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 htimes 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

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Tygus Horx: Ulandar's Big Trap

Despite the message, I'd say the dungeon consisted of a series of small traps rather than one big one.
I had hoped to wrap up Horx in one more entry, but the game seems determined to linger a bit longer than its content warrants. In this session, I explored the three levels of the Temple of Ulandar, but it appears that I'll need to explore at least two more dungeons before the end.
Like the game's first dungeon, the Temple of Ulandar consisted of three 15 x 15 levels. Their geography is slightly more interesting than the three maze levels (which, to be fair, were explicitly called "mazes"). Upon entry on Level 1, a message warns: "This is the Temple of Ulandar. His big trap lies before you. Evil creatures guard the shrine. Be careful!" Early on, the first level splits into two paths. The rightmost one takes you along the south wall and up the east wall to a large room.
Ulandar's domain, Level 1.
To get into the room, you have to answer a riddle posed by an "old person" standing in the hallway. I don't know what keeps us from just pushing past him. The riddle is: "It is colourful, and the half of a circle. You can see it, but if you wanna take it, you can't reach it." It takes some analysis of the awkward English, but the answer is (RAINBOW) (repeated at the bottom of the entry for those on a mobile browser). The author is fond of "wanna" and "gonna." My iPhone is always transcribing my "want to" and "going to" to those variants, which drives me crazy. I have never said "wanna" or "gonna" in my life.
MOON kind of works, at least some days.
Beyond the old person is a room full of traps--the kind that drain health or magic points or both with every step and turn that you make. The developer is fond of these traps, too, perhaps to add more of an element of danger since you can avoid almost all combats. In the corner of the room is a "Rainbow Star." I'm not sure what it did for me--perhaps I needed it at some crucial point later in the dungeon, and the game just didn't call attention to it.
The other path through the first level leads through a long series of 2 x 2 rooms and a series of switchback corridors to the stairs down. The rest of the dungeon has you explore most of Level 2, then go down to half of Level 3, then back up to the rest of Level 2, then back down to the rest of Level 3.
Level 2.
Level 2 introduces dark squares for the first time. In most Bard's Tale variants, dark squares aren't that hard to navigate. You just follow one wall. Here, they're a bit tougher because there's always a delay of a few seconds when the game decides it's time for combat. Since dark squares give you no feedback unless you bonk into a wall, it's thus hard to tell when the game is a) allowing you to pass through an open dark area, or b) paused while it's loading combat. I'd think I'd walked for three squares only to find I never left the original square. I had to use TEPL ("Tell Place") often to figure out where I was.
I'm either moving forward or the game is loading a combat.
Level 2 has a series of 3 x 3 rooms with a one-square room in the middle of them. Each offers a clue:
  • The first is ABLE
  • The second is FRESH
  • The third is FAR
  • The fourth is IGNOBLE
  • The fifth is RUNAWAY
It was a somewhat tough puzzle until I realized that you want to substitute in for is, at which point it becomes clear that the answer is (ARROW). I'm guessing that's an intentional obfuscation rather than a bad translation, as making those words in from the outset would make the puzzle too easy. Then again, this is the game that clued FIRE with "It is hot" and "It is red and yellow."
This password gets you through the final door in a series of concentric squares, all of which have health-sucking traps on both sides of the doors. The first half of Level 3 takes you through some random rooms and corridors to the stairway in the southwest corner. Along the way, you learn that "Illusions are made of nothing" from a random message. The remainder of Level 2 has another dark area and a square where you see a message in a blue light: "You can find me in Xe-Tje's domain."
Level 3 of Ulandar's domain.
The second half of Level 3 is almost all dark squares. A long maze through them ends in a small room in which you meet an "old man." I'm not sure if he's the same "old person" from earlier or not. "Leave this room mortals," cries the old man. "You passed my problems, but you are not able to solve my last question: To kill me!" The old man is apparently the god Ulandar. He summons 18 headhunters, 16 slaughters (not "slaughterers"), and 14 gravediggers to fight alongside him.
Killing you isn't really a "question."
The first time I reached this area, I was far too weak to even come close to defeating him. The problem is that the near-100% success of fleeing from combats means that you're encouraged to flee from all of them while you map dungeons. Otherwise, you'll just weaken yourself for no reason. But it also means you don't build up the necessary experience for the rare fixed combat. I probably erred too much on the side of avoiding combat during exploration; a player who fought occasionally-but-not-always would set himself up for less grinding later.
I reloaded from outside the dungeon and began to grind. Grinding is so mindless in this game that I began to wonder how I could write a macro to do it for me. Normally, I wouldn't countenance such a thing, but this is a somewhat minor game and I thought the puzzle posed by writing a macro was more interesting than sticking to my usual rules. I don't have macro software sophisticated enough that it can read what's on the screen--I'm not sure that even exists--so I had to find a combination of keystrokes that would: 1) produce a favorable outcome in combat no matter what enemy party composition; 2) ensure that each combat would be followed by another one; and 3) not cause anything to interrupt or otherwise screw up the sequence of combats while the party was not currently in combat.
Achieving the highest spell level.
This wouldn't be possible for some games. Imagine that inside combat, "D" defends but outside combat it opens the "Disk" menu. Using the software I have, which wouldn't be able to distinguish whether I'm in or out of combat, I wouldn't be able to use the "D" key in the macro, because once combat ended, it would just open the "Disk" menu and get stuck there (or, more likely, wreak some havoc involving the rest of the keys). Fortunately, this game didn't have any commands that posed quite that problem. With some trial and error, I discovered this sequence worked:
  • "F": If the game is on the initial encounter screen, which gives you the option to (F)ight or (R)un, this key causes you to fight. Outside of combat, or once combat is engaged, it does nothing.
  • Eight "A" keys in a row. Once combat begins, this has the first four characters (A)ttack, and then choose to attack the monsters in group A. Elsewhere, it does nothing.
  • "S" followed by "D" twice. This was a tricky one. In combat, after the first four characters have chosen to attack, I needed to cause the last two to (D)efend, since it's their only option except to cast a spell, which you can't do forever while leaving the macro running. But outside of combat, "D" loads a saved game. Thus, I had to make sure to hit "S" to save the game first (which does nothing while in combat).
  • "Y": In combat, it acknowledges your previously-selected actions and executes the combat round. Elsewhere, it does nothing.
  • <SPACE>: At the end of combat, it acknowledges the experience/gold reward screen. Elsewhere, it does nothing.
With this sequence of keys on an indefinite loop, the game automatically fought when an enemy appeared but otherwise just threw away unused keypresses when it didn't. It mostly worked. The problem is that even in the city, where enemies are weak, they get a lucky hit often enough that you still have to monitor your health. In the dungeons, you have to stop and heal often enough that it's hardly worth running the macro. Experience rewards from city combats are so low that it takes functionally hours between levels, even with the emulator and macro speed cranked. So if I wanted to get any use out of it, I had to keep it running for hours, but in a way that I could still keep half of my attention on the computer to stop characters from dying. I've been trying to spend more time on the treadmill this fall, so I had some success setting the macro running on a table next to the treadmill, but I still had to spend most of my grinding time manually grinding in dungeons.
With Level 6 in all spellcasting levels and 20 in all attributes, this character has gone as high as he can go. This screenshot is actually from a few hours after the end of this session.
Once my conjurer and magician got to Level 15, which gave them Level 6 spells, I switched them both to the other class. They rose rapidly through the first few levels of their new classes, soon significantly outclassing the rest of the characters in hit points and attributes. If you wanted to create an ultra-powerful party in this game, you'd go with all spellcasters, even though it would make the initial game difficult.

Eventually, they got to Level 15 in their new classes, at which point I rolled them over to the wizard class, which you can only do after the characters have been both conjurers and magicians. Once I had them high enough as wizards that they got Level 4 spells, I decided to try Ulandar again.
Let me pause to note that the spell list isn't terribly useful in this game. Each class only gets 11 (wizard) or 13 (conjurer and magician) spells, and a lot of them are just more powerful versions of early ones. For instance, the conjurer's 13 spells include three levels of "magic compass," three levels of "magic torch," and three levels of healing a single character. Most of the rest are simply group damage spells of varying power. Thus, once you get the highest level of spell as a conjurer, you only ever cast MATO ("Magic Torch"), MACO ("Magic Compass") and EVPO ("Evil Power"). There's supposed to be a Level 6 conjurer spell called MEAL that fully heals a character, but it doesn't work. I assume it's a typo, and the real spell is a different selection of letters, but I haven't figured it out.
The wizard's selection of 11 spells includes the game's sole resurrection spell (BALI) but is otherwise solely damage spells. The highest is MAHA ("Malu-Krli's Hammer"), which does 40-65 points of damage to a group. There are no spells that damage all opponents in all groups, unlike The Bard's Tale.
Ulandar's party. Notice I have a compass, a shield, and a torch activated.
Ulander's group still slaughtered me the first time I faced them after grinding. I had to try a few times before I realized that I needed to concentrate damage spells on one group at a time until they were gone, and that one of my two spellcasters would have to cast HEAL (heals all characters) every round. Even then, I couldn't save two of my characters. 
Worst last words ever.
At the end of the battle, the old man shouted: "Here is the second key, you fools! But you never can use it!" and died. The game then made me suffer the indignity of turning around and retracing my steps all the way back to the surface. Once there, I resurrected my dead characters, healed everyone else, restored my spell points, and sold my excess goods (even though I have millions of gold pieces now and will never run out). I then made my way to the southwest corner of the city and, in defiance of the god's dying words, used his key to go through an ornate door and gain access to a new dungeon: Xe-Tje's Domain. I assume that there I'll find another key that lets me through the door in the southeast corner of the city, where I hope I'll face the final dungeon.
Time so far: 15 hours


Sunday, September 18, 2022

Dungeon Master II: The Legend of the Area Outside Skullkeep

My growing map of the wilderness area encircling the titular fortress.
The Dungeon Master series has a great use-based character development system. The danger of such systems is that they become more addictive than the game. I was headed that way in my last Skullkeep session, and I became fully ensorcelled during this session. The last five hours have consisted of about one hour of exploration and four hours of watching my skill levels increase as I fight wolves.
If I ever encounter a wolf in the wild, I'll just punch it.
I encountered the wolves shortly after the last session, in the only area available to me without heading underground. They respawn endlessly, and they're the perfect enemy for grinding because they hit hard enough to require the occasional gulp of a potion (which builds priest skills) but not so hard that I'm in any real danger. As I futilely tried to "clear" them, I built fighter levels with weapons, ninja levels with daggers and fists, priest levels with healing potions, and mage levels with fireballs and "Light" spells. I rotated characters into different positions as they advanced or fell behind, and it wasn't long before everyone was pretty much even. I had to make occasional trips back to town to sell mushrooms (which also respawn), buy food, and refill canteens. Overall, the value of respawning mushrooms seems to be slightly higher than the value of the food I've needed to purchase with them, and that's without even bothering to kill the herds of bullceratops, which I imagine also respawn.
Seri gets a priest level casting a spell that causes everyone to get blue and white sparkles around them.
When characters had full spell bars but no reason to cast, I had them attempt random spell combinations. I recorded what worked and what produced nothing and am about halfway through the potential list. The problem is that when something works, I don't often know what it does. For instance,  ZO BRO ROS made some kind of green mist shimmer in front of us for a few seconds, but I don't know what it did. OH IR ROS made my characters dance around in their formation for a while. Sometimes spells just fizzle even when the combination is valid. And unless the spell fills a potion jar or happens to level someone up when he or she casts it, I don't even know if it's a priest or mage spell.
Slowly figuring out what spells do.
Eventually, I forced myself to push forward. The wolves were guarding a hollow full of swamp squares, which impede movement out of them. The passages were narrow, so it's good that enemies like to run around randomly a lot in combat. Otherwise, the wolves would have just choked the passages and I wouldn't have been able to get anywhere. Deep in their territory, I found a round stone altar with another clan key piece, a moon key, and another magic map. Elsewhere, I found a pile of bones next to a horned helm and a chest. The chest had a necklace called "Suzerain" and a scarab. Both of the pieces of jewelry seemed to increase mana. I tried bringing the bones back to the resurrection altar, but nothing happened.
Someone else didn't do so well against the wolves.
The wolves' area had a lot of passages inaccessible because of pits, and I can only assume I'll find a "Levitate" spell or some item that lets me cross them. I can see coins on the other sides of some of them.
A curious thing happened in the northern part of the wolves' territory. A long passage looped back to the bullceratops fields, but it arrived in a place where I hadn't mapped a passage before. Either I made a mistake the first time or something I did "unlocked" the passage--probably the latter because if the passage was available from the outset, you could reach the area beyond the lightning door without the lightning key. 
These locked doors, with keyholes in the obelisk, close off major sections of the outdoor realm.
The moon key opened a door back in the thief's realm. The thief, who screams "Mine!" as he tries to snatch whatever he can from the hands of adjacent characters, is not quite as annoying as the "Giggler" from Dungeon Master. Or maybe I've just developed more patience. When he steals something, he always drops it in a predictable location, so you can just get it back. There only ever seems to be one of them at a time, with a new one respawning a few seconds after you kill the previous one. When he dies, he drops a dagger and several gold coins, so he's good for grinding. I discovered that if I just wanted some peace and quiet for a while, I could almost kill him, at which point he'd go running off to some corner for at least a few minutes.
This was how I felt, at least, until I reached the area behind the moon door, which was absolutely full of the little #$*@ers. After some initial frustrating forays, I gave up trying to hold on to my stuff. Their lair, which also had a couple of giant worms, really held nothing of interest except a shield, an obelisk, a keyed door, and a passage east to another area. I reloaded, didn't worry about fighting the thieves, and just ran past them. Enemies fortunately do not cross between areas, marked by treed archways.
Enemies do not pass these barriers.
Shortly after reaching the new area, I encountered a new enemy--a giant barbarian with two axes. He looked fearsome, but I was happy to be past the thieves and have something new to fight--until he swiped my fighter's sword and ran off with it. One point for you, Skullkeep.
He looks fearsome, but he turns out to just be another thief.
As with his smaller cousins, I mostly ignored him as I mapped his area, which had another stone altar and an exit to the north. Several more of them appeared when I approached the altar, and they began hurling double-bladed axes at us. I snatched the clan piece key and the key to the other door in the thieves' area, then fled to the north.
I was surprised to find another village, complete with shops for armor, equipment, and weapons. They seemed to have larger selections than the first village, and the weapon shop sold some things that sounded like plot items, including a vacuum fuse and a large gear. I took note of the items but didn't buy anything for now.  
What do you bet this is the solution to a puzzle somewhere?
I returned to the previous area and slowly took care of the axe giants. I overloaded the hell out of my characters with all their axes and headed back to the first town to sell them and regroup. To get back to town, I used a teleportation pentagram in the south of the thieves' area. I figured out how those work at some point. You have to stand on them and then use the "Techshield" that I found in a previous session. It takes you to the large raised pentagram in the middle of the village. Unfortunately, the trip is one-way. You have to walk back.
Judging by sale prices, the axes were the best weapons I've found so far, so I sold everything else, plus the excess axes. By now, I had plenty of money, and I knew where to get more, so I went on a spending spree. I bought a magic sword called Excsymyr that seems to grant additional mana points and hopefully clears up any skin conditions. I bought boots (including a set of mithril boots), helmets, and armor for the characters who didn't have any. There are some expensive pieces of armor in the armor shop, including "fire armor" and mithril, and it's nice to have something to save for.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • There are a lot of respawning, edible things that grow on trees. Most of them can be sold or traded to the tavernkeeper. An exception is something called a "Bainbloom." It can't be eaten and the tavernkeeper doesn't seem to want it.
  • My highest level achieved so far is "Adept" (7). I think everyone was at "Journeyman" (4) in their skills last time, but since then I've progressed some of them through "Craftsman" (5) and "Artisan" (6).
  • I have a sense that the different magic maps I'm finding do slightly different things. It's on my list to analyze them next time. 
  • I have a couple of blue things marked with the YA and EW runes, and I can't figure out what to do with them. You can't eat them and they can't be activated from the hand. I think a spell created one of them.
I've largely lost any connection with the game world and what I'm supposed to be doing. This is primarily the fault of my erratic playing schedule, but the game doesn't help. I can see why people think Lands of Lore is the superior RPG. With continual cinematics, scrolls, and NPC comments, you never forget your quest or the basic nature of the game world. The designers of Skullkeep seem to have gone out of their way to avoid putting any text in the game. There are no monster names (as usual), no NPC names. Spells use symbols and shops use signs with pictures on them. The only writing I've found so far is the scroll that told me how to use the resurrection altar.
It's intriguing how the game has yet to feature any famous Dungeon Master puzzles. I assume they come along in Skullkeep itself, but so far it's all been mapping and combat. I figure I have at least one more entry to make in the outdoor area, including its underground sections, at which point I'll finally be ready to tackle the castle.
Next up: the legend of the areas beneath Skullkeep.
I'm posting this a couple of weeks before I thought I'd be blogging again, having found a little time to play Skullkeep even during the busy opening weeks of the semester. There is something a bit unwieldy about the game that makes me postpone my sessions even when I might otherwise have a little time. No matter how many hours I spend on it, I can't seem to master the control scheme. I strafe when I mean to turn, and vice versa. I right-click when I should left-click, and vice versa. Nobody ever seems to be holding the right items in their hands. The first combat of every session I flub because I start clicking on the weapons at the top of the screen rather than in the combat panel. I mis-time movement and bash into walls. And I can never quite get used to manipulating the numberpad with my left hand. These things get better as the session goes along, but they deter me from starting the game in the first place. More than once over the last two weeks, I've sat down at my computer intending to give Skullkeep a few hours and ended up doing crossword puzzles instead. I'll see if I can get some more forward momentum this week.
Time so far: 10 hours

Monday, September 5, 2022

Tygus Horx: HABA

I'm not sure "mazenary" is a word.
It's been a busy couple of weeks in Chez Addict, with a business trip followed immediately by the first week of the fall semester. I had entries pre-scheduled for one week but not two, so there was an unavoidable gap. Then, we welcomed two new kittens to the house, both completely black. One came with a collar, which is the only way I can tell them apart, but it seems mean to leave it on. When Irene didn't have any ideas for distinguishing  them, I suggested we give them the same name and not even bother. She assumed I was joking, but I'm not sure more than 50% of the cats I've owned have ever learned their names, and I'm not sure even they knew it was their "name" rather than just a sound I made when I had food.
Anyway, you'll be pleased that we considered a lot of names out of RPG-dom, although Irene wasn't aware that's where they came from. I nearly had her on "Vaermina" and "Namira," but she thought "Namira" was the name of one of the wolves on Game of Thrones, or at least that other people would think that. "Minax" had some traction for a while. But when she seriously seemed to be considering "Tygus" and "Horx," I switched themes, and now it's either going to be "Treme" and "Marigny" or "Bolden" and "Ellington."
The long-awaited Level 2 of the Tygus Horx maze.
Tygus Horx was on my mind because I had found a version that didn't replicate the bug, which made me honor-bound to play it. I converted the BRIEF to a proper number and made a couple of edits, then got busy grinding. Much like The Bard's Tale, the game on which it is based, Horx doesn't offer a lot of blogging fodder for the hours spent. It's taken me another five just to assemble this meager entry.
I probably wasted more time grinding than was strictly necessary. I should have done more of it in the dungeon, where the rewards would have been higher. But by letting you flee from most combats and allowing you to save anywhere, Horx encourages a get-in-and-get-out approach to dungeon exploration. Although the experience rewards are less, it ultimately saves time just to grind next to the temple, where you can sleepwalk your way through the combat options and occasionally pay for healing.
Leveling up.
Everyone gets +1 to an attribute plus some additional max hit points when leveling, but like The Bard's Tale, the most tangible method of increasing party strength is to acquire more spells and spell points. Horx makes this a tad more difficult than its source. Where The Bard's Tale reliably gives you a new spell level every two character levels, Horx spaces it out a bit more. I lost count of the exact ratio, but my spellcasters are Level 14 and still haven't acquired Level 6 spells. Consequently, neither has changed classes. Horx's approach removes some of the imbalance in the earlier game, where a steady increase in monster difficulty meant that spellcasters could rocket through the later classes. It doesn't remove this issue entirely, though, and I'm sure I'll find that my second and third spell classes go more quickly than the first.
The Maze turned out to have three levels, all of them properly mazelike. As I stepped off the stairway to Level 2, a message appeared: "The Maze shows its true face. Leave it or die." I didn't leave it. "It burns you down," another message hinted. There were quite a few empty rooms before I made it to the northwest corner, where an old man asked me to "say what the three messages are about." I'd actually received more than three messages, but three of them definitely pointed to the answer of FIRE (Level 1's "It is hot" and "It is red and yellow" and the Level 2 message just recounted). As riddles go, that was pretty easy. The way opened to Level 3.
Level 3.
Level 3 had three messages:
  • "The maze gasps at you and will never let you free again." I think maybe it meant "grasps"?
  • "Do not believe in illusions!"
  • "Seek the Temple of Urlando!"
Despite this, it let me free again.
I was exploring this whole time with several spells active. MATO ("Magic Torch") is the best of three conjurer light spells; MACO ("Magic Compass") is the best of three conjurer compass spells; and MASH ("Magic Shield") is the best of three magician shielding spells. There really aren't any other buffing spells, including no "Levitate," which caused problems on the third level.
The final square was at the end of a long hallway with several traps that sapped my hit points and spell points. When I reached the final chamber, someone called The Great Mazenary attacked me with 13 phantoms, 10 shadows, and 8 krimmels. ("Krimmel" is a common German last name, and I assume the author knew someone who had it.) I set in with physical attacks, my conjurer's EVPO ("Evil Power"), and my magician's POTO ("Power Touch"), both mass-damage spells. The traps had left me low on points, but I had just enough to complete the battle.
The first mandatory combat of the game.
"You beat me, but your way is long and the Evil One soon sieges the whole universum!" the Mazenary said as he died. He left a small key. I had three characters die from the traps on the way back, and I had to pay to have them resurrected.
I beat him. He is destroyed.
The small key opens the way to Ulandar's Temple on the west side of the city. I assume that will turn out to be another small dungeon.
I couldn't get much else done this week, but I didn't want you to think I'd disappeared entirely. More on Dungeon Master II soon.
Time so far: 8 hours

Monday, August 29, 2022

Game 467: Dungeons and Dragons (1980)

There is no title screen. You have to type YES on this screen, not just "Y."
Dungeons and Dragons
United States
Aurora Software Associates (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Ohio Scientific Computers
Titled The Wizard's City in 1981 catalogs but not in-game 
Date Started: 18 August 2022
Date Ended: 18 August 2022
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5) to stay alive, but there's no goal
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Dungeons and Dragons is a rare game for a rare platform, uncovered only because my colleague, El Explorador de RPG, has been going through old catalogs. (I owe my ability to play this game to his instructions and the work of a dedicated Ohio Scientific Instruments fan named Mark, who has preserved software and documentation for the platform.) It isn't much of a game, but anything from the RPG dark ages (1975-1981) is worthy of at least some attention. Its limited content won't occupy us for long.
I have chosen the title Dungeons because it seems to be the original, marketed as such by Aurora Software in 1980 and early 1981 catalogs and magazines. At some point in 1981, Aurora changed its address from Springville, Utah to Cleveland, Ohio, and changed the name of this game in catalogs to The Wizard's City. There was no change in the actual game file, which displays no title screen. The only version of the game I was able to find was on a disk crammed with other Aurora Software titles. Dungeons is listed in the disk's menu as DUNOSI (the "OSI" part standing for Ohio Scientific Instruments), although I can't say for sure that this was the original file name as opposed to what was chosen by whoever prepared the compilation disk. Dunosi also means "dunes" in Italian, but I doubt that's what they were going for. [Ed., as el Explorador points out himself in the comments, I missed an even earlier ad in which the game was called Dungeons and Dragons. That means they re-named it twice. Title changed accordingly!]
An early-1981 ad selling the game as Dungeons.
The game is mostly text with some limited graphics. You begin by rolling a character, whose attributes are strength, intelligence, dexterity, and constitution, rolled at random on a scale of 1 to 18. You choose your profession from fighter, dwarf, halfling, elf, and magic-user classes, with attributes modified in expected ways (e.g., fighters get more strength, elves more intelligence). Your hit points are calculated based partly on your constitution, but see below. Your starting gold depends on how good or bad your attributes are; lower attributes mean more gold.
Character creation.
The game then starts in a city represented by a row of buildings. Am I right that these are just characters in a symbol typeset? I'm sure I've seen those little "house" characters before somewhere. Anyway, the only thing you can do in the city is to rest safely and purchase "more armor." You probably don't have enough gold to buy any armor when you first start the game, but you later get it by killing monsters. Every time you buy a piece of armor, it increases your armor class by 1. I amused myself thinking of an armorer welding a new plate to some unwieldy patchwork every time the adventurer stops by with a few hundred gold pieces.
This city clearly has Texas-style zoning regulations.
The number keys from 1 to 5 control all actions in the game. To get out of the city, you either hit "1" to move down to the dungeon or "2" or "3" to move (respectively) west or east into the forest. Once in either location, "2" and "3" move you west and east along either the forest or the dungeon corridor. The game tells you how far you've moved from your origin point. If you want to go back to town from the forest, you just have to go as many moves in the opposite direction as you did when you left. To return from the dungeon, you have to return to a central passage the same way, then hit "4". Once you're in the dungeon passage, hitting "1" moves you to the next lowest level. No matter where you are, "5" rests, but it only heals you if you're in town. 
The only action occurs when you meet an enemy in the dungeon or the forest. The game shows you his name, hit points, number of attacks, armor class, dexterity, and strength. Enemies have better statistics the lower you go and the farther you travel. By name, they include bandits, zombies, giant toads, trolls, werewolves, large spiders, and "wrights," which I guess is maybe a combination of a wraith and a wight.
A fight with a berserker in the dungeon.
In combat, you have three "options": flee, attack, and cast a spell. Flee hardly ever works, and the other two aren't really "options" except for the elf, since mages can only cast spells and everyone else can only attack. I don't know how the elf decides what to do. Spells don't deplete a mana pool or spell slots or anything, and you can't specify anything about the spell you cast. Combat is thus mostly random. If you win, you get experience and gold. Once you have enough experience, you can rest in town to increase your level and maximum hit points. 
It's pretty hard to survive to Level 2. If you roll less than 8 hit points, you might as well not even bother. Even with high attributes, three bad combat rounds in which you miss and the enemy hits are enough to kill most starting characters. You often get multiple enemies in a row, preventing you from reaching the passage to return to the surface. Occasionally, trap doors dump you down a dungeon level, or from the forest to the dungeon.
A fight with a snake in the forest.
I'm not even sure the attributes work the way they're supposed to. I started to get suspicious of some of my results--characters with 18 strength missing four attacks in a row and so forth--that I started collecting data. I rolled character after character, making each one a fighter, and immediately going to the forest east of the city once the game started. I repeatedly waited for enemies, fought each round, and returned to the city to heal if I lost even one hit point. If I had enough money, I bought armor, then returned to the forest. Some weird statistics emerged:

  • It took me 17 characters before I survived to Level 2.
  • The correlation between constitution and hit points was a strong 0.75, but there were some major outliers.
  • A couple of sets of stats showed up more than once in only 17 rolls. Trials #1, #4, and #11 produced the same numbers, as did #12 and #17.
  • My most successful characters had some of the lowest strength scores.
Tracking character statistics and success. "Combats" is how many combats he survived.
As the 17th character increased in levels, it became clear that monsters were increasing in difficulty with him. You can't just stay near the town and farm easy experience points. I suspect what's happening is that the game takes into consideration some totality of your attributes and level in setting enemy difficulty, so that it really doesn't matter whether you're weak or strong, as you're always pitted against a comparable enemy. Perhaps someone with more programming acumen can hypothesize what is happening with those "random" numbers or determine through code inspection how enemy difficulty is determined.
My most successful character.
I was going to do the same for spellcasters, who seem to have a slightly easier time, but I got a bit bored. There really isn't much to the game, and there's no winning condition. The best you can do is keep trying to level up and record your highest scores on a notepad or something. There's no way to save the game except to manually record your statistics, then say "No" when the game asks if you want to roll a new character. At that point, you can enter whatever statistics you want.
As far as I can tell, this is the only RPG for the short-lived (1977-1981) Ohio Scientific Instruments platform, and the only RPG from Aurora Software Associates, which also sold disk utilities and business software. Their games catalog includes a lot of OSI adaptations of common mainframe games of the era, including Trek, an adaptation of the grid-based Star Trek, and an adaptation of (Colossal Cave) Adventure. Since they clearly had access to these mainframes, I'm inclined to think that Dungeons was inspired by one of Daniel Lawrence's Dungeons and Dragons versions (see this entry for a full history), although Dungeons is stripped of so many features that it's barely recognizable. Alas, the author of Dungeons seems to have been lost to history.