Saturday, December 11, 2021

Dark Sun: Warriors of Prophecy

Our quarters. The people of Teaquetzl know how to treat the heroes of prophecy.
         
When I last wrote about Dark Sun, ages ago, my party had escaped slavery and found its way to the desert village of Teaquetzl. The leader, Chahl, proclaimed us as heroes foretold by the Visionary. We are to unite the desert settlements against the sorcerer-king of Draj. We spent the opening hours of this session looping around the village, talking to its residents.
   
Teaquetzl is an interesting village, wealthy above other villages because of its well, which never runs dry. Caravans frequently stop and trade in its bazaar, which has a couple of shops that did little for me. The populace is divided between those who support Chahl and those who think the village needs new leadership; this latter group tends to favor Chahl's lieutenant, Kwerin. Chahl, a mul, escaped slavery to a templar in Nibenay, taking with him a young girl named Katura, who had been intended for sacrifice. He is strong and hardy, traits needed by a new town in its initial phases. He was smart enough to know that he needed an advisory council for the more cerebral parts of leadership. But he's getting old, his strength failing. Even he agrees that it's probably time to pass the torch. He just isn't sure that Kwerin is the right recipient. He jokes--only half joking--that he'd rather choose one of us.
 
Chahl's house is full of artifacts from giants he stayed with after escaping. No word on how he lugged all these items to town in the desert heat.
      
Where Chahl fought his way out of slavery, Kwerin bought his way out. As a slave to bureaucrats in Draj, he somehow managed to make enough money to purchase his own contract. The people of Teaquetzl credit him with the town's financial prosperity, and Kwerin has a brief "Greed is Good"-type speech in which he says there's no reason wondering whether he's in it for himself or for the village, since both benefit if one of them does. He doesn't trust us and doesn't believe in the prophecies of the Visionary.

The Visionary is a halfling who came crawling out of the desert from gods-know-where. Everyone seems to agree that he's authentic--on one occasion, he insisted on covering the well just before a storm dropped a pile of sand on it--but no one really knows what he's talking about. His rantings to us are duly cryptic: "Your fate--to tame the Winds of Change or be flung from the precipice. Teetering on the edge, you must forge support lest you fall!" More helpfully, he gives us a magic rod that we can use to teleport between the various monoliths we've been seeing. We just need to activate them with their gems first.
      
This is now my default response to students asking for extensions on their papers.
          
In anticipation of our arrival, the village has designated a building as our house. It has a fire circle (where we can rest), rich furnishings, and lots of storage chests. One of them has a +2 bone sword called "Swiftbite."

When Chahl escaped slavery, he met a cleric named Garyn who healed his wounds. Together, they founded the town. Garyn happily takes the bag of pith we've brought and he gives us a quest to make an extract out of it and take it to someone named Linara in Gedron.
 
While drinking from the well, Featherweight notices that there is a way down. I'm not really sure how it works, because when we climb down, we aren't in water. We are in the ruins of an old temple. The ghost of Tynan, the former master, was there to greet us. (The gem for the town's monolith is also there.) Tynan relates that Teaquetzl used to be the site of a great temple. But he made the mistake of falling in love with a young princess brought to him for education. She was promised to an eastern prince, but the two began an affair. The princess's name was Tristram, which is an odd name for a girl. A cleric named A'Poss betrayed the affair to Tristram's father, who sent an army to raze the temple and kill everyone. Tynan says that he can be reunited with Tristram in death if I bring him the two "heart crystals" that the lovers shared, at least one of which was carried off by raiders a long time ago. We tell him we'll look for it.
      
This plot sounds familiar.
     
After a rest, we leave the village with the explicit goal of finding other villages to unite with Teaquetzl against Draj. We head back first to the area that I've labeled "Red Mesa," fight a few strines, and get the reward from Notaku for delivering the bag of pith (¤500 plus 1,000 experience points). I sell him the sand howler eyes we've collected and gives me a new quest to find a "terror bloom." The reagent apparently has something to do with rampagers; the lore master in Cedrilte (to the west) might know more.
  
I leave the area to the east, entering a place we haven't yet explored, a maze of caverns, arches, and walls. I meet a group of lizardmen, exiles from a failing village suffering raids, crop failures, and other bad omens. They blame the troubles on the failure of their ancestor spirits and await a group of travelers who will destroy the spirits. (Is there anyone who doesn't have a prophecy about us?) We volunteer, although I note a path by which we can mock their beliefs and fight the lizardmen instead. 
    
I suspect both #1 and #3 lead to combat.
     
The "rogue shaman" of the lizardmen leads us to a group of nine shadows who immediately surround and kill us. It takes me a couple of tries, but I finally defeat them by starting combat so far away that I can blast them with two "Fireballs" before they reach me, allowing me to destroy them in melee combat with just a few hits. They leave behind something called "El's ring," which raises dexterity by 3. I give it to my lumbering ox of a giant.
   
I am worried we will have to turn over the ring to the lizardmen, but when we return to them, they're ominously grouped in a pack. They announce that our spirits will replace the ones we've just killed and attack us. It is a tough battle--Sunstroke and Yester exhaust their healing spells keeping everyone conscious--but we ultimately defeat them. That's too bad. I was hoping we could tell Laussa, the lonely lizardwoman in the desert, about the tribe.
   
I prepare to cast "Stinking Cloud" on the lizardmen.
     
Circling the area, we next find two men wandering around the northwest part of the map. One introduces himself as Loweman and says that his compatriot, Nnamdi, has gone mad from the sun. When we ask how they live in this inhospitable area, Loweman says that the "Great Spire" takes care of them. At our blank looks, he leads us to a spiral rock formation that the men apparently worship as a god. We cannot find anything productive to do here and move on.
      
Nothing came of this encounter.
   
There's no rock circle for resting in the area, and our spells are depleted from the previous two combats. I am thus wary when we come to an area guarded by some magera (orcs/ogres of the setting). When they challenge us, there are some odd options, like "I was commanded to come here" and "Your leader told us to enter." As far as I know, neither of these things are true. I don't know whether they're bluffs or dialogue options that make sense after some plot exposition. I try "I was commanded to come here," and then "You'll be sorry if you don't let me through" when the magera doesn't believe me. Surprisingly, he relents at that and says "go directly to the east warrens."
    
Perhaps the coolest visual in the game so far.
   
Beyond the magera is the mouth of the skeleton of some horrid beast, which I reluctantly enter. The following area, at least initially, seems to be inside the remains of some huge worm creature. In-game descriptions refer to it as "the Wyrm." There are magera slaves working the hallways, but they have their tongues cut out and cower when I ask questions. Other slaves have their tongues but are similarly taciturn.
    
When ogres are terrified, so am I.
     
Moving on, we find numerous bedrooms and living areas but no real answers. Some guards stop us and say that "only allies of Balkazar may pass."
   
Only after we've circled the entire facility--opening about a dozen empty chests--do we finally get some answers. In a southwestern chamber, a magera called "The Blind One" greets us telepathically. He says that the magera are slaves to Balkazar, a defiler who lives in the lower caverns. He makes sacrifices to dark gods and summons horrible monsters that keep the slaves in line. Balkazar fools the slaves into believing in something called "transformation" that will make them "rise to a new level of being," but he just kills them to summon "babau and vrock." The Blind One says that if we want to get past Balkazar's guards, we should act like we know him and otherwise use his name threateningly, as everyone here is terrified of him. He recommends we seek a temple somewhere in the ruins for assistance.
     
One of many places where I'd like to reload and try all the dialogue options.
     
We bluff our way past the guards ("We must see Balkazar"). There are southern and eastern exits beyond, and we take the southern one. It leads to an old temple. Wandering through the area, we come to a chamber with several sarcophaguses, and we are greeted by a ghost named Tanelyv. He says that this place used to be held holy by the magera. When they worshipped here, Tanelyv was the guardian of the temple. He says that trouble started when the magera took pity on a sick, weakened traveler and nursed him back to health. That traveler was Balkazar, and in gratitude he summoned demons and took over the temple. Tanelyv wants our help restoring the temple and ousting Balkazar. He says it begins by bringing the magera slaves into the temple to use its Chamber of Healing. Once the magera are healed, we can use the chamber ourselves.
         
Note that the third option allows us to undermine what we've accomplished. Just in case we really want to role-play "chaotic."
     
Avoiding some winged demons in one of the temple's chambers, we return to the living area. Through pure luck in the following dialogue options, we make a deal with the guards: they'll allow us to take the slaves to be healed if we'll agree to kill Balkazar. "We'll all be dismembered if you don't."
  
We lead the Blind One to the healing chamber, then wait as he leads the rest of the magera there. Back in the main chambers, he rallies the magera to revolt. This causes Balkazar to show up, threaten us, and depart, leaving four monkey-like babau demons behind. The creatures are relatively tough, but about 10 magera join in the battle, and the party technically doesn't need to fight at all. Afterwards, we use the Healing Chamber ourselves--fortunately, it also restores spells. Tanelyv gives us his Ring of Insight, which increases wisdom by 2 for any character. I give it, too, to Sunstroke.
       
The Healing Chamber both heals and rests.
     
We then try our luck against the four winged demons--vrocks--which inhabit the main chamber. They slaughter us. In repeat trials, it becomes clear that vrocks can only be hit by +2 weapons and above, and only Violencia has one of those. They are also enormously resistant to magic. We are able to defeat them by using the chamber's exit to ensure they can only fight us one at a time. Violencia handles the attack while the other characters support with healing and offensive spells. 
    
The first vrock battle goes poorly.
        
After another round of healing, we take the other exit from the main chambers to Balkazar's quarters. We interrupt the sacrifice of a magera to summon more babau, although the magera refuses to believe he's been saved, and he joins that babau in attacking us.
   
As we prowl Balkazar's outer chambers, we find several books. One discussing dismissing summoned creatures, promising that an artifact called the Light of Dawn is the most powerful for such things. Another suggests that Balkazar is planning to summon a being of horrible power called The Unnamed One. A third talks about "power focuses"--objects in which defilers channel power, which somehow keeps them immortal. It mentions that anything with a reflective surface can be used as a power focus, even furnishings. A final book has a nonsensical quote: "Every search, not warranted, earns naught."
    
A book gives us some of Balkazar's backstory.
   
When we finally meet Balkazar in his bedroom, he thinks we're "agents of Dagolar." We explain that we killed Dagolar and plan to kill him, too. He offers to let us join him. We decline. He proclaims that we have sealed our doom, as he is indestructible. As the battle begins, he summons a vrock.
  
This combat also takes a few tries. Balkazar summons a vrock or babau every round and then blasts the party with a high-level damage spell like "Fireball" or "Ice Storm." And he is immune to both melee attacks and spells. I can't find anything in his room that seems to be a power focus, but I hit paydirt when I send Featherweight scouting into the next room. There's a mirror with three panes that allows her to attack them. Unfortunately, they attack back with gouts of flame. Balthazar shouts for Featherweight to stop, so I know it must be working.

I spread out my characters to avoid mass-damage attacks, while ...
    
To win, I have to reload and buff first, including both "Resist Fire" and "Resist Cold." A summoned creature distracts some of Balkazar's attention. Violencia takes on the vrock, as she's the only one who can hit it, while Sunstroke and Yester support her with healing. Featherweight runs to the mirror and begins attacking, getting healing as necessary from the spellcasters. Ultimately, she smashes the mirror, Balkazar goes down in a few hits, and we clean up the demons.
       
Featherweight works on the mirror.
       
Balkazar's journal indicates that he's the one who tasked Notaku with finding a "terror bloom." He apparently wants it to make some kind of magical blade. I guess I might have failed that quest, though I suppose there's no reason for Notaku to find out that Balkazar is dead. There's another tough fight with four vrocks guarding Balkazar's treasure chambers. He has a ton of ceramic pieces and, more importantly, leather Belt of Might, which confers +5 strength. I also find the Light of Dawn, which is a ring.
     
Looting the treasure room.
      
There are a few more combats to clean up, plus a small teleporter maze. The "nonsensical quote" earlier turns out to be directions through the maze: East, south, north, west, east, north. Other than a bunch of styrs, the only thing that the maze delivers is a +1 sword called Draketooth.
    
In the end, the episode isn't worth much towards the main quest. The magera thank me, but they say they are too weak to lend their support to the rebellion against Draj. They do offer to let us use their lair as a headquarters.
     
That's gratitude.
     
I feel like the area could have gone a lot of other ways, and I wonder what would have happened if I allied with Balkazar. I like how this game gives you a lot of different options, although a lot of the time it seems to come down to who you encounter first. If I'd insisted on moving on to Balkazar's lair before talking to the Blind One, things may have played out very differently.
  
As we leave, I check our condition and note that I'm already hitting level caps. Violencia is a Level 9 gladiator, which is the top level in the game. I lost the chance to dual her, in this game anyway, since no other class can reach Level 10. Sunstroke is a Level 8/8 fighter/cleric, and thankfully he has about 100,000 experience points left to earn for both. Featherweight is a Level 7/9 ranger/thief, and she has nowhere to go in the latter class. Yester is maxed as a Level 9/9 preserver/druid, although I don't understand how, since a Level 9 druid is supposed to require 225,000 experience points and he has only 148,557. Hitting level caps before the end of the game always boils my blood, and I'm not sure we're even 50% done yet.
       
Violencia has nowhere else to go.
      
Another issue with character development has to do with spells. Clerics get all their spells upon achieving a new spell level, but mages only get to pick one at a time. In the Gold Box games, this fact was balanced with copious scrolls that the mages could learn. Here, I've only found a few. It is likely I will reach the end of the game with only a small fraction of the spells available to a mage of Yester's level. This is both good and bad. Bad because I may never get some key spells ("Haste" is a good example) because I didn't select them at the time. Good because it enhances replayability.
    
13 spell options upon hitting Level 5.
    
Good things this session: challenging combats that made me think about a variety of tactics, interesting encounters with a lot of role-playing possibilities, interesting dialogues, cool artwork, nice item rewards. I like that you find named weapons rather than just swords +1. I particularly liked the interplay between areas: Balkazar knows of Dagolar and considers him a rival and is buying reagents from Nokatu. These references make Dark Sun feel like a unified world rather than a bunch of individual episodes. 
 
Hell, yeah. "Draketooth."
        
Bad things: Level caps, and it's looking increasingly like the economy is going to be useless.
   
Time so far: 18 hours
 
 

45 comments:

  1. All these conversation options look like there's a lot of replayability in the game. I'm sorry I never got into it back when it was current!

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  2. Yeah, the level caps are absurdly low in this game. I'd say you're somewhere around a third of the way through, so experience ends up being pretty useless fairly quick if you don't go and put as many classes on your characters as possible

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  3. You can still do Notaku's quest, he'll give you a small reward. But you missed a nice magical weapon. If the quest is done before confronting Balkazar, he has a magical dagger on his body, made using the powerful poison from "terror bloom". If do the quest now, the pot of poison will appear in Balkazar's chambers. But the party can't do anything with it. Notaku honors his contracts even if the client is dead.

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    1. Also need the Terror Extract which is on Balkazar's body, which presumably doesn't get added post mortem

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  4. It almost sounds like Balkazar is trying to summon the protagonist from Planescape Torment...

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  5. Bad things: Level caps, and it's looking increasingly like the economy is going to be useless.
    Sounds like an SSI game alright.

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  6. "Tristram" isn't also the name of a town in the "Diablo" franchise?

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  7. (I also see that "Tristram" is a variant of "Tristan", so it is not an invented "fantasy name")

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    1. Tristram Shandy would like a word...

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    2. Is it about two nuns and a pack mule?

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    3. "Tristram" is the variant that Thomas Malory favored in Le Morte d'Arthur.

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    4. Strangely, I had this very conversation with Mum about 6 hours ago.

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  8. One more thing. Have you spoken to Tanelyv after killing Balkazar? He should give you a set of armor at some point.

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    1. No. But I saved near the exit, so I can go back when I reload. Thanks for the alert.

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    2. Best armor in the game. Definitely go back for that.

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  9. Ah, the mystery of the teleporters solved. I never got that staff from the prophet, or I did and I missed the description.

    I didn't hit the level cap that hard (I was more than 2/3 through the game), and I had only one triple-classed character. I wonder what the difference is, I did most quests the game offers. I didn't stay as long in the arena, and I did things in a different order - I think Balkazar is a rather high level area.

    I think there's a point later in the game where you can spend lots of money, but I might be misremembering things.

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    1. BTW can't help but pronounce those Vrocks as "V-Rocks".

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  10. I think levelcaps are one of the worst things in a crpg, just make it an impossible high level or have early game fights give almost nothing in xp and later game shower you with it to still keep a sense of progression even if your game is liniar or have a lot of extra content without making you overpowered in the later areas

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    1. Meaningful level progression like in D&D where it's not just a simple +1 to random stat almost necessitates level caps in order to balance end of game encounters. Just consider how easy the end of SoA fight has become with HLAs and level 9 spells. Or imagine fighting Sarevok with Level 6 spells.

      From a practical perspective you also have to implement new spells whenever you increase the level cap - just look at how lazy the Gold Box games became with high level spells. There's a really decent selection for levels 1 to 4, and then it starts dropping off sharply. Sometimes you had a single wizard spell at a specific level.

      I think BG 1 really nailed the experience curve - you got enough early on for it to be meaningful but unless you go out of your way to grind extra XP you'll hit the cap fairly close to the end when running a full party.

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    2. Right. As long as levels give more than just numerical benefits, the issue is not with level caps in general, but with level caps that you hit around the half-way point of the game.

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    3. A real sticking point was when SSI had to use the XP rewards and level requirements from the tabletop despite videogames generally being far more combat heavy. Didn't give the designers a lot of tools to work with when balancing.

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    4. I'm generally in favor of something where there's an "official" level cap where you've learned all of the level-related abilities or otherwise level-gated content, but are free to keep grinding for the numerical bonus, which can often also serve as a helpful incentive to goad the player to get bolder with ability and item usage strategies by making them realize that it would be faster than grinding, without making it feel like you have artificially locked them out of freely choosing either option of strategies or grinding.

      Of course, as implemented, it usually becomes too ornerous to grind past a certain level due to the exponential XP requirements, as seen in Might & Magic (though I don't think that series had level-locked abilities, right?). It's up in the air for me as to whether this is an elegant way to implement a "soft" level cap without making XP (and XP/levels directly given as rewards like in said series) beyond that completely useless, or if it merely serves to taunt you with almost-useless XP.

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  11. If you ally with Balkazar he tries to summon the unnamed one, fails and appear some efreet instead that you have to fight. No help from Balkazar.
    After the fight he tries to summon it again and fails again with same result but with different text. And so on until you decide to stop and fight Balkazar.
    But the mirror was far away, I had to reload and do it again.

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    1. Cool. Thanks for letting me know. I was going to look up a YouTube video or something when I'd finished.

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  12. It’s interesting to see what this game looks like to a balanced party - when I played it when it first came out, my group was four half giant gladiators. They face-stomped everything in the game without breaking a sweat - until the final battle, when the tables turned hard. I’ve done it with three half giants and a preserver/psionicist/cleric to handle all spellcasting, with similar results. So I wonder whether Chet’s party might peak later.

    (Interestingly, I feel like the balance in the sequel is somewhat flipped since by the end of Wake of the Ravager, most enemies are resistant to spells and you’ve got so many potions and items, a melee heavy party winds up having an easier time).

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  13. "Perhaps the coolest visual in the game so far."

    Agreed, while still looking 'gamey', in lack of a better word, methinks we haven't seen such a variety of different tiles and props (backgrounds and objects) in a game world so far, even though 'Ultima VII' is a close contender.

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  14. D&D trivia note: all of the demons in this game (like the vrock) contradict the tabletop setting "canon", where Athas is cut off from the Outer Planes.

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    1. Further trivia: while the world exists in the Spelljammer setting, they've always said that the inhabitants of Dark Sun are so nasty they've always kicked out any invaders to their crystal sphere.

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    2. Well, the sorcerer kings could probably do that. Notably, unlike the other major campaign worlds, Dark Sun doesn't seem to have any good-aligned high-level spellcasters to counterbalance all the evil-aligned high-level spellcasters.

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    3. I thought the flow basically pushed Spelljammers away from the Athas sphere.

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    4. @Radiant That was the case originally but later they added an alternative path for preservers to become Avangions (although there's only one person currently in the world doing so). Like a lot of elements in the revised Dark Sun it rather blunted the uniqueness of the setting imo.

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    5. If I recall exactly the campaign setting used extremely vehement language against allowing characters to or from Athas under any circumstance! But too fun otherwise.

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    6. Becoming an Avangion is so OBVIOUS that it's almost impossible to survive doing it even once anywhere near the known part of the setting, due to the Sorcerer-Kings. Let alone the full 10 times you have to do the ritual to fully complete it, each time harder than the last.

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  15. Qvq lbh trg gur jnaq yrire naq trzf gb pbzcyrgr gur snfg geniry fgbarf?

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  16. A useless economy in a D&D game? Say it isn't so!

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    1. My solution to D&D's broken economy is, in my pen and paper game, I let my players purchase xp through "training" at a cost of 1gp = 10xp. Instantly solved the money hoarding problem.

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  17. Looks like you tackled one of the areas intended for the lategame as one of your first! When I played Dark Sun, I tackled Balkazar last.

    The game's structure is very open, you can tackle its areas in any order you want. Too bad the level cap is reached so early.

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    1. Yes, I'm loving the open world. But level caps are an abomination.

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  18. Ah, vrocks. Now, vrock is a beast that I hate for a reason, and Dark Sun is the game that made me hate them. Very uniquely balanced buggers - not technically invincible, yet nearly complete invincible which makes fighting them a stuff of nightmares... Now THAT was a success at creating a really memorable monster, that one remembers years after!

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    1. They are annoying in Wrath of the Righteous too.

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  19. Dark Sun 1 and Ultima 7 are the best (from above look) RPG games on PC. In my own opinion ofcourse.

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    1. I agree - Just adding Eye of the Beholder 1&2 ... just gorgeous games...

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    2. EOB is not from above perspective.

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  20. What happens if you hex-edit your party to be high-level and keep fighting in the arena at the beginning instead of following the plot?

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    1. You can yell something back at the announcer to get another fight on the same trip to arena. You can do this as many times as you like and fight battle after battle indefinitely.

      The arena battles grow harder the more of them you fight. Up to a point, and then it resets.

      After five or six trips to the arena you'll be set up to fight Scar, one of the other gladitors, and his gang. They are hatching an escape plot out of the west gate. If you haven't talked with Scar back in the pens, then you can discover this through pretty obvious dialogue options. If you kill Scar and his gang, you can keep fighting in the arena until you get bored.

      There are at least three different ways to escape the slave pens, and the game will gently nudge you toward them the longer you play. I haven't encountered or heard of any real limit to how long a player can stay if they want to be obstinate about leaving.

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