Monday, January 11, 2021

Secrets of Bharas: Encyclopedia Bharatica

This game has a thing about goats.
         
I don't know how I found time for personal reading when I was a freshman in college, but at one point I found myself reading an onerous book that I hadn't been assigned by any class. I read it "for pleasure." It mentioned a lot of people, places, and things, and I had trouble keeping them all straight. (Imagine it was Lord of the Rings and you'll get the idea.) To assist with the reading, I decided to create a quick glossary for myself and build it recursively as I worked my way through the text. If it were Lord of the Rings, and I knew nothing about the story going in, from reading Page 1, I would have been able to create several entries:

Bag End
A residence or division within Hobbiton.

Baggins, Bilbo
Resident of Bag End in Hobbiton. Turning 111 as the story begins. At some point on the past, went on an adventure and returned with riches. Made an heir of his cousin, Frodo, when he was 99 and Frodo was 21.

Hobbiton
A town or country that contained Bag End. Bilbo, Frodo, and "Sackville-Bagginses" were among its residents.

And so forth. Each page delivered more information, which sometimes caused me to simply append information to the existing entry and other times caused me to re-write it entirely. By the end of Chapter 1, I would have had this:

Hobbiton
One of the older villages in the country known as the Shire. It was situated in Westfarthing, next to the village of Bywater, on a stream known as The Water. A hilly region, it contained many of the old-style Hobbit homes built as burrows in the ground, including Bag End, the residence of Bilbo Baggins.
       
By the end of the book, I would have been able to talk about how Saruman destroyed it during the War of the Ring and replaced the Old Mill with a factory, and how Sam healed it.
   
Anyway, I loved the process of slowly assembling the entries--which was good, because the subject had more than one book. A glossary slowly turned into an encyclopedia. Two years after I graduated from college, it was several hundred pages, and useful enough to other people who enjoyed the subject that I had it published. It sold a couple thousand copies, mostly to libraries, and I still get a check for around $50 every once in a while from my publisher.
     
Bolstered by my success, I started creating encyclopedias for other subjects. But the Internet soon spelled the end to those ambitions. Even before "wikis" became a thing, fans were posting encyclopedia-like pages online. Irene and I were working on a fan encyclopedia of Babylon 5, for instance, when we found a web site that had basically already done it for us. My encyclopedia-writing career came to an end.
   
Every once in a while, however, I get the same spark of excitement when I take notes for a game. This week, it was The Secrets of Bharas. It's been a long time--probably since Ultima IV--since I've put this much effort into note-taking. I created a document with four sections, the first covering the NPCs in each town and a summary of their dialogue, the second covering the steps on the main quest, the third outlining the history of Bharas, and the fourth an encyclopedia of major places, people, and events. I started with the manual and then moved on to the NPC dialogues within the game. Before long, I had over 20 pages of material. Here's the current draft.
           
Wandering into the village of Amiens.
      
I don't expect you to read the entire thing, but a look through the history section and a random selection of glossary and dialogue entries will give you a sense of the detailed world-building that went into this game. We've seen this level before, of course, with the Ultima, Magic Candle, and Starflight series, arguably Quest for Glory and Challenge of the Five Realms, too. Still, there are some layers in the world of Bharas that make perhaps only Ultima its equal. For instance, we have contradictory or alternate interpretations of history. The official story is that the six continents of Bharas where unconnected until a human sailor named Sadananda made first contact a little over 200 years ago. But some NPCs talk about ancient times when a cabal of mages ruled the world. As for the humans on Surya, some say they descended from a race called the Yukons, but others say that the continent was colonized by a human sailor named Vyruimneas. Conflicts create mysteries. Mysteries create intrigue. Intrigue creates excitement and a desire to keep playing. I would have noticed none of this if I hadn't started taking these notes.
      
I also like the way individual NPCs exhibit personalities and eccentricities. Kilroy of Amiens refuses to believe in magic despite it making up a huge and obvious part of his world. Philippe claims (almost certainly falsely) that he invented the magic that everyone credits Keviv the Wise for. Mahula decided to learn the art of healing at an advanced age after her husband was killed in the Fourth Great War. King Stanislas the Peaceful of Dharthi is ostensibly married to Queen Sonja the Beautiful. Spend some time in his palace, and you discover that he actually has ten women stashed in the basement, all named "Sonja," one of which he chooses to be the queen on any given day. How did they come up with that?
 
There are a lot of narrative details that make the world feel richer and more realistic, such as the low-level rivalry between mages and healers, or the fact that most healers take up the profession late in life as second careers, or that most young NPCs are well-traveled and think of themselves as Bharals, while most older NPCs (who experienced the last one or two Great Wars) are more nationalistic and suspicious of other races, or how a lot of ex-soldiers turned to dungeon exploration after the wars.
     
There are a lot of fun connections to make, too, if you're paying attention. In the Royal Palace on Surya, you meet a dwarf named Jean-Claude who came to Surya from Toulon in Dharthi. He characterizes Toulon as an "awful village wracked with poverty and disease" but is cagey about what forced him to leave. If you go to Toulon, you meet a female dwarf named Babette who says Jean-Claude was her fiance, but he left her at the altar. Her brothers have sworn vengeance if they ever find him. Similarly, a man named Ur'Zal in the Gathering of Nomads in Wairan laments his lost son, missing for years. In Parthenay in Dharthi, you meet a young man named Dagh'Al who says that he hopped a ship and fled from Wairan because he couldn't stand the life of a nomad anymore. Unfortunately, there are no dialogue options, no keywords, no way to really interact with any of these NPCs to solve their little mysteries. 
       
We can hear about NPCs' psychological problems but can't do anything to help them.
     
A lack of interactivity isn't the only bad news. The mechanics of the game simply aren't up to the quality of the narrative. The creators made a rich backstory for the various dungeons, for instance, but when you get there, none of that backstory is reflected in the layouts, graphics, or encounters that you find. This sets Bharas apart from the other game series mentioned above and makes it more interesting to write about than play. Also, the narrative is interesting but not evolving. Since NPCs are the only way information is delivered in this game, and since all of them are found in towns, and since I've visited most (all?) of the towns, it's unlikely that any of the mysteries of the setting--the secrets of the title--are likely to have any major payoff. Nonetheless, it was still fun to create this document and see what the developers came up with, and to see how the backstory of the manual is fleshed out in the dialogues of the citizens.
    
In my previous sessions, I had explored the human continent of Surya and the dwarven continent of Dharthi. As I discussed last time, I took poor notes and ended up losing them and a lot of screen shots. So for this session, I revisited both continents and then moved on to the others. There were 21 cities in total, each one holding about 10 NPCs on average. I also discovered 12 dungeons but didn't do any dungeon exploration during this long session. Nor did I fight any battles: I simply fled every combat, which cost a trivial amount of money each time.
       
Finding a dungeon in the center of Wairan.
        
Many miscellaneous notes from the experience:
   
  • People in Bharas sure do like to talk about goats. The word appears 56 times in my dialogue notes. There's an entire Goat Herders' Village on one of the islands of Nadhi. Goat hair is used in spells. There's an artifact called the Helmet of Goat Empathy that I'm supposed to find, but some goat herders say they can already talk to their goats. Heck, you can even talk to a goat:
         
Say hi to your mother for me.
       
  • This is one of the few RPGs I've ever played to offer a realistic depiction of the effects of war on a population. NPCs talked about being displaced, about people they'd lost, about trauma they'd experienced. More than one NPC is a soldier clearly suffering PTSD.
  • An NPC named Vidya in the Fishing Village of Nadhi has developed "Continental Drift" theory. That reminds me that we were still (popularly) calling it that (rather than "Plate Tectonics") at the beginning of the 1990s.
    
He's even figured out subduction.
       
  • The creators had fun with the different continents and name ethnicities. Suryans have English, German, and Italian names.  Dharthians, if they have real-world sounding names at all, are often French (e.g., Jean-Claude, Babette). Hawans are west and south Asian. Nadians are heavily Greek, particularly ancient Greek (e.g., Hercules, Aphrodite). Native Wairans have apostrophes in their names.
  • In Wairan, you can meet another adventuring party. Like mine, it has two warriors, two healers, and two mages. Like mine, they got in the business to save the world. Unlike mine, they got distracted by riches. They all have Shakespearean names: Bianca, Cordelia, Katharina, Kent, Malvolio, and Petruchio.
  • There are pyramids on each continent that can be accessed by speaking the simplified names of the gods of the lands. One NPC explains that the ancient gods set them up at the request of a mortal who was terrified of sea travel. The names are BRIGHT (Surya), COLD (Hawa), DARK (Dharthi), WET (Nadhi), DRY (Wairan), and HOT (Jalamuki). The problem with using these to travel is that most continents have more than one island, so you still need a boat to get between them.
  • There seems to be no way to access Hawa's royal palace. Several NPCs spoke of it. There's a section of mountainous region in which it is clearly located--the compass (which points to the nearest town) indicates that something is in there--but it's surrounded by uncrossable mountains. I've heard no talk of anything in this game that suggests any kind of spell or item that lets you cross mountains.
  • By far, the most annoying feature of this game is the day/night cycle, by which squares get "dark" at nighttime, the more the further you get from the party. It makes it so hard to find cities and dungeons in the landscape that I've generally just shuffled back and forth whenever night falls until it's light again. Time doesn't pass in cities, so you don't want to walk into a city at night because you'll have a horrible time trying to find your way around. Despite this, some cities have underground areas that are permanently dark. I can't be sure I found all the NPCs there. There is no light spell or item that generates light as far as I know.
        
Trying to find anything in this mess.
       
  • Taking second place in the most annoying mechanic is transitioning from a boat to land and vice versa. Where most games do this with a simple pair of B)oard and X)it commands, here you have to go into the "combat formation" menu and drag everyone in or out of the boat.
    
Most of the useful dialogue was geared towards four things:
 
1. Encouraging us to seek out Yajiv the Big-Nosed in Surya.
 
2. Encouraging us to seek Keviv the Wise or Yaniv the Powerful to learn the game's high-level spells (you only need to seek one of the two). This involves finding a precursor artifact first, a Scroll of Wisdom for Keviv and an Orb of Sparks for Yaniv.
         
Keviv levels us up.
       
3. Alerting us to the existence of ancient artifacts, including the Gem of Vision, the Amulet of the Third Eye, the Helmet of Goat Empathy, and the Crystals of Bolton. The first three of these are the next stage of my quest, given by Yajiv. They're all said to lie in dungeons, and there might be more than one of each.

4. Telling us where we could find dungeons.

After getting the relevant dialogue and item, we got the top-level spells from Keviv. These are corpora trementia ("Tremor"), Impetus Cordis ("Kill"), Resurgens ("Resurrect"), and Daemon Pugnans ("Summon Demon"). I haven't had cause to cast any of them yet.
    
Unfortunately, we've run into a bit of a problem. The Mines of Minere on Surya won't operate without a Crystal Key. From a couple of NPCs, I traced the Crystal Key to a woman named June in the Suryan town of Vashi. But she won't give it to me, even though I'm sure I'm using the right keywords. Something in the game must be bugged. It's hard to imagine that this mine, closed off as it is and requiring the Crystal Key, isn't necessary in some way. I could end up spending dozens of hours exploring the rest of the dungeons for no purpose.
     
June's response even though I know I have the correct keywords.
      
I'll let it sit for a few days and see if anyone has any suggestions. I may try hex-editing the party to the next level in the Mines, although that variable might be hard to find in the data. Unless I want to try to find it in a save state file or the entire disk image, I have to find an Apple IIGS disk utility to extract the save file from the disk image first. I'm grateful to emulators, but playing old games can still be a real pain sometimes.
     
Regardless of what happens, I had fun compiling the "encyclopedia," even if, as I look at it now, it does seem a little insane. Then again, this whole project is insane.
    
Time so far: 35 hours

 

44 comments:

  1. "Corpora trementia" appears to be Latin for the medical condition kind of tremors, not the earthquake kind. It always gets a groan from me if games (or books) try to look classy by using Latin, but get no further than a hasty dictionary lookup.

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    1. The manual says of the spell, "As the ground quakes, so too will the bodies of thy foe!" It's unclear whether the quaking bodies are an effect of the ground (in which case the Latin makes no sense) or whether they both just happen concurrently (in which case it does, at least a little).

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  2. You are right. This project IS insane. And we are all glad you're doing it.

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  3. Reminds me, I must read the Silmarillion again :)

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    1. Again? I don't even believe anyone who says they made it through one time. That book is unreadable.

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    2. I recommend listening to the audio book in the background while you're doing something else. It's quite nice and even comforting that way. I'm pretty sure it's posted on youtube.

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    3. I read Silmarillion circa 25 years ago and I MUST NOT read it again. All I can rememer is pain.

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    4. The Silmarillion is like the skeleton of a great series, with grand plot ideas but lacking the dialogue and characterization to bring it to life. It would take a lot of work from a good writer to flesh it out into a story the way The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, even if copyright would allow for such a thing.

      You could also listen to the metal adaption, Nightfall in Middle-Earth.

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    5. I love The Sìlmarillion. I read it again last year. Of course I am also GMing a Middle Earth campaign

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    6. *Eventually* copyright will allow for such a thing.

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    7. Every now and then I'll read the Silmarillion, thinking that this will be the time I "get it." Every time, I forget what happened as soon as I turn the page. I remember the broad strokes of major events and that's it.

      Nightfall in Middle-Earth is one of my favorite albums, I just wish the book were half as invested in its own events as Hansi was when he adapted them into lyrics.

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    8. *Eventually* copyright will allow for such a thing.

      Technically, 2043 in the UK, but I will be surprised if it transfers to the public domain without some sort of legal battle.

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  4. Almost everything really worthwhile and memorable seems insane at the time.

    There's a lot of games on this blog that end up being broken or unwinnable, I wonder how much of it is emulation and how many of them were always unwinnable.

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  5. I have been exploring MobyGames list of games and stumbled upon this: https://www.mobygames.com/game/mindstone

    This game is listed as an RPG, and not in your master list. I'm quite unsure if this really an RPG (or close enough) or just an adventure game with some stats thrown in. Maybe someone else can clarify this.

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    1. I played this game back in the days and enjoyed it.
      IIRC I have previously suggested it to Mr. Addict and he rejected it.
      I can't recall if it was a real RPG, but I do remember it was very short but enjoyable.

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    2. I thought I remembered looking into it and finding that while the characters had attributes, they didn't improve during the game.

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    3. My unsolicited opinion is that if a game is short, that the lack of progression shouldn't matter much if there's lots of other overlap with RPG elements. I'm not sure how short is short enough, but it seems reasonable that some CRPGs could be small enough in scope that character progression doesn't play an important role.

      In tabletop RPGs it's not unusual to go one or more sessions without leveling up. Small games could be similar and lean into other aspects.

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    4. I feel like unless we're talking about a game that's less than half an hour long or something, there isn't a point where short length makes a lack of character development acceptible. Personally at least, I feel like character development is the one major thing that determines if something's an RPG, and a game without it isn't an RPG no matter how much it looks like one

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    5. I'm not sure the tabletop analogy holds. In a CRPG, it's not uncommon to go one or more "sessions" without leveling up, either. But in both cases, you're still playing the same game when you come back to it, and you will level up EVENTUALLY.

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    6. Tabletop games are also significantly slower than CRPGs, at least in my experience. In the ones that I played at least, we got done in a 4 hour session what could probably be done in about an hour or so in a CRPG.

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    7. TTRPG vs CRPG time can be strange. The computer greatly speeds things like combat even in turn-based games for various reasons - limited options, instant math, no GM fumbling around for the opponent "AI", etc. On the other hand, lots of stuff you have to do in a CRPG can be easily abstracted if the GM decides they'll be uneventful.

      For example, if you want to go back to town to use the inn and temple in Baldur's Gate, you have to actually go through the process of travelling, interact with everything, and then return. A GM can just roll some dice and say "Your journey was without incident, and you return to the dungeon after two days".

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    8. Not that I disagree that character development is a key need for a CRPG.....in tabletop gaming often "one-off" adventures are played in which no development is expected in between more serious sessions. And the TSR Marvel game had several adventures where you'd play specifically as the Marvel Heroes instead of your own character though they could be reconfigured for original characters as well. Usually you'd be unable to develop those characters (for obvious reasons I should think).

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    9. Ugh I dropped a whole sentence and didn't notice it there......after sessions please imagine I wrote in properly "where you play one-off or predesigned characters only for that one session." My apologies.

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    10. But even those sessions are taking place in the context of a rule set that has things like experience and leveling, right? Is there any tabletop role-playing game whose base rules don't have a mechanism for character development?

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    11. TRPGs without character development? Sure, they exist; but they're largely limited to low-budget indie titles, or to parody RPGs like Toon and Paranoia (depending on edition).

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    12. Aren't most TRPGs pretty much low-budget indie titles? :)

      Traveller (at least the Mongoose base rules) has no character development, except for a short section on learning new skills. No experience or leveling, you just have to spend a couple of months of your characters time.

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  6. This title seems more like en elaborate world-building exercise than a game.

    I have to say though that I don't like their naming convention at all. Famous real life places and modern, culturally specific names like Jean-Claude? Not really that great for immersion.

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    1. A dwarf of all races being named Jean-Claude is the funniest thing I've read all week.

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    2. The only Jean-Claude I know is van Damme, so imagining dwarfs proceeding with their lifes while constantly doing splits is not something I can simply gloss over.

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  7. So there's a day/night cycle but no way to rest until dawn? Seems like a pointless addition.

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    1. Couple that with apparently no light sources!

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    2. There's a way to rest. But it takes longer than just shuffling back and forth until dawn.

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. No. I didn't actually write a Tolkien encyclopedia. I was just using Tolkien as an example of the process.

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  9. There being lots of interesting backstory and NPCs with little personal issues but not being able to interact with any of it and barely seeing any of it reflected in level design and encounters reminds me of the few JRPGs I tried to play. Ultimately it's always this lack of interaction that puts me off them. It feels like you're not a character in this world, just a tourist observing things as a passive onlooker.

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    1. Agreed - I just finished DQ7 and it was like this with the NPCs that had relationships and affected each other across times but you could never really participate even to say hey i knew that guy/gal. I liked the stories in DQ7 but I did feel like an onlooker who could only affect things by battling bad beasts.

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  10. Ultimately, what type of game you'll like - light on interaction, heavy on lore and detail, or maximum interaction with a more loosely-defined world - depends on the kind of story you wanna be told:

    An epic fairy tale, and you're the hero vs,

    Trials and tribulations of an alternate you.

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    1. Trials and tribulations of you as you'd like to be, would maybe be more accurate

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  11. Not strictly relevant to this post, but I'd like to thank you for introducing me to Nox Archaist--I picked it up today and have been enjoying it.

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    1. I'm so glad to hear it. That looked intriguing. I'm sorry I haven't had a lot of time to invest in it yet.

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  12. Chet sure has lived an interesting life for a guy who spends most of his spare time in front of a computer! Most of the other gaming addicts I know barely find the time to pack their bongs.

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  13. Ahh, Chet, I can't wait for you to get to the golden era of Apple RPGs, specifically the Exile series (anything by Spiderweb, really) and Ambrosia Software's Cythera. Those are really the Ultimas of the Apple/Macintosh industrial complex.

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  14. The moment you mentioned talking to goats, I thought, "I hope he makes a Mark Wahlberg reference." You never disappoint.

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    1. This has nothing to do with anything, but I haven't watched SNL "live" since Dana Carvey was in the cast. I probably last watched it in 1992, before I headed off to college (that was the last time I watched a "late night" show, too). Over the years, I've been vaguely aware at some of the cast members and skits, but I've never watched a full episode.

      A few months ago, while having trouble falling asleep, I decided to get caught up on the last 30 years of the show. I have to admit something that no SNL viewer in history has ever admitted: the casts that joined the show AFTER the time I watched it regularly were much, much better than what I experienced, and the skits were much funnier. I'm sorry I never watched it "live" with Keenan Thompson, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, etc. Wow, do they improve on Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson, and Ellen Cleghorne.

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