Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dragon Sword: A Crossroads

Navigating Dragon Sword's interminable dungeons is complicated by "jumper squares."

For nearly three months, Dragon Sword has been at the center of a ludicrous amount of angst. At first, I decided I was going to quit it early, after I experienced all it had to offer, because the purpose of my blog is to have fun. Then I decided I needed to win it, no matter how many endless hours of mapping it took, because the purpose of my blog is (at least in part) to catalog moments in RPG history that everyone else has overlooked. I wrote a post about the next dungeon, then shelved it. I wrote a "final rating" post, then shelved that. I kept playing. I wrote an absurdly long post explaining the core dilemma in the context of the history of my blog, which has evolved from a fairly trivial review of games that I was always ready to quit, to a more in-depth review of games I generally force myself to play to the end.

The simple fact is that if I quit Dragon Sword, it will be the first time I've deliberately quit a game in almost two and a half years. There were a couple others that I thought I quit when I couldn't make any more progress (Drakkhen, Expedition Amazon), only to come back with a "won!" posting after the final rating. There was one for which I didn't technically see the winning screen (Dragonflight) but got one step away before a game-breaking bug prevented me, and there was one that I was forced to quit mid-game because of a bug. (That was Legend of Faerghail, and we are going to have to come back to it eventually because I had a fantastic correspondence with one of the authors over the summer, and I promised him I'd do something with all the information he gave me.)

It actually gets a bit worse than that. Bloodwych may be the last game I deliberately quit, but plenty of other people have won it, and I was still able to show the end-of-game screenshot from someone else's video. Even if I didn't win, I could still discuss winning. To find a game that I quit without even being able to talk about the ending, we have to go all the way back to Scavengers of the Mutant World in June 2011. Thus, the decision about whether to quit Dragon Sword is non-trivial. It is, in many ways, a decision about the soul of The CRPG Addict.

Hell would be another 30 dungeon levels.

I summarized my core dilemma with Bloodwych in August 2012:

Continuing to play Bloodwych is a bit like eating something abominable--circus  peanuts, say, or those awful wasabi snack mixes they have at some bars--for no other reason than a bowl of it is sitting in front of you. In a meta-cognitive way, I'm fascinated by my refusal to give up on it.
The same statement could apply equally well to this game. Both are simply too long, too slow, and too repetitive. Dragon Sword does a great job replicating the Wizardry aesthetic, but with bigger dungeon levels, three times the number of dungeon levels, and three to four times the number of random encounters, it vastly overstays its welcome.

As a refresher, Dragon Sword is a shareware Wizardry clone from 1990 in which a group of 6 adventurers (I have a fighter, barbarian, monk, thief, cleric, and magic user) seek to stop the tyranny of the dragon Oijngate. They start out in the town of Bralka, from which at least four separate dungeons are available. You have to explore them in a specific order, with passwords to each found in the previous dungeons. Perion's Place had five levels, followed by Galt's Domain with seven, followed by the "s**t hole" with four, followed by the Tower O' Fun with at least three. That's 19 out of 30. I assume the Tower has at least a few more. Throughout the explorations, I've been finding keys, and I suspect when I have the right set, it will open the area in the center of Bralka, and there will be a final large dungeon leading to the dragon.

The rare fixed encounter. Each dungeon has a boss. This one was named "Frank."

There are very, very few fixed encounters in the dungeon levels--maybe two or three per dungeon. Random encounters happen with maddening frequency. The game introduces dozens of new monsters per dungeon and only keeps them around for a couple levels before abandoning them for harder varieties. I'm mildly interested in seeing how the developers are going to keep this up. They've already burned through most of the D&D monster manual and classic mythology. In the current dungeon, I'm encountering playing cards (e.g., jack o'clubs, ace o'spades), chess pieces (black pawns, white bishops), and completely nonsensical creatures (tic-tac-toes, stupid steps). Pretty soon, they're just going to have to start drawing last names at random from the Naperville phone directory.

A typical enemy party in current exploration.

Combat is almost exactly like Wizardry except that the spells are original to the game. For a while, character development and spell acquisition were enough to keep things mildly interesting, but my mage and cleric acquired their final spell levels several dungeon levels ago, leaving only increases in hit points and spell points to look forward to. The "s**t hole" had so many undead capable of draining levels that I actually went backwards for a while, but I've caught back up since then. At this point, "Protection from Spells" from the cleric and some mass damage spell from the mage are necessary in almost every combat, meaning that it's important to know the way back to the nearest set of recharging squares.

Early in the game, attributes increase randomly by 1 at each level-up, but by now, all my attributes are 18.

I've taken to only saving the game in those squares. Almost nothing in the game is dependent on actually visiting squares; rather, almost everything is dependent on mapping and finding the cryptic messages. Even if I lose a lot of experience upon party death, I still have the maps. I can just reload from the safe zone and stake off in an unmapped direction. The game essentially forces you to take this attitude because it frequently freezes or brings the party to the "game over" screen randomly.

Like most Wizardry derivatives, Dragon Sword confounds navigation with dark squares, spinners, teleporters, and "jumper" squares. The difference between the last two is that the latter notifies you that you've been teleported and the former doesn't. In some dungeons, like the one below, teleporters are so common that you pretty much have to check your coordinates with the "Locate" spell after every step. This level was also insidious in that a message frequently came up that said, "You've been teleported!" when I had not, in fact, been teleported. "A trickster tried and true will sometimes lie to you," another message explained.

"TP#" indicates that it's a teleportation square; "#TP" is the destination square.

Here's another one. Notice all those "Js"? Those are jumper squares. Imagine how much of a pain it was to map this level when the "J" squares randomly teleport you every time you step on them.

The game has secret doors, but it also has a lot of squares that are inaccessible without the "Open Wall" spell. Some of these areas hide key encounters and messages. This is one of the few games in which that type of spell is a necessity rather than just a navigation aid.

Most of the levels feature riddles of some sort, usually just an obvious password, like this one:

In case you can't figure out, the password it's hinting is "MAP."

A lot of them seem to set up things that never materialize. For instance, on Level 2 of the "s**t hole," there were two areas shaped like temples. The first held a message that read, "Death, it is true, will soon come to you, but you can stay its falling hand, by issuing a curt, staying command." The other temple had a message that simply read "ENVRE." I assume the latter is supposed to be the "staying command," but either way I never found any encounter that required the use of the password. Another message suggested that there was something called a "no jumper ring" to be found--presumably something that keeps the jump squares from activating--but I never encountered such a thing. It's possible, of course, that I missed something in both cases.

Then we have this one. I don't know if it's trying some reverse psychology or what.

And this was just a blatant lie:

On my current level, there are a couple of dozen rows of alcoves, each with a single word that makes up a longer sentence, promising to set up some kind of chess piece-related riddle. The level also has an annoying gimmick by which you can see through (but not walk through) walls, making navigation very difficult because it's hard to tell what's an open wall, what's a closed wall, and what's a door. I may just let the "Light" spell expire and map if it was all dark, because it's giving me a headache.

The "Fun" part must be meant sarcastically.

By completing a level or two per week while I was dithering about whether to continue the game, I guess I made the decision. I'm two-thirds finished with it at this point, so I might as well go the distance (though don't expect me to do it all at once). I just wish the authors had tweaked it a bit: fewer levels, encounters less often, and leveling better paced throughout the game. If I could just skip to the endgame, even by cheating, I would, but I can't see a way to do that.

I probably won't post again on Dragon Sword until I've won, but if my other posts seem to be slow, it's because this game is still taking up some background time. MegaTraveller or Treasure of Tarmin next, depending on my mood tomorrow.


  1. The next change to Chet's Mater Plan:

    He keeps going forward, alternating between 1983 and 1990

    And also goes backwards, finishing all the unfinished games.

    Bloodwych is calling ;)

  2. While I admire your persistence, I was rather hoping you would throw in the towel with this one, as now you have set yourself a dangerous precedent for all the bland plotless dungeon master clones in your future.

  3. Maybe ask your readers if a game is worth continuing? To abandon a game, a 2/3rd majority is needed or something like that... Personally, I think some exceptions to your own standards can be allowed, for example, if the game is just mindless repetition, and I think chess figures as an enemy class qualifies for that. Are the graphics and sounds going to change? The mechanics? Do you have experienced every facet of the game? Do you expect the GIMLET score to move in either way if you complete the game? Is the game historically significant enough to warrant the hours sunk into it? I think one could make a rule out of these questions that do not violate the categorical imperative.

    1. In related news, I defeated Melissan for the first time today... I must have started the BG series about a year ago. With lots of real life stuff in between, it took me the whole year to finish it. Wonderful games, thought part II is significantly better than part I, in my opinion. Now what to play next in my own retro campaign? Probably Wasteland, so I can finish it and finally read the Addict's posts on that game without spoiling myself.

  4. Please don't suck out all of your fun doing this.

    I would hate that a fourth-rate shareware dungeon crawler would lead to the demise of this blog.

    1. Yeah, posts about really bad games can be a great read. Posts about endlessly booooooring ones not so much.

      - Amasius

    2. Yeah.

      Games are all supposed to be about fun.
      If your spirit is not really into it, then move along to something more interesting. We like to read about your fun and the way you reflect upon the gameing experience.

      I, for one, ain't really interested in reading about life in a virtual, fantasy "concentration camp".

    3. Heed well the words of the wise! Abandon this foolish quest!

  5. I doubt I could will myself to map that carefully were I trapped in an actual dungeon with my survival at stake. I admire your moxie and fear you may never entirely escape this game.

  6. I have admire your tenacity in keeping up with the Dragon Sword Chet, I would had given up long ago with this one to be honest.

  7. I just hope you won't be trying to finish Progress Quest too...

  8. As I understand it the situation you're in is about decontextualizing gaming from something fun because of a higher (sideways?) calling, that has not only historic ambition but also it seems to me an ascetic quality.

    Perhaps that's the true appeal of this blog, taking what you've framed as an addiction (and addictions hinge on that the initial touch of the drug produced great fun, but no longer does), through a road of excess towards the palace of wisdom.

    In this case, obviously, you should either finish every game you possibly can, or perish trying.

  9. Nevertheless this was an interesting read.

  10. In cases such as this, the readership owes it to Chet to write algorithmic scripts or programs allowing the game to be auto-played through to completion.

  11. As a regular reader and fan of this blog, I have nothing but absolute admiration for your perseverance and ethos which makes you go through the ordeal of playing obscure, repetitive games just for the sake of principles. The fact that you are so unrelenting is, for me, on of the main appeals of this blog.

    However, in this particular case, the extent to which the game "overstays its welcome" (chess pieces as enemies, seriously? nightmarish dungeons full of teleporter squares? heck, if there is any sort of afterlife, I hope it doesn't look like that) makes the decision to stop playing partially justified. In other words - I'd be glad to see you finish the game, but I wouldn't consider abandoning it as a crime against "the soul of CRPGAddict".

  12. I have a story.

    Back when I was an eleven-year-old, I was enthusiastically reading Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game books, especially those that incorporated character development a la D&D and had me track health, skills, etc. One of my favorite series was the Way of the Tiger, which had six books and allowed a ninja to survive the evil takeover of his civilization and lead the overlord's eventual overthrow. But Book Six ended with no possible way to win. I went through the book and read every single entry, desperate to find a way to find the "happy" ending, but to no avail. After the fact, the authors revealed that it was meant to be a cliffhanger to be resolved in the seventh book, but eleven-year-old me was devastated.

    The people who designed Dragon Sword published it as shareware. Shareware games were hardly discussed in the magazines of the day, and the internet was not widely used. What's to stop some publisher at this time from making a game that is impossible to win? Or, if not impossible to win, is extremely difficult to win?

    And we're not talking about difficulty that is derived from creative game design. The difference between a challenging-but-rewarding dungeon in this genre and a nigh-impossible one, was as easy to implement as tripling the amount of hit points and damage inflicted by creatures.

    The designers seem to have run out of ideas. They might never have played their own game before releasing it; the fact that no new spell levels are attained with so much more dungeon to go tells me that they didn't, or that they didn't care.

    I'm guessing that they might have liked The Bard's Tale series, in which game boasted having more dungeon levels and magic spells than its predecessor. The makers of this game told themselves, "We can make an even BIGGER game than Bard's Tale!" And they determined the length of their game, not by what actually led to the best experience, but by doubling the amount of levels to explore as their competitor. The lack of "specials" in these dungeon levels testifies to that.

    And, as shareware publishers, there was no job to lose. They had no distributor to please. They could have published a Space Invader clone in which you should an intergalactic turd. Or they could have published a game that no one could win, like my Way of the Tiger book that I tried to win as a kid.

    Or they could have published something that no one in the world has finished, because it wasn't worth doing.

    This is my concern: I think that there needs to be a special case for shareware titles because there is no telling what has been put out there. There are certain titles that became popular and are reputedly fun; I'm not saying abandon the field entirely. Just that discretion should be used when shareware is involved.

    Also, the rise of smartphones in the late 00s will lead to a lot more games being published. That's something to think about!

    My two cents!

  13. The Exile series drinking game: down a gimlet every time you spot a Ultima7 Serpent Isle "inspiration" in Jeff Vogel's games. For bonus points, do the same with Avernum4 and Ultima V.
    Try playing for more than half an hour without getting too drunk to move, kids.

  14. I greatly admire your perseverance, and:

    the purpose of my blog is (at least in part) to catalog moments in RPG history that everyone else has overlooked

    Yes, this is one of the most important things about the CRPG Addict to me. I have a deep appreciation for all those who spend their time and energy in investigating overlooked media. We spend so much time discussing and re-discussing things that "everyone knows", and much of that is simply a rehash of what's already been said.

    Bringing something new to light always broadens that conversation, and strikes a small blow against...I don't know if I can call it "entropy", but against forgetting, I suppose. And against the tyranny of received opinions, and the feeling that only the famous, the popular, and the already-Cliff's-Noted things matter.

    The first held a message that read, "Death, it is true, will soon come to you, but you can stay its falling hand, by issuing a curt, staying command." The other temple had a message that simply read "ENVRE." I assume the latter is supposed to be the "staying command," but either way I never found any encounter that required the use of the password.

    Is the fact that ENVRE is an anagram for NEVER salient here?

  15. Ludicrous Angst would be a good name for a band.

    Also, if you're using words like that, I feel like it's time to move on.

  16. I think it's awesome that you're spending 100 times longer on this game than you did on any of the Wizardry games! Keep at it... I'd love to see you beat this. You're an inspiration to us all.

  17. I can't believe you're still going after completing the "Sh** Hole". Are you hoping the ending screen will take you to another world (like the Last Starfighter)?

    1. The ending will consist of a black screen with the text message:"Congratulations! Do you want to start a new game with a different character? N/Y"

    2. Even better: there won't be an ending. There will be a final battle against a nearly impossible foe, it will take three weeks to win after hundreds of tries, and the only thing winning the battle gets you is a rapid ejection back to the command prompt.

      Like some sort of alternate dimension NetHack without any satisfaction whatsoever.

    3. My concern is that the final enemy will be so strong that if killable, it will take hundreds of hours of grinding to gain enough HP's to beat it. Right now the game seems reasonable to win (if long) but there has to be a cutoff point.

    4. My thought was that a dimensional portal would open when he finished it, but I checked CBC and the BBC and I don't see any reports of demons devouring the Eastern seaboard.

  18. @CRPGAddict,

    A lot of people are posting things along the lines of "I admire your persistence," but I'd like to make a quick case for quitting:

    As you yourself have pointed out, a lot of the games you've played haven't been cataloged anywhere else. It's not an overstatement to say that, at this point, you might have more first hand experience with CRPGs from the period starting in the late 1970s and running through 1990 than anyone else on the planet.

    I view the work you're doing here as important qualitative research into a major genre in an industry worth more than $90 billion. Game design has become a major economic force and there is no source of information on how CRPGs work that has quite the breadth or depth of your blog.

    I work in academia and I have seen a lot of interesting research get sidetracked by a very well-intentioned desire to be thorough. The benefit of thoroughness, however, has to be weighed against the opportunity cost of continuing. Every hour you spend on Dragon Sword is an hour you don't spend on the next game. So I would ask, can you rate this game confidently? Is it unlikely that your opinion of the game will change in the next 11 levels? If so, then please consider quitting.

    1. Rereading this comment, I feel that my point comes across as kind of apathetic in regard to your personal enjoyment. That wasn't my intention. I'm only encouraging you to quit because it seems clear that you're not actually enjoying the game.

  19. Long-time reader first time poster. I think you should quit the game because it's become a boring grind. You have experienced everything the game has to offer. What's left is a few more nonsensical sentences of plot hidden behind miles of mines and barbwire in the form of relative combat and sadistic map graphing.

    This game was forgotten for a reason: it's not very good. I discovered this blog after thinking nostalgically about Starflight one day and have enjoyed reading you play some of the great games from the past. Dump this flaming mess into the Sh*thole.

    1. Endless combat not relative.

  20. I kinda feel responsible for this conundrum of yours... if only I hadn't sent you a copy after you said you couldn't find this game anywhere. It must've been a year or two ago.

    -- Razvan Mazilu

  21. Correspondence with the authors is one of my favourite things about this blog, so I'm very much looking forwards to that Legend of Faerghail post.



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