Friday, January 17, 2014

Game 133: Dark Designs I: Grelminar's Staff (1990)


Dark Designs I: Grelminar's Staff
United States
Softdisk Publishing (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for Apple II, 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 15 January 2014
Date Ended: 15 January 2014
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 31
Ranking at Time of Posting: 80/142 (56%)
Ranking at Game #456: 286/456 (63%)

Dark Designs is an unpretentious, short, somewhat satisfying little diskmag game that distills the most common RPG themes into a nice package. It doesn't break any new ground, but I don't think that was its goal.

Both this game and its sequel appeared the same year in two different disk magazines published by Softdisk Publishing: Softdisk for the Apple II and Big Blue Disk for DOS. The games were created by two young Softdisk employees, John D. Carmack and John Romero, who within a year would leave Softdisk to establish their own company, id Software, and become famous for a little game called DOOM. Before they became known for marines in space, though, they flirted briefly with fantasy games; Dark Designs is set in the same world as Catacomb, the duo's fantasy action series.

The game takes place in "the borderlands," which are threatened by a "mysterious warlord" who is amassing an army in the mountains of the north. His army is supplemented by demons, devils, and "chaos avatars" coming from a planar gate in a mountain called Delkeina. Because "the major nations are squabbling amongst themselves and refuse to acknowledge this threat," it's up to a group of adventurers to deal with the warlord. In the first installment, the party must explore the ruins of the castle of the great wizard Grelminar, hoping to find a magic staff that has the power to close planar portals. I haven't read the story for the second game yet, but its subtitle, Closing the Gate, makes its contribution to the story fairly clear.

Exploring the first level of the castle. I've just walked into a new room and am about to fight a battle.

You control up to four characters, who explore a five-level castle near a menu town called Tabrobale. Characters can be fighters, priests, or wizards, and they have a common set of attributes: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, and piety. The game offers a novel character creation process by which you roll five random attributes and then manually assign them to your chosen statistics.

Assigning statistics during character creation.

The interface is like a combination of Wizardry and Phantasie: a first-person view on the left, and a slowly revealed automap on the right. As you explore, you engage in a variety of both fixed and random combats, navigate locked doors by finding the appropriate keys, and open treasure chests (which always, for some reason, have exactly 96 gold pieces).

The game world is well-constructed, consisting of a castle with two basement levels and three upper levels. You start on the main floor, and a logical progression, given the keys you find, is main floor, second floor, basement, sub-basement, third floor. You have to return to the main floor and the town frequently, as it's the only way to regenerate spell points. The game does a good job with little descriptions of every room and hallway, and the castle feels like a real place.

Succinct, evocative text appears as you go from room to room.

Every level has several secret areas, revealed by facing a wall and searching for hidden doors. On the main castle level, they're easy to find because there's no unused space, but on other levels you really have to search every wall. Oddly, secret areas don't necessarily contain any treasure or special items. They might just have an extra combat or some flavor text.

This secret area had both.

Combat in the game follows a Wizardry model. Every round, characters have the ability to attack, cast a spell, use an item, exchange weapons, and move forward or backward in their ranks (by default, the first two characters always start in the first rank; the second two are in the rear). If attacking or casting, you specify the enemy you want to target by letter, or the character by number. You line up all your attacks and then hit the SPACE bar to see the results.

Priests and wizards each have only eight spells, available as soon as you can afford to buy the spellbooks. Each costs between 1 and 8 spell points, and you only get about 4 spell points per level. Most of the tactical and strategic effort in the game comes from making decisions about spells: whether to cast mass-damage spells that hurt everyone moderately, or target a devastating spell on a single enemy; whether to spend a lot of points on a high level spell and have to return to the town to recharge, or hold off and try to get more time out of the current expedition; whether to focus on defensive spells like "speed" and "strength" to bolster fighters, or offensive spells like "lightning bolt" and "fireball."

My wizard spends 7 spell points casting one of the game's more powerful mass damage spells. The little icons show which combat ranks on their side (left) and your side (right) are in striking distance of each other..

Enemies consist of standard D&D-derived monsters--orcs, trolls, gargoyles, zombies, liches, etc.--and the combats are extremely well-balanced with the character levels. Cleared areas of the dungeon remain clear of fixed encounters, though there is a small possibility of random encounters on any level, so you can spin in place and grind if you feel like you need an extra level or two. Leveling up occurs automatically as soon as you have enough experience, and I found that leveling was relatively swift throughout the game. In five hours, my characters got to Level 10. An 11th probably would have been a stretch.

The more challenging enemies--liches, demons, some mages--might require several reloads to defeat depending on luck. Enemies have the same spells you do, and they use them more intelligently than foes in a lot of games. It's not uncommon to spend a few rounds bashing down a demon's hit points only to have him cast a "cure all" spell and get fully healed. Others are capable of multiple attacks per round; for instance, a manticore can use his claws, his bite, and his tail spikes. Some are capable of petrification but, thankfully, there's no poison in the game. Unconscious characters can be revived with a "Death's Door" spell. Dead characters have to be brought to the temple, where resurrection costs a bundle.

There was a reload not long after this point in the battle.

The game unfortunately falls short of "hidden gem" territory. There are no NPCs or special encounters in the game. Just a few people to talk with, or a few decisions to make, would have made a big difference. It's also a little too easy. If the developers had only allowed saving in the town, it would have imparted some of the tension of Wizardry or Might & Magic, where you wonder if you should kick down one more door or head back to town to heal and save. The ability to save anywhere removes a lot of this challenge.

A rare full-party death.

Winning the game means finding Grelminar's staff on the third floor of the castle, defeating its guardians, and returning to Tabrobale. This, in turn, means finding the right succession of keys. There are some memorable and difficult encounters along the way:
  • A battle with a medusa. My characters were able to resist her gaze and kill her, after which they got her skull as a special object. It was capable of stoning any enemies I faced, but with the disadvantage that I didn't get experience points from those battles. I only used it once, to kill a golem that seemed immune to my physical attacks.

The golem appears to be headless, so I'm not sure how he's looking at the medusa skull.

  • In the sub-basement, an unholy chapel where I interrupted a gathering of evil mages and priests, killed the lot of them, and got the key I needed for the third floor.

  • A final fight with two ice demons and a three-headed hydra. If all of them cast a mass damage spell in the first round, you're toast.

Fortunately, my own mass damage spells help a lot.

When you return to town with the staff, you're given a congratulatory message, and the four characters are "locked" so you can't play them any more until the sequel. The game says you can create new characters and continue to explore, but the castle map doesn't reset, so any new characters can only fight random combats.

There's one optional area in the game. On the main floor of the castle is a gazebo with a locked door. You don't find the key to open it until late in the game. By the time you find the key, you've learned (from a message on a wall) that Grelminar imprisoned a demon in the gazebo. There's a strong suggestion not to go inside.
But a brave and high-level party can prevail in the combat. The demon is just an ice demon--the same as the two that you fight in the last battle--and the only thing that makes him difficult is that he has several flame devil allies. After a few unlucky battles, I was able to defeat them with repeated castings of "banishment," which does serious damage to otherworldly creatures.

A very difficult, but optional, battle.

I could have gotten two postings out of the game, but I decided to win it in one session. It took about five hours. For a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 4 points for the game world. It tells a decent back story and creates a sensibly-structured, well-described castle.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. There aren't many options during creation, but development is rapid and rewarding. Unfortunately, the encounters play the same no matter what choices you make.

Studying my character sheet while in a hallway. I need a little less than 5,000 experience points to make the next level.

  • 0 points for NPCs, an oversight in this game.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. There's a good selection of enemies, well-balanced to the party, who behave differently depending on type. I also liked the opportunity for random encounters, but the game doesn't overwhelm you with them. Unfortunately, it lacks any non-combat role-playing encounters.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Unfortunately, there aren't quite enough options, or enough spells, for the combat to be truly tactical.

The game's eight wizard spells don't give you much to work with.

  • 4 points for equipment. You have weapons, shields, armor, and rings to equip, found both in the shop and fixed locations in the game world. There aren't very many equipment upgrades throughout the game, though every class gets at least one magic weapon. The magic weapons are fun in that every round, there's a chance that some special attack will activate and do significantly more damage to your enemy.

This one was my favorite.

  • 4 points for economy. You get gold from combat and chests, and for most of the game, there are magic items or spells that you're saving to purchase. When you have all the special items, there are healing potions and "recall" scrolls (whisk you back to town) to spend money on. It was only in the last 15 minutes that I felt I had too much money to spend.

Buying equipment in the menu town.

  • 2 points for a decent main quest, but no choices or side-quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Neither graphics nor sound are of particularly high quality. The keyboard interface is okay, but I found combat commands needlessly complicated, and it was far too easy to accidentally move (B)ack in the ranks when I meant to attack enemy B. Other similar glitches precluded smooth playing.
  • 3 points for gameplay that's pitched at the right length, but is also very linear, too easy, and with limited replayability.

The final score of 31 is pretty good for a diskmag game. It's a little below what I'd put on anyone's "must play" list, but it's certainly good enough to pass an afternoon, and I look forward to seeing what improvements the developers made in Dark Designs II, which I'll play in a few months. If more games only lasted one day, I might get through 1990 in a single year.


  1. Looks like the game did its job, nothing more, nothing less. And it served as an exercise for promising new game developers which gives it a small place in gaming history.

  2. John Carmack would eventually come full circle and produce/direct the turn-based role-playing game "Doom RPG" for mobile phone systems. It was released in 2005, according to Wikipedia.

    The Doom RPG engine would later be used to create the fantasy turn-based RPG "Orcs & Elves", also directed by John Carmack, released on mobile phones in 2006 and the Nintendo DS in 2007. A sequel, "Orcs & Elves II" is for mobile platforms only.

    I played the DS version of "Orcs & Elves"; it was short and simple, but also fun and atmospheric. It's fascinating to learn that Carmack has been creating game settings with a strong sense of place and identity for a long time.

    1. I don't know why, but I had always assumed that Doom RPG was a fan effort. I guess I was confusing it with Doom, the Roguelike.

  3. As an FYI, I'm reasonably certain that the development schedule for these games was 30 days. Compare that to some of the other games of the time that took 12+ months to make.

  4. Looks like much of the graphics were lifted from the Might & Magic series and Ultima.

    Would someone mind educating ignorant me, as to what a "diskmag" game is?

    DOOM would do a lot to revolutionize computer gaming, changing expectations in regard to graphics, popularizing multiplayer, and expanding the market for electronic gaming -- trends that would in turn affect the popularity and development of CRPGs.

    1. Diskmags were magazines that came on disk. Usually came as an executable file of whatever platform, and it would launch a reader where you could (sometimes) look at screenshots, read reviews and articles, and it would often have small games or tool programs.
      I remember we had a couple of CLOAD Magazine cassette tapes laying around for the TRS-80 way back when. Good times.

    2. I remember several gaming magazines in the late nineties providing CD's with game demos and promotions on them. Because of them I discovered a lot of great games I would have otherwise missed.

    3. Sorry I didn't define it. I'd played a few other diskmag games recently, so I figured people would be aware of the term, but I shouldn't assume everyone reads every post.

    4. An excellent book on John Carmack / John Romero is "Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture". It goes into detail about their time at Softdisk, how/why they split off, how iD grew, and then how things fell apart. It even addresses "make you his bitch" and how that didn't go over so well...

      Since I have the feeling Chet will never listen to me again because of my opinion on Elvira, I can at least point to 144 Amazon reviewers giving it an average 4.8 out of 5.

  5. Whenever I see John Romero's name mentioned on the net, I half expect to find a "make you his bitch" joke somewhere in there.

    1. Actually I find the lack of invoking obvious cliches quite refreshing.

    2. I had to Google what you were talking about. I think I have to fall on the side of that ad being really obnoxious.

    3. I read 'Masters of DOOM' awhile back and the story sort of has a sad undertone to it. Romero and Carmack really were complete opposites, but in such a way that their power combined was incredible. When they split, neither was really able to function nearly as well.

      Romero, without Carmack's genuis programming and ability to reign in his excessive personality, would start Ion Storm, but it failed largely due to Romero's abrasive personality and complete lack of effective business management. "John Romero is going to make you his bitch" was an actual ad for his Daikatana game, which was based off of a long-running AD&D session the guys used to play at id software while they were programming DOOM.

      Carmack, never the people person and (according to the book) pretty disinterested in releasing actual products didn't seem able to effectively manage the company. After Romero left the company released a handful of games sporadically. Rage HD, released in 2010, was it's first new IP since Quake in 1996.

      All their other releases are just improvements or rehashes of Quake or DOOM and Romero now heads a company that produces 'social games' (read: Facebook Apps).

    4. Carmack has now left ID actually, and is working for Oculus Rift, which will hopefully give him some direction and since he isn't running the company, hopefully keep him going.

      That said, I think you are undervaluing his contributions. Yes, they kept releasing Quake over and over, but look how many games are based on the various Quake and IdTech engines. Sure, he may not make great games, but he has allowed a hell of a lot of great games to be created.

  6. The golem pummels you. You use the medusa skull on the golem! The golem's clay turns to stone. The stone golem pummels you even harder!

    1. I didn't think about that. I suppose since a golem is a construct without flesh or circulation, this would indeed occur.

      When I was reading this comment, I thought, "This sounds like the kind of thing NetHack would implement." I just looked at the wiki and it turns out, yep, if you stone any other golem, it turns into stone golem. The individuals who designed the game really did anticipate every possible scenario.

  7. I remember playing this game all the way to the final fight, but I couldn't defeat the last two Ice Deamons. I also had no idea that that was the end of the game. I assumed the game continued, so I always thought I gave up pretty early on. I guess I basically beat it after all.

    1. The difference between beating something and 'basically beating' something is about two Ice Deamons ;)

    2. I gotta say that's pretty funny.

  8. Interesting to see what Carmack and Romero were up to.

  9. Waitaminit! A LICH Fighter?! Isn't that a little bit of an overkill? Like mounting rocket launchers on a magic sword that spits out gold coins, like a slot machine hitting Jackpot, with every kill??

    What next? A Wendigo Archmage? A Titan High Priest? A Dragon Samurai?

    1. I was just wondering what's the difference between a "lich fighter" and a skeleton.

    2. Isn't a lich like a necromancer who experimented on himself or something. So maybe this lich then took a few levels in Fighting Man.

  10. Hi, thanks for the excellent review!
    Made me want to play this.

    Sorry to ask such a lame question, but can someone tell me how to get to the Top Castle Level?
    I've gone through all the ground level, 1st upper level, and both dungeon levels, but somehow cant find access to the final top level? Guessing it's related to a secret door, but I must've missed that one..

  11. (sorry for posting anonymously the first time)
    Hi, thanks for the excellent review!
    Made me want to play this.

    Sorry to ask such a lame question, but can someone tell me how to get to the Top Castle Level?
    I've gone through all the ground level, 1st upper level, and both dungeon levels, but somehow cant find access to the final top level? Guessing it's related to a secret door in the 1st Upper Level, but I must've missed that one and I've checked everywhere I can find for some secret door leading higher...

    1. I'm sorry, man. It's been way to long since I played. Hopefully, someone else will come along and give you a hand.

    2. Probably way too late, but anyway...You need Key 3 which you can find on the black altar on the lowest level. Use it on the locked door in the King and Queen's Bedroom in the Mid Castle Level.

    3. Heh, the answer is even in this blog entry if you read carefully.

  12. I'm glad to see this little game covered here. This is such a nice little CRPG that can be finished one lazy Sunday, and has the rare distinction of being one of the few CRPGs from the DOS era I've played that truly feels 'beginner friendly' in terms of both scope and mechanics. I'd like a few more CRPGs of this nature - not epic in scope, not too difficult, and merely serving as a teaser (or stepping stone, if you will) for the more epic adventures out there.

  13. I think the golem fight might have been changed somewhere between the Apple II and the DOS release. I'm currently playing the former, and am stuck at that point in the game. I couldn't find any FAQs or walkthroughs for this game, but as luck would have it, this article just happens to mention that the Medusa's skull is the key to continue.

    Unfortunately, my copy of the game won't accept that. The golem is as unimpressed by the skull as it is by any other of my physical or magical attacks. The skull is even a one-time use item, it disappears from my character's inventory after using it once.

    Does anybody know how to continue in the Apple II version?

    1. I ended up figuring it out myself by coincidence. Here's the crucial hint in ROT13:
      Bayl zl jvmneq'f Fgevxvat Fgnss jnf noyr gb uheg gur qrzba, va zryrr pbzong.

    2. I meant golem, of course...

  14. The system of rolling statistics and assigning them afterwards is actually a popular variation of D&D's character creation rules. It's more fair than rolling them sequentially, which I believe earlier versions of D&D (and probably many other tabletop rule systems) imply or outright direct you to do.


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