Friday, March 18, 2016

Game 215: Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991)

    
Pool of Radiance, the first Gold Box game, still holds the position of #3 on my top-rated games list, despite three game years, five actual years, and 158 games since I played it. Although subsequent Gold Box entries never quite rose to the level of excellence as Pool, the engine is so good that they were destined for high marks, and Curse of the Azure Bonds, Champions of Krynn, and Death Knights of Krynn can all be found in my top 20. Even Secret of the Silver Blades is comparatively high-ranked.

But of these games, only one of them--Champions of Krynn--has given me the experience that I so love in a Gold Box title: starting a new, low-level character and slowly building my way upward. Rising from Level 1 to Level 8 is really the best part of any D&D game, especially in this early era, where there were no special perks or abilities awarded to high-level characters. Getting 3 more hit points and an 11th third-level spell really isn't quite as exciting as acquiring "Fireball" for the first time or a second attack per round.
   
More about combat in a later post, but I wanted to point out that even early in the game, I was able to do this. I love this.
   
I am thus excited to be starting Gateway to the Savage Frontier, one of four Gold Box titles in 1991. We've already seen Death Knights of Krynn and we still have Neverwinter Nights and Pools of Darkness coming up. This is the apex of the Gold Box titles; 1992 will have three (including this game's sequel), and 1993 will have the last one. A particular bonus for me is that I've never played this one before at all, whereas I'd had previous experience with Pool of Radiance and Champions of Krynn.

The "Savage Frontier" in question exists in the Forgotten Realms, north of Baldur's Gate and the Sword Coast, and south of the Spine of the World. It includes cites that we'll be revisiting in detail in another decade, including Neverwinter, Port Llast, and Luskan.
   
The game's territory, from the Adventurer's Journal.
   
The party is presented as a group of caravan guards who have just arrived in the city of Yartar after escorting a shipment of mithril from the dwarven Citadel Abdar. Rumors abound of increased raids by orcs and trolls coming down from the mountains, but the trip is uneventful. After a night of celebration, in which they are apparently drugged, they awake in the morning to find their rooms burgled and all their equipment and gold stolen, including a "fine magical sword" with a "gold-braided handle" that one of the party members "used to slay the griffon at Longsaddle last winter." Only a couple emergency stashes hidden beneath pillows remain. The desperate party sets out to buy new equipment, find a new employer, and hopefully track down the thieves.
   
"Dear Diary: this SUCKS!"
    
There are no surprises in character creation. Humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, and halflings can be male or female clerics, fighters, magic-users, thieves, paladins, and rangers--with the usual second edition race/class restrictions. [Edit: I misspoke. The series uses first edition rules, but in any event the race/class restrictions are the same as the previous games.] Unfortunately, the Frontier series keeps the race-based level caps, but it's not as much of a deal-breaker here as in the Pools series because there's only one more Savage Frontier title. I took a look at the charts for Treasures of the Savage Frontier and saw that dwarf fighters and elf magic-users can get near the maximum level for the game, so those race/class combinations are viable for this series.

Characters start at Level 2 with 3,000 experience points, which I guess makes more sense for role-playing reasons than a bunch of single-digit-hit pointers making a living as caravan guards. Attribute rolls are generous, never lower than 11 and rarely lower than 13. It isn't hard at all to get 2 or 3 scores at 18, and if you're a particularly pathetic worm of a player, you always have the option, present in the series since the beginning, to "modify" a new character to give maximum attributes all around. The manual continues with the absurd fiction that players might want to do this "to match a favorite [tabletop] AD&D® game character."
   
A fairly generous random roll.
   
The game provides the usual options for customizing the character icons, and I'm no better at it than I was at 15. My color blindness plus general impatience with all the different parts and colors means that I typically create either ugly icons or just set everything to the same color. I wish these games would randomize the default icons so that you don't feel like you have to adjust something to keep everyone from looking the same.
   
I generated random numbers and cycled through the color buttons the appropriate number of times to generate this icon for a cleric.
   
Before creating my final party, I tried two experimental parties that just didn't work. I tried six fighters, intending to dual-class them to other professions as they were needed, but I forgot that only humans can dual-class and thus messed up my intended composition. I then tried an all-mage party, thinking it would be a challenge and I could rely on temples for healing, but it turns out that you don't have enough money at the outset to even afford a couple castings of "Cure Light Wounds." I think challenging parties are possible if you already know the game and can optimize your progress accordingly, but for a first-time blind play the games really are balanced for the traditional party of a couple of fighters, at least one cleric, and at least one mage. I went with a human paladin, a human ranger, a dwarf fighter/thief, two human clerics, and an elf mage.

The game begins in the inn in Yartar as the party wakes up hungover and bereft of any equipment, although they all have 35 platinum pieces. Fortunately, an armory is right across the way. After sitting it out for every game since Pool of Radiance, the ridiculously long list of every obscure weapon makes a comeback! We've got fauchard-forks, military forks, bo sticks, jo sticks, becs de corbin, ranseurs, spetums, and four different weapons with the word "guisarme" in them. It's too bad my all-fighter party didn't work out; I would have had each one specialize in a different polearm. Still no helms or boots, though.
  
   
Yartar turned out to be a standard 16 x 16 Gold Box map, but with a bunch of inaccessible squares, some of them filled with water, and some just walled off. There are a large number (annotated in light gray on the map) that are inside buildings where you get kicked out after dealing with the encounter right inside, so you never get to explore the whole thing.
    
My map of Yartar.
   
Among the buildings, we have the standard armory, training yard, temple, vault, inn, and a small shop selling holy water vials, silver mirrors, and flasks of oil. This is the first Gold Box game to upgrade to VGA graphics, and it shows in some of the NPC portraits, but they're not astonishingly better. There are a few more details in the environment, such as windows next to doors and more detailed wall textures.
  
The game offers a few more details, but the environments are still pretty nondescript.
  
A tavern and the "Three Rivers Festhall" weirdly offered only options to fight or leave. Fighting put me in easy combats with trios of bandits who delivered only 7 experience points and a handful of silvers.
  
Why even have taverns if these are the only options?
   
Now, this entire time, I'd been assuming that Gateway came after Death Knights of Krynn because Death Knights was still on EGA graphics. But Death Knights also had a couple of interface upgrades that aren't here in Gateway, including not cycling through your own party members when you hit "aim" and ending combat immediately after the last monster falls instead of forcing you to finish everyone's turn. Those were welcome additions to Death Knights, so I'm sorry not to see them here. I'm guessing the issue is that both games were developed in parallel, Death Knights by SSI and Gateway by Beyond Software (later Stormfront Studios), and they didn't share all their upgrades. One weird addition in Gateway: "Fix" now causes spellcasters to re-memorize spells instead of just healing party members.
  
Graphics are notably better even in throw-away scenes like this.
  
Yartar provided only a few clues as to the developing main quest. On the street near the inn, I ran into a little guy named Krevish getting beaten up by thugs. When I helped him out in a brief combat--easy enough for any of my parties--he joined my party as an NPC and led me to his mysterious unnamed "captain," who said if I really wanted to help the region, I should head up to the city of Nesme and put a stop to a trouble-making Cleric of Bane. Once again, there seems to be no reason to play an evil-aligned party in a Gold Box game.
  
Already the party gets an NPC.
   
There were a number of other encounters throughout town that gave some more hints as to the troubles in the region. Someone's been raiding boat traffic on the river, almost eliminating commerce in and out of the city and cutting down the need for new barges. There's talk of trolls and orcs roaming the land. These bits of invoices are delivered in the classic Gold Box journal entries, which are getting a bit old by 1991. Surely, the developers could have programmed the text into the actual game (although this admittedly would have cut down on the ability of the player to reference the entries later).
   
I talk to the leader of Yartar on-screen....
...and in the associated journal entry.
  
So the next step after Yartar seems to be heading up the river to Nesme. Gateway re-introduces overland travel in the Forgotten Realms for the first time since Pool of Radiance (Champions of Krynn and Death Knights of Krynn both had it, but it was only meaningful in Death Knights). Two steps out of the city with my first party, I was attacked by hill giants and slaughtered. I was distressed to see the full-party death screen:
 
   
What happened to the monsters rejoicing?! If you're not going to change the screen to something more interesting or meaningful, why change the one message that has characterized the Gold Box series since its inception?

Anyway, hill giants seemed pretty advanced for any early party, so the second time I tried, I left the city by renting a boat. On the river, I was attacked by ankhegs. I braced myself for another slaughter, but they weren't as hard as I expected.

I reached Nesme almost by accident. The cities are not well-depicted on the tiny overland map, or perhaps it's my color-blindness hurting me again. At best, they're tiny little dots.
   
Can you see it?
   
Nesme was in chaos. Signs proclaimed a 100-gold piece reward for every troll slain in the ruins east of town, and a guard captain pointed me the way there, warning me about their regenerating power. I'm not sure I'm ready to take on trolls.
  
   
In a random building, I met "Longtresses" Alaraun who claims she recently seized the city from some corrupt priests of Waukeen and has employed barbarians to keep the peace (several parties have attacked me on the streets). A group called the Riders of Nesme told me they longed to attack the trolls gathering on the Trollmoors but they were afraid to leave the town in the hands of Alaraun's barbarians. In the a stable, a stableboy said that someone's been stealing horses. The harbormaster complained about giant frogs overrunning the warehouses on the east side of town and lizardmen raiding livestock on the west side; I later encountered some of both.
   
She doesn't look like the sort of person to hire barbarians and take over a town.
   
A tavern again only has options to fight or leave--what happened to ordering a drink or listening to some tales? Several party members can already level up, but I haven't accumulated anywhere near the 1,000 gold pieces necessary for that. I found a Ring of Protection +2 worth 15,000 gold after the battle with the Banites (see below), and if I don't find a treasure haul soon, I'll have to sell it just so I can level up.

In a building behind the temple, I got a message that "Kraken spies attack!" and I had to battle three ninja-looking dudes. I have no idea what "Kraken" is. A secret door from their building led to a room where I found a hiding Priestess of Waukeen who thanked me for rescuing her before the assassins, probably sent by "Longtresses," found her. I have no idea who's good and bad in this Alaraun/Waukeen scenario.
   
Character portraits have a different style than previous entries. They're simultaneously more realistic and more cartoonish.
   
Through a secret door at the back of an abandoned exterminator's shop, I interrupted a meeting between lizard men and orcs. The passageways led to a hidden Banite shrine, where I faced several orcs and clerics. The parties were small and easy to subdue with "Sleep"; I had forgotten how useful that spell is in the early stages. The final battle of the map was with a fairly large group of orcs, lizardmen, and two clerics, but the clerics were capable of casting nothing more dangerous than "Curse."
   
The final battle of Nesme.
   
The Banite cleric burned a bunch of papers just before he died, but I recovered one letter that suggested that the Zhentarim (an evil mercenary company that rules Zhentil Keep--I had dealings with them in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds) were behind the recent orc/troll uprising. The Banite Clerics, normally allies of the Zhentarim, were feeling taken for granted and thus planning to throw a wrench in their plans. The letter-writter had asked the evil cleric to meet him in an abandoned temple in the city of Silverymoon.
   
   
In a nearby room, I freed three prisoners--who turned out to be Zhentarim. They thanked me as they fled. The journal entry ends with my party feeling conflicted: "Because we knew the Banite to be evil, we had slain him--the one man who could stop the Zhentarim's plan for the conquest of the Savage Frontier....We had been searching for a mission. Now, by accident, we had found one. We would have to save the northern Realms ourselves."

Here's an odd statistic: there are only 62 journal entries in the adventurer's journal, and I've already encountered 16 of them, or 26%--and that's not accounting for the fictional ones that the journal always contains. Is it possible that I'm already a quarter way through the game after two cities? Or do the entries get sparser as the game goes on?

I leave you here, with my next destination probably Silverymoon, or I may just explore the world. The plot seems a little less polished than some of the previous games, but perhaps it will come together in the next sections. Not a mind-blowing game just yet, but a typically satisfying Gold Box experience.

Time so far: 4 hours
Reload count: 2 (full parties)


101 comments:

  1. As entertaining a read as ever, particularly since this is a game I knew virtually nothing about before, besides its name. I, too, enjoy the low-level early stages of any RPG most, so this might be a candidate for me to try out for myself (and finally add a Gold Box game to my "played" list...).

    One little observation: According to the screenshot, Alaraun isn't a "longstress" (whatever that is), but her name is "Longtresses".

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    1. You are correct. Her name is Tessarin "Longtresses" Alauran according to the Forgotten Realms Wiki: http://forgottenrealms.wikia.com/wiki/Tessarin_Alaurun

      Spoilers, by the way.

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    2. Well, that was a dumb misreading. Thanks; I fixed the above. Her tresses aren't very long in the one screenshot of her.

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    3. I believe EASy (Endgame Anti-climax Syndrome) encompasses not only RPGs but grand strategy games as well. I've abandoned numerous Civilization games when it becomes apparent that the AI opponents would be ground into dust with a flick of my wrist.

      Historical simulation series by Koei also have this problem. There is, however, the possible death-from-old-age your ruler may suffer from; that forces you to select a much weaker successor which may throw you off your plan.

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    4. @CRPG Addict:
      Her tresse are quite long, if you pay attention, it just so happens that she uses them bound.

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  2. In regards to the journal entries, my guess is that most of the early ones are mostly there for copy protection, so they frontload them to discourage people who pirated the game from continuing. Later on they're probably just used for things that wouldn't fit inside that fancy green textbox. Alternatively, it could just be because of the need for exposition at the start.

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  3. This is one of the only Gold Box Games I never played. I can't wait to read more about your adventures so I can live vicariously though you.

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  4. Don't forget that "Spelljammer" also comes out in 1992. That one is only half of a Gold Box game as it uses the combat engine, but not the overworld view.

    I played and beat this game a few months ago and enjoyed it very much, primarily because I thought the area design was better. Silver Blades had too many too large areas. Let's see if you come to agree with that or not.

    And for my part, I can see the city icon just fine but "red on brown" is not a terrific color scheme.

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  5. I rather enjoy the existence of many seemingly-disconnected problems to solve, and the apparent lack of a single mastermind behind every problem in the land.

    Really looking forward to future entries about this Gold Box game, Addict!

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  6. Hello Chet,

    Been reading for a few months, made it through the archive, first time commentor. Thanks for your excellent blog.

    Was also going to point out the issue with Ms. Alaraun's name, but others beat me to it. Her tresses may indeed be long, just coiled after the fashion of an Alderaanian princess. Would "Longstress" have meant that her profession was that of a creator or worker of Longs, or been a nickname given to her as a dedicated linguist/grammarian?

    The city is visible to me but not easily;it is red on a reddish background.

    Finally, I am your long-sought New Orleanian reader, so post the next time you are pointed this way and we'll see if we can't get you on the outside of a well-deserved GIMLET or two.

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    1. Coming down for JazzFest next month!

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  7. Alaraun looks more like the person to hire bavarians.

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    1. Hahaha, nixe one. Yeah, she reminds me of some of our german Tracht (folk costume).

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  8. When I see how many gold box titles there are, I really pity that FTL didn't cash in on their Dungeon Master engine as well. I would have been interesting to get a new title every year with a small upgrade.

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  9. I don't know if it still exists in this game, but the earlier Gold Box games scale the number of monsters by your attribute total. If you set all your stats to 18, you'd be facing dozens of monsters in every random encounter.

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    1. I'm still not convinced this isn't a legend. I need to test it once and for all.

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    2. Fired up Pool of Radiance. Created a new party of all human fighters. Accepted the first set of statistics. Added them to the party and started the game. Bought everyone two-handed swords and chainmail. Entered the slums. Headed for three fixed combats: (1) orcs arguing over papers, (2) goblin training recruits, and (3) kobolds feeding. Didn't make it further than that, so reloaded and just counted the number of moves between 3 random combats in the slums, and the composition of those combats.

      -No random combats between before 1
      -Fixed combat #1: 4 orcs
      -1 random combat between 1 and 2: 4 kobolds
      -Fixed combat #2: 8 goblins, 1 goblin leader
      -No random combats between 2 and 3
      -Fixed combat #3: 15 kobolds, 1 kobold leader
      -Moves to random combats: 5, 7, 38
      -Composition: 4 kobolds, 4 kobolds, 2 orcs

      Re-started. Created a new party of all human fighters. Modified everyone's statistics to maximum and started the game. Did the same things as above.

      -2 randoms combat before 1: 8 kobolds, 3 kobold leaders; 8 orcs
      -Fixed combat #1: 4 orcs
      -No random combat between 1 and 2
      -Fixed combat #2: 8 goblins, 1 goblin leader
      -1 random combat between 2 and 3: 10 goblins, 4 goblin leaders
      Died in this combat and never made it to #3. Reloaded.
      -Moves to random combats: 1, 9, 7
      -Composition: 8 kobolds, 3 kobold leaders; 10 goblins, 4 goblin leaders; 8 kobolds, 3 kobold leaders.

      Conclusion: I was wrong. Not a myth. Modifying everyone's stats to maximum significantly increases the difficulty of foes in random combats, and possibily the frequency of random combats, but not the composition of fixed combats.

      Furthermore, whether this is happening is easily determinable from the composition of any random combat.

      Wondered if it was maxing ALL attributes that did this or any modification. Restarted with same party composition and modified 1 character's strength to max. First random combat took 24 moves and was with 4 kobolds. Conclusion: modifying one stat for one character does not trigger higher difficulty.

      Tried maxing all stats for one character and still got easy encounters. Tried maxing one stat (dexterity) for all characters and still got easy encounters. Tried maxing every stat for all characters except one stat for one character; got hard encounters. Still don't know where the tipping point is, but it's somewhere between all-stats-one-character or one-stat-all-characters and nearly-all-stats-all-characters.

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    3. That's some good scientific process there. Maybe it deserves its own mini blog entry?

      I have to say, I did the stat-maxing thing a few times in the D&D games that let me and thought nothing of it. I appreciate that some developers came down hard on "cheaters" like myself, and in such an oblique and sneaky way as well.

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    4. I believe it is unique to PoolRad. The result being, that if you want to play the game on 'easy' mode, you set all the useless stats to 3, rather than 18. I wonder how many opponents a single character with 3 in every stat faces.

      I don't recall whether PoolRad had a difficulty slider, but I think the other Goldbox games did. It defaults to the middle position of 'veteran'. AFAIK all it changes are monster HP.

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    5. Yep, they only did that in Pool of Radiance, although its only effect really was to boost the number of opponents. The really annoying thing is that I'm pretty it bases its formula off your most powerful character, as well as magic items, so if you happen to find some magic items from your own exploration, or if you get a high level hireling from the training hall, hello random encounters with armies of 30 kobolds.

      It wasn't long after Pool that the developers woke up to the fact that players were simply maxing out all of their abilities and they scaled the
      difficulty accordingly. You'd struggle to play through Pools of Darkness and Dark Queen of Krynn without a maxed out party.

      And for the record, yes, difficulty level only affects HP. The manual says that it also affects experience gained, but this is a scurrilous lie. It has no effect whatsoever.

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    6. Ah, good to know. It's odd they had something as sophisticated as a contextual difficulty slider that adjusted itself dependent on your party's stats and then dropped the whole idea for the sequels.

      Though yeah, thinking back to Wizardry 8, a system like that doesn't always work out for the best. I remember how every piece of advice I got about that game before starting was to not pass a certain level threshold in the first area because it meant the next one (Arnika Road) would be packed with impossibly tough group encounters.

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    7. I imagine they likely aren't using just whether all stats are maxed but either a party total of attributes, or a slightly abstract version of that (e.g. +1 for each attribute 14-16, +2 for 17+, etc), and scaling combats based on that. This would also allow combats to scale with NPC additions as well, so the game can retain some difficulty while allowing variety through NPCs.

      For total party attributes, the "average" party and the maxed party are likely easy to spot. If we assume a party has 6 characters and an average character has stats that average to 12 per attribute, and a maxed character has 18 per attribute, an average party will have a combined attribute score close to 432, while a maxed party will have a combined attribute score of 648. That provides for plenty of levels of gradation for difficulty, even ignoring "lower" than average parties (what happens if all your characters average to scores of 7 or 8?).

      At least, those would be my initial attempts at a system like this, were I to program it (and I'm a programmer, just not for games).

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    8. Thing is, with higher attributes, you get XP bonus for having a high Prime Requisite attribute. On top of that, more monsters also nets you higher XP.

      I believe a max-attribute party will still ultimately have it easier in the long run.

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    9. I second the notion that this yearns for a separate blog entry :)

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    10. Any idea if the random encounter scaling also happens in other GB games?

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    11. AFAIK, it doesn't.

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    12. I believe it happens in Dark Sun but it's not a Goldbox game.

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    14. Lately I was replaying Secret of the Silver blades. I created a party of 5 characters and did not max anything except hit points. I noticed that early encounters in the ruins seemed scaled down a bit. This included both random and scripted encounters. A Black Circle squad normally of 8 fighters and 3-4 magic users, became one of 6 fighters and just 2 magic users. I need to recheck it. Some fixed encounters remained the same, for example, the Banite tomb. I wonder if Pool of Radiance scales according to the number of characters as well as their statistics?

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  10. Hill giants at the gate: I had the same thing happen to me. Apparently there's one hint in the starting city that the rivers and roadways are a lot safer than going overland. You get fights, but not as many, and not as deadly. I didn't get that hint until I'd also been slaughtered a few (several) times, though, as I repeatedly failed to make it to the next city over. That was one of the things I thought the game could have handled a little better.

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  11. "With his dying breath the Banite cleric sets fire to a sheaf of papers". I guess you were lucky he just used Curse in combat!

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    1. Sounds like a red dragon.

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    2. It'd be funnier if he had to crawl to his desk, break out a flint and tinderbox, crouch over the papers while he kept trying to spark it and fan the little flames large enough to consume the papers while the party just looks on.

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  12. The reason for the difference in features, is Gateway to the Savage Frontier was based off older game (Curse of the Azure Bonds). Gateway to the Savage Frontier is the worst in the series, as the game engine went backwards in many ways, with other ports (Amiga, Commodore 64) been even worse.

    Characters and items can even be swapped between Curse of the Azure bonds, and Gateway to the Savage Frontier. If you hit the level limits too early, consider importing characters into Curse of the Azure bonds in order to train further. The level limits in Gateway to the Savage Frontier were far too low.

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  13. Also the Trolls in Nesme are the best source of money early in the game. The Trolls are only in small groups and are endless if you rest in that area.

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    1. I wasn't going to start talking about the trolls yet, thinking it might be a bit spoilery, but since the topic came up, I guess I'll dive in. After playing through, I think I recommend leaving the trolls mostly alone. Yes, it is an obvious place to grind, but grinding really isn't necessary in this game. Worse, because of the ratio of XP gains to earnings, it can even be a bit of a trap, where you keep leveling up faster than you can make money, leaving you feeling like maybe one more loop of trolls and training ... and then five loops later you're still thinking the same thing. I fell for it on my first playthrough, and told myself the next time around it would probably be better to just get on with the other quests.

      Note: With the relatively low level caps, I was heavily multi-classed just because you don't get to play them much in the higher-level games, and that may have made it worse. I had to buy a lot more low levels, and that may have made money feel even tighter. A party like Chet's that's mostly single class might not get bound up as much, but I still don't think there's any need to waste a lot of time grinding.

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    2. Wow, great unmarked spoiler there. I'm positive our host wants to figure those things out himself, not have someone show up to comment for the sole reason of spoiling the game.

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    3. I don't know about it being spoilerish. It's not like he's giving away any plot information. More like pointing him away from the need to waste time grinding, which really isn't a fun part of an rpg anyway, especially when you don't need to do it.

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    4. I know you all mean well, but let ME get upset about spoilers if I'm going to, okay? We don't need to have this debate in multiple threads.

      I did kill a few of the trolls and guessed that they probably never ended. With only one or two at a time, I didn't really have to bother with the flaming oil to keep them from regenerating.

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  14. Regarding the overland map:

    V nqivpr lbh gb pbzcyrgryl vtaber gur jvyqrearff znc naq whfg fgvpx gb ebnqf, eviref naq pvgvrf. Gurer vf nofb-fzrttvat-yhgrl _abguvat_ vagrerfgvat gb qvfpbire va gur jvyqrearff, naq vgf rapbhagre qrfvta vf gur jbefg V'ir frra va nal Tbyq Obk tnzr, jvgu bayl bar be gjb cbffvoyr rapbhagre glcrf. Vg'f fb sne erzbirq sebz gur oevyyvnag bireynaq znc bs Cbby bs Enqvnapr nf cbffvoyr.

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  15. Minor point of order: This game, and all other Gold Box games save FRUA, use 1st edition rules, not 2nd.

    Not sure why they didn't choose to update somewhere earlier on the line but it may have to do with the choice adversarial god throughout the various games. Bane is one of a handful of gods who die during the "Times of Troubles" which happens well after the events of the Gold Box games and was used a logical in-universe excuse for updating the rules from 1st to 2nd edition.

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    1. You sure it wasn't for switch from 2ed to 3rd ed ? My memory is a bit fuzzy on the actual facts though.

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    2. The switch from 1st to 2nd edition was definitely The Time of Troubles, as depicted in the rather mediocre Avatar Trilogy. I don't recall there being any particular "Realms-shattering event" that marked the transition from 2nd to 3rd. Which is weird, because the rules changes were far more extensive.

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    3. I keep making the same mistake. I always think of AD&D as the "second edition" because regular D&D was first.

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    4. The "Realm-shattering event" going from 2nd to 3rd was the return of an evil empire of wizards (from somewhere?) to the Realms. Netheril I think? They're the ones responsible for the big desert in the middle.

      Going from 3rd to 4th edition was the Spellplague. The goddess of magic got herself killed off again, causing wizards to die or go insane, and magic disappeared for a while. Fast-forward 100 years, magic returns right in time for a new D&D edition!

      I've stopped following the Forgotten Realms, but I think the new 5th edition basically just ret-cons all of these changes back to the status-quo of 1e/2e.

      Legally, AD&D was technically a 2nd edition, as Gygax's entire rationale for creating AD&D was to stop royalty payments to Dave Arneson. In practice though it was more of a codification and compilation of existing material (not unlike going from AD&D 1e to 2e). There are several books on the topic, Playing at the World and Designers & Dragons immediately coming to mind.

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    5. Calling the Avatar trilogy "mediocre" is extremely generous. And then some.

      I do find the city name "Silverymoon" interesting, since one of the major cities in the MMORPG World of Warcraft is Silvermoon, home of the blood elves. Coincidence? Homage? Subconscious rework of an AD&D name? Who knows?

      Delete
    6. Well, C.J. Cherryh wrote a novel in 1979 called "The Fires of Azeroth". Connection to said MMORPG: Unknown. Happens.

      Delete
    7. The Netherese wizards who returned were "shades", they were humans prior to moving their city in to a plane of shadows.

      The 4th edition tanked because the system was utter crap as far as any role-playing related mechanics were concerned.

      Haven't played the 5th edition though but then again I haven been playing actual D&D since pathfinder came out.

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    8. I bow to Petri's superior knowledge regarding the Realms, all though we'll have to agree to disagree on the relative merits of various versions of D&D.

      As far as the reuse of names, I think something as relatively generic as Silvermoon will probably get reused over time. Azeroth seems more specific, but again who knows unless one of the authors/designers goes on the record in an interview.

      Delete
    9. Well we're still happily playing 2nd edition pen and paper sessions at least once a month and never made the switch to that newfangled 3rd edition stuff... :)

      Delete
    10. 1st & 2nd Edition AD&D is a nightmare for the uninitiated what with lower AC and Saving Throws being better and crazy THAC0 calculations that requires a calculator handy at all times.

      Personally didn't like the Forgotten Realms. Too much retcons and overpowered characters who can single-handedly win wars/topple empires just waltzing around doing absolutely nothing to better the universe.

      Delete
    11. Nitpick: FRUA uses 1st ed. rules, not 2nd. Some of the monsters have 2nd-ed XP totals, because they probably didn't care about consistency when looking stuff up. In Pools of Darkness, Thorne has the stats of a maxed-out 2nd ed red dragon, the generic red dragons have the stats of a maxed-out 1st ed red dragon. ;)

      Delete
    12. As a note, there were multiple 'editions' of basic D&D- 5 of them, the last coming out in 1991. Plus revised second edition, etc etc. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Editions_of_Dungeons_%26_Dragons

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  16. "with his dying breath the Banite Cleric sets fire to a sheaf of papers". Wow! That's some seriously bad indigestion there ;)

    And what's up with the "boatkeeper" (a pretty clumsy title if ever there was one) wanting a 20g deposit to travel by his boat? Did he think the party was going to abandon ship and swim to shore without paying?. (Mind you, given some of the D&D parties I've known, perhaps it's not so unreasonable :)

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  17. If you do take on the Trolls, make sure you are equipped with spells or items to stop them regenerating! Fire usually does the trick....

    There are some cheap consumables you can use for this.

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  18. This game and its sequel are the only Gold Box games I've never played for any great length of time. Something about them felt off to me, and you've just enlightened me: they have a different developer.

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    1. It has two lead designers, one of them Dan Daglow who got his act together in the sequel to this game, the other Mark Buchignani who later became the lead designer of the infamous Pools of Radiance: Myth Drannor. I don't think Bughignani "got" AD&D.

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    2. Ugh... Myth Drannor. I bought that on the day it came out. I can't recall why I thought it would be a good idea. Quite possibly the worst game I ever purchased.

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    3. I never played Myth Drannor, but I read somewhere that the game is better after all the patches. Is that true, or am I thinking of the Temple of Elemental Evil game? I never played that one either.

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    4. ToEE is a legitimately good game. It's also the game which cleaves closest to the p&p rules.

      It's basically Goldbox with 3e rules, effectively set mostly within the confines of a single dungeon.

      Chet would dig it.

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    5. ToEE is pretty good even nowadays and worth investing a few hours in. Takes a bit of effort to understand the 3e rules if you are not familiar with them but decent quests and encounters. Available at GOG AFAIR.

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    6. I couldn't say, for Myth Drannor, because it was so lousy that I never even tried it again, after a few hours of playing.

      And that says a lot, because I usually finish games.

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    7. Myth Drannor had literally the most atrocious bug in the history of video games. If you tried to uninstall an unpatched version of the game it would delete (or maybe just corrupt?) key Windows files, effectively destroying your OS and necessitating a complete re-install.

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    8. ToEE has an excellent combat engine that attempts to mimic P&P rules as accurately as possible, unfortunately they forgot to hip the game engine with an actual game.

      if you play ToEE get the circle of eight mod pack that fixes a ton of bugs and things related to "rule books ? I don't care to read them so swing it".

      With mod pack you also get "keep on the borderlands" which is another classic module from the hey days of AD&D.

      a word of warning in that win 10 doesn't work with the current version of "the keep on the borderlands" but GoG version of the original ToEE works with the mod pack and it's enhancements.

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    9. Thanks all! Sounds like I was thinking of ToEE, not Myth Drannor. Looks like I have another one to add to my personal list.

      Or I can wait until Chet gets to in about 10-15 years from now. No pressure!

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  19. Yes! Yes! Going from first level to eighth is a ton more fun than any other way of playing D&D. Lots of players hate low-level games because they play games for different reasons than I do. They like to be in control above all else, and high-level super characters give them that feeling. I like struggling against the system, and finally getting enough gold to equip all my fighters with Banded Mail, Shields, and Long Swords.

    Backstabbing in Goldbox is great, I agree. Such a pity I was never able to figure out how it worked back in the day. I'd just randomly get a 'backstab' message once in a blue moon and wonder how I'd done it.

    Alignment is totally irrelevant to Goldbox games and I don't think it is ever referenced, anywhere. One thing I liked a lot about Baldur's Gate is that you could actually be evil. Unfortunately, the evil quests sucked and you would do much better being good. Oh well, it's still fun for repeated plays and it's not like BG isn't full of treasure anyway.

    Don't forget to check off all the journal entries so you can show us all the fake ones when you finish! I love the fake ones.

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    1. Nothing beats the fake Wasteland entries though!

      As for BG, at least in BG2 the evil path is absolutely viable and competitive both in items and companions. Vic, Edwin, Blackrazor, ... In the early stages good path with Azureedge is easier and Carsomyr is of course the Uber-Weapon but evil is still ok.

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    2. Yeah, but BG2 was the high level game, you started at level 7 for Pete's sake! Where's the fun in that? You're already super-capable right out of the gate. I've learned that in a lot of RPGs, that's what people like. They want control over all else, and aren't interested in struggling and figuring out a way to win.

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    3. Yes, buildup is the biggest fun though at least for me the much better companions and banter plus better quests make BG2 completely overshadow BG1.

      Delete
    4. I agree with Andreas - BG2 made a relatively mundane fantasy setting feel incredibly vibrant and diverse. Athkatla is one of the best locations of any RPG I've played.

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    5. High lvl AD&D works in computer games because it gives you so much more options to tinker with.
      On P&P most fun usually starts to happen from around 6-8th levels with the sweet spot on lvl 12 or so before things usually get stale.

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    6. One of the reasons high-level play works in CRPGs better than TTRPGs is that the former has a more limited set of options. There's no Wall Of Iron + Fabricate to gain unlimited wealth, no infinite wish loops, no Pun-Pun, etc. that are much harder to put a stop to in tabletop if you have an entitled player without them flipping the table.

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    7. Yeah - like I said, it's all about CONTROL. That's what some players like above all else, the feeling of CONTROL. Being at low-level gives them a great feeling of frustration and they tend to lash out or quit the game rather than deal with things that are outside their control. Fight, struggle, figure things out, slowly gain power? Boring! Skip to the good part already!

      Me, I love a challenge. As soon as the game starts going really well and I can control everything, I usually lose interest. Where's the fun in doing anything that you want? But, to CONTROL gamers, this IS the fun of the game.

      I never understood those people who played Civilization up to the point that the planet was entirely developed and all other civs were boxed into a single city, entirely surrounded by friendly units. But now I do - it's about being in control.

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    8. With CIVs it not so much about control but about AI being an utter imbecile that cannot be reasoned with and thus your game ending too for your utopia state to form if you kill them.

      Delete
    9. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesMarch 21, 2016 at 4:18 PM

      I like the kinds of games that start me off as a weak, limited character and eventually either maintain a consistent level of challenge, make me feel like a God or both. Overcoming the challenges of a low level party makes the eventual victory at high levels more satisfying.

      Nintendo's RPGs do this well: Zelda involves a reincarnated hero on a perpetual quest to save the world, admittedly repeatedly failing according to the timeline, but the character never feel like a God. You never have more than 20 hit points, a small amount of mana and a limited selection of weapons with which to take on hordes of monsters and very complex dungeons, so the challenge is generally consistent. Metroid involves a character who has to find all of her equipment, loses health quickly and is in constant peril. Mother starts characters so weak that they are overpowered by a fly at the beginning of one game, but eventually they toss around powerful psychic spells with powers like fire, ice and lightning with impunity. It still manages to be tough at the end, though, as the later enemies tend to be massively overpowered.

      This was also done well recently in The Witcher 3 except for the part from Skellige to Kaer Morghen, part of a series that I suspect drew at least some inspiration from Zelda in which Geralt was able to take down a variety of supernatural creatures but always felt vulnerable, and that made victory satisfying.

      Superhero League of Hoboken, one of the best C.R.P.G.s, did it really well: You started as a bottom-ranked superhero team with mostly useless powers, but after saving the world a few times, acquiring teammates with useful powers and cleansing large areas of monsters, you feel like a real powerhouse. It also requires thought: The endgame can be anything from nigh-impossible to ridiculously easy, depending on how you develop your characters.

      Diablo and Ys do it poorly: Because you do nothing but mash buttons in Diablo and run into enemies in Ys, you never get a good sense of your character's powers and limitations. Combat feels distanced and unsatisfying.

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    10. If you think all you do in Diablo is mash buttons, you probably aren't very good at Diablo. Diablo fights hinge on positioning and using spells/skills at the appropriate time - just spamming them will lead your character into an early grave.

      Delete
    11. I dunno. Zelda and Metroid felt more like an action-adventure game with "heart"/"armor" increments than an RPG. Superhero League of Hoboken also does not start you with useless heroes. All of their powers are useful in certain nonsensical situations created by crazed supervillains.

      As for Diablo and Ys, it depends actually. I thought Diablo's skill advancement is pretty comprehensive with the skill tree being the only redeeming thing about the stupid game. Later sequels of Ys require pressing buttons to attack or cast spells.

      Delete
    12. You are quite correct. The Zelda games, with the possible exception of The Adventure Of Link (which lacks an inventory entirely, but has spells instead and character advancement is tied to XP), are not RPGs, nor are the Metroid games.

      Delete
  20. Just noting a timely coincidence: the Digital Antiquarian's most recent articles are about SSI, TSR and their eventual partnership in making the Gold Box games. It starts here (http://www.filfre.net/2016/03/joel-billings-and-ssi/) and part 3, about the birth of the Gold Box games, just went up yesterday. Lots of fascinating stuff (my favorite TSR detail being Gygax moving to LA to attempt to woo Hollywood into making a D&D film).

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  21. The art in this game drives me nuts. You nailed it "cartoonish". Did SSI get Hanna Barbara into the development. The Hill Giants in particular look awful. Enemy movement on the battlefield has this unsettling effect.

    The economy in this game is better. There is a magic shop in some cities, and temples galore. I wish you could have negotiated with the Banites in Nesme, rather than just killing them. But we have been over this before. There is no reason for any alignment and there is no way to role-play factions.

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    1. For a VGA game, they were oddly stingy about using more colors. Maybe they were stockpiling them for their next game.

      The wall graphics are particularly low-tech. It suggests they reused some old EGA wall graphics, perhaps intended to be temporarily, and then ran out of time or resources and had to ship the game. But that doesn't explain the map, which they would have had to redraw.

      Another, better, theory I just had is that the decision to switch to VGA came very late in the project, and they quickly spruced up some portraits, threw a gradient on the UI frame, and kicked it out the door. VGA, check.

      Delete
    2. I would have thought that it was engine limitation. From what I recall from all the Goldbox series, none of them have decent VGA graphics, if at all.

      Delete
    3. Yeah, they definitely were not pushing the boundaries of VGA. If they were in VGA mode, it seems like it would be easiest and fastest for all the image data to be in the same format.

      Of course, Gold Box enthusiasts are probably not, as a market demographic, severely attracted to flashy graphics...

      Delete
  22. I forgot to add that Dark Queen does have ready made icons rather than you having to custom make them. I do not know if that is an upgrade or not.

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    1. I seem to recall playing Champions of Krynn on the Amiga, and that having a bunch of ready-made icons as well.

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    2. Yes, when I replayed the Krynn trilogy some years ago I chose the Amiga version due to those very nice combat icons.

      Delete
  23. I think when I played I decided the dual-class sweet spot involved switching at 3rd level - so my mage and cleric switched to fighters (and traded a bit of HP for Hold Person/Stinking cloud) and my two fighters switched to mage and cleric (HP buff and better weapons and armor for essentially no cost).

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  24. Ooh, the end-game of this one is brutal, as I recall.

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  25. I find the Savage Frontier games quite underrated, although Gateway is a bit too "boilerplate fantasy" for my taste. Hard to explain why without spoilers, but you'll see later on. Needless to say, the main villain did not read the Evil Overlord checklist. :) I also wish there were more side quests.

    I agree with comments above that the economy is better, probably as good as it gets in Gold Box, but obviously not great. The presence of magic shops does help.

    Characters start this game with 3000 experience points which is one short to get clerics to 3rd level. Very annoying, as you won't have the money to train them. My own strategy is to start clerics as paladins and dual class them into clerics straight away. You won't suffer from having one less first level spell at the beginning, clerics max out really early anyway (they're capped at 6th level), and once they hit 3rd level, you have a cleric with extra hit points, all of the paladin's bonuses (protection from evil, etc) and the ability to use swords and bows. Very handy. Multi-class clerics are a waste of time (max 5th level), but this series is good for multi-classed characters as well

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  26. I don't necessarily find the early stages of levelling up that great. I prefer higher level, when most of my fighters will hit most of the time and I have a more varied selection of both cleric and magic user spells to use. Right now I am playing Dark Queen of Krynn and the challenge level is such that I find most, if not all, the battles very tactically difficult. I hate draconians. So I cannot rely on fireballs to clear the court as it were. In my current game I stalled at one part following 3 consecutive full party deaths. There were some reasons for this, which I will not get into, but suffice to say, higher level D+D can provide as many challenges as lower level can.

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    1. Oh, no question. We're talking about two different things. I feel like the sense of CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT is highest at lower levels, but certainly the number of combat tactics opens up more with higher levels. I agree that the Gold Box series does a great job offering thrilling, challenging combats for powered characters, but leveling up doesn't make a huge difference in meeting those challenges.

      Delete
    2. Chet, your point is valid. I can see that some might find going from level 1 to 5 more dramatic than say 15-20. I disagree mainly because right now I am playing a very attrition heavy game. What I have most needed is simply more hit points and levelling up is the only way to get that. I admit to crippling myself by have a couple of characters reach a dead end in development. It was my mistake. I can only say that this game has given me a different reason to appreciate levelling up.

      Delete
  27. One thing. What is so "savage" about this part of the Forgotten Realms world? Travel between cities is dangerous, but so was travel around Phlan. All of Forgotten Realms seems "savage" to me. Is there a kingdom or place where you never or almost never meet a wandering monster?

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    1. (Hopefully Mr Addict has played enough that this does not count as a spoiler):

      The Savage Frontier is very, very savage indeed. So savage in fact, that in each wilderness area, there is only one type of monster left, having wiped out all the other monster types.
      It doesn't get much more savage than that.

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    2. And don't for those savage-y genocidal adventurer types who systematically and savagely eradicated entire wilderness ecosystems. The savages!

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    3. From 3ed FR campaign book pg 168:

      "The savage frontier includes the lands north of the Delimbiyr that are not strictly part of the high forest, the silver marches, the sword coast north or Waterdeep."

      "Compared to the well-cleared lands of the south much of the savage frontier is either rigged mountains or virgin forest. non human races still hold sway here, and vast regions are virtually untraveled by humans."

      So savage as in pristine wilderness as described in an 1800's poet's romantic view.

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    4. And yet the developers made games set in the Savage Frontier that are almost purely urbane...

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    5. The first one, at least.

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    6. Ed Greenwood probably forgot that a single adventuring party can cause a whole economy to spring up overnight even in the deepest dankest dungeons, let alone a primordial wildland filled with untouched resources and rare game.

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  28. First time poster here, after discovering this blog and a couple of weeks of archive binging. I'd played and beaten Gateway but never played Treasures, so I decided to purchase and fire up Gateway and see how my renewed experience fares (and how it compares with that chronicled here).

    My party is mostly the same (Paladin, Ranger, Magic-User, two Clerics), but for the sixth slot I'm using an Elf Magic-User/Thief instead of a Dwarf Fighter/Thief. I like the 19 Dexterity, making the character a great shot with their short bow from the rear, and wanted to see how the extra half-set of mage spells would assist in going through the game. And so long as the character has 18 Intelligence, they can reach the maximum Magic-User level allowed in Treasures. I'll be using backstab with some caution given the character having worse AC and HP.

    I'll comment on my experiences in the analogous blog posts. For this one, covering Yartar and Nesme, my only particular observations are (i) Yartar is eerily devoid of encounters at the start of the game - there's literally nothing to do here other than find Krevish and get the commission to go to Nesme (I realize this will change); (ii) I was surprised to learn that Ankhegs are vulnerable to Sleep; and (iii) a multi-class Magic-User starts at level 1 as a mage and doesn't come with Magic Missile - instead, you pick a spell of your choice upon reaching level 2; I took Charm Person.

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  29. Ankhegs? Easier then expected? These are obviously not the super-hard, acid spitting murderbugs from Baldur's Gate!

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