghail, plus coverage of the game on "CRPG Revisiting old classics."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reboot: Legend of Faerghail

Getting Legend of Faerghail to work in an Amiga emulator was an annoying experience, and I'm not sure whether to blame the emulator, the game files, or the overall platform. Essentially, no matter what configuration options I tried, the emulator just presented me with the image of a disk, as if I hadn't just told it where to find the ADF files. I tried downloading other versions and was confused to find that they, despite being ostensibly for the Amiga, didn't have any of the file extensions the emulator was looking for.

The solution was to shell out $30 for the "Amiga Forever" package, which I guess--and I admit I'm slightly confused about this--uses WinUAE as its engine, but offers a nice front-end to help you with the settings. Its built-in search feature helped me find a new set of the files, and in no time, it had created a tidy package of the three game disks and figured out the configuration. It seems like a great product.

I suppose that, to the extent that it's worth playing this game at all, it was worth the effort to set up the Amiga version. DOS versions usually underperform Amiga versions in graphics and sound in any game, but this one takes it to an extreme, with no sound in the DOS version. I was pleased to hear some nice music when I loaded the Amiga files, not so different in quality from what we might hear in a game created in the last few years. The sound is also quite nice, with background audio like wind howling, crickets chirping, birds squawking, and water dripping in the dungeons. These are, in fact, the first "background sounds" that I remember hearing in an RPG (with perhaps the exception of Ultima V's waterfalls and ticking clocks), though it's probable that another game did it first and I just didn't play the Amiga version of that one.

The graphics, of course, are also much better, and include touches not found in the DOS version, such as a sun that passes overhead during the day and different lighting levels for different times of day.

A comparison of Amiga graphics (left) and DOS EGA graphics (right).

The Amiga version lacks most of the bugs that I complained about in the DOS version. Character creation doesn't allow you to subvert the intended restrictions on race, sex, and class. I haven't had any negative experience points, and there are enemies in the dwarven mines. Dungeons are dark and require "light" spells or torches to properly navigate.
The Amiga version does have at least one bug of its own: when you go to (E)quip items, the key that works is "D" despite the game clearly suggesting that it's "E." Also, the ghostly figures that indicate a monster party don't show up all the time; sometimes you just stumble into combats in what looks like a blank square.
Gameplay overall is also better. Experience rewards seem to be better balanced (Siegurd takes only about 35% instead of 75%). Both gold and rations are more plentiful--in fact, my rations do nothing but increase. Spells succeed more often, and combats aren't quite as deadly. Treasure chests have something in them--multiple items, usually. Traps are less deadly, and walking into a wall doesn't cause damage unless you do it repeatedly. Time doesn't pass as fast (which may account for the plentiful rations), though this might have been an issue of my having DOSBox jacked up too high.
The game notifies me as to the presence of traps more often than in the DOS version.
In this version, Siegurd has the ability to resurrect slain characters, though he'll only do it a limited number of times.

My one complaint has to do with the loading times. Even with the emulator set to not use era-authentic speeds, it still takes 10 seconds for character and monster portraits to load and about 30 seconds to change between locations. I realize this is nothing compared to what the original players had to endure, but I'm used to things being essentially instantaneous in DOSBox.
Since I already had the maps of the east valley and the mines, my initial gameplay involved retracing my steps, collecting treasures, and fighting combats. Unlike in the DOS version, I never had to leave the mines to restock on food once I entered, since it didn't deplete very fast and I kept finding more on slain foes. I did leave once to sell excess equipment (it encumbers you and you eventually run out of room), but my gold started racking up so fast that I ultimately stopped bothering to collect all the miscellaneous weapons and armor after combat. My characters got significant weapon and armor upgrades in less than an hour without much effort.

Most of the content-related mysteries remain the same between the versions. The dwarven mines had several encounters with quasi-NPCs, including the dwarven king...

...but there didn't seem to be any way to actually interact with them. Just before the treasury, there's this guy, who seems to be asking some kind of riddle...

I have no idea what this means.

 ...but I can't figure out what he wants, and in any case you can just walk past him.

Speaking of the treasury, I was surprised to find that chests re-appear when you leave a dungeon and return. I don't know if this was true in the DOS version or not; I never checked. This essentially breaks the economy, and renders haggling over expensive items (every character has a "negotiate" skill) rather useless.

The monsters on Level 4 became too hard, so I left and went to Cyldane, where I reached the point I had reached at the end of the DOS version by visiting the Count. He promised to send additional troops to help Thyn, which I guess means that I've technically won the game, since that was my primary mission. But the Count also suggested that I visit the Library of Sagacita to learn more about the elves and why they might have suddenly turned hostile. Siegurd automatically left my group when we reached the city, so I guess I'm on my own.

While I was exploring the wilderness, one of my characters (the game didn't specify) relayed a dream that he or she had in which armies of the humanoid races battled armies of dragons, led by one particularly evil dragon. He or she also dreamed of a sword, an axe, and a bow with dragon's head iconography. I don't know how this dream will work into the plot.

As I finished my explorations, all of my characters had risen to Level 2. Leveling produces increases to two skills, and I think these skills are randomly chosen (though limited by the character's class). The game's skills are negotiating ability, attack ability, defense ability, concentration (chance of successfully casting spells in combat), pocketpicking, stalking, trap detection, trap disarming, and lock picking. I've seen "negotiating" increase in stores, but I haven't seen any of the others increase from usage. Perhaps they do behind the scenes. I'll record the present values and check.

Chalke levels up.

I'm liking the game a bit better on this new platform, but there are still a few things I don't like:

  • Navigation visuals continue to bother me. You don't see walls, trees, doors, and other objects to your right and left when they're in your current square or even (for some objects) one square ahead of you. This makes it very hard to properly map, and it goes in contrast to any other 3-D game I've experienced

Not only is there a wall immediately to my left in this picture, there's a tree one square ahead and tot the left.

  • Armor and weapons get damaged slowly over time, and you have to stop and repair them. If you have a smith, repairing is essentially instantaneous and uses items that the smith comes with. Because it's so easy to fix, the presence of the dynamic seems rather pointless.
  • Regular combat, in which you watch every blow in a little animated sequence, is fun exactly once. After that, it's "quick" combat all the way--which makes it annoying when I accidentally hit (A) on the wrong screen and have to ENTER through all of the individual combat actions.

One of the more interesting enemies I faced.

  • Other parties are occasionally friendly, but there's no rhyme or reason to it. Some of the dwarves in the mines would talk to me, others wanted to fight. Tradesmen, whom you'd expect to always be friendly, are sometimes inexplicably hostile. Even when they talk, there's  not much you can do with them. Sometimes they offer things for sale, but never anything I want. I wish they would buy my stuff instead. In any event, the character who establishes successful contact gets a handful of experience points. It's a potentially-interesting dynamic that was never fleshed out.

A suicidal tradesman approaches me.

  • When leveling, a single character must have all the gold necessary to pay for the training, but depending on how much stuff you're carrying, it may not be possible for one character to carry the weight of that much gold. There's no way to "pool" gold and just let all your characters draw from a pool.

These negatives are all balanced by some positives, and it's in no way an unpleasant experience, but as I said in the first post, Legend of Faerghail mostly feels like a rehash of other games rather than anything truly original.

In my next post, I'll have more on the combat, equipment, and magic systems.


Further Reading: My first, second, and third posts on Legend of Faerghail, plus coverage of the game on "CRPG Revisiting old classics."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Game 124: Avatar (1979)

I feel like I'm on a roll with these PLATO games, and I wanted to finish up while I still had the other games, and my conversations with the developers, fresh in my mind. I gave a quick chronology of the PLATO series--the earliest computer RPGs that we know about--in my Orthanc posting. Avatar is notable as being the last of the series, and the only one initially developed after commercial RPGs were hitting the market for the Apple II and Commodore PET. (I wonder how the students exposed to the PLATO games reacted to the first commercially-released RPGs. They must have been a little underwhelmed.)

Wikipedia's entry quotes author Richard Bartle as saying that Avatar was written to "out-do Oubliette" (I blogged about that game in October). It was wildly successful--"the most successful PLATO game ever," accounting for "6% of all the hours spent on the system between September 1978 and May 1985."

The town section of Avatar.

I can certainly see why. Avatar is impressive now and must have been mind-blowing in 1979. It draws from the best elements of the PLATO games that preceded it (particularly Oubliette, but also Moria and Orthanc) and anticipates games to come, including roguelikes and MMORPGs. And it's still quite alive: the November 15 reset of "Vavatar" (one of the three versions) was big news on Cyber1, and when I signed in on Sunday afternoon, there were 35 other players. They're not just playing for historical curiosity; Cyber1 enforces strict cheating rules in the active versions of the game. There are fan pages, items lists, maps, and hint files all over the place on the Internet. If the community isn't quite as populous or tech-savvy as that of, say, NetHack, it's still very active.

The users when I joined the game. Even "Batkid" likes this game.

As with the other PLATO games, Avatar was continually developed after its initial release in 1979, so I'm not sure how much I'm about to relate is from the original version. The latest copyright date on all of the versions' main screens is 1984. I did most of my playing in the "2avatar" lesson, which Cyber1 says is the closest to the original.

The game takes place in a dungeon of 15 levels of 900 squares (30 x 30) each, with a town on top. Unlike in Oubliette, the town in Avatar is a menu town; exploration doesn't start until you actually head into the dungeon (I thought it had been Wizardry that first adopted this convention). The dungeon, like those of the game's predecessors, are filled with monsters and treasure. The player has no specific overall goal or quest except to develop in level and guild membership. His experience is bounded only by old age (every race has a max age) and the occasional administrative reset of the dungeon.

A typical Avatar exploration window. You can see my stats in the lower left, my equipment in the lower right, a door in front of me, and two--excuse me, one--goblin in between.

Like Oubliette, Avatar uses the standard six D&D attributes and expands upon D&D with a greater selection of races and "classes." Among the races, the player can choose the standard humans, elves, dwarves, and gnomes; monster classes like trolls, ogres, and giants; and exotic selections such as Cirilians ("most versatile"), Osiri (make good thieves), and Morlochs (who have a natural magic ability). I don't know the sources for any of the latter three except for the obvious connection between the last and H.G. Wells's Morlocks.

Creating a new character.

The game is the first to allow an alignment choice of good, neutral, or evil (Oubliette had alignments, but they were lawful, neutral, and chaotic) and the first to allow the player to choose a sex. It's also the first to have certain items of equipment aspected to particular alignments.

The player doesn't choose a class for his character but rather determines his attributes from a pool of points (with minimums and maximums based on race) and then later chooses which guilds to join out of 11 possibilities: warrior, ninja, thief, mage, sorcerer, healer, wizard, scavenger, seeker, paladin, and villain. Every character belongs to the "nomad" guild from the outset, can choose a different one for free, and can pay to join additional ones after that. The guilds all have minimum entry standards for attributes; for instance, you have to have a charisma of at least 16 and dexterity of at least 15 to join the paladins' guild. They also have alignment standards (no good villains or evil healers) and race standards (no ogre healers or troll paladins). My most successful character, a good Osiri with 16 strength, 9 intelligence, 6 wisdom, 12 constitution, 12 charisma, and 20 dexterity, was qualified only for the scavenger (fighter/thief) guild, mostly because of his low wisdom, but also because the warriors' guild (which he qualified for in attributes) doesn't allow Osiri.

Joining the scavenger's guild.

Guild membership not only determines your available spells but also what weapons and armor you can wield and what additional skills you have. When you amass experience points, you can choose which guild (i.e., class) to level in. Essentially, we're seeing AD&D 3rd edition multi-class rules here in 1978.

Combat, unfortunately, has the same limited options as Oubliette or Moria, basically amounting to hitting "f" to fight or "s" to cast a spell. Success is governed by the attack and defense scores--in both cases, the higher the better. I don't think there are any theoretical upper and lower bounds to either. You start with a base chance of 50% to hit, modified by adding your attack score and then subtracting the enemy's defense score.

Equipment, of course, modifies both attack and defense. You start the game with 500 gold pieces loaned from the bank. Items are limited by your class. They start cheap for leather and bronze equipment and then rise dramatically into the thousands of gold pieces for anything better. The game is unique in that it has a closed economy--a fixed number of gold pieces possessed by the bank, monsters, and the players. In between resets, some late-arriving players apparently find that gold is very hard to obtain.

Jesus, what's that padding made of?

I didn't get to experiment much with spells. As I noted, each class has a unique spellbook, with the spells organized into different types, including damage, healing, buffing, and navigation. The "seeker" class is an interesting one that specializes in being about to move about the dungeon quite rapidly with a variety of teleportation and information spells. New to this game is the ability to "quickslot" your spells by assigning them to number keys.

Spells available to the paladin guild members.

Avatar is fundamentally a multiplayer game. You can journey on your own, but you need a lot of luck. As the help file notes, solo journeys carry a risk "because you will only have one or two skills on a single character where three or four are normally required to be safe." The dungeon is horrifically deadly for new, inexperienced, solo players, as I discovered repeatedly with my initial attempts at characters. None of them survived more than a few combats, even when liberally retreating to the stairs to head back up to the town and restore health. Moreover, some of the game's best features are multiplayer-oriented, such as the messaging window, the ability to call for help, and the ability to trade items. New players on multiplayer servers have a much easier time if their companions allow them to tag along in the rear and give them better equipment and attribute-boosting potions.

Mostly from the documentation rather than personal experience, I found several other "firsts" in the game:

  • Guilds can give quests to kill certain monsters or find specific items, making this the first game to offer such quests. The monsters chosen seem to be random, though based on the player's current level. The dynamic is so similar to what Richard Garriott introduced in Akalabeth that it's hard to believe that one didn't influence the other, but I don't see how that's possible. I can't place Garriott anywhere where he'd have access to PLATO, and in any event the first version of Akalabeth was out the same year--but not widespread, making it unlikely that Avatar was influenced by Akalabeth.
  • Random encounters with monsters can be peaceful. Monsters may even join the party if the leader's charisma is high enough.

Chester meets a couple of friendly goblins. Alas, they did not remain that way.

  • Players can ask each other to "send reports" of monsters encountered in specific locations to make it easier to find them and solve the quests.
  • The game is deliberately vague about the monsters and items you can encounter in the dungeons, encouraging players to take notes, learn about them, and share their knowledge with other players, a dynamic that we see in many later roguelikes like NetHack.
  • The dungeon features traps and navigation obstacles that we haven't seen before but will find in dozens of later games, such as teleporters, pits, zones of darkness, revolving squares or spinners, and squares that extinguish active magic spells. There are also some obstacles that are rare or unique to this game, such as quicksand, "illusion squares" that show you things that don't exist, and corridors that gradually slope down, taking you to a new level without you realizing it.
  • Monsters can cause the large variety of special effects that we've come to expect from CRPGs, including poison, disease, stoning, aging, sleep, paralysis, attribute drains, breath attacks, and the ability to destroy or steal items and gold. Again, these features anticipate Rogue and NetHack over the coming years.
  • There are a large number of contextually-sensitive keyboard commands, with upper- and lower-case  variants having different effects. For instance, "t" moves you up or down stairs, but "T" has you track another player.

As I said, Cyber1 has three versions of Avatar, which it lists as "'2avatar' for the original, 'Zavatar' for the updated game, and 'Vavatar' for the 'lunatic fringe.'" I'm not exactly sure how to interpret that last bit, but "Vavatar" had the most players. Each version allows the same player to run more than one character, and the policies warn you that if you're caught exceeding a limit of two or four with additional logins, you'll be deleted summarily. It's a nice idea that allows a single player to control a party, but I couldn't get it to work. Perhaps you have to have login privileges that allow you to log in from more than one terminal at once (I don't), or perhaps you have to have different logins for all of them.

In any event, after experiencing as much as I could of the earliest version, I checked out "Vavatar." All I could really see that was different was a new "Warlock" class that's something like a fighter/thief and some new skills and abilities that come with each guild membership. Exploring the dungeon, it seemed to me that there were fewer enemy parties with multiple enemies, making things a little easier, but I still couldn't survive to Level 2. I thought about looking around for a party to join, but I didn't know how to find them, and anyway, I prefer single-player games for a reason.

While Avatar is improved from Oubliette, it doesn't do anything new or better in terms of things like story or NPCs. In fact, it does a bit worse, as it doesn't tell you anything about the game world, or even give it a name. It also lacks Oubliette's hirelings, which would have made the single-player experience a lot easier, and overall it's simply too difficult as a single-player game. But its more sophisticated than Oubliette in its economy, equipment, and limited quests. These positives and negatives almost cancel each other out, and Avatar ends up with a score of 32 on my GIMLET to Oubliette's 31.

The three original creators plus the later developers of Avatar seem to have enjoyed solid careers befitting their talent. Bruce Maggs went on to teach computer science at Carnegie Mellon and Duke University; Andrew Shapira is a principal engineer at; David Sides has had a series of management positions in software development; Tom Kirchman has been the chief technology officer for two companies; Greg Janusz is the president of his own company; and Mark Eastom I can't find anywhere. But we're 5 for 6.

A single-player, commercial version of Avatar was released for Windows 1995, titled Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol. Judging by Wikipedia's entry, it seems to have preserved the classes, 15-level dungeon, and guild system while offering a boss enemy (the "Prince of Devils") to defeat in a main quest. I don't know what kind of deal (if any) developer David Allen worked out with the developers of Avatar, so I'm not sure whether the game is a blatant copyright violation or a nice homage. Either way, I'll play it in a few years.

Now that we've finished the early PLATO series, lets see what conclusions we can draw from the games in general. The following come to mind:

  • The earliest CRPGs were based unabashedly on Dungeons & Dragons, liberally borrowing attributes, classes, and races. This adoption was immediate, with most of the computer games developed in the first two years of D&D's initial release.
  • Yet the PLATO developers weren't slaves to D&D. They didn't hesitate to adjust combat rules, offer alternate attributes, throw in their own monsters (some adapted from other fantasy stories), invent their own items, and define their own experience tables.
  • The PLATO games were built on a college campus using networked terminals. Given the setting, they weren't interested in isolated single-player gaming as much as a sense of community. Even the games that didn't allow cooperative multi-player still had leaderboards and discussion groups. The earliest CRPGs were thus, inescapably, multiplayer RPGs. Single-player games for non-networked computers had a more spontaneous generation as the PLATO CRPG era was coming to a close.
  • Perhaps as an extension of the point above, there wasn't a single PLATO RPG that didn't feature permadeath. There were some--Moria, Oubliette, and Avatar--in which slain characters could be resurrected by other players, but none in which dead characters could be revived from a save point. (It didn't occur to me until now how late "reloading" came to CRPGs. Looking at my list, I think maybe the first game to feature it was Ultima in 1981.)
  • Again, partly because of the multiplayer aspect, these games weren't concerned with ideas of "role-playing" as we think of them today. They didn't steep their games in history and lore or fill the dungeons with special encounters and NPCs. One wonders if these trappings arose precisely as a way to compensate for the lack of interaction with other human beings in offline play.
  • The focus of these games--combat statistics, logistics, and permadeath--reflected the realities of pen-and-paper roleplaying at the time. You couldn't "reload" a slain tabletop D&D character, they must have reasoned. Why should you be able to do so on the computer?
  • It was many years before the computing capabilities of home computers could match what was programmed on the PLATO mainframe. Some of the ones that did it the best took obvious inspiration from the PLATO games.
  • None of the PLATO developers, despite all their work and great ideas, seem to have gone into gaming as a career. The one small exception is Jim Schwaiger, who participated in a commercial version of Oubliette.
  • All the PLATO games featured excellent documentation.

Part of Avatar's help file, indicating what classes are available to which races.

Technically, though, we aren't done with PLATO. Cyber1's home page has an announcement about Camelot, a new PLATO RPG based on code originally developed in the 1980s. The home page lists copyright dates from 1982-2013, so I guess I'll call it a 1982 game and put it on the backtracking list.

Next up: either a return to Legend of Faerghail (if I can figure out the Amiga emulator) or an early start on Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday.


Further reading: Check out my coverage of "the Earliest CRPGs" written in PLATO and available on Cyber1, including The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1974), The Game of Dungeons (aka "dnd," 1975), Orthanc (1975), Moria (1975), and Oubliette (1977). "The Game Archaeologist" covered PLATO games (not just RPGs) in August, and Matt Barton had an article on his experiences with the PLATO RPGs in 2007 plus a video review in 2009.