Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Lords of Bedtime

The game requires sleep but at least offers several types of locations where you can sleep.
        
This entry represents an accomplishment that many people wouldn't see as much of an accomplishment. I'm writing it on 18 January and scheduling it to post on 22 January, which means that I've managed to keep my blog on schedule for the entire duration of my two-week Caribbean cruise. This hasn't been easy, what with inadequate Internet access most of the time, lack of a second monitor, uncomfortable places to work and play, and of course Irene constantly urging me to "do" something other than sit on the balcony with my laptop. On the positive side, I've been able to visit, for the first time, many of the very forts that I sacked in Pirates! 

I may have conveyed this in previous postings, but I'm a total wuss when it comes to international traveling, despite (or, perhaps, because of) how much of it I do. I get annoyed swiftly with the lack of my usual comforts. For instance, when I'm in the United States, and before 17:00, it's a rare moment that I don't have a cold bottle of Diet Coke within reach--a bottle, mind you, not a can. In the U.S., I depend on the excessive availability of vending machines and convenience stores, many open 24 hours, to supply this need. I find that such stores don't exist, or are not convenient, or are not always open, when abroad. I don't understand this fad for "body wash" that European hotels seem to have embraced, but I use bar soap, thank you. I don't pack carefully, and I need an iron and ironing board each day.
          
I'm going to be rambling for a while, so here's a shot of my character being chased by a dwarf on Wyvern Mountain.
         
I have a friend named Eli who will happily grab a backpack, fly to a place like Indonesia with $50 in his pocket, and somehow have a great week. I absolutely cannot do that. I haven't not showered in the morning since I was 9. I don't wear clothes two days in a row. I don't sleep in communal rooms or on other people's couches. I'd rather pay for a hotel room for the night and use it for 20 minutes than use a public toilet. These types of frailties are a bit limiting when traveling. If I get too far afield, I start to worry where I'm going to find my next drink, pillow, and clean restroom. (It really says something that on a cruise, when you're only in port for one day and you know exactly where you'll be sleeping that night, I spent half the time on each island anxiously looking around and saying, "Doesn't this place have any 7-Elevens?") Sometimes I wish I could be more like Eli, who will get off a boat and stalk off towards the nearest mountain range, not worrying how, when, or in what condition he'll return.

By way of tortured segue, those needs are somewhat mirrored in Lords of Time and its predecessor, Faery Tale Adventure. The need for food and sleep put a functional limit on how long you can adventure and how far afield you can go. If you don't find a bed every 24 hours, your magic points drain away, and then your hit points. (Faery Tale Adventure would just have you collapse on the ground if you got too tired, but given the frequency with which monsters spawn, that would be a death sentence here.) A similar fate befalls you if you fail to eat a couple of meals a day.
            
I think if I found myself in a medieval world, I'd be grateful enough for inns with beds.
         
I can't say that I find the need for food and sleep particularly desirable aspects of an RPG, but if it's going to be done, I guess I'd prefer the way it's done here. First, it's somewhat "realistic" in both the availability of these resources and the time intervals that you need them. Second, they provide a logistical challenge, but it's one that's more of timing than one of supply. By this, I mean that beds are plentiful if you know where to look (inns, private homes, occasional "resting stations"), and food is cheap at stores and free if you can find an apple tree. This isn't like Ultima II where (until you learn how to shoplift) you're constantly killing creatures just to be able to afford food, and it's not like Rogue, where the hunger system punishes you for taking your time. It's more--and this similarity would have occurred to me no matter how I began this entry--like Pirates!, where you leave one port with not just a destination in mind, but a route that will ensure you maintain your supplies. In a modern game, I think Fallout 4 in survival mode also does this very well: food and sleep aren't so rare and precious that they dominate gameplay, but neither are they so inconsequential that you wonder why the developers introduced the dynamic in the first place.

That's a positive aspect of Lords of Time. Let's talk about a negative: open exploration is basically ruined by the relentless spawning of monsters. It's brutal. If you leave the game unattended for 15 seconds without pausing, you'll be dead when you next look at the screen. When I decide I need to go to a particular place, I'm not so much walking in that direction as constantly fleeing monsters in that direction. "Fleeing" because even at this point in the game, with over 100 maximum hit points, training in both basic intermediate swordplay, enhanced statistics, plate mail armor, a broadsword, and a healing spell, I still can't win more than five or six consecutive battles before my hit points get so low I have to recharge. The game will gladly hand you five or six consecutive battles in about 30 seconds if you're not always on the move.
             
Walking along water makes it easier to see enemies approach--and avoid them.
               
Meanwhile, the interiors of the game make it very difficult to run away from monsters. Negotiating thick clusters of trees and bushes is nearly impossible, although the monsters get through them with unerring pathfinding. Thus, I've learned to follow coastal and river routes to most destinations. When I have to fight, doing so while wading in water makes it easier to control my position relative to the enemies. It's harder when foliage is constantly blocking your view.

You may recall that shortly after my character's arrival in The Realm, he was summoned to meet with the king, who I later learned is named Tanor. The king said to get home, I'd need help from one of two archwizards, Bessak or Kruel, and that of the two, Bessak was most likely to help. I found Bessak's keep in the middle of the Dark Forest, but I couldn't open the door. I suspected that a woman in Murkvale had the key to the keep around her neck.

Commenters helped me with the solution: to buy an orange sleeping potion in Murkvale, dump it in a mug of ale, and offer it to the woman. I wasn't prepared for this level of complexity in inventory interactions or this type of adventure-style puzzle, so I appreciate the hints. I was more alert for such possibilities in later gameplay.
           
Hey, it's a medieval society.
            
When she was asleep, I was able to take the key, and it did turn out to offer me an entrance to Bessak's keep. Like most locations in the game, it was large but mostly empty. Bessak himself was nowhere to be found. Instead, I found a journal in which he noted that "Kruel has pushed me too far," and that he intended to destroy Kruel "with the help of the Druids and their Spell of Annulment."
           
I think the second "throne" belonged to the woman in the bar. I wonder why she thinks Bessak is dead.
          
The Druid Temple is a short walk from Bessak's keep. I had previously visited but couldn't figure out how to get in. This time, I tried harder and found a maze around back. It took a while to navigate it, but when I emerged, I was in the interior of the temple.
           
I should draw this so I don't have to figure it out by trial-and-error every time.
        
The multi-columned temple was quite large but mostly empty. The only thing I found was a set of stairs leading up to a kind of altar with four braziers in the corners. The altar seemed to block a staircase going downwards.

I had an idea of what to do from a book in the Castleguard library, which said that four plants are sacred to the Druids: mountain shrub, willow, maple, and spruce. Assuming I'd have to do something with them at some point, I had spent some time walking up to each of these trees and choosing "pick a small branch from the tree" from the contextual menu. (I ended up with a lot of spruce because it has several appearances; the other three trees only have one each. Mountain shrub is particularly rare.) Thus, when I arrived at the Temple, I already had one sprig of each. I put one in each brazier, and the game told me that the braziers began burning the twigs.

Unfortunately, nothing happened. I tried different configurations of plant to brazier but still nothing happened. Thinking that timing might be important, I tried it at different times of day (including midnight, which becomes important below), still to no avail.
          
None of this worked.
          
Stuck again, I began exploring and re-exploring the map, looking for more adventures and hints. Among my discoveries and accomplishments:
             
  • At an armor shop, I decided "what the hell" and gave it a try and managed to shoplift a full set of plate mail on my first attempt and a two-handed sword on my second attempt. Unfortunately, I failed the next three attempts for much less valuable stuff, and I got sick of reloading, so my shoplifting career came to an end.
  • There are several caverns on Wyvern Mountain. None of them were occupied by wyverns, but some of them had wyvern nests and, within them, wyvern eggs. Shortly after grabbing a couple of those eggs, I started getting dive-bombed by flying creatures that toss rocks at me from above. I assume these are wyverns, and that their appearance was triggered by my pilfering.
           
This was perhaps a bad idea.
        
  • One of the caves on "Wyvern" Mountain led to a dragon. He awoke and killed me with one breath. I assume I'll have to deal with him later, and I wonder if it will involve the "Dragonsbane" plant I've been finding on some mountains.
           
This is a reasonably well-drawn dragon.
          
  • I made it to the hall of the "Dwarven High King" on the northwest part of the map, but a guard wouldn't let me in.
           
I assume I'll be back later.
        
  • I also found "Lord Dervak's Holde" but couldn't get through the front door.
  • In the Dwarven Mines, as a commenter pointed out, pick-axes will remove embedded jewels. These sell for about 25 gold pieces.
           
The dwarves still won't talk with me, even though I learned their language.
          
Throughout these adventures, my character development has been steady, in several ways. First, you "level" behind the scenes at experience point thresholds, increasing your maximum health and spell points, and occasionally increasing an attribute or two.

Second, I was able to take most of the courses offered at the guilds in Murkvale and Castleguard. Some of them have experience point requirements that are still beyond me, but over these six hours, and between the two locations, I got "Intermediate Lockpicking" (I had taken basic last time), "Intermediate Spellcasting,"  "Potion Identification," "Shoplifting," "Personal Money Management," "Weather Control," "Traps," "Dwarven Language," "Dealing with Stress," and "Fighting Dragons." I think some of the courses were valuable for hidden attributes that they improve, but others were valuable mostly for the information conveyed right on the screen.
           
Others . . . I'm not sure what use they were.
         
I had been picking up spells called "Ability Enhancement," but I wasn't capable of casting them until I got "Intermediate Spellcasting" and at least 100 spell points. I chose to enhance strength with all three iterations of the spell, because I had been sick of messages that said I wasn't strong enough to wield various weapons. Thanks to the spells, I was able to finally wield the broadsword that I stole. I'm still too weak for the two-handed sword. It must be said, though, that I haven't noticed either sword or armor upgrades making combat particularly easier.
          
"Enhancing your attributes" sounds less creepy in an RPG than in real life.
          
Miscellaneous notes:
          
  • The Riverside Inn lies south of Castleguard and is "fortified for your protection" with a wall around it. That's a bit of a hoot since enemies spawn without any problem inside walls.
  • There are wells in a lot of places, but most of them just seem to make you sick. If you find one with good water, you can fill canteens, but since water isn't a requirement (unlike food), I'm not sure what use this is.
  • Spiders poisoning me are still an automatic reload. This far into the game, I don't have a "cure poison" spell.
  • "Fistak's Magical Mapping Spell," which I picked up somewhere, makes a little mini-map of the environment. This makes it much easier to find buildings and other important areas.
             
A map shows the location of nearby rivers and mountains.
         
  • Some kind of sea dragon started appearing as an enemy, but they're limited to bodies of water and wander off if the character is on land.
  • From entering Bessak's, my "score" went up to 10/190.
  • Given the number of times I've needed to enter the castle, I'm getting sick of guards challenging me every single time.
         
Oh, come on! I just want to sleep.
       
In all my explorations, I had trouble finding any hints about the next steps--until I decided to systematically tip bartenders. As an old Ultima player, I should have realized this would be important. Bartenders offer different hints at different tip thresholds, and I had only been getting the lowest tier. 

From them, and a couple of NPCs, I learned that Kruel used to be Bessak's protege, and that Bessak has long sought the Druid Book of Life. (I assume if I ever meet him, that will be some kind of sub-quest.) The bartender in Murkvale told me that an old wizardess in the Great Swamp knows something about the Druid Temple.

The Great Swamp wasn't on the game map, but I figured it might have something to do with the archipelago at the river delta southeast of Murkvale, and I was right. In fact, there was a whole community in those islands that I'd overlooked, including another potion shop and a second library.
          
Information from the second library. I wonder if everyone in The Realm crashed test planes.
          
The wizardess in question gave me a little verse:

When the moon is blue
And four twigs on four altars lie
Admittance will be gained by you
Under the midnight sky
              
Reminder: poetry is about meter as much as rhyme.
           
This agreed with what the bartender had told me (in another tip) about the Druids "all excited over an upcoming set of blue moons." This is great except I have no idea how to tell when the moon is blue. Nothing in the game tells me anything about the status of the moon. (I don't know; does the symbol above the health meter have something to do with the moon? If so, it always looks blue to me.) I don't even know if the term refers to the color of the moon or the second appearance of the full moon within a month.

I don't want to have to keep showing up at the temple (and navigating that damned maze) every night until the right night comes along, especially since a nighttime expedition takes some planning. You have to try to sleep into the afternoon so you don't get tired after dusk, and thus run out of steam completely before morning. I'll be glad for hints, but barring that, my plan is to revisit the spell stores and make sure there isn't something magical that's supposed to tell me the moon's status.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Black Crypt: Core of Corruption

The game's take on "Medusa."
         
What I surmised in the last entry turned out to be the case: Level 13 was a hub, with four teleporters leading downward to four collections of levels, each culminating in a battle with one of Estoroth's lieutenants. Defeating each lieutenant provides the keys necessary to enter a secret area and collect one of the four artifacts necessary to defeat Estoroth himself. At the beginning of the game, I had thought that the collection of the artifacts was the game's sole quest, but eventually it became clear that the whole thing would end with the party employing the artifacts in a battle with Estoroth.
           
Each teleporter brought me to a hero's tomb--eventually.
         
I had already defeated the Ram Demon last time. Choosing another teleporter at random, I next found myself in the domain of something called The Possessor. I had to run around collecting three crowns to place on a kind-of skull mural. This gave me the key necessary to get into The Possessor's lair.
              
Crowning the skulls.
        
The area was full of flaming golem-looking creatures, and when I finally encountered The Possessor, I just thought he was another one of these. The other flaming golems had been difficult, so the moment I saw him I just blasted him with my most damaging spells until he died. I thus didn't even bother to grab a screenshot of him. After defeating him, I learned that his name comes from his ability to possess party members, a fate that I didn't experience.
          
Not The Possessor, but he basically looked like this.
        
The next teleporter led me to Level 21, which was entirely underwater. Characters take damage every turn while underwater unless they can breathe it. Fortunately, I'd found a few items that let characters breathe water, including Helms of Triton and Rings of Water Breathing. There were also numerous Potions of Water Breathing scattered around the level. The bigger issue was that a lot of spells--particularly fire-based spells--didn't work in the environment.
            
The tritons were easy but numerous.
          
Enemies were tritons and some kind of weird fish. The party had to find a number of magic pearls and stick them in clamshells to open the paths to the Water Lord, a fish-looking creature with a devastating blow. By this time, I was trying to burn through a number of magic items I'd collected, including a horn capable of casting the "Quake" spell. It only took a few blasts and a couple of melee attacks to kill him.
           
Those memorized fire-based spells aren't going to do much good.
             
Although I didn't plan it this way, I saved the most difficult for last. The Medusa was the last lieutenant. It roams a large area of Level 24. It has a magic attack that can stone characters and that seriously damages them otherwise. It is also impervious to any weapons or spells that you have when you arrive. Other creatures in the area are ghostly skulls that disappear and reappear behind you in the middle of combat. They respawn like mad.

Other adventurers preceded me.
            
To kill the Medusa, I had to find my way to a lower level and get a Mirror Shield, then--and this took me a long time to figure out--employ it as a weapon rather than a shield. The Medusa died in one blow after that.
               
I didn't think you were supposed to kill medusa with a mirror shield. I thought you were just to look in it while you beheaded her.
            
When I had collected the final items in the Medusa's lair, I realized I had a problem: I had no idea which of the many items I had were the four "artifacts." I had collected a bunch of things that sounded like they could be, including the awesome "Doom Hammer," a weapon that takes a long time to cool down but does about 10 times the damage of a normal weapon when it connects. It turned out that the four artifacts are a staff called Soulfreezer, a shield called Protector, a hammer called Forcehammer, and a sword called Vortex, but I had to look it up.
           
I had forgotten that they were all listed in the backstory.
           
While I was trying to figure this out, a worse problem emerged: My game somehow got corrupted. It started insisting that the disk on which the saved games were stored was write-protected. I decided to try to push through to the end using emulator save states, but unfortunately the game insists on saving when transitioning between certain levels, and I can't get out of the Medusa area without triggering one of those saves. It's somehow the game itself that's corrupt, not the disk. If I try to start a new party on the same disk, it works okay. If I try to create a new save disk, on the other hand, the game-in-progress still won't save to it, insisting that it's write-protected.
           
            
I thus now face a decision between starting completely over with a new party and hoping it doesn't happen again and just looking up the endgame from someone's "let's play." I'm inclined to start over because I have this idea that with the maps already created, I can probably shave a lot of time off of a replay. Also, I peeked ahead to the final areas in the hint section of the manual, and it appears that there's more complexity than just a final battle.

While I ponder that, two more notes:

1. The puzzles got a little annoying. Too many of them seem to rely on hidden pressure plates (i.e., they're invisible and make no sound or notice when you step on them). I had to dip into the hint section a few times to verify that what I had mapped as a wall was really now open because of a hidden plate, and I wasn't just crazy the first time. There was one area that required walking over a hidden pressure plate 7 times before an exit would open. As far as I'm concerned, that's just an unfair puzzle.

2. I continue to be irked by the lack of item descriptions and statistics. This is one issue that Dungeon Master variants seriously need to solve. If I'm already carrying a sword called "Evil Smiter" and I find a new sword called "Demon Basher," there ought to be some way to tell which does more damage (and what else the swords do) other than experimentation, which may or may not tell you anything useful. Yes, yes, I know--every time I say that, commenters come out of the woodwork to say that they love recording thousands of attacks to figure out which sword has a higher "to hit" rate and which does 1d6+2 damage versus 1d8+1 damage. They love it because it's so "realistic," because in real life you wouldn't be able to tell the value of a weapon numerically, never mind that you wouldn't be able to tell your attributes or hit points either, nor that the entire point of an RPG, going back to the first tabletop editions, is to carefully manage a set of statistics.
            
Estoroth continued to taunt me.
        
The next entry on Black Crypt will either be the rating, based on video of someone else winning, or a recap of a new party's adventures.

Time so far: 26 hours

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Game 316: Caverns of Mordia (1980)

           
Caverns of Mordia
Australia
Lothlorien Farming (developer and publisher)
Released in 1980 for the Apple II
Date Started: 4 January 2019
Date Ended: 13 January 2019
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Caverns of Mordia is a recently-rediscovered entry in what we might call the "establishing age" of CRPGs--that brief period between 1975 and 1983 (even briefer, between 1978 and 1983, for the microcomputer), when developers repeatedly asked themselves how best to adapt the qualities of tabletop role-playing to the computer.  By 1983, it was clear that the approaches taken by Ultima and Wizardry had answered the question to almost everyone's satisfaction. But during that establishing age, we saw a lot of variance in approaches, most unsuccessful, and while RPGs may have improved in the following decade, rarely again do we see so much diversity. My summary of the early era has links to a number of titles with fun ideas that went nowhere.
     
In the case of Mordia, its unique contribution is to map every potential action that a player might take--subject, verb, and object--into a single numeric command. Where most games might offer a command for "attack" and then let you specify that you want to target the orc, Mordia puts that all together as command 22: Attack the Orcs. It's almost like the game was developed by a police officer, used to describing every potential action or situation in a 10-code. Some of the many commands include:
        
  • 30: Eat Lymphas [a type of bread]
  • 33: Draw the double-handed sword
  • 40: Use the net to trap dragons
  • 50: Climb up one level
  • 63: Remove the gas mask
  • 66: Put on the gas mask
  • 89: Open the chest
  • 90: Attack the balrog

One of three pages of game commands.
            
As I read and annotated the various commands, I couldn't help but imagine all kinds of intriguing possibilities with this system. One problem is that all of the commands are manifestly useful in at least one room. It would have been fun if the author had sprinkled patently absurd commands throughout the list
         
  • 32: Feed Lymphas to the orc
  • 64: Put the gas mask on the dragon
           
I also imagined such a list extending to the complexity of a modern RPG:
             
  • 10318: Stab the necromancer in the back, then run away and hide until he forgets about you, then enter sneak mode and stab him in the back again.
  • 15906: Lead the deathclaw to the raider camp and watch the result from behind a nearby rock.
  • 29055: Position the bodies of Ulfric Stormcloak and Galmar Stone-Fist in an obscene manner.
  • 30117: Lasso and hog-tie the Skinner, heave him onto the back of your horse, ride 90 minutes to the swamps of Lemoyne, feed him to an alligator
            
Of course, such complexity is why the system was doomed to fail in the long run. You can't have a unique command for drawing each weapon or attacking each monster unless you only have a few potential weapons and monsters. Still, it works for this game better than I thought it would when I first read the description.
               
At this moment, I can: (-1) descend the "dropoff"; (3-16) flee to any of the listed rooms; (20) use my Charm Ring on the demons; (21) try to take an emergency tunnel to Room 1 of this level; (22) attack the orc; (30) eat some Lymphas Bread; (33) draw my double-handed sword in anticipation of attacking the dragon; (37) try to blind the monsters with an elven flare; (40) try to trap the dragon in a net; (44) attack the dragon; (55) try to make a passage upward with my magic wand; (70) go invisible by putting on the One Ring; (80) try to blast all the monsters with the Magic Staff.
                          
Caverns of Mordia was written by Hans Coster, with assistance and manual artwork by Tony D'Assumpcao, and published in 1980 by Sydney-based Lothlorien Farming. It is the earliest known Australian CRPG, pre-dating the next known title (Citadel of Vras) by 9 years. It was marketed via direct magazine sales, and by the author's account it did well domestically, but Lothlorien soon shifted to educational software rather than game software. Mordia languished in obscurity for decades--not appearing on any of the lists I used to compile my master list--until 2016, when Neville Ridley-Smith of OldComputerStuff.com happened to buy an original disk as part of a lot, then made contact with Dr. Coster, now a professor and department director at the University of Sydney (Neville's account begins here). Neville's efforts not only produced a meeting and interview with Dr. Coster, but also a new set of disk and manual images to distribute on the Internet. This disk has some upgrades that were not available in the original version, but it's hard to tell exactly what's new because the original versions floating around the Internet are bugged to the point of unplayability. I've annotated the things that I think are new, based on changes to the manual and command list. It's worth noting that even the "new" stuff isn't 2016 material; rather, Coster programmed it in the few years after the original 1980 release but simply never released the second version. [Edit: See the bottom of this entry for more information about the origins of this game.]
           
The subtitle screen from the revised edition.
               
The backstory has you play an agent of the wizard Pallandoin. Your mission is to deliver an Orb of Power to Lady Elleda of Locklorien, whose land is besieged by the forces of the evil spirit Sharnoscet. (In case it's not obvious, almost all proper names in the game are slight alterations of characters and places in the Tolkienverse. "Sharnoscet" is an anagram for "Hans Coster.") To get to Locklorien, you have decided to travel through the Caverns of Mordia, full of horrid creatures and encounters, because it is the route the enemy will least suspect.
             
The game suffers from a few originality issues.
           
Character creation involves answering a few simple but unusual questions. After your name, you're given the option to start at the surface with a basic kit or jump right into a lower level of the dungeon with a full set of equipment--in effect a shortcut for players who have already been through the opening a bunch of times. The normal exit to the game is on Level 25, but at the outset you can also specify that you'd like a second exit on Level 35, in case you fall down a pit or just want to amass a higher score before winning. I'm not sure that there are any drawbacks to saying "yes" to that question.
           
A few questions during character creation.
          
You begin at a dwarven market, where you don't have enough gold to buy anything, but can later return. Your opening resources are a dagger, a dragon net, a magic staff, a wand, a lamp, the Orb of Power, 400 agility, and 400 strength. Strength serves as both literal strength and a health reserve.
          
The game begins in an empty room.
         
Upon entering the caves, gameplay proceeds something like a roguelike with a concept map instead of an actual map. The dungeon consists of at least 35 levels. The manual is unclear, but it's possible that levels are generated indefinitely (I made it to Level 44 before I died). Each level can consist of up to 16 rooms, with the contents of the room and the connections between them randomly established every time you change levels. They can even be reconfigured while you're still on a level if you encounter "tremors."
           
A text simulation of an earthquake.
         
Room 1 on each level is a special room in which you can do a couple of useful things. First, you can (Command 0) use the Orb of Power to return to the dwarven market and buy a gas mask (500 gold), a magic two-handed sword (3000 gold) or extra Lymphas Bread. Second, you can (Command 27) exchange your accumulated experience for extra agility or strength. You don't always want to exchange all of it, however, because your unspent experience is used in some of the formulas for hitting and damaging monsters.
             
Spending some of my hard-won experience.
              
Other rooms can contain all kinds of perils depending on the dungeon level, including:
       
  • Poisonous gas, which depletes your two characteristics unless you quickly put on a gas mask, and then the gas mask itself causes a 5% attribute loss per turn.
             
The game warns you about poisonous gas at the beginning, but you won't be able to afford that gas mask for a while.
            
  • Drop-offs, including ones that you can see and hidden ones that dump you unceremoniously to the next level.
  • Gusts of wind that blow out the lamp and make it impossible to see what's in the room until you make a movement for a turn and the lamp re-ignites.
  • Webs spun by the giant spider Araneida, which immobilize you for one or more turns.
            
             
  • Orcs. You can kill them in regular combat.
  • Dragons. You can also kill them in regular combat or try to trap them with a net first.
               
A dragon and an orc guard this room with a chest. Because I have a Dragon Occular, I can see the dragon's health.
            
  • Trolls. They always appear to guard the Mithril Armor. I believe they're new to the second edition.
  • Balrogs.
  • Giant vampire bats.
  • Demons, which can't be killed through normal combat, only charmed.
  • Araneida, the giant spider.
  • Goblins, who can't be attacked and simply steal one of your potential inventory items (the Dragon Occular) and flee.
            
Mithril armor is guarded by orcs, demons, vampire bats, and trolls.
           
The same rooms can also contain useful equipment and assets, including:
         
  • Gold. You can't directly pick it up. Instead, every time you make a move, there's a chance of grabbing a certain percentage of it.
  • Chests with gold, elven flares, or Lymphas Bread. Chests can be trapped with serpents that bite you.
  • The Charm Ring, which stuns demons.
               
Finding the Charm Ring is a key moment in early gameplay.
          
  • The Dragon Occular, which lets you see the relative strength of dragons
  • Mithril Armor. I believe it is new to the second edition.
  • The One Ring, which works pretty much as in the book. It renders you invisible while you wear it, but the "evil one" can sense its presence, and every turn you wear it carries an increasing chance of a debilitating spell. I also think this is new to the second edition.


Rooms with various assets and dangers are a staple of games in The Wizard's Castle variety, but what keeps Caverns of Mordia unique is that any combination of these things can exist together in the same room. You might wander into a room with poison gas, an orc, 500 gold pieces, and 6 vampire bats, and then immediately have your torch blown out. You might descend into a room with an orc, and a dragon, have your Dragon Occular stolen by goblins, and then immediately fall through a hidden hole in the floor. You might be in the middle of a battle against four trolls for some Mithril Armor only to have a tremor reconfigure the dungeon level before you can defeat them.
          
A fairly simple room with demons, a few room connections, and a way up.
             
You have a surprising number of options for dealing with these threats, all with potential risks. You can run away to another room, or climb up or down if those passages are open, but running carries a risk of getting swatted by enemies as you leave. You can simply attack with your dagger, or spend an extra round pulling out your two-handed sword (after you've bought it), but the sword sucks your strength every turn and only improves your chances against some monsters. You can light an elven flare to blind monsters and improve your chances of hitting them. You can use the staff, which will obliterate orcs, demons, bats, and poison gas and create a tunnel down, but only if it doesn't backfire and damage you instead. You can try to reach Room 1 in a hurry by taking one of Araneida's tunnels, but it carries a risk that she'll bite you on the way. You can point a wand at the ceiling and try to create an escape hole upward.
           
A more deadly room on Level 6 has an orc, a dragon, and demons.

          
In short, every room has a lot of tactical possibilities depending on who and what you find there, your current attributes, and what equipment you carry. Upon arrival in a room, you have to decide what takes priority, and whether it makes most sense to fight or flee. You get experience for every successful action, and it adds up fast. Your fortunes wax and wane with astounding swiftness. At times, I'd be down to a few thousand strength, reach Room 1 exhausted, and then find I had 600,000 accumulated experience points to pump into the attribute. Other times, I'd be wandering around confidently with over 100,000 in each attribute, fall through a few holes, meet a balrog, and get the "game over" screen.

Every nine moves, the game has you camp for the night--sometimes, this happens right in the middle of combat. (The manual hand-waves this by saying that you're magically transported to a pocket dimension for the duration of your rest.) The sleep has a chance of adding 20% to each attribute, and it shows you a current inventory and mission log when you awaken. You can call this report at any time with a numeric command.
          
The "cave report" is a simultaneous inventory screen, status report, and rest break.
         
Overall, the strategy is to build agility and strength slowly on lower levels by killing orcs and charming demons. Rooms get more complex and events more chaotic the further you descend. Once you start killing dragons, and particularly once you start killing balrogs, your experience can increase by hundreds of thousands per level, but your strength and agility can also decrease with equal rapidity, and after Level 15, I was constantly searching for Room 1, often risking Araneida's tunnel to get there. Such gameplay provided an exciting, nerve-racking experience, mitigated only by the fact that you can save every time you find Room 1 and teleport back to the dwarven market.

Although mostly text-based (and without any sound at all), the game occasionally offers some ASCII animation of your character fleeing battles or descending dungeons.
         
Running from monsters sends a little ASCII guy scurrying across the screen.
             
The same guy transitions between levels.
              
If you die, the game gives you a summary of your character's actions and an estimation of how close he was to winning the game.
          
This guy didn't do so well.
        
Winning involves exiting the dungeon successfully on Level 25 or 35, which you do as soon as you wander into the room with the exit. You get a satisfying text narrative and a summary screen of your activities. It took me about six total hours and four characters to win. To do so, I did take advantage of occasional saving. Winning without saving, as in a roguelike, would be a hardcore way to do it.
   
The final text wraps things up nicely.
       
My final stats for my winning character.
            
I recorded about 10 minutes of video to include the opening, exploration, combat, and the ending. The character dies a couple of times, and the encounters leading to his death give you some idea of the "oh, #$@*" nature of gameplay, as you careen from room to room trying to get a break from the relentless onslaught of demons and dragons.
  



              
I don't like to stress the GIMLET rating for early exploratory titles like this. I gave it a 20, scoring it best in "gameplay" (5) for a certain replayability and a difficulty and duration commensurate with its content. It doesn't check all the RPG boxes, but that's not quite as important as the spirit of innovation that the game represents. On the cusp of an era where 80% of their titles will receive their DNA from Ultima or Wizardry, it's nice to see a few games that imagined computer role-playing in different ways.

*****

Update from 19 January 2019: A few days after this entry was published, an anonymous commenter alerted me to the similarities between Caverns of Mordia and an earlier title, The Devil's Dungeon, which was published as code in several editions of Stimulating Simulations by Dr. C. William Engel, Professor of Mathematics at the University of South Florida. Each edition of Engel's book has a variety of programs that readers could type in BASIC. Printed versions of The Devil's Dungeon may have appeared as early as 1977 and definitely by 1978. It was available on media in some catalogs by 1980.

I should have known about this already. In 2015, a blogger named Kevin Smith wrote to me about The Devil's Dungeon, as he had just completed an article, suggesting that it might be the first commercial RPG. (Read it for a full account of the publication history of the game.) I completely dropped the ball on reviewing it myself. I likely dismissed it as an RPG because its character development was so primitive and it didn't have an inventory.
             
A shot from The Devil's Dungeon (1978).
         
I just had a look at a Commodore 64 version that someone typed in. The link between The Devil's Dungeon and Caverns of Mordia is clear. Gameplay in Dungeon takes place on the same kind of multi-leveled dungeon with 16 rooms per level. Room 1 is a special room where you can trade your experience for attributes (in this case, speed and strength) and escape. There are demons, tremors, poisonous gas, and a wand that will clear out rooms and create tunnels downward but has a 40% chance of backfiring on you. Tunnels down are called "Dropoffs," and you use them with the unusual -1 command. Many of the other commands are the same.

Coster's program is certainly more elaborate. The Devil's Dungeon has no main quest. Your only goal is to find as much gold as you can and leave. It has an infinite number of levels and no exit, and you can only move down. There's no Orb, nor any other inventory. It lacks Mordia's text supporting the backstory and setting, and of course it had no full manual with the illustrations and production values.  

Because of the dates, one might easily reach the conclusion that Coster copied the core of his game from The Devil's Dungeon, but I corresponded with Dr. Coster, and he is adamant that he never heard of The Devil's Dungeon and programmed Mordia from scratch. He said that in the years before he was encouraged to market it, he made it freely available, and it was popular among friends and his university. Several copies were made and traded, and he raises the possibility that one somehow made it to Dr. Engel in Florida. As Dr. Engel died in 2011, we will likely never know the story from his perspective.