Thursday, March 24, 2016

Gateway to the Savage Frontier: In the Groove

This is perhaps the most complex screen image in a Gold Box game so far, and I have no idea what's going on in it. I've already freed Amanitas from the chains at this point in the narrative, so I have no idea why he's still wearing them, who the guy behind him is, what he's doing to him, or who the sinister looking dude in the background is.
   
I'm having trouble finding the source, but maybe 10 years ago, I remember reading a study about brain activity and computer games. The study showed that in the initial stages of a game, when the player is learning both the setting and the controls, the brain is in over-drive. Multiple areas light up with frenetic spikes in neuron usage or whatever. Then, as the player becomes comfortable with the game and settles into its mechanics, activity falls off drastically, more closely mirroring someone who is asleep than someone who is awake and engaged. That makes sense to me. There are times playing a long game like Fallout 4 where I'm essentially on autopilot. I have a hypothesis that consoles enhance this torpor, but I need to find the original study to even remember on what platforms it was conducted.

Anyway, I'd like to be able to say that the moments I prize in a CRPG are those beginning stages, where my brain is active and trying to fit everything I'm learning into its previous knowledge and experiences. I'd like to be able to say it but I can't. I hate the opening stages of a new game. I hate learning a new set of lore, a new magic system, and new controls. I love having learned those things, but I hate the process. This is why you so-often can't trust my first couple of entries on an original game. I'm having to force myself to play it rather than go play Baldur's Gate for the 15th time.
   
Here, I break up the text with a screenshot of an owlbear looking like a Looney Tunes character.
    
What I like is when I settle into the mid-game groove. With a PC RPG, I never quite reach the levels of drooling stupor that I do with my Xbox, but I still manage to sink into an enjoyable immersion with a constant cycle of action and reward. In these times, it annoys me to have to stop for blogging, and when I finally write something, I inevitably cover far too much material at once, losing a lot of the nuance in the process.

The Gold Box series poses a unique challenge in these moments. This is my seventh Gold Box game, and while we've seen a few interface and graphics improvements in the series during this period, they're very minor in comparison to the overall interface and game engine. Hardly anything has significantly changed since Pool of Radiance; hardly anything new must be learned with a new title. I can even use the same map templates. This means that I start each new Gold Box title already in the mid-game groove. Hours and hours go by before it occurs to me that I should probably stop and write about some of the things I experienced. Thus, this fairly long posting.

In the opening stages of the game, the plot had led me from Yartar to Nesme and seemed to want me to go from there to Silverymoon, the next stop along the river. As we discussed last time, the wilderness combats are a bit hard for a new party and the game seems to want you to stick to the river. The river plays a big role in each of the cities, with about 25% of their potential squares given over to inaccessible water.
   
     
As I left Nesme, I was experiencing something that I'd never encountered in a Gold Box game before: poverty. My characters were all ready to level up and I couldn't assemble the 1000-gold-piece cost. In every game prior to this one, the party's initial insolvency is almost immediately cured with the acquisition of the first gem or jewel. By the third or fourth map, a never-ending inflow of unneeded +1 magic items and bracers keeps the characters rich beyond the dream of avarice. This is all in addition to the enormous hauls of gold and platinum that the party gets from combats. My readers have repeatedly assured me that, as unfortunate as it was, finding 9,000 gold pieces after a battle with three ettins was somehow necessary under D&D rules and SSI's requirement to adhere to them.
   
Well, Beyond Software somehow found a way around those rules because the typical post-combat cache is in silver rather than gold or platinum and so far the game has been stingy with its magic items. That isn't a complaint. I rather like the refreshing experience of gold actually meaning something--of collecting leather armor and short swords to sell after a battle; of considering selling even valuable magic items to pay for basic sundries.

In Nesme, trolls are a source of potential wealth, but I calculated it would have taken me around 40 successful troll battles to get everyone (including my NPC) the money needed to level up once. By then, of course, I would have received enough experience to be able to level up again, dooming my party to a never-ending cycle and premature achievement of level caps. I wasn't interested in that so I decided to head for Silverymoon overland and see if I could make any money in wilderness encounters.

That didn't work--the combats were still too hard--but the decision had the effect of putting my party in Everlund before Silverymoon, since in this game, a party traveling overland can't cross a river. You have to cross inside cities that span the river. As it later turned out, I was clearly supposed to visit Silverymoon first, but I doubt it had any lasting consequences.
  
My map of Everlund.
   
Everlund didn't have any services--all the shops seemed to indicate that robbers and poverty had cleaned them out. Goods were piled in warehouses waiting for river and caravan trade to resume, and some parties of gnolls were going through the goods. There was a bridge across the river, and large, inaccessible areas to the southwest. Some of these may be intended as water, but I couldn't see far enough to tell. In one of the buildings, a council member warned me about undead in the ruins to the north, livestock disappearing from the pens near the river, and stirges wandering the streets. 
   
Some fierce-looking gnolls. Where previous monster portraits were taken directly from D&D materials, I wonder if these were created original for this game.
   
These notices set up the game's general approach so far. Every city has some problems with monsters, all self-contained within the map. Where in previous Gold Box games, the ruins teeming with undead might have been an entire separate map, here it's a dozen or so squares on the edges of the main map--and as we've seen, those main maps contain a lot of inaccessible squares. It feels like Gateway has a much more compact approach to its game world--less space for space's sake--than its predecessors, and that's really saying something since I never felt like the previous Gold Box games were artificially large, with perhaps the exception of Secret of the Silver Blades and some of the optional ruins in Curse of the Azure Bonds.
   
Anyway, the mentioned undead, gnolls, and stirges might attack three or four times randomly, and once you've dealt with them, the map is clear. But unlike previous games, you never seem to get any acknowledgement or reward for doing so. I kept returning to the buildings housing the leaders of the cities, expecting them to acknowledge that I'd largely solved their problems--expecting the familiar, unpunctuated "Congratulations the party has gained experience" notice--but nothing ever happened.
    
You have to love a member of the Council of Elders who wears overalls. And is also the identical twin of Lord Nasher (see below).
   
Amidst my explorations, I found a hidden area with a man chained to the wall, menaced by owlbears. After I killed the owlbears and freed him, he delivered what is perhaps the longest journal entry in a gold Box game so far--nearly two full pages. It began by saying, "We told [him] how some Banites believed that only he could stop the forces of Zhentil Keep from conquering the lands of the Savage Frontier," something that I, in fact, had never heard from any Banites because I didn't go to Silverymoon first.

In any event, he introduced himself as the wizard Amanitas, and he said that he'd learned about the Zhentarim plans from an escaped slave to General Vaalgamon. The Zhentarim have taken over an ancient city called Ascore in the far northeast of the game map. In ancient times, Ascore was protected by four statuettes--named after the four cardinal points of the compass--that protected them from enemies in those directions. Eventually, the statuettes were lost and scattered about the Savage Frontier. The Zhentarim have been searching for them because "they believe by returning the statuettes to Ascore, they can open a safe path through the Great Desert" through which "they intend to send armies to conquer the entire Savage Frontier." 

I had to pop out of the game and into the Forgotten Realms wiki to understand how this even made sense geographically. Zhentil Keep is some distance from the Savage Frontier, but there is indeed a great desert, called Anauroch, in between. A map made it clearer. I'm not entirely sure how the statuettes are going to have anything to do with the desert, which contains all the perils of the lost ancient Netheril empire, but whatever. 

Ascore is in the northwest, Zhentil Keep and the Moonsea in the far east, and the Great Desert in between.
   
Anyway, Amanitas's "magical investigations" had revealed some clues to the locations of the four statuettes.
   
  • The Statuette of the East is in a great tower with many spires
  • The Statuette of the West is in a small chest carved from the pearl of a great oyster, on an island somewhere
  • The Statuette of the North is in a place "to which people do not wish to go." It is far away but in a place that many travelers must pass
  • The Statuette of the South "lies both high above and far below the surface of the land"
   
Amanitas then gave me a magic ring and said that if I brought along with the statues to the ancient plaza in Ascore, somehow it would "turn the Zhentarim's planned triumph into total and irreversible defeat." He finished by giving me some kind of magic card that would enable the vaults in Yartar, Neverwinter, and Silverymoon to "save and exchange your valuables as if they were really just one place" and told me he'd be in Secomber if we'd like to seek him out again.
   
I forgot that he said this about Yartar until I just uploaded this screenshot. I was already there! Maybe I have to search more carefully.
   
Not a lot to go on for the four statuettes, but I remember a big tower in Luskan in Neverwinter Nights, so I suspect that's where the first statuette is. The only island is likely to be out in the ocean to the west, perhaps accessible from Port Llast, Neverwinter, or Luskan. Before I headed out, however, I went north to Silverymoon to see what I was supposed to have learned there.

Unlike Everlund, Silverymoon had a full set of services. By the time I reached it, I had been playing the game for nearly 7 hours without leveling up because I couldn't afford it. I had found a few gems and one jewel in the final Everlund battles, but even they weren't enough to take care of all my characters. Thus, I finally caved and sold my Ring of Protection +2, which brought in 15,000 gold pieces. That may seem like a lot, but it costs 8,000 to fully level-up my party, including my multi-classed fighter/thief and my NPC fighter. I suspected that I'd find some huge treasure haul moments after selling the ring, but that never happened on this or any subsequent maps.
   
This hurt a little.
   
Meanwhile, a magic shop in Silverymoon teased me with things I might actually want to buy, including Gauntlets of Dexterity.
  
And of course we have the usual +1 arrow "money sink."
    
The river in Silverymoon is crossed by a magic bridge that you can't see. There was talk about lizardmen hanging around the docks in town, and indeed I found some there. Notices proclaimed a weekly Festival of Mielikki (a goddess of the forest) coming up in 6 days, and I recalled that the note I had found on the slain Cleric of Bane had asked the cleric to meet the writer at some shop during the festival.
   
I always imagined the Moonbridge to be a little more majestic.
  
A blacksmith's shop announced it was closed until the festival. I waited until the festival and entered the shop, where the blacksmith turned out to be an agent of Bane. Believing I was his ally, he expressed horror at the Zhentarim's plan to "send armies across the Great Desert" claiming that this would destroy "the historic balance between the Zhentarim and the Banites." He finished by telling me of the great wizard, Amelior Amanitas, currently visiting the Vault of the Sages in Silverymoon. He though that Amanitas had some information that might stop the Zhentarim.
  
This is the first time so far that there's been anything like an "encounter option" in the game.
  
I kept getting kicked out of the Vault of Sages when I tried to enter, but I suspect if I'd visited here before Everlund, I would have found some information indicating that Amanitas had been captured and taken there. I was thus content that I was back on the main path again.
   
The "town leader of Neverwinter?" Isn't that selling him a little short?
   
Neverwinter next. It was disappointing. Unlike the sprawling metropolis I remembered from later games, it was just another 16 x 16 collection of shops and water. I spoke to Lord Nasher in his palace--I guess anyone can just wander in--and I want to offer his speech in total:
   
I'm afraid you've come to Neverwinter in a time of great troubles. Many people were moving to the outskirts of the city to escape the troubles. The older, inner areas were becoming havens for criminals and all forms of monsters.

We converted several blocks of the old city to indoor gardens to help bring people back to Neverwinter. But now monsters have invaded the indoor gardens. Instead of bringing people in and helping the city, the gardens are scaring them away!
   
"Gang graffiti."
   
This seems like an obvious metaphor for "white flight" in many U.S. cities in the mid-20th century, leading to clumsy revitalization efforts that, often as not, made the problem worse. I don't really know what point the writers were trying to make by tying a similar scenario to Neverwinter, but in any event, although I was able to clear the indoor gardens of monsters--displacer beasts and manticores, primarily--nothing else plot-related happened in the city, and Nasher never acknowledged my help.
   
The manticore here stands for the heroin epidemic.
   
Port Llast was a tiny map, only 5 x 15, most of it taken up by an abandoned ship called the Gallant Prince that had been found adrift off the coast. The ship was full of undead, but by now my Level 4 clerics were capable of turning skeletons, zombies, and ghouls instantly, so the battles were no trouble. A couple of "Hosttower mages" seemed to be responsible for the fate of the ship, but they succumbed quickly to a couple of castings of "Hold Person." There wasn't a lot that was plot related, except a note (which confirmed what I otherwise suspected) that one of the statues was at the Hosttower in Luskan.
   
Believe it or not, that's supposed to be a ghoul.
   
I leave you on the streets of Luskan. I keep getting into battles with margoyles, but they only respond to magic weapons and I only have one of these in my party, making me think I perhaps should have gone in a different direction first. I just had to reload after two of my characters were killed by said margoyles--I don't have enough money for resurrection. Maybe I just need to head back to Silverymoon and spend some money on +1 daggers.
  
The pirates die quickly enough, but only one of my characters has a weapon capable of defeating the margoyles.
  
Some random notes:

  • Every tavern so far has only offered "fight" and "leave" options, making them rather pointless. It feels like the team just didn't finish programming them.
  • Unlike previous Gold Box games, characters in this one get full experience for turning undead and for foes who surrender. 
  • I tried just wandering around the wilderness maps to explore, but I haven't found any hidden locations so far. There seem to be a lot more outdoor squares here than in Pool of Radiance or Death Knights of Krynn, and I wonder if it makes sense to try to systematically explore them all, or if this game is more like Champions of Krynn where the outdoor map is kind of pointless and all the useful locations are clearly annotated.
    
I explored that whole area between the rivers and there was nothing there.
   
  • I like the variety of monsters so far. I don't think any are appearing here for the first time, but ankhegs, trolls, ettins, giant snakes, owlbears, and manticores aren't exactly common in the earlier games. Giant snakes, incidentally, leave a bunch of leather armor behind when you kill them. Is the idea supposed to be that you're turning their skin into leather?

So far, a pleasant enough experience, and the game might be the first Gold Box title to get the economy right. The plot isn't very compelling just yet, and the combats (excepting some of the outdoor ones) have perhaps been a little too easy. But the game has me in its groove, and it's certainly easy to fire it up at the end of the day. Taking a break from it to explore Dragon Slayer II isn't going to be easy.

Time so far: 9 hours
Reload count:

64 comments:

  1. It's been a few months, but I also remember the tight economy in the beginning. I think I resolved it without selling the ring, but it's a bit of a blur now.

    I know that I tackled things in a different order a bit as I took to exploring as much of the river system as I could before going overland. I know I ended up doing at least one of the sequences out of order (because I read a walkthrough after), but the game recovered well and I had some alternate dialog which I thought was a good touch.

    My previous gave was Silver Blades and I found the compactness of this game to be a nice touch compared to the insane size of the dungeons there. I still have nightmares about exploring the glacier and ruins in Silver Blades, so much work for so little reward.

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  2. Hello,
    about the picture on the top:
    I'm guessing it should've appeared earlier in the game, but (for me at least) it's pretty clear what's supposed to be happening on it. The blond, viking guy represents you, your party, you are in the process of freeing Amanitas from his chains. The "sinister figure" is actually just a guard, who got knocked out by you (the broken door and bent weapons scattered over the stairs make it clear).

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    1. I agree with your interpretation. My points of confusion came from: 1) it looked like the blond dwarf was chained up, too, but on further inspection I guess not; 2) I was posting a couple of days after I played, and I forgot that humans were part of the preceding combat. I was thinking it was just owlbears.

      It's still a bit weird, with Amanitas messing with his ring before he's even released. And what if you didn't have a dwarf in the party?

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    2. The Viking dude is an NPC called Erek (Amantis's bodyguard) whom you would have met in Silverymoon if you'd done it first.

      Gateway touted itself as "total freedom to explore", but it's actually pretty linear. Go somewhere before you're supposed to be there and you'll find yourself overwhelmed by encounters that are far too tough, that nothing is happening, or possibly confused by pictures of mysterious bearded dudes. :)

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    3. Ah, see, I knew there was something I wasn't getting. Thanks for filling in that hole.

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    4. I disagree with this. Once you get to a certain point, you get some options as to the order you do things in. But the beginning is more linear.

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  3. "I hate the opening stages of a new game. I hate learning a new set of lore, a new magic system, and new controls. I love having learned those things, but I hate the process."

    Totally. I grimace at the thought of learning a new game.

    "they intend to send armies to conquer the entire Savage Frontier."

    I also don't know how this would have worked - I think the events of GSF are roughly contemporary to those of Curse, and the Zhents had their hands full waging war on the Dalelands. The idea that they would take and hold far-flung monster-infested cities for economic gain doesn't sound realistic.



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    1. In general, the "Savage Frontier" doesn't exactly scream, "Perfect place for armies to ravage for economic gain."

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    2. Funny thing, I'm exactly the opposite - I rarely finish games because once I've seen everything the game has to offer mechanically, it just gets too repetitive and boring. Come to think of it, that might be the reason I like puzzle-heavy games so much: each new puzzle invokes a different logic/mechanic (if they are designed well that is), which keeps things fresh.

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  4. I've always had troubles getting money in these games at first, but after a while you get so much of it you can't carry it all!

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    1. "A while" being the first map.

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    2. I thought this one did the economy very well. Yeah, by the end you'll probably be dumping cash on those arrows after getting everyone gloves of dexterity, but it takes quite a while. Particularly pleasing is how slowly the magic items are doled out. Finding a new magical item almost never gets old in this game, and there's a truly difficult choice to be made whether or not to cash in that ring of protection, +2. They're borderline stingy with the magic, but I think it works really well. It's satisfying when you can upgrade.

      Particularly when coupled with the margoyles. Juggling a dagger +1 instead of a non-magical long sword is an interesting situation, in my book. I do think I remember having more than one magical weapon before facing them, though, so there might also be an issue of which order you face things. It may be worth visiting Amanitas for nudges as to which quests to attempt first.

      That said, one of the negatives for me when playing this game is I often felt like I didn't really know where to go next. Maybe I glossed over some things, but the initial "magical investigations" from Amanitas were completely unintelligible to me. I ended up just flipping through the cluebook to see what cities came in which order, but always had an uneasy sense that there should have been a slightly clearer path than I got. I'm still not sure if I just didn't take notes well enough, or if they didn't put the hints together well enough, or if "go talk to Amanitas" was really supposed to sum up most of the guidance.

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    3. "I leave you on the streets of Luskan. I keep getting into battles with margoyles, but they only respond to magic weapons and I only have one of these in my party, making me think I perhaps should have gone in a different direction first. I just had to reload after two of my characters were killed by said margoyles--I don't have enough money for resurrection. Maybe I just need to head back to Silverymoon and spend some money on +1 daggers."

      Chet, I think you missed the +1 Battle Axes for sale in Neverwinter.

      Lets you kit out any fighters or thieves without +1 weapons, with one. By this point you should have had a +1 mace from an earlier combat. That, plus the Axes should have made the Margoyles a non-issue.

      Those axes are cheap enough that you can buy 3-4 if needed.

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  5. Would it be a spoiler to confirm or deny this statement:

    "I wonder if it makes sense to try to systematically explore them all, or if this game is more like Champions of Krynn where the outdoor map is kind of pointless and all the useful locations are clearly annotated."

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    1. I already posted a ROT13 message about it, but I don't think Chet read it.

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    2. I just did. Thanks. Sounds like I'd better just stick to the roads, then. That's disappointing.

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    3. Pools of Darkness will make up for it. I promise!

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  6. Ooh, selling a +2 ring of protection for CASH? That's going to hurt the whole game. That item is viable to the endgame and can be shifted around to whoever needs it most.

    Yeah, the plots of these games always seemed overly contrived and not really well-thought out. I mean, it's cool that you get to be in the middle of an evil vs. evil fight, but the whole thing sounds like it was slapped together by someone who didn't know and didn't care about if it sounded good or not. I never paid the plots much attention, honestly. I liked to play the game.

    All right! I forgot they actually used the time mechanic of Goldbox in this game! Cool! I mean, why else did they even include it! Too bad the actual effect is to just make you rest until the day comes up.

    Wha...white flight? I think that's just psychological projection there.

    The "Fight/Leave" problem is because by this point Goldbox developers had apparently forgotten that "Parlay" and Charisma could be a part of monster encounters. Or they just didn't care.

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    1. "Wha...white flight? I think that's just psychological projection there." Oh, come on. "All the good people fled the inner city and monsters have taken over. We tried revitalizing it to bring them back, but the monsters ruined that, too." There's no way that wasn't supposed to be some kind of allegory.

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    2. As for the ring, that was probably a stupid decision, but I don't micromanage the party that closely anyway. I would have given it to my lowest-AC character, my mage, who rarely engages in melee combat.

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    3. I suspect Chet is on the money, writers in the fantasy genre often use the 'monster races' as vehicles for talking about racism, and they do it all the time in the D&D settings, most famously with Drizzt. Even the PHBs talk about how half-elves don't fit-in and how this influences their character, or how half-orcs are consistently faced with discrimination.

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    4. It's because you're constantly thinking about it, all the time, and your brain will find ways to cram it in to whatever you're experiencing. It's a common affliction. For example, a person who is rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude.

      "I don't really know what point the writers were trying to make by tying a similar scenario to Neverwinter"

      I think they were just trying to make a quest in the city where you could clear out an infested area. It's not exactly an uncommon plot. But I suppose to today's mind, everything is all about race all the time.

      Yes the ring +2 will end up with a mage who has crappy saving throws and AC. It'll be missed, but not decisively so. It's just that Goldbox games don't give you many magic items at the beginning that will last for the whole game. You get to upgrade most of them.

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    5. No, I think Chet's suspicion is right. Even if you were willing to give the developers a pass on renaming themselves "Stormfront" later on in 1991, just check out the acronym on that garden society. Go on, I'll wait while you scroll up and check it out.

      Hmm. How very convenient.

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    6. Thank you, anonymous, for the not-so-subtle suggestion that I myself am racist. It would have been better saved for a time in which I was actually accusing someone else of being racist. I'm not doing that here. I'm not accusing the developers of anything. I'm just suggesting that in setting the backstory for Neverwinter, they drew some fairly obvious parallels with things happening in many major American cities of the time.

      In fact, now that I see where Beyond/Stormfront was headquartered, I'm even more certain. The developers' primary inspiration was San Francisco (a stone's throw from the developers' offices), which saw rapid depopulation of its crime-ridden urban core in the 1970s and 1980s. To attract residents back to the city, the city invested heavily in public parks, which then became havens for drug dealing and crime. The situation didn't really turn around until the technology boom of the 1990s. If you can't see the clear parallels there, I guess there's no point in continuing the discussion.

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    7. Selling the +2 ring is necessary if you ask me. I got tired to collecting long swords and leather armor to get cash. Leveling is the most expensive, yet necessary thing in the game.

      The plot is underwhelming to me, but then again it kept reminding me of Get Smart, except you are fighting the Kraken rather than Kaos or Johnny Stingray or some such. At least in Secret there was a reason the big bad did not squash you at the start, he was frozen in ice. In Curse, the big bad was using you, so it was in his interest that you succeed. In Pool, the big bad seems too busy with other problems to notice you.

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    8. Anonymous accuses Chet of projecting, of making everything about race... and the only one doing THAT is Anonymous, who can't see his OWN projecting :) Now THAT is classic :)

      I should try running one of the Gold Box games on my channel. Hmmm... I think I like the idea! Tho I've seemingly changed from a GAMING channel to a KPOP REACTION channel. How did THAT happen?? Oh well- 16k+ subscribers later, I have no complaints at ALL! :)

      You are clear and clever and right on the money Chet. The parallels are SO obvious it isn't even funny.

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    9. Subtext is a real thing, who would have thought.

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    10. I'm more inclined to think the developers just weren't paying attention to this stuff. Stormfront the white nationalist site wasn't even open to the public until 1994.

      I mean, they have to have an excuse for fighting monsters in the city. The particular metaphor might have been vaguely affected by stuff going on at the time...or they might have wanted an excuse to use the walls with vines on them. We're pattern-finding creatures, so we tend to find meaning where none exists.

      Heck, you can see Pool of Radiance as justifying neocolonialism and fascism...you're ethnically cleansing the orcs and goblins to create Lebensraum for your mostly-human party. I doubt the designers had that in mind.

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    11. @William - Wow! Sounds like you're on the way to financial freedom soon. I dunno how many guys can say they're earning money just by watching sexy Korean ladies.

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    12. A pretty important step in analysis/theory is acknowledging that not all artistic choices are conscious.

      "Heck, you can see Pool of Radiance as justifying neocolonialism and fascism...you're ethnically cleansing the orcs and goblins to create Lebensraum for your mostly-human party."

      If all signs point to yes, but the developer says no... that just means no? Any evidence to the contrary is irrelevant because the developers deny it or didn't intend it? I would suggest taking a look at the acronym that anon above pointed out. I would say what it was to help prove my point if I wasn't so thoroughly disgusted.

      The reason CRAZY SJW LIBS keep "cramming race down everyone's throats" is that when something is staring you straight in the face it's usually still ignored (not specifically you, Null Null.)

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  7. You've already touched a few of the things that I dislike about these games. As was pointed out above, there is literally no incentive to explore the wilderness. Boo. Exploring is a big joy of these games.

    The plot of this game had potential (the party gets witlessly drawn into a conflict between two rival factions of which they understand nothing). but all too soon, it's just generic RPG stuff. You need to collect all the Very Important Things and take them to the Very Important Place before the Bad Guy (black cloak, excessively arrogant, misses numerous opportunities to crush you like a bug) completes his Audacious Plan... etc.

    That said, this game does try to show local colour more than most, which makes a change from some of the tedium of generic towns. But I do wish like so many Gold Box games that they put just a bit more effort into it. So many of these games seem like they were rushed - the giant virtually empty bonus dungeons in Curse, the huge sprawling mines and glaciers in Secret with nothing but endless random encounters, the oddly stilted descriptions in much of Death Knights. And as you say, the generic taverns (you couldn't come up with some Tavern Tales?) and the fact that your help in places like Neverwinter and Port Llast is never acknowledged is annoying. So many of these games strike me as good games that could have been great.

    One thing that I should have a shout out to, mind you, is the fact that I really like the tougher monsters in the beginning - it forces you to use strategy that you otherwise wouldn't have to. Also: no half hour random encounters with 70 kobolds and thank heavens for that.

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    1. I actually don't mind a 30-minute battle now and then. The kobold caves in Pool provided the highlight of the entire series, in my opinion. But obviously this needs to be balanced with shorter combats against harder foes in smaller groups.

      Anyway, I agree: a mixed bag so far. We'll see how it develops.

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    2. That was a great battle. It was the generic random encounters that would slay me. And I was playing on the glacially slow C64 version. In retrospect, it was a miracle I had the patience to finish the game to begin with!

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  8. Looked through the comments on your previous Gold Box exploits and haven't seen this mentioned yet RE: crap economy (but forgive me if it has already) 1st edition AD&D gives you 1xp per 1gp value of loot discovered, i bet if you painstakingly calculated it out 50% or more of xp form your average Gold Box would come from treasure. How many times (the grain chucking trolls in POR come to mind) have you fought a battle where you get the xp and standard loot at the end of the fight, followed by the special loot and a whole new wad of xp immediately after?

    Just guessing here, but Beyond may have squared the circle here by picking monsters that don't have large treasure tables, or maybe their treasure is supposed to be in a lair like dragons. To quote you "...but ankhegs, trolls, ettins, giant snakes, owlbears, and manticores aren't exactly common in the earlier games." Most of these don't strike me as the kind of critters to be carrying around lots of cash, but maybe someone with a bigger 1st edition beard could correct me on this.

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    1. It's hardly a surprise they dramatically scaled down the treasure experience rewards in future editions of AD&D. In Gold Box games, a piece of jewellery is worth 1750XP. It beggars belief that finding a diamond is roughly the same as slaying a dragon. After all, that means in the AD&D universe, gem traders and miners would be demigods.

      Certain monsters in Gateway give an absolutely baffling and confusing array of treasure. Suffice to say, the economy does break in this game, as it always eventually does - it just takes longer!

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    2. It does seem strange that XP can be gained simply by finding treasure but the Gygax and his pals saw it as a reward for solving logistical problems. Treasure didn't grant XP until it was brought back to town or a stronghold. It also depends vitally on encumbrance rules being in effect. Players were expected to hire laborers and pack animals to lug the loot up and out of the dungeon. You had to pay for food, water, people, animals, carts, sacks and so on. A party who knew how to move a literal ton of gold was worthy of a level boost. Players who didn't want to work smart lost out. At least in Gygax's games they did. Almost every group I played with or when I asked other players, encumbrance rules were glossed over. DMs tended to hand out bags of holding like they were mass produced, magic users found scrolls of "teleport a boatload of gold" like stack of old newspapers or jewelry was so obscenely valuable that the players got a million XP from a single jewel encrusted magic tiara.
      The gold box games had some encumbrance rules and the logistics of setting up your own high fantasy UPS was never even considered.

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    3. People have explained the official D&D rules a billion times. The conversation always goes like this:

      THEM: SSI was just following D&Ds rules for treasure/experience.

      ME: They shouldn't have done that. They should have designed a system that worked better for a computer game, creating both balanced economy and character development.

      THEM: But they had to! They were contractually obligated to follow TSR's rules!

      ME: I don't really care whose fault it is. The result is a bad game. Explaining how the resulting bad game happened doesn't excuse it.

      THEM: But D&D rules say that....

      ME: (Sigh)

      My point here is that it feels like the developers of this game were able to get a little more flexibility with the D&D rules. I don't know for sure. It just seems like monsters are providing a bit more experience than they did in Pool of Radiance and in consequence there are fewer big treasure hauls.

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    4. I don't think that being very poor is better than being very rich. In the first case, gold is pointless, in Savage Frontier, experience is. I don't see an advantage in either, both is wasted potential.

      Also, not getting item upgrades at all isn't really that interesting, there's missing a lot of possible progress.

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    5. I don't think being "very" anything is good. Obviously, a balanced economy is best. But if I had to choose between the two, I would rather be very poor and enjoy the challenge of managing scarce resources.

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    6. I know you've probably been over this, but the point of most early CRPGs was to play D&D on your computer. The influence is obvious. These guys loved D&D and fidelity to the rules was a selling point. Later on, people started to think about how to adapt to the medium. Film started off by filming plays until guys like Orson Welles did things like move the cameras up and down and take close-ups.

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    7. 'My point here is that it feels like the developers of this game were able to get a little more flexibility with the D&D rules.'

      Well, all that about licence requirements is undoubtedly true, however I don't think it is the real, or rather full, reason for things being the way they are. Bear in mind that this is a game from early 90's and in the first wave of official AD&D products. Game design as a fine art we know it today simply didn't exist back then. It is not like the devs were FORCED to tie gold/exp rewards together. More likely they didn't CARE enough to do things their way.
      Considering all that it is even more amazing how PoR managed to get everything just right and create a game that stands the test of time even after all these years.

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    8. They could also have used some of the tricks Gygax did: Give out large amounts of your cash in silver and copper, enforce encumbrance, force you to convert your money to gems at a loss to carry it with you, have consulting expensive sages to identify items, and don't have shops with unlimited gold will to buy anything.

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  9. Unfortunately you broke the series of events, by exploring Everlund too soon. You are meant to find and free Erek in Silverymoon (blond viking), who helps you free Amanitas.

    All the towns have indications of side quests, which can never even be completed. Just another sign of the game been incomplete.

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    1. When I first played, I would hit Silverymoon without finding Erek, yet later finding Amanitas. This game hovers between linearity and non-linearty.

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  10. With regard to your opening comment, I'm a neuroscientist who did a major review of the video gaming literature for my PhD back in about 2007-9. I've never heard of a study that claims anything like what you describe. If such a study exists, I'd be extremely interested in knowing what it is.

    There is, however, a quite large literature about the general effects of practice. Once you become familiar (or even overtrained) in a given activity, whether dance, music etc, the areas of the brain that are activated by the activity are vastly different from naive or non-experts, but neither look like activation patterns of a sleeping person.

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    1. Even if it's not entirely accurate from a psychological standpoint, I certainly know how Chet feels. When I'm in the mood for a game, I very frequently stare at my library for a while, weigh the benefits of trying some game I haven't played yet that might take a while to learn against the benefits of an old favorite that has no surprises but I already know well, and ultimately go for the old favorite. There's a definite cost to learning how to play a new game (or re-learning one that you haven't played in too long). Sometimes just the thought of having to open up a manual and juggle that against a game window makes it too daunting. (Boy, I miss the days of printed manuals; I guess I ought to print my own from the PDF, but man, that feels wasteful.)

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    2. It's the same reason some people regularly re-read books - there's a pleasing sense of familiarity, you know where you stand.

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    3. Strangely, I think it applies to some people only. I personally prefer something new and interesting. Tried and tested becomes "good enough" for me after a while.

      Then again, could be just me. I can't bring myself to replay Skyrim or Fallout 3 after I beat the game. I know there are many different ways to beat these games but I know for certain that I would inevitably play the same way I did the first time round because of my own self-righteous principles or play-style (I can't shoot straight for sh!t so I go all-out melee and explosives) that nets most results in combat.

      Also, with my completionist attitude, one playthrough would have cleared at least 85% of the game.

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  11. Chet, did you read Jane McGonigal's 'Reality is Broken' , or an article drawn from it? It's drawing on sports psychology and talks about stimulation in learning phases / 'flow' states ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology ) once players acquire some mastery. I don't remember whether it dealt in the objective/neurological side of it, though.

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  12. Bad case of nostalgia, just saw that the gold box games are available on gog fir mac as well. What to do? Play the full Realms pack ("the classics" plus Savage Frontier series which I never played as dar as I remember or go for the Krynn one? (better engine, viable non human level limits...) Decisions, decisions, grim and ruthless decisions... And before someone says "both": available time is not what it used to be in those days. Might actually speak for Krynn since it's only 3 games.

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    1. I really understand your groove point now. Fired up Champions yesterday and even though I haven't played a gold box game for more than 20 years, I could start immediately and was spot on even in stuff like remembering stinking cloud and fireball AoEs.

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  13. This game is really making me need a Goldbox fix. Maybe this weekend, I will spin up Pools of Darkness....

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  14. "The Neverwinter Indoor Garden Society" - The N.I.G.S.

    Good heavens. This is a little too close for comfort. Did not expect this at all.

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    1. Christ, I didn't notice that. Kind of puts the game in a different light now.

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    2. Despite my belief that there is an allegory going on here, I can't believe this part of it is anything but a coincidence.

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    3. Humiliatingly, I will have to reverse my prior statement. I could write a lot off to coincidence, but--that acronym is awful suspicious. (Come to think of it, there are jokes by townspeople about 'would you let your daughter marry one?' with regard to elves in the leaked online goldbox Neverwinter Nights.)

      Secret racist acronyms in Gateway to the Savage Frontier. Now I'll find out that the Zhentarim were meant to be the Jews or something. I remember thinking 'blue tattoos= concentration camp prisoner tattoos' but wrote it off as a coincidence.

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    4. @Null Null - I highly doubt it's a coincidence.

      There's also the "All Dark-Skins Are Evil" racist allegations for the underground folks like Drows and Svirfneblins. They could have been easily depicted with albino-pale skins, since it's more scientifically appropriate.

      The rubbish explanation that they evolved to have dark skin to blend in the Underdark is absolute hogwash. ALL underground creatures have zero or crap eyesight. Having darker skin will absorb more heat and cause the dark-skinned individuals to pop out more significantly to the other Underdark denizens through their other more developed senses.

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    5. OTOH, maybe it was not part of a racist conspiracy, but Drow/Dark Elves and Svirfneblins were based on the "Svartalfar" from the Prose Edda.

      Also, do people look extra carefully for racism because the developers were called Stormfront? When I replayed the game a few years ago I thought the name was off, but since it predated the White Sumpremacy group I didn't think more of it.

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    6. You don't think the group was actually a bunch of fanboys of this studio?

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    7. I'm just going to reiterate that I think the acronym was a coincidence, and of course there's no relationship between the studio and the white supremacist group. I realize what other people are saying here, but I never thought that the depictions in the game were racist or a racial allegory; I think they were an URBAN allegory, specifically based on San Francisco, but there's nothing wrong with just making the allegory.

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    8. Wow, wrote a comment above before seeing this part of the conversation- glad to see you agree Null Null, just want to say again my comment wasn't aimed at you, just people who INSIST that there's never any problems, and everything is hunky-dory when there are obviously some serious issues. I used your quote just for the art criticism aspect. And I can understand, Chet, why you would think it was a coincidence, but I think that's your better nature assuming some decency from people. I tend to believe, at least when it comes to human expression, that there's no such thing as coincidence. There's plenty here to suggest a negative political bent.

      There's a theory that myths were created as a way of unconsciously working through difficult outstanding questions, specifically "where do we come from?", and that today, genre storytelling (fantasy, sci-fi, westerns) serve that function for us. I've been thinking a lot about how D+D functions as a myth-making tool, and how it has become a way to explore a lot of different things with its different universes. In terms of the question "where does western society come from?" it's not surprising that so much of D+D reflects colonialism, and that racists might find some refuge in it...

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  15. My observations of these parts of the game, with the party I'm using to play through again (with an Elf Mage/Thief instead of a Dwarf Fighter/Thief):

    - I used a different option to gather some early-game training money than the trolls in Nesme: battles against lizard men in Silverymoon. The warehouses in the center of Silverymoon serve up seemingly never-ending battles against small groups of wandering lizard men, each of which provides around 100 to 150 gold (more if you gather up and sell their swords and shields). Lizard men are vulnerable to Sleep and are much simpler to defeat than trolls, and don't serve up enough experience to threaten premature achievement of level caps. It's also more convenient than in Nesme because Silverymoon is a full-service town, with both shops and a training hall. I spent some time here, both before and after Everlund, to get the funds needed to train characters (without having to sell the ring of protection +2).

    - I had my first full-party wipe in the "undead" section of Everlund, against a pack of ghouls that acted before my clerics and promptly paralyzed and slew most of my party. I tried the battle again - this time with things like Bless and Protection from Evil active - but more importantly, one of my clerics acted earlier and managed to turn almost all of them. Doesn't seem to be any point to the battle (or the entire "undead" section, for that matter) even if you win it.

    - Neverwinter has another magic shop that sells different items than in Silverymoon. Another commenter mentioned the +1 battle axes for sale there; I was more intrigued by the magic-user scrolls for sale that mage characters can use to fill out their spell books. The most expensive has the level 3 spells of Lightning Bolt, Dispel Magic, and Haste. The developers clearly knew every mage immediately takes Fireball as soon as they reach level 5.

    - Reading the clue book about Neverwinter after having passed it, apparently the manticore/displacer beast battles in the gardens are the result of Zhentarim releasing them there. If you fight several such random battles the last one includes a Zhentarim fighter to suggest this. I didn't bother and there doesn't seem much of a point to doing so.

    - I had two reloads against the Hosttower mage/undead battle in Port Llast. The first time, again, the ghouls acted before my clerics and I had almost everybody paralyzed and quickly dead. (Not my mage/thief - apparently elves resist ghoul paralysis - but there wasn't much he could do on his own.) The second time one of the mages squeezed off a spell before I could damage him, which to my shock was Lightning Bolt, which they bounced off a wall to hit my own mage twice and kill her outright. The third time? We got better initiative rolls and managed to turn the undead/incapacitate the mages before they could ruin our day. I also threw Invisibility on one of my clerics before the fight to keep them both from getting paralyzed early. (In hindsight, I probably should have done that to protect my mage as well.)

    - As my thief/magic-user doesn't really need Magic Missile (he does fine with his short bow), I've been having him as a dedicated Enlarge caster with Charm Person as backup. It's worked out well, especially for buffing my clerics. Charm Person is handy even when the charmed monster can't really contribute offensively (like charming a pirate who then beats on margoyles ineffectually with his non-magical weapon); it ties up the non-charmed enemies for a while as well, as they waste their time fighting their charmed erstwhile ally.

    - The level 2 cleric spell "Spiritual Hammer" conjures a, well, Spiritual Hammer weapon that sits in the caster's inventory for a few rounds and can be equipped. It functions as a hammer +1. Basically obsolete once all your clerics have maces +1, but my second cleric (the one without the mace +1 from Nesme) got mileage out of it for a while against margoyles.

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    1. I'm really enjoying your complementary take. Please keep doing this.

      Somehow it never occurred to me to summon "Spiritual Hammers" for the margoyle battles. That would have been one of the few times in the GB series that the spell is useful.

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