Saturday, September 24, 2022

Dungeon Master II: Shut the Front Door

The door to Skullkeep is open at last.
I had a good couple of sessions this week, able to fully immerse myself in the game for the first time since August, and I found myself really enjoying it. I'm going to have to start paying close attention to the depth of my own immersion when I assess the quality of games. A game designed to be immersive can only succeed if the player allows himself to be immersed. When his mind is on a dozen other things, gameplay suffers, and not for any fault of the game. The 1980s were full of games that I could half-play, fighting a combat or two between emails, or mapping a dungeon between grading papers. Tygus Horx is a great example. But as we get deeper into the 1990s, I encounter more games that I really need to save for times when I can give my attention to them fully.
This week, I finished exploring the areas outside of Skullkeep. I had mapped about two-thirds of the surrounding wilderness last time, having traveled from the original village, in the western part of the map, in a rough clockwise circle. As this session began, I was about 4 on the clock. I continued moving west, and the area that I found completed the loop by arriving at a door that I had been unable to open from the other side.
The new area held giant worms, tornadoes, and spiked balls that looked like probe droids. The tornadoes required a special spell to damage them, so I finished my exploration of the different spell combinations. Unless I screwed something up, there are 35 of them, including the DES EW spell that damages tornadoes and ghosts. I only identified about half of them, either based on something external or changes in attributes. I have a lot of notes like "everyone blinks and sparkles" and "party dances around in the formation." There are a few I don't remember from Dungeon Master, including "Invisibility" (OH EW SAR), two spells that create my own versions of the probe droids, and one that summons some kind of cloud that goes chasing after enemies. I'll keep experimenting with the unknown ones, but between "Light" (FUL), "Healing Potion" (VI), "Fireball" (FUL IR), "Damage Noncorporeal Things" (DES EW), and "Strength" (OH EW KU), I'm keeping those mana bars pretty empty already.
I don't know what this is supposed to be, but it looks futuristic.
As I fought, I began to really understand and appreciate the enemy AI. When I started the game, I just thought that enemies agitated around randomly to foil the old "combat waltz." I realized during this session that it's more complicated than that. For one thing, they dodge missile weapons and spells. For a while, I just thought they were getting lucky with random movements, but it eventually became clear to me that enemies are noticing when I'm about to throw or cast something at them, and they deliberately hustle to the side to avoid it. Giant worms dive under the ground. You have to work harder to catch them in corridors, get closer, or time your missiles to catch them as they enter a square, not while they're already in it.
I line up a DES EW to kill a spirit.
The "probe droid" enemies can pass through you and attack from behind, and unless I'm misunderstanding, you can't attack them if they're immediately adjacent. You have to hit them with one square in between. The tornadoes roam for long distances between attacks. Worms like to plunge underground to avoid not only missiles but also regular melee attacks. Only a few enemies dumbly stand in front of you and swing, and they're the sorts of enemies that you would expect to be dumb.
Eventually, I came to an area of walking trees, and their AI was perhaps the most sophisticated and diabolical of any enemy I've faced in an RPG so far. When you face them, particularly from a distance, they stand still and pretend to be a harmless forest. But turn your back to them, and they come hustling up behind you to wallop you with their branches. Brilliant. They were hard to fight, too. Although regular attacks damaged them, they seemed to have a resistance factor. It was enormously satisfying to finally kill each one and watch it explode into individual branches.
You guys aren't fooling me.
The walking trees were on the other side of a graveyard. There, I found a couple of squares that summoned ghosts every time I stepped on them. Like the tornadoes, they required the DES EW spell to damage.
I don't know who this guy is supposed to be, but a ghost spawns every time you step in front of his grave.
The trees guarded the way to a small tomb, which was another welcome surprise. Although the "outdoor" areas of Skullkeep don't truly feel like any outdoors, I've enjoyed their somewhat unpredictable patterns and the sense that anything could be around the corner, from the surprise village on the east side of the map to the tomb in the south to a shop in the middle of nowhere, just north of the tomb. Anyway, if we ignore the simple keys and buttons encountered previously, the tomb contained the first puzzles of the game. I'm not sure I solved them the right way. The entry room had half a dozen squares with a rug on the floor. Some of them opened pits that dumped me into the basement, but others were safe to cross. If there was a way to figure out which was which--perhaps using a nearby boulder--I never solved it. I just did it through trial and error and lots of walking back up the stairs from the basement.
The basement was a small area with only a couple of ghost enemies and a few pieces of armor to find in the corners. What made it annoying was that it had a series of doors that opened and closed on (as best as I could tell) a random schedule. I just had to stand there and wait. Because it was so annoying, I reloaded as often as I bothered to walk back up the stairs from the basement.
Waiting for the grate to open.
Back on the ground level, a button on the wall opened a niche that contained one of those "freeze time" boxes from the first Dungeon Master, plus a key. The box was manifestly meant to be used in the next room, where pits opened randomly in the floor--I can't be sure, but I think they may even deliberately follow the party. I decided to keep the box for later, and again spent a lot of time falling and trudging back up the stairs or reloading.
I insert a key just as a pit opens beneath the party.
Eventually, I opened a southern door with the key and found myself in a winding hallway with numerous coffins propped against the walls. Floor plates opened the coffins and released mummies, which only seemed to respond to fireballs. At the end of the corridor, a tapestry concealed another key, some money, some "guard minions" (which I guess is what I'd been calling "probes"), and a sword called "Fury."
It's been nice to see Brendan Fraser making a comeback.
The key opened the eastern door in the pit area, where I finally found the fourth part of the key to Skullkeep. It was on a table in the middle of the room, and every time I approached the table, the key fled to the other side, just out of reach. I tried moving the table and darting around it to no avail. The solution came to me when I left the table for a while to go check out the shop I'd found north of the tomb. The shop seems to buy and sell almost everything, and I made a lot of money selling the machetes dropped by skeletons (very easy enemies) in the area outside it.
I nearly bought this--and then found one a few minutes later.
The shop also sold a lot of intriguing-sounding weapons and magic items, but I was a bit paralyzed by indecision and didn't buy anything. I'll have to get over it eventually, but I'm still evaluating the many items I've picked up along the way, and I don't need more items to confuse the situation. Anyway, I realized that the table in the tomb might work the same way as the shopkeepers' tables, rotating when you place money on them. I returned to the tomb and put a gold coin on the table, and sure enough, a ghostly shopkeeper appeared, the table rotated, and I got the fourth part of the Skullkeep key.
I took the screenshot too late to catch the ghostly shopkeeper, alas.
Before I went to the tower, I decided to explore the underground area, accessible from five ladders in the northern part of the outdoor section. I had assumed they'd lead to one large, interconnected underground, but instead they led to three separate caves, none of them big enough to bother mapping. There were some bats flying around to kill for food or money (the tavernkeeper buys their corpses) and a few potions and gems to collect, but otherwise nothing significant. The bats can poison you, but that just gave me an excuse to build priest levels with curing potions.
A bat flies by as I contemplate some kind of wheel.
There were a couple of wheels and gears in one of the caves, and maybe there's some puzzle to solve here that involves the gear and vacuum fuse in the eastern village, but I didn't see anything obvious that needed doing. I left it alone for now.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • There was a moment during this session in which every character was Level 7 (Adept) in everything. Then I slowly started gaining Level 8 (Expert) in mage and fighter skills. Ninja skills are the only ones I have to deliberately grind, as I'd normally choose a weapon over punching and kicking.
  • There were fountains spraying blood in the area outside the shop north of the tomb. I found a red gem in one of them, but otherwise I don't know if there was something I was supposed to do here.
A skeleton attacks near the blood fountains. His machetes will get me 2 gold pieces.
  • What in the world is the stamina bar for? It never seems to budge.
  • I spent some time playing with the magic maps. There are two called "Magic Map," but one simply shows you the surrounding area while the other has buttons that toggle monsters and items on the map. Having the buttons active drains mana. A third is called "Scout Map," and with it you can summon a floating eyeball and send it around to have a look. I don't find any of them terribly useful--they don't show a large enough area, nor distinguish squares you've visited from ones you haven't. 
Activating the scout map.
With the four key pieces in hand, I returned to the entrance to Skullkeep and assembled them in the receptacle. With a groan and a grind, the double doors to Skullkeep opened--then promptly slammed shut the moment I crossed the threshold. There's a keyhole on the inside, and apparently I'm going to have to find a key if I want to get out. Fortunately, I filled up on food and water recently, so I think I'm in good shape. It's a little distressing to think that 15 hours of exploration has all just been a prologue, but I am having fun with the game, and I look forward to what the titular keep has to offer.
Time so far: 15 hours


  1. "Unless I screwed something up, there are 35 of them"

    I can't find any list that has more than 34 spells. Could you make your list available somewhere?

    1. I'll go through them when I get a chance, but I noted all the following as valid combinations:

      Ya Ew
      Ya Ir
      Ya Bro
      Vi Bro
      Oh Ven
      Ful Ir
      Des Ven
      Des Ew
      Ya Ir Dain
      Ya Bro Dain
      Ya Bro Neta
      Vi Ir Dain
      Oh Ew Ku
      Oh Ew Ros
      Oh Ew Dain
      Oh Ew Neta
      Oh Ew Sar
      Oh Kath Ku
      Oh Kath Ros
      Oh Kath Ra
      Oh Ir Ros
      Oh Ir Ra
      Oh Bro Ros
      Ful Bro Ku
      Ful Bro Neta
      Des Ir Sar
      Zo Ew Ku
      Zo Ew Ros
      Zo Ew Neta
      Zo Bro Ros
      Zo Bro Ra

    2. OK, so the outlier here is Vi Ir Dain. What does that do when you cast it?

      The rest are valid spells. Do you want hints about any of them?

    3. According to the wiki, Vi Ir Dain is n cevrfg fcryy gung perngrf n jvfqbz cbgvba.

    4. That's interesting. What wiki are you talking about? The spell lists I've found don't have Vi Ir Dain, but they do have Ya Bro Dain that does what you describe. Why would there be two spells that do the same thing?

    5. You find it quickly if you Google the spell. But that spell list is for a mod called Conflux, not the actual game.

    6. Vi Ir Dain doesn't do anything. I had written that it shoots something, but clearly I screwed up. I just tried it again, and it gives the "not a real spell" symbol. Frankly, I'm surprised it was the only one I got wrong after testing so many combinations.

  2. So basically you could play a game a "Statues" with these trees.

    1. Reminds me of the Weeping Angels from Dr. Who.

  3. The monster designs are apparently very different on the Amiga and DOS versions. I wonder what the story is with going for the particularly cartoonish style for DOS. The exaggerated exposed skull mummy here looks very sad compared to the iconic realistic-looking mummy from 1. The whole deal with the first Dungeon Master was invoking realism with somewhat minimalistic graphics, and making things look deliberately cartoonish is a complete break from that.

    1. And having tornadoes, probe droids and trees as enemies usually means the lead artist didn't like to animate complex stuff.

    2. As mentioned here, first they did the graphics in the original style (of Andy Jaros) with 32 colors, then they redid them in 256 colors together with a large team of Interplay artists, in a new style and (I think) with more fluid animations.

      Speculation: Their decision for the somewhat cartoonish style might have been their preference, but it also might have been driven by circumstances. If the new artists had training in traditional animation, it might have been easier for them to achieve consistency. Emulating Jaros's style consistently across a dozen artists, and animating the enemies more fluidly, could have been difficult. I think that western animation techniques often rely on certain conventions and tend toward a cartoonish style even when the characters have realistic proportions.

    3. I don't even find them all that "cartoonish." It doesn't feel to me that they notably clash with the rest of the game world. Perhaps a dozen or so JRPGs have raised my tolerance.

    4. They also raise your tolerance for RPGs that have set characters. I years ago found that the loss of "I didn't make these characters, thus they don't represent ME" was more than made up by the story INVOLVING the characters as individuals.

      The difference between games such as Wizardry 7, where the PARTY matters as a whole, not the characters, and most changes enacted didn't even effect said party, and JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII, where entire plots involve specific characters that can have permanent impacts on the party, are interesting from a story's perspective.

    5. I have always liked the customizable protagonist with set characters best, from games as old as Ultima and Magic Candle.

      The main drawback is that it's possible that certain roles are over- or underrepresented, which can feel bad. I love Baldur's Gate, but the only way you are going to get a Fighter/Mage (which is a pretty iconic class combination) in either game is to create your own. Though Haer'Daelis is a decent substitute for one.

      As for the Dungeon Master games they are not really plot-heavy - though the first game had a decent backstory in the manual. I'll not comment overly on the second one yet. And with being able to change names and the skill system you could still customize the characters quite a bit.

    6. I think there's a lot to be said for the DM system - you can customise characters quite well but you can't just hit all the optimum buttons for Troll Fighter #2437

  4. I rather like the concept of enemies that pretend to be regular parts of the scenery until you turn your back to them; they appear in numerous platform games as well. Like, Commander Keen has ordinary-looking rocks that pounce on you when you're not looking.

    1. I've never encountered that before. Irene tells me there's some creature in "Dr. No" that does the same thing.

    2. Dr Who, perhaps?
      He battled "Weeping Angels" which didn't move unless you blinked.
      I don't remember any fantastic creatures in Dr. No, the most grounded of the Bond movies.

    3. Yes, of course. Dr. Who. Dumb mistake.

    4. To be fair, Dr. No did technically have a dragon.

      There are horror games where enemies will attack you if you look away, inspired by the Weeping Angels (or maybe the Boo ghosts from Super Mario). I think there are also just as many where you're not allowed to look at the monsters, as it will drive you (the protagonist) mad. Probably best to figure out which of the two is applicable early.

      (Perhaps determining it was a trope at that point, the recent action game Control had a funny/terrifying riff on the idea with a possessed fridge. That game is full of great moments.)

    5. I'm also playing DM2 at the moment, but I couldn't see this behaviour from the walking tree enemies. They do seem immobile when they're not moving, but it didn't seem to me that it makes a difference whether the player is looking in their direction or not. Could it have been a coincidence?

      However, the AI in general definitely has a couple of cool tricks up its sleeve. Some don't make any significant difference except to impress the player -- for example, wolves can jump over pits. Some seem to be scripted one-offs -- after stealing a bone from the wolves' den, they all howled, and it seemed to me that they all attacked with greater resolve (but I'm not sure).

      Later on, during a fight with a unique enemy, I already expected some cool AI behaviour that I remembered from my previous playthrough many years ago, but I discovered a new behaviour or scripted event that is really surprising and impressive. I actually know of no other game where I have seen something quite like this (though there must be some, but probably only many years later). I'll write about it more once you have posted about your experience with that part of the game. It's easy to miss, though. I'd suggest to maybe replay some combats to explore what is possible.

      If the game had a higher ratio of smart enemies to dumb enemies (regrettably it's about 2:98), it might have become more famous for its AI.

    6. Just as a tangent, which RPGs do you think have surpringly good AI? The question can also apply outside tactical/combat AI.

    7. No, you were right, the moving trees do have the behavior you described. I checked again with an older save game. When looking at a tree that is two squares away, it will not move (unless the trees were already attacked). After turning around, it will approach and attack. In my case, since there was a tree directly to the left of the entrance which attacked as soon as I entered the area, this behavior didn't really get a chance to play out.

      (With features like clever AI, it's really important that the designers ensure that the player actually sees and understands the cleverness...)

    8. I seem to remember the wolves howling almost like a call to all the wolves in the area and getting swarmed every time they did. Of course, that was almost 30 years ago...

  5. "As I fought, I began to really understand and appreciate the enemy AI."

    The game's credits list Bill Kelly under "Programmers - Monster Trainer". Maybe this is one of the first instances, aside from strategy games, where a developer team had a specific programmer position for the enemy AI? There's a combat later on that I thought was a real highlight, where the enemy behaviour and the design of the combat area work together to give the player a nice challenge.

    "The "probe droid" enemies can pass through you and attack from behind, and unless I'm misunderstanding, you can't attack them if they're immediately adjacent. You have to hit them with one square in between."

    I think it's not exactly like that. DM2, in contrast to the first game, does show enemies and scenery that occupy the same square as the party. In that case, the graphics of that object are scaled up, which results in irregular pixel sizes. In the first screenshot, the key receptacle on the left and the lamp on the right are scaled up like this. In the second and in the last screenshot, I think that the minion and the scout eye are currently occupying the same square as the party. So you can attack minions if they're immediately adjacent to you, but not if they're on the same square as you.

    (Another consequence is that you can stand beneath portcullis and still see the button to open and close them. You can drop portcullis on your own heads!)

    "a series of doors that opened and closed on (as best as I could tell) a random schedule. I just had to stand there and wait."

    A certain spell might help here, but I'm not sure if it works in this situation.

    "What in the world is the stamina bar for? It never seems to budge."

    It's almost superfluous. If you quickly run around a lot, you might see it go down a little bit. It only really drops when the character is hungry, thirsty or overloaded.

    "It's a little distressing to think that 15 hours of exploration has all just been a prologue"

    I wouldn't expect an overlong game. Which is actually a blessing, in my opinion -- the levels of DM and DM2 don't repeat their ideas and don't stretch the game out.

    1. Ah, thanks for the clarification on the enemy positioning. You are correct. So that "half-step" isn't just a cosmetic thing while you're walking; it has ramifications for combat as well.

  6. Some stuff I recall from the first Dungeon Master:

    Vorpal Blades: jvyy qnzntr gur fnzr abapbecberny rarzvrf lbh'er hfvat qrf rj sbe evtug abj

    Stamina: vf fhccbfrq gb qebc jura lbh zbir, svtug, be pnfg, ohg znlor bayl vs lbh'er raphzorerq - vs lbh nera'g pbyyrpgvat urnil nezbe vg zvtug abg znggre.

    Ninja skills: fubhyq nyfb vzcebir sebz guebjvat guvatf, nf jryy nf hanezrq nggnpxf

    1. I figured out the first shortly after I posted this. Thanks for the clarification on the second. As for the third, I am done picking up missile items one-by-one in DM-style games. If I find something that returns when thrown, I'll be happy to use it; otherwise, it's punching and kicking for me.

  7. I remember being stuck for such a long time on the "ghost shopkeeper table" puzzle. I guess back then I hadn't paid attention enough to the small cavity for coins on the table.

    I remember the scout minion becomes moderately useful in one or two puzzles later on, but it is certainly not a critical spell.

    A minor spoiler regarding minions: Thneq zvavbaf jvyy orpbzr rkgerzryl hfrshy ng gur raq bs gur tnzr. Lbh jvyy jnag gb fhzzba gurz ng znkvzhz cbjre.

  8. I remember back when I played it I usually gave up on fighting most enemies and just ran past them, roughly at the time where you first started meeting the Wolves. You can probably get fairly close to a pacifist playthrough.

    Spoiler regarding the enemy minions:
    V erzrzore gurz trggvat vapernfvatyl naablvat gur shegure lbh trg va gur tnzr, orpnhfr gur fcnjaf vapernfr naq vapernfr naq gurl ner vaperqvoyl rssvpvrag ng genpxvat lbh qbja. Vg'f uneq gb erfg. Ng fbzr cbvag vg urycf n ybg ybpxvat gur qbbe gb gur fgnegvat mbar, fb ng yrnfg gurl jba'g trg va gurer. Ohg lbh unir gb ybpx vg (ol erzbivat gur xrl) naq abg whfg pybfr gur qbbe. Gurl pnfg gur Qbbe Bcra fcryy va beqre gb trg gb lbh. Juvpu vf dhvgr vzcerffvir NV sbe gur gvzr vs lbh guvax nobhg vg.

  9. I think I'm one of the few Brazilian readers. I love the work done on this blog.

    1. Which CRPG series were most popular among your peers?

    2. In Brazil, mainly Final Fantasy and other JRPGS ported to Nintendo consoles. Also popular are the Mith and Magic, Diablo, Baldurs Gate, and Elder Scroll series. In Brazil, personal computers became popular late and the vast majority of gamers in the 80's and 90's were concentrated on video game consoles.

    3. I believe that few Brazilians played the first games of the Wizardry and Bard Tales series, for example

    4. Interesting, Australians were pretty early adopters of PCs for gaming, but my sense is that the 8-bit console RPGs didn't really make a splash here.

    5. Well, Bem-vindo. It's nice to have global perspectives in the comments. Obrigado por ler!


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