|One of the game's most memorable encounters so far. I like T&T's wraiths a lot better than D&Ds; they just drain my levels.|
I was in fourth grade when the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and its competitors, exploded among my peer group. For those uninitiated, the series consisted of nearly two hundred short books, each told from a second-person perspective (e.g., "You walk down the corridor . . ."). Every couple of pages, the reader would have a choice, perhaps as innocuous as trying the left door or right door, or as consequential as which character to accuse of murder. A single book might have a couple dozen "endings," some good, some bad, some just screwed up.
I think my first exposure was Trapped in the Black Box, having to do with time travel, from a CYOA knockoff series called Which Way. Looking through the CYOA titles, the one I remember most was Inside UFO 54-40 (1982), a science fiction story in which characters repeatedly mention a paradise-like planet called "Ultima" but note that you cannot get there by simply following directions. At one point, I stumbled upon some passages in the middle of the book that depict the reader's arrival on Ultima--essentially the "perfect" ending. I scoured the entire book looking for the reference to those pages--for the path that would take me to that ending--before realizing that you can literally only get there by not following directions, by just flipping randomly to those pages. My little mind was blown.
|The first book in the series.|
For a brief period from maybe 1982-1984, I consumed dozens of the books. As much as I liked them, I never did find an optimal way to read them. I'm not sure there was one. Your options are basically:
- Read only a single path, in which case you've just purchased a 100-page book but only read 6 pages of it.
- Read a single path and, when it ends, start over at the beginning and try a different one. You end up reading many of the same pages over and over again.
- Read a path until it ends, then go back to the previous branch and read to the next ending, always returning to the most recent branch, until at last you've read the whole book.
I dare say that most people did what I did--#3--even though it rendered meaningless the idea of choosing your own adventure. I even made up little paper bookmarks with numbers from 1-10 on them, and I'd insert them between the pages at which each branch occurred, making it easier to find the previous one. You might call it "choice-scumming."
When I wrote about "The Perfect CRPG: Encounters" a couple years ago, I didn't exactly couch it this way, but I guess my idea of a perfect RPG has always been something along the lines of a CYOA book with all the other RPG mechanics surrounding it. (I know these technically exist in paper form--such as in Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series--but the nature of the medium makes the gameplay more limiting than even the most basic CRPG.) I want the game to give me scenarios and let me decide, via role-playing or just instinct, how to navigate them. But now that I'm 42 rather than 12, I don't want to fully explore each branch for the "optimal" set of choices. I want to make my decision and live with it.
So far, Crusaders of Khazan has provided more options for this kind of gameplay than any other game in my chronology. Its encounters are detailed and multi-leveled, with various choices leading to vastly different outcomes. I don't know if it's by design, but very often, trying to always choose the most noble path, or trying to be a "completionist" (a term I really don't like) and do everything, results in an essentially unwinnable encounter. There is a palpable craving to "encounter-scum" by reloading and trying every path to figure out what outcome you like best--a compulsion that I maintain is best ignored if you really want to preserve the challenge and tension of the gameplay.
|The beginning of an encounter.|
Let's take one example. Exploring the northeast corner of the island, the party comes across a pavilion occupied by the Sheik of Khamad and his guards. The Sheik is sprawled on some pillows and a dancer sways before him. He motions for the party to approach. As they do, the party senses "one of the best dressed men" in the Sheik's retinue trying to pickpocket them. This is the result and decision tree from here:
1. Attack the man. The attack sends him sprawling and he jumps up, drawing his scimitar.
>A. Engage in combat. Combat ensues between a "human leader" and 11 warriors. If you win, "appalled by your bloodthirstiness, the remaining huntsmen cover the Sheik's retreat. In no time, you are left with the empty tents and the corpses." You get some decent experience, gold, and a piece of jewelry from the bodies.
>B. Explain the reason for your attack to the Sheik. The Sheik laughs and notes that the man is his brother and he often plays tricks on strangers. He advises the party to check the money belt, and they find a ring that the brother planted on them. The Sheik, who has grown tired of his brother's tricks, suggests that the lead character duel him to the death.
>>i. Yes. Combat ensues between the first party member and a "human leader" alone. If victorious, the Sheik notes that his brother was planning to kill and usurp him, so he's grateful to the party. After some wine and dinner, the Sheik gives the party some gold and jewels and then leaves.
>>ii. No. The Sheik breaks camp and leaves, but you get to keep the white gold ring the brother planted.
2. Accuse him of thievery. The Sheik is indignant that you've accused his brother of thievery. Guards close in ominiously.
>A. Fight. Combat ensues between a "human leader" and 11 warriors, with the results the same as 1A above.
>B. Talk your way out of it. As you talk, the ring that the Sheik's brother planted falls out of your clothes and to the floor. The Sheik gives you a chance to explain it and the game asks you to select a party member to talk. If you make your charisma roll, the Sheik believes you and lets you leave. You get nothing from the encounter. I don't know what happens if you don't make the roll because all of my characters had high enough charisma. I'm guessing it goes to combat as above.
3. Ignore him and talk to the Sheik. As you start talking, the Sheik's brother accuses you of stealing his ring. The encounter proceeds as in 2B above.
|The outcome to 1Bi.|
Assuming you can survive the combat, 1A and 2A provide the most tangible benefits to the party, in both experience points and treasure. 1Bi provides the safest path that still gives the party a reward. When I played for real, though, my choices led me to 2B, which did nothing for me. I figure there are three types of players here just as there are three paths in the CYOA books:
- Those that would reload and try all the options, eventually settling on the one that provides the best rewards.
- Those that would reload and try all the options just for curiosity's sake, but ultimately go with the path consistent with role-playing choices.
- Those that would simply make their selections, live with the consequences, and save other choices for a new game.
Where do you fall? I confess that I aspire to #3, but curiosity often leads me to #2, which, in rare cases, can lead me to #1 if the reward disparity is significant enough. For this game, except to fully document the encounters as above, I've been sticking with #3 even if it means I "miss" some of the game.
The next level, of course, is when your choices not only determine the outcomes of those encounters but also what happens later on in the game. For all I know, Khazan does that. Maybe I'll encounter the Sheik somewhere else, and my options with him will be defined by how I treated his brother.
The Sheik's tent is one of maybe a dozen such encounters that I've enjoyed in the opening city and island alone. Others include:
- A catacomb in the sewers consisting of six sarcophaguses and the mummified corpse, sitting on a throne, of a former Prince of Gull. The game gave me the option to open the coffins and burn the undead, but I declined. It then noted fables that said you can trade items with the undead. I chose to trade gold but accidentally chose a character with no gold and offered 0. I got a message that the trade was accepted and was given a piece of jewelry. Thinking that was a pretty good deal, I tried it again, and the mummy got offended and attacked me. He and his undead guards were easier to beat than I expected, but after the combat, the crypt came crashing down, and I didn't get any more items.
|Bartering with the undead.|
- A temple in the city where the acolytes worship a giant beetle. As you explore, they bustle in and strap a man to the altar to sacrifice. You heroically leap to his rescue, but I've been unable to even come close to winning the combat that follows.
|Unfortunately, my role-playing tendencies wrote a check that my characters couldn't cash.|
- A compound in the city that had been overtaken by orcs. As I tried to sneak in (one of several options for entering), I encountered a party of warriors preparing to assault the compound. I joined the assault and we defeated the orcs. Before departing, the adventurers thanked me for helping ensure that Gull didn't fall to "monsterkin" the way the Dragon Continent has. He warned me about visiting the mainland for this reason.
- An urchin begs for gold. If you don't give him enough, he'll pick your pocket for half of what you own. If you do, he says "blessings on you," but I don't know if this does anything.
- A guy named Leo hangs out in the sewers and offers the party a selection of cheese and rat meat. He turns out to be a fairly dumb were-lion, and if you go with your palate and choose the cheese, he assumes you must be a rat and attacks you. If you choose to eat the rat meat, he assumes you're human and gives you a "Cat Ring."
|Although generally cheese sounds more appetizing than rat meat, cheese in the sewers sounds less appetizing than rat meat.|
Overall, the game has offered more role-playing options in the first city than the average game does in its entirety. It makes for a unique and compelling experience.
The opening City of Gull consists of five sections and a two-level underground sewer area. The sewer is a bit odd. You enter it literally by falling into it, and you cannot exit the way you came. Woe the adventurer who enters without any torches or lamps because, for some reason, magic doesn't work there. On two expeditions, all my torches burned out and I had to navigate out in the dark. You can exit the sewers from two locations, both of which dump you into Gull's harbor, both of which can damage or kill your characters. It's a tough area for an opening party, and I would recommend that other players avoid what I did and grind to Level 2 before heading down.
When you first enter, a Charon-like demon named Ignxx appears in a boat and says that a wizard named Biorom (perhaps the lamest-named character in the game so far) ensorcelled him to help ferry adventurers around.
The sewers are filled with random encounters with bats, roaches, giant spiders, and other creatures that you might expect to find there. Occasionally, the boat capsizes and you find yourself fighting sharks, blood worms, and other aquatic creatures, nonsensically, in the water. Every once in a while, something like a giant crocodile would kill one of my characters, which prompted me to reload as I haven't found any mechanism for resurrection yet. There was also a spectacularly unfair set of squares where a carnivorous plant was capable of instantly killing my characters.
|Fighting a shark in the water.|
I generally like the combat in the game. It's fairly fast-paced and tactical, though not quite to the level of the Gold Box games. You can easily switch between manual combat and auto combat, and very often I find myself manually plotting tactics for three-quarters of the battle, only to switch to automatic and let the game mop up the remainder. One odd dynamic, though, is that enemies hardly ever hit my characters (or they hit, but the character's armor absorbs all of the attack, I guess). When they do hit, the damage might be devastating, sometimes resulting in death in a single blow, but I emerge from 80% of combats utterly unscathed.
|Combat begins. Note the water obstacle in front of my characters. I'm not really sure what those odd opening messages mean.|
The Tunnels & Trolls system is a bit odd in that there are no hit points or spell points. Attacks damage constitution directly and spells reduce other attributes (depending on the spell) directly. For instance, the primary first-level damage spell, "Take That, You Fiend!" costs 6 points of strength against my wizard's base score of 13. Even accounting for increased statistics upon leveling, it's hard to see how my wizard will ever get to the point that she can cast more than a couple of spells between rest periods. Fortunately, a single 8-hour rest break almost entirely restores lost attributes. "Healing" also occurs when characters automatically eat a meal at midnight.
When your experience points cross the threshold for the next level, you automatically get a "level up" screen, where you have the option to increase a chosen attribute. So far, it's been a tough call. Depending on the character's race and class, he might have the option to increase strength by 8 points but speed by only 1--and yet perhaps he needs speed a lot more. There's always an option at the bottom to increase two attributes by a little bit, but it always seems like a slightly worse deal than choosing a single one.
|Gaining a level. Luck seems like the best deal, but I really need speed and charisma. Note that option (8), which increases both strength and constitution, gives me only 2 total points, whereas I can increase either individually by 3 points.|
Anyway, back to the sewers. They had one encounter that seemed necessary to the main quest, and I nearly missed it. In the northeast corner of the first level, I found a woman named Jasmine trapped in a cage, with a bunch of giant rats squeezing their way through the bars. The game asked if I wanted to fight the rats, which of course I did. They weren't very hard, but they seemed to have a lot of luck damaging my mage, so I had to manually keep her out of melee range for most of the combats. After the initial battle, the game gave me the option to try to unlock the cage even though Jasmine warned "don't."
|One of about a dozen rat battles. I'm not sure what those obstacles in the lower-center are supposed to be.|
I tried anyway, the lock was stuck, and more rats boiled out of the sewers. When I defeated them, I had another chance to open the cage. I tried again, got more rats. This went on and on for maybe 15 cycles, and I assumed it was eternal. The only reason I kept fighting was that the experience rewards were decent and I was leveling up. But finally, to my surprise, the cage opened. Jasmine shrieked happily that her "quota of rats" was dead and now she could leave.
|Is this a joke about common RPG tropes?|
She told me Biorom the wizard wanted to speak to me and messed with a panel on a wall. A black-bearded sorcerer appeared.
"I urge you to oppose Lerotra'hh in the north," he says. "My fellow wizards and I are doing what we can, but there are constraints we cannot break. I can say this: Khazan sleeps in exile. You must discover where. There are items which he must have to restore his concerns in this world. Khara Khang and Lerotra'hh have made these things difficult to find and harder to get; they do not want Khazan roused."
Biorom suggested that Jasmine go adventuring with the party, but since the party was already full, she went to hang out in the Black Dragon Tavern. It was a very odd way to introduce the main quest.
In another plot-related encounter, we came upon a small island in the sewers inhabited by a "black elf" named Aradon. He and Ignxx clearly knew each other, and they chatted for a while about the goings-on on the continent. Empress Lerotra'hh is rumored to be off-continent, raising an army elsewhere. They disagreed as to whether it was more important to eliminate Lerotra'hh (the evil empress) or Khara Khang (her sorcerer, who had betrayed Khazan) to bring the empire down.
|The party eavesdrops on some exposition.|
The sewers culminated in an encounter with the wraith whose image is at the top of the screen. The wraith demanded that I gamble for my life, though the game offered me the option to fight him or try to flee. The gambling game was a simple hi/lo variant in which he rolled two dice and I had to guess whether the result was higher or lower than 7. He said he'd let me leave if I guessed correctly twice, and I'd also win a gem for each correct guess. Through pure luck, I guessed twice correctly on my first try and won two gems. He gave me the option to keep playing for another one, but I declined.
|Discretion seemed the better part of valor.|
When I got out of the sewers, I went to the jewelry store and sold my gems, plus a couple of pieces of jewelry I'd collected, for nearly 10,000 gold pieces--about 100 times more than I'd ever had up to that point.
|Selling my riches.|
With my new riches, I bought the best weapons and armor that I could wield (given my attributes), replenished my lamp and oilskins, stocked up on spells for my rogue and wizard, and learned some new languages.
|Jori shuffles through her new inventory. I'll have more on this later.|
- The game is one of many to feature poison at an early level but no spell capable of countering it until later levels. I always hate that.
- At one point in the sewers, Ignxx said, "I've heard some of those scum-sucking Rangers have found a way into this area. They'd love to see the city come down." The game offered otherwise no explanation of what "rangers" are, nor did I encounter anything involving them in the sewers. Anyone know what that was about?
- At first, I worried that the game was going to be like Dungeon Master, where you'd find a bunch of items but know nothing about what they actually did. Then, I remembered the wandering mage who offers to identify items for a fee. This is an invaluable service.
|The "Cat Ring" apparently lets me jump like a cat. Who would have guessed?|
- I've only found one secret door in the game so far, cued by a note that "Cleverly, you spot something unusual about the wall immediately north of you." I entered just by walking through the wall. I have to resist the urge to now go and walk into every wall.
- This is the message upon full party death:
- The town had guilds for wizards and rogues in which no other characters were allowed to enter. When I approached the doors, the rest of my party disappeared to go stay in the nearest inn, and I had to go pick them up there later. Other NPCs hang around the inns and guilds, and you can swap them in and out for your created party members. I'm not sure if there are any plot-related reasons to do this, but the NPCs are so plentiful that I wonder if there is no resurrection mechanism and you're just expected to replace fallen party members if you don't want to reload.
|Getting my characters out of the inn. Note that Jasmine from the sewers is now a joinable NPC.|
- A couple of the encounters have resulted in combats where each character had to fight a foe individually. This is difficult for my weak wizard.
- There's one square near the docks that resets with monsters every time you enter the area if you want to grind. I've taken to spending time there at night when shops are closed and I'm waiting for them to open.
- Each step indoors takes 4 minutes. Each step outdoors takes 3 hours and 45 minutes. The screen changes colors between day and night but otherwise doesn't restrict your view. Shops are only open in the towns between 08:00 and 16:00, and bars don't open until 16:00. Every night at midnight, everyone consumes a ration. I don't know yet what happens if you don't have any. You can (R)est for 8 hours at any location.
|Exploring the outdoors of the Island of Phoron produces a lot of text but not many encounters.|
When I had finished with the city, I took the time to walk every square on the island. There were a lot of odd, unavoidable traps, plus some flavor text, but no combats, and the only encounter was with the Sheik above. My next step is to hire or purchase a boat and make for the mainland. The game is only beginning!