Monday, April 7, 2014

Tunnels & Trolls: Might & Magic

The enemy has me surrounded. Those poor bastards.

It's funny how role playing games and gasoline stations share a common love for alliterative pairs separated by ampersands. Dungeons & Dragons is the ur example, of course, but in addition, we have Tunnels & Trolls, Might & Magic, Maces & Magic, Castles & Crusades, Mutants & Masterminds, Villains & Vigilantes, and probably a billion others. I wonder how many kids in the 1980s played these games behind the Gas & Go, Fuel & Food, or Pump & Pantry.

(Probably not many. I mean, where would you play an RPG behind a gas station? Next to the dumpster? But it makes for an amusing intro. Just go with it.)

Between Tunnels & Trolls and its more famous predecessor, T&T has arguably the more realistic name. "Dungeon" has always been an odd term to describe a multilevel underground labyrinth; "tunnel" works a little better, as it encompasses structures both natural and man-made. As for the creature side of things, I've fought far more trolls than dragons in the typical RPG. I'm surprised Mazes & Monsters didn't occur to anyone until that awful Tom Hanks film.

Crusaders of Khazan was made by the same company that made Might & Magic, and it was only many hours into the game that I realized how much they share in common. In the last post's comments, Gamma Leak noted the similarity between the Might & Magic maps and the Khazan map. Aside from sharing the same artists, they both consist of a series of map blocks (20 for the first two M&M games; 24 for Khazan) designated by row and column, each consisting of 16 x 16 squares. Fantastic creatures depicted on the map look like just art, but they actually indicate encounters with notable creatures, including the dragon on the island, the banshee on the path to Chasara, and a demon in the desert. One difference is that the Khazan world has edges and doesn't wrap around on itself whereas the M&M maps do.

The similarities go beyond the geography. Playing Khazan feels a lot like playing a top-down version of Might & Magic (world navigation in Khazan even looks like the automap in Might & Magic II). From the opening city, you can go almost anywhere, including places in which your party simply shouldn't yet be. You have a variety of eclectic encounters, some easy, some nearly impossible. Exploring is very much a process of moving around systematically until you hit a wall, annotating that location for later return, and continuing to explore in a different direction.

Checking out the automap to plot my explorations around one of Khazan's map squares.

A few gameplay elements serve to make Khazan a bit more annoying than Might & Magic, though. First, moving around takes a lot longer. Days pass in mere steps, each one requiring the consumption of a unit of food, which you have to constantly run back to town to replenish. The constant lost of hit points from both desert ("too hot!") and swamp ("swamp worms bit you!") squares means you frequently have to rest and heal--and it's harder than you might expect to constantly monitor the constitution of all four characters, meaning inevitably someone occasionally dies, requiring a reload. Where Might & Magic had numerous random encounters on each map, letting you build your party as you explored, Khazan features hardly any random encounters in the outdoor world. I've spent months of game time exploring maps without increasing a single level. Finally, plenty of squares in the game are capable of instantly killing you without warning. On the other hand, Khazan does allow saving anywhere, which reduces a lot of the frustration that Might & Magic delivered.

Three characters die from walking into a square they could not possibly have foreseen.

Having few clues on how to proceed with the main quest, I stopped treating the Khazan map like an Ultima map (where it was unimportant to hit every square) and started treating it more like a Might & Magic map, exploring systematically from the F1 map in the southwest corner, trying my best to explore every square or at least annotate it for a later return. Some things I can report:

  • I realized belatedly that the (M)ove command allows you to specify the nature of your movement, including moving slowly, walking, running, riding horses, and climbing (which is how you explore mountainous areas). I keep trying to remember to keep it set to "horses," which takes less time, when exploring most of the map, but almost every event causes it to automatically reset to "walk."

Setting the nature of movement.

  • The desert near the southern coast held a series of encounters with what looked like a demon (depicted on the map), but which turned out to be mirages. I'm sure there's something to find here, but I got frustrated with all of the damage I was taking in the desert and left it for later.

I can just picture my party gong, "Come on! You want some! Right here!" for a while before realizing they're yelling at a rock.

  • Also near the desert coast is a "pinnacle" amidst a mountain range. It promises some reward at the top, but I cannot yet get past a "blood bat" that attacks and kills me during the ascent. Marked for later.
  • In the ocean areas, there are a series of random encounters with castaways, some of whom are legitimate and reward you, some of whom turn into were-sharks and attack. We saw the same dynamic way back in Robert Clardy's Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure (1981). This, I suppose, is a good place to grind for treasure.

Rewarded for a successful rescue.

  • On the island of Thorn, where I helped the residents of a city against the demon apes in the last post, you can get unlimited battles against demon apes by simply declining to enter the city every time the game asks. I suppose it would be a good place for grinding.
  • Along the coast were a series of encounters with a confused wizard who needed my help with various tasks, such as chopping down a metal tree (it ruined my axe), bandaging a companion, and doing something with an ice ball that I couldn't do because I didn't have the right spell. Ultimately, he told me that someone named "Slyxtr" is "the mad one" who cannot tell the truth "even when he tells you he is lying" and that I need two of something that have to match.

One of four or five encounters with the crazy wizard.

  • In the middle of the ocean north of Phoron--glad I searched every square--I found a shipwreck that, when I continued diving into it, delivered up some gold, jewelry, and a parchment that taught me the "Waterspout" spell, which shoots columns of water at enemies.
  • Off the coast of the city of Knor there's an encounter with a "Plesiosaur" that absolutely slaughters me. I can't even hit it. Marked for later.
  • A small pyramid on the Knor coast held two elementals, each of which offered me a bit of advice. I'm learning that the game has a kind of "hint bank" from which it draws lines of lore that you get at various locations, including the storyteller in Gull, a fortune teller in Knor, and the gossip you purchase on Peleki's Isle.

"You have no use for that knowledge" refers to the fact that I already know the language he offered to teach.

  • North of Knor, I was attacked in the forest by some "spider cultists." After I defeated them, I found a gathering of them trying to sacrifice a teenaged girl to a spider. When I chose to attack them, I was joined by another band of warriors who were there to rescue the girl. When I defeated the second group, the grateful locals healed me and told me of a dragon named "Nepenthes" who lives in the "heart of the sump," but I should go beyond the Axridge Mountains before I seek him.
  • The city of Knor is much smaller than Gull. It has a couple of shops, a wizard's guild, a rogue's guild, a trainer who raises attributes for a fee--but only once per character--and a fortune-teller whose "fate cards" seem to be more dangerous than helpful.

A bad visit to the fortune-teller.

Let's talk a bit about combat, which takes place on a tactical screen not entirely different from SSI games like Shard of Spring and Pool of Radiance. As in the Gold Box games, you occasionally get some kind of obstacle, like water or furniture, in the middle of the map, but for the most part combat occurs in a blank area. Either party can get the jump on the other and get a free round of attacks.

Surprising the enemy will let me take down a handful of them before the others can react.

The initial combat options are whether to use manual combat, auto combat, or flee. Fleeing doesn't work often enough to rely on it, and it's risky because when it fails, the enemy gets a free round. Auto-combat works tolerably well against low-level opponents, but it suffers from the usual auto-combat problems, such as characters not targeting the most important foes, not concentrating their attacks, and not casting spells. I rarely use it at the outset of combat, but I often switch to it when I just have a few low-level mooks to mop up. You have the option to switch to auto-combat at the beginning of each round, and if you're already in auto-combat, you can switch to manual combat by just hitting the SPACE bar.

Each character's round consists of a movement phase and an action phase. Characters go in order of their speed score, which also determines how far they can move (one space for every 5 full points of speed). Obstacles reduce movement rates, and if you're moving away from an adjacent enemy, you can only move once.

Linn's options this combat round.

Actions consist of attacking, casting a spell, using an item, shooting a missile weapon, pushing an enemy, re-equipping items, and blocking. Of these options, "pushing" is the one most unique to Tunnels & Trolls. It supposedly allows you to shove enemies into "hazard" squares like water or fire (which I've yet to encounter in a combat map). It doesn't seem to work the same way that the manual describes. The manual says you have to be unarmed, but I have the option whether I'm armed or not. The choice also seems to have more effects than the manual suggests; when enemies push me, at least, my characters often fall down and go unconscious for a round. It may be worth exploring more in the future, but I've barely touched it now. 

Somewhere around Level 6, my characters started to get two attacks per round, which greatly increases my combat prowess. The game allows you to move into an adjacent enemy as a shortcut for hitting the "attack" option and then choosing him, but this forces you to expend all your attack turns on that foe, even if he dies in the first attack. When I need to be tactical, I've forced myself to manually select "attack" so that doesn't happen.

Only lately have I begun to experiment more with spells. A first-level wizard spell, "Take That You Fiend!" (basically a magic missile) helped in the early stages, but now my wizard is capable of a physical attack that does more damage. The "Waterspout" spell, which I got when exploring a shipwreck, mysteriously went to my rogue instead of my wizard. It's a great spell, blasting a water spout in three directions and capable of taking out three enemies per round. "Oh Go Away!" (basically "fear") is another low-level spell that has a lot of success against up to three enemies. But spells are expensive and I haven't purchased even a quarter of the catalog available to me.

Jori is about to cast "Waterspout" on enemies in front of her.

I realized only recently that I don't even have a healing spell, usually an RPG staple. There is one, called "Poor Baby," but I don't remember seeing it yet in the stores. Resting and eating after combat regenerate so many hit points on their own that it makes a healing spell a bit superfluous, though I wouldn't mind the ability to heal in the midst of combat.

There are a host of spells that seem to serve no purpose (why would I want to pitch us all into the dark with "Darkest Hour"?), that seem absurdly underpowered compared to a physical attack, or that don't even work with the game's mechanic, such as "Lock Tight," which locks doors. Since enemies only appear in single squares in the navigation map, and since doors never appear on combat maps, I assume that if this spell is ever useful at all, it will be as a puzzle solution. I should also mention that the game allows you the option to increase the strength cost of a spell for a greater effect, but I haven't really explored this yet, either.

When there are too many enemies to fit on the screen, you get a message that more are "waiting." This is one of the more terrain-intensive combat screens I've experienced.

I'm very confused about the approach to spells with rogues. There's a first-level wizard spell called "Teacher" (I don't yet have it) that supposedly allows the wizard to teach the rogue a spell. The manual suggests this is the only way rogues can learn new spells. But both towns I've visited so far have offered "rogue's guilds" where rogues can pay to learn spells, in a manner no different than the wizard's guilds in the same towns.

A quick note on equipment: in my travels so far, I've discovered a number of magic rings, potions, and other magic items that can be equipped, consumed, or used with other items. To find out what they do, I have to go back to Gull and find a roaming wizard and pay him to identify the items. (If I ever get "Omni Eye," I'll be able to do it myself.) For instance, the "Cat Ring" that I found early in the game allows the wielder to leap three squares in combat. Something called a "Heart of Fire" reduces fire damage. A "Funny Once Gem" will resurrect a slain character. "Hellfire Juice" is a poison that can be applied to a weapon to temporarily increase its damage. Some of the items appear to be bugged; for instance, "Hellbore Syrup" is supposed to raise my strength by 10 for 6 hours, then halve it for the next day, but all it does is immediately halve it.

In preparation for combat, Knarr shuffles around his equipment and applies Hellfire Juice to his sword.

Anyway, what I haven't found are any magic weapons or armor. My characters are still equipped with the stuff I bought in the first town. I'm not sure if things like broadswords +1 or plate mail +2 don't exist in this universe or whether they're just very rare.

Finally, the Tunnels & Trolls approach to attributes deserves some comment. Attributes determine whether you can use something in the first place (e.g., a great axe requires 10 dexterity and 20 strength; to cast the "Freeze Please" spell, you must have 14 IQ and 10 dexterity) but strength and constitution also act as pools of spell points and hit points, respectively. For this reason, when leveling up, the player has the option to increase strength and constitution far more than the other attributes, and even has the option to increase them both. While I understand that Ken St. Andre was trying to simplify the Dungeons & Dragons system, I confess I find the whole thing more confusing, particularly since the attributes exist on different scales: 16 might be more speed than anyone ever needs, but a constitution of 30 might be fairly weak mid-game. I rather prefer a distinction between fixed attributes and derived attributes in my games.

Leveling up from 7 to 8. The option to increase both strength and constitution has become a better (or at least equal) deal as the levels get higher.

As I close, I've been exploring some mountains in the southeast and I've been abducted by orcs and forced to work in a sulfur mine. When they captured me, they took most of my weapons and armor, and some of my special items, but CRPG experience makes me think I'll find everything neatly stored in a box somewhere before I leave. When I next write, I'll tell you of my escape.

No one escapes Sulfur Mine.



30 comments:

  1. I think the map only wraps in Might and Magic 2. I know it doesn't in 1, 4, and 5. I'm not sure about 3.

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    1. You are correct about 1. I thought the maps did wrap, but I just loaded it up to verify and the game blocks you from walking off the edges. If you teleport from the edges, you just wrap around on the current map, not the world as a whole.

      What are we to make of this? Each VARN is flat but the central CRON is three-dimensional?

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  2. Speaking about Might & Magic... Probably, you already know about this, but I think it deserves a mention, just in case. Maybe a note on your game list, if you want, for those, who don't know.

    The games "Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen" and "Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen" are essentially a two parts of a large game. They can be perfectly played individually, but then integrated, several new locations become available, as well as grand finale of the two games.

    This information is available on Wikipedia, but I telling that from personal experience. I still remember finishing those games in early 2000s.

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    1. I'll add some advice if anyone does play both games together. - I suggest playing much of Clouds before tackling Darkside as there's a huge difference in character levels between the two.

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    2. Actually, I done the opposite. Completed Darkside first and then was able to quickly explore all Clouds, do it’s quests and move along it’s plotline. To me it was same fun, but great time-saving. Also a mild chalenge to complete Darkside without first training on low-level Clouds.

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    3. I think it's 2 different experiences; playing Darkside first or Clouds first.

      I personally enjoy what vladimir-v-y suggested. It was a freaking power-trip and I loved it.

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    4. I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to approach it, but it's pretty far in the future.

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    5. I'll just throw my two cents in to strongly recommend playing Clouds of Xeen first. The level difference is so enormous that playing Darkside first, and then playing through Clouds, would be like using a hexedited party in any other CRPG.

      I loved the Xeen games, though. Even Swords of Xeen, as bland and empty as it was. I'm looking forward to them, in the faraway future.

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  3. I love Might and Magic though the one thing about the series that annoys me is that at some point you have to play virtual lawnmover and systematically explore every single square in the game. I guess in most 3D games you're going to want to explore every space anyway but M&M has so many open, outdoor areas that it just feels like you're mowing the lawn of your front yard to fill in the automap.

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    1. I remember doing the same thing in the Bard's Tales and PoR, putting small dots to denote which squares I'd searched completely.

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    2. I hadn't heard the "lawnmower" metaphor before, but it does describe it reasonably well. Any game in which the encounter is based on stepping in the right square--including the first two MMs, Wizardry, and even the Gold Box games--share this characteristic.

      Top-down games usually give you some ability to see what's in the area so you don't have to explore every tile. This game is unique in being a top-down game where you still have to mow the lawn, so to speak.

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    3. Might & Magic VI remains my favorite of the series simply for getting rid of the square-by-square movement system. It still retained the need to explore every square meter of the gameworld, but being able to move freeform took the sting out of it quite a bit. That and obliterating an entire horizon worth of enemies in real-time via meteor strike. Ah, the simple joys of life.

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    4. Magic Candle comes to mind. I remember doing that to search for mushroom patches.

      Also, Dark Heart of Uukrul. Not because it requires you to do that, but the Automap denotes which square you have not stepped in, which triggers the latent OCD which every CRPGers have, to just trudge on those empty unlit squares like we're trying to find the correct alphabets on Wheel Of Fortune.

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    5. I´m just replaying Baldur's Gate and since I´m a bit compulsive about getting rid of all the fog-of-war I can't help but getting that lawnmower-feeling all the time..

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    6. >at some point you have to play virtual lawnmover and systematically explore every single square in the game

      The compulsion to do this in dungeons, where you're likely to be about to get murdered by Random Encounter Group C, is terrible.

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    7. Games like the Etrian Odyssey series for the DS/3DS capitalize on gamers who love the "lawnmower" aspect, since the player is expected to step on and draw a map of every last square (with the stylus).

      I really should try MM6+ one of these days, but I have to admit that losing the "lawnmower" aspect is a minor personal turn-off...

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    8. Actually what I meant specifically by lawnmower is when you systematically explore every space in a wide open area, without, walls, obstructions, rooms, etc. In the M&M games, once you get all the necessary skills/spells to traverse forests, mountains, water, etc. you can go anywhere in the outdoors. So I would always just go up and down an area until I explored every space.

      I don't mind exploring every space when there is some variety like in a dungeon, town, etc. I wouldn't say that you do lawnmower stuff in the Wizardry games or the Etrian Odyssey games. You do want to explore every space, but there are few areas of gigantically open spaces.

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    9. Don't let the lack of mandatory exploration stop you from playing MM6, the game requires a lot of travel and has a ton of locations on every map. I would go as far to say that MM6 is the pinnacle of the series and needs to be at least attempted by fans of the genre.

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    10. Henry, I had the same feeling playing BG1--it always pissed me off that there were little areas around cliffs and rocks that you couldn't fully reveal without a spell--but it's still a different dynamic. In BG, you're not going to be wandering along and suddenly get a spontaneous encounter, that you didn't see coming, just because you stepped on a particular tile. Thus, while we might feel compelled to mow the lawn in BG for aesthetic reasons, we don't have to do it for gameplay reasons the way you have to in the MM games and CoK.

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    11. Alright, so I'm one of those people who did a full grid search in Baldur's Gate. I also used a map site to help me find caves and things (Sadly, this is now offline). That one I didn't find boring as the maps were so pretty, and I'd find cool things that I would have otherwise missed, like the sunken house. That said, I did get bored of samey wilderness, and annoyed at being way overleveled.

      The other ones are 3d, first person games. They do it at various levels of skill (Oblivion had way too much empty forest, but had some great underwater stuff if I remember right, Skryim had some really cool stuff, but not much of it. On the other hand, there were lots of different types of geography. Fallout 3 had very samey geography and much worse art direction then either of them, but had the best things to find; lots of environmental story telling, empty bomb shelters, etc.

      Now, in none of them did you HAVE to explore that way. Even I never tried to grid search Fallout or Skyrim (Though my Dad set out to fill in his whole map in Skyrim, not sure if he did or not before getting bored).

      But in all of these I could miss things: I'd almost beaten Fallout 3 (I think) and there are HUGE areas of the map I've never even looked at. In Baldur's Gate I could always go do a sidequest or two to take a break from my search. I didn't have to do it in order, it wasn't forced on me to finish the game.

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    12. I was also wondering if I should mention Baldur's Gate, but decided against it, for the mentioned reasons. Theoretically, you could skip most of the maps and side quests and still win the game.

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  4. Darkness is one of those spells that invariably is more useful for the enemies than the party.

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    1. Not always. There's a fair number of games (the one in particular I'm thinking of is AdoM, but I know there's other ones), where a lot of enemies lose their standard seek-attack AI to simulate their inability to see, making it a powerful "poor man's invisibility".

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    2. What if the Darkness is in Riyadh?
      http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-most-baffling-subtitles-in-foreign-action-movie-history/

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  5. bbc.com article about "The great D&D panic of the 80's":

    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26328105

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  6. Regarding the uses for available spells, such as "Lock Tight": they might just be in the game because they are in the T&T rule book.

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    1. I have no doubt. Still one of the dumbest reasons to put it in the computer version of the game, though.

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    2. Of course, the Gold Box games have quite the same problem. You really should design your campaign around your spells, or your spells around your campaign-- but when you do neither, you just give gamers false options which cloud the gaming experience.

      I think MM1 was a great example from the era of a game where you did use the majority of the spells by the end of the game.

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  7. On NES, Wizards & Warriors as well, for alliterative &

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  8. I really appreciate the way the progress of games is revealed in these games that you write about in chronological order. I find it hard to find anything really interesting in obscure 1980s titles but in these it's really fun to see progress (or lack of it) in game design and user interfaces. Thank you!

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