Thursday, November 19, 2015

Game 203: The Black Sage (1980)

The Black Sage 
Poly-Versa-Technology (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II
Date Started: 17 November 2015
Date Ended:
17 November 2015
Total Hours: 3
Reload Count: 16 (I was screwing around a lot)
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 18/201 (9%)
I know that a couple of days ago, I said I was going to save some of the new RPGs on "Keith's list" for later, and I truly did intend to do that. But then I started playing The Black Sage, just to verify it met my criteria, and damned if this goofy little game didn't strike my mood perfectly. I played all the way to the end in a single session, frequently laughing, sometimes with the game and sometimes at the game. It is perhaps important to the story to know that I was in Denver, where the altitude and things can cloud your judgement.

This dragon looks like he gets it.

The Black Sage is subtitled "an Ogres & Orcs adventure," a phrase that led me to a session of fruitless Googling before I concluded that the game is, in fact, the only "Ogres & Orcs adventure." Perhaps some of my more experienced readers can fill in the blanks if I missed something, but it doesn't appear that there was ever a tabletop RPG of the name. This makes it all the more weird that the game refers you to the "Ogres and Orcs rule book" (that's not my typo; the game can't decide whether there's an ampersand or a full word in the middle) if you're confused about any of the mechanics.

Exploring the rooms of the Black Sage's castle. This map and the dragon on the sub-title screen are the only graphics in the game. There is no sound at all.
The game begins by rolling you a character--with random values for strength, IQ, luck, dexterity, constitution, and charisma--and asking whether you like the character. The "Y/N" option at this point seems to be the same as hundreds of other RPGs, in which hitting "N" will generate a new series of statistics. But this game has a surprise for you:

This cracked me up and made me want to keep playing. You had to be there.
This is all too bad because something seems broken with the random generator. Every time I started the game anew, I got the same "random" statistics, so there was no choice but to like the character: a kind-of weak, really dumb, but spry and healthy adventurer.

The character begins the game with 1,000 gold pieces to outfit himself. He can select from a variety of swords, shields, hafted (two-handed) weapon, armor, and spells. All but one weapon has a strength requirement above 12, so I was forced to choose a cutlass for my primary weapon. I was similarly restricted to a "normal" shield. This left me plenty of money for spells, of which there are four: "What a Blast," "Where For Art Thou," "Seal Shut," and "Detect Magic." Alas, I lacked the rule book necessary to describe the uses of each of the spells, but I basically figured it out.

(Side note: I was at least 30, and already a Shakespeare fan of many years, before I realized that the word "wherefore" means "why" and not "where." Juliet is asking why Romeo is who he is, not where he is. This game is using it wrong.)

After outfitting yourself, the game verifies that you "are equipped the best you can be considering limitations of money and strength." To the unwary player, this sounds like an invitation to return to the equipment store and get more stuff. Ha. Instead, a "no" answer causes you to lose 2 IQ points and sends you forward to the next question: whether you want to enter the adventure. If you say "no," you're dumped to the prompt with a "why did you run this program stupid!!"

This game really enjoys messing with you.
A "yes" finds you in the Black Sage's castle, a high-resolution fortress of 34 interconnected, numbered rooms. As you enter, the game offers you a hint as to what room the Sage occupies. In what is probably another failure of the random number generator, I always got the same hint:

I still don't know whether this is so you can avoid him or find him.
The "figure in skating" is, of course, an 8, and Bo Derek, as Dudley Moore learned in 1979, is a 10. That meant I should look for the Sage in room 18.

Each room in the castle supplies a random encounter that, although goofy, generally gives you more role-playing options than the typical CRPG. For instance, the first room of the castle pits you against a sleeping ogre. You can try to "sneek" by him, slit his throat with a dagger, wake him up and fight him, or wake him up and talk to him. Success with each of these methods depends largely on your attributes. Sneaking requires you to make a saving throw based on luck, assassinating him rolls against your dexterity, fighting him takes you to standard combat (dependent largely on strength), and waking him up for a conversation...well, that leads to instant death here, but in similar scenarios it rolls against your charisma.

In this particular case, slitting his throat is the most rewarding because you get experience for both the successful action and the ogre's death, as well as 10 mithril pieces from the ogre. But it's not always that easy.

A lot of the options are jokes. In a couple of cases you can "stand and wait," which does nothing except require you to "hit any key when you want to stop standing around and waiting." In at least one encounter, choosing the option to "throw up" dumps you to the prompt with the admonishment that "that is absolutely disgusting; you will no longer mess up my castle." In one encounter, a "low-level commoner standing in front of you" turns out to be you in a mirror, and any offensive action ends up killing you. A "successful" charisma roll against a beautiful sorceress results in her falling in love with you and imprisoning you forever.

Here are a few of the many rooms:

Successfully dueling them rewards you with money and experience; talking to them (and passing a charisma roll) leads them to show you a few tips and increases your dexterity and charisma.

Throwing a coin in the well gives you an attribute bump.

Say what you want about the game, but I'm pretty sure I've never encountered this in another RPG.

Hmmm...there only seems to be one "good" role-playing choice here.

Ah, lesson learned.
When you do have to fight, the game rolls a series of statistics, shown in the shot below, that ultimately determine the damage to your constitution. I didn't find that straight-up combat with most fixed creatures was survivable for more than a couple of fights. You really want to play this more as an adventure game than a traditional RPG.

A lot of the encounters add or subtract from your attributes, and "solving" some of the rooms properly gives you clues that help in other rooms, including this one that explains a way to get out of the castle.

In almost every room, at least one option leads to instant death (or instant dumping you to the prompt), and I suspect that someone playing this honestly would have to restart about a dozen times before successfully navigating the small castle. (The game offers no save ability.) I liberally used save states and probably re-loaded twice that many times screwing around with the various options.

You get screens like this one a lot. I thought it was very funny at the time.
Revisiting a room generally finds it empty, although occasionally there's a random monster like an orc or hobgoblin in there. In contrast to the fixed encounters, the random ones are usually easily beaten in combat.

This is one of the times I laughed at the game. Even accounting for various possibilities, the language could have been less tortured.
The Black Sage himself resides in Room 18, near the middle of the castle. If the goal is to defeat him, I'm not sure how you do that. Even visiting his room after successfully exploring all the other ones, the only options lead to him freezing you in place with a spell and demanding "the amount of gold that you are worth." If you offer too little gold, you lose attributes before he kicks you out of the room. If you offer a moderate amount, he takes it and nothing changes. If you offer all your gold, he releases you and lets you keep it "for being so generous."

With no clear way to defeat the Sage, the goal just seems to be to get out of the dungeon with some riches, which include a large diamond and a magic sword. I found three methods of exiting the place, one of which doesn't even give you a choice when you find it.

This blew my mind. It took me a while to articulate why it wouldn't work.
Upon exiting, you can sell or keep your riches. If you got enough experience to advance to Level 2, you can choose to increase your attributes by varying amounts.

Since the game ends after leveling up, this doesn't really qualify as character development.
After you save your character...that's it. There's no way to "load" a character in this game, so I can only imagine that the author intended to write more Ogres & Orcs adventures in which you could use the saved and leveled characters. I can't find any evidence that any other games were produced in the series.

Even this one is about as obscure as it could be. Its publisher is "Poly-Versa-Technology"; Googling the company shows no results not attached to The Black Sage. Was it a real company? Was The Black Sage even really "published"? It feels like something a wise-ass but somewhat skilled teenager programmed in his high school lab. The written manual that accompanied the game probably had more clues, but it seems to have been lost to the ages.

A couple of days ago, I thought this was the best game ever, but luckily I descended from 5,280 feet before calculating the GIMLET. I give it a 13. It gets 1s in almost everything except I liked the encounter system (3) and the gameplay was short and challenging enough (3). So far, both of the games to offer detailed encounter menus have been somewhat juvenile humor titles (the other one that I can think of is Girlfriend Construction Set). Why haven't real RPGs adopted this dynamic? Some of the Gold Box titles perhaps come closest.

Even though there's one more pre-1984 game on the updated list--1981's Doom Cavern--I'll be returning to my listed rotation for now, adding it as soon as I clear off one of the others. Even though my initial reaction to Keith's attempt to "help" me was somewhat negative, quickly burning through a couple of early titles has really helped ease me back into regular blogging.


Since I'm back to managing the blog on a daily basis again, I've disabled comment moderation. Your comments should appear automatically now. I'm still getting a lot of comment spam, but I'll just try to deal with it when it happens.


  1. Looks pretty fun, actually.

    And wherefore the comment about a "wherefore"? Where is it?

    1. It was one of the spell he bought: "Where For Art Thou"

    2. It may be a far fetch but I'd say this could be an example of some crossover with old English and German.
      "Wofür" means "what for" (or why) - but it consists of "Wo" for "where" and "für" like "for" ...
      But maybe I'm just seeing things ...

  2. I love your posts on these old games.

    The disk image I downloaded has a file with the name "TEXT.BLACK SAGE RULES (1)", but I don't know how to read it. Maybe somebody who knows more about Apple IIs can take a look?

    1. Cider Press on Windows should be able to extract the text:

      Or Apple Commander on Mac:

    2. Cider Press made the text mostly readable, but it didn't understand the way capital letters & punctuation where stored. Oh well, I mostly figured it out. Looks like the file is the first in a series of chapters, hence the "(1)" suffix on the name, but the rest was not included on the disk image I found. This is the text:


      THE BLACK SAGE is a role-playing game. A role-playing game is one in which you develop a character and act this character out in a game. This allows you to escape into a world of fantasy where you do many things you dream of, but cannot do in real life.

      OGRES and ORCS is a gaming system. The Black Sage being the first in a series of games using this system. Each Ogres and Orcs "O & O" adventure is compatible with the next. Unlike most games on the market, the goal is not just to master that one game, but to let your character grow and survive each successive adventure. There will be different types of dungeons. The Black Sage is a multiple choice type as you will see when you begin to play it, but others will be different. Variety, versatility, an inexpensive price, and entertainment all explain the ideology behind the O & O series.

      Poly Versa Technology's goal is to provide the computer owners with inexpensive high level software. High level means a program needs [??] to [??]k of memory. Inexpensive means that where other high level software runs between [???] and [???], we will try to keep our prices below [???].

      One requirement set forth when we started to create the Ogres and Orcs series was that there wouln't be a complex or large set of rules to memorize. We also wanted a true gaming system. Somethig with a good foundation on which to expand. To achieve this the rules have been put into three sections. ONLY THE FIRST SECTION OF THE RULES NEEDS TO BE COVERED TO PLAY THE GAME. The other two sections are not included when you buy the game. The three sections are: General Overview, O&O Rule Book, Black Sage Exclusive Rules.

      General Overview: These rules are included with the game. These give a general explanation of things that you must know in order to play the game effectively. This allows you to start playing the game soon after you have gotten it home.

      Ogres and Orcs Rules: These are the basic rules for ALL Ogres and Orcs games. These explain that foundation on which we build the O&O series. Is is not imperative that you read or own these.

      Black Sage Exclusives: Thes are the changes in the Ogres and Orcs rules that apply only to this particular game. This will explain the differences between the O&O rule book and the functioning of the Black Sage. These will be sent along with the O&O rule book.

    3. Thanks for taking the time to do this. It sounds like I sussed things out correctly then: Poly-Versa-Technology intended to publish a bunch of games in the O&O line but never made it past the first one, at least as far as we can tell from Google.

      I wish we had a developer or author's name behind all of this.

  3. Ultima VII has a puppet show, and being an Ultima game, you can kill the puppet master if the mood should take you. It wouldn't be terribly virtuous, though. I guess you'll experience this yourself in like 100 games. :P

    1. I had forgotten about this entirely. I remember a play but not a puppet show.

  4. This sounds like a lot of fun; it's the sort of humour that I very much appreciate (i.e. trolling the player). Looking forward to playing this one when I hit 1980.

  5. At least this game is nice enough to have a graphical representation of your location instead of having to draw a bunch of boxes with lines criss-crossing them.

  6. Oh, this is adorable! Absolutely has that school-lab feel and I would not be remotely surprised if all the seemingly malfunctioning elements just don't exist. The "multiple choice" approach also gibes... relatively easy to program, lot of room for jokes. The only thing missing is stuff named after the creator's friends and teachers. Reminds me of things I tried to make in high school, though I went more the text adventure route. Glad you shared this one (and glad to see you back in action!).

  7. nitpick: "... charisma roLL".
    Other than that, the encounter design is much more elaborate than for the whole bards tale series.

  8. I wish more games would include goofy/non-standard stuff in dungeons. The Puppet Show was funny especially. I remember a version of Wizardry where there was a magic shop in the dungeon, but only at certain times of the day.

    I too was surprised by losing charisma for not liking a character. I cannot see it being a standard feature. Too many people like to spend time rolling up a character. But as a lark, it was fun and highlighted a gamer tendency.

  9. I was surprised to see a reference to my reviled Girlfriend Construction Set come up here, but the arbitrary and juvenile humour on display also put me in mind of public enemy 2, Braminar 8)

  10. Hey Chet! Love the site, it's become one of my favorites to read during lunch breaks. I didn't really get into CRPGs myself until the early 90s, so it's edifying to read such detailed rundowns of what came before.

    Apologies if this has been asked before, and at the risk of becoming another frenemy like Keith for adding more mass to your Sisyphean boulder, but are you considering the various older JRPGs being added to Steam, going by their original release date? Such as 1989/1990's Phantasy Star II, for instance.

    Thanks, and I look forward to more articles from you. I'm especially curious about games released for the Atari ST, as that was the first system I ever owned, so I'll be watching out for those.

    1. This question has come up before. It seems to assume that the reason I haven't played Phantasy Star II previously is because I couldn't. But of course I could have--I could have downloaded a console emulator and churned through dozens of console games over the last 5 years, probably never getting out of the 1980s.

      I chose to focus only on computer RPGs for my blog. I might be missing a lot of good games, but I had to make some kind of useful demarcation that would make the list manageable. (And even then, it really isn't.) That many console RPGs are now available on steam doesn't make them "computer RPGs"; it doesn't change the fundamental nature of those games. Hence, they will not appear on my list.

    2. Ah, that makes sense. Thank you for the clarification. I did read the FAQ, where you pointed out that there's a billion places on the internet for JRPG antics already, but I guess it didn't quite register. Heh.

      Besides, there's enough wonderfully strange CRPGs coming up regardless, especially SSI's period with unusual alternate D&D campaign settings. Can't wait.

    3. Keep in mind, it's not JRPGs that don't make it to my list but console RPGs. Any JRPG that has a computer release is on my list.

    4. What is Keith's List? I take it its a list from a contributor. Can you add a sidebar with the list ? I am not sure how to find it.

    5. On my master game list, look for the source "Commenter Keith." Besides the two I've already played, it consists of:

      Doom Cavern (1981)
      Elfhelm's Bane (1984)
      Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity (1985)
      Dragon Side II: The Twisted Speare (1985)
      Journey into Darkness (1985)
      Star Crystal: Episode 1 (1985)
      Hera (1987)
      Mindtrap: The Quest of the Seven Diamonds (1988)

      Maybe a couple of others if he can point me to better sources.

  11. Surprised you haven't run across the "two halves make a hole" thing before. I remember it as the answer to a... riddle, I guess? About how a prisoner with only a wooden stool in his locked cell managed to escape: "First, he rubbed his hands together until they were sore. He took the saw and sawed the stool in halves. Two halves make a whole, so he climbed through the hole and escaped!"

    1. Jesus. That sounds like something they'd say on an old Star Trek episode to make a robot self-destruct.

    2. I first heard it on the Games and Puzzles "cartridge" for my 2XL - the 8 track tape player which pretends it's a computer. Later I read it in a book of children's riddles at the library (with the addendum of "He yells until he is hoarse and then rides away"). Last year my daughter came home from school having picked it up from somewhere. So it seems to be somewhat culturally pervasive.

    3. Interestingly version does not work in my accent (General Canadian English, I think it is called? S. Ontario), nor in Mara's Midwestern one. She saws it does work in Tom Scott's British one though.

      I've not heard that before, Mara has though. Her version starts with a guy locked in a room with a mirror and a table. He looks in the mirror and sees what he saw, he uses the saw to cut the table in half...

  12. I'm willing to bet that the numbers that the game claims to have "randomly rolled" were really all just intended to be pre-generated, and the text claiming otherwise was the set-up to yet another way to troll the player.

  13. The game is coded entirely in BASIC and fully listable. I tweaked my copy to allow my to re-roll my stats, but don't have the patience to decipher the randomness code which is as follows:
    10 D$ = CHR$ (4): DIM M%(4,36):
    DIM C%(2,13): DIM N$(6): DIM
    W%(4,7): DIM P$(5): DIM O%(1
    0): DIM D%(10): DEF FN DC(D
    C) = INT ( RND (1) * 6) + 1
    40 HOME : VTAB (4): PRINT "NOW
    ": VTAB (7): PRINT "ROLLING"
    : FOR I = 1 TO 6:C%(1,I) = FN
    DC(DC) + FN DC(DC) + FN DC
    (DC): NEXT I
    50 IF C%(1,1) < 10 OR C%(1,3) <
    12 OR C%(1,4) < 10 OR C%(1,1
    ) + C%(1,2) + C%(1,3) + C%(1
    ,4) + C%(1,5) + C%(1,6) < 70
    THEN 40
    60 VTAB (7): PRINT : PRINT : FOR
    I = 1 TO 6: PRINT CH$(I);" =
    ";C%(1,I): NEXT I
    65 C%(1,0) = C%(1,5):C%(2,0) = C
    %(1,1):C%(1,8) = 1

    1. Based on the code there, it looks like the basic system is "3d6 in order," similar to old-school D&D. Any character that doesn't meet the following criteria is automatically rejected and rerolled:
      - STRENGTH 10+
      - LUCK 12+
      - DEXTERITY 10+
      - Sum of all stats must be 70 or higher

      The unchanging character stats are probably because the PRNG isn't seeded at startup. (With no clock in the average Apple, the usual "RANDOMIZE TIMER" approach doesn't work too well.) Your suggestion to read unpredictable gibberish from zero page memory should work fine.

  14. SOLVED the character attribute randomness issue! CTRL-C to Applesoft during boot. Unlock the file MASTER and Load it. Add these two BASIC lines:
    31 SEED = PEEK(78) + PEEK(79) * 256
    32 X = RND(-SEED)

    Save MASTER. Lock Master. Every time you reboot the game the character generated will be different, but still within the intended parameters of the 6 attributes.

    1. Thanks for the extra work on this. I really need to learn Apple DOS properly so I can do this sort of thing myself.

      And for the benefit of everyone else, Bob was able to get a lead on the developer based on something in the code. We may be lucky to hear from him soon.

  15. Lastly for anyone wishing to explore the game, the files name BS, BS2, BS3 and BS4 are really named B(ctrl-L)S.

  16. Are you trying to say that you were high when you played this game?

    1. What is the opposite of "whoosh"? You know, when someone not only gets the joke, but instead of just winking and smiling and moving on, they feel they have to render it blunt and obvious?

    2. And all along I thought you meant you were playing the game while gliding around ad infinitum on a parachute until you beat it.

  17. The game mechanics are clearly inspired by / stolen from the old pen and paper RPG Tunnels & Trolls (or T&T), which was itself largely inspired by D&D. Briefly, T&T use a combat system based on Dice & Adds (roll x number of 6 sided dice, and add y). Any time you roll doubles, they "add and roll over" - so if you rolled 3 dice and got 2,4,2 you would get 8 plus 2 more dice (since you get to reroll the doubles). Luck rolls are typical saving throws, except doubles also add and roll over. The author of T&T, Ken St. Andre, is also known for silly humor, such as a first level spell named "Oh, Go Away." Most of the modules published for T&T were solo adventures, written in multiple choice / Choose Your Own Adventure style just like The Black Sage.

    The very first T&T module ever published, Buffalo Castle, has three entrances. One entrance has a yawning Troll that you can fight, talk to, or try to sneak past (compare to the screenshot of Room #1, above, with a Troll instead of an Ogre).


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