Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Game 338: SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor (1992)

         
SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor
United States
Tsunami Productions (developer), ASCII Entertainment Software (publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 27 July 2019

I was recently reminded of a nine-year old entry in which I remarked on the considerable variances in spell systems between fantasy RPGs. A lot of the stuff I said in the first year of blogging was ignorant nonsense, but this entry holds up. My thesis was that while many CRPGs may offer near-identical experiences when it comes to character attributes, equipment, NPC interactions, and combat, their approaches to magic are so variable as to almost be a fingerprint. "Fully describe the magic system of any game," I said, "and there's a decent chance that your description applies only to that game, or at least only to games in that series." I then analyzed a number of categories in which spell systems varied.
             
The Ultima series was a good title to encapsulate the argument because it doesn't even maintain spell consistency within the series. Every entry is unique. I think the series reached its apex in Ultima V, which featured the "syllable" system as well as the reagent system. I call it the apex, but the system was also full of unrealized potential. There were a couple of unlisted spells that you could figure out if you understood the logic behind syllables and reagents, but otherwise the spells were mostly handed to you in a spellbook. I'd like to see the same system in which the player has to figure out almost every spell, and moreover can create some fantastic combinations. If in Ultima V, KAL XEN summoned a creature and VAS FLAM created a great ball of fire, I don't see why KAL VAS XEN FLAM wouldn't summon a great creature of fire.
          
I agree that neither "accomplishment" nor "danger" seem like this guy's strong suits.
           
One thing that never makes sense to me about spells in Dungeons and Dragons settings is how relentlessly predictable they are. It makes no sense that if a mage can summon a fireball, he can only summon an enormous fireball that covers a 69-square area and does deadly damage to everyone within it. Once you know how to pull fire out of thin air, you ought to be able to figure out how to halve or double the recipe. A lot of other games give you the ability to vary the intensity of a spell without having to change to a completely different spell. This was one area in which Disciples of Steel improved upon the Gold Box engine.
          
SpellCraft offers a little of what I'm looking for in both areas. Its spells are created like recipes--a combination of "aspect" items (not unlike Elvira II in this regard), ingredients, and magic words, some of which can be varied to produce different effects. I'm a little hesitant to call the system exactly what I'm looking for because I don't think there's a lot of logic to the aspects and ingredients. But it may be that I just haven't experienced the system long enough yet.
             
A few hours?! The tailwinds were kind this day.
           
SpellCraft was conceived by Joseph Ybarra, the Electronic Arts executive who had produced the first Bard's Tale games, Starflight, and Legacy of the Ancients (among others). In between presiding over the last days of Infocom (1988-1990) and taking a producer role at 3DO (1995), Ybarra ran his own company, drawing in Karl Buiter, creator of Sentinel Worlds and Hard Nova. Most references to Ybarra's company call it Ybarra Productions, and indeed that's the title the team used for Shadow of Yserbius (1993) and Alien Legacy (1994), but for a while at the beginning he must have flirted with "Tsunami Productions." Anyway, SpellCraft seems to be a completely original conception; I can find nothing like it in Ybarra's history nor the histories of any of the programmers.
        
The manual features one of the worst-written backstories that we've encountered in a long time. (The manual is otherwise okay.) I'd blame Karl Buiter of "You beat me?!...I am destroyed" fame, but he's not credited on the manual. I spent a few paragraphs trying to deconstruct how bad it is, and why it's bad, but it was taking so long I may actually save it for an entire entry. I invite you to click on that link, go to Page 6, and make any sense of it. This is the type of manual that could only have gotten past the production standards of a Japanese company running an American office.
          
Security tightened after it became a UNESCO site.
            
The upshot is that magic was around on Earth for a long time, but its abuses led some wizards to create (or move to) the separate realm of Valoria. While the use of magic in "Terra" dwindled to weak cantrips and soothsaying, in Valoria wizards wielded devastating power and warred among themselves for centuries. Eventually, they came together in a Council of the Wise and elected a Magister to lead them, and war settled down into healthy competitions instead of all-out slaughter.
       
Unfortunately, the testing of atomic bombs in the 1940s on Terra happened to coincide with some powerful magic rituals in Valoria, with the result that a major rift opened between the two worlds. Here, the manual transitions to the game's opening segments, though imperfectly because in-game screens say the rift is "tiny" and it was discovered recently. (Fortunately, the in-game text seems to have been penned by someone more competent than the manual backstory author.) The Magister, Garwayen, suggested that the council close the rift so that "our worlds would not come into conflict," but the rest of the council--six wizards aligned to different "colleges" of magic--voted to enlarge it so they could conquer Terra. As if this wasn't bad enough, Garwayen thinks that enlarging the rift will damage the "very fabric of reality" and thus potentially destroy both realms.
            
Yeah, we'll see how your "Fireball" spells perform against our ballistic missiles.
           
Garwayen, "old and feeble" and unable to stop his six colleagues, looked for someone "born under the same conjunction of stars" who could absorb his magic. He found the answer in Robert Garwin, an American with "a modest life of no great accomplishment and no great danger." Garwin unexpectedly receives a ticket to England from his "Uncle Gar" with the promise of an inheritance on the other end. Following "Gar's" instructions, Garwin flies to Heathrow, rents a car, drives to Stonehenge, gets teleported to Valoria, and soon finds himself Garwayen's apprentice.
             
The images are now in sync with the text.
            
The player's first choice is to pick a primary college of magic from among the classic four elements. Irene happened to be walking by as the choice was presented to me, and I decide to test the depth of my knowledge of my wife by giving the options to her. The issue was never what element she'd choose (fire), or how she'd make the choice ("Fire! Fire! Fire!" with a manic gleam in her eye) but whether she'd even let me finish reading the sentence before giving her answer. She had just come home from battling tourist traffic along the coast, so I'm proud to say that she did not.
            
          
The game eases you into its conventions with a few tutorials, starting with the creation of the first spell. In my case, it was "Fire Barrier," a defensive spell. Creating a spell requires first selecting its "aspect" from among 48 potential objects you can collect. You then have to choose how many of that aspect to use in the spell's creation, plus how many standard ingredients--powders, stones, candles, and jewels--will also go into it. Finally, you associate a "magic word" with the spell, which is really just a textual representation of the spell level. The first level of fire-based spells are all LUX, for instance.
         
Mixing a new spell.
       
You get these recipes from a variety of sources, including arcane hints in the manual and NPC dialogue, but in this case Garwayen just told me what ingredients to use.
             
Garwayen explains where to find information about spells.
         
Once the spell is created, you have to go to your spellbook to mix any number of iterations of the spell, capped by how many ingredients you have on-hand. You can also make modifications, by adding more of some ingredients, thus hoping to vary the spell's power or effects. Whether this works or not is governed by the "elasticity" of the ingredients, which you're told during the initial spell's creation.
         
A full description of the spell accompanies its creation.
        
A spellbook that came with the game seems to have blanks for all possible spells, plus partial information for a lot of them. I imagined that the player is meant to fill in these blanks as he discovers new spells, so that's what I started doing. I'm not sure that the "aspects" make any logical sense. Each is a physical object but has an "aspect of" something else. For instance, a fishook has an "aspect of pinpricks" which kind-of makes sense, but the domino mask has the "aspect of falling birds," which makes no sense at all.
           
God damn those shriners!
        
Garwayen then dropped a surprise in telling me that the various wizards won't be defeatable with magic. For that, I'll need a regular weapon. He gave me a Sword of Striking to use, then tossed me into the Earth Domain to check it out.
       
When you're on a mission in Valoria, the interface changes to an axonometric window with environmental objects, enemies, and treasure chests. The numberpad moves the character, the function keys select spells, and the ENTER key casts them. The SPACE bar cycles the bottom-left window through a couple of options, including character statistics and a map. All of these actions have mouse alternatives. I feel like the graphics, good in the rest of the game, degrade significantly in the exploration window.
             
Enemies--in this case, something that looks like an orc--head for you the moment that they see you. Unfortunately, physical combat is pretty pathetic. You simply adopt a combat posture with a single keystroke and the game fights for you. If you hit any other key while in combat, you return to a non-combat posture. A single "life" bar indicates both health and spell points. It recharges relatively quickly as you walk about the environment. An early-game character can't defeat more than one enemy on a single health bar, but you can defeat one, then run around before engaging the next. (In the early game, at least, the character moves faster than enemies.) 
            
I send a fireball streaking towards an orcish creature in the Earth Domain. A chest is available for pickup to my south.
         
Enemies drop bags of items (spell aspects and ingredients) when defeated. Chests scattered about the world deliver these in greater volume. When you've defeated all the enemies and collected all the chests, you return to your home base--a "Stone Circle" that has its own health bar for reasons that must become apparent later--via a keystroke.
          
I ran three practice missions fighting orcs before Garwayen decided we'd better move on. He had me create a "Fireball" spell (red fez aspect, three powders, six candles) and then sent me to fight more orcs. I used the spell for a couple of them, but I defeated most in combat to conserve ingredients.
          
Logging the "Star Healing" spell in the spellbook.
         
For the next spell, he wanted me to create something called "Star Heal," from the "ether" college, but he would only tell me that the "aspect grows naturally" and that the "proportions for the spell are one and three." I consulted the spellbook and found only one "personal modifier" spell with 1 of one thing (the aspect) and 3 of the other (stones). Of aspects that "grow naturally," I only had garlic and onions. Garlic and 3 stones turned out to be the answer.
          
A map of Terra shows me the magic hot spots. I guess Oceania doesn't have any.
        
At this point, the game took an odd turn, as Garwayen sent me back to Terra to purchase some more ingredients--particularly two vials of white liquid. I was presented with a world map, $20,000 cash, a pomegranate, and the ability to travel to Salem, Massachusetts (USA); Teotihuacan, Mexico; Pompeii, Italy; and back to Stonehenge. Each one-way ticket cost at least a few hundred dollars. At each location, I could talk to an NPC and buy or sell ingredients from him.
           
Trading ingredients.
        
Stonehenge's NPC was a hippie named David Greenbriar who wanted a magic pomegranate so much he was willing to pay $10,000, so that bolstered my initial funds. In Salem, I made contact with Selina, a guide at the Witch Museum (this was accompanied by what I can attest is a real photo of Salem's Washington Square), who told me to return if I ever found the Book of Witches. In Teotihuacan, a medicine woman promised to teach me a new magic word if I brought back an opal from the Fire Domain. Pompeii's NPC was an English tourist interested in ancient artifacts. In each location, I bought 5 of any ingredient they were selling that I didn't have. I still had over $27,000 when I returned to Stonehenge, so maybe I was a bit conservative on my first trip.
         
I think I might have met this NPC in real life.
           
(Aside: As a former resident of Salem who really got into the history of the city, I don't care for it when movies, television shows, books, and games suggest that the city was ever the site of any "real" magic and witchcraft. I have a particular distaste for the choice of the Salem Police Department to put a classic witch-on-a-broomstick on its departmental patch. Between 1692 and 1693, twenty residents of Salem were executed on false accusations of witchcraft, and I feel like it insults their memory to suggest that the accusations were anything but unfounded hysteria. I do appreciate, however, how the various museums of the city use the "witch" title to lure in tourists--but then give them a sober account of a tragic history.)
         
The session wrapped up with the creation of a new spell called "Steam Vapor" that required me to interpret a clue from a quote in the manual. After that, I got access to my workshop, where I can create and modify spells.
         
This is a pretty sweet pad.
        
Looking into the mirror in the workshop shows character statistics and inventory. It suggests among other things that I will eventually find other weapons and armor upgrades plus various magic "totems." My maximum health has doubled (from 50 to 100) since I started the game; I don't know if this is the result of solving missions, defeating enemies, or both. Either way, it counts as a sort-of character development that qualifies the game as an RPG. I assume my attack and defense scores can also increase.
          
The "character sheet."
           
Two subsequent missions took me to the Air Domain and the Fire Domain. The Air Domain looked like it was covered in snow, though it was supposed to be clouds, and stepping off the clouds results in instant death. The Fire Domain cracked me up because it's just like the Earth Domain except all the trees are on fire and the lakes and rivers have lava instead of water. How did the trees grow there in the first place? The Fire Domain had more orcish monsters, but the Air Domain gave me phantom-like air creatures. These enemies have been easy enough to defeat with my sword so far. I assume that changes.
        
The Fire Domain is serious about its theme.
         
Both of the areas had special large chests to find. One had the Teotihuacan woman's fire opal; the other had 12 bottles of green liquid and 14 jewels. The green liquid is apparently the base of a powerful mind magic spell, but Garwayen says I need someone on Earth to give me the magic word first.
           
Fighting ghostlike creatures in the Air Domain. The game notes that this mission has 3 enemies, 1 large chest, and 1 small chest left to find.
        
I like the spell creation system and the hub-and-mission approach. Jetting around the real world is weird but inoffensive. I look forward to seeing how SpellCraft develops. I'm glad I didn't reject it.
    
Time so far: 3 hours


90 comments:

  1. That page in the manual reads like somebody tried putting their own spin on Yoda's "We are luminous beings" speech; is life magic, does life make magic or vice versa, etc. It's just incredibly poorly worded.

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    1. I can't decide whether my favorite parts are:

      1. When the author seems to think that Aztecs were contemporaneous with ancient Greeks and Romans.

      2. When the author begins a paragraph, "Meanwhile: Cooperation."

      3. The paragraph that begins "Thus was born Valoria," despite having no preceding material that sensibly leads to such a transition.

      4. "Science: the harsh discipline" appearing in the middle of a paragraph that has nothing to do with science or harshness or discipline.

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    2. Maybe I've just spent too much time with RPG manuals and player backstories, but the writing doesn't seem that bad to me. It isn't particularly GOOD, of course, but I've seen a lot worse attempts at a mystical style of writing. For that matter, I've DONE a lot worse when a player decided to probe into something unexpected and had to spin a load of magibabble on the spot.

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    3. I see your "poor manual writing", and raise you "poor manual translations".

      Growing up in Israel during the 80's, initially I wasn't aware that computer games had manuals, came in a box, or are something you can actually buy as opposed to copy. It's not just that piracy was rampant - the legal alternative did not exist; I honestly don't think there were any stores selling imported games.

      This started to change during the late 80's, and by the 90's somebody even started a company that offered localized versions of foreign games. Said localization was a horrible, half-arsed, as-cheap-as-it-get affair. Fortunately they didn't modify the games themselves, just the manuals and the boxes they came in. Problem was, those horrible, half-arsed affairs cost half as much as the original imports, and were much more readily available.

      It was before the age of machine translation, so I truly don't know how they could've done such a spectacularly bad job. I mean, some of those translations bordered on Dadaism.

      An example is in order. The one that springs to mind comes from an Ultima game, pretty sure it was VII. I never did get a look at the English manual, but (by conjecture) I'm led to believe the original line went something like "After the horrors that shook Britannia". Well, I suspect the translator did not know what "horrors" meant, looked it up in a dictionary, chose the most archaic Hebrew equivalent possible, and after some unfortunate conjugations the result was: "After farts that shook Britannia".

      Almost worth the admission price.

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    4. "After the horrors that shook Britannia" - probably quakes, not horrors, as global earthquakes following the Ultima IV conclusion were the basis for both Ultima V's and VI's stories. There's definitely a more recognizable line connecting earthquakes to farts, even if the result is ridiculous.

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    5. It's a bloated and overblown effort to sound grand that fails to convey anything useful. One of the reasons I can't get into Wheel of Time; the writing is so boring and overdone.

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    6. You're probably right, ududy. Apart from "Quakes that shook Britannia" making more sense lore-wise (and as a coherent sentence), the (mis)translation checks out.

      פלצות, the archaic word I suggested as a poor translation for "horrors", would also work as a poor translation for "quakes". I even managed to find an example online.

      The similarity of those words does not seem to result from any etymological path between "earthquake" and "fart" however - as amusing as that could be. Just a happy coincidence.

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    7. "I truly don't know how they could've done such a spectacularly bad job."

      The translated instruction manuals of East Asian consumer electronics products were legendary in English-speaking countries for being not merely awful, but outright incomprehensible gibberish long before any kind of machine translation was a thing.

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    8. Oh, sure. It was a common joke in the 1980s. But here, all signs are that the manual was written by an American. At least, that's how it's credited. My point was that the "publisher," who would normally be in charge of such things, was really just a couple of American agents of a Japanese company. Thus, they wouldn't have had any competent supervision when it comes to the English language. This is all hypothesis, of course. Until I make contact with someone involved in development and production, I'm just guessing.

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    9. The Asia thing happens because there's always someone in the company who "knows English" and it falls on this person to do all the translating. Since the rest of the company doesn't know English, they lack the competency to check. Plus if the person admits he doesn't know English well enough to translate, he'll lose his job. So the problem will not get better.

      Moreover the proper method of doing translations is a native speaker of the TARGET language takes the SOURCE documents and translates them. Asian countries do it backwards, which is guaranteed to be less than optimal even under optimal conditions.

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    10. Addict, I just skimmed over the manual, and I believe examples 2-4 in your "favorite parts" list are the result of a typesetting error. I think those non-sequiturs were originally meant to be subheaders.

      The text makes more sense when read this way, no?

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  2. Yay! You decided to review the game after all. Glad you like it so far.

    I have two clear recollections from playing Spellcraft - puzzling out the spell recipes, and the death animations you get when you fail to mix them correctly.

    I really enjoyed the puzzling out part, not least because the game makes you use hints from the manual. I always liked "feelies" - to use the Infocom term - I find it makes for a much more immersive experience.

    The death animations, I enjoyed considerably less. They ghave nothing on the gory death screens of Elvira or Waxworks, but they were plenty disturbing to my 9-10 year old self. I remember covering my eyes before mixing up any new spells, then slowly peeking between my fingers to check if my character was on fire, or has worms poking out of his face...

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    1. If it makes you feel any better, I don't think they're "death" animations. You don't have to reload or anything when you screw up a spell. You just lose the ingredients. I think the animations show unfortunate but non-fatal things happening to the character.

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    2. Ha! This reassurance comes 27 years too late. I'm mostly over the trauma by now.

      I'm not 100% sure, but IIRC you DO die when you fail the mixing. Possibly you don't suffer any ill effects at this point because it's still early in the game. Won't say any more, spoiler territory.

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    3. Ah, well thanks for the warning. That would be cruel since the game often only gives you partial formulas.

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  3. Your main character looks like he stepped out of an A-ha video.

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    1. What is he doing with his hand?

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    2. He's almost as bad as the brovatar.

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    3. My impression was that he has had one too many plastic surgeries or Botox injections. Kind of creepy looking.

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    4. He sort of looks like an ersatz Patrick Swayze to me.

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    5. "ersatz Patrick Swayze"

      Spot on.

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    6. Does that make him a ghost?

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  4. This looks really interesting. I wonder how I could miss that game back in the day, it was my prime cRPG/PC time.

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    1. It was very, very easy to miss. I'm not sure where I read it, but it seems the game was released to very little fanfare, Broderbund (the publisher) barely attempting to advertise it.

      Coupled with the fact the game was by an unknown developer, and its being somewhat "between genres" - small wonder it's all but unknown.

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    2. I was about to object to Brøderbund being the publisher, but now I see that their sticker is on the box saying "Distributed by Brøderbund." So now I don't know what to make of any of these relationships. Most sites give the developer as "Tsunami," which appears nowhere in the materials. ASCIIware appears prominently in the materials, but the company was clearly only the publisher, as at the time it consisted of about two guys working out of a California office for a Japanese corporation. Brøderbund appears nowhere in the documents but is mentioned on the box. Perhaps someone in the industry could enlighten me if there's a key difference between the "publisher" and the "distributor."

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    3. A lot of publishers handle distribution, but they don't have to necessarily. The publisher can handle funding, direction, quality control and whatever other executive decisions need to be made, but then employ a distributor to market and sell the product to retailers.

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    4. Obviously, the distributor wont have any influence on the product in this case, but a retailer might think 'Oh Broderbund has given us good stuff in the past, so we'll take this as well'.

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    5. Broderbund had a big distribution network back in the day. I think they distributed Origins games for a period in the 80s!

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    6. Publishers also distributing the game wasn't a given back in the day, if I remember my video game history correctly. The logistics of moving all those boxes around to wholesalers wasn't something small publishers could do. And there were some later publishers who started as distributers, but I can't remember any names. I think it was one of the French ones?

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    7. Distributors often enter the picture when it comes to overseas releases. Nowadays the big publishers have distribution networks in both the US and Europe, but back in the day you'd have US publishers work with European distributors and vice versa for overseas releases. Sometimes distributors would also handle translations if that was their specialty.

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    8. The digital antiquarian has gone over these things in some detail. He covered Brøderbund quite extensively iirc.

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  5. Didn't Legend already give you the possibility of combining runes and reagents to your heart's desire to create new exciting spells? Granted, the spell effects themselves were not much of a puzzle, but figuring out a combination that'd fit a particular room's puzzle often was.

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  6. I actually finished this entire game back in the day, having no doubt bought it based on the box art (which looked cool, IIRC). I lost interest in most games that dragged on, but this one held me til the end. I still have my old, photocopied manual pages marked in pencil where I discovered spells, I think...IIRC, fire was my chosen domain as well, although there were certainly points during the game where I saw potential benefits in all the schools, so it's probably well-balanced. Glad to see you play it - it is really unique; think you'll enjoy it. Looking forward to reading your entries. P.s. - pretty sure five of each thing is way too conservative, if I recall. There will come a day when you will, as the game's title suggests, be slinging spells left and right and using your sword as a qeapon of last resort. Better get those ingredients up to 99 or 999 or whatever the max is. I don't remember if prices change throughout the game, or if you are ever able to engage in price arbitrage among the vendors / allies on Earth?

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    1. I was about to call B.S. because I read your first sentence as "I actually finished this entire game in a day." I've been playing for 10 hours, and it feels like I'm still in the tutorial. How many total hours do you think the game lasts?

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  7. "twenty residents of Salem were executed on false accusations of witchcraft, and I feel like it insults their memory to suggest that the accusations were anything but unfounded hysteria"

    Yeah. I think its fine to put witches in Salem, but I think the victims of the hysteria should be as innocent as they were in reality.

    ---

    Neverwinter Nights at least had spell feats, but they weren't handled in a very interesting way, they basically just meant that the buff/damage spells you relied on could be spread across more spell levels.

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    1. IIRC, some tabletop D&D spell feats & class abilities got a little closer to what Chet was looking for in terms of modifying spell attributes. I can see how implementing all of those rule-based exceptions in to a game engine would probably be more trouble than they would be worth.

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    2. I liked how the TV series Salem handled it in its first season (the show kinda went downhill from the second season on): there were real witches in Salem, but they were the ones stirring the witchfinding hysteria. Their endgame was that all the innocents the townsfolk killed were meant as sacrifices for a satanic ritual. Oh, and those evil real witches were also the protagonists of the series, as the puritans were portrayed as being much worse.

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    3. Putting real witches in Salem changes the story; it means that Cotton Mather et al were basically sensible people doing a reasonable and necessary thing, but they just caught the wrong people.

      Which is very different from the historical truth, of what happened in Salem being a staggering tragedy of institutionalised irrationality and misogyny, and a stark warning of the dangers inherent in entrusting secular authority to inherently irrational organisations. (I'm not using "irrational" here in the sense of an insult, but in the sense that the nature of faith is to be intuitive rather than evidentiary.)

      Real (evil) witches in Salem is rather like saying, "But what if there *was* an evil Jewish conspiracy in Germany, and Hitler just got the wrong Jews?"

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    4. Inexplicable things (in the minds of townsfolk) happened, and innocents were put to death. It's a multifaceted scenario which also includes a dose of misogyny, political power games and theocratic fear-mongering, but I don't think it's comparable to the holocaust (I considered that very scenario as well).

      An imagined world in which witchcraft (conducted by men or women) exists doesn't, to me, carry the same sorts of connotations as an imagined world in which there really was a malignant cabal of Jewish people exploiting the German state.

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    5. And here's the alt-right entryists, telling us not to trust the government. God I hate how they ruin conversations.

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    6. Anonymous's weird contribution aside, what happened in Salem can be understood more as a bitter neighborhood feud that boiled over than a true fear of witchcraft. There were a lot of longstanding issues between various residents that exploded, and they happened to use the systems in place at the time as their mechanism of persecution. Today, in a similar circumstance, you'd have accusations of a "pedophile ring" or something similar.

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    7. I believe Anonymous totally missed the context. GregT's idea is that government enforcement should not be done by emotionally-driven people, but by people enforcing the laws dispassionately. I think Anonymous somehow interpreted that as "all government is bad."

      I have a bit of sympathy for that idea. I have to cringe sometimes when I read tone-deaf posts by both liberals and conservatives that paint "the other side" onto straw men. For example, turning "SJW" - Social Justice Warrior - into some sort of evil marauding force rather than a hero who wants to help people makes me see red. On the other side, liberals who paint all religious people and conservatives as stupid don't win my approval either.

      In this case, I think the original article and most of the comments are well-reasoned. They show the important ability to step back from an emotionally charged subject and discuss it dispassionately.

      (Sorry to write so much on something so trivial - Just stepping up on my soapbox.)

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  8. I guess a ticket from Uncle Gar about an inheritance is a little more believable than an email from a Nigerian prince, but I'd like to believe that I'd be skeptical enough to do some research before jumping on a plane. Maybe we were all a little more trusting in the early 90's.

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    1. If Uncle Whatshisname actually sent me a plane ticket with the invitation to Stonehenge I'd be on that plane without a second thought.

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    2. Ah, the days when you could just "send" people plane tickets.

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    3. That would make a hilarious intro to a game...

      "You have been summoned by a rich and powerful Nigerian prince.
      "I tried contacting many others, but they never responded to my emails...."

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    4. Someone ought to make a comedy about a real Nigerian prince who desperately wants to move money out of the country but can't find any takers, even at the most generous terms.

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  9. "If in Ultima V, KAL XEN summoned a creature and VAS FLAM created a great ball of fire, I don't see why KAL VAS XEN FLAM wouldn't summon a great creature of fire."

    Sounds like Magicka(2011) to me. Shame it's not an RPG.

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    1. S. Andrew Swann published a lovely book in 2004 that presented magic-as-breakable-code called Broken Crescent. It's a great idea and I agree that games in that genre (Doodle God is kind of the base idea) could be a lot of fun.

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    2. @Maeralin:magic-as-breakable-code

      I really enjoyed the original Magic system in Asheron's Call (Microsoft/Turbine). It required mixing ingredients in the correct order to produce different effects. First level spells may have used 4 ingredients. Each additional spell level added another ingredient. It took real research to discover the formula for a spell. For example, even if there were only 10 possible ingredients, there would be 10,000 possible combinations at first level.

      To make matters even more interesting, Microsoft used cryptography to ensure that each player's spells were unique to that player -- when your mage friends revealed their formulas to you, it didn't help you at all!

      They added another quirk: the spell economy. On each world/server, the power of each spell was inversely related to how often it was used, so that frequently used spells became progressively less powerful.

      Even failed research burned up the ingredients. As you might imagine, developing new spells required a substantial investment of in-game gold (for ingredients) and time.

      In this environment, it was often more fun to work through the cryptography than to conduct endless trial and error to discover a new spell. If both you and your friend had decent spell libraries, you could find the unique key that would translate his spell recipes into your spell recipes, in effect sharing research among the two of you.

      These magic fundamentals led many players to learn how to control their characters with macros. It was very common to see players standing in a cloud of dust from failed experiments, while running through all of the possible spell combinations. Successful combinations were permanently stored in your spellbook for future use.

      Delete
  10. I don't think people would put Salem as a generic American mystical place so much if it weren't for the town and a non-insignificant number of residents trying to hype the town up as a mystical place of magic. Not that I don't disagree with what you said though.

    The PC looks like someone colorized a picture of a silent film actor. I can't look at that and not think they had a picture of the lead from Metropolis.

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    1. No, I agree. The museums do a good job of keeping it real, but the rest of the town is shameless--particularly since a lot of the events took place in what is now Danvers.

      Delete
  11. Was it Nahlakh the shareware RPG that allowed you to deduce spells from other spells?

    Like for example if VAS FLAM was "mass fire" and IN FRIZ was "cold missile", then VAS FRIZ and IN FLAM would work as well.


    And also you'd learn new spells and spell word combinations from seeing enemies cast them.

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    1. PetrusOctavianusJuly 30, 2019 at 2:40 PM

      Yes. I found myself videoing the battles against spell casters so that I could see which spells they cast, since the text went by so fast.
      Great game!

      Delete
    2. Would love if Tom Proudfoot made a modern version of it. Even though he has on his website that Helherron is kind of a spiritual successor? But I never tried it.

      Delete
  12. Alien Legacy is a fun game. It was rather buggy, though, as far as I remember, including a crash to DOS with almost no chance to find out what caused it. I hope this one works better.

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    1. Oh man, Alien Legacy was my absolute favorite game when I was growing up. It's one of the few games I've replayed more than once as an adult. It did have some bugs, though. The turn system worked oddly, too. But I loved unlocking technologies and gathering clues and resources from various planets and asteroids. I would love to see a remake, but I know that's not too likely. Even a cleaned-up GOG release would be better than nothing.

      Delete
  13. Given the timing (1992) and the fact that Ybarra developed Shadow of Yserbius for TSN (The Sierra Network, which became INN - the ImagiNation Network)... It seems likely that Ybarra made a deal with Ed Heinbockel of Tsunami Media for Spellcraft.

    I don't know this for certain, but "Tsunami Production" is too close a name. Perhaps Ybarra and Heinbockel considered Ybarra's company to be a satellite developer for Tsunami Media (https://www.mobygames.com/company/tsunami-media-inc).

    Combining the runes for two spells to make a new one - the designers love such ideas, and the developers tear out their hair. It's one thing to say "Fire + Monster = Fire Creature." It's another to animate said creature, balance the stats and abilities for it, etc. An area-effect Fireball is much simpler.

    Dungeon Master came somewhat close to that ideal. The first rune of every spell was the power level. Casting spells at higher level required practice with the easier versions. "Low-power + Flame" created a light spell - basically a magical torch. Adding another rune ("forward motion" or something like that) turned it into a flame dart. I think it took four runes to make an area-effect fireball. I haven't played the game in a long time, so I may have some of those details wrong.

    As for gigantic fireballs, the developers of the CalTech Warlock tabletop system had that concern back in the 1970s. While it was clearly a D&D-inspired system, it had a lot of innovations including more detailed combat mechanics. One of those was a "Mini-ball" spell - a 10' radius fireball instead of the D&D 20' radius.

    Warlock Game Masters all had clear plastic templates for spells. Players would place the template where they intended the spell to go, then would roll dice for "targeting." On a bad targeting roll, they rolled again to determine where the spell actually went. There were detailed rules for how far, which direction, etc.

    Another innovation in Warlock that I haven't seen in most other CRPG or tabletop systems is the effect of weapon type vs. armor type. In Warlock, a dagger is a great weapon against leather armor, decent against chain, and nearly worthless against plate armor or against a skeleton. A mace is less effective against leather, but has full value vs. plate and extra value against skeletons - blunt force vs. cutting vs. stabbing weapons.

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    1. Oh, since CalTech players wanted their game to be "realistic fantasy," they also tried to incorporate physics into their spells. Casting a 20' radius fireball inside a dungeon, players (or the GM) would first calculate the volume - 4/3 * Pi * 20^3 is about 33,510 cubic feet. (Players of course knew these numbers by heart without having to calculate.) Cast into a 20x20x10 dungeon room (4,000 cubic feet), the fireball would expand to fill the room, then the other 29,510 cubic feet would "flush" out to the hallway, lively burning all the players to a crisp.

      A mini-ball was "only" 4,189 cubic feet, so it would barely flush beyond that 20x20x10 room. That was a manageable size for most indoor situations. Fireballs were only used in the wilderness, and most CalTech adventures took place in dungeons.

      Delete
    2. Not to be the guy who starts a sentence with "Actually," but my understanding is that daggers were quite useful against plate armor. Indeed, I seem to recall one historian saying that aside from firearms, more plate-armored knights fell to daggers than any other weapon. The reason is simple - a dagger is very good at getting in between the plates of armor and getting into vitals. The way to kill a knight if you're a foot soldier: unhorse him, get three or four mates to rush him and tackle him, while he's pinned down, use a dagger to stab him in the neck. What's inaccurate is the use of sword swings to get through plate. That would almost never work. A sword would have to be used as a thrusting weapon (such as half-swording) in order to get through the weak points of armor. And for that, a dagger was much more easy to use.

      Delete
    3. Deepening the mystery, I realized today that "Tsunami" appears nowhere at all in the game materials. I'm relying only on web sites to tell me that the developer was "Tsunami Productions." The title screen just credits it to Ybarra himself, and all the packaging and manual credit the game to Asciiware or ASCII Entertainment Software.

      Delete
    4. You could twist yourself into knots on the armor and weapon issue. "Effectiveness" of a weapon vs. armor has several dimensions, including likelihood of hitting at all, likelihood of hitting an exposed spot, damage done if it does hit an exposed spot, and damage done if it hits the armor itself, with separate considerations for different body parts. My understanding is that D&D's AC and weapon damage were supposed to be generalized statistics that aggregated all of these things.

      Delete
    5. AD&D (1st edition) had both of these features. There was a somewhat infamous "Weapon vs AC Type" table which attempted to model the effectiveness of different weapons by applying different "to hit" modifiers based on weapon vs armor type. Longswords, for example, were less effective against heavy armor while flails were more effective (Player's Handbook, pg. 38). We never used it in our games.


      And the "realistic physics" is by the book from the 1st ed AD&D handbook, which even tells you that a fireball will conform to the area cast and fill a volume of 33,000 cubic feet (or yards) (Player's Handbook, pg. 73). The (or yards) is because strangely, the blast area was larger outdoors since it is quoted in "inches" on a miniatures scale, and outdoor inches were measured in 10 yards. So much for realism? we did use the fireballs back-blasting the party, but not the change in scales outdoors.

      Delete
    6. Sorry for meddling, buy maybe you could find these files useful:
      *http://tsdr.uspto.gov/#caseNumber=74219090&caseType=SERIAL_NO&searchType=statusSearch
      *https://cocatalog.loc.gov/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?v1=1&ti=1,1&Search%5FArg=spellcraft&Search%5FCode=TALL&CNT=25&REC=0&RD=0&RC=0&PID=9-3UOs1qj9pLJEf3KNInBiw9IGT&SEQ=20190730163217&SID=1
      *https://cocatalog.loc.gov/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?v1=2&ti=1,2&Search%5FArg=spellcraft&Search%5FCode=TALL&CNT=25&REC=0&RD=0&RC=0&PID=9-3UOs1qj9pLJEf3KNInBiw9IGT&SEQ=20190730163217&SID=1

      Delete
    7. Well, no. I mean, it was a good idea, but the latter two links have nothing to do with this game, and the first one simply indicates that the trademark was registered to the publisher, which is already found in the manual.

      Delete
    8. Sorry about the broken links. They targeted to the United States Copyright Office, which I think it's a very reliable source. Its Spellcraft records mentions Tsunami Productions, Inc. as you can see here:

      Type of Work: Recorded Document
      Document Number: V2771P352
      Date of Recordation: 1992-05-28
      Entire Copyright Document: V2771P352 (Single page document)
      Date of Execution: 26May92
      Title: Spellcraft: aspects of valor.
      Notes: Copyright assignment.
      Party 1: Tsunami Productions, Inc.
      Party 2: Joseph Ybarra.

      Names: Ybarra, Joseph
      Tsunami Productions, Inc.

      Delete
    9. Ah, thanks. Well, that's one official record linking Tsunami to the game, then.

      Delete
    10. Goldbox games actually modeled the indoor/outdoor radius of a fireball differently. Other spells, I don't remember.

      Delete
  14. Hopefully you will play Treasure of the Rudras on SFC at some point. It has a very unique spell system.

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    1. I thought of that one too. The spell system lets you completely define your own spell list by assigning various effects to different syllables. Certain syllables define the element (fire, light, etc), while prefixes and suffixes modify the effect (increase damage, add multitargeting, etc). Some "mantras" (spells) are given to you, and from there you can recombine them and figure out other things that will work. The neat thing is that any combination of syllables will do *something* - but most won't be very efficient with damage per MP cost. Trial and error will only get you so far if you don't know which prefixes will do something useful.

      Delete
  15. The idea on page 7 of the manual that dinosaurs learned magic, and that was what destroyed them, is 100% more interesting than the entire plot of many RPGs.

    I want to play an RPG about T-rex sorcerers and the nightmares they foolishly unleashed.

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    Replies
    1. Nah, that wouldn't work. The sorcerers aren't T-rexes, and the nightmare was on it's way anyway.

      Delete
    2. Azala's a lizard at least, and she both casts magic techs and sends the Black Tyranno boss at the party. Closest thing I could think of! Now if the civilization of Zeal were still dinosaurs, that'd be a bit closer...

      Delete
  16. The trees in the fire realm might be fir trees.

    Cause fire is fir + e, get it?

    ... this pun is utterly terrible even for my standards.

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  17. If anyone is interested in a compositional magic system in a more recent game, I'd recommend checking out Tyranny. Spells are combinations of cores (which determine the root effect), expressions (which determine how the core manifests), and accents, which modify the expression in sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle ways. I liked the game a lot, though I gather it gets a fair bit of hate online.

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  18. That Ybarra guy named his company "Ybarra productions"? I remember that the best shield in Bard's Tale was also named after himself ("Ybarrashield"). Did any other producer impose such a thing?

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    1. I know a guy who made a digital card game. He made incarnations of himself and his girlfriend the head honchos in each of the game's six factions.

      It's the most egregious example of authorial vanity I've seen in any medium.

      Delete
    2. I don't think anyone beats Richard Garriott for authorial vanity both for depth (it's his picture, name, etc. everywhere in the games) and longevity (over 9 games)!

      Delete
    3. Ybarra is also a starving pirate in Ultina VI.

      Delete
    4. That's because of Origin, not Ybarra, Origin was beginning to despise EA and placed a lot of the EA execs as pirates/bad guys throughout the game. Also, (E)lizabeth and (A)braham, the cube/tetrahedron/sphere, etc...

      Delete
    5. to clarify, the trend of Origin despising EA continued in subsequent games like U7 with examples like (E)lizabeth and (A)braham, the cube/tetrahedron/sphere, etc...

      Delete
  19. Several of the pirates in Ultima VI were named after EA people, with their leader being Captain Hawkins. The digs at EA became even more pronounced in VII, with the sinister twins Elizabeth & Abraham, and the Guardian's three generators which are shaped like a cube, sphere, and tetrahedron.

    ReplyDelete
  20. The issue was never what element she'd choose (fire), or how she'd make the choice ("Fire! Fire! Fire!" with a manic gleam in her eye) but whether she'd even let me finish reading the sentence before giving her answer.

    Between that and the "fire" reference in your latest entry, I'm starting to wonder whether your wife looks something like this!

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    1. Nah, she's a perfectly sweet girl who just happens to like to watch enemies burn to death in video games.

      Delete
  21. "ne thing that never makes sense to me about spells in Dungeons and Dragons settings is how relentlessly predictable they are. It makes no sense that if a mage can summon a fireball, he can only summon an enormous fireball that covers a 69-square area and does deadly damage to everyone within it. Once you know how to pull fire out of thin air, you ought to be able to figure out how to halve or double the recipe."

    This is because D&D's magic system was inspired by Jack Vance's Dying Earth setting. In that world, knowledge of magic was lost and what remained were only a few specific formulas.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Is it just me, or does the combat layout for this game look suspiciously similar to Master of Magic?

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    Replies
    1. Having sunk hours and hours into MoM, I can't say that I see any real similarity other than the perspective.

      Delete
  23. "It makes no sense that if a mage can summon a fireball, he can only summon an enormous fireball that covers a 69-square area and does deadly damage to everyone within it. Once you know how to pull fire out of thin air, you ought to be able to figure out how to halve or double the recipe."

    Given that it's magic, I think it can make sense. Magic doesn't have to work like a recipe or scientific formula where each element is entirely predictable. If X + Y + Z makes a fireball, that doesn't automatically mean that X controls the size, Y controls the heat, etc. It may mean that magicians have discovered X + Y + Z makes a fireball but they don't really understand why. Or a god grants the power only if things are exactly right. etc.

    Having magic work on the recipe/formula concept is fine, but it's not the only possibility.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I can't find a video showing all wrong mixing accidents like the "all death animations in Elvira". I'd be delighted if you could make one (or if any fellow reader knew where to find one)

    ReplyDelete

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