Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Black Gate Bonus: The Books of Britannia

One of many in-game books that make in-jokes and build lore.
        
I'd have to look through my notes to see what game first offered full-text books--not as plot devices but just as random background flavor and world-building. It might have been Ultima VI. But even if they appeared in earlier games, Ultima VII is the first game to treat them this extensively, with at least a couple of dozen different titles found on desks, nightstands, and bookcases throughout the homes and workplaces of the Britannian people. The castle alone had more than 15 different books.
    
Ultima VII admittedly doesn't do as well with its books as many later titles. Many of them are goofy, or simply analogues of real-world titles, and not the world-building tomes that we find in, say, The Elder Scrolls series, the Infinity Engine games, or The Witcher series. Still, they're fun and deserve some additional attention and analysis.

I thought I'd use this entry to organize that analysis, adding new books as I find them. I'm excluding some "plot" books that don't have much text (like Morfin's register of venom sales). I'll add notes to future entries when this one has been updated. The books I've found so far are:

And Then There Was Karen by B. MacDae. A tale of a complex relationship.
 
The Apothecary's Desk Reference by Fetoau. A book that accurately describes which potions have which effects. Very useful.

The Art of the Field Dressing by Creston, "with a forward [sic] by Lady Leigh." It has some advice about cutting cloth into strips to bandage wounds, something that actually works in the game. While Lady Leigh is later found in the game, I don't believe Creston is.

A Baker's Handbook by Settlar. A reasonably accurate description of baking bread in the game. 

The Bioparaphysics of the Healing Arts by Lady Leigh. The bible for in-game healers. I believe Lady Leigh will be found later in Serpent's Hold.

Birds of Britannia by Brother Wayne. An illustrated guide to birds of the land, a clear analogue to Birds of North America. Brother Wayne is found in-game in the Dungeon Despise, having gotten lost on a birding expedition.

Black Moon, Red Day by Euralyn. A sequel to Thirteen Months in a Year, set on Corellethra. Shifting celestial bodies cause huge changes in the land, but sorcerers prevent the end of the world.

The Blacksmith's Handbook by Christopher. A book on etal-working written by the man whose homicide touiched off the game.

Blade of the Gryphon Barony by Pebrogdy. A novel "about a knight's fight against the doctrines of his society to win the love of a common maiden."

Bloodied Blades and Buxom Beauties by A. G. Fishmor. A bio of a pirate named Roguerre "as he sails the northeast sea." He comes in the clutches of a despotic island ruler from whom he must escape and save a princess. That doesn't seem to be describing anything on Britannia.

The Book of Circles, translated from Gargish to Britannian by Jillian. Describes the eight gargoyle virtues and how they arrange from the three principles of virtue: control, passion, and diligence.

The Book of the Fellowship by Batlin of Britain. The first page of the game manual--the one time it makes sense for a real-life book to appear in the game.

Brommer's Britannia by Brommer. The book only has a short paragraph but then it automatically opens to a map of the land. Useful if you lost your regular one, I suppose. The author is a play on the Arthur Frommer travel guidebook series begun in 1957.
        
That's pretty cool.
     
Brommer's Fauna by Brommer. Describes only the deer and chicken in the readable parts.

The Carver Chronicles by Morfin. a guide to butchering written by the butcher in Paws (an NPC whom you can find).
        
Chicken Raising by Daheness Gon. A relatively useless instruction manual for raising chickens and producing eggs. The anatomical advice seems accurate, but I'm not sure how it helps in-game. Found on the shelf of a farmhouse, which makes sense.

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming. The real-life 1964 book by the author better known for creating James Bond. Lead Ultima VII writer Raymond Benson later went on to become the official James Bond writer from 1997-2002.
           
With a couple of syllabic substitutions, this could easily have been a James Bond title.
     
Codavar by Nexa. A novel about a usurper king clearly inspired by Blackthorn and the events of Ultima V. "Codavar" sounds like it's some play on "avatar," but I can't work out what it means.
      
Collected Plays by Raymundo. An anthology of plays by the guy who runs the theater in Britain. Play titles include Three on a Codpiece, The Trials of the Avatar, The Plagiarist, Clue, and Thumbs Down. "Raymundo" is the in-game avatar of lead writer Raymond Benson, and at least three of these plays are real plays written by Benson. Clue is a 1977 musical based on the board game--a full 8 years before the Tim Curry film. The Plagiarist and Thumbs Down are more obscure; I'm not sure when or if they were ever staged, but they were published as short stories by Amazon Shorts in 2006. Three on a Codpiece is described in-game as a performance art piece in which audience members "tear an undergarment into tiny pieces, after which they are placed in funeral urns and mixed with wheat paste . . . then the audience may glue the pieces anywhere on [the actor's] body that they wish." One Ultima site suggests this might be a reference to Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1965).

A Complete Guide to Britannian Minerals, Precious, and Semi-Precious Stones by B. Ledbetter. The book discusses some of Britannia's natural resources, including veins of gold and lead. It is notable for a paragraph on blackrock, a "recently discovered" substance with little practical use, rumored to have a "profound effect" on magic. This will of course become a major part of the game's plot. I don't believe Ledbetter appears in-game. I thought it would be funny if it was the guy who runs the jewelry shop in Britain, but his name is Sean.

The Complete History of the Lute by Devonaillion, with foreword by the Master Bard, Iolo. The part that you can read contains only Iolo's foreword, which gives his last name as Arbalest despite "FitzOwen" being his more commonly-given last name. As an "arbelest" is a type of crossbow, perhaps "Arbalest" is meant more as a title than a name.

The Day It Didn't Work by R. Allen G. A collection of essays about "overseeing a group of well-meaning misfits in a mechanical environment." An obvious joke about Richard Allen Garriott and the staff at ORIGIN.

Dolphin in the Dunes by Pietre Hueman. An allegory for human familial relationships that looks at issues from multiple perspectives. I imagine this is making a joke about a real-world book, but I can't place it.

The Dragon Compendium by Perrin. This is a longer book, useful to the player, describing dragons living in the dungeon Destard. In addition to fire breath and claws, they apparently can make themselves invisible. Perrin appears in the game at Empath Abbey. He's a scholar of eclectic pursuits who has also written several other books, including The Hundred and Eleven Year, Three-Month, Seven-Day War and The Write Stuff.

Enchanting Items for Household Use by Nicodemus. A magic treatise that starts out strong with suggestions for "Self-Propelled Broom" and "Alarm Gem" descends into madness as Nicodemus does, ending with "Exploding Corncob Holder" and "Comb of Many Blades."

Encyclopedia Britannia. Four volumes, all described in summary form with no articles, so you just get allusions like Aakara, the first mayor of Trinsic; an ancient sage of reptiles called Faalga; a mythological snowbeast called the Quaaxetlornicom; and an ancient island called Zyand.
              
Everything an Avatar Should Know about Sex. This book is blank after the title page. Ho-ho-ho. Or maybe it's not a joke and it's foreshadowing the upcoming unicorn encounter.

The Five Stages of Lawn Care by A. P. Berk. A coming of age story about two boys. Sequel: The Winning Number.

Follow the Stars by Laurnen. Supposedly a guide for navigation.

The Forest of Yew by Taylor. A description of the great forest in northwestern Britannia, including a hint about the Emps who live there--a useful in-game clue.

Gargoyle Like Me by Darok. A nonfiction work about a human who poses as a gargoyle to see gargoyle society from the inside.It notes that gargoyles are genderless and it also describes the condescension with which the winged gargoyles treat the wingless. There is an obvious connection with the real-world book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, but in the real-world book, Griffin posed as a black man to record his treatment by white people. In the fictional version, Darok poses as a gargoyle not to record his experiences with human prejudice but to go undercover among gargoyles themselves.

Gone with the Wisp by Margareta Mitchellino. A novel written by a young gypsy woman about the golden age of her people.

A Guide to Childcare for the Rich and Famous by Lady M with love for Samantha Meng Ling. This book alerts the player to the actual in-game uses of dirty diapers (they make almost all enemies flee in horror).

Hero Fertilizer by Werdron. A "warrior's handbook" describing various fighting styles.

The History of Stonegate by Shazle. Describes the in-game castle that was occupied by the Shadowlords in Ultima V and inhabited by a family of cyclopes with a human adopted daughter in Ultima VI. The book says that a colony of wingless gargoyles resided there before they were driven off by Lord Vemelon of Jhelom. His family had it for several generations, but then it was destroyed in a natural disaster. Now a family of trolls and an ancient wizard supposedly occupy the ruins.

Hither Comes the Rain by Perrin. Another Perrin book, this one describes the effects of spring weather on plants and animals.
           
The Honorable Hound inn register. The guest list for this Trinsic inn has four recent names: Walter of Britain, Jaffe of Yew, Jaana, and Atans of Serpent's Hold. Jaana is of course the Avatar's companion going back to Ultima IV. I don't believe the others are ever seen or heard from in the series.

How the West Was by Yuclydia. A history of Britannia's geography and the organization of virtues. A pun based on the movie (1962) and TV series (1977-1979) How the West Was Won.

How to Conquer the World in Three Easy Steps by Maximillian the Amazingly Mean. The ravings of a "megalomaniac cleric." He plans to acquire VAS CORP ("Mass Kill"), which he thinks will make everyone fear him, and that not even Lord British himself is immune. I'm pretty sure that Lord British survives a VAS CORP (which is a real spell). Lord British doesn't even die from VAS CORP IN BET MANI ("Armageddon"). Also, there are no "clerics" in this setting. As an aside, I wonder if employees of Vascorp Network Solutions know that to a portion of the public, their name means "Mass Death."

Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure by Bill Peet. A real 1969 children's book by a real author. It tells in rhyme how the proud lion Hubert had his mane scorched in a series of escalating misadventures. We learned about its presence in Britannia in Ultima VI, where Lord British spent every night reading it to Sherry the Mouse. I don't know which idea is worse: that the adolescent Lord British was carrying the book while hiking through the English countryside, or that he later went back for it.
             
It's good that Lord British has priorities.
   
The Hundred and Eleven Year, Three-Month, Seven-Day War by Perrin. A fictional work that describes a bloody civil war in Britannia. "The parable is designed to strike home the advantages [of] remaining unified under the rule of Lord British." Perrin appears in the game at Empath Abbey. He's a scholar of eclectic pursuits who has also written several other books, including The Write Stuff.

I Am not a Dragon by Thompson. "A bawdy tale of Belnorth, fictional lord of Serpent's Hold . . . part one of a trilogy involving the humorous exploits of the lord and his fellow knights."

The Intrinsic Complexities of Investigating a New Species of Flora in the Land of Britannia by Perrin. A journal about the study of plant life. Perrin appears in the game at Empath Abbey. He's a scholar of eclectic pursuits who has also written several other books, including The Hundred and Eleven Year, Three-Month, Seven-Day War and The Dragon Compendium.
     
Jesse's Book of Performance Art by Jesse. A "controversial and eccentric Britannian actor" who has published a book of "scripts" for performance artists and argues that performance art is basically the same thing as acting. Jesse is an NPC in Britain who jokes about playing the Avatar and having only three lines: NAME, JOB, and BYE.

Karenna's Pregnancy Workout by Karenna. She's got quite a media empire.

Kerenna's Total Body Workout by Karenna. An exercise training program. Karenna is an NPC in Minoc who trains characters in dexterity and combat.

Karenna's Workout by Karenna. An exercise training program. Karenna is an NPC in Minoc who trains characters in dexterity and combat.

Key to the Black Gate. A cluebook to the game, found within the game (but without any of the actual text). Probably meant as a subtle in-game advertisement. Can you imagine needing a cluebook to solve this game?
            
A crummy commercial?!
    
The Knight and the Thief by Hobbs. A novel about a "heroic warrior suffering from delusions of an alternate life as a rogue and cutpurse."
         
Landships by Equinestra. A semi-useful manual that describes the different ways to get around Britannia, including horses, carts, and the famed magic carpet.

Landships of War by Equinestra. "An illustrated guide to jousting and barding." It suggests a tactic that you can use in-game: fire missiles at enemies from atop carts (or the magic carpet).

The Light until Dawn by Drennal. A book about Britannia's two moons, Trammel and Felucca, and the possibility of people living on them. These moons have been around since Ultima IV, and their phases control the moongates.

Lord British: The Biography of Britannia's Longtime Ruler by K. Bannos. The biography frankly acknowledges that Lord British is from another world. I wasn't sure that was public knowledge until now. He entered Britannia through a moongate and became one of the rulers of the eight kingdoms of Sosaria. The people proclaimed him the king after he successfully dealt with Mondain, Minax, and Exodus. The book recounts his role in Ultima IV and Ultima V but ends just as the gargoyles become a threat in Ultima VI. Unfortunately, the text also re-affirms the idea that the Avatar is the same hero as the one who defeated Mondain, Minax, and Exodus--the dumbest retcon ORIGIN ever introduced.
          
Part of Lord British's bio. A party of Fuzzies defeated Exodus and nobody can convince me otherwise.
           
Magic and the Art of Horse-and-Wagon Maintenance. A clear joke on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). The text makes an in-joke about how horses need no food or rest, which they don't--in the game.

Man Versus Fish: The Ultimate Conflict by Aquastyr. An essay on the glories of fishing.

Mandibles by Peter Munchley. A Britannian version of Jaws; the author's name is play on Peter Benchley.
       
Mempto Rays: A Qualitative Study in Metaparaphilosophical Radiation by Mempto. Some rantings about Britannia always being bombarded by radiation "lethal to all non-living matter." Probably meant as a send-up of pseudo-science in the modern world.

Milord Conduct by Aleina. A manual for proper behavior around nobles. No Aleina in-game.

Miscellaneous Cantrips. A guide to minor spells. There are no specifics, so not helpful in-game.

Modern Necromancy by Horance. An attempt to redeem necromancy from ages of malignment. Its thesis is only slightly damaged by the fact that Horance (the insane mage who only spoke in rhymes in Ultima VI) and his necromancy destroyed Skara Brae and turned Horance into a lich.

Murder by Mongbat by J. Dial. An "enthralling but too gory thriller" that "describes innovative and impressive ways to disembowel people and animals." 

My Cup Runneth Over by Marseine. A guide for vintners. I don't believe that Marseine appears in the game, but the text suggests she consulted the Brotherhood of the Rose, which runs Empath Abbey.

No One Leaves by R. Allen G. This sequel to The Day It Didn't Work is a humorously-phrased paragraph about missed deadlines and forced overtime.

No Time to Dance by B. A. Morler. "The busy life of two scholars, caught betwixt the demands of a forceful taskmaster and the pressure of time." Probably another in-joke, although I can't find anyone with that author's name among ORIGIN's staff.

No Way to Jump by Desmonth. A treatise on tropes found in adventure stories. This is probably another in-joke about game development. After all, Ultima VII, for all its realism, does not allow the Avatar to jump. The issue continues into the present day and is found on TV Tropes as "The Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence." Note that Ultima VIII does feature jumping and jumping puzzles.

Observations of Black Rock by Rudyom the Mage. The notebook of Cove's eccentric mage, this describes his experiments with an "indestructible" stone that can only be molded and shaped with magic, but ironically makes magic users go mad.

On Acting by Laurence Olivier. Philosophical notes on acting "written by a noted thespian of a distant land." The text notes that it was apparently "one of the many brought to Britannia by Lord British." Why was the kid hiking with half a library on his back? Anyway, Sir Laurence did in fact publish a book of this title in 1986.

The Out-'n-Inn register. This raunchy Cove hotel has lately seen Tyors of Britain, Kellin of Buccaneer's Den, Sir Dupre, Wentok of Trinsic, and Uberak of Minok [sic]. Kellin is a wanted thief whose story will be recounted eventually. None of the other names, save Dupre, are known NPCs.

Outpost by Gasreth. A manual of tactics and strategies for soldiers. Semi-useful in that it encourages the player to check out cannons.

Pathways of Planar Travel by Nicodemus. Formula necessary for traveling between planes. Notes that Lord British comes from another plane. Notes that while so far, every individual entering Britannia from other planes has been benevolent, the possibility remains for a malevolent entity to visit. This naturally foreshadows the Guardian.

Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style by Francis Hodge. A "respected textbook" written by "an eminent professor emeritus from a university in a distant land." It is in fact a real-world book, published in 1971 by a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Probably someone that Raymond Benson or someone on the staff at ORIGIN (which was based in Austin) knew. Hodge passed away in 2008.

The Provisioner's Guide to Useful Equipment by Dell. A semi-useful in-game book detailing the utility of torches, backpacks, and buckets. Dell runs the provisions shop in Trinsic.

Ribald Encounters by Madden. The book is simply described as "many stories full of suggestive prose."

Ringworld by Larry Niven. A fantasy book suggesting other worlds between Britannia and the heavens. This is a real-world book by a real-world author, published in 1970, although its plot is a bit different than described here.

Ritual Magic by Nicodemus. Description of a ritual involving five mages, a pentagram, and the slaughter of animals. Nicodemus is an in-game NPC.

The Salty Dog inn register. This inn and tavern in Paws lists seven recent visitors: Addom of Yew, The Avatar, Jalal of Britain, Tim of Yew, Blorn of Vesper, Sir Dupre, and Penelope of Cove. Addom is a traveling merchant who later shows up in Moonglow and plays a role in that city's plot. To my knowledge, Jalal and Penelope never appear in the game, although I think Jalal appears in another register. Tim of Yew is also an unknown (there was a bard named Tim in Ultima V but he'd be long-dead). Blorn is an anti-Gargish racist who we later find in Vesper. The idea that Dupre recently visited a tavern is entirely within his character. The most disturbing entry is that someone is wandering around passing himself off as "The Avatar."

The Scent of Valor by Wetterson. A treatise on chivalry and duty. Perhaps a reference to Bill Watterson, as a Calvin & Hobbes book appears in Ultima Underworld II, but if so it's rather obscure.

Shoot the Moon by Oswauld. A guidebook on druidic culture.

A Short Treatise on Britannian Society by Clayton. A book that reinforces the idea of a "social order" in Britannian society, one that goes Lord British > Great Council > Winged Gargoyles > Masses of Humanity > Wingless Gargoyles.

The Silence of Chastity by I. M. Munk. A treatise on the Brotherhood of the Rose, which inhabits Empath Abbey. They apparently do not take vows of silence.

Sir Kilroy. A novel about "the rise of a shining white knight, driven to madness by the women in his life."

Spring Planting, Autumn Harvest. Details on agriculture.

Stealing the Wind by Brianna. A discussion of kite-flying.
           
Stealing the Wind seems to have helped out an NPC, anyway.
          
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Summarized as "the struggles of an individual from another planet who finds difficulty assimilating into his new society and culture." Nelson, head of the Lycaeum, proudly displays a first edition. This is a real-world 1961 book by a real-world author, although in-game it works as a metaphor for the experiences of Lord British or the Avatar.

Struck Commander by Gilberto. A "fanciful story" about a man who gets a "flying vehicle" and uses it to fight terrorists and despotic monarchs. This is an in-joke based on ORIGIN's forthcoming Strike Commander (1993).

The Summer of My Satisfaction by Plexes. A fictional story summarized as "the tale of Good King Kettle, who rules a great land without any troubles." An obvious play on the phrase "the winter of our discontent," which appears in the first line of Shakespeare's Richard III and is almost always misquoted or misunderstood because no one quotes the second half of the line. Look it up. No idea on "Plexes," though.

The Symbology of Runes by Smidgeon the Great. A dictionary of runes, but presented in-game in summarized form, so it's not actually helpful. 

That Beer Needs a Head on It by Yongi. Recipes and serving suggestions for alcoholic beverages. Yongi is an NPC staying at the Gilded Lizard in Vesper.

Thirteen Months in a Year by Euralyn. A novel about a war and a family of magic-users in a fantasy kingdom called Corellethra. Sequel: Black oon, Red Day.

Thou Art What Thee Eats by Fordras. A nutritional analysis that pre-dates the Atkins craze by suggesting meats and vegetables ahead of carbohydrates. The author recommends certain foods in order, and I think it roughly corresponds with how filling those foods are in-game.

Thy Message Received by For-Lem, translated by Jillian. An essay written by a gargoyle to humans, noting the prejudice and hatred by which the gargoyles have been treated, which mystifies them since it was humans who destroyed their land and not the other way around. It expresses hope but pessimism. For-Lem is a wingless gargoyle found in Vesper, while Jillian is a scholar at the Lycaeum. It feels like this could be based on a real book, but I can't think of one.

To Be or not to Be by Wislem. A primer on the gargish language, the joke being that gargoyles speak entirely in infinitives ("to welcome you, Avatar!"). Wislem is an advisor of Lord British and is found at the castle.

To the Death! by Zaksam. A manual on the fighting styles of Britannia. Zaksam is an NPC in Vesper, a combat trainer who believes war with the gargoyles is inevitable.

The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. This is a real book by a real author, originally published in 1984. As best I can tell, it's a real book about English grammar and syntax, but all the examples are vampire-themed and there are vampire illustrations. If there's something deeper going on, someone's going to have to tell me. I suppose if it actually gets people to read a book on grammar, there are no bad ideas.
            
Go figure.
          
Tren I, II, III, IV . . . XVII. An autobiography by "the obtuse mage" which "reveals Tren's life in all of his incarnations as he continually strove to possess more powerful beings." As far as I know, we never meet a mage called Tren, nor do we ever see an application of magic that involves possession of beings.

The Trio by Leepeartson. A collection of songs "for a variety of stringed and percussion instruments" by three master bards. Maybe a reference to Trio, a 1987 Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt album: "Leepeartson" is plausibly a play on "Dolly Parton."

Two in the Fold by Morian. A novel about two thieves from Britain who infiltrate the royal castle.

Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector. An account of the Avatar's exploits after Ultima III.  This is a real-life strategy guide for Ultima IV, V and VI, presented as a novelization. The in-game version is deemed by the Avatar to be "amazingly accurate."
           
           
Up Is Out by Goodefellow. A treatise on gravity and mass, including "falling apples." It's a clear analogue to Isaac Newton, but I otherwise don't know if the title and author are a reference to anything. If Goodefellow is an actual Britannian trying to research physics, his life is going to be rough.

Vargaz's Stories of Legend. This anonymous book is subtitled Reasons Why One Should Never Build Doors Facing North or West. The book has two stories, one about a plague of locusts foretold by Father Antos (Ultima II and IV) which destroyed houses with north-facing doors. The other tale suggests that monsters fleeing sunlight are more likely to flee east and thus invade houses with west-facing doors.

The Way of the Swallow by Foiles. Summarized as the story of a mother deeply loved by her family. It ends with her death. I don't know if this is making any kind of reference or not.

The Wayfarer's Inn register. This tavern in Britain lists five recent guests: John-Paul of Serpent's Hold, Horffe of Serpent's Hold, Featherbank of Moonglow, Tarvis of Buccaneer's Den, and Shamino. I later found Shamino shacking up with an actress, so he probably only had to stay for one night. I don't believe Tarvis or Featherbank appear in the game, but John-Paul is in fact the ruler of Serpent's Hold and Horffe is his Gargish captain of the guard.

What a Fool Believes by P. Nolan. The book only has a brief paragraph, describing it as "the story of a bard, a blonde, and a bottle . . . a classic tale of the war between the sexes." There's a song of this name, of course, recorded by the Doobie Brothers and Aretha Franklin among others, but it doesn't mention a blonde or a bottle and has no association with anyone named "Nolan" (although, in a weird twist, the R&B artist Nolan Porter did cover the song, but not until 2011).

What Color is Thy Blade? by Menion. Written by the weaponsmith in Serpent's Hold, this book describes how to forge a blade. Possibly-useful during the Forge of Virtue expansion.

What Could Be Left but the Ashes by N. Flaims. Essays about volcanic eruptions. (The author's name is a pun: "in flames.") One story is "told by Fendora, a young woman from Minoc, who claims ot have experienced a volcanic eruption near every one of the five towns in which she has lived." That's not surprising given how often the landscape of this world is re-made by volcanoes and earthquakes. 

When Starts the Adventure by Sabra. The story of a warrior who, in the process of adventuring, notices that the land is balanced in good and evil.

White Rain by Perrin. Another Perrin book, this one describes the effects of winter weather on plants.

Why Good Mages Like Black Magic by Magus. An argument for "applying magic for the benefit of society as opposed to selfish, personal gain." I'm not sure if it's making any real-world reference.

The Winning Number by A. P. Berk. A sequel to The Five Stages of Lawn Care visits the boys 10 years later.

The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum. The real book from the real world, except that in the real world, the author is L. Frank Baum. It is given a quick summary in-game. I assume it's in Lord British's castle because I stole it for him as part of an Ultima VI side-quest.

The Write Stuff by Perrin. A treatise on the importance of literacy and what makes for good literature. Perrin appears in the game at Empath Abbey. He's a scholar of eclectic pursuits who has also written several other books, including The Hundred and Eleven Year, Three-Month, Seven-Day War and The Dragon Compendium.
        

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Camelot (1982) Guidebook Finished by Game's Author

Excited about the renewed interest in Camelot from my series of 2019 entries (beginning here), author Joshua Tabin has developed a 101-page guidebook to the game.
           
         
The book walks you through setting up a Cyber1 account so that you can play Camelot and other PLATO games. It includes a quick history of the PLATO series, with screenshots. The bulk of the manual is tips, tricks, and instructions for navigating the game, including the full text of the in-game manual; lists of monsters and equipment; and full maps of all 10 levels (there's still plenty for you to annotate). 

This is a great opportunity for any reader who's thought they'd like to try one of the PLATO games.

*****

And one other random announcement while I have you: I finally updated my Dungeons of Avalon II summary entry to reflect what commenter LanHawk discovered about the game, plus the winning screenshots he was able to obtain after fixing the problem for himself.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Black Gate: Wee Britain

More than once, in idle moments, I've gone through a sentence like this, seeing how it changes meaning depending on where you put the emphasis.
        
After speaking to Lord British, I had three items on my "to do" list for Britain--five if you include a quick trip back to Paws:
         
  • Find out if the Crown Jewel docked in Britain after leaving Trinsic.
  • Talk to the mayor about the murder from a few years ago.
  • Investigate, perhaps infiltrate, the fellowship.
  • Make sure Weston made it back to Alina in Paws after his release.
  • Buy some Mutton in Paws for Boots, the castle chef.
       
But before I did any of that, I wanted to experience some combat. It's rare that I'm five entries into a game without being able to talk about combat. From watching a recent humor video, I had picked up the accidental knowledge that there were some bandits just west of Britain, on the way to Skara Brae. I thus walked past the city's row houses and pumpkin patches (noting with satisfaction that one of the street names is "Avatar Avenue") and made my way towards the bandit ambush.
      
...and then we'll take it higher.
            
I arrived just in time to see some random knight finishing them off. Where did he come from? Britannia just has roaming police knights now? He wouldn't speak to me, so I couldn't even thank him. All I could do was loot the corpses of the bandits he'd killed, because he didn't seem interested in doing that.
       
This guy came along and swordthwarted me!
          
I thus headed back to Britain to begin exploring the streets systematically. The first NPC I met was a woman named Millie who made it impossible not to conjure the phrase "silly bint." She stands on the street all day recruiting for the Fellowship. She spouted the usual drivel about their philosophies. It's from her that I first hear about the organization's Meditation Retreat, where it's supposedly possible through concentration to hear "the Voice," which the members interpret as an "inner voice," but which I suspect is actually the Guardian.
   
Moving on, we come to a farmer's market run by spouses Kelly and Fred. Fred resells meat from Paws. I check his prices, and the best deal seems to be dried meat at 2 gold pieces per 10 portions. I buy 20 of them.
  
I then take about two and a half hours to organize my inventory. Like most things in Ultima VII, the inventory system is at once amazing and annoying. I believe it is the first game to offer a completely slotless inventory. Your items don't exist in defined spaces; they exist in a jumble, like a real backpack. They overlap each other and often get mixed around in between times you open the same container (I honestly don't know if this is a bug or a feature). You can nest containers in containers. Some behind-the-scenes statistics enforce logical limits (based on volume, weight, or both) that you can store in a single container, as you occasionally get messages stating "Won't Fit!" when you try to drag something in.
        
If it had three half-finished packages of gum, it would be indistinguishable from Irene's purse.
         
It all makes for impressive programming, but when you've got to find something--especially something small, like a key--you start to remember fondly the days when inventories were just textual lists of items, and even better, when the party just shared one common inventory pool. Particularly annoying is how precise you have to be when you click on things; otherwise, you'll click on the wrong thing or the container itself.

But given the way things are, you need to spend some time coming up with an organization scheme. One character carries the quest items, another the wealth of the party, another food, another exploration gear like torches. As you add more party members, you can better subdivide these responsibilities. It also makes sense to use nested containers, so that (for instance) all the food is in one bag and all the gold in another.

All your organization goes out the window when you buy 20 pieces of meat. They just get dumped into the backpack of the first character, spilling over to the second if you run out of room. Then you have to spend time dragging each piece of meat to its appropriate container. Based on my experience so far, I suspect that about 25% of the game is going to consist of dragging inventory items around, either trying to find something or trying to organize things.
     
The inventory system works well with the overall engine. It's nice that NPCs can hide keys under potted plants or that the Avatar can stack crates to create a staircase. You take the good with the bad.
      
Gordon sells fish and chips at the northeast end of the farmer's market. He's the one that tells me about Buccaneer's Den, which has become a kind-of themed amusement park. Apparently, the pirates learned that they could make more money selling a pirate-themed bacchanalia than actually pirating, which is one of the funnier developments of the last 200 years.
          
Moving up the road, Diane runs the stables and offers to sell me a carriage pulled by a pair of horses. It's a nice idea, and I buy one just to see what driving is like before reloading, but it's really impractical. The contraption really needs to stick to roads, and the party can't always do that. You're better off just walking.
    
Avatar and company race along the street in their new carriage. There's no horse leg animation, so movement looks very awkward.
           
The shipwright (Clint) is across the street from the market and here we struck out on the Crown Jewel lead; he said that the ship hadn't been in the port in months. I couldn't find anything to contradict him. Clint builds and sells ships, and he had one going in dry-dock, but I still have Lord British's flagship to pick up in Vesper.

Heading north from the shipwriight, I spoke to some shop-keepers. Sean, an arrogant Fellowship member, runs the jewelry store. It would be ripe for burglary if I did that sort of thing. He'll buy gems for 30 gold pieces per gem. Grayson runs the arms and armor store and is also a Fellowship member.  I'm sorry to see that he doesn't buy used arms and armor because I've been carrying some. I guess I'm thinking of other RPGs.

North of the armory, Iolo introduces me to his apprentice, Coop, who runs Iolo's Bows in Iolo's absence. Somehow, having Iolo in the party doesn't entitle me to a free bow. Coop notes that Iolo recently opened a second location in Serpent's Hold. If Iolo lives to be 800 years old, he might have a pretty good franchise going by then.

I like how NPCs interact with each other.
       
The clothier, Gaye, is another Fellowship member. She sells swamp boots, which I note for when I can afford them. Wilhelm is the baker, absolutely in love with his craft, partly because "the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach." Right now, he's juggling two women, Jeanette and Gaye. He thinks he's too good for Jeanette, "a tavern wench," and he's not sure about Gaye because she's a Fellowship member. So he's a bit of a jerk but also he has good judgement. Wilhelm offers to hire me to bake bread and also says he'll buy sacks of flour from me if I get them wholesale in Paws.
        
Learning breadmaking in Wilhelm's kitchen.
         
The process of baking bread is a testament to this game engine's flexibility but also a commentary on the limited utility of that flexibility. To make a loaf of bread, you must:
        
  • Double-click a sack of flour to open it.
  • Double-click the sack again and click a table to spread it out. 
  • Double-click a pail of water and use it on the flour to make dough.
  • Click and drag the dough to the oven to bake it.
  • Wait for the icon to change to bread.
        
Do this five times and Wilhelm will give you one gold piece for the bread. The problem is that water and flour run out fast, so you have to go buy more or dip the bucket in the well. If you were paid in the real world with real gold, I'm still not sure it would be a good hourly rate. Nevertheless, the Internet is full of people who swear that back in the day, they spent countless hours baking bread in Ultima VII--disgusting, unleavened bread, I might add, consisting of nothing but flour and water.
      
It's getting dark as I leave the bakery, so I head to the Blue Boar for the night. The tavern is run by Lucy and staffed by a waitress named Jeanette. Their house band is called "The Avatars" and includes a moonlighting Coop. For the third or fourth time, I have the choice to introduce myself as "Gideon" or "Avatar." I figure the latter signifies a lack of humility. Anyway, it turns out the Blue Boar is just a tavern, not an inn and tavern, so I head back to the castle to sleep.
    
The next morning, I pick up where I left off. I open the door to a random house and find Shamino in bed with a female "entertainer." They both start yelling at me for entering the house uninvited. Shamino doesn't seem at all surprised to see me. He reiterates that magic isn't working and mages are going crazy, including Nickademus in the Great Forest. He gives me a pocketwatch that I apparently left the last time I was in Britannia. (It's actually very helpful to know what time it is at any given moment.) The woman he was in bed with is an actress named Amber. Once he finds out about the murder in Trinsic, he agrees to join the party. He comes with a sword and shield, no armor, and a slice of ham. I give him some of the armor items I'd been expecting to sell.
            
You guys need to work on your terms of endearment.
         
West of Lord British's castle is a playground where the kids from the nursery go when they're not in the nursery. The park features a sword-in-a-stone, but I can't seem to pull it out despite doing well on the park's "strength test." Southwest of that, I meet my first trainer--a young man named Zella who specializes in hand-to-hand combat. I actually have gained a level since the game began, and I have 6 training points, but we'll cover training and leveling later.
          
This faux Early Modern English is getting out of hand.
          
South of him is another trainer, Sentri, who offers to join the party. Sentri has been around since Ultima II, which took place on Earth, so I guess that explains his long life, although I must point out that he's fallen from baron of Serpent's Hold (Ultima IV) to a sword trainer in Britain. I let him back in the party, though it's getting pretty big now. Sentri comes with both a one-handed and two-handed sword, a bow with one arrow, and a side of ribs. I was about to complain about him having no armor, but it turns out he has a full set of plate armor behind a locked door, the key found in his dresser. I distributed the pieces.
          
It's about time someone brought something to this party besides a grumbling stomach.
          
Kessler the Apothecary has been working for Lord British, studying increasing addiction to silver snake venom. He'll pay me 50 gold pieces for every vial I can bring him. (I know where I could get eight if I was willing to steal.) Csil the healer has independently developed germ theory and is working on a microscope to see the germs he hypothesizes; he's not a fan of the Fellowship and their disbelief in actual medicine. Greg runs the adventuring equipment shop and happens to mention that he recently sold equipment to the Avatar--probably the same guy who signed his name at the Salty Dog.
             
Ultima VII becomes the third RPG to feature venereal diseases.
                
I find the Wayfarer's Inn, which I had been looking for last night, just a block from the tavern. The innkeeper, James, hates his job but feels he has to keep doing it for the sake of his wife, Cynthia. He worries that because she works at the mint, she'll begin to covet money and expect him to make more and more, then leave him when he can't. I wonder if this is a phenomenon that befouls the marriages of bank tellers. I've never known one. I later meet Judith at the Mint, and she tells me to relate to James that she still loves him. (I do, and he becomes happier.) I can bring her gold bars or nuggets to convert to gold coins. There's also a famous way to kill her, steal her key, loot the mint, and get Lord British to resurrect her, but I won't be doing that.
     
At Town Hall--which has no other employees despite several offices--I meet Patterson the Mayor. He's also President of the Britannian Tax Council. (I guess I was wrong in my last entry about never meeting them.) He brags that he won an overwhelming victory over his last opponent, Brownie--naturally because he had the support of the Fellowship. He denies that Britain has a class system but keeps betraying it with his own words. He says his marriage to Judith, a teacher at the Music Hall, is wonderful.
        
Just keep digging, buddy.

        
When asked about the murder, he relates that the victim was a man named Finster, a politician who wanted more power for the Great Council and wanted to disband the Fellowship. His mutilated, beheaded body was found in an abandoned building near the castle which has since been demolished. Honestly, the Fellowship has been so obviously evil since the beginning that it might have been a better twist if they had turned out to be a bunch of well-meaning-but-clueless people.
   
Judith runs the Music Hall and contrary to her husband thinks her marriage is in trouble. She doesn't like the growing power of the Fellowship, and she says that Patterson sometimes stays out all night.

Next to the Music Hall is the Royal Theater, which has a lot of the town's humor. The director, Raymundo (an in-game avatar of lead writer Raymond Benson), is staging a 100-hour play called The Trials of the Avatar. An old actor named Jesse is playing the Avatar. He's struggling to remember his most important lines: "Name!," "Job!," and "Bye!" No one else is happy with his role, including the self-proclaimed greatest actor in the world, Laurence, who is playing Iolo, and Shamino's squeeze, Amber, who is playing Sherry the Mouse. Laurence is also practicing his lines, including: "This is the Dungeon Despise!," "Ready the bow to use it!," and "I hear something to the east!"
          
The actors practice their respective lines.
       
Raymundo suggests that I understudy for the Avatar, first by purchasing an "Avatar costume" at Gaye's shop. It costs 30 gold pieces, which is a lot of money just to see a joke to the end. Upon returning, I read my lines and Raymundo says that I'm unconvincing as the Avatar.
         
"Thou must taste like the Avatar!"
        
The Royal Museum houses the Runes of Virtue, the Stones of Virtue, the Avatar's old swamp boots, the Vortex Cube, the silver horn used by the gargoyles to summon silver snakes, statues of Lord British and the Avatar, the Avatar's ankh, and . . . the Britannian and gargoyle lenses! What are they doing here?! Wasn't the whole point of the last game creating these lenses so that the two respective rulers could use them to consult the Codex?
        
I remember when we literally had to walk through fire for these.
        
The curator, Candice, is no help. A Fellowship member, she almost immediately lets it slip that she's sleeping with Patterson. (When I confront Patterson later, he just sputters, and there's no option to say anything to his wife.) Iolo suggests that we steal the Stones of Virtue because they can still be used to cast "Mark" and "Recall" spells. I honestly don't remember doing that in any previous game. I mean, between the Magic Carpet and the Orb of Moons, it's not like the party is hurting for modes of transportation.

As evening falls, I make a quick run down to Paws. Alina is still in the shelter, but she has received word from Weston that he's free and working temporarily for Lord British so that he may return to her with some money in his pocket. Morfin sells me mutton for 3 gold pieces each; boots agreed to pay me 5. I buy 10 pieces to bring her.
            
I guess Weston didn't bother to write about my involvement.
         
One thing that I'm noticing is that a lot of events slow the game to a stutter. It's usually when there's too much animation on the screen. If the party is walking past a few other walking people at the same time a storm cloud passes overhead, forget it. I can deal with the problem by just hitting CTRL-F12 and increasing the number of cycles in DOSBox, but it must have been maddening on an era PC.
     
Interactivity notes:

  • Move any furniture that it would be reasonable for a single person to lift.
  • Open and close shutters.
  • Turn gas lamps on and off.
         
Wasn't Shadowlands doing this the same year and bragging? Ultima VII did dynamic lighting as an incidental part of gameplay.
              
  • Fill a bucket from a well.
  • Light and douse torches in wall sconces.
  • Double-click a bale of wool and use it on a spinning wheel to create yarn. Use the yarn on a loom to create fabric. Use a pair of shears on the fabric to make bandages.
            
The Avatar works a loom--without dropping his sword.
         
  • Sit down at a harp or harpsichord and double-click on it to play it. (Unfortunately, you can't really play them by pressing keys for notes the way you could in V.) Instruments don't seem to interrupt the game music (if you have it on); they just show a series of graphic notes.
  1. Double-click the winches next to the castle portcullis to raise and lower them. There's one on both sides, which somewhat defeats the purpose.
           
I end this session standing in front of the Fellowship Hall, contemplating whether I really want to try to infiltrate the organization by joining, or whether I'd rather proclaim my animosity from the start. Granted, I don't have many leads if I don't join (it may even be necessary), but I wonder if it wouldn't make a more interesting (and less traditional) game if I stopped following the official path here and tried to piece together the mystery without the duplicity. Next time, we'll see what I decided.
       
Time so far: 10 hours
        

Friday, April 24, 2020

Planet's Edge: The Shape of the Universe

This session resulted in a full set of resources, and not much else.
     
As I reported a couple weeks ago, my Planet's Edge adventures were curtailed when my save game got corrupted, resulting in a freeze every time I tried to beam down to a planet. I tried various solutions and couldn't come up with anything that worked short of starting over. My most recent other save was from a few hours prior, and I had little confidence that it would not also ultimately corrupt. Thus, I started over. But I also hate doing things twice and found it difficult to motivate myself to continue. Along came commenter Klaus, who played up to the point where I left off, making this entry and the one that follows possible. He not only re-did everything, but he left the final save with the party in the courtyard of Alpha Centauri, with organized piles of personal weapons, ammunition, and already-used quest items. So I had really no excuse not to continue with the game. Thanks, Klaus!
          
Klaus sure knows how to keep things organized.
          
I then did something so useless and boring that it makes simply replaying a few episodes pale in comparison. It requires some explanation. The first thing you need to know is that I got way behind in grading papers. I gave my students a lot of short assignments this semester (three-to-five pages), and they piled up fast because I had to spend so much time converting my material to an online format. Around Wednesday last week, I did the math and realized I had about 170 papers awaiting my grade.

But few things are more mind-numbing than grading one paper after another, so I looked for something I could do in between papers. It had to be something that I could do in a small period of time, maybe 5-10 minutes. That ruled out most conventional RPG playing. In a game like Ultima VII, you want to immerse yourself, not explore Britain one conversation at a time in between comments about how to improve one's approach to APA referencing. I knew that if I tried to play a regular RPG in five-minute chunks, it would end up turning into hour-long sessions and I wouldn't get any grading done. 
       
The Sheroshu races through the universe between student papers.
         
This would have been the perfect time for an RPG in which I needed to grind. Grade a paper, fight a couple of combats, repeat. But I hadn't even fought my first initial combat in Ultima VII, and Planet's Edge doesn't have any leveling. Starting a new game hoping for a reason to grind seemed like a silly idea. However, I was in a curious position with Planet's Edge. My team had retrieved some ship and weapon plans from their initial expeditions. I was eager to take advantage of some ship upgrades, including the new Sheroshu hull, Mark 7 engines (or anything better than Mark 1), and better weapons. But I lacked the resources to build any of them. A trip to the warehouse informed me that to build the new hull alone, I would need 19 more heavy metals and 1 more soft metal. A Mark 7 engine would cost me a bunch of alien elements for which I hadn't even found any to identify the symbols.
The manual tells you what sectors have various elements, but not always what systems, let alone what planets. I started exploring each sector systematically, looking for each element I needed. If I ran into an "episode," I explored it if I could, but I otherwise spent my time on resource-acquisition. I soon ran into a few problems:
             
  • Approaching the "episodes" this way doesn't really work because they're complicated and doing something now is a good way to screw things up hours later when I engage the episode for "real." It's also very unsatisfying to blog about plots half-engaged and episodes half-glimpsed. I ended up throwing away a lot of material.
       
I don't remember where I am or what I'm doing.
     
  • The manual is wrong about some resources being available in some places. Specifically, there are no alien organics in the Ankaq Sector, no alien liquids in the Izar Sector, no rare elements in the Zaurak Sector, and no new elements in the Kornephoros Sector. In a few of these cases, those elements are found on planets in neutral space just outside the sector; other times, they're just completely wrong.
  • There are more resource locations than are listed in the manual. The manual just gives one of maybe two or three. This is important because you can't just keep depleting the same planet for resources. It takes time for them to replenish.
  • Some of the planets with resources are guarded with orbital platforms and attack ships. You can sometimes bribe these guys to stand down, and of course you can cheat with the "Dump Cargo" trick that a couple of commenters mentioned, but that seems like cheating.
        
Now all of this conflated with my need to do something that only takes 5-10 minutes in between papers. I thus hit upon the decision to explore every system in Planet's Edge and record exactly which planets had resources and "episodes." Grade a paper, explore a system, log my findings into a spreadsheet, repeat. I can't begin to stress how boring this process was and how much more boring it would have been if I'd tried to do it as a continuous manner of "play." Planetary exploration isn't exciting in this game like in Starflight. I wasn't fighting any combats because I wanted to keep as much room available for cargo as possible. There wasn't anything interesting to do between planets. There wasn't anything interesting to do on planets except the "episodes," which I was skipping for now.
          
I even recorded coordinates, so I could map the galaxy in ArcGIS.
           
But I kept it up until the end--I had fewer systems to explore than papers to grade. At the end of the week, this is what I can report about the galaxy in Planet's Edge:
              
  • The galaxy occupies coordinates from -64 to 64 on two axes. If you fly to the edge, it doesn't wrap; you just stop moving. Earth is at 0,0. It takes almost 20 minutes to travel the galaxy from corner to corner at ship speed 1 (using the default emulator speed). It takes 3 minutes at ship speed 6.
  • The galaxy consists of eight sectors, but not every part of the galaxy is covered by a sector. Among those sectors are 112 star systems. The number of star systems per sector ranges from 7 (Algieba) to 14 (Zaurak); the average is 10.4. There are 29 planets in areas of space not covered by a sector.
  • Each solar system has between 1 and 10 planets; the average is 5.8. There are 645 total planets.
  • The first planet in order is usually the name of the star and then "Prime." The others follow with numbers two through ten. So "Subra Prime" is the first planet in the Subra system and "Aldebaran Six" is the sixth planet in that system. There are 20 exceptions to this. Nine of them are in the Sol system, where every planet has its proper name, although for some reason Saturn is fifth and Jupiter is sixth. The other 11 exceptions are scattered throughout the galaxy. For instance, what would be Ascella Two is "Secundus Base." Kornephoros Three is the "Impremi Homeworld" instead.
  • Thirty-seven (37) of the planets have "episodes," between 3 and 6 per sector. No system has more than one episode. Except for Sol, which lies at the conjunction of all sectors, no episode is found on a planet not specifically controlled by a sector.
             
One of many interesting scenarios I'm saving for later.
        
  • Thirty-six (36) of the planets have resources. Ten (10) of these have defense platforms and ships that you have to destroy or bribe. However--and this is key--every resource has at least one planet with no defense platform. Identifying these was probably the most valuable outcome of this exercise.
             
At some point, I'll have to figure out how to deal with these defenses.
         
  • Most resources are found on exactly two planets. Alien Gases are found on six (three with defensive capabilities, three without). Alien isotopes, alien metals, and soft metals are each found on three. "New elements" are found only on Nekkar Prime, one of the most remote planets in the galaxy, and they don't seem to regenerate the way the other elements do.
  • Aselius is the only system with more than one resource. There are only five systems with both an episode and a resource. Forty-five (45) systems, or 40% of the total, have neither an episode nor a resource and thus have no reason to ever visit them.
  • There is absolutely no correlation between a planet's icon and the type of terrain or surface. Sometimes what looks like gas giants are covered in grass; sometimes earthlike blue marbles have a molten surface.
           
Looks like a gas giant, has organic plants and trees.
           
  • There are 10 "generic" planet descriptions, each used between 42 and 101 times. Most common is the "unstable volcanic" description; least common the "jelly planet with crystals" description. 
           
Eat your heart out, Ahab.
         
  • Planets in the Sol system each have unique descriptions but they still use the generic images from other planets, which creates some confusion.
          
This is the image used for planets that have grass plains and rolling hills.
           
  • Thirty-three (33) of the 645 planets, or about 5 percent, are graphically depicted with a moon.
           
I did not record the percentage that had rings but let me know if you need that information.
        
It's possible I missed some things. There were times that I got to a system, counted the planets, explored them, and then noticed there were a couple that hadn't existed when I first arrived. (Sometimes the orbits of the eighth, ninth, and tenth planets take them temporarily off screen.) I checked the map a few times, but it's even possible I missed an entire star. There were some planets I couldn't scan (for the episode name) because of guardian ships. I assumed these planets had episodes if they didn't have resources, but I suppose it's possible I was wrong about that.
         
I began these explorations in my old Calypso ship. Eventually, I upgraded to the Sheroshu for greater cargo capacity when I found resources. Once I finally found "new elements," I built a Mark 7 engine for my Sheroshu because of the "alien problem" below, but it takes up a huge amount of space, so I was back down to a limited cargo capacity. I found out the hard way that more engines don't mean greater speed, nor do they even mean greater acceleration after a certain point. They do help with the tightness of your maneuvers.

The alien ships in this game couldn't be more annoying. Every one of them wants a resource bribe before they'll even talk to you. Some of them demand it. Some of them just insult you, but then they don't go away, so you get the impression that they're waiting for a bribe.
    
Once you initiate communication with a hostile ship--or once it initiates with you--you're stuck. There's no way to just disengage and fly off. You have to pay or fight. If you don't have any cargo, you have to fight. Once in combat, if you can put enough space between you and the alien ship, you can "disengage," but that just puts you back out on the main screen with the alien ship right on top of you. If you're not faster than him, you can't get away. Most of the time, he just immediately threatens or extorts you again. Thus, a lot of encounters involve immediate reloading.
           
Ships pursue me across the star field for no reason.
         
When I was flying the Calypso with a Mark 2 engine, if an alien ship decided it wanted a piece of me there wasn't much else I could do. They were usually faster than me. Aliens don't follow you into solar systems, but they're waiting for you once you get out, so there's really no way to "lose" a faster ship.
  
Thus, I upgraded to a Mark 4 engine initially, which was about as fast as most of the enemy ships I was seeing. A curious thing happens if an alien ship wants to engage you but he can only move just as fast as you: he'll chase you from one end of the galaxy to another, back and forth, always waiting when you come back out of every star system, never abandoning the chase, for no other reason than to tell you that he doesn't like you. If you want to avoid such ships, you can't ever miss a star system on your first approach and have to double-back to it, because he'll catch you.
           
You had to chase me across the entire galaxy just to tell me that?!
         
The game's "auto-navigation" system is perhaps the least helpful of any interface shortcut ever created for an RPG. It only works for systems which you've already visited, which makes sense. But the journeys are so short that you can't really accomplish much while the game is piloting your ship. Worse, the navigation only gets you to the right system, not a specific planet. It shuts off once you enter the system, but it doesn't stop the ship. So if you're not paying attention--and the entire purpose of something called "auto-navigation" would be not to have to pay attention--the ship just coasts through the destination system and ends up back on the galaxy map, sailing infinitely in some direction until you return to the computer. Oh, it also sometimes accidentally runs into a random system on the way, at which point the auto-navigation assumes you're at your destination and shuts off.
        
Perusing the systems to which I can auto-navigate.
         
At some point during this session, I spent some time in the cloning chambers, "improving" my party. The "body" score for each character (hit points) is enormously variable, from the teens to the 50s, and my previous crew had been pretty weak. I also wanted higher "Astrogation" for my leader and better weapons skills for everyone. Interestingly, you can't just "re-roll" during the process; you have to actually create a new clone and then see what his statistics are. I have no idea what happens to the poor fellow if you then reject him for a different clone.
       
It became clear that the skills are not all independently rolled. Thus, you can't hold out for 100 in everything. For William, among "Astrogation" and the various ship's weapons, I always seemed to get one 100, one 85 or 80, one 95 or 90, and one low roll, like 65. Katya always gets something in the 80s, something in the 90s, and one 100 spread out between light, heavy, and hand weapons. Other skills come and go for her. Anyway, I rolled until I had what I liked.
        
Creating a better "William." Don't ask what happened to the old one.
         
When I was done with my galactic explorations, I had a decent collection of raw materials, plus all the information I needed about where I could go for more. But I soon ran into another limitation. I had done such a good job collecting materials that I had outpaced my ability to load the best equipment on my ship. The Sheroshu only has 90 tons of space, and a Mark 7 engine takes up 58 by itself. The best systems for each of the four weapon types take in the 20s. Even downgrading to a Mark 5 engine (with a couple of Mark 2 backups for turning) meant that I could only load two weapons systems. I went with a "quark beam" and a "rack gun," which lined up with my pilot's weapon skills.
             
Outfitting my new vessel. I need more space.
         
I then decided it was time for another chat with those blue aliens about who is and isn't allowed to visit the "life gallery" on Merak Prime. On the way, I handily trounced a few of those orc-like aliens who wouldn't stop hassling me for cargo, so I thought that was a good sign. Alas, the three ships guarding that planet destroyed me in about 10 seconds. I couldn't even destroy one of them. So I guess that's an adventure for the next class of ship.
            
A ship explodes from my cannons.
          
If anyone ever needs a comprehensive database on Planet Edge's planets and systems, I've got it covered. But now that grading is done (heavens, what a lie), I guess it's time to get back to the game's plot--after a visit to Britannia.
     
Time so far: 35 hours