Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Conan: The Nonsectarian

Conan solves his first side-quest.
   
In its opening city, at least, Conan offers a tantalizing taste of something amazing to come in the world of RPGs: A point at which the game world is too large and complex for a single player to reasonably expect to explore in a single game. A world in which a majority of the content is optional but rewards straying from the beaten path. Conan is not quite there: I will eventually hit every building in Shadizar. But it's close. It sets up a dynamic to which we've grown accustomed in recent years, where the character might have a main quest, but he has to pick up its thread within the context of a sprawling metropolis full of shops and fights and NPCs who want you to solve their problems. 

Ultima V and VI also came close, but the Ultima series, for all its strengths, has never really understood the concept of "side quests." So although the player was rewarded for open exploration, those rewards were more thematic and visual than tangible. I think of the completely optional side-dungeon in which it was clear that some miners had died and become undead skeletons. Conan has those types of visual rewards, too--sometimes, it's fun just to see what the interior of a building looks like--but it also has side quests with monetary rewards.
      
The interior visuals in the game are a lot of fun. Note the beckoning prostitute and the drunk passed out on the floor.
     
(The concept of thematic rewards for their own sake is something that we'll have to discuss at more length later. For all the criticism Bethesda gets for plot, dialogue, and role-playing options, I don't think they get enough credit for their attention to world detail. Every building in Fallout 4 has some story to tell through a combination of written notes and visual cues. Even the throw-away wrecks of houses usually have a little vignette or two, such as the skeleton of an owner who drank a few beers before shooting himself in the head, or a fallen tree trunk that caused consistent damage through three stories.)

As I began this last Conan session, I couldn't remember what I was doing. I resisted the temptation to restart and instead scanned through my screenshots of my last session. I was surprised to find much more plot and dialogue than I remembered; I think that during my first session, as eager as I was to figure out the controls, I just screen-shot most of the NPC dialogue and saved it for later.
     
An NPC makes a good point about Conan.
     
It turns out that I received a side-quest mere steps from entering the city: the recovery of the Eye of Sight for the Temple of Crom. The priest of the temple said that the Thieves' Guild had stolen it and sold it to a wealthy merchant in the Merchant's Quarter, in a room accessible only from the roof.
      
This was, alas, not the solution.
     
I found a likely candidate in the area and fiddled with trying to use my rope for a while before realizing that wasn't going to work. The only other option was to use a Teleportation Scroll--I had found one during my looting--which moves you to any position on a small map of the surrounding area. This is definitely something you want to attempt after saving the game, as it's possible to find yourself on a random roof with no way down, except by another scroll, which is a lousy option since they cost over 200 gold pieces each.
      
Using the teleport mini-map to move to a roof.
      
Anyway, I got into the house, defeated a guard, found the gem, and returned it to the Temple of Crom for a 1,000 gold piece reward--significantly more than the 30-50 gold pieces I'd been getting for each successful theft. I have outstanding quests for the Temples of Ishtar and Damballah that I hope pay as well.

I'm trying to avoid spending too much gold until I know what I need for plot purposes, but I did pick up a few "white lotus" potions for healing (health otherwise regenerates very slowly on its own) and a couple more teleportation scrolls. There are some promising-sounding magic items that I might want to buy later. Some merchants sell maps of various areas, but they seem like a bad investment since you can find most key locations just by exploring.
     
One of several magic shops offering useful-but-expensive items.
     
I had long forgotten what exploration pattern I had used in the first session, and I hadn't annotated key locations, so I printed a copy of the game map and started marking each building with various symbols for shops, treasure, entrances to the underground, and special encounters.
    
As I explored the city, I was attacked at irregular intervals by thugs, thieves, and even city guards, each of which requires a different combat style to be effective: thrusting for thugs, swinging for thieves, and chopping for guards.
      
It will be a long while before the word "finesse" enters Conan's vocabulary.
      
Combat in this game is otherwise boring and annoying, and I can't believe Synergistic couldn't come up with a better approach. You just stand there and hold down the "attack" key. Slain foes hardly ever have any valuables, and you don't gain any skill point for battles, so the only reason to fight is that the enemy won't leave you alone until you kill him. Why didn't they make it so Conan's associated weapon skill goes up by 1 point with every victory? Even that small addition--which existed in the two Excalibur games--would make it feel like combat wasn't just a waste of time.
     
Conan exploits a thug's poor pathfinding to avoid a battle.
     
At the beginning of the game, nameless travelers suggested that I seek out the Red Dog Tavern and the master thief, Taurus, who operates independently of the Thieves' Guild. At some point, I got word that Taurus wanted to meet me, as he also opposes Thoth Amon and the Temple of Set. At the tavern, an NPC told me that he lives in Snake Alley near the Inn of the Veils. I thought I'd need to use the underground to reach Snake Alley (an otherwise cordoned section of the northeast), but upon return to the Inn of the Veils, I realized I needed to bribe the innkeeper to give me back-door access to the alley. This was another consequence of me not paying attention to NPCs during the first session. Many of them say something like, "I think I vaguely remember something about that," indicating that they want a bribe to refresh their memory.
       
Refreshing the innkeeper's memory.
      
I found my way to Taurus. In a long speech, he related that he used to be the Thieves' Guild master before Thoth Amon's agents infiltrated the Guild and expelled Taurus. Through some means he didn't expand upon, Taurus thinks he can regain control of the Guild if I can find the Eye of Set, deep within the Temple of Set. I'll have to enter via the city underground, since the main entrance is supposed to be trapped. I'll also need to find some special magic sword to defeat a serpent who guards the gem.
     
Taurus lays it all out.
    
I actually have another reason to enter the Temple of Set, as the priest of the Temple of Ishtar wants me to recover an amulet there. It's worth noting here the eclectic origins of the game's pantheon. Ishtar was a Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility. Set is Egyptian--god of the desert and brother and murderer of Osiris. Crom comes from Crom Cruach, an ancient Irish god whose worship was ended (in legend) when St. Patrick took a sledgehammer to his statue. Other gods mentioned on the game map are Damballah, a spirit associated with Haitian voodoo, and Mitra, from Indian mythology (and origin of the Greco-Roman Mithras). Some Googling confirms that all of them appear in the canonical stories of Conan, although I'm not sure if Howard himself used all of them.
      
An NPC explains the game's approach to religion.
        
One persistent and annoying issue in the game: although it offers redundant use of the keyboard and mouse, occasionally it just stops recognizing the keyboard as a keyboard. Instead--and I never know what brings this on--the arrow keys suddenly start moving the cursor around the screen, instead of moving Conan himself, and the letter keys stop doing anything at all. This would be livable, as the game is 99% controllable with the mouse, but that last 1% involves drawing Conan's sword in combat. The only way to do that is with a keystroke. So whenever this starts happening, maybe once per hour, I have to shut down the game and restart it to get the keyboard working again. Any ideas?

At this point, I'm still having fun systematically exploring each of the buildings on the game map, but fairly soon I'll be transitioning to the underground and the main quest. Although readers will undoubtedly point out that other games did it first in a technical sense, Conan somehow manages to feel closest so far to starting out in Candlekeep or Amn or Megaton and helping various residents with their problems while learning about the game world and getting a bead on the main quest. If only the mechanics of the game, particularly combat, were up to the quality of the game world.

Time so far: 7 hours



41 comments:

  1. Why didn't they make it so Conan's associated weapon skill goes up by 1 point with every victory? Even that small addition--which existed in the two Excalibur games--would make it feel like combat wasn't just a waste of time.

    Maybe it's a cousin to the perennial problem with making games based on Superman -- in other words, Conan is already so powerful in battle that improvement is meaningless.

    (In Superman's case it's that games have to resort to absurd contrivances if they hope to generate any sort of meaningful opposition to such a near-omnipotent character.)

    Really nice to have a July full (so far) of new posts!

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    1. Exactly, Conan is an "overpowered" character. I put that in quotes, because in the stories, he kinda needs to be, to survive all the stuff thrown at him, from giant snakes to lizard men to abnormally large gorillas.

      He's also very well defined, so any RPG character growth has to be necessarily limited.

      Unlike Superman, however, Conan did manage to get a couple decent games, this one and 2004's Conan: The Dark Axe, which I found to be a lot of fun.

      I hear tell the PS3/XBox360 Conan game is also quite good, but since I don't have neither of those consoles, I can't vouch for that.

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    2. This is a young Conan, though, just run from his peasant village.

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  2. "So whenever this starts happening, maybe once per hour, I have to shut down the game and re-start it to get the keyboard working again. Any ideas?"

    The way keyboards work is that the system doesn't constantly check the state of keys, but instead listens for "key down" and "key up" events. It sometimes misses these events and keys either don't register, or (most often the modifier keys: Alt, Shift, Ctrl) get stuck in a depressed state. Hitting them should clear the issue.

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    1. I'm not sure that's the root of the problem. That sounds like something that would affect every application using the keyboard, not just the emulator. I think something is happening in the emulator that convinces it the keyboard is a joystick.

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    2. Could it be due to keyboard layout switching? http://www.dosbox.com/DOSBoxManual.html#Joystick a bit below. It is triggered by various combination of ctrl/alt/shift keys.

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    3. I meant this section: http://www.dosbox.com/DOSBoxManual.html#KeyboardLayout

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    4. Anytime you're doing emulation, timing can get weird, so they could be right. But assuming that your diagnosis is correct, you could try just disabling the joystick in the DOSBox config file.

      "joysticktype=none" should fix it.

      FWIW, I don't see any sign of DOSBox being able to emulate either a joystick or a mouse with the keyboard, at least not without going through the keyboard mapper. Unless your source for the game provided a custom DOSBox keymap config, or you've made one yourself, that's probably not it. And I don't see any way to toggle the behavior; either you would be emulating a keyboard/mouse or not emulating one, although I could be misunderstanding the docs.

      Using the keyboard to simulate a mouse was much more common in the time when Conan was made, so my first guess would be that you're triggering something in the program itself. The dropped modifier key (control, alt, or shift) idea would be a definite possibility.

      Some early PC games used commands like J to toggle the joystick and M to toggle the mouse, although that fell out of style fairly quickly. You could try those too, just in case. You say this game engine comes from a long lineage, and it could have holdover hotkeys like that from its earliest incarnations.

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    5. Often if you alt+tab out of DOSbox, the game will get the alt down signal, but not the alt up signal because the OS has taken focus away from DOSbox by then. Mashing the alt/Ctrl/shift keys therefore really is worth trying when this kind of thing happens.

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    6. From the manual:

      The on-screen sword cursor can be manipulated by the user via mouse, joystick or keyboard. To move the cursor through the keyboard, press and hold down the control key while simultaneously pressing the appropriate direction key.

      So it sounds like Zardas is right. It commonly happens with emulators - the Ctrl down event gets captured by the emulator, but before the key is released the emulator window loses focus and fails to receive the Ctrl up event. Tapping Ctrl again when the emulator has focus should fix it.

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    7. Typically when the arrow keys start controlling the cursor instead of whatever they're supposed control, that means Scroll Lock is on.

      My keyboard doesn't even have a Scroll Lock key and yet several times it's managed to turn itself on somehow. I had to pull up the onscreen keyboard (write "keyboard" at Windows Start to find it) and turn it off there. I think DOSbox has an onscreen keyboard where you can send keypresses to programs.

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    8. Well, it turns out several of you were right. I was able to get it to stop by mashing the RIGHT CTRL key despite the fact that I never use anything but the left CTRL key for CTRL.

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  3. Of the Hyborian gods you mentioned, all of them are in Howard's stories, with tbe possible exception of Damballah, who I'm not sure about. He's definitely mentioned in one of the Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter pastiches though.

    What is a bit iffy is the presence of a temple of Crom. Crom's only worshipped by the Cimmerians, and they really aren't the temple-building sort.

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    1. I think Crom would have hated the idea of temples built to him. As Conan says, Crom hates anyone who calls on him, considering them weaklings, and will respond to prayer with curses (which makes the whole "To hell with you!" scene in the movie kind of silly since he's still praying no matter how he phrases it).

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  4. "The internor visuals in the game are a lot of fun. Note the beckoning prostitute and the drunk passed out on the floor."

    I'm guessing you meant interior or internal. Probably both, haha.

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    1. No matter how much I try to proof each entry, I always miss the captions.

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  5. Conan wasn't a worshipping sort. He didn't fear gods but he certainly wouldn't step in their shadow either. If he ever spoke any of the gods names it was usually as an expletive.

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    1. Yeah. If he's in a temple, it's probably because he's robbing it.

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  6. Oh man- THIS is starting to sound like a game I could get back into! Thank you for not killing your blog and continuing to amuse us with your life :)

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    1. What made you think I was ever considering killing it?

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    2. You can't kill it now, level is too high. Too many hit points, AC too low.

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    3. Plus everyone in the comments keeps throwing buff spells on it.

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    4. I just hit it with a bless myself.

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  7. I played this game back in 93 or 94 while in college. I don't recall ever winning it, but did have fun playing it on my Amiga 500. I think it was one of the last games I played on my Amiga...

    For the record Age of Conan is free to play on Steam, and a lot of fun.

    Looking forward to the end results you have on this game.

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  8. Elder Gods? Is that something Howard had in his books as a nod to his friend's work, or was that added by the game devs as a nod to their friendship?

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    1. Howard made several indirect references to the Cthulu mythos throughout the Conan cannon. The term "elder gods" shows up in at least 2 stories. The closest that I remember off the top of my head is The God in the Bowl (http://conan.wikia.com/wiki/The_God_in_the_Bowl).

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    2. Howard did include a couple of Lovecraft references in his stories.

      I think I remember reading Howard contributed a bit to the Mythos while corresponding with Lovecraft, but don't quote me on that, as I'm not 100% sure.

      I need to re-read my Howard & Lovecraft tomes, it's been a while.

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    3. Howard contributed one of the forbidden texts, Nameless Cults by Von Junzt, and I believe he created one of the gods although I can't remember which one.

      If you want to get into the deep lore with Howard, look at his version of the Picts. They start in Kull's time, personified by Kull's sidekick Brule. After a great catastrophe, they end up as villains in Conan's time. After another catastrophe, we pick up with them in Britain during the Roman occupation, with their king Bran Mak Morn. By this time the Picts have devolved further and are stunted and almost non-human but occasional throwbacks like Bran exist. Then we pick up with them in Howard's more modern horror stories, in which they've become a subterranean race of...things worshiping an ancient statue of Bran and are basically a sort of earthy version of the Deep Ones.

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    4. Thank you, I knew I remembered something about Howard helping a bit with the Mythos.

      I read the collected Bran Mak Morn, which was all right, but honestly, I only finished it because it was small. I don't remember any of it any more.

      It's just my opinion, and maybe I'm wrong, but I think Howard wrote great things, however he wasn't a great writer. My willingness to read his work depends entirely on how invested I am in the character itself, rather than his prose.

      Even his Conan stuff contains some clunkers, but at least his style is very easy to read, so it's never a chore to finish even one of his less than good stories.

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    5. Hmm... I'm on the other spectrum of your opinion. I feel that Howard is a great writer who avoids writing great things. His stories are chatacter-driven and personal, never using flowery languages with excessive prose nor trying to teach the reader some grand morals from an epic tale.

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  9. Conan in films is action oriented. I guess it just wasn´t at heart suited to have more rpg depth to it, regarding a combat system etc

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  10. "It's worth noting here the eclectic origins of the game's pantheon."

    Howard took all cool sounding names he could find from real world places, deities, etc. and added them to his Hyborian Age.

    A good example is Zamora, which is located in Spain.

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    1. My next post has a sentence that mixes Kushites, corsairs, and the River Styx. It is rather fun.

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  11. "the Ultima series, for all its strengths, has never really understood the concept of "side quests."

    It came after this, but Ultima VII was packed with sidequests, so they fix that very soon. Very little of the content is mandatory, and not much more than that is related to the main quest.

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    1. They're more "side-areas," though, aren't they?

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  12. Since no ones going for my collaborative RPG creation idea (http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2013/12/buck-rogers-countdown-to-doomsday-2.html?showComment=1499555633996#c3086449863343736066), can I throw out a few ideas?

    1. Love to see a post on what makes a crpg a classic, and by that I mean, one that remains a worthwhile experience after many years.

    2. Love to see a post on what the addict would put into the design of his ideal crpg

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    1. I think one critical element is the strong sense of growth across the game, where the experience and skills allows you to explore new areas and encounters.

      Obvious, I suppose.

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    2. Oh, I see you have already done this here: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-best-rpg-of-2017-downfall.html

      Really cool. Almost could get me to play a computer game again :)

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    3. Ideas are easy, execution is hard.

      'Downfall' would be awesome but there are limits to reactivity in games - it's scope would have to be pared down to a point where it didn't seem nearly as cool.

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    4. I don't feel like anyone's ever tried that hard. If a massive, dynamically-changing world was the actual point of the game, surely a talented group of developers could develop some innovations that would make it possible. A lot of games almost get there. Look how Dishonored 2 adjusts everything from the number of guards, the heart's dialogue, guards' dialogue, placement of insect nests, and even the appearance of some characters (trying to avoid too many spoilers) based on the character's actions.

      Unknown, I'm otherwise hesitant to press the idea too forcefully because I've never once talked to a modern RPG developer. It's easy to come up with ideas and to criticize existing games; harder to contend with actual programming limitations that I might not even know about.

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    5. As I understand it, several developers have wanted to do things like this, it turns out in practice it is REALLY hard. If you have a branching path, you now have to pay to develop two paths, do art for them, etc, that 90% of players will only see one of.

      This is part of the reason that a number of RPGs lately aren't doing voice acting: Too expensive to do for games that aren't linear, as you have to record every variation.

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