Sunday, December 13, 2015

Game 206: The Standing Stones (1983)

The Standing Stones was released in 1983 for the Apple II and in 1984 for the Commodore 64, meaning I missed it in my 1983 list. I'm playing the C64 version here just because. The gameplay appear to be identical between the versions.
Playing The Standing Stones made me realize something about my project that should have been apparent from the beginning: I'm not entirely happy unless I'm currently playing at least one game in which I'm making gridded maps. I have no idea why I find it so therapeutic to draw my lines in Excel or on graph paper, but I like doing it even if I'm not enjoying the game. Thus, having two active games at the same time--one where I enjoy the gameplay and one where I get to make maps--is an ideal setup. Bonus points if I enjoy the gameplay and I get to make maps in the same game, of course, but this is somewhat rare.

Disciples of Steel is proving brutal in its opening stages, and while I like the tactical combat, it's been nice to be able to retreat to the mapmaking in Shadowkeep and The Standing Stones when I just can't take it anymore.  
The game echoes Ultima in its adoption of tortured Middle English. For future reference, "eth" is the third-person singular ending and only make sense if preceded by "he" or "she." The Middle English imperative forms of "create," "get," and "list" are..."create," "get," and "list."
The Standing Stones has an interesting history. When I first looked over the manual and started playing it, I recognized it immediately as a variant of the old PLATO/Daniel Lawrence DND that we've seen a dozen times before (e.g., The Game of Dungeons, Telengard, Caverns of Zoarre, DND, Dungeon of Death), albeit in 3-D wireframe form, as in Wizardry. But its mechanics are so primitive that it did not seem to have been inspired by other early 1980s commercial titles like Wizardry and Telengard. The more I played, the more I became convinced that the authors had been exposed to the PLATO RPGs and decided to unite the gameplay in the top-down dnd variants with the 3-D wireframes of Oubliette and Moria. Sure enough, when I looked up the LinkedIn profiles of the two authors, Peter Schmuckal and Dan Sommers, I found that Schmuckal was getting his BS in Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1980-1984 and Sommers was getting his at Purdue University the same years. Both universities were linked on the PLATO system. I haven't yet heard from either author, but until I do, I'd call that Q.E.D. This adds an interesting bit to RPG history, as before now, the only games that we knew were commercialized from the PLATO series were Wizardry, Telengard and other DND derivatives, and the DOS version of Oubliette.
I've had this nightmare.
The Standing Stones is wrapped in a quasi-Arthurian framing story: Merlin threw a wild party and everyone got drunk. While the guests were sleeping it off, an evil wizard named Kormath crept in and stole Excalibur, a set of Mithril chain mail, and the Holy Grail, then retreated to his labyrinth beneath Stonehenge. Lancelot and other adventurers vowed to get back the artifacts--particularly the Grail--but all died in the dungeon. Now it's your turn. There are so many problems with this story from an Arthurian perspective that I don't know where to begin, but since none of it has any impact on gameplay, I'll just let it go.
What were the odds of this?
The game shows its network-based influence with a leaderboard and password-protected characters despite neither making a lot of sense in a single-player game for which every player was expected to buy his own copy. Character creation is a simple random roll of virility (strength), intellect, holiness, agility, and "initial hits" statistics and the designation of a character name. After that, it's just a couple of quick keypresses to the first floor of the dungeon. Your character is simultaneously every character class at once and can cast both mage and cleric spells, with effectiveness dependent on intellect and holiness respectively.

Players use the IJKM cluster to move throughout the dungeon. Outside of combat, there are only a couple of other keys: (D)rop, (R)est, (T)hrow a spell, (U)se a potion or scroll, and (E)nd and save.

Like all the DND variants, combats are frequent and random and can come upon you while standing still. In a unique twist, if you don't react to the appearance of a monster with the (B)ribe, (F)ight, (G)reet, or (T)hrow a spell options (or attempt evasion with one of the movement keys), the monsters will keep growing in number until you do. If you walk away from the game without pausing, you might find yourself confronted by 20 hobgoblins on your return.
Bad timing for a bathroom break.
Monsters I met on the first level include hobgoblins, elves, berserkers, footpads, were-rats, giant toads, wights, zombies, black blobs, and glass panes (??). As with much of the DND lineage, the difficulty of a monster has  more to do with the level you're on than the monster itself. I've found that "greet" is the best option for elves, who often give you gold pieces or help you identify your items.
An elf hands over gold for no reason. The lines indicate the direction of the exit.
Combat has absolutely no tactics at all. You choose to fight or cast a spell, and the game immediately tells you the outcome in terms of who won and, if it was you, how many hit points you lost. I imagine there is some underlying formula that considers attributes and current level, but the game isn't explicit about it. Again, this is very much in the spirit of the original Game of Dungeons, where blasting an enemy with a spell was an alternative to combat instead of a part of it.

The post-combat screen.
On the first couple of levels, "the spirit of Lancelot" accompanies the character and will automatically kill some of the enemies if the fight would have otherwise resulted in the character's death. (It seems to happen when he's "sharpening his sword"; if he's "snoozing" when you choose to fight, it's all on you.) You don't get experience for these combats, but they'll save you from certain death.

Wandering around, you find treasure, potions, and scrolls. I don't know if on later levels, these treasures will include weapons and armor, but there is otherwise no standard weapon and armor inventory like in most RPGs.

Returning to the surface immediately converts your money to experience points (at a weird rate; something like 2/3 of an experience point per gold piece), and once you've accumulated enough experience points, you level up and get a single extra hit point and sometimes an additional spell slot. Exiting the dungeon also restores your hit points and available spells.

Oddly, when you "enter" the dungeon, you appear in a room about 13 steps from the exit. Some glowing yellow arrows show you the path, however.

In keeping with its PLATO origins, death in The Standing Stones is permanent. You can save at any point, but the character is erased from the disk when he dies. Emulator save states get around this problem in 2015, of course. While I'll tried not to abuse them, I have no intention of winning this game "honestly," particularly since some of the deaths seem arbitrary, such as your own "Lightning Bolt" going awry and bouncing back on you or a small chance everytime you "Teleport" of ending up in solid rock.
I'm always telling Irene that this is possible, but she doesn't believe me.
As you might imagine, the key to early survival is to hang around the exit, wandering back and forth, collecting treasure and fighting monsters, returning to the surface as soon as you're low on hit points and spells. This isn't very dangerous except for the occasional spider that can poison you, which causes you to lose a hit point with every movement, including turning. Once you have a couple of clerical spell levels, even this isn't a problem.

Needed experience points increase only a little between levels, so leveling up is pretty rapid. In 90 minutes on Level 1 and a little on Level 2, I leveled up 16 times. I got a new magic spell slot every 2-3 levels and a new cleric spell slot every 3-4.
This screen accompanies each exit from the dungeon. The only way to tell how many times you've leveled is how many hits you've gained since the beginning. I started at 13.
No spell or game mechanic shows you a compass or your current coordinates, but the game does have a coordinate system. The northwest corner is 0,0, and the highest value (at least on Level 1) is 15,15, so there are 16 x 16 squares on the level. I found this out with the "Divine Guidance" spell (see below).  There are lots of one-way doors, secret doors, and one-way secret doors. Bumping into a wall causes the character to become "weak," reducing his effectiveness in combat, so you can imagine how annoying it is to test walls for secret doors.
My map of Level 1.
I only found a couple of items on the first level, two scrolls and a potion. The game adopts a roguelike approach to these items, where scrolls and potions are color-coded by effect and the colors are shuffled before each new game. While the locations of gold are random, the locations of chests containing potions and scrolls seem to be at least partially fixed. I determined this through the "Divine Guidance" spell, which tells you things like "there is 1 non-permanent magic item left on this level" and sometimes gives you the specific coordinates. (It was through these coordinates that I figured out the orientation of the map.)
Finding a special item.
I'll save a discussion for the other spells until next time, as I worry I'll otherwise have nothing else to talk about. This feels like the sort of game that I want to call a "cheese game," in honor of Roger Ebert. At one point, in discussing trailers that give away the whole film, he compared them to sampling a slice of cheese in a grocery store. "After you have sampled it," he said, "you know everything about the cheese except what it would be like to eat the whole thing." This is a good metaphor for a game where you learn everything you need to know on Level 1, and all that's left to discover is what it's like to do the same thing for 5, 10, or 15 more levels. (In this case, I know there's at least 6 levels because I used spells to jump down to Level 6.) Still, even if The Standing Stones is 25 levels, and I map one after every full-party death in Disciples of Steel, it's 50/50 which game I'll finish first.

Time so far: 2 hours
Reload count: 5 from real deaths, and 1 from a one-way suicide trip to see how far down I could go


  1. I know exactly what you mean by mapping grid. Sometimes it's the on,y thing that gets me through games from the 70s and early 80s.

    There's a possible explanation for the Glass Pane monsters you mentions. In The Game of Dungeons there's a monster that's called a "Glass". It looks like a nerd with thick glasses, but I'd bet that's where it came from.

    1. Seems like a likely explanation, although the image here is literally of a glass pane.

    2. gelatinous cube variant?

    3. I have a memory that the kitchen sink spell works great against Glass Panes.

  2. Plural imperative ends in -eth.

    1. Well, I guess it worked for all those sessions in which multiple people were huddled around a computer monitor.

    2. That's what I thought.

  3. If your Standing Stones require them to be mapped out on Excel, you're probably building them wrong, StoneStanders.

    By the way, Chet, mind going in detail how that nightmare about a cruel giant toad turned out?

    1. I only discuss such things with my therapist.

  4. Does that mean you play more C64 or Apple II games in the future?
    I'm among the guys who like to see you play 'Deathlord'.

    1. Apple II and C64 games have been on my list for several years now and I've played tons of them. I'm slowly working my way through the 1980s to catch up, and I will eventually get to Deathlord in 1987.

  5. A linguistic nitpick: Middle English is actually a partially different language from Modern English, different enough that while you could probably make yourself understood trying to converse with, say, Geoffrey Chaucer, you'd be confused a fair amount of the time. A passage from the Canterbury Tales by way of example:
    Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
    And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
    To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
    And specially from every shires ende
    Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
    The hooly blisful martir for to seke
    That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

    What you describe as "Middle English" above (and what is so frequently and terribly butchered by games, books, and other media attempting to ape Merrie Olde England) is actually just archaic Modern English; it might be most succinctly described as Elizabethan English, as it was, at least to some extent, still used in Shakespeare's day.

    (Old English, incidentally, really is a completely different language, as different from Modern English as Modern German is. You might recognize a couple of words, but trying to actually read or listen to it, you'd be completely lost.)

    1. i had to readeth some ancient legal texts backeth in school and it took me longeth enough to geteth us'd to the fact that s's look'd liketh f's.

    2. Back and long aren't even verbs there...

    3. As somewhat of a tangent, I highly encourage anyone interested to give Chaucer and other Middle English era works a good read. If you pick up a decent edition of the Canterbury Tales it will have a fairly short "key" or "guide" to reading it. You can pick it up faster than you think. And for the occasional puzzler, there's usually a glossary as well.

      The Canterbury Tales in particular are amazingly good true-to-life fiction from Chaucer's time. It will make you realize the incredible paucity of actual learning you did in public high school.

    4. Chaucer is relatively easy if you have a vocabulary large enough to recognize the words that have become less common over the centuries.

      Old English now... Well, it's not quite as different as German. I read Beowulf a few years ago in a side-by-side translation; once you manage to wrap your head around the significantly different phonemes you can get a pretty good feel for how they shifted into later forms and you'll start recognizing lots of words and even whole sentences. (Especially if you're familiar with Middle English.) But it's kind of like listening to that character in "The Waterboy" who has such an impossibly thick accent that nobody really understands him... Having a good translation at hand to help sort things out when there are multiple ways the words seem to fit together is a definite must for the hobbyist.

      In either case, I'd strongly suggest reading them aloud. Actually hearing yourself speak kicks off the circuitry the brain uses to transliterate accents and makes the whole process easier.

  6. Did you mean to compare the wireframes to Moria? I thought that was a top-down interface?

    1. You're thinking of the 1983 roguelike. The original Moria was a first-person PLATO game.

    2. Oh wow, I stand corrected! You're right, I wasn't familiar with the original.


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