Saturday, January 19, 2019

Black Crypt: Core of Corruption

The game's take on "Medusa."
What I surmised in the last entry turned out to be the case: Level 13 was a hub, with four teleporters leading downward to four collections of levels, each culminating in a battle with one of Estoroth's lieutenants. Defeating each lieutenant provides the keys necessary to enter a secret area and collect one of the four artifacts necessary to defeat Estoroth himself. At the beginning of the game, I had thought that the collection of the artifacts was the game's sole quest, but eventually it became clear that the whole thing would end with the party employing the artifacts in a battle with Estoroth.
Each teleporter brought me to a hero's tomb--eventually.
I had already defeated the Ram Demon last time. Choosing another teleporter at random, I next found myself in the domain of something called The Possessor. I had to run around collecting three crowns to place on a kind-of skull mural. This gave me the key necessary to get into The Possessor's lair.
Crowning the skulls.
The area was full of flaming golem-looking creatures, and when I finally encountered The Possessor, I just thought he was another one of these. The other flaming golems had been difficult, so the moment I saw him I just blasted him with my most damaging spells until he died. I thus didn't even bother to grab a screenshot of him. After defeating him, I learned that his name comes from his ability to possess party members, a fate that I didn't experience.
Not The Possessor, but he basically looked like this.
The next teleporter led me to Level 21, which was entirely underwater. Characters take damage every turn while underwater unless they can breathe it. Fortunately, I'd found a few items that let characters breathe water, including Helms of Triton and Rings of Water Breathing. There were also numerous Potions of Water Breathing scattered around the level. The bigger issue was that a lot of spells--particularly fire-based spells--didn't work in the environment.
The tritons were easy but numerous.
Enemies were tritons and some kind of weird fish. The party had to find a number of magic pearls and stick them in clamshells to open the paths to the Water Lord, a fish-looking creature with a devastating blow. By this time, I was trying to burn through a number of magic items I'd collected, including a horn capable of casting the "Quake" spell. It only took a few blasts and a couple of melee attacks to kill him.
Those memorized fire-based spells aren't going to do much good.
Although I didn't plan it this way, I saved the most difficult for last. The Medusa was the last lieutenant. It roams a large area of Level 24. It has a magic attack that can stone characters and that seriously damages them otherwise. It is also impervious to any weapons or spells that you have when you arrive. Other creatures in the area are ghostly skulls that disappear and reappear behind you in the middle of combat. They respawn like mad.

Other adventurers preceded me.
To kill the Medusa, I had to find my way to a lower level and get a Mirror Shield, then--and this took me a long time to figure out--employ it as a weapon rather than a shield. The Medusa died in one blow after that.
I didn't think you were supposed to kill medusa with a mirror shield. I thought you were just to look in it while you beheaded her.
When I had collected the final items in the Medusa's lair, I realized I had a problem: I had no idea which of the many items I had were the four "artifacts." I had collected a bunch of things that sounded like they could be, including the awesome "Doom Hammer," a weapon that takes a long time to cool down but does about 10 times the damage of of a normal weapon when it connects. It turned out that the four artifacts are a staff called Soulfreezer, a shield called Protector, a hammer called Forcehammer, and a sword called Vortex, but I had to look it up.
I had forgotten that they were all listed in the backstory.
While I was trying to figure this out, a worse problem emerged: My game somehow got corrupted. It started insisting that the disk on which the saved games were stored was write-protected. I decided to try to push through to the end using emulator save states, but unfortunately the game insists on saving when transitioning between certain levels, and I can't get out of the Medusa area without triggering one of those saves. It's somehow the game itself that's corrupt, not the disk. If I try to start a new party on the same disk, it works okay. If I try to create a new save disk, on the other hand, the game-in-progress still won't save to it, insisting that it's write-protected.
I thus now face a decision between starting completely over with a new party and hoping it doesn't happen again and just looking up the endgame from someone's "let's play." I'm inclined to start over because I have this idea that with the maps already created, I can probably shave a lot of time off of a replay. Also, I peeked ahead to the final areas in the hint section of the manual, and it appears that there's more complexity than just a final battle.

While I ponder that, two more notes:

1. The puzzles got a little annoying. Too many of them seem to rely on hidden pressure plates (i.e., they're invisible and make no sound or notice when you step on them). I had to dip into the hint section a few times to verify that what I had mapped as a wall was really now open because of a hidden plate, and I wasn't just crazy the first time. There was one area that required walking over a hidden pressure plate 7 times before an exit would open. As far as I'm concerned, that's just an unfair puzzle.

2. I continue to be irked by the lack of item descriptions and statistics. This is one issue that Dungeon Master variants seriously need to solve. If I'm already carrying a sword called "Evil Smiter" and I find a new sword called "Demon Basher," there ought to be some way to tell which does more damage (and what else the swords do) other than experimentation, which may or may not tell you anything useful. Yes, yes, I know--every time I say that, commenters come out of the woodwork to say that they love recording thousands of attacks to figure out which sword has a higher "to hit" rate and which does 1d6+2 damage versus 1d8+1 damage. They love it because it's so "realistic," because in real life you wouldn't be able to tell the value of a weapon numerically, never mind that you wouldn't be able to tell your attributes or hit points either, nor that the entire point of an RPG, going back to the first tabletop editions, is to carefully manage a set of statistics.
Estoroth continued to taunt me.
The next entry on Black Crypt will either be the rating, based on video of someone else winning, or a recap of a new party's adventures.

Time so far: 26 hours

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Game 316: Caverns of Mordia (1980)

Caverns of Mordia
Lothlorien Farming (developer and publisher)
Released in 1980 for the Apple II
Date Started: 4 January 2019
Date Ended: 13 January 2019
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Caverns of Mordia is a recently-rediscovered entry in what we might call the "establishing age" of CRPGs--that brief period between 1975 and 1983 (even briefer, between 1978 and 1983, for the microcomputer), when developers repeatedly asked themselves how best to adapt the qualities of tabletop role-playing to the computer.  By 1983, it was clear that the approaches taken by Ultima and Wizardry had answered the question to almost everyone's satisfaction. But during that establishing age, we saw a lot of variance in approaches, most unsuccessful, and while RPGs may have improved in the following decade, rarely again do we see so much diversity. My summary of the early era has links to a number of titles with fun ideas that went nowhere.
In the case of Mordia, its unique contribution is to map every potential action that a player might take--subject, verb, and object--into a single numeric command. Where most games might offer a command for "attack" and then let you specify that you want to target the orc, Mordia puts that all together as command 22: Attack the Orcs. It's almost like the game was developed by a police officer, used to describing every potential action or situation in a 10-code. Some of the many commands include:
  • 30: Eat Lymphas [a type of bread]
  • 33: Draw the double-handed sword
  • 40: Use the net to trap dragons
  • 50: Climb up one level
  • 63: Remove the gas mask
  • 66: Put on the gas mask
  • 89: Open the chest
  • 90: Attack the balrog

One of three pages of game commands.
As I read and annotated the various commands, I couldn't help but imagine all kinds of intriguing possibilities with this system. One problem is that all of the commands are manifestly useful in at least one room. It would have been fun if the author had sprinkled patently absurd commands throughout the list
  • 32: Feed Lymphas to the orc
  • 64: Put the gas mask on the dragon
I also imagined such a list extending to the complexity of a modern RPG:
  • 10318: Stab the necromancer in the back, then run away and hide until he forgets about you, then enter sneak mode and stab him in the back again.
  • 15906: Lead the deathclaw to the raider camp and watch the result from behind a nearby rock.
  • 29055: Position the bodies of Ulfric Stormcloak and Galmar Stone-Fist in an obscene manner.
  • 30117: Lasso and hog-tie the Skinner, heave him onto the back of your horse, ride 90 minutes to the swamps of Lemoyne, feed him to an alligator
Of course, such complexity is why the system was doomed to fail in the long run. You can't have a unique command for drawing each weapon or attacking each monster unless you only have a few potential weapons and monsters. Still, it works for this game better than I thought it would when I first read the description.
At this moment, I can: (-1) descend the "dropoff"; (3-16) flee to any of the listed rooms; (20) use my Charm Ring on the demons; (21) try to take an emergency tunnel to Room 1 of this level; (22) attack the orc; (30) eat some Lymphas Bread; (33) draw my double-handed sword in anticipation of attacking the dragon; (37) try to blind the monsters with an elven flare; (40) try to trap the dragon in a net; (44) attack the dragon; (55) try to make a passage upward with my magic wand; (70) go invisible by putting on the One Ring; (80) try to blast all the monsters with the Magic Staff.
Caverns of Mordia was written by Hans Coster, with assistance and manual artwork by Tony D'Assumpcao, and published in 1980 by Sydney-based Lothlorien Farming. It is the earliest known Australian CRPG, pre-dating the next known title (Citadel of Vras) by 9 years. It was marketed via direct magazine sales, and by the author's account it did well domestically, but Lothlorien soon shifted to educational software rather than game software. Mordia languished in obscurity for decades--not appearing on any of the lists I used to compile my master list--until 2016, when Neville Ridley-Smith of happened to buy an original disk as part of a lot, then made contact with Dr. Coster, now a professor and department director at the University of Sydney (Neville's account begins here). Neville's efforts not only produced a meeting and interview with Dr. Coster, but also a new set of disk and manual images to distribute on the Internet. This disk has some upgrades that were not available in the original version, but it's hard to tell exactly what's new because the original versions floating around the Internet are bugged to the point of unplayability. I've annotated the things that I think are new, based on changes to the manual and command list. It's worth noting that even the "new" stuff isn't 2016 material; rather, Coster programmed it in the few years after the original 1980 release but simply never released the second version. [Edit: See the bottom of this entry for more information about the origins of this game.]
The subtitle screen from the revised edition.
The backstory has you play an agent of the wizard Pallandoin. Your mission is to deliver an Orb of Power to Lady Elleda of Locklorien, whose land is besieged by the forces of the evil spirit Sharnoscet. (In case it's not obvious, almost all proper names in the game are slight alterations of characters and places in the Tolkienverse. "Sharnoscet" is an anagram for "Hans Coster.") To get to Locklorien, you have decided to travel through the Caverns of Mordia, full of horrid creatures and encounters, because it is the route the enemy will least suspect.
The game suffers from a few originality issues.
Character creation involves answering a few simple but unusual questions. After your name, you're given the option to start at the surface with a basic kit or jump right into a lower level of the dungeon with a full set of equipment--in effect a shortcut for players who have already been through the opening a bunch of times. The normal exit to the game is on Level 25, but at the outset you can also specify that you'd like a second exit on Level 35, in case you fall down a pit or just want to amass a higher score before winning. I'm not sure that there are any drawbacks to saying "yes" to that question.
A few questions during character creation.
You begin at a dwarven market, where you don't have enough gold to buy anything, but can later return. Your opening resources are a dagger, a dragon net, a magic staff, a wand, a lamp, the Orb of Power, 400 agility, and 400 strength. Strength serves as both literal strength and a health reserve.
The game begins in an empty room.
Upon entering the caves, gameplay proceeds something like a roguelike with a concept map instead of an actual map. The dungeon consists of at least 35 levels. The manual is unclear, but it's possible that levels are generated indefinitely (I made it to Level 44 before I died). Each level can consist of up to 16 rooms, with the contents of the room and the connections between them randomly established every time you change levels. They can even be reconfigured while you're still on a level if you encounter "tremors."
A text simulation of an earthquake.
Room 1 on each level is a special room in which you can do a couple of useful things. First, you can (Command 0) use the Orb of Power to return to the dwarven market and buy a gas mask (500 gold), a magic two-handed sword (3000 gold) or extra Lymphas Bread. Second, you can (Command 27) exchange your accumulated experience for extra agility or strength. You don't always want to exchange all of it, however, because your unspent experience is used in some of the formulas for hitting and damaging monsters.
Spending some of my hard-won experience.
Other rooms can contain all kinds of perils depending on the dungeon level, including:
  • Poisonous gas, which depletes your two characteristics unless you quickly put on a gas mask, and then the gas mask itself causes a 5% attribute loss per turn.
The game warns you about poisonous gas at the beginning, but you won't be able to afford that gas mask for a while.
  • Drop-offs, including ones that you can see and hidden ones that dump you unceremoniously to the next level.
  • Gusts of wind that blow out the lamp and make it impossible to see what's in the room until you make a movement for a turn and the lamp re-ignites.
  • Webs spun by the giant spider Araneida, which immobilize you for one or more turns.
  • Orcs. You can kill them in regular combat.
  • Dragons. You can also kill them in regular combat or try to trap them with a net first.
A dragon and an orc guard this room with a chest. Because I have a Dragon Occular, I can see the dragon's health.
  • Trolls. They always appear to guard the Mithril Armor. I believe they're new to the second edition.
  • Balrogs.
  • Giant vampire bats.
  • Demons, which can't be killed through normal combat, only charmed.
  • Araneida, the giant spider.
  • Goblins, who can't be attacked and simply steal one of your potential inventory items (the Dragon Occular) and flee.
Mithril armor is guarded by orcs, demons, vampire bats, and trolls.
The same rooms can also contain useful equipment and assets, including:
  • Gold. You can't directly pick it up. Instead, every time you make a move, there's a chance of grabbing a certain percentage of it.
  • Chests with gold, elven flares, or Lymphas Bread. Chests can be trapped with serpents that bite you.
  • The Charm Ring, which stuns demons.
Finding the Charm Ring is a key moment in early gameplay.
  • The Dragon Occular, which lets you see the relative strength of dragons
  • Mithril Armor. I believe it is new to the second edition.
  • The One Ring, which works pretty much as in the book. It renders you invisible while you wear it, but the "evil one" can sense its presence, and every turn you wear it carries an increasing chance of a debilitating spell. I also think this is new to the second edition.

Rooms with various assets and dangers are a staple of games in The Wizard's Castle variety, but what keeps Caverns of Mordia unique is that any combination of these things can exist together in the same room. You might wander into a room with poison gas, an orc, 500 gold pieces, and 6 vampire bats, and then immediately have your torch blown out. You might descend into a room with an orc, and a dragon, have your Dragon Occular stolen by goblins, and then immediately fall through a hidden hole in the floor. You might be in the middle of a battle against four trolls for some Mithril Armor only to have a tremor reconfigure the dungeon level before you can defeat them.
A fairly simple room with demons, a few room connections, and a way up.
You have a surprising number of options for dealing with these threats, all with potential risks. You can run away to another room, or climb up or down if those passages are open, but running carries a risk of getting swatted by enemies as you leave. You can simply attack with your dagger, or spend an extra round pulling out your two-handed sword (after you've bought it), but the sword sucks your strength every turn and only improves your chances against some monsters. You can light an elven flare to blind monsters and improve your chances of hitting them. You can use the staff, which will obliterate orcs, demons, bats, and poison gas and create a tunnel down, but only if it doesn't backfire and damage you instead. You can try to reach Room 1 in a hurry by taking one of Araneida's tunnels, but it carries a risk that she'll bite you on the way. You can point a wand at the ceiling and try to create an escape hole upward.
A more deadly room on Level 6 has an orc, a dragon, and demons.

In short, every room has a lot of tactical possibilities depending on who and what you find there, your current attributes, and what equipment you carry. Upon arrival in a room, you have to decide what takes priority, and whether it makes most sense to fight or flee. You get experience for every successful action, and it adds up fast. Your fortunes wax and wane with astounding swiftness. At times, I'd be down to a few thousand strength, reach Room 1 exhausted, and then find I had 600,000 accumulated experience points to pump into the attribute. Other times, I'd be wandering around confidently with over 100,000 in each attribute, fall through a few holes, meet a balrog, and get the "game over" screen.

Every nine moves, the game has you camp for the night--sometimes, this happens right in the middle of combat. (The manual hand-waves this by saying that you're magically transported to a pocket dimension for the duration of your rest.) The sleep has a chance of adding 20% to each attribute, and it shows you a current inventory and mission log when you awaken. You can call this report at any time with a numeric command.
The "cave report" is a simultaneous inventory screen, status report, and rest break.
Overall, the strategy is to build agility and strength slowly on lower levels by killing orcs and charming demons. Rooms get more complex and events more chaotic the further you descend. Once you start killing dragons, and particularly once you start killing balrogs, your experience can increase by hundreds of thousands per level, but your strength and agility can also decrease with equal rapidity, and after Level 15, I was constantly searching for Room 1, often risking Araneida's tunnel to get there. Such gameplay provided an exciting, nerve-racking experience, mitigated only by the fact that you can save every time you find Room 1 and teleport back to the dwarven market.

Although mostly text-based (and without any sound at all), the game occasionally offers some ASCII animation of your character fleeing battles or descending dungeons.
Running from monsters sends a little ASCII guy scurrying across the screen.
The same guy transitions between levels.
If you die, the game gives you a summary of your character's actions and an estimation of how close he was to winning the game.
This guy didn't do so well.
Winning involves exiting the dungeon successfully on Level 25 or 35, which you do as soon as you wander into the room with the exit. You get a satisfying text narrative and a summary screen of your activities. It took me about six total hours and four characters to win. To do so, I did take advantage of occasional saving. Winning without saving, as in a roguelike, would be a hardcore way to do it.
The final text wraps things up nicely.
My final stats for my winning character.
I recorded about 10 minutes of video to include the opening, exploration, combat, and the ending. The character dies a couple of times, and the encounters leading to his death give you some idea of the "oh, #$@*" nature of gameplay, as you careen from room to room trying to get a break from the relentless onslaught of demons and dragons.

I don't like to stress the GIMLET rating for early exploratory titles like this. I gave it a 20, scoring it best in "gameplay" (5) for a certain replayability and a difficulty and duration commensurate with its content. It doesn't check all the RPG boxes, but that's not quite as important as the spirit of innovation that the game represents. On the cusp of an era where 80% of their titles will receive their DNA from Ultima or Wizardry, it's nice to see a few games that imagined computer role-playing in different ways.


Update from 19 January 2019: A few days after this entry was published, an anonymous commenter alerted me to the similarities between Caverns of Mordia and an earlier title, The Devil's Dungeon, which was published as code in several editions of Stimulating Simulations by Dr. C. William Engel, Professor of Mathematics at the University of South Florida. Each edition of Engel's book has a variety of programs that readers could type in BASIC. Printed versions of The Devil's Dungeon may have appeared as early as 1977 and definitely by 1978. It was available on media in some catalogs by 1980.

I should have known about this already. In 2015, a blogger named Kevin Smith wrote to me about The Devil's Dungeon, as he had just completed an article, suggesting that it might be the first commercial RPG. (Read it for a full account of the publication history of the game.) I completely dropped the ball on reviewing it myself. I likely dismissed it as an RPG because its character development was so primitive and it didn't have an inventory.
A shot from The Devil's Dungeon (1978).
I just had a look at a Commodore 64 version that someone typed in. The link between The Devil's Dungeon and Caverns of Mordia is clear. Gameplay in Dungeon takes place on the same kind of multi-leveled dungeon with 16 rooms per level. Room 1 is a special room where you can trade your experience for attributes (in this case, speed and strength) and escape. There are demons, tremors, poisonous gas, and a wand that will clear out rooms and create tunnels downward but has a 40% chance of backfiring on you. Tunnels down are called "Dropoffs," and you use them with the unusual -1 command. Many of the other commands are the same.

Coster's program is certainly more elaborate. The Devil's Dungeon has no main quest. Your only goal is to find as much gold as you can and leave. It has an infinite number of levels and no exit, and you can only move down. There's no Orb, nor any other inventory. It lacks Mordia's text supporting the backstory and setting, and of course it had no full manual with the illustrations and production values.  

Because of the dates, one might easily reach the conclusion that Coster copied the core of his game from The Devil's Dungeon, but I corresponded with Dr. Coster, and he is adamant that he never heard of The Devil's Dungeon and programmed Mordia from scratch. He said that in the years before he was encouraged to market it, he made it freely available, and it was popular among friends and his university. Several copies were made and traded, and he raises the possibility that one somehow made it to Dr. Engel in Florida. As Dr. Engel died in 2011, we will likely never know the story from his perspective.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Lords of Time: After the Snap

This tavern is literally the most populated place in the Realm.
You may recall at the end of the last session, I was trying to figure out what to do. The king had told me that the wizard Bessak might help, but the front door to Bessak's keep was locked, and I had no way in.

I decided to regard the world as an open possibility, and I began exploring counterclockwise around the coast. I first came to an unnamed hamlet west of Murkvale, where there were a couple of fields of grain, a few houses, and a general store. I bought a length of rope, a canteen, two torches, and two matches in the store.

There was a shrine further along the road, but I couldn't figure out anything to do there.
Soon I came into Murkvale for the second time. I found more structures this time--it's very easy to miss parts of cities because the exploration window is so small, and I don't have "Fistak's Mapping Spell" yet. In the tavern, one of the patrons had a crystal key around her neck. She said she was a "poor wizard's wife, drowning the loss of her husband with buckets of ale." I thought the key might be what I needed for Bessak's keep, but she slapped my hand every time I tried to take it, and the only other option--give her a drink--didn't seem to produce any effect no matter how many drinks I gave her.
The bartender warned me about "maneat plants" along the road. Other patrons talked about an island covered with gold in the southeastern ocean, and one said that Bessak was seeking the Druid Book of Life. That might be a clue. I had previously stopped at the Druid Temple (I think I forgot to relate it in the first entry) but couldn't find a way in.

Another new building was the bank, where I deposited 20 gold pieces. On an island east of the city, I found a place where I could rent or buy a raft.
50% interest and I have to pay it back the next day? Hell, yeah!
The biggest new discovery, however, was a "guild shop" in the northeast of town, where I could take several "continuing education" courses.

  • Potion Identification Made Easy
  • Lock Picking for Beginners
  • Intermediate Lock Picking
  • Advanced Lock Picking
  • Basic Spell Casting
  • Plant Identification
  • Swords for Beginners
  • Learn to Throw Daggers the Easy Way
  • Armor Polishing
  • Shoplifting Done Right
  • Creative Begging
  • Personal Money Management
These all sound cool.
I only had enough for one class, so I took "Swords for Beginners," and supposedly was trained in better use of the sword, though it didn't reflect anywhere in my statistics. I sold a couple of excess items at the armory and returned to take "Basic Spell Casting," but the guildmaster said that I needed 750 experience points. That was about 100 points shy of where I was, so I went grinding for a while. This ultimately provided enough money to take two courses when I got back, so in addition to "Basic Spell Casting," I took "Lock Picking for Beginners." Once I took the spellcasting class, I started to earn magic points (although I still have no spells to cast). The lock-picking class came with a set of picks.

There was nothing happening at an unnamed hamlet northeast of Murksdale, on the east coast, so I kept going north. I eventually came to a walled watchtower with a locked door. I couldn't pick it, but the town across the river had a general store that sold iron keys. One of those keys got me through the door. There were two guards inside, and neither seemed perturbed that I had just broken into a watchtower. One, in fact, was drunk, and I had the option to rifle his pockets. The other, named Taran, told me that the realm had not been attacked in over three hundred years.
This whole kingdom is run by a skeleton crew.
I followed the road northwest out of the hamlet, then took a branch that bypassed the castle. The road came to an end at the northern coast, at an unmanned watchtower that wasn't on the map. There was nothing there. The road curved west and led to yet another outpost, where I found a dagger. I suppose, if nothing else, all these outposts would serve as a place to rest if you were in the area at night.
"Anybody here?"
A mountain to the southwest had an icon on the map that suggested a dungeon, so I walked towards it. When you walk up a mountain in the game, the graphics and movement actually suggest a character elevating up a slope, which is an interesting addition to this type of perspective.
You kind of have to see it in animation, but I'm walking "up" this mountain.
I found a mine entrance with a shop next to it called "Stantho's Occult Goods." It sold weird items that seemed like spell reagents. I bought a skeleton key but didn't have money for much else.
I have a feeling that these all are going to be a solution to a quest or a spell.
The entrance led to a two-level mine where dwarves worked with picks. There were mining carts on tracks that I could push around. Gems gleamed in the walls, but I didn't have any tools to extract them. None of the dwarves were interested in talking with me.
I do like the environmental descriptions.
Night was falling when I left the mine, so I returned to Castleguard to sleep. While in town, I found a library (missed before) which had a few clues among the books, including the four sacred trees of the druids and a hint about other worlds existing through portals. In the tavern, a patron talked about mysterious disappearances "around the Island Keep," a castle off the northwest coast.
My dilemma in summary.
I returned in the end to Bessak's keep, just to make sure one of the iron keys or the skeleton key wouldn't open his door, or that I couldn't pick it now that I had the skills and tools. Nothing worked.
My explorations this trip, minus the return to the Dark Forest at the end.
Throughout these explorations, I routinely fought, and was often killed by, the only four enemies I've encountered so far: spiders, some kind of undead, some kind of fighter or dwarf, and wild dogs or wolves. They spawn so often that you're rarely truly alone on the road. My experience has been increasing and with it my hit points, but I haven't seen any signs of improved combat effectiveness. Combat remains a joyless affair in which the difference between victory and death often comes down to a few pixels in one direction or another.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • Examining items gives you a one-paragraph description. The descriptions aren't terribly interesting, but I like games that offer them, and such games are rare in this era.
A description of some hiking boots.
  • Each shop allows you to try to steal. It's tempting, but failure means that you get kicked out, and the shopkeeper refuses to do business with you permanently. You could save-scum, but you can only save outside of shops, and there's a long loading transition between buildings and the outdoors. I haven't needed anything that bad that I couldn't afford.
  • Particularly with my color-blindness, these plants are annoying.
It was right in the middle of the road, too.
Over eight years ago, in the midst of Faery Tale Adventure, I wrote:
This game world is huge, sparsely populated, and devoid of any clues . . . . I've slaughtered countless ogres, goblins, skeletons, and phantoms, built up my bravery and vitality to epic levels, and yet I have no idea what to do next . . . . It's like I started the game too late, the evil necromancer has already won, and I'm one of the last five people alive.
The same emptiness and gloom pervade this game. Each city has about five people, and they're all in the tavern. No one appears in the private homes even at night. No one is out and about on the roads. Shops don't have any signs out front to advertise that they're shops. The king sits alone in an empty castle. Most of the buildings you stumble upon have no people at all. I hasten to add that, if intended, this would be a great setting for an RPG--some kind of post-apocalyptic world, empty except for monsters, in which you have to piece together what happened from notes and other evidence. I'm just not sure that such an atmosphere in Lords of Time is deliberate.

I guess I'll keep exploring the map. I still have to check out the northwest, including the Dwarven High King Holde, Lord Dervak's Holde, Wyvern Mountain, and (if I can reach it) Island Keep. There also appears to be one town I missed south of Castleguard. But it might be time for explicit hints if any readers have played the game.

Time so far: 7 hours

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Black Crypt: Something About Magic

The party prepares to unleash death on a dracolich.
Black Crypt's approach to magic might be its most unusual feature, and it's something I didn't highlight very well in the first two entries. Each spellcasting class (cleric, druid, magic-user) has five spellbooks, each with four spells, for a total of 20 spells per class. Each starts with a "starter book" and has to find the other four during dungeon explorations. However, some of the spells are level-dependent, so even if you find the book, you may have to wait for a higher character level before you can cast them. By the end of this session, my characters had, and could cast, every spell.
I find the last spellbook that my cleric needs. Note that my druid has a group of offensive spells lined up.
The spellcasting interface is a bit too annoying to open in combat, especially if the enemies are casting spells themselves. When a spell is cast, everything else freezes until it finishes, and it's easy to get confused as to whether the game has registered your clicks on your own spells while you're waiting for an enemy spell to complete. However, each character can prepare up to 5 spells ahead of time in the stone tablet and then launch them one-by-one as soon as they're needed.

The unusual aspect to Crypt's magic is that the act of preparing a spell starts a "cool-down" period unique to that particular spell. I don't know if the cool-down period is dependent on level--I haven't been keeping track that carefully--but at Level 10, it seems to take between 2 and 2.5 minutes for just about every spell, no matter the class or level.
The third spell in this book, which looks like random runes, is actually "Vorpal Air" in its cool-down phase.
This approach to magic has a few consequences. The first is that in the heat of combat, you can't cast the same spell multiple times--not unless you've had the foresight to prepare it multiple times, with the requisite breaks in between each one. The second is that there's no downside to exhausting your spellbook. Since each spell is on a different timer, you gain nothing by holding anything in reserve. It's not like Eye of the Beholder, where you have a limited number of spells per level, or Dungeon Master, where all spells draw from a limited mana pool. You don't have to worry about any kind of trade-off between offensive and defensive spells because they use separate resources.

Obviously, if you insist on blasting every enemy with spells instead of using melee weapons, you'll run into a situation where the spells don't have time to regenerate before you meet the next enemy. But you also want to avoid the reverse scenario, where you waste a lot of time waltzing enemies to death instead of using your magical resources. At any given moment, some spells ought to be in the process of cooling down.

As to the spells themselves, they basically come in four categories:
  • Offensive. These include the cleric's "Poison Cloud," "God's Fury," and "Vorpal Air"; the magic-user's "Fireball," "Death," and "Lightning Field"; and the druid's "Swarm," "Blast of Cold," and "Chant of Doom." The druid's fifth spellbook--the Book of Fire--is all offensive, with great names like "Stonefire," "Firewind," "Fire Vortex," and "Fire Maelstrom." These spells all do a variety of damage, but I'm not sure the type of damage really matters. If individual enemy types have resistances to some spell types, it's not obvious during gameplay.
  • Defensive. There are only a few of these, including the druid's "Protection" and "Shadow Shield" and the magic-user's "Shield," "Strength," and "Ethereal Shield." Except for "Strength," which just adds 2 to a single party member's strength, the others all improve armor class. The game could have benefited from more buffing options.
  • Healing. These are almost all in the cleric spellbook, and include three levels of regular healing plus spells that cure poison and disease and raise dead.
  • Exploration. These include the cleric's "Reveal Truth," "Create Food," and "Sustenance"; the magic-user's "Wizard Sight," "Compass," and "Detect Traps"; and the druid's "Read Runes" and "Light."
A lot of the healing and exploration spells are duplicated with potions and scrolls early in the game. These become less important as you acquire the spells, but it's still useful to have some backups in case, say, two characters are poisoned and you don't want to wait for the cool-down period on "Cure Poison." Also, some traps, glyphs, and magic fields only respond to very strong castings of these spells, and sometimes the scroll versions are higher than your character level.

I haven't given enough attention to "Wizard's Eye." When active, it creates an automap of the dungeon. I didn't think this was necessary because I was mapping it myself. I even tossed a magic ring that would have kept the spell going continually. Later on, I found that the magic-user's seventh-level "Teleport" spell, which takes you anywhere on the current level, depends on the automap. This useful spell not only saves time but can be the only way out of some tight situations, such as when multiple enemies have you boxed in a corridor.
I've been mostly ignoring the automap--to my peril.
I'd also note that the cleric's fourth-level "Sustenance" spell completely replaces the game's food and drink system. Once you have it, you can ignore food and water completely (and you can already ignore food after the third-level "Create Food"). I hope that remains true throughout the game and the developers don't introduce a large no-magic level that makes me sorry I haven't been stockpiling meat.
I bet you get this same message even if you solved the puzzle in seconds.
When I last wrote, I was entering Level 10. It turned out to be a large level, occupying most of a 30 x 30 area. It was extremely heavy with switches, buttons, and teleporters, some causing effects in far-flung areas, and I had to make multiple laps around the level before I found everything I needed. Moving on to the next level required me to find three Idols of Temin and put them in three alcoves, only the idols could only be picked up by some special Gauntlets of Temin and only carried in a special coffer. 
Apparently, a lot of adventurers died trying to get to that coffer.
One-eyed spiders dogged me the entire level. They came in large and small versions, and the large ones dissolved into a group of smaller ones when they died. Both were capable of poisoning characters. The level's final battle was with the dracolich pictured at the top of this entry; he was unleashed when I put the last Idol of Temin in place. The first time, he took us apart in about three seconds. The second time, I had 15 offensive spells ready to go. He died on the 13th.
The larger variety of one-eyed spider.
Overall, this level took about 3 hours by itself. It was then a relief to find that Levels 11 and 12 were both quite small. They were "reward levels," with no monsters and plenty of food, water, and safe places to rest. They also delivered several tablets, some equipment upgrades, and the final spellbooks that I needed.

Level 13 came after another major loading transition. It made Level 10 look like nothing, occupying parts of almost all of its 40 x 40 space. The level didn't have a single button or switch, but it did have a lot of teleportation plates.

The enemies went up a level in difficulty. It's hard to even describe the first type, some kind of floating crustacean-like figure with claws and a bulbous head that looks like one of those novelty lightning balls we all had in the 1980s. They were capable of magic damage, plus a spell that freezes the party in place for a few turns. The second enemy was another small spider, but without the single eye of those on the previous level, capable of inflicting disease.
These guys are trippy.
With the crustaceans, I just learned to have a barrage of spells ready and blast them. They were too fast and deadly for the usual combat maneuvers. I did have one advantage against the spiders: for some reason, they were unable to pass through door frames. But they had a ton of hit points and took forever too kill. 
They'd like to come through the door, but they heard about what adventurers do in Dungeon Master.
What was more annoying than the difficulty these enemies posed was that I seemed to be incapable of killing all of them. They respawned constantly, sometimes right in front of me, and I could never fully clear the level. Wherever I was, I could hear some enemy in the distance somewhere.

After I finished mapping the level, and particularly after I played a bit more, it became clear that Level 13 is going to be a hub of sorts for the rest of the game. When I was done mapping, I had four locked doors, four pressure plates that teleported me to other levels, and four "Orbs of Planes." You'll recall that the game's main quest is to find the four magical weapons that had been wielded by the champions from the four guilds of Astera, and that the Black Crypt is the tomb built for those heroes and their weapons. Level 13 is the actual tomb.
Most of the large Level 13.
Each teleportation plate brings the party to a new area where an Orb of Planes unlocks the way to a series of lower levels. Somewhere on those lower levels, the party has to fight one of Estoroth's lieutenants, retrieve an "Octa Key," and return to Level 13 to open one of the four crypts. 

Even though this session had already gone on for a while, I decided to try one of the teleporters. It took me down to Level 16. Levels 16, 17, 18, and 19 were basically an interconnected maze with multiple stairways and pits, all occupying 16 x 16 coordinates. When I first arrived in the area, a scroll suggested that the "ram demons" in the area feed of the energy of spells and that I should only use weapons to attack them. Because the ram demons are hard, it was lucky this turned out to be a false scroll.
This was a lie when it came to the generic ram demons, anyway. The big boss was another story.
The levels were swarming with these ram demons, plus a kind of fun, unique monster that we might call a "wall mimic." It looks just like a regular wall except when attacking. You have to defeat it to move onward through the passage. Fortunately, wall mimics are stationary, so it's easy to dart up, execute a few attacks, and dart away.
The first time you encounter one of these is terrifying.
Level 19 was an open level where I had to walk a particular path (stepping off of it meant being teleported back to the previous level), but a scroll gave me the instructions. This brought me down to Level 20, where I met a much more impressive ram demon, and this one, I'm convinced, actually does get stronger when you cast spells at it. I was unable to defeat it with spells, in any event. Fortunately, he was slow and I could mostly waltz him to death.
Never have I been so grateful for a small strip of fabric.
When I killed him, I was able to retrieve the Octa Key and then find a teleporter back to Level 13. The Octa Key opened the way to the tomb of Kaolic the Cleric, where I found his Doom Hammer. One down, four to go.
Plundering Kaolic's Tomb.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • There were a lot of traps on the level, and I didn't find a spellbook with "Remove Trap" until the next level. I had to keep walking into the traps and then resurrecting one or two characters, which is a pain because you have to pick up and equip all of their items again. 
  • The game takes multiple clicks and about 90 total seconds to save, and about the same to reload. That's long enough to discourage save-scumming. 
  • I found a lot of tablets aspected to the various character classes. You use these tablets by clicking them on the class rune on the inventory screen. Sometimes they raise attributes and sometimes they turn into a useful object, but equally often they "refresh" the character (restore fatigue, hunger, and thirst bars) or heal the character. It would be useful to save those tablets for when you need them, but there's no way to tell what a tablet is going to do.
  • The buttons got kind of ridiculous on some of the lower levels.
It's not enough that I have to turn and face every wall, I have to really study them, too.
  • My characters all started with shirts and pants. During the game, the only "upgrades" we've found are the same shirts and pants but with named colors, like yellow shirts and brown pants. I have no idea if these alternate clothing items offer anything.
  • In previous Dungeon Master-like games, if you were overwhelmed by difficult enemies, you could run to a safer part of the level and regroup. That's not possible here. Once an enemy "acquires" you, it homes in on the party with 100% accuracy no matter how far you run. And enemies are just about as fast as the party itself. If you need to escape and catch your breath, the only option is to retreat to a higher level.
  • I now have so many gems from dead adventurers that they're seriously clogging my inventory. I wouldn't mind an explicit hint as to whether these are ever going to be useful.
  • I've given up trying to figure out how strong the various weapons are. I've just been assuming that whatever the latest one I find is, it must be stronger than the previous ones.
At this point, I still have Levels 14-15 and 21-28 to map. I assume each of the remaining three lieutenants will occupy an average of three levels each, and then there will be some sort of final battle. When I began the game, I didn't think we'd be encountering Estoroth Paingiver himself, just finding the weapons needed to defeat him, but since he's been leaving notes all over the dungeon, I suspect he's going to be the final boss.
This turned out to be a "true" scroll, so I guess Estoroth Paingiver really does think we're "brave."
This was a long session, but the last part--killing the ram demon and getting into Kaolic's tomb--was the shortest part of it. I'm hoping that the other three are equally fast. Maybe by the end of the next entry, I'll have retrieved the artifacts of Runetek the Fighter, Dvergar the Magician, and Oakraven the Druid.

Time so far: 18 hours