Sunday, October 9, 2016

Pools of Darkness: In Demonem

Getting to this combat with Tanetal was a lot of trouble.
    
Well, my visceral reaction to the whole Moander experience was justified, and though my memory was short on facts, it was perfectly accurate in how I felt about the map. It was probably the most annoying quest in the entire Gold Box series, and it featured a new entry in my list of "most annoying enemies": Bits O Moander. 

The area required me to explore little tunnels and crevices leading into the body of the dead (or at least dormant) god Moander, with the wall textures consequently made to look like flesh and blood vessels and such. (This is the second game, after Mandragore, in which you adventure inside a planar being.) Some of the entrances were in obvious places, like the mouth and a big hole in his chest, but others aren't visible from the overland map (like the little farmhouses and whatnot on the main map), so you have to systematically explore the whole thing. This is harder than on the overland map because of all the gaps created by Moander's limbs.
    
Ugh. I suppose.
   
Every 6-10 steps, you hit a random encounter and end up unable to flee about 50% of them. Most are, inevitably, with "Bits o Moander," which are completely immune to fire damage, highly resistant to most other spells, and resistant to physical damage. They respond about 30% of the time to "Hold Person," but you only have so many of those. With the substandard weapons that you have to loot on the planes, it takes forever to whittle down their hit points. In the meantime, they do something like 3d12 with each of their two physical attacks per round, and various bits are capable of stoning, poisoning, or suffocating your characters. Not to mention, it pisses you off just to look at their stupid faces.
   
Exhibit A.
   
In addition to the Bits o Moander, you face dozens and dozens of cultists, each capable of casting Level 6 cleric spells, and every damned one of them leads off with "Blade Barrier," casting it any place they can, hitting some characters multiple times per round and royally screwing up the battlefield. 
    
Exhibit B.
    
Compounding all of this: there are almost no places to rest without returning through the Pool of Darkness to limbo.

Winning the map meant wading through all the random combats to explore about half a dozen sub-areas, then finishing up at Moander's heart. The mini-maps found on Moander's body include:

  • On his foot, a set of caves occupied by cultists doing unspeakable things to human slaves. You free them and get some weapons and armor.
  • On his arm, a gash that you can enter and kill a bunch of mages who are animating pieces of Moander's flesh. A guy named Aeghwaet, who says he's been living in the caves for 3,500 years, gives you a couple of potions if you clear the caves. These are later necessary to enter the heart.
    
    
  • An old hermit living in his ear that will train you if you clean out some marauding pieces of Moander.
  • A small area accessible through the eye where black mages are attaching some devices to Moander's neurons. Once the mages are cleared out, you can use these to view scenes on other places around the body. None of these helped me.
    
    
  • In some caves in the middle of his hair, you rescue a priestess who tells you to drop an "amphora" in his mouth to slow his heart. This becomes important later.
   
I'm not sure why Moander cultists all look like crazy farmers.
   
It all culminates in the heart, perhaps the series' most annoying map. The hallways are veins and aortas, and some of the rooms are atria and ventricles. (Others are somewhat safer inter-muscular spaces). As you explore, the heart goes "dub" and "thub" or whatever, and if you're caught in the blood vessels when it happens, you get tossed around and dumped into one of the chambers.

In addition to Bane's lieutenant, Tanetal, the chambers are occupied by an elven woman who calls herself the Watcher, apparently assigned by some elven council with "the supreme responsibility of keeping Moander forever trapped in this dimension." You have to do a series of things with the Watcher, but she keeps moving around the heart, so you never know exactly where to find her.
    
My map of Moander's heart. Several of the vessels "cross" at certain points, making it hard to map. "D" is all the places that I found the Watcher. I had to explore some of them multiple times.
    
As you bumble about, trying to find the Watcher, trying to map the heart, trying to make any progress, getting tossed this way and that by thubs and lubs, you occasionally get attacked by Tanetal's minions. A typical party might consist of 250 Bits o Moander and 97 iron golems. Okay, I guess that's an exaggeration, but it doesn't feel like an exaggeration. I had single combats--random combats, you understand--deplete every cold-based spell, "Haste," and "Magic Missile" that I could summon. Four or five times, I got almost to the end of combat only to have someone get killed at the last second. I did quite a bit of save-scumming in this map.
    
This was a random combat.
    
Given all this, you can imagine how excited I was when Tanetal finally attacked me himself, and I was able to kill him within a couple of rounds. Then, post-combat, his body "decayed into bits of Moander" and was thus revealed to be a fake. This happened like 5 times.
    
Oh, go to hell.
    
I don't feel like describing and can't really understand all the different things I had to do for the Watcher and why some of them sped up Moander's heart, creating more dubs and thubs, and others slowed it down. I'm not sure why my weapons got magnetized at one point, but whatever. The ultimate goal was to part the real Tanetal from his Talisman of Bane. I had to do this by creating an eletrical spark inside the ventricle where Tanetal was hiding out, causing the heart to contract and send Tanetal careening through blood vessels, during which I guess he lost his grip on the Talisman.
    
This is the kind of plot point I'm skipping over here. I lost interest in the details in the third or fourth hour of the same map.
    
I then had to wander around until I found him, at which point he ran off, and then wander around until I found him again, at which point he died of a heart attack, and then the Watcher picked up the Talisman, and then it turned out Tanetal was only pretending to be dead, and then he back-stabbed the Watcher, and then I was able to finally enter combat and kill the bastard for real and get the hell out of there. This one stupid map by itself took me almost 5 hours.
    
I didn't believe this for a second. I wish the game had just given me the option to chop up his body.
You bet I did.
   
Back in the Realms, there wasn't much left to do. The next visible location was the city of Mulmaster--way on the southwest side of the Moonsea region. On the way there, I found a couple more farmhouses and such, but nothing particularly worth recounting. I went past Mulmaster and made sure there was nothing to its east, up in the hills, but I didn't find anything. This suggests Mulmaster leads to the final areas.
    
That's racist.
    
I don't know if Moander's area is really objectively "bad." It offered a new and different sort of challenge for a Gold Box veteran, which I should praise. On the other hand, after 8 titles in the same engine, you get used to a certain set of rules and it's a bit jarring when the game breaks them. I'm curious what other Pools of Darkness players think about this area; it's bound to be controversial, at least.

Some miscellaneous notes:

  • The "Aieee!" sound that enemies make upon death is so annoying that I've been playing mostly with the sound off.
  • On returning to Zhentil Keep, I got this encounter even though I'd already dealt with Manshoon and the Drow. Usually, the series does a better job reflecting the current reality.
    
    
  • After this session, I had to quaff enough Elixirs of Youth to get my characters back down to age 25 from almost 50. The expense is still trivial, but having to sell gems one-by-one is getting old.

A fairly short posting for a very long, annoying gameplay. Most of my characters are in the mid- to high 30s for their levels now. I hope the final areas don't stretch on too long. Man, look at that reload count below. That's so embarrassing that I think I might stop including it entirely.


Time so far: 42 hours
Reload count: 50

53 comments:

  1. As I said earlier the whole Moander dimension is the area I dread the most in all the Gold Box games, mainly due to the random encounters with insane amounts of Hit Point sponges.

    And mucking about in the Heart is frustrating as hell when you risk random encounters that are more difficult than most boss fights.

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    1. That really is the issue. I might have taken the time to value the unusual terrain and plot more if I wasn't constantly terrified of getting launched into a 2-hour battle with Moander bits.

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    2. The Moander map really is one of the most iconic features of the series. I don't remember much of the game as such but I certainly knew this part. Actually the feeling of achievement was so great at the time that I thought it was the end of the game when you started the post on PoD.

      I don't really remember the real final fight at the moment, let's see what comes back when you post about it.

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    3. I remember flying fortresses, saurian paladins, silver ladies, azure bonds and (of course) trolls playing skull-ball...and I remember Moander, curse him. After a while I was so angry with him I used some obscure cheat I found on a PC magazine on him and tended to yell things like "take THAT, you bastard" at the C64 screen. Ah, these were the days.
      Nowadays the same things happen with my sons and WoW-raids (without the cheats).

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  2. Incidentally, the Moander dimension is also one of the reasons why I think that all in all Dark Queen of Krynn is superior to PoD. I prefer Enchanted Draconians to HP Sponges.

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    1. It's fun to watch them go boom.

      That said there is one 'hack': use a single-classed mage and you can gain enough levels to overcome the magic resistance without that much grinding.

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  3. I'll go on the record as actually liking the Moander map, the bit with the heart feels like the first genuine 'puzzle' map in the GB franchise and while the frequency of wandering monsters really should of been dialed down, it was neat to find uses for those lower level spells that normally don't see the light of day.

    Going through 1st ed. lore, it seems like Tanetal was originally meant to be fought before Kalistes. Tanetal is a 'Type III' demon, Kalistes is 'Type V' and Gothmenes is 'Type VI', you can see this order in the intro, left-to-right with mortal Thorne being the weakest of the crew.

    Perhaps mid-way through the designers felt that the 'puzzle' aspects of the heart were too difficult to be #2 in sequence and reordered the intended sequence while cranking the random encounter nob to 11 to compensate?

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    1. Perhaps. I can't argue with people who like the map. It's original. Although I wish the plot had been a little clearer. I don't understand why a tuning fork exposes the "fake" Tanetals, for instance.

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    2. I think that Tanetal can mould the flesh of Moandar and thus makes copies of himself. The Watcher's fork causes vibrations to break these copies apart. I do not understand it myself. I am not a biologist. I would think that Moandar's body would react against Tanetal, the hermit, the cultists and everything living in or on his flesh.

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  4. Tanetal, not Tarental, incidentally.

    I don't remember finding that area all that annoying, but it was a long time ago when I last played it.

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  5. I think the reload count says a lot about the approach to game design.

    This particular entry, more than any other game in the GB series we've encountered so far, really seems to push save-scumming.

    I find it a bit hard to enjoy RPGs when they do that. I want to feel like there's an avenue to avoid death with a bit of skill and care. I like games where I can leg it if things start going south. There's just a bit too much instant death in goldbox and a few too many combats that just kill you unless you know in advance that they're there.

    I think Pool of Radiance was a bit more fair in this regard. I cleared 6 or 7 maps without a reload last time I played, before getting careless and succumbing to some driders in the wilderness - largely in part to the fact that few of your enemies have hold person!

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    1. Well, the reload count would be about half that or less if I hadn't gotten it into my head that "Restoration" subtracts a point of constitution.

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  6. Chet, you hit all the right points, although I found you could rest in the ear, after encountering the hermit, or the arm, after helping the potion guy.

    The random encounters on the body were nothing bad, but the heart was another matter. I usually reloaded when I got the 97 bits of Moandar and 13 Large Iron Golem random combat.

    I do not understand why the Cultists are working with Tanetal? Would they not object to seeing their god being sliced up for monster fodder?

    I still like this part of POD than the other bits. At least the Bits of Moandar are not casting 19 confusion and hold spells like the Drow were doing. Since the hermit originally attacks you with Bits, I was hoping he could loan me some!

    In the end, I can say that I too had many a retreat and reload from the heart. You can rest in the wound next to the heart. I wonder about the Watcher. Since Tanetal killed her, I wonder who now oversees Moandar's floating body?

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  7. Aren't there Wands of Defoliation you can use to decimate the Moander bits? I don't remember very clearly...

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    1. There was only one in Curse and if I remember correctly it wasn't transferred over to Secret. It only affects a very small area and doesn't do a lot of damage anyway, so spells like Cone of Cold are vastly superior at this level.

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    2. Theoretically you could try to launder it through Curse to Gateway, Treasures, and Pools. I doubt it would work though.

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  8. A creative and interesting realm ruined by dumb encounter design and frequency. A pity. Well at least it's over, with all artifacts in your possession now. Time for the endgame and the infamous final combats! :)

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    1. That's a good summary of it. As I say above, I might have liked it better if I wasn't constantly dreading the next random combat.

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  10. Personally, I love the Moander dimension.
    I'll admit though that this is probably the most annoying portion of any Gold Box game, but I find that SSI somehow managed to keep it fun: The location is delightfully non-standard, the npcs are weird and the battles tactically challenging. The heart map in particular. Those random encounters are the meat of this section. I usually need 2-3 hours for it, in contrast to rushing through almost every other standard Gold Box map.
    After having played this many times you'll may discover some ways to tweak the difficulty, especially the resting problem. All in all, Moander IMHO is a highlight and the game (and the series) would be poorer without it.

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    1. Same for me as Doc Pirx and Wonko, I liked Moander. It is such a strange and non-standard place that its really adds a new experience to the game. The other dimensions are just an obvious excuse to increase the difficulty by relieving the party of its best equipment. Apart from this they are just maps that could by anything anywhwere. Moander is different and the only dimension where I did not feel tricked by the game designers.

      As for the reload count, don't worry. I think I hit 50 alone in the final fight with my somewhat undergrinded, non-multiclassed party. THAT was an exercise in masochism.

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    2. Let's not forget that a selling point for games in this period was "XXX hours to finish!!" This unfortunately also included the practice of creating artificial difficulty in CRPGs of this era. But for the consumer this did mean an extra day or two of grinding, or "extra gameplay," which people didn't mind because you weren't inundated by hundreds of options daily.

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  11. Sounds like you had a rough time in that final area of the corpse dungeon. Madness makes the Heart Moander, I guess.

    It's surreal hearing about how high level your party is. Characters are supposed to be able to move mountains at level 20 and above, but I guess that was something they tweaked in later D&D editions.

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  12. I hated the Moander part, and thought this whole game was an incompetently balanced mess. It will be interesting for me to see how this game's GIMLET stacks up to the others in the series.

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  13. Elminster has 35/29 overall in the D&D 3.0/2E FR campaign setting, the Simbul 32/30, Szass Tam 29/29 - by comparison Manshoon a meagre 25/19. Eltab, a tanar'ri abyssal lord and pretty much a demi god has 37hd = about level 37. Everything beyond level 30 was insane in 2e and 3/3.5. When I played D&D we usually retired the characters at levels 18-20.

    Oh, don't ask why I still have got all that stuff.....

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    1. Should have been a reply to Mento.

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  14. I got frustated with this map, when I played PoD the first time. But that was mainly, because I couldn't manage to finish it, even after consulting several walkthroughs. Don't know, if I was too dumb then or you can make a mistake which prevents you from solving it. I tried to solve anything else and gain XP. In the end I did not finish the game, but had several dual class characters at levels 39/40! :)

    All the other times I later played PoD, I had no major problems here and actually enjoyed the fights. I loved that you had to get creative with the fights in here.

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  15. I always wondered why the Moandar cultists tolerated Bane's people sawing up their god for monster parts? This would have made a good roleplaying opportunity.

    You can rest in the ear and arm wound, after you make friends with the denizens of those locations. The ear was my main base, since it was close to other key locations. Monster Summoning got me two Bits, but it would have been nice to have summoned some Large Iron Golems and a few cultists to boot.

    I like the Bits of Moandar. They don't cast spells and have magic resistance only to specific spells. If there is distance between us at start, I can use blade barrier to narrow their access to my lines. If I can hold a line, I can win a battle, but sometimes the cost is high and I admit to reloading a couple of times when a random battle brought 24 bits of Moandar and 6 Iron Golems and 3 or so Fire Elementals. In the end, I find the Moandar adventure to be fun, compared to the Drow.

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    1. Huh. I must have tried to rest in the ear before completing the quest there, and after that I just assumed I couldn't rest there. That would have made the rest of the map a bit easier.

      See, those kinds of tactics are what I enjoy about the Gold Box engine--just not for 20 combats in a row.

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    2. I think that all of Pools of Darkness imposes a higher tactical challenge. I think this was the first Gold Box game to feature enemies in different groups. Maintaining my line is more difficult and often have to form a circle, like the Old West. I think I buff the party more times in this game than in most other Goldbox games.

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    3. Death Knights of Krynn was first to split up the enemy. I first had this happen to me in the dream battles--I wiped out the few hellhounds I saw and got a surprise from behind...

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  16. I bought the cluebooks for the Pools and Krynn series when I played those games for the first time. The back of the Pools cluebook contains the lines "It's one hard game--and that's why you love it so!", claiming it will 'prevent hair loss'. (So can I sue SSI's heir for my money back?)

    I think, as the last in the series, the game was meant to appeal to diehard fans who had beaten the last three and wanted a challenge. Also I doubt the prejudice against 'savescumming' would have carried over from Rogue; the cluebooks tell you to save and save often. Probably they were expecting people to reload often, and had no compunctions about doing so.

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  17. The Addict reported 21 hours to complete Curse of the Azure Bonds and 31 hours to complete Secret of the Silver Blades. He's already at 42 hours on Pools of Darkness with the final area still to come!

    I'm guessing the increased playtime is partly a matter of more maps and partly a matter of incessant random encounters.

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    1. That 21-hour total for CotAB seems awfully low. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that it's really taken me the equivalent of a full-time work week to get this far in PoD.

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    2. Curse isn't super-long, especially if you skip a lot of the optional dungeons. It also doesn't have a free-roaming wilderness map, so the need to check every square isn't there. You can avoid wilderness encounters altogether once you know the right ways to go.

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    3. Yeah, the lack of a need to "lawn mow" an overland map, or in the case of PoD.....3 or more overland maps....really cuts down on the overall time commitment on that one.

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    4. Depends what resource you're willing to let yourself take advantage of. I've speedran Pool of Radiance in 7 hours, but you have to really know what you're doing. Technically if you have a properly levelled party transferred in from later, you can walk into the castle and kill Tyranthraxus right away.

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    5. You know Resurrect doesn't make you lose a constitution point now, right?

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    6. Yeah, but it's too late now. I finished the game last week, before everyone clued me in.

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  18. I have a strong memory of that Moander map, but I didn't think I'd played Pools of Darkness and I don't remember the gameplay you describe inside the heart. I wonder if my memory's playing tricks on me...

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    1. I haven't played Pools of Darkness either, but I have a vivid memory of the Moander from a screen-shot in Dragon Magazine. Perhaps you saw it there as well, or in another game mag?

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    2. The Moander wilderness map appeared on the back of the game box and in the ads for Pools of Darkness. It's also the lead image in Computer Gaming World's review. I suspect the SSI marketing team thought it was the best screenshot to use for promotions.

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    3. I wasn't reading Dragon, for sure, but I suppose it's possible I saw it in CGW.

      I might have played this, I suppose, and forgot. I definitely played Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, but I thought I stopped there, and the only high-level Gold Box game I have clear memories of is Dark Queen of Krynn.

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    4. The Moander and Kalistes maps were packaged in with FRUA.

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  19. For most Gold Box maps, methodically visiting every square of the map and dealing with any encounters present essentially results in you finishing the quest. You almost never have to backtrack. Moander's Heart is different, because you do have to backtrack several times--and even worse you often aren't backtracking to a specific spot, but instead re-searching the entire ~256 square map to find the Watcher or Tanetal or something. And that means you're dealing with lots more random encounters than on a typical map. Plus you have the beats of the heart that disrupt those searches. So the overall effect can be really annoying.

    It would have been nice if after defeating some number of random encounters, the frequency would decrease for a while (or stop altogether) )until the monsters re-spawn.

    Interestingly, the cluebook states that if you have an elf in your party they will give you some information about the Watcher's whereabouts.

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    1. In my party, it was the Ranger, who is human, who detected her presence or lack thereof

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  20. Yeah...wow...that area.

    A friend and I blew through most of this game over spring break when we were in Middle School.

    Got through the first few sections with minimal problems. Took a couple of days or so maybe.

    Then we hit Moander.

    And we just hit a wall.

    That whole section is probably among the hardest in any GB game. There's a few sections in DQK that are comparable or worse IMO, but....yeah...it's jarring.

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  21. I like wgen games allow me to explore strant ge alien bodies. I enjoy seeing how developers imagine the biology of strange creaturex s, as in Contra,Earthbound, Abadox, etc.

    Note that this does not apply tl o Ocarina of Time, because that dungeon is bad even for a water level and an escort mission, and the fact the escortee is a fish that is sexually obsessed with your character makes it worse.

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    1. Romantically involved. Nintendo of America we are talking about. Nineties NOA.

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  22. The next visible location was the city of Mulmaster

    Dare we hope for a return encounter with their renowned Beholder Corps?

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  23. A little late to the game (I posted this as well back on the first post), but there is a way to get Vala to stay in the party permanently (I'd call it an exploit however), such that you can then play the rest of the game with seven characters (and a darned good fighter to boot).

    If you also ensure a paladin in the remaining group you have the ability to control her actions too. This makes the rest of the game substantially easier.

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  24. Those Bits O Moander are so naughty.
    Heh... Naughty Bits O Moander.

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  25. Been playing this section for the last couple of days. Even with the cluebook it's been tough, and I'm nearly certain without the cluebook I never would have been able to map and/or figure out what was going on in that section. Even with it I got turned around multiple times, failing to understand the complex layering and constant searching for the next step in the quest progress.

    The wandering encounters in the heart are shockingly hard. I got slaughtered by iron golems a couple of times before starting to figure out tactics. One issue was their immunity to weapons less than +3, when I had 3 characters trying to get by with quarterstaffs +2. Eventually I recognized that I needed to circle up and get more defensive, and also realized that I had some staff slings with a high enough magical bonus.

    On the plus side all characters are dual classed, five of them with some kind of fighter as the initial class, so I think I've got a lot more HP than your crew did. Really helps soak up the hits from the golems, which hit ridiculously hard. In comparison the fire elementals are trivial, and the moander bits aren't too bad as long as there's cone of cold (and two rings of wizardry really help with that--if you have enough insider knowledge to realize you can bring them along).

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