Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Silvern Castle: More By Accident Than Design

I continue to progress downwards in the dungeon of Silvern Castle.
Wireframe dungeons have a certain brutal starkness to them, and I rather prefer them over early attempts at colored or textured dungeons. By the time of Dungeon Master, you naturally needed more advanced graphics to convey puzzle elements like levers and plates, but short of that, I don't know that a lot is gained by the repetitive bricks of The Bard's Tale and the featureless cityscapes of Pool of Radiance. Particularly if you're not going to show enemies or NPCs in the environment (which the Gold Box series stubbornly refuses to do all the way through 1993!), a few lines is really all I need. It's easier to suspend disbelief with secret doors that you just walk through when you're walking through a blank black wall, which is more of a concept than a real wall, than actual bricks.

But while the wireframe dungeon designer must rely on the player's imagination for the details, he can at least stoke that imagination with patterns in the walls. (Of course such patterns aren't limited to wireframe graphics; they're just more necessary with them.) Often these patterns can convey what the graphics cannot, such as a central hall leading to a throne room, a temple, or a jail with a bunch of small cells. They can spell words, numbers, or initials in the walls. We've see them go as far as to offer number or crossword puzzles. They can use vast open spaces and tight, windy corridors to different effects. Sometimes a dungeon level delights with its predictability and symmetry, but other times by throwing a curve in what first appears predictable and symmetrical.
Wizardry 3 suggested a castle in the northeast quadrant with this layout.
This level from Wizardry IV has you "ascend" a pyramid.
The author of Silvern Castle seems to have taken no such lessons from previous titles. I've mapped four and a half levels now, and they're all completely chaotic, as if designed by a script rather than a careful hand. The lack of any sense to the unused (inaccessible) ares is mildly infuriating. The only consistency is an odd fondness for 2 x 3 rooms, some of which serve as "lairs" for the various monsters in the level. Because the levels have no particular design, most of the space and the time mapping it is simply wasted. I like mapping, but more in the service of a goal than a task by itself. This is the sort of game in which I would be perfectly happy to consult with a walkthrough's maps to see the key locations and just spin around the hallways to generate random encounters for the experience.
My map of Level 3.
Adding to the rather boring process of mapping, at least through Level 5, the game shows no signs of using any of the navigational obstacles common to Wizardry descendants, such as spinners, teleporters, squares of darkness, and anti-magic squares. There aren't even any traps (there's one square that drops you from Level 3 to Level 4 and causes some damage, but it's clearly annotated). While some levels have multiple staircases, they don't go to independent parts of other levels. I'm surprised to find myself missing these elements, but mapping by itself is only so exciting.
The game's own map of Level 2. Note the lack of any pattern or design.
(On the positive side, I recently subscribed to the "Great Courses Plus" service and have managed, while mapping the levels of Silvern Castle, to watch a decent percentage of a series on what archaeology tells us about the history of Israel. I've been a Teaching Company fan since the days when you had to buy courses on VHS, but their entire model was really custom made for a streaming-subscription approach, and I'm glad they managed to last until the era of smartphones and tablets.)

The size and tedium of the dungeon levels sapped some of the initial enthusiasm I had for Silvern and its additions to the Wizardry template, but only some. The game does provide a relatively consistent and rewarding sense of character development, and difficult tactical combats equal in tactics to Wizardry, and without Wizardry's merciless insistence on permadeath.

Silvern has a particularly good approach to the economy. It's not a complex one, but the inability to get mega-rich requires some careful choices. Recall that spellcasters have to find or buy scrolls to learn their spells; they don't get them automatically when leveling. Most of the scrolls are well out of the range of a starting party, and only after exploring Levels 3 and 4 can you buy even a handful of scrolls covering the first few spell levels. You have to make careful choices as to the needs of the party in combat versus exploration. "Return," for instance, selling at 700 gold pieces, is a bit of an indulgence. It warps the party back to town from anywhere in the dungeon and is mostly a benefit for the player rather than the party. Yet in my zeal to save for it, and thus save time playing the game, it was well into the game's eighth hour before my party members even had all the best non-magic equipment sold in the shop. I'm currently saving for a 3,000 gold piece "Teleportation" scroll which will reduce the time to and from the dungeon's lower levels.
I reluctantly spend some money on "Cure Poison." The scroll of "Return" is going to have to wait.
The encumbrance system only adds to these choices. I've long since given up picking up silver and copper pieces, but I haven't been able to bring myself to toss unwanted equipment even when it overloads the party. That extra short sword I found after killing a goblin sells for 9 gold pieces. A suit of chainmail sells for 60. These are not trivial amounts when my mages don't have a quarter of their available spells yet.

Part of the consequence of this slow growth in spells is that most of my trips back to the town are because someone suffered a condition that I don't yet have the spell to cure. You start encountering poison, illness, paralysis, and petrification long before you can afford all the spells necessary to cure all these conditions. There are potions that do the job, and they're not very expensive (you find a lot, too), but it's easy to run out.

Beyond suffering these occasional conditions, combat has been relatively fun. I need to add here that I've cranked my emulator up to basically infinity speed. At an era-accurate speed, I would have thrown the game away in the first couple of hours. It can take up to 3 minutes for a monster-intensive combat to load and shorter but still-maddening times between screens or while waiting for combat messages to scroll by. AppleWin's speed setting slides between 0.5x and 3.9x authentic speed, but with a final setting that's, like, a 1,000,000x. Things happen instantaneously. I leave it set here unless I'm fighting a new monster or using a new spell and I need to more carefully study the individual combat transactions.

As you explore downward and gain more character levels, the game increases the maximum difficulty of monsters encountered. This is what I prefer. The alternatives are increasing the average or, worse, minimum difficulty, which always makes me feel that "development" is really just an illusion. Even on high levels, I occasionally want to encounter a lone orc. That happens here. As you get more powerful, you also start encountering enemies that are scared or friendly (giving you a choice to attack) or who simply surrender and hand you their gold and objects. 
There are no alignments in the game, so I don't think there's any consequence for saying "no."
Party composition looks a lot harder than the average Wizardry battle, and sometimes I forget what game I'm playing when I'm terrified by 4 level 4 mages, 6 clerics, and a couple of supporting parties of fighters. But Silvern needs some extra enemy volume because the enemy AI is poor. Each enemy seems to act more-or-less randomly rather than tactically. They don't target your weakest character. They don't reliably attack at all. Sometimes they "use" objects that they don't need or that don't do anything. Enemy spellcasters hardly ever cast spells. But again, they make up for poor AI with volume, particularly in "lair" encounters, so the combats are still suitably challenging.

Most of the player's tactics come in the form of spells, of course. "Sleep" is pretty effective against single large groups, and "Fireball" is suitably devastating. The spell point pool is relatively generous, and since all spells draw from the same pool instead of dedicated slots, the choice of whether to use a spell isn't as agonizing here as in Wizardry.
Blasting an ogre group with a "fireball."
"Lair" battles occur in 2 x 3 rooms, but I can't tell if they're fixed or random. At least once, I lost one badly and it wasn't there when I reloaded and returned. They typically have a monster "chief," a group of "guards," and two groups of mooks. They're likely to deliver the most experience and gold and the best equipment.
A "lair" encounter.
A few other notes:

  • The game makes a distinction between "hallways" and "rooms" on the levels, with rooms almost always illuminated and hallways almost always dark. This hardly matters because even in illuminated rooms, your "Light" spell continues to deplete.
  • For some reason, Level 5 started consuming my "Light" spell at a rate double the earlier levels. 
  • "Lair" combats often produce treasure chests. You don't have to type the trap type to disarm it, like in Wizardry, but the thief fails about as often.
A rare treasure chest.
  • Only towards the end of this session did I start to find any magic items, namely a suit of chainmail +1 and a long dagger +1.
A character sheet towards the end of this session.
  • The developer includes apple symbology in a lot of his room and encounter descriptions. 
He must have been a real fan of the platform.
Enemies encountered in this session include fire beetles, oil beetles, tiger beetles, pit vipers, hobgoblins, ogres, giant rats, giant bats, orcs, kobolds, draconians, and thouls. The game clearly looks to several sources for its bestiary, and as far as I can tell, the "thoul"--which uses an orc-like icon--is original. [Edit: I was wrong. I guess they come from OD&D.]  It paralyzes.
A combination between a troll and a ghoul?
Plot-wise, not much has happened. Level 2 had a room with a pentagram that caused the party to flee in terror. I'll have to return later, perhaps with some anti-fear spell. There was another special encounter at a statue of a nude woman, which so enraptured my characters that enemies sneaked up behind us.

Level 4 had a statue of an elven woman warning us of ghosts and demons. We found a silver key in the room, but it didn't open either of the locked doors we found on Level 1 or 4.
One of a few special encounters in the first few levels.
As I wrap up, my characters are all Levels 8 or 9, which seems high, but some of them need at least Level 15 to switch to prestige classes. I figure when I hit Level 10, I'll start fiddling with buying and selling attributes and looking at potential class changes. I'm hoping the game at least has Wizardry's decency of sticking to 10 levels, in which case I figure I'm about halfway through, but I guess we'll see.

Time so far: 12 hours


Sorry, everyone. I meant to get another Quest for Glory III entry done before this one, but I didn't quite make it. Look for that tomorrow.


  1. Thouls are actually a monster from the Basic D&D box set. They are described as resembling hobgoblins but have the regenerating capabilities of a troll and the paralyzing touch of a ghoul. They are kind of meant to be a "gotcha" monster, as they typically are with hobgoblin and will take a party by surprise with their unexpected abilities.

    1. One other big difference is that hobgoblins tend to be more cautious and tactical, while thouls rush in.

    2. ...where wise goblinoids never go?

    3. Just noting that Chet has changed the entry to reference "OD&D", and that OD&D and Basic D&D are not the same thing.

      The "Basic D&D box set" is one of several editions of a simplified version of the game published between 1977 and 1994.

      I'm not sure which one in particular Adamantyr is referring to but they're certainly present in the 1983 Red Box, which is probably the most widely purchased of those editions.

      They don't turn up in the traditional OD&D/AD&D product line until the 2E Monstrous Compendium: Mystara Appendix (1994).

    4. They show up in OD&D as an entry in the wandering monster tables, although they're not referenced anywhere else. The jury is still out on whether or not it was a typo for ghoul.

    5. They are led by a deity named Ultima Thoul who can cast a compulsion spell forcing you to play Richard Garrtiot's games for all of eternity...

  2. Just a quick note/hint - attributes can't be raised above 18 when gaining a level. So, before you level anyone, its best to lower any attributes at 18 and redistribute the points elsewhere. This gives you the most chances for attribute gains.

    Nggevohgr znavchyngvba vf rfcrpvnyyl vzcbegnag vs lbh rire jnag gb punatr pynff nalbar vagb n zlfgvp. Juvyr abg arprffnel gb jva gur tnzr, gurl ner dhvgr cbjreshy. Rffragvnyyl, gurl unir nyy gur novyvgvrf bs rirel bgure pynff - rdhvczrag, fcryyf, guvrs novyvgvrf, rgp. V oryvrir gurl erdhverq n 21 va rirel nggevohgr. Va beqre gb envfr na nggevohgr nobir 18, vg pbfgf 99 nggevohgr cbvagf. Fb, lbh'yy arrq gb ybjre frireny nggevohgrf gb envfr bar nggevohgr nobir 18.

    1. Ah, good point. Thanks. I'llmake sure to chck for that.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Still fighting 'humanoids' I see. Maybe next level you'll run into some 'monsters'.

  5. I am tempted to watch some of Silvern execute in the debugger just to see where all the cycles are going. I recall disassembling the Hi-Res text routine back in 200 4 and remarking on it's inefficiency.

    By the By:If you're using AppleWin as an emulator. You can toggle between authentic speed and top speed with the ScrLk button.


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