Friday, September 24, 2021

Game 433: Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity (1985)

The authors were surprisingly not from Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky.
Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity
United States
Commonwealth Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II
Date Started: 20 September 2021
Bronze Dragon is a text-based adventure-RPG hybrid in the mold of Eamon (1980). You create a character on a "hub" disk, which features a town called Dragon Village, and from there go on any number of adventures that were supposed to be created on module disks. The problem, as with so many Eamon-inspired games (cf. Knight Quest), is that there weren't many subsequent modules. Bronze Dragon shipped with one scenario, Seekers of the Storm, as well as 12 "plots" that can be customized into dungeons of different length and difficulty levels. Later the same year, the authors released another scenario called The Twisted Speare. That was it. In some ways, I understand why players didn't warm to Bronze Dragon's odd interface, but the authors showed enough originality in characters, monsters, and mechanics that the game cannot be dismissed as a simple Eamon clone.
The main menu.
The game's main menu looks a lot like Eamon's, but it starts showing its originality in the character creation process. You're invited to create a large roster, from which up to five characters can go adventuring at once. Although its races are relatively standard (human, elf, dwarf, halfling), its classes are a bit unusual: knight, assassin, ninja, elder, and wizard. An "elder" is essentially a priest. The character also chooses an alignment from virtuous, lawful, chaotic, and vile. For all the talk in other RPGs about "chaotic good," it's clear that in Bronze Dragon, the first two alignments are "good" and the second two are "evil."
Attributes are strength, agility, intelligence, constitution, and endurance, each existing on a standard Dungeons & Dragons scale from 3-18, but their values are completely determined by class and race. There's no "re-rolling." 
Creating a character.
New characters want to visit Dragon Village's equipment store, where their starting gold doesn't go very far. The game includes a huge variety of weapons and armor as well as adventuring staples like lanterns, ropes, and iron rations. My starting characters could basically buy one weapon and one armor type.
Purchasing items. Weapon and armor selections are specific to each class.
There are other menu options for selling items looted during adventures, learning spells (each spellcasting class comes with a few slots per level), learning martial arts, visiting the pub, visiting the healers, identifying equipment at a wizard's house, and storing gold in the bank. The pub is an interesting option. Before talking to anyone, the game asks what adventure you plan to go on next. After loading the appropriate text, it offers a selection of NPCs who provide various adventure-specific hints.
Things to do in Dragon Village.
Up to five characters at a time can go on an adventure, which definitely marks a departure from the single-character Eamon. As for that adventure, you have a few options. The game comes with 12 "plots" that can be seeded into a randomized "castle." The plots provide the framing story, a couple of key encounters, and an Amulet of Yendor that you have to retrieve. You decide how many levels the castle has (up and down), how many rooms it contains, and the difficulty of both monsters and the overall scenario. The minimum dungeon size is one 10-room level, but the game often warns you that your choices have created a castle too small to fully contain the plot. Seekers of the Storm and The Twisted Speare are two full scenarios in which the castle parameters are fixed.
After choosing your adventure, you have to swap disks around a few times while the game creates your scenario ("castle") disk. After that, it's off to the adventure.
Setting some options for a randomized adventure.
Once you're actually in a castle, Bronze Dragon makes a pretty bad first impression. It's so bad, in fact, that the first time I played it, I thought that something about the interface was bugged or corrupted in my copy. Part of the problem is that the first room of each scenario has no description beyond the scenario's backstory, so after you read the backstory, you're left with only the "header" of the game's interface. Most other rooms have descriptions below the header.
The opening setup for the second scenario, "The Philosopher's Stone."
The interface header shows the active character's name; the menu or sub-menu that you're currently in; the character's hit points, armor value, and endurance; and the available commands. It's the "available commands" part that doesn't work so well. They're mapped to the number keys from 1 to 0. You can press the numbers themselves to highlight them or use the arrow keys to move through them. ENTER executes the commands. The "Regular Commands" menu is the same for everyone, with 1-0 corresponding, respectively, to rest, fight, search, look, diversion, advance, retreat, use object, inventory, and leave (the room). Almost all of these options have sub-menus with their own commands, and even on the regular menu, you can hit SPACE to toggle to a special set of class-specific and race-specific commands for each character. 
The first gameplay screen (minus a bunch of black space below it). The 1-0 numbers correspond with the standard commands for each character.
It's not as bad as I thought it was at first. It's helped by allowing the player to hit the first letter of each action, so "F" takes you automatically to 2 ("Fight") without having to remember the number or scroll through the commands. But it's still more cumbersome than it needs to be, and I rather wish the developers had done away with the numbers and just offered a text list of the available options at any given time.
Anyway, all navigation is through these commands or through numbered menus on the screen. There's no GET LAMP here. If you want to pick up a lamp in the room, you choose 3 ("Search") and then 1 ("Search for Object"), and then choose the lamp from the list of objects in the room that pops up.

Actions cycle through the characters. There are times when it doesn't matter which character performs an action ("Leave," "Look," "Search"). If you need a specific character to do something, you can just "Rest" until you get to him or her. When I first started playing, I thought the game would be a pain with a party and that I'd just field a single character at a time, but it turns out that it works pretty well even with a group.
Combat is fought through menus, too. In my first attempts at the adventures, I faced an odd variety of foes, including crypt zombies, enchanted clouds, piercers, dwarves, banshees, and curiously easy "tower demons." Enemies can start in the room at short, medium, or long ranges, and you may have to advance depending on the length and range of your weapons (again, each character does this individually). Melee combat uses a THAC0-type system by which the game tells you what number you need to roll (or higher) on a 1d20 to hit the enemy. Numbers flash by too fast to time, and you hit ENTER to freeze on one of them. If you hit, the game rolls separately for damage done. If you slay an enemy, characters immediately get the experience (called "skill points") divided among them.
Chester makes his roll.
Although the mechanics are relatively basic, there are some tactical considerations associated with special abilities and spells. Each class has two special abilities: "Swordplay" and "Rage" for the knight; "Assassinate" and "Sneak" for the assassin; "Martial Arts," "Imitate Dead," and "Leap" for the ninja; "Destroy" and "Innate Heal" for the Elder; and "Cast Energy" for the wizard. Elders and wizards can also cast spells from a pool of "charges." Level 1 combat spells for wizards include "Shatterglass" (c. 12 damage to a monster), "Snare," "Attraction" (pulls a monster into short range), and "Protect." There are obviously more at higher levels. I've barely begun to explore different spells and special abilities, but clearly they create a lot of tactical scenarios together.
And my mage blasts an enemy with shards of glass.
Endurance depletes with each action, and you have to stop for a few rounds of resting every so often. There's a good chance that wandering monsters will enter the room while you're resting.
After a few false starts, I determined to create a solid party and win the "Dungeon of the Undead" scenario, which is only available to Level 1 characters. My party was:
  • Chester, a virtuous human knight
  • Ezio, a virtuous halfling assassin
  • Hattori, a lawful human ninja
  • Pius, a lawful dwarf elder
  • Morgan, a virtuous elf wizard

(For reasons covered anon, it makes sense to have the party entirely "good" or entirely "bad.")
I equipped everyone with weapons, armor, and food. Hattori got some thieves' tools, but I didn't have enough money for him to learn any martial arts yet. Pius learned 5 charges of "Heal Wounds" and 2 charges of "Zombie," which summons a zombie to fight with the party. Morgan learned 8 castings of "Shatterglass," 25 castings of "Find Traps," and 4 castings of "Snare."
First-level spells available to the wizard.
I then made a new adventure using Plot #1 ("Dungeon of the Undead"), with 15 rooms per level and 4 castle levels. I then had Chester enter the bar to get rumors. When he entered, the bartender was whispering something about a container. I greased his palm with gold, and he offered that "the magic stuff" is hard for newcomers. The nobleman wouldn't talk to me. The blacksmith said that zombies are hard to kill. The waitress said: "The wands are the first step. You only need one." The hooded assassin wanted 50 bronze pieces, way more than I had left. None of the other characters had anything to offer.
The "container" bit actually has some relevance.
I gathered the party and started the adventure. The opening text read:
Many fearless adventurers have sought the Parchment of Power--and died for their efforts. This is not surprising, because the parchment is within the Dungeon of the Undead, a place of evil and death. The Parchment of Power is so named for its ability to "bestow pure healing," an aspect of its nature which isn't fully understood.
You now stand outside the Dungeon of the Undead, which glows a pale white through the mist that surrounds it. Eerie organ music floats out from the stone structure. The mist seems to part as you walk up.
As usual, the starting room had no additional descriptive text. I could return to Dragon Village or take one of four "misty entrances" in each of the four cardinal directions.
"The west wall and columns are cool and polished," the next room description read. "The walls and floor are hard. It is dim." I soon learned that the game draws its room descriptions from a list of adjectives (e.g., reinforced, slick, gnarled, weak, stained) and nouns (e.g., walls, columns, ceiling, alcove). One room will have walls that are cool and polished and ceilings that are weak and stained; the next will have a slick alcove covered in blood and a floor that is reinforced and oiled. It basically works, although some of the combinations make little sense.
How can an alcove be "gnarled"?
The game also has a library of descriptions for the rooms' exits: a misty doorway, an oaken door, a double-barred door, a scratched stone door, and so forth.
The rooms and their various exits do create a cohesive dungeon layout. Each room tells you its dimensions, in multiples of 10 feet, and the specific position of the exits along each wall. For instance, a northern doorway marked "3" is three squares along the north wall from the west wall. With this information, you can make maps of the levels. This is useful because room descriptions and door descriptions often repeat.
This room is 4 x 6 squares. There are two doors on the south wall, one two squares from the west wall and one six squares from the west wall.

My map of one of the levels. "Ds" are stairways down. I feel like there must be something in that 1 x 3 area to the northwest, but I couldn't find any secret doors leading into there.
Monsters that I encountered in the dungeon included crypt zombies, skeletons, halflings, dwarves, giant ants, giant rats, and "refuse bolisks," perhaps a corruption of "basilisks." Halflings and dwarves are "good" creatures, and you're supposed to bribe them to leave you alone rather than fight them if you're playing a good party. I missed this in the manual, with consequences that we'll soon see.
A giant rat gets a bite in.
You find a lot of junk in the rooms, including random items of clothing, bars of soap, and various types of dishes and cutlery. There are also a lot of containers, like boxes, cupboards, and chests. Many of them are locked and have to be opened with the ninja and his tool kit. I kept forgetting to swap his weapon back into his hand after doing this, which would cause him to attack the next enemy with his tool kit and damage the kit. Anyway, what's more frustrating are the containers that aren't locked, because it feels like you should be able to do something with them, but no set of commands seems to let you simply open or look in a container. Everything you pick up sells for at least a few bronze pieces back in Dragon Village, but your encumbrance limits you, so you want to prioritize the expensive stuff.
The various items in one room. "Pennon" is an actual word and not a misspelling of "pennant" as I originally thought. It means "pennant."
I guess the dungeon was once a temple led by a priest named Doomeis. There are numerous inscriptions to him as we explore. A wraith says that he "went too far" and that "everyone paid for his foolishness, Doomeis most of all." His name is written in blood on a wall that used to hold maps. Spirits scream his name from somewhere below a rift in the floor. 
Despite his confidence, he does not appear to have lived forever.
The first puzzle item we find is a Wand of Freezing. On the same level (second), we also find some Jumping Boots, but they are "too hot to touch." I use the Wand of Freezing on the boots and am able to collect them. On the fourth level, we find the Parchment of Power, but it is "too fragile to take." A nearby room has a scroll casing, but it is "floating high above your head." I have to use the Jumping Boots to get the scroll casing, which I then use to collect the fragile Parchment of Power. After that, all that's left is getting out of the dungeon.
My knight collects the scroll.
The party escapes with the Scroll and piles of stuff to sell back in Dragon Village. We have also amassed about 1,200 skill points, or roughly half of what most classes need to reach Level 2. You don't simply level up when you reach the threshold, however. You have to visit one of the two local rulers, King Leopold or Lord Usul. King Leopold will only reward good characters and Lord Usul will only reward evil ones (which is why it makes sense to have all characters the same alignment). The manual promises that they will offer skill point and treasure rewards for artifacts claimed during the adventures.
Wasting my time on a visit to Leopold.
I take the Parchment of Power to King Leopold, and here the game pulls out the rug from under me. Apparently, since I killed halflings and dwarves in the dungeons, my characters' alignments all changed to "chaotic." Leopold therefore won't see us. But he's the only one interested in the Parchment of Power, so after winning the first adventure, I can't really claim any kind of reward for it. All I can do is sell my meager treasures and buy a few equipment upgrades.
At least he's enthusiastic.
Thus is my first experience with the game. I find the interface slow and frustrating, but it has a few good ideas, and I want to try some of the spells and abilities at higher levels. I think I'll continue on to the Seekers of the Storm adventure before wrapping it up. We'll talk next time about the development team, which is still (mostly) together and working on games to this day.
Time so far: 5 hours   


  1. AlphabeticalAnonymousSeptember 24, 2021 at 9:52 PM

    Looks like an interesting little find. Out of curiosity, who or what was "Nakatomi" (in the fourth screenshot)? At first I thought you were going for a "Die Hard" theme, but then no-one in your party had that name -- then I thought maybe the game's author was inspired by the movie, but it wouldn't have been released for another three years.

    Also, a small typo: "which is why makes sense."

    1. I wasn't going for a "Die Hard" theme, but somehow it was the first Japanese name that occurred to me when I went to name my first ninja.

  2. RPG morality systems have always had kind of a problem with justifiable homicide, huh? Like, most real-world morality systems would say it's okay to defend yourself against someone who's actively trying to kill you. Even most actual pacifists wouldn't have a problem meeting lethal intent with same. But in this and so many other games, you're supposed to know that these are actually GOOD deranged murderers who are out for your blood, and you're supposed to heroically give them your lunch money and beg for forgiveness instead of giving them a beating. Seems like a good racket to me.

    1. I would say that actual pacifists definitely would have an issue with 'lethal intent' in self defense!

      I can't think of many games in which you are penalised for defending yourself from random assailants. Ultima IV springs to mind, but the fact that it differentiates between lethal and non-lethal self-defense is a strength of the game imo.

    2. There are a bunch of them with the problem Anonymous describes, they're just usually not the big mainstream games. MUDs, rando text RPGs, etc. It's come up a number of times in this very blog!

    3. I think Gothic does something similar. If I remember well, if you defend yourself against a human opponent, you will always knock him down but not kill him. Then, when he's down, you can loot his money and weapon and let him live, or you can execute him. Killing him upsets any witnesses and may turn everyone against you, letting him live usually calls everyone down.

    4. Similar to Ultima 4 I meant.

    5. @Didier:
      This is exactly why I love the so called Eurojank RPGs from Piranha Bytes.
      So many of our AAA RPGs have so much better graphics and playtesting but the actual choices, dialog and gameplay variety in the Piranha Bytes games are nowhere to be found in the more polished games.
      I have never felt as much like a pirate as i did in Risen 2, as nutty as that game is.
      I mean, there's a quest where you can complete with either a trained monkey or doing a bunch of pirate trials if i remember.

    6. Just to clarify: the "good" creatures don't actually attack you in this game, so you can't really even claim self-defense. However, they do prevent you from doing anything in the room or even leaving the room while they're present. I feel like the game should have offered a conversation option rather than requiring the players to "bribe" presumably friendly creatures.

    7. Ah, well that's understandable then. Can't go around beheading people just because they're in the way, no matter how much we might like to shorten the line at the DMV.

    8. Speakinv of gothic, i think skyrim is indebted to those games beyond measure. But i hate how enemies will cower in Front of you in fear begging for their lives only to immediately attack again as soon as they regenerate some health. I wanted to Let them live, bitzi cant, being forced in a Moral grey area.

    9. What's in both Skyrim and Gothic that wasn't also in Morrowind?

    10. @stepped pyramids: non-static NPCs and wildlife.

  3. Probably not the best question to ask someone with a colour blindness problem, but I always wondered why supposedly white letters/symbols came out quite...colourful in this early area of home computing.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That's actually very Apple II specific, it has to do with the way it produces color. I know there exists a detailed explanation for this on the net (why text can't be displayed as just black and white in this mode) but I just can't find it right now.

    3. It's a side-effect of the hardware being used to display more colors than it should be displayed under normal circumstances. It's baked into the hardware, that's why you see it in every game.

      Here is the detailed tech description of the color fringe phenomenon:

    4. "Video of the 8-bit era is lovecraftian madness" is one of my favorite topics in retrocomputing. Most of the computers of this era coped with low-to-nonexistent video memory by GREATLY restricting the number of colors on-screen, usually some form of "you get 16 colors total and only 2 within any single X-by-X square of the screen", but the Apple II (and, of all things, the IBM PC when using the original CGA adapter's composite output) relied on the fact that NTSC signals on a CRT monitor produce color by way of timing: a certain fraction of a second for signalling how much red, a certain fraction for how much blue, and a certain fraction for how much green. Essentially, the Apple II doesn't send a "proper" color signal, but instead sends a black and white signal that's been Cleverly Crafted so that the black-and-white signal aligns with where NTSC expects colors to be. (In a sense, this is the opposite of the "cleartext" thing Windows was pushing in the early 2000s: add a single pixel of pure red, blue, or green to the edge of something black-and-white and the mechanics of an LCD display will make it look like a subtle blur effect on the adjacent black pixel) The downside is that there is literally no way to show a single pixel of white - you need at least two in a row for it to be white. So you had to either make your font double-wide or get blurry colors in your text. In pure text modes, later versions of the Apple II had an extra chip that would kill the critical part of the NTSC signal forcing it to be black-and-white, but that only worked if you whole screen in monochrome.

      This whole nonsense with colors and timing is also the secret reason behind the otherwise utterly baffling choice of CGA palettes on the PC: that ugly Cyan-Magenta-White palette you got isn't much good for anything really, but NTSC artifacts actually produce a decent 16-color palette by placing the different combinations of those colors adjacent to each other

    5. My general understanding is that the Apple II outputs directly to RF/composite video, rather than any sort of RGB output like anything modern. Composite video isn't great with color reproduction, and the Apple II takes advantage of that to display more colors than the hardware could reasonably support. Other systems did this too, although pretty much all of them share the issues of having a fairly limited resolution, not having set colors due to different TVs decoding things slightly differently, and having to rework it if you want to export to a country with different video standards as it had to be specifically tailored to the quirks of each system

    6. Right, but the Apple II is insane even by the standards of the day. A "normal" analogue composite signal consists of two elements which specify "which color" and "how much" (Doing it this way lets a black-and-white TV use the same signal by just throwing away the "which color" part). But rather than calculating an analogue color and luminance signal, the apple II sets the color component to rapidly cycle between red, green, and blue, while the luminance component is always set to 100% or 0. To do white, you have to hold the luminance value high for a full red-green-blue cycle. And this mostly works out fine because the phosphors on a CRT screen physically don't go from on to off instantly, but white in particular takes physically longer to happen than colors, so a white region has to be at least two pixels wide to have a clean edge.

    7. 8-Bit Guy did a good series on how color worked on old computers. You can watch part 1 here:

  4. I noticed that ninja can "imitate dead", which I assume makes the monsters think you died and ignore you until you act. Does anyone know if there is a reason for this specific ability? Like a reference to something?

    I ask because that's a monk ability in Everquest (feign dead). And this predates EQ by almost 15 years. Yet is a similar thing for a martial arts class.

    1. Feigning death as a monk ability goes way way back to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor supplement from 1975: "At the 5th level monks may perfectly simulate death"

      I can only assume he was in turn drawing from some folklore or movie depiction of Shaolin monks.

    2. Oh of course, Kung Fu was a huge TV series in the early 70s. Good bet that Dave got most of his monk ideas from that.

  5. Seems like a bit of a waste for a text-based game to have entirely generic ad-libbed room descriptions. Text lets you create as detailed a setting as you want without having to worry about memory limitations, graphics capability or your own drawing or modelling skill.

    1. "Text lets you create as detailed a setting as you want without having to worry about memory limitations"

      You'd be amazed how fast text can chew through the RAM or disk storage capacity of an 8-bit microcomputer :)

    2. Yeah, text tends to be surprisingly large. Semi-random descriptions like that are a pretty decent way to save a bit of space considering you only need to store the words once and you just need to grab them when you need them.

    3. There's a reason the Gold Box games put all their journal entries into the manual, and the game just told you to refer to page X. And that was in 1988!

      Only when we enter the 90s did text become trivial. Anything from the 80s has a text budget due to memory and hard drive space constraints, and the earlier in the 80s we are, the tighter the constraints.

    4. It's also worth pointing out that writing out descriptions of settings takes at least some time and effort. Whereas if you already have a bunch of code to randomly generate rooms and encounters, its easy enough to throw in some randomly generated adjectives for descriptions in there too.

  6. I believe Bronze Dragon comes with a main module called Seekers of the Storm, and not just the castles. When I played, I adventured out into the wilderness, fought a few battles, and didn't get much further.

    1. I also remember having a difficult time with the disk switching, and had the same complaints you did for the controls.

    2. Well, he tells us exactly that in the first paragraph, or otherwise I didn't understand your comment.

  7. Always a little ominous when a game title invites you to conquer infinity. As if most RPGs aren't long enough.

  8. I laughed out loud when I read about your ninja attacking enemies with the tool kit. I can imagine myself doing that repeatedly and never learning my lesson.

  9. Oh yes, the kind and benevolent King Leopold. I'm guessing the game dev just picked a random name, but sheesh.

    1. I mean, Belgium isn't a relevant enough country outside of Europe for its history to be common knowledge :p

    2. At least they didn't name him King Leopold II.

    3. Maybe they've meant Leopold of Austria?

    4. Or Prince Leopold of Anholt-K├Âthen? Funding Bach's work was certainly benevolent to us all


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