Monday, February 3, 2020

Realms of Arkania: Road Trip

Map of my journey this session, including an aborted trip south from Phexcaer (ended at the "X").
My last entry on Realms of Arkania ended negatively, so I'll start positively here. I like what I now see as the game's overall approach:

1. Create a large game world.
2. Seed it with interesting encounters, dungeons, NPCs, and side-quests.
3. Include a main quest that requires the player to plot travel routes through this space.
4. Randomize the order in which clues are received so that no two players take the same route, even if they simply follow the main quest.

This approach makes the most of an open game world, gives a lot of flexibility to the player, and maximizes replayability. And by creating a main quest that is threatening but not critical, the creators provide a logical excuse for detours and side quests rather than making the player invent rationalizations for them.

We've seen this approach done well (e.g., Might and Magic, Ultima VI) and poorly (e.g., MegaTraveller II), and we'll see it again with some of my favorite titles, like Baldur's Gate and Morrowind. The problem is that there are a lot of ways to screw it up. Story for its own sake rarely supplies enough incentive to explore a lot of side areas (particularly in this era of such limited story-telling), so you have to incentivize exploration with rewards such as character development, wealth, and equipment. But you don't want to go overboard, lest you create a situation where all the party's early explorations are extremely hard and all its latter ones are extremely easy.

(Later games would address that concern with level scaling, but I think the concern is a bit overblown in the first place. I'd rather the developers offer a lot of locations of varying difficulty and let the player encounter them organically, choosing whether to tough out difficult locations or save them for later, and choosing whether to massacre Level 1 goblins or let them live in peace. This would maximize replay, too.)

Such incentives are where I think Realms of Arkania does things poorly, though better than either MegaTraveller II or Challenge of the Five Realms. Those games offered essentially no character development, whereas in Arkania it's just extremely limited, particularly in the area of equipment. With half a dozen inventory slots per character and six characters, I don't see any reason why every dungeon shouldn't produce some kind of artifact item except that I guess Das Schwarze Auge's rules discourage it. That isn't to say there haven't been any equipment rewards. The spider dungeon left me with about a dozen vials of poison that really came in handy later, and some other dungeon produced some Molotov cocktails. I've received a few weapon and armor upgrades, mostly of the type that do 3-7 damage instead of 2-6 damage or some other modest increase.
It's hard to get excited about a box full of the same old stuff we already have.
As for other incentives, you naturally get experience points for the battles fought in the side-dungeons and mountain trails and such, but leveling up is slow and rare in this game (3 times in 30 hours), and perhaps worse, it doesn't seem to palpably affect my characters' success. Part of the problem is the restriction that you can only try to level-up each combat skill once per level, and other skills can only be leveled up twice.

Nerfing the increase in combat skills is really galling since combat--and I'm sorry to repeat myself but it bears repeating because it's so bad--takes so goddamned long, mostly because nobody ever hits anyone. Improving everybody's chance of hitting by 100% (enemies, too) would have kept the same level of difficulty but would have made combats go much faster. In other games, spells would reduce combat time, but in Arkania while you have dozens of spells, you can only cast about three before your spell meter is depleted. Restoring it takes multiple nights of rest. There are potions, but they are rare and expensive. Hence, magic doesn't play as much of a role in the game as it should. I'm particularly discouraged from casting buffing spells as I explore dungeons.

Thus, we have a game that's quite enticing in broad strokes but falls apart when you get to some of the details. It deserves a lot of praise for bringing an authentic tabletop experience to the computer, but it deserves a lot of criticism for being perhaps too literal in its adaptation.

As I began this session, I was in far-flung Phexcaer, facing a trip back down river to Vildhome and from there to Thorwal and then to southern cities, where I had a couple more clues. I happened to notice that there was a long route from Phexcaer through forest and mountain to the city of Skelellen, which would allow me to explore the south more systematically, from a region that I probably wouldn't otherwise visit. I decided to take it.

But the way was more treacherous than I imagined. The party got hopelessly mired in a swamp where we lost items of equipment round after round. I finally pulled the plug, reloaded in Phexcaer, and took the original route.
Well, that's a dealbreaker.
I'm not going to narrate stop-by-stop, but the most important thing to know is that I ran out of clues about halfway through the session. After that, I started exploring somewhat systematically, starting with the southern cities, and making careful note of which cities I'd fully explored and which routes I'd taken from city to city. Even though this promised to be a long process, I started to enjoy myself more during it, partly because of the enormous variety of encounters between cities. Some just involved a night on the road, some had a simple encounter with an NPC, and some took me for a two-hour exploration of a two-level dungeon. 

Remember that you're not actually moving your party across the landscape in this game. You just pick where you want to go, and the game shows its progress along the route as the sun moves across the sky. Every night, you're forced to camp. Rather than carry a bunch of food and water, I've typically relied on Bart de Wald's survival, hunting, and tracking skills. As long as he can find both food and water at least once every two nights, which he almost always does, then the party is fine.
Nariell finds dinner.
Similarly, I've stopped carrying a lot of extra equipment like shovels, picks, rope, and blankets for the road. If I run across an encounter that requires them, I'll reload and buy them before setting out. Until then, they just keep pestering me with over-encumbrance messages. I had been living so lavishly at inns (always buying meals, always paying for suites) that I noticed my funds were taking a precipitous dip. I needed those inventory spaces for looted equipment.

Highlights from the road:
  • Outside of Thorwal, I ran into a bard named Olvir who offered to sing us the song of Hyggelik when we camped for the night. We said yes, but he proceeded to sing an extremely long version of the saga, followed by another epic tale of the Hetman of Thorwal. After every hour, the game gave me a chance to tell him to knock it off for the night, but I persisted, and he finally wrapped up at about 4:00 in the morning. His tale would have given us a few new clues, but we'd already visited the NPCs that he mentioned.
  • Upon returning to Thorwal, I finished exploring the Old Fortress. There were three more interconnected levels and some battles with some undead. A lot of chests just served up regular weapons and shields, but one final chest provided us with six bottles of "Hylailic Fire," which seem to hit one creature for 20 damage with 100% accuracy in combat. The last level exited up to a store in the main city, saving us a long trip back. That was nice.
Maybe the game would be better if there were something "even remotely interesting to find" in those old bones?
  • South of Thorwal, in Breida, we met another one of the descendants of Hyggelik's party, Asgrimm Thurboldsson. I tried the conversation several times, but he didn't seem to have a map piece. He just recounted the story of Hyggelik's defeat and his great-grandfather's involvement.
Asgrimm would rather you ask about his great-grandfather than Hyggelik.
  • The NPC Nariell left me when I traveled to Varnhome. I don't know if her departure was random, scripted by location, or scripted by time.
  • In Varnhome, I found my last "clued" NPC whose location I knew for sure, Eliane Windenbek. She agreed to help me if I would destroy an attempt to resurrect worship in an evil god on the island of Hjalland. After I did that, I returned and got my fifth map piece.
An NPC sends me on a small side quest.
  • The only city on Hjalland is Ljasdahl, and its buildings didn't have any hint of the evil god. I was wondering how I could possibly explore the rest of the island with no other city to travel to, but it turns out that Ljasdahl has eastern and western exits, and if you take one, you loop around the island to arrive at the other.
  • In between, I found the "vault," as the game had it. It was two levels, both quite hard because of the combats and the traps. I had to return to Ljasdahl a couple of times for rest, healing, and selling items. I don't know about traps in this game. Some I seem to avoid with high "Danger Sense" or "Perception," but others seem to be pre-programmed to damage the party no matter what. The temple had the first puzzle that required me to split the party (one character had to hold down a lever). I went through the temple smashing all of the god's statues, killed his high priest, overturned his profane altar, and kept a figurine to prove my success to Eliane. A monetary reward in one of the chests for 250 ducats covered my expenses for a long while.
Hitting a priest with a spell.
  • While I was out in the islands, I sailed around a bit looking for the pirate queen, Swafnild Egilsdotter. I finally found her when I stepped on the port square in Prem, but I had the wrong character in the lead position and wasn't able to get a favorable outcome from my questioning. After a reload and a shuffling of the party, she agreed to give me her map piece, but it must have duplicated one I already had because I still just had four.
  • Between Ottarje and Daspota, we elected to stay at an inn for the night. Hearing noises beneath the floorboards in the middle of the night, we soon found ourselves exploring a two-level cellar with zombies and skeletons. The dungeon's final battle was with an alchemist (who had been raising the undead, presumably) and his chest contained an alchemy set, several elixirs, and several recipes--a better "final chest" than most dungeons so far.
There was a cool statue in the dungeon that I couldn't interact with.
  • Daspota is an interesting city. It looks like every other city, but instead of shops, all of the buildings are full of pirates in foul moods. Most visits lead to combats.
Daspota hospitality.
  • Between Daspota and Rybon, we found a dying adventurer who told us that "the Daspota treasure" could be found "ten miles beyond Rybon."
Text is better than nothing, but I'm looking forward to the era in which this just happens, without a textbox describing it to us.
  • Unfortunately, we couldn't progress past Rybon (on the way to Thoss) because it's winter, and that's a narrow mountain pass. I'm not sure if we can't progress period or if we need more cold-weather gear in our inventories before the game will let us try.
What if I'm willing to risk suicide?
I'm debating what to do next. There might be a map piece in Thoss. If not, I'm probably stuck, having screwed up too many opportunities to get the map pieces from the early NPC visits--something for which I would definitely blame the game for not making clear. Even if I get it, and it doesn't duplicate one that I have, I'll only have six, and there are slots for nine. I don't know how many is enough. I also don't know if I need to assemble a certain percentage as a "trigger" or if I can simply visually interpret what I see and use that to find Hyggelik's tomb. If the latter, I would guess it's somewhere near Phexcaer, but a commenter suggested that it's more complicated than that.
Where I am with the map.
Other notes:
  • Broken weapons are seriously annoying. Despite what sounds (from the manual) like low probablity of a weapon breaking in combat, it seems to happen to one of my characters about every two battles. The worst part is, I don't think there's any way to tell that a weapon is broken (if you miss when it happens) aside from returning to a town and seeing if the smith wants to charge you to fix it.
  • I'm playing with sound completely off. There's a grating three-note cacophony that plays every time you open a menu, and I can no longer stand it.
  • Somehow, it escaped me until late in the game that opening the "Information" tool in each town gives you a quick description of the town. This adds some life to the game.
A nice one-paragraph description of an island town.
  • I got my wand fully enchanted this session. Wands can be enchanted in four stages, each one taking almost all your magic points. You have to do it in camp at night. The second stage turns it into a permanent source of light, so you no longer have to cast spells or keep torches. The third stage allows it to conjure 10 paces of rope when you need it; the last reduces the amount of mana needed to cast spells by 2.
  • I tried messing with alchemy, but I didn't have enough recipes to make it useful. This seems like one of those games where it's easier just to sell alchemical ingredients and buy potions.
I think I'm going to linger around Daspota for a while, using the pirates as an excuse to grind some experience points (maybe I'll gain a level) and wait for winter to be over so I can continue to Thoss. If you think I'm in danger of a "walking dead" situation because of those map pieces, I won't turn down a hint.

Time so far: 30 hours


  1. I am playing the game too, close to finishing it now and enjoying it despiste its flaws
    You need at least 7 maps pieces, the game will tell you When is enought
    Yes, you have to go to Thoss. I Crossed the pass earlier in my game several times with not especial gear, just not in winter.
    I think the pĂ­rate queen told you she WILL give you her map piece, you have to met her again

    Go on, you almost have this game

    1. No, he already has Swafnild's piece. The reason it didn't add to the map is that (ROT13) vg ercynprf gur bar ur tbg sebz Uwber Nueraffba rneyvre, juvpu jnf n snxr.

    2. yeah, you don't need all map pieces but I couldn't recall how much you need.

    3. Your just have to compare the map pieces with the screenshot from the previous Arkania post. You can see the difference.

    4. Weapons get damaged befor they break. You can repair them using a grindstone.
      You need to use 2 spelles to identify magic items in the loot and to identify what good they are. In Daspota there are magical weapons that never break. Attributes and Talents improve your fighting skills.

  2. While you're grinding Daspota, I recommend closely examining the loot you get. It may not look exciting, but occasionally there's more to an item than you can see at first glance.

    If I recall correctly, the game will tell you if a weapon is broken when you examine it by dropping it on the eye icon on the inventory screen.

    1. Maybe in the next one, but in this one, the eye never tells me anything.

    2. I played this game for the first time a couple of months ago, and haven't played the sequels, so I'm fairly sure my recollection is accurate: generally the eye icon gave no additional information, but the "broken" status was the only exception to his. Normally the text given was just the name of the item, but if used on a broken weapon, the text was "[weapon name] (broken)", or something like that. Still, they sure did make it difficult to find that information.

      The version I played was the one available on

    3. Is it possible for a weapon to be damaged but not broken? Because I have a sword that the blacksmith wants to charge me to repair, but which the eye icon isn’t telling me is “broken.” It’s been like that the whole game.

    4. The eye icon also tells you if an item is a magic item, after you identify it with odem arcanum

    5. A weapon can be damaged without being broken. In RoA1 only Blacksmiths can see the damage.

    6. The way it works is that each weapon has a "breaking point": 1 for really heavy stuff like a two-handed hammer, 1-3 for more delicate things like rapiers. Each time your character rolls a fumble, this breaking point is tested with a d20 roll. If you roll at or below breaking point, the weapon breaks; if you don't, the breaking point goes up by 1. So you'll probably have damaged weapons most of the time, and the chance these break after an increase or two is non-negligible. Across 6 characters, with combats taking 10+ rounds easily, weapons WILL break.

    7. That solves that mystery. Thank you.

  3. "you can only try to level-up each combat skill once per level"
    That is not true. You cen "try" several times, you can only INCREASE it once. So if you miss, try again! That may eat up some points, but better waste 5 points then not increasing at all.

    1. Yes, to be more precise, you can try up to three times but only increase it once. Still doesn't make a huge difference.

  4. Ah, and you should have continued your trip south of Phexcaer. Or you try to attempt it from the south. It think that way you have the possibility to skip that nasty swamp.

  5. I know at least two more possibilities for map pieces, both ramdom encounters:
    1. Gurer vf n geniryyvat zrepunag jub pna fryy lbh bar znc cvrpr (enaqbz rapbhagre)
    2. Vs lbh gnxr gur ebhgr nebhaq gur ynxr sebz Curkprne, gurer vf n punapr gb zrrg n havpbea gung pna srgpu nal znc cvrpr lbh ner zvffvat.

    1. At this (German) page, there is a tabular listing of all NPCs which have a map piece or give a hint:

      Below the listing there is also a picture of the map, so don't scroll down too far, if you want to avoid the spoiler.

      The original site was taken offline a few weeks ago, and its contents are in the process of being merged into another page, so I posted the link to the latest snapshot of the Internet Archive.

    2. The new link is here:

    3. Ah, I see. Thanks for looking it up.

    4. Fortunately, I found them before I needed a hint. Though I did need a hint on a couple other things.

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  7. I think the special winter gear "just" reduces the chance you get sick in the mountains

  8. I don't know if you're using archery. It's annoying you can only shoot in 4 directions, but after some practice you learn how to position your melee fighters (3) and your archers so that your archers have a free line of sight to the enemy on every turn. Archery hit rates are much better than melee hit rates, enough so that it's worth the effort to position your characters. At least that was my experience, but I should add that I tried to build decent archers from the start. I don't remember fights taking very long, but melee combat itself was always a drunken men slapstick affair.

    1. No, I haven't been using archery. One of my complaints is that if you don't prioritize a weapon at the beginning, it takes too long to get good with it later (because of the one-increase-per-level cap).

  9. Sometimes when I'm especially frustrated at a game like X-Com, I feel that the game should (in secret) only allow so many misses in a row. Missing turn after turn of attacks starts to feel less tense, less like a consequence of the system, and more like the game is just screwing you over as time goes on.

    1. Recent titles actually do this. Both of the new X-COM games, and Pillars of Eternity AFAIK, have secret algorithms that, at lower/normal difficulty levels, increase the chance of hitting with each miss. The math is "true" only at highest difficulty.

    2. Interestingly, the Firaxis XCOMs do exactly this -- on I think all difficulty levels except the top one, the game gives you an invisible bonus to your next shot if you miss one that was highly likely to hit. Pretty sure there's nothing like that in the old-school X-Coms, though!

    3. Unfortunately, confirmation bias being what it is, that hasn't stopped a steady of players from becoming convinced the computer's cheating against them.

    4. Another way to coerce randomness to be what "feels" right is to roll twice and average the results, then compare to the target number. This makes high percentages hit more often and low percentages hit less often.

    5. Game Maker's Toolkit just did an interesting video about how these kinds of randomness work:

  10. That text about the dying woman probably took someone five minutes to write, though. Whereas showing it in a cut scene in something like Skyrim would probably take a day-long motion capture shoot, plus a week of an animator's time to make it look good on the in-engine character skeleton, plus another couple of days to record and mix the dialog audio. And that's assuming you just use a generic NPC character model.

    That's basically why modern studios need teams of hundreds of developers to make games that have even close to the amount of content that a team of five people was able to create back in this era.

    I think the sprite-based cut scenes we see in the mid- to late-90s will be a really good balance between visual expressiveness and difficulty of authoring, but, unfortunately, technology moved on.

    Admittedly, I'm thinking mainly of console JRPGs here; I'm not sure how widely adopted that storytelling format was in CRPGs. Baldur's Gate or Planescape would probably be the most graphically relevant comparison, but I'm not super familiar with either.

    1. Planescape: Torment has MOUNTAINS of text. Cutscenes of any kind, let alone voice clips, are only used for the most significant of events.

      I tend to dislike games that totally rely on text to convey lots of information. Unless the writing is truly exceptional, I end up skimming and not really paying attention. Even Gold Box games occasionally use full-screen pictures to give some "oomph" to big moments. Between the font and reliance on text, I would have quit playing both this game and Darklands long before the end.

    2. The text in Torment was great... the worst thing was that the text box was so tiny!

    3. I'll take text over a cutscene any day, unless it's a really significant story event and the cutscene is short (and can be skipped by pressing ESC).

      I can read text at my own pace, but a cutscene always takes a certain amount of time. And games with excessive cutscenes always make me feel like they're stealing away my actual play time. I don't want to passively watch cutscenes, I want to actively click on things!

    4. If only Final Fantasy VIII summons were described, not animated...

    5. I never minded reading text in games, and the quality of Torment's is top notch, but there is just too much of it.

      I remember spending hours in a single location just to exhaust all dialogue.

      CRPGs with varied gameplay by design should always try to strike some balance among player's activities, IMHO.

    6. I would say that the story (text) is the main attraction in PS:T--it's certainly not the combat or character development, both of which are in short supply and not that good when they do appear. I wouldn't have it any other way. Lots of RPGs have epic boss fights, huge landscapes and in-depth character development, but very few have a plot as surreal, contemplative or original as Torment.

      It's a game that I think you are meant to explore at your own pace, perhaps multiple times, rather than get every line from every NPC as soon as possible. One NPC in an early area makes a sly Ultima reference while wringing out TNO for bothering everybody in sight.

    7. Now that I think about it, if we ever get to PS:T, I suspect it will rate rather poorly on the GIMLET. It'll do great on story and world, but there's very little else Chet would like; level ups are straightforward and essentially meaningless, there are no class changes or skill trees, no magic weapons or armor upgrades, and a small selection of spells limited to two characters.

    8. There are class changes in PST; you just need to find the right NPCs to train you.

    9. There are 4 casters in PT,
      Dharkon can Cast spells, the Fire guy I forgot the name of, Fall from grace (but more cleric like) and the main char I'd he chooses to

    10. There is a way to enjoy the story without needing to play the game.
      A guy created a novel out of the game, using mostly the in-game text.

      As PS:T is my absolute favorite game of all times and planes of existence (still I totally agree on all the issues pointed out) I can only encourage people to at least enjoy the story in a written form.

  11. Progression should be similar to D&D though. In D&D a fighter gets -1 THAC0 every level. In RoA you get the same if you manage to increase your weapon skill (very likely for the lower levels) and put it into your attack value. Plus if you increase the right attributes you get an increase in the base attack value every three levels. An AT increase, like a decrease in THAC0, means a 5% increase in your chance to hit.

    I think the reason RoA is slower is due to equipment (heavy armor decreases your hit chance, some weapons decrease your hit chance, magical weapons that increase your hit chance exist but are rare and hard to recognize), low magic, the ability to parry and low-level enemies still having a few hitpoints (unlike say a kobold in D&D who usually dies with one hit).

    1. I think the real problem is that the game's own rules about what weapons are in what classes are hopelessly mixed up. Somehow, until comparatively late, I completely missed the screen where you can see your attack and parry values with your current weapon, and for a bunch of weapons, the game seems to be applying the wrong set of values. I'll talk more about this in the next (perhaps last) entry.

    2. The game has a few bugs, but I'm not aware of any in that regard. What you are seeing are probably weapon and armor modifications. E.g. a two-hander substracts 2 from attack and 3 from parry (it makes up for it with high damage and a damage bonus starting with strength 14).

      So even if you had e.g. AT 14 / PA 12 with the sword skill, with a chainmail (-2/-2), an iron helmet (-1/-1) and a two-hander (-2/-3) you'd end up with AT 9 and PA 6.

      Since the game doesn't tell you these modifiers directly (as far as I know), the page telling you the attack and parry values is pretty important. You could also cast "Analyze all arcane things" and get these values (and additional information), but it costs spell points.

      Good luck with finishing the game. 1 or 2 entries should do it.

    3. Slightly related fact: simulation and management games have always been very popular in Germany. :)

    4. Which explains why a lot of heavy complexity-wise "euro" boardgames that come from German are so dry and boring.

    5. Even though I'm German myself, I never understood the obsession with simulator games. While I do love simulationist approaches to game design (the more complex, the better!), and enjoy a good economy building game, stuff like forklift simulator, street cleaning simulator etc just seems bizarre.

      And there are simulators like that for everything. There's even a metro simulator, where you drive an underground train. What is even the gameplay in that? All you do is accelerate and brake.

      But the simulationist approach to RPG design... I do like that. It's more interesting and involving than heavily abstracted systems.

    6. But Euro style boardgames are just the opposite. They have a few simple core mechanisms that interact with each other, predictable playtime, short turns and usually close games are close until the end. When I think of management heavy games, I think of non-Euro games (style, not geography) like Diplomacy, Axis and Allies or Twilight Imperium.

      @JarlFrank Train simulators can be fun. Apart from learning the proper operation of the train and the meaning of signals, you have to learn the track, because when you see the speed sign its too late to break. I admit, it's a rather specialised kind of "fun", but so is grinding :)

    7. @Buck - if you're talking about lighter weight euro games like Concordia, I would agree with you. Wonderful game which is elegant and deep but the theme is a tad dry. But if we start talking about heavier euros where you have rules within rules and mechanisms within mechanisms, I would have to disagree.

    8. Caylus and Imperial (another Mac Gerdts game) are the most complex Euros I've played myself. Both have rules that fit on a few pages and are easy to grasp. What you describe doesn't sound like it fits the Euro label. Maybe more complex, non-Euro games are produced in Germany, but that must be a pretty niche market.

    9. Have to agree with Buck here. When I think of "rules within rules, mechanisms with mechanisms" (likely with an additional dose of house rules to fix the inevitably imbalanced mess ;), I immediately have flashbacks to A&A, or AH games in general. :) (Though Queen's Gambit was really nice!)

      Maybe we're talking different definitions here - and since it's been many years my board game days, something may have changed - but Eurogame/German Board Game used to be a specific style of game, not a geographic category, with "simple rules, but high depth" as one of the core characteristics.

      I mean, War of the Ring for example may be a game from Italy, but it certainly isn't a Eurogame.

    10. Yeah Eurogames feel like examples of mechanic-driven design, with the flavour almost an afterthought. American and UK games tend to let the flavour dictate the design, which is why you end up with 60 page manuals full of if-statements :p

      Each are their own kind of fun.

  12. The idea of an orc hook is disturbing if you think of it in the same linguistic sense as a fish hook... what of the bait?

    1. The weapon's original name translates to "orc nose", I suppose that was a bit too wacky for the translators. (It's a type of axe.)

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  14. You're nuts bruh. Straight up NUTS.

  15. "The worst part is, I don't think there's any way to tell that a weapon is broken"

    That's not true, at least not in the German version, but maybe you're missing it due to being colorblind. If a weapon breaks, the star-like think in the lower right corner becomes rust brown with a red "BROKEN!" text, so contrast is pretty low. And considering that on today's computers those stars only blink for a very short time, it's very much blink-and-you-miss-it.


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