Monday, January 11, 2016

Disciples of Steel, Iron, and Leather

I can no longer see a medusa without thinking about this SMBC comic.
An equipment system is so essential to my concept of what constitutes a "role-playing game" that I made it one of my three core rules. Equipping my characters is one of the things that I like most about RPGs. There's nothing quite like the thrill of starting a game like Oblivion clad in rags and finding your first bit of leather armor, then your first set of boots, then your first helm; nothing quite like dropping the rusty iron dagger you started with for an iron axe, and then capping the first dungeon with--like Excalibur thrust from the lake--a steel short sword.

Many hours later, when you upgrade your ebony blade that does 35 points of fire damage for an ebony blade that does 38 points of fire damage, it's not quite the same thrill. As hackneyed as the trope is, I almost like it when a game finds an excuse, mid-game, to strip you of your hard-won equipment and force you to start over like a rank amateur. It's the only way to revive that initial thrill.
The party picks through enemy equipment after a battle.
My enjoyment of equipment is such that it causes me to slightly prefer multi-character games, since you get 6 times (or, in the case of Disciples of Steel, 8 times) the number of people to outfit with helms, boots, and belts. And I particularly like games that give you lots of slots for equipping. I fondly think of Might & Magic VI through VIII, where every character could equip a helm or crown, a suit of armor, boots, a belt, an amulet, a melee weapon, a missile weapon, a shield, and up to ten rings. In the first 6 hours of the game, practically every chest gives you something new to make your team more powerful. Morrowind, in splitting armor into about a dozen individual pieces, ameliorated some of the pain associated with a single-character game.

With these preferences in mind, Disciples of Steel is definitely my kind of game. There don't seem to be any rings, belts, or amulets, but every character gets different pieces of armor to wear on the head, body, arms, and legs in addition to weapons and shields. That's 32 armor slots for the party. Almost every combat produces a list of loot at least worth looking through.
My ranger's current equipment. Note that his max armor is 67 and that all his body parts have exactly that. The red indicates that his armor is better than his skill. I could equip him with worse stuff and have the same protection. I think he'll grow into it, though.
The selection of armor available in Disciples is pretty standard (at least so far) among high fantasy games, progressing in protective value from things made of cloth to those made of leather, studded leather, ring, scale, chain, and plate in that order. But a game as statistically-oriented as this one has a few curve balls to throw at you.

  • There is no total armor class but rather an individual armor class (and hit point total) for each body part. As attacks pierce armor, they deduct from the hit point total of the underlying body part.
  • Each item has a "quality" rating, from "pitiful" to "perfection" that affects its statistics independent of its type or damage level. You have to pay attention to this, because a +5 item that's "adequate" is worse than a regular item that's "good."
These "shoddy" leather pants provide worse protection than better-quality pants of lesser material.
  • The heavier the item, the greater the chance that it will screw up your chances of hiding or casting a spell.
  • No matter how good the armor, the character might not be able to make full use of its protective value. The character's "armor" skill determines how effectively he's able to use a piece of armor. If you put a suit of plate on a character with 30 armor skill, it won't be more effective than a cloth tunic.
  • If the armor has a + (plus) value, it not only increases the maximum protection but it effectively increases the armor skill of the character wearing it.
  • Weapons and armor get damaged in combat and must occasionally be repaired. Items you loot from the battlefield come pretty dinged up already.

For weapons the considerations are more confusing, and again the manual is pretty bad about explaining what's happening. The key statistic associated with weapons is the "base hit," but I'm not sure if that governs accuracy, damage, or both. Whatever the case, the character's "base hit" increases with the quality of the weapon and his skill in that weapon type. As with armor, you can waste a good weapon on a character with insufficient skill to wield it. Someone with an "edged" skill of, say, 40 won't be able to do anything with a long sword +10 that he couldn't do with a regular short sword. He might actually do worse.

For a while, I figured there were no wands, potions, or scrolls in the game, but in some of the more recent dungeons, I've been encountering potions, so perhaps the other items eventually appear, too.
I'm not reloading often, but I do occasionally have to reload. This was just gruesome.
I've made lots of progress on quests since the last post. It didn't start out well--I had to slink away from the orc outpost north of Cartha, where I had been trying to find out what happened to some emissaries to Pallasade. I ran into a fixed battle that I just couldn't conquer no matter what I did.

I made my way to the south coast, intending to curve back around to my origin point in Farnus. My final stop was at DeMata, described by the manual as the "youngest of the 8 true lordships within Lanathor," having won its independence from Farnus 45 years prior. Once ruled by Lord Antonio DeMata, the country's throne fell to his daughter, Valencia DeMata, upon his death. Although she took the throne when she was only 16, "she has become as strong a ruler as her father was." The description caps by saying, "she often uses her womanhood to her best advantage."

I wonder what the manual means by that.
Lady DeMata gave me a series of quests that were easy enough that it feels like I should have started here instead of several miles up the coast by Farnus. The first was to kill an outlaw in the nearby woods named Serius Teld. He was holed up in an outpost with a bunch of thieves and centaurs.

I usually think of centaurs as good guys.
The battle against Teld and a host of thieves was a lot of fun for a couple of reasons. First, the game started Teld himself in a room to the north of the main battlefield. As soon as I saw the positioning, I had my rogue lock the door to the room. Teld had no choice but to pass each turn uselessly as I mopped up his forces. Then, I unlocked the door, "Power Word: Stunned" him, and killed him in a few rounds.

The mopping up part was fun, too. I tested out my mage's newly-acquired "Fireball" spell. It performs much as in the Gold Box games, doing mass damage to a large group of monsters, except that it affects everyone on the visible screen. You have to be careful where you cast it.

This screen had several more monsters on it a second ago.
There was one door in Teld's dungeon that I couldn't open. Trying to pick it just made it worse.
Insult to injury.
When I returned to DeMata with Teld's corpse, she said that she'd found a key on it. She gave it to  me, I returned to Teld's dungeon, and I opened the previously-locked door. A treasure hoard behind the door delivered my first potion as well as the first item--a Cloak of Concealment--that directly influences a non-combat skill. It increased my rogue's "hide" ability by 10.

One of my best treasure hauls so far.
Simply returning and finding the treasure hoard was DeMata's second quest. Her third was to explore a swamp to the east of the capital and find the source of some undead who had been troubling the land. Many of the undead were ghouls, who (like in D&D) are capable of paralyzing on touch, so it was important to keep them at bay.
The dungeon was small, and the undead leader turned out to be a lich. He wasn't as hard as his ghoul and gargantuan bat minions. He was very hard to hit, but he didn't do anything most rounds, and when he did do something, it was usually a weak casting of "magic bolt." It took me three tries to win the combat, but all because of the several ghouls rather than the lich. When I returned to DeMata, she suggested that the lich was probably her own father, but this otherwise didn't go anywhere.
Fighting the lich, ghouls, and gargantuan bats.
Her next quest was to retrieve her father's sword, stolen by the ruler of Teal. I wasn't sure how to get it, but I reasoned that if I advanced far enough in Teal's quests, he might just give it to me. I bought a boat in DeMata and set sail for Teal.
I left with a steerage ticket on a cargo ship. I return in my own clipper.
When I'd last visited the island, Lord Rathbone had asked me to deal with a medusa in a southwestern swamp. I had left it alone at the time, fearing I wasn't strong enough. 

The random combats on Teal were bloody impossible and occasioned several reloads, but I eventually made my way to the swamp lair. Predictably, the game alerted me to a number of "statues" as I explored the lair.
The random combats in here were quite easy, usually one snakewoman or a couple of bats at a time. I might return here if I need to grind. I was worried about medusa herself and her petrification abilities, but as it turned out I was able to kill her in a single round, before she could act. The pirate king was pleased.

She was feeling fine before I blasted her with a 20-point "Magic Bolt."
He next wanted me to find a chest he'd buried on the DeMatan coast after a pirate raid years ago. I took my ship back to the mainland and walked up and down the coast until I found the chest. He was happy to get it back.
Next, he asked me to find a mate for his parrot, Folly, whom he had found in the southern tip of the island. I wandered around that area, reloaded after several deadly combats, and eventually the game told me that I'd caught a parrot.
The glorious life of a Disciple of Steel.
When I turned in that quest, Rathbone handed me a "+50 two-handed Sword of DeMata" and told me to "bury it so it can never be found again." I decided to take it back to Lady DeMata instead, partly since the game doesn't have a mechanism for burying things. DeMata took it and gave me another quest to find an "ancient holy city" called Terine on an island to the northeast.

But I returned to Rathbone instead, curious how he'd react at my disobeying his orders. He simply said, "thank you," gave me a reward, and moved on to the next quest. Apparently, taking the sword back to DeMata was close enough to burying it.

Rathbone's next quest was to clean out a thieves' guild in Teal. I found it, but...
I'll have to come back here later. I decided for now to head back to the orc outpost north of Cartha, where I'd started, and try to finish the Farnus quest. Since I left there at the beginning of this session, I've allocated several dozen skill points and am considerably stronger.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The experience point rewards for quest completion are pretty miserable. They start at 20 for each lord's first quest and go up by 20 for ever subsequent quest, but a single battle can easily deliver that many points. However, most of the best equipment is found in the final combats of these quests.
  • Even though he's only "competent" in "disarm," my rogue has been doing a good job on traps now that my ranger's "perception" skill is high enough that he almost always finds them.
The disarm mechanism.
  • I know I keep saying it, but I want to emphasize how much little messages like this make a difference in the quality of the game world and the atmosphere of dungeons.
Whether that fright translated into lower combat effectiveness, I cannot say.
  • The dungeons have been small enough, and the auto mapper works well enough, that I haven't had to map. While I do enjoy mapping, I'm not going to do the work for no reason.

Navigating by auto-map.
  • Since I filled up on food and water 12 game hours ago, the meters haven't budged an inch.
  • I mentioned that you can talk to people in many of the shops. Most of them just say that their leader is the best leader that they've ever had, but I've had a few people "hesitate" and act like they wanted to say more before ultimately deciding not to. I suspect a higher charisma score might loosen their lips. I really wonder what that's about.
Or maybe I need to get him drunker first.
  • Almost all enemies leave corpses. Some of them, you have to return to a lord as proof of the quest completion. I've become obsessed with the idea that some future lord is going to ask me to kill random beasts and return with their corpses, much like in Akalabeth or Ultima, so I've been saving one of each kind of monster in the guild vault.
  • It turns out the next skill level above "competent" is "a disciple." I'm not sure if there are any levels above that.
I'm still enjoying the game quite a bit. I like that the quests are of varying length and difficulty and that so many of them are inter-related. The constant sense of character development is fantastic. But I'm starting to get a little antsy. So far, the quests don't seem to be tying together into a unified plot, and I haven't reached the end of any lord's quest thread yet (I assume they have an end, as they've all been customized, non-repeatable quests). I haven't even had a reason to explore the game's system of assassinating lords or besieging castles, although I suspect some of the quest threads are going to end with this, and I'll ultimately have to make a choice between lords.

Still, the idea that this game made someone's "worst" list is crazy. It's hands-down the best game so far in 1991, and it would have been a strong contender for "Game of the Year" in 1990. Anyone who would rate this game low doesn't want an RPG at all. He or she wants an adventure game with maybe some RPG-style attributes. Sure, the game could use a little more in the way of actual "role-playing," but for core RPG mechanics--character development, combat, spells (the subject of the next post), and equipment--I've rarely seen it done better.


  1. "Still, the idea that this game made someone's "worst" list is crazy. It's hands-down the best game so far in 1991, and it would have been a strong contender for "Game of the Year" in 1990. Anyone who would rate this game low doesn't want an RPG at all. He or she wants an adventure game with maybe some RPG-style attributes. "

    Sounds like I need to give it another chance, but the first impressions of the game were very unfavourably.
    But why the hell would I want an Adventure game??? My beefs with it was the large, empty cities that could just as well have been menu towns, and the insanely annoying shop UI, where instead of a list you have to click on each item individually to see their prices.
    I didn't even get to the combat, so in retrospect it was unfair to list among the worst CRPGs when I had played so little of it. But the poor documentation, poor shop UI and empty cities didn't excactly invite me to continue playing it.

    But I always had in the back of my mind that one day CRPG Addict will blog about it, and then maybe it turns out to be not so bad after all.

    1. The unnecessarily large cities and slow menus are indeed a bad part of the game. They don't break the game for me, but they could have been done better.

      I was referring to CGW's review in those closing paragraphs.

    2. Oh...
      Anyway, glad to see that what's the core of a good CRPG - character system, loot, and combat - is done well.

    3. This is why you actually play the game before reviewing it, instead of dumping all over it.

      I used to think our host was crazy for playing through all these terrible games, but now I understand.

    4. Some games do put you off initially until you get into them properly, some really great ones too. It's always going to harm a games reputation as many people will say screw it this sucks before they get to the turning point (and of course many games are just awful the whole way through). I do love massive inventory options in my rpgs too, so maybe I will give disciples a peek myself :)

  2. my greek histroy lessons were ages ago, so my knowledge is rusty, but weren't centaurs often described a little bit as rapey drunkards?

    1. Are you sure it is not from Harry Potter? I never heard of rapey centaurs before Harry Potter. For me, they are the good guys training Hercule or Odysseus to use the bow.

    2. I did a small web research, I was thinking of the wedding of Pirithous, where the centaurs first was introduced to wine. They got too drunk and tried to rape the bride. Theseus than cut the ears of the rapist and throve the centaurs into the wilderness.

      As far as I remember, there was on good guy centaur who teached Herakles how to hunt the boar with the bow, but the others tried to kill Herakles(for beeing a dick and drinking their wine)

      It seems they were much discriped as "typical" mounted nomadic tribes, besides literally were one with there horses.

    3. Heh don't forget they had no female centaurs mentioned in the early myths....add in the "typical uncivilised barbarian" portrayal and of course they become "drunks who steal our womenz!". Annnd more importantly to the whole "rapey drunks" thing....they kinda were liked by and hung out with Dionysus/Bacchus God of Drunks hisself.

    4. D&D portrayed centaurs positively, which probably influenced a lot of later depictions.

      There was rapey centaur behaviour in the Sci-fi novel 'Titan'.

    5. Plus, speaking of Herakles, it was a centaur who tricked his wife into giving Herakles a shirt that he says will draw his wayward attention back to their marriage, but instead drives Herakles insane, so that he murders his wife and children. (Lesson:don't accept magical gifts from creatures your husband just murdered.)

    6. Yeah, the whole 'centaurs are good guys' thing came from the recent versions of D&D. Kind of sad how it wipes our memory of classical mythology, but then again here we are.

    7. They are nasty gits in Dungeon Crawl...

    8. Maybe the "rapey drunkards" you're speaking of are satyrs?

    9. Satyrs are afaik the joyful, careless, albeit lusty drunkards.

      Are there any teetotaller in the greek mythology?

    10. From what I've read of Greek mythology (which is quite a bit, but only in translation, so who knows what that's worth) Centaurs were a mixed bag. If they took a liking to you they made powerful allies and were the best teachers of martial skills around...

      If you annoyed them, they'd kill you with little to no warning.

      If you had something they wanted and they thought they were stronger than you, they'd try to just take it.

      So, yeah, hypothesizing that they're based off of the nomadic horsemen of Eurasia probably isn't far off the mark.

  3. The game is so good it became the only rpg I won without walk-through.
    The parley system help at the end when you don't want to spent hours on a sure fight.
    I come to realize I never try to win most of the rpg I played, because the last fights were so long and so boring, and sure-thing. And you could not skip them, either by design, or because you needed the loots, or the xp.
    Every Rpg should have a system to make your opponents flee when you can crush them, and still reward you.

    (I still wonder if you'll get the copy-protection system resetting all your skill, I warned you about in your first post about that game. I hope not. It should come when a few of your skill are slightly above 200)

    1. I didn't understand your first comment and I still don't understand it. If the game actually resets your skills, that's a major bug, sure. But what does it have to do with copy protection?

    2. I have read that the copy protection doesn't throw you out of the game, but instead makes your characters useless and renames them to "pirate" on top of it.

    3. That sounds like a reason to keep a backup save...

    4. I think this is the relevant forum post:

      I don't have time to read the whole thing right now, but it looks like there is (was?) a common version of the game where part of the copy protection is still active.

    5. Okay. That thread is almost 10 years old, and there are a couple complete LPs that have been posted online since then, so I assume someone eventually posted a non-cracked copy. I have several characters with skills over 200 and no issues yet. Of course, I've also been faithfully answering the copy protection question every time it comes up.

    6. This is what QQP games were like. They'd accept your 'cracked' question to the copy protection answer, and then 50 turns later exit the program with 'copy protection failed'. Since the crackers never bothered to play the game, the system worked really well. To this day Battles of Destiny has never been cracked.

    7. I did this with a shareware game I wrote back in the day. I had two protections in, one that removed the 'trial version' message, and another (based on another part of the reg code) that actually allowed you to progress beyond 600 points (the trial version limitation). Sure enough, a crack was circulated that removed the message, and they never spent five minutes to test whether their crack actually worked.

    8. There's an interesting article, "Keeping the Pirates at Bay", that talks about the length to which the Spyro the Dragon developers went to deter cracks for the third game in the franchise: (posting as bare text in hopes of not triggering the spam filter)

    9. Oh, and the point was that they implemented tons of nasty tricks designed to catch out crackers who got past the first line of defense, saw the anti-piracy message (or whatever) disappear, and thought their work was done. Little did they know...

    10. I remember that in the 3rd Settler game the iron mine produces pigs instead of iron ore when a shitty crack was used,

    11. Fate: Gates of Dawn also uses a similar system. Fail the copy protection answer once and your characters will chastise you. Fail it twice and your save will slowly get corrupted, eventually making the game unplayable. It also has hidden switches and puzzles with the answers only found in the manual.

  4. I wonder how widespread the bug that failed to give you the 1,000 starting points was? Having to spend your first dozen hours grinding before starting quests would turn a lot of people off. Add that to the bad town/shop design and it sounds like a game that makes a terrible first impression.

    Also, will the time lost in that initial grinding greatly increase your risk of not finishing before the time limit? That's just a terrible bug.

    1. I'm not convinced it was a bug. I suspect they issued the game without the 1,000 points, players complained it was too hard, and they issued a "patch" that provided those points later.

      I am a little worried about the time limit thing. I hate to ask for spoilers, but does anyone know what the time limit actually is? Is it in game time or play time?

    2. Sorry, when I ran into the time limit it was 20 years ago. I kinda got caught in a trap, I enjoyed grinding because I liked the skill progression system and so likely lost track of time.

    3. I think you have 6 months, but that's a very vague memory, lightly supported by a LP I found, I think you start 06/01/1034? I think the time limit is 01/01/1035. I know you get a warning about 1 month out.

    4. The patch to version 1.013 has a change log and the 1000 experience points were added in version 1.012

      There were also some interface fixes (more keyboard shortcuts), some fixed spells and inventory and the food and water usage was fixed (that was version 1.005)

    5. It "feels" like I'm about 1/4 or 1/3 of the way through the game based on quest progression, and it's currently 3 August 1034, meaning a little over 2 of 6 months have passed. It sounds like I'm right on track but don't have a lot of room to spare.

    6. I'd say that seems about right. At the time it made me rage quit the game, which I had really enjoyed until then, but I remember thinking it was a tough but fair limit if I had known it from the start. (Grinding in dungeons takes less time, IIRC.)

    7. It's tough to discuss the time limit without spoiling things about the game you have yet to mention. But as someone who likes to grind I was still able to beat the game while doing quite a lot of grinding. I may have benefitted from a glitch or at least questionable AI though. Something weird happened at the time and I never understood why. I eagerly await you reaching the end so I can see if it was just me or this was common thing.

    8. I'm not sure if getting that 1000 extra exp is worth the food patch. I recall buying the cd version of the game some years after it came out (I'd originally played 1.0 on disks) and I found it unplayable with my party dying from starvation ridiculously quickly. It was bad enough that I just couldn't bring myself to play through it again despite loving the game originally.

    9. So the fact that my food and water meter hasn't budged since I last bought food is a bug? I guess since I suffered the lack of 1,000 experience points, I'll take the bugged food mechanic as compensation.

  5. This seems to me a complicated game to rank. Based on your first few posts, it does sound like it belongs on the "worst" list. But of course now it sounds really interesting after you've gotten past the brutal beginning and mastered the confusing interface.

    But as most people wouldn't force themselves to the improved mid-game, I'm sympathetic with a reviewer putting it on the "worst" list. The good stuff has to be reasonably accessible to most people.

    Anyway, a full review is better than a simple best/worst ranking, and I'm interested in seeing how it ends.

  6. Speaking of Might and Magic, I am playing Might and Magic X 'Legacy' now, and enjoying it. It is a throwback game like MM3 but with better graphics and a slick character development system. Lots of incrementally but noticeably better gear, tough but fair fights, a skill / magic system that is flexible and transparent. You will like it!

    1. I did!

      But I never finished it.

    2. Eh... the ending was pretty lackluster IMHO, actually.

      Also, the game-world is so freaking tiny that it felt more like a minigame. I hope the sequel will see greater improvements.

  7. in m&m you can wear at most six rings. you also forgot helmet and gauntlets. sorry for nitpicking.

  8. Centaurs were usually depicted as menaces in Greek history with a few exceptions (like Chiron who served as the mentor of several heroes).

    Some historians believed that Centaurs were actually inspired by ancient nomadic raiders (probably from Eastern Europe/Central Asia), who excelled in horsemanship.

    They were so effective on horseback that they are treated as single entities with their horses; being able to kick with hooves and smash with clubs at the same time.


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