Friday, April 11, 2014

Tunnels & Trolls: Mowing to Victory

Slowly revealing the "Blackwater Swamp" map.
 
We might regard games that have main quests as existing along a continuum. At one extreme would be something like Wizardry or Dungeon Master: your objective lies at the bottom of a dungeon, and you proceed in a linear manner to it. Somewhere in the middle would be Baldur's Gate or Oblivion in which the main quest proceeds in a series of fixed steps, and you always know where to go for the next one, but you have a lot of room to maneuver in the meantime.

Might & Magic would be the other extreme of the scale. Yes, there's a vague main quest (reach the "inner sanctum"), but the game starts you with no sense of how to achieve it--or even, really, what "it" is--and leaves you to make your way there through exploration. Technically, to beat Might & Magic, you need nothing more than to hit a handful of squares and find a handful of objects, then proceed to the inner sanctum. The difficulty is in exhaustively exploring each map to make sure that you find all of those encounters and objects, and in games with open exploration, many players adopt what commenter Steve calls the "lawnmower" approach, simply going back and forth along the rows and columns of a map until you've hit every encounter.

A freshly-mowed Might & Magic II automap.

Crusaders of Khazan is definitely on Might & Magic's end of the continuum. It isn't quite as vague about the nature of the main quest: I must encounter and, I suspect, kill both Empress Lerotra'hh and her wizard, Khara Khang. But I still have to hit multiple waypoints to this goal, and those waypoints could be anywhere in the game's 6,144 outdoor squares or who-knows-how-many indoor squares. Hence, I've started at the bottom of the map and I've been slowly mowing my way north, experiencing each encounter as I arrive, annotating a few for later return when I'm stronger.

A couple of posts ago, I talked about how Crusaders of Khazan feels a lot like playing a gamebook--what Tunnels & Trolls calls a "solo adventure"--with a computer interface tacked on. A particular encounter illustrates this dynamic quite well. I'm walking along through a dangerous swamp, using a map provided by an NPC to help keep me on a safe path (though I'll doubtless explore even the "unsafe" squares eventually), when I come to a cave:


Imagine how this encounter would play out in a game like Skyrim. Instead of text describing a scum-covered pond, a group of small caves, and one large cave opening, you'd come across this scene in beautiful graphics, and instead of making a textual choice to "go on" or "investigate the cave," you'd just move your character appropriately. Khazan has therefore made two substitutions: text for graphics, and a textual choice for actual player movement.

Clearly, the first substitution is forgivable. I'm not saying that in 1990, it would have been impossible to graphically depict the swamp, pond, and caves--I think Ultima VI could have done it--but it certainly isn't possible with Khazan's game engine. Some graphical description is necessary to give a sense of flavor. But Khazan's engine does allow the player to willfully move his party on top of town and dungeon entrances, so it's odd to render that choice as a textual one instead of a movement one.

The reason soon becomes clear, though: there is no actual cave map on which to move the characters. The entire cave plays out as a text adventure. It continues:


The game also features an inventory dynamic by which you can light torches, so again we have a text option for something that most games would accomplish through the regular game mechanics.


Now it's getting worse. The text is actually simulating combat with the hydra I've discovered in the cave, rather than using the game's regular combat system. Only after a few pages of this do we enter a proper combat screen to finish the encounter.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, these types of encounters add more content to the game than might have been possible otherwise. After all, it takes time and money--not to mention disk space--to build dungeon maps and to depict events graphically. On the other hand, replacing actual gameplay with large chunks of gamebook text does feel a little lazy. It's not often clear why the developers even chose one path over the other. The encounters on the isle of Thorn, for instance, take place on an entirely superfluous city map and could have been handled with the same menu-based approach.

Either way, I guess it's an original approach. This is probably the largest amount of text we've seen in a CRPG to date, even counting the Gold Box games and all of their journal text. It is a welcome change, at least, to see text on screen instead of having to page through an accompanying book.

When I closed last time, I had been captured by some orcs, was stripped of weapons and armor, and was forced to work in their sulfur mines. After several months of game time in which my party toiled as slaves, a fortuitous cave-in killed most of the guards and afforded me the chance to explore the dungeon freely and escape.

I never found out what the "blue flames" were about. When I walked into them, they didn't take me anywhere.

The map pissed me off. In about 8 squares, I got a message that I was exposed to sulfur gas and lost most of my hit points. If my hit points were already low, my characters died and I had to reload. There was no way to anticipate or avoid these traps, so it was just a bunch of trial and error, like that awful mine level in Wizardry IV.

The map culminated in the chambers of the orc leader, Lord Foo. He was wearing something called an "illstone" around his neck, and he demanded a second one from me that I'd found while exploring the corridors. I refused and braced for a fight, but instead someone named "Jonas Revenant" strode in, alluded to a history with Lord Foo, and engaged him in a magical combat that led to them both vanishing. It was a very weird encounter, perhaps alluding to Tunnels & Trolls lore that I've just never experienced.

No idea what the "mood ring" comment was about.

Anyway, it left me alone to loot Lord Foo's treasure room, where I found a "Death Wand" that I assume will come in handy. I had to fight some parties of guards on the way out, and in the process I freed the rest of the slaves. I was a bit startled that there was no place where I found all the weapons and armor the orcs had stolen from me during my capture. Most other games featuring a "prison episode" have a handy chest or NPC who gives everything back to you. Not this one. I had to return to a town and re-equip. Fortunately, the orcs didn't steal any of my gold. 

After my escape, I continued to methodically work my way north, exploring each map in its entirety. Sometimes, I explore a map by columns, sometimes by rows, sometimes by "boxing in," but ultimately I hit every square. Some of the more interesting encounters along my paths have been:

  • An encounter with a "Navastri Demon" in the middle of a desert. It took me a couple of reloads to defeat him, and even then the best I could do was one party member dead (I resurrected him with a magic gem). When defeated, the demon gave me a poem that seemed to refer to a mountain spire I previously tried to explore but left for later when I couldn't win all the combats.

This one isn't going my way.

  • A duel between a human mage and an orc mage. The only option the game gave me were to help the human mage or leave; it annoyed me a bit that there was no option to help the orc. Anyway, helping the human led to him revealing himself as RADAMANTHIS the Rogue, and he indicated he could reward me if I would pay for his blessing at the Money Gods' temple in Khosht, further up the coast.
  • An elven village that had been destroyed in an orc raid, and all the children kidnapped. I had previously freed them from the sulfur mines, so there wasn't anything else to do but burn the dead.
  • On a mountain peak, the statue of a demon. It had gems for eyes and one of them had been stolen. The demon indicated that a dragon had stolen the gem and bade me retrieve it from the dragon's horde. This went along with a hint I received somewhere that I should "travel beyond the Axridge Mountains" (where the statue was) before seeking the dragon in the part of the map known as the Sump.

I'm not sure that agreeing to help the demon was a great role-playing choice.

  • A group of bandits in the process of stealing some sheep from some ogre farmers. I defeated the bandits. The ogres thanked me for not being racist and taught me two languages: "foulspeak" and "gobble." I haven't talked much about the game's approach to languages because I haven't really experienced it tangibly. There are 19 total languages listed in the game manual, and among my characters I speak 9 of them. I've learned them during a couple of encounters and by paying a teacher in Gull. I know they effect how encounters play out, but so far I haven't had any encounters were I seemed to suffer for not knowing the language. Anyway, the ogres also gave me a "Red Ogre Amulet" that will apparently help me when I have to deal with ogres in the future.
  • Two stone giants messing around by crashing into each other. They attacked as I approached. They turned out to be guarding the entrance to a magic pool which raised some of my attributes.


Unfortunately, I'm experiencing a problem that may have also been caused by my visit to the magic pool: most of my characaters' attributes are well below their maximums. Linn, for instance, only has 15 of her 23 IQ and 14 of her 15 dexterity. Meanwhile, her constitution is always one or two points below the maximum, even after I rest. Usually, resting restores attributes, but it's not working here. The characters also don't seem to be cursed, poisoned, or suffering from any other ill effects. I'm not sure how this happened or what to do to make it go away, but it's affecting both my wizard's and my rogue's abilities to cast spells. I'm hoping the problem resolves the next time I level up.

Every character has at least some stats below maximum. For Gideon, it's dexterity and charisma.

I'm getting the impression that I'm not exactly gripping my readers with my discussions of this game, and frankly I'm feeling a bit lackluster about it myself. Part of me likes the process of methodically exploring and experiencing the game's varied encounters, but the encounters just aren't integrated well into the rest of the gameplay, and many of the outcomes seem arbitrary. I'm going to push to wrap it up this weekend even though I have about half the maps left to explore. If I don't, I'll probably still move on to a different game that generates a little more discussion.

Speaking of discussion, I've temporarily had to disable anonymous postings. For some reason, in the past week I've received dozens of blogspam entries, usually of the variety where there's some generic text and then a link to a suspicious web site. Each one of them generates an e-mail, and I have to then visit the post and verify that the spam filter caught the junk, or delete it if it didn't. These tend to occur in waves, so after a few days I'll lift the restriction and allow anonymous comments again. It's really too bad that there are so many people trying to make a living within the fringes of other people's work rather than doing anything productive themselves. I think I literally respect criminals more than people who earn their money via cybersquatting, site spoofing, re-hosting blog posts on their own ad-filled sites (there are no less than 40 sites that copy my posts word-for-word with no attribution), and trying to generate traffic by spam.


49 comments:

  1. I half-suspect you're trolling, but 'Lord Foo' and 'Jonas Revenant' are presumably intended as references to the villain and eponymous hero of Stephen Donaldson's 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.'

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    1. Not to mention "illstone" is based on the Illearth Stone, from the first trilogy of 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant'

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    2. Wow, did the obvious thing go right over my head. And the "mood ring" is a joke about Covenant's white gold ring. In fairness, I never did read the books, though I should have known from my previous experience with The Land.

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  2. For what it's worth, I'm enjoying your posts on this series -- enough so that Crusaders of Khazan has earned a spot on my future "to play" list. It seems like a game that might work well for me and my other half to try out jointly.

    BTW I don't think most spam posts are made by actual people, but just by bots that roam the Internet looking for opportunities to post links that, in turn, improve the Google ranking of the linked site. It wouldn't surprise me if the number of actual people behind these operations is quite small, since most of the dirty work is done by botnets (compromised computers).

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    1. I would have thought that most spam was the product of bots, but if that's true, they've found a way to defeat the captcha.

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    2. Bots use human crowd sourcing to solve captchas to enable their posts: http://goo.gl/v14mV (link is safe, didn't want to directly link though, which might attract more bots).

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    3. A lot of sketchy file-hosting services use captchas, and I've often wondered whether users of those services are unwittingly helping spambots, i.e. the site serves users the very same captchas their bots are receiving when attempting to spam blogs.

      (Whatever the process is, I've heard horror stories of gigs and gigs of comment spam coming in to unprotected sites.)

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    4. I personally believe that the Internet is slowly evolving into a sentient life-form that would, in time, be capable of absorbing and utilizing all the information fed to it and transform into a digital deity as she (yes, it would be a feisty biatch) enslaves all human beings by turning them into comatose batteries to fuel her machine empire run by sentinel automatons.

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    5. They have also greatly improved the technology to decode Catchpas in the past few years (Note how Google keeps changing what they look like) and found ways past them (A previous one found a way past by decoding the audio version, then using dictation software. There are also a lot of loopholes in various commercial or free Catchpa software. I suspect that these are why spam comes in waves, across many blogs; Someone finds a way past it, sends out a ton of spam, then Google fixes it, puts in a new type of picture, etc and it dies down for a while.

      Cat and mouse, with the only winner being people who want to OCR things.

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  3. In principle it seems like the text descriptions should be quite atmospheric, e.g. you get told how the hydra looks and smells. Perhaps it's probably the combination of two styles that you find off-putting. I suppose one can also feel 'railroaded' by text when you're expecting to be able to move your group in any of four directions at least...

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    1. Add into that the inability to revisit these encounters (I think Chet mentioned that in an earlier post), and I can understand the disappointment. In a normal game you could always come back to the hydra's cave for either a repeat encounter, or stand proud over its rotting corpse.

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  4. I think the slow pace is affecting everyone's ability to comment on the game. The disjointed encounters and a fairly absent main quest make it hard to give interesting commentary. Choose your own adventure discussion was nice to read; however, so this game has contributed at least that much.

    As for this post, (I'm sure you've thought of this, but) have you tried removing all equipment and items from a character's inventory? Maybe there's some correlation between that and a lower dex, but I can't imagine IQ would change as well, so I don't have high hopes that is the issue.

    In any case, I think a number of people would be sad to not see you complete this one. I can understand if you don't though. The game seems rather lackluster. Good luck with wrapping it up this weekend.

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    1. What I said was confusing. I didn't mean that if I didn't win this weekend, I was going to stop playing entirely, only that I'd offer a post on something else to break the monotony.

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  5. I think your posts have been great- I'm a big T&T fan myself, having run it while younger and played many a solo dungeon as well. I don't have much to say about it mainly because I always feel somewhat stupid when compared to the rest of your commenting guests- the level of conversation here seems to run in the high-IQ stratosphere and I don't really have anything I can add to the discussion without seeming like a dancing monkey trying to copy actions of the humans all around him.

    Please don't quit the game early. I would be really sad. I've always wanted to play this, and I need to know if, by the end, it's worth it or not. If nothing else, I find this a pleasant distraction from the dismal grey pain my life has become with the death of my wife.

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  6. Victar here. Sorry to hear about zombie computer spam poisoning your blog. I guess I'll start using my AIM ID instead of the Name/URL option.

    My first suspicion when I heard about your characters' stats decreasing was: could there be an aging mechanic in the game, that deteriorates their stats as they grow older? Is there a Fountain of Youth somewhere?

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    1. Good guess, but not even a year has passed. My human warrior (screenshot above) started at age 22.

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    2. Could it be Disease that's lowering the stats?

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    3. No, I've been to healers, and they say I'm not afflicted with anything. I'll try casting disease and curse-removing spells when I finally get them, but I don't think that's the problem.

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    4. Hmm, 22 years old. Maybe they're just slackers?

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    5. Casting Double-Double on the character and stat that's stuck too low fixes it for me.

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    6. It is never too late to offer a remedy 200 days after the problem surfaced! Unless you only had 6 months to live.

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    7. Thanks, Korath. I do intend to pick this up again, so this makes it more likely that I can continue with my current party.

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  7. I have a post on my blog titled 'Escort Service' due to it being about a quest to escort a NPC and my character complaining about it. Hoo boy did I get a lot of spam on THAT one, all of it advertising rather crude services, to put it gently. I wound up disabling comments for just that post and I haven't been hit by spam on any of my other ones.

    Then again my readership is likely 5% of yours, so I don't have to worry about it.

    I try not to leave a comment unless I think it adds a little 'something' and I don't know much about the Tunnels & Trolls game, other than that it ran on my 8086 computer I had as a kid and it mystified me. Neither factoids lend much to insightful commenting, so I have been quietly enjoying your playthrough, though it does make me want to pick up the game myself.

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  8. I'm reading and enjoying your posts on T&T. I don't remember the game but I had read about it in Dungeons & Desktops. The screenshots I'd seen hadn't looked very appealing with the odd Mac OS style interface but your posts have shown me another side to the game and I was a big CYOA fan as a child playing the Fighting Fantasy series. Personally I think textual descriptions can still add a lot to a game (even a modern one like Skyrim) so I wouldn't necessarily see the text here as an issue. Whilst I enjoy most of your coverage such as the recent Ultima 6 posts, I think possibly one of the greatest strengths of the blog is the detailed attention you give to the games I've never played or even heard of. Thanks.

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  9. While the mood ring joke and references to characters may have been references to another work of fiction, T&T has always been played a little more gonzo than the more serious D&D.

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  10. How do I know that this isn't one of the clone websites if the content is identical?
    (Philip K Dick impression)

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    1. That I reply in the comments on this one is a good sign. Also the URL, the side-bar, the header, etc.

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    2. How do I know that some intrepid and extremely enterprising spam bot didn't kidnap Chet and cloned the shit out of him to give birth to you, possible Chet-clone?
      (another Philip K Dick impression)

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    3. Sorry I didn't give any indication that I was joking.
      Kenny got it though: D

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    4. I figured, but it was actually a reasonably good question.

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  11. If it means anything, I am enjoying Tunnels and Trolls. The "lawn mower" gameplay mechanic seems a tad odd, but your writing about it never is. Some posts I love because of the shared experience of seeing you talk about a game I enjoy, and some posts because you talk about games I will never play. Having both is part of what makes this blog interesting!

    That said, as a general rule, I do not mind if you alternate games between posts. No reason you have to play only one at a time, short of your own desire to keep more than one game in your head at once.

    Speaking of which, you post the next upcoming games, but I cannot figure out from your master spreadsheet what order you will play after that. Is there a rubric you are using? Or do you just pick when you need to advance the list.

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    1. I've been mostly randomizing the order of the newer games but going in chronological/alphabetical order for the older ones.

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    2. Lawnmowering is not unusual fir the time, The term was not coined by the commenter Chet references, by the way. it was commonly used on various newsgroups and boards back in the day is describing gameplay. This mechanic was quite common when the player/party moved through a set of disjoint squares and couldn't see what was in them until entering the square.

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  12. Question for you lot: Septerra Core is on sale on a website (I won't say which one so as to not break Chet's rules) and I'm thinking of buying it, but I thought I'd get the opinions of the people here first, since you lot know a damn lot about CRPGs.

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    1. I played it as a kid. I remember it being okay but it is more of a JRPG. I never beat it and from what I remember of it I don't think it would hold up well, I remember combat being slow and getting boring after awhile.

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    2. I remember it was horribly overpriced for a console-like RPG being released on PC. Never bought it back then. If it's on sale, I don't see why you shouldn't get it out for a spin just for kicks.

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    3. I bought it a couple years back and played through it. It has a decent enough story, but felt way too long with mediocre combat in my opinion.

      If you're partial to pseudo-turnbased JRPG combat, you're likely to enjoy it more than I did.

      In short, it's an alright game.

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    4. Thanks everyone.I think when I'm in an RPG mood I'll focus on trying to finish FFVII-- I bought it on sale, then after I started playing it I remembered I read a comic adaptation of the final scene years ago, which somewhat ruined the ending.

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    5. Sorry, spoiled the ending, which has made it a bit hard to get up motivation to go through it.

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  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. But that would mean... oh my God! That's both the most horrible and, at the same time, enlightening thing I've ever heard in my life! I need to go lie down for awhile and re-think everything about all that I had done and would have done.

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    2. Your reply makes me wish I had seen what roberski had posted. I shall now forever carry this unsolvable mystery within my heart.

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  14. Chet: Sorry it has taken me so long to catch up and become an active poster again. That said, as soon as I saw a CRPG based on an RPG I knew I had to start making more time for your blog. Particularly since I know Ken St. Andre is very active on twitter, and I could try and put you in touch with him if you haven't reached out to interview him already.

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  15. Just curious: was this game abandoned by you because of its "bookiness" or you have still plans to finish it? Thanks!

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    1. No, no. I actually liked the game, mostly. I had to take a month-long break (for work) in the middle of playing it, and when I got back, the game was too fresh in my mind to start over but too stale to continue with the same party. (If that doesn't make sense, I understand.) I always intended to get back to it. At the time, I had this idea that I'd be wrapping up 1990 by the end of the summer, so I figured it would only be a few months before I started playing it again.

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  16. No, no - it makes perfect sense to me! I had waited 18 years in order to forget all the puzzles in Wizardry 7 so that I could enjoy it again (and finally finish it!)
    (If you don't trust me, I understand.)

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