Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: We Know Your First Name is Sheltem

Here we go again.
          
Big things to talk about this time, starting with the spaceship we found in Area B1. After a little exploration, we discovered that it's Sheltem's--not that this party has any idea who Sheltem is. The other one, which we cannot enter, might be Corak's, or it might be . . . well, read on.
    
The ship is specifically an escape shuttle from the much larger ship that Sheltem flew away from Terra at the end of Might and Magic III. It has some giant stone heads in it that don't do much. Most of the computers are powered down. There's an option to fire weapons at the two forward nacelles, but we don't do it.
      
This probably destroys a town.
     
One computer that is active contains a log written by Sheltem, and it contains massive spoilers, plot twists, and reinterpretations of previous events. It begins with Sheltem on Terra, prior to the beginning of the series. Two agents of the Ancients, one of them clearly Corak, have arrived on Terra to disable Sheltem and take him off-world for some kind of repair. Yes, Sheltem is some kind of construct--a robot, android, or artificial intelligence--created by the Ancients to protect the young world. Their reasoning for removing him from this post isn't explicitly given, but he seems to have been conducting unauthorized "experiments." 
   
After his rendition, Sheltem thinks about the two directives the Ancients have given him: 1) obey the orders of the Ancients; and 2) protect Terra. He reasons that although the Ancients haven't given him any orders, if they do give him orders, it will almost certainly be to shut down, which would impede him from following the second directive. Thus, he cannot accept any orders from the Ancients. He shuts off his "auditory sensors" to avoid hearing orders, then overpowers the two agents and locks them in a stasis field. With them out of the way, he has the time to "remove the obedience directives" from his programming.
        
Sheltem relates events from the first game.
         
Lacking the fuel to get back to Terra, Sheltem lands on the VARN of Might and Magic, one of four worlds attached to the central CRON. He's upset to find no fuel, but since the CRON is headed to Terra anyway, he just needs to wait a few years. In that time, he starts to get up to some mischief, including plugging into CRON's network (the "Wire") and launching one of the VARNs into a star. Curiously, this one is "not intended for Terra," giving the impression that the CRON roams the galaxy, dropping off the various VARNs at different locations. I guess that makes sense; otherwise, why not have just one? Anyway, Sheltem plans to launch the CRON and the rest of the VARNs into Terra's sun when he reaches the planet.
   
Corak, one of the agents originally sent to capture Sheltem, escapes from his confinement. Sheltem hides by impersonating King Alamar, using the role for evil: "Today . . . I ordered my men to release the monsters in my dungeon upon the land and begin cutting down trees in a nearby forest. I have also issued a decree doubling taxes on my peasants." But "some natives" (i.e., the party from Might and Magic) foil Sheltem's plans and force him to flee to the central CRON.
      
The Might and Magic II party sails off into the sunset. Maybe they'll return in XI.
      
In CRON, between the first two games, Sheltem ambushes Corak and "separates his memory module from his body." The "natives" of course interpret the resulting quest as reuniting Corak's "spirit" with his body. The version of Sheltem that the party fights at the end of Might and Magic II is revealed to be a copy of Sheltem's personality, left on CRON while Sheltem made his escape to Terra. As you recall, the party foiled the copy's plans to drive CRON and the remaining VARNs into the sun. Here's where it gets interesting. This entire time, I assumed that the CRON successfully made it to Terra, but now I realize that was never confirmed (although at the end of II, it's suggested that's going to happen). Instead, according to Corak's logbook, the CRON was last seen "on a course to exit the system in three months." Thus, the original CRON and at least three VARNs are still out there, as is the party from the original two games. That clears up my confusion about where they went between II and III.
    
Sheltem's entries go on to describe the invasion of his ship by Corak and "natives of Terra" (i.e., the party from III). Sheltem flees Terra, Corak and the "natives" in pursuit, and lands on the "X.E.E.N. project." Okay, XEEN is another acronym. Xeno-something, I bet. Anyway, here's where it gets really interesting: Corak's escape pod landed in lava "and is stuck there," and the Terran natives' ship burned up in the atmosphere, "but not before safely beaming the Terran natives to the surface." What the . . . this entire time, we've known that the default party from III ends up on Enroth in time to influence events in VII. I just assumed their ship went off course after III and wound up there. But now it turns out that they did make it to Xeen--specifically, the Clouds side, according to Sheltem. Where are they? How do they get from here to Enroth? 
       
A plot twist!
       
Sheltem's last log entries show him leaving the ship to go conquer Xeen, bringing us to the present. Of course, my Xeen-native party has no idea what to make of any of this.
   
With 10 maps left to explore, the party rolled the dice and headed for C2, a pure desert square in the center of the map. Soon after arriving, we found an altar that temporarily provides a 15-level boost, better than the well in Nightshadow but less accessible. There were several genie lamps that offered a choice between 500,000 experience, 10,000 gold, and 500 gems. We chose the experience each time. I know that gold is going to be the bigger problem, but I'm making well over 10,000 per day on interest. I don't think that much is going to help.
        
Sweet. If only this was near a town, or a mirror.
        
The map also had the last two magic boulders that I had discovered a couple of sessions ago in C3. The answer to their riddle was an obvious PALADIN. Getting it correct got us 1 million experience plus pieces of obsidian armor at each of the boulder locations.
    
The next few maps went down fast. I explored B3, A3, and A2 and didn't really demarcate the encounters well. I found a message in a bottle about witches in Lakeside--already solved that problem. Vesper the Wizard wanted us to find the handle for his staff; we already had it. He gave us the pass to Sandcaster. There were barbarians everywhere, and a couple of opportunities to destroy their camps. But we also came to a barbarian stronghold, where the chief, Yag, asked if we'd come to fight them. I said no, and he filled up our packs with food.
          
The Great Western Tower was locked as usual, but a nearby defrocked high priest of Mok, Dreyfus, said that I could get in from the top.
   
The whole area was dotted with more mines in the Gemstone range, each offering a few walls where I could try to mine rubies, emeralds, sapphires, or diamonds. There was a chance of those same veins "exploding" (I'm not sure the creators really have a handle on the dangers of mining) and doing a huge amount of damage to the party. The damage seems to be based on percentage rather than raw values, and a couple of hits were enough to not only knock some of my characters unconscious but to break their armor, which these days can cost tens of thousands of gold pieces to fix. 
         
I'm not sure rubies are worth the risk.
     
Nearby, a group of wagoners offered to make weapons and armor from the precious gems--at a cost of regular gems. Since I'd already found obsidian stuff by now, the weapons and armor they could make didn't really do much for me. Eventually, I got sick of reloading and stopped bothering with the mines. One of the mines had three sabretooths, the only time I've encountered those creatures in the game.
   
Kramer the Caravan Owner asked us to wipe out the ogres in Ogre Pass, which is the kind of quest I think I might refuse in a more sophisticated game. (Is it called "Caravan Owner Pass?") Ogre Pass is in D3, which happened to come up in my next random roll anyway. This central map transitions from desert in the north to forest in the south. The area was full of ogres and vulture rocs, which didn't seem affected by my vulture repellent. The Pass runs through a couple of mountain ranges in the middle, and here I found the ogre village, led by Chief Graalg. I had several options in speaking to him, one obsequious, one domineering, and one in which we simply asked him to upload his fealty to the Dragon Pharaoh. We chose that one, and he said Alamar is in charge now, and attacked. It did not go well for him. In the ruins of his fort, we found two energy disks.
        
Graalg opens negotiations with a faux pas.
      
With six energy disks, we went back to Ellinger, who was able to open the second level of Castle Kalindra. There--amid a bunch of safes with combination locks we couldn't open--we found Dimitri, former captain of the Queen's Guard, bitter and disillusioned over his failure to protect her. His daughter, Megan, said that he could probably come up with a decent plan to rescue the queen, but not while he was in this funk. She said that we might be able to restore his spirits with a magical songbird found in the dungeon of the Isle of Lost Souls, for which she gave us the key.
    
Can't we just beat some sense into him?
     
The dungeon was five levels deep. Each level required us to accomplish a task before moving on to the next one. On the first level, we had to turn a bunch of hourglasses. On the second, we had dials that we had to turn upwards before drinking from fountains, each of which gave a huge amount of experience to one character. Level 3 had us pull four levers. Level 4 had a series of slippery floors that kept dumping us back at the beginning of the level. We had to pull various levers to deactivate them and then follow a statue's instruction to pull another lever to open the way down. Some voice at the stairway down kept demanding increasing amounts of money to let us pass. It ultimately came to almost 300,000 gold. I had to cast "Lloyd's Beacon" to get to the bank and back.
    
Throughout all of these levels, we were attacked by copious minotaurs and gorgons, which in this game is just a more extreme version of minotaurs. My level 50 party was capable of pounding them pretty good, but they caused a few uncertain moments.
         
I just fought one of these in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey. It was pretty epic.
         
The last level was full of birds waiting to be freed. A bunch of them were called things like Lark of Luck and Magpie of Might; freeing them resulted in a +6 boost in the associated attribute. There were Parrots of Prophecy, each of which had the same few lines about stopping Alamar from taking over. Four statues put together a message that seemed to be from Alamar himself:
       
 Long have I traveled through deep, dark space
    Only to land and take over this place
I am saying this now for all to hear
    None from this world shall I ever fear
The soul maze inside is dark, dreary, and vast
    The name found within is the clue to my past 
This dungeon stands as a tribute to me
    My name in walls for all to see
     
Yes, we're back to names in walls. And as in Might and Magic, the last level of the Lost Souls dungeon had a wall configuration that spelled out: MY NAME IS SHELTEM.
    
I never found the twisted monsters that the people of Lakeside supposedly became, but I did find the Songbird of Serenity. I brought it back to Dimitri, who roused from his stupor. He suggested that we retrieve Queen Kalindra's crown from a third-level wall safe and bring it to her. Only she has the combination to the safe, though, so we'll have to find our way into Blackfang first. Dimitri suggested we talk to Ambrose, the Queen's knight, who I had met in B1.
   
The third level wasn't open yet, but Dimitri gave us the combination to the second floor safes. They all contained energy disks--six of them--so I was able to immediately return to Ellinger and get the basement of the castle opened. It had a few safes, a prisoner named Guido the Convict who gave me the combination to a couple of the safes, and a "maximum security" wing with three power liches and three dragon mummies. The power liches were simple enough, but I couldn't defeat the dragon mummies even with buffed characters. Their attacks were capable of killing one character per round outright. I left them for later.
       
The deadliest enemies so far.
      
Back in B1, Ambrose, the Queen's Knight, asked who sent us. When we answered Dimitri, he related that he'd captured a griffin to rescue Kalindra at Blackfang, but the griffin won't let him ride. He wanted us to take a bridle to be enchanted. I remembered that Natasha in Sandcaster was looking for something to enchant. 50,000 gold later, I was back at Ambrose with the bridle; he promptly rode off to Blackfang.
       
Is this why griffins hate my knight so much? This guy has been harassing them?
      
I encountered him again there, complaining that the vampires inside were too powerful for him, so we went in his stead. The castle was several small levels, with a linear path that took us from Level 1 to Level 3 and then back down into the basement. There were a lot of vampires--regular female vampires, male vampire lords, and female vampire royals--but they all died in one or two hits.
        
The attack animation on these ladies is particularly good.
      
After cleaving through some octopods, I found Queen Kalindra in a corner of the flooded basement. She said that she couldn't leave Blackfang because she was a vampire. She suggested that Dimitri might have a solution, but Dimitri just went on about retrieving the queen's crown, so it looks like I'm stuck there until I find three more disks.
      
I don't understand why she can't be a vampire back in her own castle.
      
I finished off this session with a couple more map squares. C3, being sort of in the middle of everything, had an amalgam of the squares around it. It had desert to the north, part of the Gemstone range in the middle, and forest to the south. There were ogres, dark wolves, and medusa sprites. There were two more Gemstone Mines, one of which had a "God of the Minerals" who offered to replenish all of the veins for 250,000 gold. Since they were pretty worthless to me, I declined. (I suppose if at some point, I find myself out of gold but having a surplus of gems, I could pay the wagoners gems to make weapons and then sell them, a very roundabout way of converting gems to gold.) I fell down a troll hole, which seems like a problem from seven games ago.
        
How about you pay us 250,000 gold pieces to put all the gems back?
        
I wrap up having just entered the Great Eastern Tower (the rest of F3 was just woods, gargoyles, and mantis ants), where I feel sure to find a couple more power disks. But I still have a ton of open quests:
    
  • CL A2 11,9: Southern Sphinx (need key)
  • CL B3 11,0: Tower for which I don't have the key
  • CL D1 10, 5: Tower for which I don't have the key
  • CL E3: Return to Dungeon of Death when have higher thief skill
  • DS A3 4, 9: Great Western Tower (approach from top)
  • DS A4 13, 15: Return to Luna with the three gold statuettes
  • DS A4: Return to Castle Kalindra basement when stronger
  • DS B2: Spaceship stuck in lava
  • DS D2 0,5: Great Pyramid (need key)
  • DS F2 6,10: Dungeon (need key)
  • DS F3: Recover Jewel of Ages from Great Eastern Tower
  • DS F4 6,7: Return Jewel of Ages to Thaddeus
  • Find rest of energy disks for Castle Kalindra
  • Get the pegasus statuette from the "head heretical cleric"
  • Return to Dragon Cave with higher intelligence
  • Return to Necropolis with higher intelligence
  • Explore A1
  • Explore C1
  • Explore E2
  • Explore sky road network
    
This game will probably take at least a couple more entries.

Time so far: 24 hours

29 comments:

  1. So, the ending of MM3 is clearly a setup that your party follows Sheltem to MM4 (similar to the ending of MM1). MM4 retcons that, and instead you play a party of locals with no tie-in to earlier history. MM5 retcons THAT, and suggests that the MM4 party is actually your characters from MM3. Then MM7 retcons that AGAIN, in that your party from MM3 never found Sheltem again and ended up on a completely random other planet (and turning MM3 into a shaggy dog story).

    The simulacrum in MM2 makes sense, because crashing CRON into the sun with himself on it is not a good survival strategy. What makes less sense is Sheltem's vaguely-menacing monologue at the start of MM3; and note that despite being guardian of the place, he is largely responsible for Terra being a big mess in MM3. It's also unclear why Sheltem can take over Darkside with ease, but somehow needs Lord Xeen and an invasion to take over Cloudside.

    Or why he uses the same alias twice for no reason. What, was Metlehs already taken?

    Nyfb, qnexfvqr (cerqvpgnoyl) raqf jvgu gur qrsrng bs furygrz, ohg guvf ortf gur dhrfgvba vs gung jnf lrg nabgure pybar. Vaqrrq, ur fubjf hc va gur ubzz frevrf qrfcvgr bfgrafvoyl orvat qrnq.

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    1. I think you're applying the "retcon" label a bit loosely. So far, the only story conflict we have is that Sheltem says the MM3 party made it to Xeen. That's not even a conflict yet.

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    2. The suggested backstory for this entire series is positively bonkers, to put it mildly ;)

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    3. I always assumed that the mm3 party were the original owners of Newcastle.

      So they beamed down, built a Newcastle, then used all their knowledge and experience to build the xeen slayer sword. Then they were retconned into 6.

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    4. Sheltem's motivations make more (initial) sense when you realize that he was assigned as Guardian of Terra before any seedships were sent, thus the only ecosystem/civilization on Terra were entirely aquatic; the landmasses didn't exist until CRON sent some VARNs to the surface. Knowing that The Ancients were intending on supplanting the natural ecosystem with what amounts to artificial landmasses, he sabotages the first attempt to seed Terra (which is apparently what the giant underground ship was, a sunken CRON vehicle). It was this sabotage that caused The Ancients to decide to bring Sheltem in for reconditioning.

      Might and Magic 1 and 2 are all about Sheltem trying to return to Terra. As for causing more problems once back on Terra? Realize that although he helped to integrate the VARNs as islands on the planet, he was still resentful of the invasion, thus he upset the balance of the alignments in an attempt to sabotage what The Ancients were trying to accomplish with Terra in the first place.

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    5. If you watch the opening of MM III, you can see that Sheltem is missing part of the left half of his face.

      I seem to remember hearing something about Sheltem getting damaged in such a way that it messed up his programming. Which is why Corak was sent to retrieve him in the first place. He was working against his directives in order to protect himself before Corak showed up, or something like that.

      It's been years since I played these games though.

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    6. @Radiant - Good summary of how this series plot lurches around as the developers repeatedly change their minds about what's going on. About you-know-who, though, I don't believe he appears in the Heroes games outside of a Heroes VI scenario that retells the World of Xeen (Rectangle of XEEN?) events. There's another Alamar, but he's unrelated to this villain or Varn's king.

      I don't need to tell you, but to those who haven't played the Heroes games, popular names get recycled. There's a Sandro of Xeen, a Sandro of Enroth, and a Sandro of Ashan. Four different Crag Hacks too, and another example of confused storytelling; the Heroes I & II Crag is initially supposed to be Terra's Crag, then in Heroes III they suddenly decide Enroth had its own separate Crag all along. And then they bring Crag of Terra to Enroth for MM8 anyway.

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  2. Oh, the moments. I remember standing before that final staircase and seeing the message "Well, how about 250,000 more?". Without a real grasp on how the banks in the game work, I was unable to pay. I farmed every single monster, every single quest that was available to my party at the time, but since I had already solved most and spent most of the money on training, I was barely able to make it.

    And the Sheltem log! Teenage me was really into fantasy at the time, but wasn't really fond of SF. Now the wild combination. The sheer scope of what was going on! The out-of-the-box ideas! I didn't care for things like "realism" at this point (how do all those monsters fit into the ecosystem anyway?), it was basically advanced fairy tales where no one cares about the physics of fairyland either as long as the story grabs your attention. Imagination has to supply the rest, and it does for a 13-year-old. (As a 40-year-old, I find that I don't care either: I'm playing a game first, which is an abstraction by definition, and as long as the general ideas fit, I'm not going to punish a game for being a game instead of a simulation.)

    Misc.: The two remaining towers have their keys right in front of them iirc. Dragon Mummies belong to the absolute top end of monsters and are somewhat terrifying even for a level-100-party. And I think the Minotaurs and Gorgons are the monsters the Lakeside witches turned the citizens into; there is no available explanation otherwise.

    Looking forward to the culmination!

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  3. Skeletal dragons and dragon-liches I've seen before, but I don't think I've ever seen a Dragon Mummy! Makes me wonder who is mummifying these dragons, what great and ancient society that was once ruled by dragons? I suppose there is the Dragon Pharaoh, do we get an idea of how long he was supposed to be in charge? Will he be pleased you've been killing his reanimated relatives?

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    Replies
    1. I had a similar observation, a Dragon Mummy is a unique monster. But I have a different theory. The Egyptians mummified cats which they considered sacred animals. So maybe once in the past, there was a society that kept dragons as pets and mummified them. And now, for some reason, those pet dragons are on the loose again.

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    2. A bit large for pets...

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    3. Depends on how large the owners were.

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  4. "It has some giant stone heads in it that don't do much."

    This is the big deal in the game. Once you figure this out, its time to pause the main quest for awhile and finish up other quests to collect more gold.

    "but I'm making well over 10,000 per day on interest."

    Sadly this is not enough. You'll need, *ahem*.. one million in weekly interest to achieve top tier. Until this point the game will change for you and you'll be scratching your head to figure out just how to best achieve this. Multiple ways. (of course its not necessary to even bother with this at all and some consider this overkill save for completionist purposes)

    "which these days can cost tens of thousands of gold pieces to fix."

    Can't break if you're not wearing it.

    "Eventually, I got sick of reloading and stopped bothering with the mines."

    Higher levels help a lot, as do high resistances. Lots of gold to be made here.

    One more thing. Just because you can level up doesn't mean you should. Interest vs. cost and all that. At this point in the game gold is far more valuable than experience.

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    Replies
    1. Stone heads in Sheltem's pod are useless, actually. Only the heads from Corak's pod work.

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    2. You don't really need to that many levels to finish the game comfortably. Same thing about gems, there are plenty to keep the combo spells active during all the game without any fear for them to end
      Getting obsessed about money is not going to get you anywhere different at the end, but to not enjoy the game in a more organic way.
      I suppose that last advice works in real life too

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  5. Another thing. Considering your playstyle and play time being limited, you might reconsider going back to just go ahead and grab any of those +1/+2/+5 level rewards you've held off on getting.

    Its only inefficient if you're trying for top tier. Otherwise its perfectly acceptable in a basic playthrough and to just get through the game for the play experience.

    Happy adventuring.

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  6. PetrusOctavianusMay 19, 2021 at 4:19 PM

    "The deadliest enemies so far."

    I was expecting the caption "the mothers of all dragons".

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  7. Hi!
    My name is
    What?
    My name is
    Who?
    My name is
    Chika-chika
    Slim Sheltem

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    Replies
    1. Will the real Slim Sheltem please stand up?

      Delete
  8. My recollection of money near the end of the game is that if you think you have enough, you really don't. I remember getting into an issue where I was one armor piece breaking away from being completely screwed, because I was completely broke by then and wouldn't have been able to fix it.

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  9. Imagine Sheltem directing his minions or whatever to build his name out of walls.
    "Nah dude it's gonna be so sick, when they look with the automap it'll spell my name!"
    To which the creatures of darkness reply, "What's an automap?"

    I wonder if there are any real buildings that do this. It seems awfully wasteful for what is, essentially, a prank.

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    Replies
    1. Buildings, no, to my knowledge. Trees, yes. There is a type of geoglyph made by planting groups of trees to form letters, numbers or shapes when they grow to full size. It was rather popular in USSR, and some of these are can be seen from the satellites to this day.

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    2. In MM1 I believe the intent was to pleasantly surprise the player as they unwittingly spelled out his name as they mapped with paper and pencil. XEEN revisits the concept for new players entering the series, but the cuteness of it all tends to fall flat with automap.

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    3. While it's not exactly a name, Tower 42 (the first skyscraper to be built in the City of London proper) bears an uncanny resemblance to the logo of its original owners, the National Westminster Bank.

      Even if the architect likes to claim that this is purest coincidence.

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    4. Hiding names in walls isn't just a thing in CRPGs. In one level of an early D&D adventure from 1980, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, certain walls spelled out Gary Gygax's initials... (Of course, this wasn't a clue to anything in the adventure, and probably wasn't even something the players were expected to notice; it was just... there.)

      Delete
  10. I presume, the party from M&M3 ended up in stasis, and the spaceship itself stuck at the bottom of the lake somewhere in the Clouds. And they emerge only many, many years after the grand finale of M&M4+5. You'll know how things are coming together after seeing it.

    Also, I forgot to tell about the one unique genie from the previous entry. If you don't take all his gold, nothing more happens, you just part ways amicably.
    If you do take all his gold, he'll appear later in the game to punish the party for being greedy. He takes all of the party's gold on hand, gold in the bank being safe. I don't know what triggers it, some kind of a timer or specific point of the main quest, maybe. But he seems to appear after using Town Portal spell, so it may be linked to the squares where the party appears after using it.

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  11. The amount of gameplay NWC managed to cram into this game is impressive. I'd have probably beaten the game blithely unaware of half the content.

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  12. The MM3 crew must have gone away with another, because they fell for the "Alamar disguise". Also they might have seen Sheltem ship in lava and thought that this was it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ...gone away with another "ship", because...

      Delete

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