Monday, February 25, 2019

The Two Towers: A Decent Percentage of Those Who Wander Are, in Fact, Lost

Well, that's helpful.
We haven't had many games that support multiple parties adventuring at the same time, and each has handled the notion a slightly different way, depending on the reasons for the separation. For instance, some games support multiple players operating simultaneously, either cooperatively or competitively, such as the Stuart Smith titles, Swords of Glass (1986), and Bloodwych (1989). In contrast, Ultima VI's ability to send an individual party member off on his own was more a matter of expedience in exploration and combat. In some games, you need multiple independent parties to solve puzzles--a dynamic we saw in The Magic Candle (1989) and Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) .

The Two Towers is the first game to require multiple parties solely for fidelity to the narrative. It is also the first in which parties, by design, can never meet. They can't swap equipment, can't help each other out, can't arrange party members in the ways that makes the most sense given the nature of the area and the enemies that they face. I realize why this had to happen to preserve the link to the source material, but given the number of narrative fancies the game manages to introduce within each section, one wonders why they couldn't have taken the same laissez-faire attitude to the story as a whole.
Frodo's "lore" skill comes through.
When I started the game, I thought that the action would switch only between two parties: Aragorn's and Frodo's. It turns out there are three. The game actually found enough for Merry and Pippin to do in Fangorn Forest (most of it non-canonical, of course). Three parties is too much to juggle. Maybe it changes later, but playing the game in its first few sessions is like playing three separate games with the same engine, and no control over switching among them. The game's abrupt and arbitrary movement among the parties makes it easy to forget what one party was doing before it was so rudely interrupted. I'm not enjoying that aspect.

(Note: if you're already lost because you don't know anything about the source material, I'm afraid this entry is going to be rough on you. It's hard enough to explain all the deviations without explaining the original text, too. I recommend at least watching the film trilogy to get a sense of the original characters.)

The last session had ended when the action abruptly left Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and cut to Frodo and Sam, on the other side of the river that I originally thought was the Isen but now know to be the Anduin. Knowing that I had to eventually go south into the Dead Marshes, I began exploring in east-west strips between the river to the west and some mountains to the east. 
Gollum meekly joins the party.
The area was quite wide. I had to climb down several tiers of cliffs (using the "Climb" skill) in the opening stages. In between two sets of cliffs, I ran into Gollum. I expected some sound and fury from the encounter, but instead a simple use of the elven rope enlisted him into the party. There were no heated words from Sam. In general, party members in this game don't speak to each other very much, which of course is a notable change from the original story.

At the base of the cliffs, we found a small hut with a hostile man named Beredu inside. He yelled us not to enter, then yelled at us when we entered anyway, then attacked us when we didn't leave. We killed him. He had nothing. It didn't seem like an encounter that was supposed to go that way, but I've decided to just roll with everything in this game.
Gollum, you may be strong and crafty, but don't go up against the completionist tendencies of the computer RPG player. You'll lose every time.
Moving on, we came to a three-story structure that turned out to be owned by a vampire. The attic offered combat with some bats and nothing else. The main floor had a room with a bubbling cauldron where we freed some souls and got a casting of ELBERETH in return. The basement had four sarcophaguses, one of which held a spirit that asked me for the Star Ruby of Gondor, which he said I'd find in a sinkhole out in the marshes.
I have a bad feeling about this.
In the middle of the room was an obelisk that sucked us in to an area of darkness, and the vampire attacked. I wouldn't have thought two hobbits and Gollum would be very effective against a vampire, but we killed him in a few rounds.
Does Frodo canonically kill anything in the books? I don't think he does in the films.
Afterward, we found an elf named Gilglin lurking around the corner of the basement, overcome with ennui. I can't remember exactly what I did to rouse him--I remember running through all my skills--but he eventually livened up and joined the party. I assume he's original to the game. The newly-bolstered party had just wandered out the front door of the vampire's keep and started wading through the marshes when action suddenly shifted to Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest.
A momentous choice.
Fangorn was a large maze. We soon encountered an Ent named Longroot who offered to take us around. When we asked about Treebeard (which I guess was a bit of a cheat), Longroot offered to take us to him, and we accepted. Treebeard had a bit of introductory dialogue before he took us to some part of the forest called Wellinghall. When we spoke to him about Saruman, he agreed that the wizard must be stopped and summoned the Entmoot.
Part of the maze of Fangorn.
The game gave us the option to wait around for the Ents to come to their decision or explore the forest. I decided to explore. Treebeard warned us about evil living trees called "huorns," but he said they'd leave us alone if we had an Ent in the party, and he gave us one of the "hastier" Ents, called Quickbeam. (The adorable little icon looks more like Baby Groot than the Ents from the flms.) As we explored the forest, we had repeated notes that Quickbeam's presence kept huorns and perhaps other creatures from attacking.
What do you want? A cookie?
It didn't stop anything else from attacking, though. For a fairly weak party, Merry and Pippin were assailed far more than the two previous groups, mostly by orcs and uruks, and soon their health was at the minimum. Fortunately, Quickbeam had strong attacks and a lot of hit points, and I was able to use him as a tank in most encounters.

The health system hasn't changed since Vol. I, and it's a bit weird. While there are some items that provide minor amounts of healing (e.g., eating rations restores a couple of hit points), healing occurs more often by plot point than by player choice. The initial pool of hit points is expected to last for long intervals.

Characters get knocked unconscious if their hit points drop below 6, after which they lose 1 hit point per round until they die or combat is over. But if they don't die, they "wake up" with 6 hit points and are good to go. For a lot of Merry and Pippin's session, they remained on the edge like this, lasting only a couple of rounds at the beginnings of combats, but waking up slightly healed after Quickbeam had wrapped things up.
In battle with some orcs.
There were a lot of side areas and side-quests in Fangorn. One confusing questline seemed to ask the party to find the source of the "Entwash," a river that runs to the south of Fangorn and feeds into the Anduin. Some of the Ents I found were inert, and I needed water from the Entwash to revive them. I also needed Entwash water to hydrate a small seed that an elven ghost (Linandel, if that means anything to you fans) wanted me to plant somewhere. In any event, while exploring I ran into an Ent guarding a cache of Entwash water, so I think the whole business about finding the source turned moot.

The forest was full of (I suspect) non-canonical Ents--Greenroot, Longroot, Skinbark, Leaflock--who provided a variety of hints. I rescued some of them from orcs, who had apparently been tasked by Saruman to chop down as many trees as possible. Eventually, one of them joined us--a young Ent named Twiglate who we saved from a forest fire. That was late in the session, though; I could have used him a lot earlier.
And the two hobbits will survive a few more battles.
On the west side of Fangorn, we found an orc encampment of several buildings and multiple battles. Merry and Pippin got some chainmail and shields (they had started with just barrow daggers), so that helped a bit. On the north side of the camp, a tunnel went into the mountains and we found ourselves in a fairly large dungeon. I probably need to cover it more next time because I don't think I fully finished it this time. The opening room had some large trees, "parched husks," that we're clearly meant to do something with, but the obvious solutions (such as giving them water) don't work. There's also a large obelisk that I can't figure out anything to do with and a silver door that I can't open.
Saruman has parties of orcs everywhere trying to find us, and we're in his basement stealing his tobacco.
Past the obelisk, a tunnel took us to an adjacent cellar full of storerooms with rations and pipeweed and other supplies. Emerging up from this cellar, we were surprised to find ourselves on the main level of Isengard, and two difficult battles with uruks and Dunlendings. Clearly, we were extremely far afield at this point, so it was a slight mercy when, while exploring the edges of the area, the game intervened to tell us we'd gone too far, and warped us back to Fangorn. 
So "free will" isn't much of a thing in this setting, huh?
Merry and Pippin's session ended when we returned to the Entmoot. Treebeard told us that a couple of Ents hadn't shown up and asked us to go rouse them. I suspect they both need Entwash water, and I'm pretty sure I already hydrated one of them. Treebeard also gave us a "spell" of sorts that would summon Ents to help us in combat, something we really could have used for the bulk of this session. (Perhaps I was meant to wait out the Entmoot rather than explore while it was deliberating.) Anyway, the game didn't give me a chance to find the Ents or try out the new spell. It abruptly returned the focus to Aragorn's party instead.

My time with Aragorn his group--which included the recovered Gandalf--was mostly spent cleaning up quests discovered in the first session. The primary one was to satisfy the "weregild" set by the survivors of the ruined town of Estemnet. The leader of the town had wanted me to find her husband's sword, her son, and a bag of gold stolen from the town.

The latter two were both found on the edges of Fangorn on the north side of the map. In one clearing, I found the "youth" (although he's depicted as a middle-aged man with a mustache), Harding, fighting orcs alongside a woman named Folwyn. We helped them out and they joined the party. The bag of gold was in another clearing.
I suppose that if we were role-playing an "evil" fellowship, we could have just watched him die.
The main orc encampment was in the middle of a burned section of forest. Every time I entered, the game told me that there were too many of them and gave me a chance to take about one action before they attacked and we met a scripted ending. I attempted various skills during that brief pause and finally hit the solution with "Sneak." This caused the main body of orcs to drain away, and we were able to set an ambush for the remaining ones. When the dust cleared, we found the sword on the leader's body.
I just don't understand why one character's "Sneak" skill can hide the entire party.
Harding and Folwyn left us when we returned to Estemnet and delivered the items. The leader, Leofyn, promised that the survivors would try to clear orcs from the land. I'm not sure what that does for me, but perhaps it results in fewer random encounters.
You're a glass-half-empty sort of woman, aren't you?
Next, we solved the puzzle of the corrupted mearas pool by attacking the orcs' altar at night, releasing a bunch of barrow wights, and killing them. Nearby, a local resident named Heof told us that to finish purifying the pool, we would need to get one of the mearas to drink from it. I don't know why Gandalf is incapable of summoning Shadowfax at the moment, but our solution was to find one to the southeast of the pool and lead him to the pool. 
"...which, admittedly, wasn't that long ago."
At that point, before we could even take steps towards Edoras and the next stage of our quest, the game yanked us back to Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Gilglin, who I hope is non-canonical because his name sounds a lot like "Gilligan."
We're back with the Ringbearer. But for how long?
Aside from all the chain-jerking between parties, the one thing that really annoys me about this game is that despite decent graphics, it fails to visually depict important environmental features. It tells us about a tunnel into the mountains rather than showing us. We wander into what looks like an empty building but suddenly get a message that there are orcs all around us (and then, of course, they visually appear just in time for combat). The evil altar on the north side of the mearas pond doesn't appear until we first get a message telling us about it. NPCs show up suddenly in the middle of blank grassland. Too much, in short, depends on the party deciding to walk into what otherwise looks like empty areas, rather than seeing something interesting graphically and saying, "Hey, let's go check that out."
How did we get this far into the building before noticing a "group of angry orcs"?
Neither that shrine nor those wights were visible until we walked upon the right set of pixels.
But it's early, and the game may yet have some surprises. I look forward to seeing how it handles certain plot elements while also wondering how it justifies, say, the ability to freely explore Isengard.
Time so far: 7 hours


  1. What an odd way to handle the story by having you flip back and forth...

    I have to admit I laughed out loud when I saw the title of this installment pop up! Thanks for a needed knee slapper!

    1. The poem is nice, but I love how that one line is so passionately embraced by people in their 40s who have never stayed at the same job more than 8 months.

  2. 'I just don't understand why one character's "Sneak" skill can hide the entire party.'

    It's funny that you mention that. Sneaking is a hard thing to implement in multiple-character RPGs.

    If you make it a hard rule that *all* party members need Sneak for the stealth to work, then it's almost useless because you have to consciously train everyone in this skill. (And hopefully that's an option.) And if Sneaking is a pass/fail RNG event, inefficiency can make it near useless. An 80% chance of one character sneaking is another thing. But if three characters have to pass the random test, we're down to 51%.

    Unlike a combat, which will be multiple random trials, a Sneak is usually treated as a single event, which makes them even more uncertainly random. So Interplay's implementation here is for convenience.

    Thanks again for another great entry!

    1. I think the Infinity Engine did it well, where one character would split off the party and employ his sneak abilities.

    2. Or the sneaky character opens a backdoor for the rest of the party if they are on the same map.

    3. I guess you could justify it as the character using his or her stealth skills to yank the others into the best hiding places. If I got a good thief or ranger in the party who knows how to hide, I'd definitely follow his instructions when he tells me (with handsigns of course, as we don't want to be heard) how to hide best!

    4. One of the more recent D&D rules had group checks, in which only the majority of the party needs to pass a check to count for all of them. I could see something like that working quite well, as long as you don't try to map the dice results to characters 1:1

  3. "Saruman has parties of orcs everywhere trying to find us, and we're in his basement stealing his tobacco."

    This is tied to a subplot from the books that was excised almost entirely from the films. Longbottom Leaf is the highest-quality tobacco the Shire prodcices, and the Fellowship leaves the Shire in 1418 (Shire Reckoning), so a 1417 date reveals that Saurman was obtaining tobacco from the Shire before Frodo and company left - with none of them knowing it.

    This ties in to the end of the adventure (also excised from the films) where Saruman has used pawns in the Shire to take over, forcing the four hobbits to rally the Shire and drive them out.

  4. I killed an elf in Fangorn
    Just to watch him die

  5. Part of me wants this game to turn out unbeatable so that you could have a post titled "Throwing in the two towels".

    1. Holy crap... youse guys are killing me! Good thing I wasn't drinking while reading!

  6. The book (rather, Treebeard *in* the book) does indeed mention two Ents named Skinbark and Leaflock, and Quickbeam keeping the hobbits company during Entmoot is also canonical. East Emnet (not "Estemnet") appears on the official maps as the name of the eastern part of Rohan between the rivers Isen and Anduin, not a town. The town itself and its residents only exist in this game, as do Gilglin, the vampire, Twiglate and the dungeon leading into Isengard.

    1. Vampires are mentioned in the Silmarillion, with one named as Thuringwethil. I would presume the one here was less powerful since the general belief (although not definitively stated in the book) are that they were fallen Maiar and would have eaten the party for lunch. Sauron changed into the form of a vampire as well.

    2. I dislike the "everything unexplained is a Maia" answer the fandom's fond of. The concept of Maia wasn't even in Tolkien's published writings.

  7. Vampires in Middle-Earth also seem to be big monster bats, rather than the undead former humans of most modern depictions.

  8. I love how you write about that stuff.
    Couldn't help but imagine an expanded version of LotR in which Frodo and Sam are joined by another hobbit, Chester, when they depart the shire.
    Before long, though, the trio seperates, and while Frodo and Sam meet Merry and Pippin, venture to Elrond and later to Rohan, Gondor, Isengard and all those other places while handling their business with the One Ring, Chester heads out to systematically explore and map Eriador. Frodo and Sam would meet him again, too, on their way back to the Shire after Saurons defeat, before they find Saruman has taken over reigns back home. Maybe they could even run across him a third time, when Bilbo and Frodo depart from the Grey Havens. LotR would be even more of an epic than it already is. :)

  9. I don't know if Frodo killed anyone but he did get in a good stab at the door in Moria.

    1. He also stabbed the Witch-King at Weathertop, although that hurt him more than it did the wraith.

  10. Frodo The Vampire Slayer. Sounds good. Why did nobody ever do this?

    1. I have no idea if that's any good, but following your reply, i googled "Frodo the vampire slayer" and Lo and behold, here's what I found:

    2. Replying to myself: Oh yes it's good...
      I really laughed with this omwh thing XD

    3. This is some multi-leveled humor. To enjoy it, you have to know The Lord of the Rings AND Buffy the Vampire Slayer AND be familiar with the plot, music, and lyrics in that specific episode. But if all those things are true, then it really does pay off.

    4. Oh, God. Their version of "I'll Never Tell" is the best thing I've heard in years.

    5. It's perfect, isn't it? You can just see the scene!

      And Yeah, I'm a sucker for multi-level humor... I even do "multi-LANGUAGE" humor, where you have to know the 2 languages and even need additional context. Makes it Very hard to explain to someone why you chuckled, sometimes...

  11. The best example of that story-driven party-switching mechanic is coming up soon in Betrayal at Krondor.

    There it's handled as a great way to keep challenges fresh, when for example you have build up a mage and gotten used to combat strategy using spells and then you get switched to a chapter with just 2 fighters, or vice versa. You also get to develop different characters, and then when you reunite with a favorite one after a while it feels so rewarding.

    The only downside, when playing it blind for the first time, is that you don't know which items will be useful where, and how/shen the party will split, so you can end in a situation where your mage was holding in his backpack a cool backup sword for your fighter, and then they get separated with the sword in the wrong inventory. Today, this would be simply fixed with a message to the player, like in the Witcher 3 : "You are approaching an important story turning point, save your game".

    Anyway, I think it's a cool idea, in general. I wonder if there are other good examples of games implementing this?

    1. Tbh, I hated this about Betrayal. I hated a lot of that game's contrivances that were there simply to serve the story, making Betrayal one of those titles where I never got why so many people like them. I suspect the same would be true for these LotR games.

    2. Also, party members actively participating in the main story and dialogue (another point raised in the post) is something that is more of a staple in console JRPGs than in early CRPGs,mostly because it require party members to be well defined and the party composition predictable,I think.

      Of the early CRPGs I played that featured it, aside from Krondor, where it is prominent, I can think of Ultima 7 P2, and little else. Any other that comes to mind?

      Of course, party interaction would later become a prominent feature in Bioware games, especially from KOTOR onwards.

    3. Albion had quite a bit of it, but yes that's the only other game I remember from the early period doing this. There was a bit in Lands of Lore, but not much.
      Not that story-driven RPG with multiple characters was that common.

    4. Tangled Tales had characters in your party say things relevant to where you were or what you were doing. And having the right character in the party at the right time was the solution to many puzzles.

    5. As another interesting point of party banter, Star Ocean: The Second Story, allowed your party to enter a town and then split up. This allowed the main character to talk to party members individually to get to know them better. You only had control of the main character though, and this was only an option for towns. Like most JRPGs, during scripted dialogue characters would speak up on their own, but that's not as interesting.

    6. Ah, yes, Tangled Tales. The only RPG to feature the classic dialogue, "Yo, blood. I be a changed dude."

  12. The ent is called Twig-late, so of course it does not join the party any earlier.

  13. Although this game keeps switching between parties (as the movies will do, years later), the NOVEL was literally divided in two parts, one per tower: the first half told the adventures towards the tower of Orthanc; and the second half followed the Ringbearer going to the tower of Cirith Ungol.

    I think the game would have benefited from being more faithful to the book about this.

    I can easily think of a (console) role-playing game divided in long chapters, each one starring a different party, then joining up in the final one; and it worked extremely well! It is "Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen" (localized as "Dragon Warrior IV"). You would hate it, though.

    1. The novel also switches between Aragorn & Co. and Merry+Pip, though.

    2. I don't think it's the switching back-and-forth that's the problem as such, though. It's more about the... hmm... rude manner in which the game does it. More control over the process would have been good.

      I can think of a few ways this could have been done. One would be to give the player total control: add a "switch parties" button. For Frodo's and Aragorn's groups, this could work essentially any time, since there's no need to coordinate these time-wise. For Aragorn and Merry, it may be necessary to add certain blocks in the world - geographic choke-points (e.g. the path to Edoras, the path to Isengard, etc.) where you are told you cannot proceed this way until you've advanced further with the other party. So, the plot still enforces certain limitations, but you get full control.

      Another way would be to use the present system, but make it gentler. For example, suppose that the game would first deploy a prompt: "It is time to see what Frodo and Sam are up to. Are you ready? Y/N". The player could decline, but a minute or two later, he'd be told that soon he will be switched automatically, but he can also switch straight away if he's ready. Finally, another minute or two later, the switch goes through the way it currently does. Doing it this way would at least make the player more aware of the coming switch, and they'd have time to get used to it (though I think this concept is probably least useful - it's nowhere near as good as player-controlled switching, and doesn't add that much to the present system).

      And finally, simplest of all, you could stick with the present system, but add a text window before the transition. The thing that's "rudest" about the present system is that here you are, about to do something, and suddenly, no warning - bam, here's Frodo and Sam. If you instead first had a text window with your current party still visible underneath, telling you, for example, that you settle in for the night, blah, blah, blah, and meanwhile, it's time to see what Frodo is up to, then the switch over to the other party wouldn't be so shocking. In theory, this is what the book-style windows are supposed to be doing, but they fail, because they suddenly switch you to a different screen - it's just very jarring - and because they don't do ewnough to wrap up your present party's situation (IIRC, usually they don't say a word at all).

      Or... you know, cutscenes. Like, is it me, or does The Two Towers feature fewer cutscenes than Vol. 1 did? Cutscenes would be much better for transitions. But, as I commented under the previous entry for Vol. 2, this is a game that struggles to make up its mind if it wants to be a fully-blown CRPG, relying on graphics, or a sort of digitised tabletop RPG, where the emphasis is placed on the DM telling you the story in second-person dialogue boxes. It's very interesting to compare this one with Origin's Ultima VI. Very similar games in many ways, and yet... so utterly different.

    3. As much as I don't like the constant yanking back and forth, I think it would have been even worse if the game had featured one complete adventure, then another. Probably the thing to do would have been to jettison all but one thread entirely. Only the Aragorn/Gimli/Legolas group really makes any sense in a classic RPG sense anyway. The hobbits could have been NPCs.

      Jakub, you offer some good alternatives. This game hasn't had cut scenes at all so far.

  14. Sorry for off topic comment, but did Chester once do a post where - for fun - he went through a list of games that while definitely not CRPG's still fit the blogs ruleset to qualify one? I'm sure I remember reading one once, but can't find it in the archives.


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