|The early game's major fixed encounter is to free the Well of Knowledge from this dragon.|
I never played much tabletop D&D, but I did go through a period in which I liked to buy and read D&D modules. In retrospect, I suppose it was kind of sad--a lonely child poring over game instructions that he had neither the time nor friends to play. But to me, reading them was almost as good as playing.
It's been years since I even looked at one, and I don't remember a lot of specific names. I know they varied a lot in quality. The ones I like best had mazes of lettered or numbered rooms. Each room had an accompanying descriptive paragraph (which the DM would read, I guess) and then a longer detailed explanation of the room's creatures, encounters, and items. You'd find out things that players would have to figure out on their own: that the orc party in the room is terrified of the undead in the nearby graveyard, and will flee at the nearest "boo"; that the djinni lies with everything he says; that the fountain is holy water rather than regular water; that the room is full of trap doors leading to spiked pits. I liked to imagine how I'd play out the encounters if I didn't know these things ahead of time.
I probably fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the modules I was reading. I tended to think of each area as a completely compartmentalized encounter. I suspect now that a good DM wouldn't play it that way; that the goblin squad in Room 13 wouldn't just sit there as they heard the party prying up floorboards in Room 12. A realistic dungeon is a living, interconnected dungeon. But I still liked the thought of the "dungeon" as a huge, sprawling edifice full of discrete, individual role-playing encounters.
Only a few computer RPGs have delivered this sort of experience. Most of them have dungeons that are relatively small, or bereft of meaningful encounters, or with only encounters that tie in to the main plot. Few offer the opportunity to "wander" and yet still find interesting things. The two Might & Magic games perhaps come closest in my chronology so far, but the dungeons are overly predictable in their rigid 16 x 16 structure, and the encounters, while extremely varied, don't have a lot of depth. Tunnels & Trolls has something of this dynamic, though again the dungeons are quite small and the encounters a little too scripted. Ultima Underworld is perhaps the best example that I can think of, though there are times when the Baldur's Gate games come close.
When I saw that Secret of the Silver Blades offered an extremely large, irregular set of ruins, I originally had high hopes that it would offer this kind of dungeon-crawling experience. I hoped that amid the long corridors leading to nowhere, there would be a handful of rooms in which I encountered original NPCs, tough fixed combats, puzzles, and treasures. My hopes were boosted when, early on, I ran into a dragon guarding a few magic items. It wasn't much of an encounter--not even much of a fight--but I thought it would be the first of many to offer some break in the monotony of the drab corridors.
|"Attack" or "Flee." I marvel in the quality of this role-playing choice.|
Alas, having mapped an area that goes up to an x coordinate of 83 and a y coordinate of 60 (less than half used, admittedly), I can now report that in this vast area, there are exactly three fixed encounters: the dragon above, an even larger dragon guarding better treasure, and an ancient bier with some magic items (looting it got me a battle with clerics of Bane). In between are a few bland descriptions and a ton of random encounters delivering absurd piles of platinum. Disappointing.
|On the plus side, I did learn a new bit of vocabulary.|
The twisting corridors lead ultimately to three important areas, two of which fit into the overall ruins map while featuring their own coordinate scheme. The first is the Well of Knowledge area, and clearing it seems to be the first quest, partly because the mayor's portal leads directly there and partly because none of the other teleporters will activate until it's cleared. The Well area is basically a nexus of teleporters connecting the game's major areas, preventing the player from having to navigate miles of corridors every time he wants to get back to New Verdigris.
The other two areas are a series of mines descending into the earth and something called the "administration building" that I haven't yet explored.
Since beginning the game, the only thing I've done in relation to the main plot is to clear the Well of Knowledge area. It was swarming with Black Circle mages and Priests of Bane, both engaged in a struggle to control the area despite neither (apparently) being good. Both attacked me with abandon throughout both the Well and the ruins.
|One fun role-playing choice, as priests and mages of the Black Circle charged each other. I chose to "duck," at which point the priests defeated the mages and I was able to destroy the greatly-diminished band of priests.|
I was prepared to give the Black Circle a chance despite their name, at least until they started attacking me without provocation. After I cleared the Well area, the Well of Knowledge itself told me that the aim of the Black Circle is the awakening of someone called the "Dreadlord" who "sleeps within his castle, trapped within the glacier." The miners thought the Circle was helping them, but the Circle was really just trying to get the miners to blast away bits of the glacier so that they could slowly tunnel their way into the castle. The monsters attacking New Verdigris are being slowly released from the melting ice. Still no word on the Dreadlord or how the glacier formed around his castle in the first place. For that matter, still no word on what the "Silver Blades" are.
|The game is a little unclear how a tube full of water is communicating with me.|
I did find a letter "blowing in the wind" in the ruins (until then, I thought they were supposed to be indoors) in which another Black Circle member wrote to Marcus. The letter indicates that a "contact in Phlan" is acting as a "middleman" for their efforts and that "he has sent a clerk to take care of communications. She has no knowledge of our real intent." Can it be that I'll again see my beloved, the clerk of New Phlan?
I'm not sure where the Priests of Bane come into all of this, but they apparently held the Well of Knowledge before the Black Circle showed up. Although the Circle initially drove the priests from the Well, Bane sent an ancient red dragon to even the score. To clear the well, I ultimately had to defeat the red dragon. This was assisted greatly by a Scroll of Protection from Dragon's Breath, which an old man in town gave me after I listened to three of his stories.
So far, I've faced three fixed-encounter dragons of varying power and a bunch of small red dragons with packs of other monsters in the ruins. I continue to be disappointed in how fast the dragons die, especially now that my characters have enough hit points to easily survive one round. Even the mightiest dragons never last more than two.
|These are just the cutest things. I felt bad killing them.|
|The bigger ones are impressive in size, but they still don't have enough hit points to be truly dangerous.|
Killing the dragon "freed" the mine, and I was able to get the information about the Dreadlord in exchange for a sacrifice of gems. I thought the well would keep asking for more gems for more information, but after the one journal entry, I just get a message that the Well has nothing more to say.
Freeing the Well also now allows me to use the teleporters scattered throughout. Apparently, I have to visit both ends first before I can use them. So far, I've found the portal back to town and two portals to areas of the ruins I have no reason to revisit.
Some miscellaneous notes:
- Within the ruins, many wall patterns repeat themselves. For instance, the pattern below appears in three separate places.
- I didn't find a single secret door in the ruins. Granted, I didn't test every wall. The "Search" command seemed to have no use, either. In Pool of Radiance, you needed to use it or "Look" to find special treasures in certain rooms. I don't remember it doing much in Curse of the Azure Bonds except wasting time, and that seems to be its primary function here.
- I forgot to mention this in my first post, but the manual begins with a letter from "Rolf" to "Fafnir" indicating that Rolf has been following the party from place to place, always one step behind. You may recall that Rolf was the harbormaster's assistant who greeted the party on the docks of Phlan and gave us a little tour. I'm not sure if I'll ever see him or if the letter is just some flavor text.
- An old man in town and the tavern have different journal entries every time you visit, but you have to completely leave New Verdigris and return for the new ones to activate.
|My third visit with the old man got me a Scroll of Protection from Dragon Breath.|
- My plan to diversify my spells has been working out reasonably well. I'm getting a chance to try out some spells that I wouldn't normally bother to memorize. The only problem is that so far, the combats have been easy enough that magic hasn't really been necessary.
|Where I would have tried casting "Hold" on this cleric in previous games, I'm going to try to erase his mind instead.|
- So far, my favorite combo of spells I otherwise wouldn't use is to have the mage cast "Mirror Image," then "Dimension Door" behind enemy lines and attack the back ranks with contact spells like "Burning Hands," "Shocking Grasp," and "Bestow Curse." This combo does nothing compared to a single "Magic Missile," but it's still fun.
- Only a couple of my characters have received a level-up so far.
- I seem to remember that in Curse, my fighter/thief could still backstab even if he was wearing heavy armor. In Secret, he can't. I was planning to leave him in leather for role-playing reasons anyway, but the rule keeps me honest. Because I had him running around in leather when the other lead characters had plate mail +2, he kept getting knocked unconscious--until I found some leather +5 and some other protective items.
|I guess the bracers are superfluous now.|
- As you explore the ruins, you periodically encounter a "party of townsmen" who offer to escort you back to town. It's a good way to instantly return to safety, but how are these townsmen surviving all the minotaurs, hill giants, and gryphons?
|I suspect that you really want me to escort you to town.|
- Every time I rest in the mayor's house in town, I get attacked once by Fire Knives trying to assassinate me. After I defeat them once, I can rest safely until the next time I leave New Verdigris and return. I don't really know what they're doing here. Revenge?
I guess it's time to choose the next area to explore: the mines or the "administration building." But perhaps the next thing to do for role-playing reasons is to force entry into the home of Marcus, the Black Circle mage who lives in town, and demand some answers.